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Interview with Charles Phillips [10/2/2004]

Meagan Montgomery:

Okay. This is the 2nd of October, 2004, and I am interviewing Charlie Phillips about his time during World War II with the United States Maritime Services. So when was it that you became with the merchant marines? How did you begin?

Charles Phillips:

I joined the merchant marine in 1943. The world -- the war had been going on since 1941. I graduated -- I joined at 18 and got out in -- in '43, and then I got out in '46.

Meagan Montgomery:

Okay.

Charles Phillips:

So I sailed on about five or six different merchant marine ships. We could go down to the union hall and pick out our ship and go down and look it over, if we wanted to sail. We weren't under the jurisdiction of the armed services. President Roosevelt kept us under civilian defense. He was an old-time sailor, and he wanted to keep it so the old-time sailors could go back to their ships after the war. They knew that us younger fellows would probably come home. So I went through Sheepshead Bay Training Station in New York City, spent from July through November or October. Then we shipped out. I shipped out of New York City and went through the Panama Canal and spent 31 days from the -- I guess you'd have to say it -- [inaudible] side, which was the Atlantic side to the Pacific. And the Pacific, we spent 31 days going the great circle route to New Hebrides islands. And we shuttled in what they called Torpedo Junction between New Hebrides islands and Guadalcanal about six months. And we came back home. They sunk a lot of ships all around us in that Torpedo Junction. A lot of men lost their lives. Japanese were bombing us or torpedoing the ships and the men every day. Came back through the Panama Canal -- or came back to Chile, South America. Picked up a load of nitrates that makes explosives and took it into Charleston, South Carolina, which was the wrong place for us to be, and they shipped us down to Savannah, Georgia. And they brought a bunch of Japanese POWs to unload the nitrates. As soon as I saw those POWs' jackets, I left the ship because prisoners of war -- those kamikazes and Japanese, you never know where one was at, and they gave their life. They could dive a ship -- plane into a ship and kill themselves. Those explosives was nitrates, they make explosives with. You couldn't even make a spark. It would set it off. And we had 10,000 ton of nitrates on that ship, and it would have eliminated about half the city of Savannah. So I told the purser on board ship to mail my check home, and I left. I caught a Greyhound bus and went to Joplin. And after that, I went to New -- or went to England in Liverpool and up to Manchester. And we unloaded there and came back across the North Atlantic. And the North Atlantic is a terrible place to sail because those waves are anywhere from -- oh, 20 to 45 feet high. And if you go -- if a ship rolls over 45 degrees, it turns over. So -- and the next trip I made was to -- up the Channel. I went back across the North Atlantic to England. And we were going to take a load of ties into Antwerp, Belgium. And the Germans had the town surrounded, and we couldn't land. So they shipped us -- run us back up the Channel in the Baltic Sea into (Atholl?), Scotland. And we sat there for 40 days, and then we had to bring those ties -- or we took the ship up around and over in part of England, down to Liverpool again and unloaded everything but the ties. And thank God we didn't because coming back, there was -- our ship's Geiger counter went out, and we were -- it looked like we were on course, but we were actually going across the front of the convoy, and an English freighter cut us half in two. So with those ties still on board, it kept us from being sunk.

Meagan Montgomery:

Oh, wow.

Charles Phillips:

It was just that -- so we -- we shipped water all the way -- about three days into New York. And when we pulled her up on the mudflats in -- I think it was -- oh, Brooklyn. Somewhere in the shipping yards there. And just let her sink right there. And I saw that same ship six months later, and it was still sitting there. They hadn't moved it at all. So then after that, I went to -- I made up my mind I wasn't going to sail the North Atlantic again because it was too rough. Those seas were terrible. So I took a ship out of Frisco. I went to San Francisco and caught a ship to New Guinea. And we unloaded supplies at Hollandia, New Guinea. And up on the hillside was where they had built a nice big mansion for McArthur to live after he had been run out of the Philippines. The Japanese ran him out. And around this -- the natives of the island helped us to unload our ships, and they were cannibals, had their teeth sharpened, bones in their nose, in their ears, rings in their ears. And they sat outside the firelight at night or the lamplight and just waiting for somebody to step outside, and then next day, he'd be in a pot.

Meagan Montgomery:

Oh, no.

Charles Phillips:

And shortly after the war, there was -- Rockefeller's people took a -- oh, 25 people over there on a -- I'm not sure what they were looking for, but they took them into the western end of New Guinea, I believe it is. And they were told not to because those cannibals had never seen white people, you know, or anybody at all. Those 25 people, they haven't found today. They're gone. I imagine the cannibals got them and put them in a pot.

Meagan Montgomery:

It sounds [inaudible].

Charles Phillips:

So then the next trip, I made to -- we went through the Marshall Islands. I went to Leyte in the Philippines. (Tacloban?). And then we came back to -- Tokyo Rose was -- they had a spy. They had a ship's nose sticking up out in the harbor, and there was four or five Japanese living in this [inaudible] peak of the ship. And they were broadcasting a signal to Tokyo Rose in Japan. And she would come over the radio and tell them which one of those ships she was going to bomb. They never knew how she got the information until they found these guys in the ship. So I was lucky. They didn't -- she didn't pick our ship, and I was glad she didn't. But then I went to -- I made a trip out of -- I went back to Honolulu that trip and spent a couple of days there taking on oil and supplies. Then the next time, I went to Okinawa; shipped out of Coos Bay, Oregon with eight and a half million feet of lumber. Pulled into Buckner Bay in Okinawa. And one weekend -- we had just gotten our ship unloaded, had eight and a half million feet of lumber sitting on the dock. A typhoon hit us the next day, and the winds were clocked at about 250 miles an hour. And we -- all that lumber was blown out to sea. Never saw another stick. And those big booms that Johnny (Grennon?) used to use in construction work, they worked on those high buildings, you know; there were several of those setting on the beach during Okinawa. And that wind blew all of those big machinery right out into the bay. All you'd see is about that much sticking to the boom. And we had a full head of steam, but that wind blew us 5 miles across Buckner Bay, and we had both hooks down. And the ship was doing 27 knots, full speed ahead, and that wind pushed us all the way. I never seen anything like it. Hope I never do again. But then that wasn't the end of it because the very next weekend, it happened to us again. And a livery ship that they let go at the dock couldn't get her -- couldn't get steam up enough, and that wind blew her broadside right across the bay. And there was so much fog and water and wind. The wind howled so loud, you had to put your mouth -- your mouth in your hands and holler to somebody if you're giving them instructions. And that ship came across the bow of our ship, and we cut her half in two. She hung there about two, two and a half hours. And we could see the men hollering for us to help them, but we couldn't reach them. If you stepped out on the deck, the wind would have blown you over the side of the ship and you'd drown. There was a lot of people, a lot of our men drowned that night. A lot of ships were lost up on the beach. I heard that there was 100 feet of the Pittsburgh battleship blown off. I don't know how true that is. I never -- I just heard about it. Then we got -- we got cut above the waterline, about 5 feet. And we brought that (Alcoa?) planner ship back through Honolulu, back through the Panama Canal and up through the Caribbean to Mobile, Alabama. We came up through the Caribbean in what is now called -- between Cuba and Cozumel. And Belize down there where the tourists go, you know, and have a good time. That's the water we sailed through at that time. The Caribbean is one of the prettiest bodies of water I've ever seen. Crystal clear, blue, beautiful. But other than that, why, we could -- we could ship for three or four months, six months, come home and take off 30 days and then ship out again. A lot of guys that didn't ship out on schedule, the Army drafted them. I made sure that I got in my 30 days. I like sailing. Probably if I hadn't gotten married, I'd have continued to sail after the war, but because I got married and -- I -- just an old country boy. I thought I'd bring her back home, you know.

Meagan Montgomery:

Mm-hmm.

Charles Phillips:

(laughter) That -- I had a -- if it hadn't have been for the war, I would have enjoyed sailing. It's a good life. No -- out at sea, there's no drinking on board ship. No fights. It's just like living in your home on a block, just like this right here. We're all on the same ship. About 100 men of us. There was also an armed guard crew on board the ship, which was made up of the U.S. Navy. They had about 35 guys that were on board to supposedly protect us. Most of them were just like me. They were newcomers to the business. They really didn't know what they were doing. They got trained real fast and shipped out there because the war was on and we needed the men fast as we could get them. The merchant ships, when I first went on board, were armed with a .45 automatic. And the captain had that. And then about a year later, they put some 50-caliber machine guns on board ship, but they were taken off of Britain's airplanes, and they had been burnt out. And the tracers, the bullets, you could see them go out there about 50 yards and just drop in the ocean. So they were burnt out, but it let the Germans and Japanese know or think that we had some firepower, see. And then they put a 3-inch gun forward and a 5-inch gun back aft. And a lieutenant JG in the Navy did not know how to use that 5-inch back aft, and he couldn't get none of the guys to be a hot shellman. So I -- all of the merchant marine were assigned to guns. We had a position we had to have, too. And I said, "Well, I'll be hot shellman." So I put on a bunch of asbestos gear. When those shells come out, they're real hot. They'll burn you bad. So I'm standing there, waiting for this shell to come out, and instead of putting it on automatic -- or on manual, he put it on automatic. And when that empty came out, it came out as fast as that projectile went out the other end.

Meagan Montgomery:

Oh, wow.

Charles Phillips:

Like it -- I was laid up for about two weeks, like tore my arm off. But the bad part about it was three magazines right behind that gun was wide open with the firing pin facing that hot shell. If I hadn't blocked that hot shell, I wouldn't be here today. We'd have probably blown the whole end of that ship off because we had a lot of ammunition back there. But that -- I shipped on six or seven ships, and each one -- I changed ships every time I came -- or went out to sea. I don't know. I had a premonition. I didn't want to sail the same ship twice. So I changed each time. The first ship I took was the WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS, and I sailed her to the Pacific and back. And at the end of the war, one trip before the war was over for me, I was setting in Liverpool, listening to that big old clock they've got up there chime out. And it was a beautiful sound. But it was foggy, and a ship rolled right by us. I'm looking out the porthole in the fog. And it was the WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS. This is almost three years later. And I thought, well, I was wrong. If I'd have stayed with the HOWELLS, I'd still be floating, you know. But that's just one of those things. I just felt like the Lord told me to change to a different ship. One time in the North Atlantic, we had 125 ships in a convoy, and the Navy had escorts 25 miles ahead of us. And they -- we couldn't break radio silence unless it was really absolutely necessary. And they radioed that there was an iceberg 20 miles ahead of us. Well, it wasn't. We had already slowed our ship down from about 6 knots down to 3 because of the fog. You couldn't see. We was ringing our bells and blowing the horn, letting everybody know where we were at. And there was a French freighter behind us, off the starboard quarter, and I thought -- all of a sudden -- I got off the wheel, went down into the mess room, and I got a cup of coffee. And about that time, the ship went up like this, and I rolled up against the wall, like to kill me. Anyhow, I thought that freighter had hit us, but it wasn't. We hit that iceberg. Well, we wasn't the only one. That thing was 5 miles long. Five different ships hit it. We hit it on the end. Stove our bow back in, the No. 1 hatch, and on the 4th day of July -- that was at 2 in the morning. And on the 4th day of July -- it was hot there. We were in -- there's a certain Labrador current that comes down, and that iceberg should never have been there, but it broke off somehow, and we hit it. And we put on all the gear we had, and we were using picks and shovels and picking that ice and throwing it over the side of the ship because we had to -- if we hadn't got it off of there, before long, we'd taken off enough water, and the ice would have sunk us right there. So we had -- I've had a lot of different experiences, and there's a lot more things that happened, too, that I just -- oh, it would take up so much time to tell everything that happened, you know. But those are some of the most important things, I think, that happened. We had a chief cook. We were going from Honolulu into Frisco. His family was in Frisco, and he was going to be home the day before Christmas. We were going to dock there. But all of a sudden, we received orders to take that (Alcoa?) planner down into the Panama Canal and back up into Mobile, which we got down there and back, and we was home for New Year's Eve. But this chief cook kind of lost it, and some of the guys -- he just went crazy. He'd run in the mess room and grab a couple of butcher knives, and he's going to -- he was going over the side of the ship. And they caught him just as he started over and saved his life. We had to lock him up for almost a week. And then we had to turn him over to hospital authorities in Mobile. It's amazing the things -- how things -- pressures and stress affects people. I never would have thought this fellow -- I knew him real well. I never would have thought he'd have lost it like that, but he did. He just lost it. His mind blew, and he wasn't going to get to see his wife and children for Christmas, and he just went to pieces. And he would have killed somebody if our guys hadn't have made the right moves and got those knives away from him, you know. So -- and then I decided to -- I went to -- the last trip I made was on a victory ship, (made Le Havre?), France. I picked up -- that town was blowed all to pieces. I never seen anything like it. There wasn't a wall standing. People living in three- quarter pieces of wall. They had no sanitation, no fresh water. They were all [inaudible]. It was a terrible, terrible thing. But anyhow, I picked up 1500 troops and brought them back. And I guess that was my last trip. I signed on -- was getting ready to sign on for one more trip, but I went to New York City, downtown Times Square, and I went to three shows. And at 2 in the morning, I said, "I'm going home." So I went back aboard the ship, signed a letter telling the boatswain what I was going to do, and I appreciated his -- he wanted to promote me into a different position, but -- and it would have been nice, but I just changed my mind. I had a bunch of clothes in the cleaners there. I remember that. I was (dragged off and?) left them. I caught a Greyhound bus and went home. And that was it. That's just about the whole story is -- the most -- biggest part of it anyhow, that I remember. And gosh. It just seems like yesterday. And yet it's been over 60 years. 1943 to '03, and here's -- 61 years after. Yeah. Yeah. When I came out of that high school, I saw a friend of mine, James Bowman. He was in the merchant marine. He graduated two years before I did. And I talked to him, and he liked it. So I said well -- my cousin and I went down to join. And I passed all right, but (Graffy?) had perforated eardrums, and they wouldn't let him go to sea. So he had to come back home. But as far as just being a good life, without the war, it is -- it is good. Yeah. Listen. That's -- that's about all that I know of. And I'll see if Barb can find that picture of Bill (Tarwater?) and I when we went to Sheepshead Bay.

