It was one of the worst disasters in U.S. naval history. But for one who survived it would be an experience so profound he would be "born again." Lanier Phillips came from the deep American South to the icy, unforgiving North Atlantic and found the first white people who treated him with equality. He never forgot it and he never stopped talking about it with simple, ringing eloquence that reached an international audience.
Phillips died March 12 in a military retirement home in Gulfport, Miss. He was two days from his 89th birthday.
Lanier Walter Philips was born in Lithonia, DeKalb County, Ga., east of Atlanta, on March 14, 1923. He was the son of a sharecropper and the great-grandson of slaves. His family lived in a three-room house. His great-grandmother told him to never look a white man in the eye; such an infraction could get him whipped, or lynched. Into young adulthood, he said, "I had never heard a kind word from a white man in my life."
Blacks and whites led absolutely separate lives, and any perceived transgression could ignite violence. The coloured people, as they were then called, got together and built a school called the Yellow River. The Ku Klux Klan burned it down. Phillips saw this happen, and later said he felt that destruction meant "I had no future."
He moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., to live with an aunt and attended a segregated elementary school there. In 1941, at 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and was assigned to the USS Truxton, a destroyer built in the 1920s. The Navy was segregated, but still "the lesser of two evils" when his other choice was sharecropping. He polished silverware and shoes and waited meals. The African-Americans wore bow ties and black, not brass, buttons. They ate standing in the pantry. They were not permitted off the ship in some countries.
They did still have their battle stations. Phillips's was a large gun on the Truxton's bow, where he wore special gloves to handle and pitch hot shell casings.
On Feb. 18, 1942, on Phillips's second voyage, the Truxton was sailing with the USS Pollux and the USS Wilkes on a three-day journey from Boston to the U.S. naval base at Argentia, Placentia Bay, in Newfoundland. Because it was wartime, they moved in zigzag patterns and maintained radio silence. They got off-course, and the weather was savage. Around 4:30 in the morning, the wind and waves wrecked the Pollux and Truxton in Chambers Cove, a horseshoe cove ringed by 60-metre cliffs on the south coast of Newfoundland.
The impact was so strong Phillips first thought they had been torpedoed. The gales slammed the Truxton against the rocks until its steel cracked and it broke in two, spilling fuel oil.
The four African-American seamen thought they were off the coast of Iceland, and would be lynched if they went ashore. Phillips finally abandoned ship with the last raft despite fearing he would be killed on shore. He was the only African-American seaman to survive.
Some sailors had managed to make the beach and one scaled the cliffs to look for help. Luckily, they were near St. Lawrence, a mining town of about 1,000. It was early morning on Ash Wednesday as one soaked and frozen American encountered a group of astonished miners going on shift at Iron Spring Co. Immediately rescue efforts were under way.
By 7:30 a.m. the men had gathered all the ropes and lines they could and were climbing down the cliffs of Chambers Cove, hand over hand. They lit fires on the beach, warming the survivors and then carting them up the cliffs where the women had set up a temporary first-aid station.
Phillips got to shore, and collapsed. He heard a man say, "Don't lie there. You'll surely die." He was helped to his feet and brought to the fire, then to the first-aid station. Phillips, like all the men, was coated with Bunker C crude. The women worked gently and steadily to clean it from their eyes and their skin.
None of Phillips's rescuers had ever seen a black person before. They thought the oil would not come off. One woman worried, "Oh my, it's gotten into his pores." Phillips, slipping in and out of consciousness, waited for them to discover the truth.
"It's the colour of the skin. You can't get it off," he told them. He expected to be put back out in the storm. But that did not happen.
"I want him at my house," said one of the women, Violet Pike.
"They kept bathing me and they fed me with a spoon and lifted my head," Phillips told The Bigger Picture, Global News. "[They] just rained humanity on me. It changed my entire philosophy of life." After two days, the survivors were moved to the military hospital at Argentia. Altogether the Truxton lost 110 men and the Pollux 93; 203 of the combined crews of 389 died. For recognition of those who were saved, the U.S. government built a hospital in St. Lawrence.
