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Lanier Philips, USS Truxtun Disaster Survivor

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#1 hwhap



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Posted 12 January 2004 - 06:13 PM

Lanier Phillips was a black American veteran who grew up in the segregated South, and who was serving in the Navy at a time when it was still segregated. He was one of the 46 men who survived the Truxtun disaster. The complete story of the wrecking of the U.S.S. Truxtun is over at this link:

His experience of survival and the kindness he was shown by the people of St. Lawrence changed him in such a profound way thatís hard to comprehend if you havenít been in his shoes. He was interviewed by National Public Radio (NPR). You can hear the actual interview by clicking on the link below. If you have the time I urge you to listen to the interview. If you donít have time, Iíve provided a transcript of the interview, which is quicker to read through, but hearing Mr. Lanier talking is much better!


The transcript of the interview is below. They speak to two local residents of St. Lawrence, Ena Edwards and Gus Etchegary as well.

Profile: Extraordinary life of Lanier Phillips after surviving shipwreck off Newfoundland (All Things Considered (NPR) ROBERT SIEGEL, JACKI LYDEN

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

JACKI LYDEN, host: And I'm Jacki Lyden. Sometimes a single experience does, indeed, change the course of an entire life. It did for a young man called Lanier Phillips.

SIEGEL: Phillips grew up in the Deep South before the Second World War. He's black, and to escape the hardships of Jim Crow, he joined the Navy. In 1942, his ship, the USS Truxtun, was in a convoy off the south coast of Newfoundland. It was caught in a vicious storm. The Truxtun and another ship, the Pollux, both ran aground. Two hundred three sailors died, one of the worst tragedies in US naval history. But Phillips survived. Producer Chris Brookes has the story of a man and the shipwreck that changed his life forever.

Ms. ENA EDWARDS: And you turn left up here by the stop sign.

CHRIS BROOKES reporting: OK.

Ms. EDWARDS: ...(Unintelligible) high school's down there.

BROOKES: St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, Canada. Population: 1,697 souls. Before the mine closed, they were miners and fishermen. A five-hour drive from the city, perched at the tip of a rocky peninsula jutting into the North Atlantic.

Ms. EDWARDS: Now just keep on going.

BROOKES: The person giving me directions here is Ena Edwards. She's kind of the unofficial St. Lawrence historian.

Ms. EDWARDS: You're getting close to it.

BROOKES: Where Ena's taking me here is to the new school playground, but it's going to take us about 20 minutes to get there because, on the way, I want to tell you the rest of this story. We'll come back to this car at the end, when we get to the playground. But the beginning of this story is 3,000 miles south of here, all the way down in DeKalb County, Georgia.

Mr. LANIER PHILLIPS: If you'll step in here, I'll show you what I have in here that I always keep. Down at this end, at the very beginning here, that's St. Lawrence.

BROOKES: That photograph.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah, that's St. Lawrence. And this is my--here's my grandmother, great-grandmother and -grandfather, who were born slaves. I don't know exactly when he was born, but I know she was born in 1852. Well, I'm Lanier Phillips. I was born March 14th, 1923. And I live in DeKalb County, and DeKalb County didn't fund any schools for black people until 1939. They didn't want the blacks to have any kind of education, but I was going to a school they called Yellow Ribbon. The black people got together and built this school, but the Ku Klux Klan burned the school down, you know. Yes, sir, they burned--I remember that clear. I can close my eyes and see the flames, going, standing and watching the school burn. And I saw no future. I had no dreams because only thing I could say, `Well, maybe I'll be a sharecropper or something, you know, once I grow up.' So I say, `I think I'll join the Navy.' So in '41 I joined the Navy.

Mr. PHILLIPS: I went aboard ship. My first ship was the Truxtun. Well, they had blacks in one place and whites in another. And the blacks on board ship, they could only be mess attendants, serving and what they called taking care of your officers. On board ship, the blacks had nowhere to sit to eat. They had to stand and eat. The whites sat. The officers had a tablecloth and, you know, china and all, and we would serve them. They would sit there and eat. But all the blacks had to stand in this little pantry and eat.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Their home port was Boston. Once we left Boston, we slept what we called ready roll. We didn't pull our clothing off because we knew that the submarines were there.

Ms. EDWARDS: And at the time of the disaster, in 1942, February the 18th, in St. Lawrence it was Ash Wednesday, and a ferocious storm, real blizzard.

Mr. GUS ETCHEGARY: I'm Gus Etchegary. I was about 16 and a half in 1942, a young fellow. I just finished high school in St. Lawrence. It was a hell of a storm. There was no doubt about it at all. I don' t know what the estimate of the winds would be, but it had the full strife of the Atlantic.

Ms. EDWARDS: And I guess many people said, maybe it was even said in our house, `What a dreadful night, and pity the poor sailors on the sea tonight.'

Mr. PHILLIPS: Truxtun had no radar, so what they did was rely on dead reckoning.

Ms. EDWARDS: Before they knew it, they were right into the cliff. Bang.

Mr. PHILLIPS: I thought we had been torpedoed. I didn't know what- -I was in my bed when it hit. Down I came. I had all my clothes on, I had my life jacket, and I grabbed a pair of shoes--I didn't know if it was mine or what--and went topside. Well, it was dark and it was storming. I mean, it was picking the Truxtun up and, it looked like, just slam it against the rock, and you could hear the steel grinding. Then when day began to break, we finally turned on the big searchlight, and all you could see was the cliffs and the rocks. It was, like, between two rocks, like, and it just picked the ship up and down it would go, and it began to wash the fellows overboard. I almost got washed over two or three times, but I grabbed the lifeline and hold on.

Mr. ETCHEGARY: At about 7:30 in the morning, my father called and, in a somewhat frantic voice, said, `Get down here as quickly as you can, get ahold of the driver of that pickup truck, load up all the ropes and lines that you could find in the area, and get down to Chambers Cove.'

Mr. PHILLIPS: The ship had begun to take on so much water, we knew it was, you know, going to sink. They had said that no man could live in the water more than five minutes because of the cold.

Mr. ETCHEGARY: As we came up over the hill and looked down, you know, here 300 feet or so below, right in the middle of a sort of a horseshoe cove, this destroyer, this Truxtun, partly submerged, but the full length of the rail was still above water, all these people hanging on, if you like, to dear life on the rail. Some were just swept up on those jagged cliffs and then, you know, tumble down and so on. It was a pretty dreadful sight.

Mr. PHILLIPS: About this time, she began to break and all the oil had come out--oil was coming out--and everybody looked like little rats in the water covered with that crude oil.

Mr. ETCHEGARY: I, along with others, went down hand over hand on a rope.

Mr. PHILLIPS: I told the other blacks that were standing there with me--I said, `Well, you know, we're going to die,' I said, `if we stay on board this ship.' I said, `At least we can die fighting.' I said, `Let's go.' When I jumped in there, it was like I felt just one quick pain, like, that went over my entire body and it was all over. I didn't feel any pain after that. I just felt sleepy.

Mr. ETCHEGARY: And the heavy Bunker C oil was beginning to come in to the shoreline and the saltwater would rise and then recede, and as it receded, you'd see this black hulk, you know, digging in, clutching onto the rocks and waiting for somebody to run and try and grab them and try to save them.

Mr. PHILLIPS: And when we got ashore, I said, `Well, I made it here. I may as well die,' you know. So I just laid down there on the beach and I closed my eyes to die, you know. This is the end. And this fellow came and he said, `Get him up. Don't let him lie there.' He said, `Pick him up.' He said, `He'll surely die if he lays there.' He said, `Walk him around.' So he pulled me up, and he had on a cap and a coat. I knew he wasn't Navy, and he began to walk me around, and from there he brought life to me. I said, `Man, here's a white person wants me to live,' you know. If I had been in Georgia, they'd say, `Kick him out of the way,' you know, `Let's help these white people.' Then I think I passed out.

Ms. EDWARDS: They took them to the--well, there was a temporary first-aid station erected and, of course, the call came to the women, all the women of the place to go out to clean them. And that's where the story came in at Lanier. Now there's a little funny story. See, he was there among all the other survivors. The ladies were cleaning them up and scrubbing them up, because they were covered with tar, with this oil stuff, this crude oil. They were so filthy, every part of them had to be washed. So when he opened his eyes...

Mr. PHILLIPS: I could see these white ladies all around. There I was, stark naked, on this table. And I heard one of the ladies say, `This is the curliest hair I've ever seen.' I said, `Oh, boy, this is the end of me,' you know. I said, `Hell, they're going to say, "Get him out of here. He's black,"' you know. And then she said...

Ms. EDWARDS: `This poor fellow. The tar went right into his pores. I'm scrubbing and scrubbing and I can't get him clean.'

Mr. PHILLIPS: And when I spoke up, she said, `I can't get it'--I said, `Well, you can't get it off. It's the color of the skin.'

Ms. EDWARDS: And she said, `Oh, I'll get it off, all right,' and so she continued to scrub. And Violet White, but she's dead now, she had never seen a black man before. So, I mean, she didn't differentiate. She just thought he was a white man with the black into his pores so bad she couldn't get it out.

Mr. PHILLIPS: And I was thinking, `Oh, boy, they're going to lynch me. Here I am.' If I had been in Georgia, they would have ran those white women out of town and maybe lynched me for letting them bathe me, you know.

Ms. EDWARDS: And, of course, when the men were taking them out to the different homes, she said, `Bring him to my home.' So that evening then she prepared supper. I mean, he was amazed that he ate with the family and he drank out of china cups, the same as the family.

Mr. PHILLIPS: And they put me in the bed, and this lady, she would come in and say, `Are you warm? Are you all right?' and she did this the remainder of the night. I didn't go to sleep anymore because I was still afraid. I didn't know where I was or what was going to happen to me. But then I kept asking myself, `Did I die, you know, and I went to heaven or--what's going on?'

Mr. PHILLIPS: So they gave me leave. I think I got 15 days' leave, and I went to see my aunt who lived in Chattanooga, and we would catch the bus from there to go into town. And the blacks had to sit behind the whites. And when we got on, my aunt and I, the backseat was filled. I mean, here was this white guy, so we sat in the seat in front of him. He reached and grabbed me by the neck and pushed me up and said, `******, don't you sit in front of me,' and I was going to fight him. I felt like fighting him then because 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. I'm no longer a slave and the lowest and the least, the last.' I said, `I'm going to do it.' I said, `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 remember my aunt said, `Just be quiet. Just be quiet.' She said, `We'll be there in a few minutes.' So I thought about that.

Mr. PHILLIPS: They sent me to Jacksonville, Florida, and when I got to Jacksonville, I was hungry. And when I got off and walked into the station, I saw all these prisoners--Italian and German prisoners- -and they had Army MPs, Americans, guarding them. They had them inside the dining room eating. And I knew that the blacks could go to a window or something somewhere, but I knew they wouldn't be allowed to go into that dining room. And I thought about the people of St. Lawrence, how they had fed me, gave me clothing and put me in that bed, and I looked at the prisoners, and here I am in American uniform, so I went in to ask, you know, `Where does the colored,' is what they called us then--`Where can the colored Negroes, you know, get something to eat? I'm trying to make it to the naval air station.' So I went to go in, and this one cop grabbed me by the collar and slung me on the ground, and when he slung me on the ground, he put his foot right on my neck and actually pulled his gun out and pulled the hammer back. I could hear it click. I thought he was going to shoot me. He said, `You black son of a bitch, I'll blow your black brains out.' He said, `You know better than to come in here, where these white people are.' So the white people were the German prisoners and the Italian prisoners, and here I am, an American in uniform. I thought about the people of St. Lawrence. I was tired of shining shoes. I was tired of washing dishes and pots and pans. I was tired of it. I had 17 years in the Navy then as a mess attendant, and I was looking, when I got out, I wanted to learn a trade. And I wrote the first black congressman and I wrote the Bureau of Naval Personnel a letter and told them I thought I was qualified to be something other than a mess attendant, and I did get a chance to go to sonar school by pushing and fighting for it. Blacks weren't supposed to go to sonar school. And when I got that letter back saying, `Report to fleet sonar school,' I really gave the credit to St. Lawrence, because had it not been for St. Lawrence, I wouldn't have been writing, you know, the powers to be because I had been brainwashed that I was so inferior to the white man, to don't look forward, you know, to ever being anything, but the people in St. Lawrence showed me that, you know, I was a human being, the same as all other human beings. I got orders, `Report to fleet sonar school.' They called me down, `Counselor wants to see you,' and I went in to see a counselor. `Phillips, ' he say, `we got good news.' I say, `Oh, I'm going to start class.' He said, `No, we've contacted Washington, and they go along with it and make you the chief steward mess attendant,' he say, `because we don't think you can make it through sonar school.' I say, `Well, sir, you can take the first class if you want,' I say, `but just don't throw me out.' He said, `Well, you know you're going to flunk out, don't you?' I said, `No, I don't know that.' I said, `Give me a chance. If I flunk out, so be it.' He said, `All right. You start the next class.' So I started the next class and I went through sonar school. And when I went aboard the ship, the Bailey, I walked up, I saluted the flag and saluted the OD, the officer of the deck, and he told the messenger who's always there--he said, `Show him the mess attendants compartment.' I said, ` No, sir.' I say, `I'm sonar tech.' He say, `You're what?' I said, `I'm sonar tech.'

(Jump forward in time now.)
(Soundbite of riot) Unidentified Man #1: The screams of gassed, beaten and trampled Negro civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, were heard around the world last Sunday.

Mr. PHILLIPS: The next day, I said, `I'm going to Selma.' I wanted to be a part of that because I knew that the way I was changed from accepting the inhumane treatment that was given to me, 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.

Unidentified Man #3: It would be detrimental to your safety to continue this march, and I'm saying that you are to turn around and disperse. (Soundbite of screams)

I have no hatred for the Ku Klux Klan or any human being. I pray for these people, these racists and bigots, that something might happen to them not go through the icy waters of the North Atlantic, but something will happen to make them change, as happened to me, and make them change and look at all people as God's children.

Unidentified Man #4: You cannot go any place. You cannot march any place. You cannot...

(Back in Newfoundland)
Ms. EDWARDS: There's the board right there. Look.

BROOKES: By now, you've probably forgotten how we started this story, driving around St. Lawrence 59 years after the shipwreck with the town historian, Ena Edwards, looking for the brand-new school playground.

Ms. EDWARDS: See, there's the playground, established by the students of Marion Elementary School in 1999. You can go almost into it. You can go in.

Mr. PHILLIPS: I'm not a rich man, but every contribution I can make, I make it to the people of St. Lawrence. I realize since the mine closed, the economy is way down.

Ms. EDWARDS: He has shown gratitude, no doubt about it, you know? And they were trying to get a new playground for the elementary school. And I said, `Well, I have a nice check to present from Lanier.'

Mr. PHILLIPS: I've said, `Do whatever their society wants to do with this,' I say, `but I would like for you to, you know, do something for your museum and let the world know what you did for the entire crew of the Truxtun. And here's this black man. Let them know what you did for him, too, and how you changed him.'

Ms. EDWARDS: There, look.


Ms. EDWARDS: `Lanier Phillips, USS Truxtun survivor.' And then on the other side is `The USS Truxtun, lost February 18th, 1942.' And the Marion Elementary School logo is in the center. And the name of the playground is Lanier Phillips Playground.

Mr. PHILLIPS: I just want the people of St. Lawrence to know how much I appreciate them, and I want them to know what they did for me. They put into my mind--it's etched in there, it's solid, like liquid steel, hot steel became cold and solid. It's into me, and it'll never leave me.

SIEGEL: The story of Lanier Phillips was written and produced by Chris Brookes. Lanier Phillips himself is long retired from the Navy. He lives in the US Navy Home in Gulfport, Mississippi.


ROBERT SIEGEL, JACKI LYDEN, Profile: Extraordinary life of Lanier Phillips after surviving shipwreck off Newfoundland. , All Things Considered (NPR), 09-03-2002.

After completing a 20 year career in the navy, the Lanier Phillips joined the exploration team of Jacques Cousteau. He helped find and uncover a sunken atomic bomb, became active in the civil rights movement, and in his 70s he travelled the country, speaking to young men and women in the U.S. military about the destructiveness of bigotry and racism.

In 2002, the students of St. Lawrence Academy observed the 60th anniversary of the sinking of the USS Truxtun and Pollux by joining with Lanier Philips online from the Edmonds Cyberschool in Washington State. The kids chatted with Lanier about his experiences for several hours and were sorry to see it end. Itís nice to see that the kids in St. Lawrence today are still learning about the tragedy that occurred so many years ago.


Edited by hwhap, 12 January 2004 - 06:15 PM.

#2 hwhap



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Posted 17 February 2004 - 06:23 PM

Last night there was an hour-long documentary about Lanier Phillips on the Vision Channel. It was very moving. What an amazing guy. He said there wasn't a day that he's lived when he hasn't thought of the people of St. Lawrence.


#3 Morgy


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Posted 18 February 2004 - 06:41 AM

Hey Vee,

thanks for giving a suite to your posts about the boats.


#4 Kiwiwriter


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Posted 18 February 2004 - 01:42 PM

Thank you for sharing that terrific story.

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