John Steeles was working as an apprentice printer before he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in December 1941. He served with the 2/55th Light Aid Detachment, which was part of the Australian Electrical & Mechanical Engineers.
In late October 1942, Philip sailed with his unit from Brisbane to New Guinea aboard SS George Taylor. He spent a year in New Guinea, during which time he worked on the Bulldog-Wau road before returning to Australia for leave and further training.
Philip was hospitalised with malaria for a time, but in May 1945 was sent to Borneo. He discharged from the Army in May 1946, having achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant.