‘I wanted to fight for my country’ — Navy veteran Sterling Phillips (Cherokee) recounts WWII experience (w/ video)
First Nation's Focus
Sterling Phillips’ voice catches as tears well up in his eyes. The 93-year-old U.S. Navy veteran is overcome with emotion as he talks about his first day back home in El Paso, Texas, after Japan surrendered and brought the hostilities of World War II to a close on Aug. 15, 1945. Soon after fighting for his country for two years on the USS Savo Island aircraft carrier, where he saw brave men fall in battle, Phillips unexpectedly lost the man he looked up to more than anyone: his father. “I got to see him alive for about 10 minutes (after the war),” says Phillips, his voice shaking, the memory still close. “He had just gotten out of the shower and walked over to me and hugged me and told me that he was happy to see me home again.”
Minutes later, while visiting with a friend in the yard, Phillips heard his mother’s scream pierce the air.
His father, Ben Phillips, 41, had collapsed.
“I ran in the house and my dad was already on the floor. I said, ‘what’s a matter with him? I was just talking to him!’” recalls Phillips, wiping a tear from his cheek. “And that was it … my dad was gone.”
Nearly 75 years later, Phillips is recounting that heart-wrenching moment from a recliner is his north Reno home on a sunny afternoon in early June.
Phillips and his wife, Amelia, recently moved from Lincoln, California, to Northern Nevada to be near their youngest daughter, Mia, and her family.
Phillips, who served as a fireman 2nd Class on the Savo Island (CVE-78), was one of 50 Nevada veterans who took a trip to Washington D.C. June 6-9 through Honor Flight Nevada. The organization transports local veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials honoring their service and sacrifices.
Prior to the flight, Phillips — a member of the Cherokee Nation — told First Nation’s Focus he was appreciative of the opportunity, adding: “It’s good to know I’m considered a person that would be eligible for an honor flight.”
ANSWERING THE CALL
Years before his father passed, Phillips begged his dad to take him to a U.S. Navy recruitment office in El Paso. His father obliged.
Like many young Americans, Phillips — who was born Dec. 18, 1926, in Oklahoma but grew up in El Paso — was motivated to enlist in the military following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
And also like many young Americans, Phillips lied about his age to get in. Despite having to be either 18 or 17 with parental consent, Phillips enlisted as a 16-year-old.
“I wanted to go fight for my country,” Phillips shrugs. “All my buddies were going in, so I had to go in. I remember that everyone like myself was trying to get into the service. I enlisted as soon as I could get in.”
Before he knew it, Phillips was 800 miles west of home, stationed at the San Diego Naval Training Center. He was given shots, a buzzcut and, eventually, a uniform.
When asked what his emotions were heading into boot camp, Phillips, without hesitation, used one word.
“Excited,” he states. “I was excited. I really didn’t have time to be afraid.”
Phillips noted that his platoon won first place for marching at the graduation ceremony, a fact that still gives him a boost of pride to this day.
“You should’ve seen it,” says Phillips, grinning as the moment floods back to him. “When we were marching, it almost looked like one man. All in a straight line, a perfect line.”
Days later, Phillips, officially a Navy sailor, was shipped off to war. He stepped onto the USS Savo Island — a near 10,000-ton aircraft carrier with roughly 1,000 men aboard — which set out for the North Pacific Ocean. His job was in the engine room, where he made sure all the pumps — fuel and water — were working.
Save for brief windows of time on leave, Phillips would be on the ship for the next two years.
It’s Jan. 5, 1945, and the Savo Island is providing support to U.S. troops on the beaches of the Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines.
Gunfire and explosions and screaming planes echo across the Pacific in a cacophony of hellish sounds.
In the midst of battle, Phillips and fellow comrades were aware the Japanese, at any moment, could send a suicide bomber at their ship. After all, a day earlier, a kamikaze plane sunk their sister ship, the USS Ommaney Bay (CVE-79), which had been a part of the Lingayen Gulf mission.
Phillips was in the clipping room, loading the ammunition of the ship’s artillery, when he heard a crash. Indeed, a kamikaze pilot hit their ship — but just barely. The bomber sheared off the carrier’s air-search radar antenna with its wing tip and splashed into the ocean. The ship’s artillery unloaded on the Japanese plane.
“I was trying to shell out as much of the shells out there … and just trying to keep busy,” Phillips says.
‘WE WERE EXPECTING THE SHIP TO GO DOWN’
Despite being on a ship targeted by a kamikaze pilot, Phillips said the scariest time on the Savo Island was when they traveled through the Bering Strait, the treacherous stretch of sea separating Russia and Alaska. The ship was sailing for the Aleutian Islands at the time.
“That’s a bad area, it’s some of the roughest weather in the ocean,” recalls Phillips, noting that giant ocean waves violently rocked their giant carrier. “We were expecting the ship to go down.”
After a scare in the Bering Straight, the Savo Island pushed on, heading toward Japan. Days later, in early August 1945, the U.S. swiftly put an end to the war, dropping two atomic bombs on Japanese soil — Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki on Aug. 8.
The surrender of Japan was announced a week later, Aug. 15, 1945. It was made official on Sept. 2, when Japanese foreign affairs minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on board the USS Missouri off the coast of Tokyo, Japan. Phillips and his comrades on the Savo Island were there to see the signing of the peace treaty.
“We were there watching, standing at attention,” Phillips says. “That was something to witness.”
The Savo Island was then assigned to “Magic Carpet” duty, making three voyages carrying troops home, one each from Guam, Pearl Harbor and Okinawa. On March 16, 1946, the ship arrived at the Boston Navy Yard, where it was decommissioned.
“Everybody had a tear in their eye,” Phillips says.
A POSITIVE OUTLOOK
Nearly 75 years later, that time during the war, and thinking of the time missed with his father, can bring tears to Phillips just the same. Yet, immediately following the war, and even to this day, he doesn’t let those wartime experiences impact his life.
After his father passed, he moved to East Los Angeles with his mother and siblings. He opened up a record shop. He joined a rock band (The Nightdreamers) as a guitarist and toured the country. He lived life. Later, he got a blue-collar job at Mobil Oil, bought acres of land in Northern California, made a home with his wife, Amelia, and had kids.
“He’s always had a really positive outlook on life, which I’m pretty impressed by,” his daughter Mia told First Nation’s Focus. “I think that’s what keeps him going for as long as he’s been going for.”
It’s an attitude Phillips has maintained despite losing his vision four years ago. Phillips feels the strong gunpowder getting into his eyes and the bright flashes from nighttime combat during WWII contributed to his blindness.
“I don’t feel old. I feel good. Like the (James Brown) song, I feel good…,” he sings, cheerily. “I’ve got children who I love dearly and my wife. And I’ve got a lot of friends.”
I am over the moon with how strong our school-community relationship is, how easy it was to grow, and surprised by the willingness of my community, students and parents alike, to move in this direction too.