Tags: naval history, Navy Memorial, world war II
By The Bunny
He didn’t set out to make history. Joining the Navy just seemed like a good way out of the racist South. But fate and circumstance deposited Lanier Phillips on the frigid coast of Newfoundland when his ship, USS Truxtun (DD-229), ran aground in a vicious storm in 1942. As one of few African-American crewmembers, he was the only one of his fellow mess attendants to abandon ship. They were afraid to go ashore for fear of being lynched. But Phillips took his chances and jumped aboard a life boat. Beached at the base of terrifying cliffs that looked impossible to breach, Phillips and 45 other survivors had no choice but to wait for rescue or die of hypothermia.
Much to this desperate group’s dismay, a team of enterprising Newfoundlanders from the small village of St. Lawrence repelled down the cliffs, hauled the men up and proceeded to nurse them back to health – including Phillips. In working to wash and warm up the men, the villagers were convinced the oil that coated the shipwrecked survivors had seeped into Phillips’ skin. Wounded, frozen and helpless, Phillips was terrified to identify himself as a black man, but he had no choice.
Despite having never seen a black person, they treated him just as well as the other surviving crewmembers. Indeed, the Newfoundlanders treated him like family: giving him their beds in which to recuperate, feeding him like a child and personally nursing him back to health. They gave him the best care they knew how to give. “Not only did they save my life,” Phillips said, “they gave me a sense of value I had never had before.” As he described the experience, being treated as an equal encouraged him to start acting like an equal. He returned home, vowing to challenge the Navy’s prejudice and to return the kindness he had experienced in Newfoundland.
From that point forward, he was emboldened and determined to be in the vanguard of the civil rights movement. He wanted to challenge himself and to resist the professional barriers that were in front of him. He became the first African-American Navy sonar technician – despite his lack of higher education. He marched with Dr. King. He worked on the ALVIN deep-water submersible team and with the pioneer of undersea exploration, Jacques Cousteau, on the development of deep sea lamp technology.
And he made good on his promise to the villagers in Newfoundland. He started a scholarship program for the residents and built a playground for the town’s families. Until his health started to deteriorate, he traveled extensively to tell his story and spread the word about the good and kind people of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland. He is their de facto ambassador. “Whatever I can do for St. Lawrence is not enough. They changed my entire philosophy on life.” I’m sure he changed theirs, too.
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