As Mount Pinatubo spewed smoke and ash into the sky over the northern Philippines, the soldiers stationed around Naval Base Subic Bay could only look on in disbelief.
Whiteland native Stephen Prosser Jr. stood among them. When he joined the U.S. Navy in 1986, he knew that he would be placed in dangerous situations and likely face enemy combat situations. So far in his career, he had been stationed in Japan and escorted oil tankers in the volatile Middle East.
But he never considered the prospect of being in a volcanic eruption.
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“It was like you’d imagine after a nuclear storm. Everything was covered in ash, there were no leaves on trees, and everything was destroyed,” he said.
Looking back, the incident was one of the most memorable in Prosser Jr.’s 30-year career. That career has reached its end. He has retired from the Navy as a chief warrant officer, responsible for directing the maintenance department of Patrol Squadron Four Seven at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay.
His career was celebrated by family, friends and naval compatriots at a ceremony Aug. 4, and he will finish up his duties during the coming months, then transition into civilian life.
The closure to his time in the military has been satisfying. But as important has been a continuation of his family’s tradition of service. As Prosser Jr. exits the Navy, his son, Kevin, has only started his time in the military.
“It’s was pretty awesome to see him after going through the process. By the end of boot camp, I think he had a greater sense of what I had done, and he was proud of what he was doing,” Prosser Jr. said. “By the time he came out of it, he had taken some ownership of his destiny.”
The seeds for Prosser Jr.’s military career were planted during his upbringing in Johnson County. His father, Steve Prosser Sr., was a U.S. Navy veteran himself, serving in the Seabees during the Vietnam War before coming back to live in Whiteland.
He worked as a bricklayer all over Johnson County and the Indianapolis area doing the intense physical labor of laying brick, and often brought his son with him.
“I worked for him from the time I could handle a shovel,” Prosser Jr. said. “You’re dealing with the brutal Indiana winters and muddy springs. It was no fun.”
As Prosser Jr. neared his graduation from Perry Meridian High School in the mid-1980s, he started thinking about his future. He didn’t have the money to attend college, and admits he wasn’t properly motivated at the time anyway.
So on a rainy day in the summer of 1985, while he and his dad waited at a job site for the weather to pass, they started talking about alternative options.
“I’d always talked about going into the military, because my dad was in the Navy. On that rainy day, instead of going to the job, my dad suggested we go to the recruiter’s office,” Prosser Jr. said. “I sat down with the Navy recruiter, took a practice test to see what jobs I’d be good at, did decent at it and set up an appointment to make it official.”
On Aug. 8, 1985, Prosser Jr. enlisted in the Navy’s delayed entry program. He finished his final year of high school and graduated in 1986. That July, the day after he turned 18, he reported to basic training at the recruit training center in Great Lakes, Illinois.
Upon completion of basic training, Prosser Jr. was assigned to aviation electrician school, tasked with maintaining the circuitry and electronics vital for the Navy’s aviation program.
He graduated and was sent to work at Whidbey Island, Washington, on the Fleet Replacement Aviation Maintenance program. He trained extensively on A-6E and KA-6D Intruder precision strike aircraft.
His first duty command was in Japan onboard USS Midway, the Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier at the time. Working out of the naval port at Yokosuka, he was an aviation electrician technician as well as a flight deck troubleshooter.
Though his assignment in Japan included numerous deployments in the Pacific and Indian oceans, the most memorable was his participation in Operation Earnest Will.
The operation involved aircraft escorting oil tankers sailing under the American flag through the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow body of water between the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. Iranian attacks had damaged many tankers sailing in and out of the oil-rich region, and the largest naval convoy since World War II would protect them.
“That first tour, being out in the Persian Gulf, is so memorable. Being around a group of guys, you’re doing some really important work,” he said.
Probably the most harrowing and memorable experience of his military career occurred shortly after that assignment, while serving in the Philippines in 1991. Prosser Jr. was working on aircraft engines and test cells at the Navy’s Subic Bay facility.
He was living at the base with his wife, Clara, who he had married in 1990, and their 1-year-old daughter, Kaye. They were enjoying their new lives together when Mount Pinatubo, a normally dormant volcano just 20 miles from the base, erupted.
At the same time, Typhoon Yunya added to the devastation, with heavy rain mixing with volcanic ash to create mudslides and quagmires.
“It wiped out power and utilities and everything else on the base,” Prosser Jr. said. “We spent a lot of time cleaning the base up. Clara and my daughter had to be evacuated, and they flew all the way back to Indiana after that.”
From that point, Prosser Jr. moved all over the world: California, Japan again, Nevada, the Persian Gulf. He was chief for the first Top Gun detachment of Super Hornet fighter planes, and worked his way up through leadership positions in logistics and maintenance duties on numerous aircraft carriers and battleships.
Despite his far-flung military career, Prosser Jr. was able to maintain a steady family presence as well. He was present for the birth of all three of his children: Kaye, Kyanna and Kevin.
Now, facing retirement, the naval tradition is being upheld by Prosser Jr.’s son, Kevin Prosser.
He enlisted in January, finishing boot camp at the end of March. He has been assigned as an information systems technician at the Corry Station Naval Technical Training Center in Pensacola, Florida. Computer systems is a concept that interested him in college, and the experience he gains during his service will help him in his non-military career.
“He sounds a lot more mature, a lot more confident,” Prosser Jr. said.
Moving into life post-military, he is looking into a career in aviation logistics and supply in Hawaii. With his wealth of experience, he’s not concerned about finding a job.
“Over the course of 30 years, you go from fixing airplanes to supervising and managing the fixing of them. That’s where my expertise is,” Prosser Jr. said.
Stephen Prosser Jr.
Home: Ewa Beach, Hawaii
Occupation: Retired chief warrant officer with the U.S. Navy
Military experience: 30 years
Family: Wife Clara; children Kaye, Kevin and Kyanna.
Education: Graduated from Perry Meridian High School in 1986.