Phillips's own thanks to those who helped him would extend over his entire life. He said Martin Luther King described a child exposed to racism as wounded in mind and soul. "I was wounded in mind and soul. But the people of St. Lawrence healed that wound and I have hatred for no one.
"I think about it. I dream about it. It's cemented in my soul and etched in my mind. I dream of going through the whole thing many, many times."
Phillips's friend and fellow activist the actor/comedian Bill Cosby said in an interview with CBC that the experience was so overpowering that Lanier Phillips was "born again."
Phillips got 15 days leave after his ordeal, and went to visit his aunt in Chattanooga. On a bus he took a seat in front of a white man, who then grabbed and pushed him. As Phillips told Chris Brookes on NPR's All Things Considered, "Because of the treatment I'd got in St. Lawrence and the people had treated me like a human being, I said, 'Well, hell, I'm a human. If I can give my life and fight this war the same as everybody else and can't even ride a bus when I pay the same fare as everybody else, but I can't be seated as everyone else. ...' I felt like fighting ..."
He was sent to Jacksonville, Fla., and continued to serve out the Second World War in the Navy. But he wanted something more. "I thought of the people of St. Lawrence. I was tired of shining shoes. I was tired of washing dishes and pots and pans."
Phillips wanted to learn a trade. With a recommendation from Michigan Congressman Charles Diggs, he wrote the Bureau of Naval Personnel and was directed to the Fleet Sonar School. When he showed up for class, it was assumed he was a mess attendant. When he said he was there to study, he was told he would fail. He didn't. Phillips became the first African-American sonar technician, first class.
His activism extended far beyond his individual situation. He marched with Martin Luther King in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery. "It was worth fighting to be a human being. And that's why I went to Selma. And every way you looked, you looked down the barrel of a gun at the time."
After retiring from the Navy after 20 years, Phillips worked as a civil engineer with the firm EG&G and also joined Jacques Cousteau's exploration team. He later lived in Boston and Washington.
But most of all, he told his story, on radio, TV, in speeches and print, and never tired or recounting and crediting the people of St. Lawrence.
In turn, Phillips's dramatic narrative became part of Newfoundland culture, and inspired songs, documentaries, and books such as Cassie Brown's Standing Into Danger. As one recent example, in 1996 visual artist Grant Boland painted Incident at St. Lawrence, and the beautiful image of the white nurse tending an injured black patient then so moved and obsessed GG-winning playwright Robert Chafe that he went on to create Oil and Waterwith Newfoundland theatre company Artistic Fraud, which is now on national tour. "I knew [it could be a play] when I saw the painting," Chafe said. "It was amazing, it was unbelievable, I had all those reactions that people have."
Phillips did not get to see the play, although his daughter, Voniza, attended its St. John's premiere last year. But Phillips visited St. Lawrence many times, sometimes with his family, and contributed whatever he could to the community. His donations even funded a playground, which is named for him.
"He was very hospitable, very kind, very articulate," said St. Lawrence Mayor Wayne Rowsell, who became friends with Phillips, and spoke en route to Georgia where he had been asked to speak at Phillips' funeral. "Noble, really, in his belief of civil rights and liberties and equality for all."
Phillips was in St. Lawrence just last February to mark the 70th anniversary of the disaster. He also went back to Chambers Cove and, using a walker, got about halfway up the steep rise overlooking the beach. He was escorted by Padre Lieutenant (N) Jack Barrett, who said of Phillips "he was incredibly humble and always pointed back to the people who he said saved his life and who gave him his life." Barrett was also attending the funeral, on behalf of the Royal Canadian Navy.
In 2008, Phillips received an honorary doctorate from Memorial University of Newfoundland. In 2012, he received the Lone Sailor award from the U.S. Navy, given to a veteran with a distinguished civilian career. (Cosby was a fellow recipient. Former Newfoundland premier Danny Williams sent letters of congratulations to them both.) In 2011 Phillips was made an honorary member of the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador; and the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly paid tribute to him the day after his death.
"I've never witnessed a person saying thank you so many times as Dr. Phillips," said Rowsell. "He taught all of us a lesson in how to treat others."
Predeceased by his wife in 1977, Phillips leaves his daughter, Voniza, and his son, Terry.