Meagan Montgomery:

Well, I had a couple questions.

Charles Phillips:

Yeah.

Meagan Montgomery:

Like what was your average day like? What was your duties on the ship?

Charles Phillips:

Well, okay. I was -- I went in as an ordinary seaman. I had ordinary seaman papers. I had wiper papers, (missman?) papers. And it seems to me like I had -- I had another paper that was in the black gang, engine room. I had Coast Guard. I passed the Coast Guard papers. At almost the end of the war, I was getting -- I was taking lessons, and I was going to try to go out as a third mate. I was going to -- would have had to have gone to Florida for an education, but I was reading the material as we shipped. And I was pretty well-prepared. But the war came to an end and I decided not to. I decided to come home and get a job. That's what I've been doing ever since.

Meagan Montgomery:

Yeah.

Charles Phillips:

Just working and slaving for children. (laughter)

Meagan Montgomery:

Show me the picture album you brought or all the -- I know because you have a lot of stuff in here [inaudible].

Charles Phillips:

Well, this -- this is just, oh, keepsakes that I have. But those are [inaudible].

Meagan Montgomery:

Oh, neat. So did you develop, like, close friendships? I would imagine, being on the ships with the guys.

Charles Phillips:

Oh, not anybody that I have --

Meagan Montgomery:

Kept in contact with over the years.

Charles Phillips:

No. I've tried to see Bill (Tarwater?), but I don't know what happened after he shipped out. He went one way and I went another. But I was ordinary seaman, able- bodied seaman. I passed those tests. And then like I say, I was getting ready to go -- able-bodied seaman was the same rank as a first class seaman in the Navy. We were about -- the only thing is in the merchant marine, you were a seaman. In the Navy -- I don't know how to explain this. They have different duties. They're all important, but to be a real seaman -- well, to get that able-bodied seaman paper --

Meagan Montgomery:

Mm-hmm.

Charles Phillips:

-- certificate, it would take actually four to six years to get it as a regular -- and without it being wartime. In wartime, I got it in about a year and a half. So -- and I still didn't know everything that an able- bodied seaman -- without it being wartime, I didn't know everything that they know. That's all there is to it. There just wasn't time. But I had a friend. He was from Greece. Nicholas Boris. And he taught me how to splice wire, either right-handed or left-handed. He was an old-time seaman. And he was a good one. I don't know. It's been quite a -- it was quite a -- quite a time in my life, when I get to thinking about it. I came back home and I got married. And instead of going -- back in 19 -- the late '40s and '50s -- high school education was really the -- about all you really needed. About 1960, '62, '63, I was working for General Foods. And they started hiring college with at least two years. And then by '65, they wanted college students with a full degree. Then after that, they wanted also a master's to do the same work that I was doing. And of course when I became territory manager, why, I had taken furthering education at Wichita University, and really it didn't help me that much, but it went on record, you know. And it helped that way. But I -- I enjoyed -- I spent 31 years with General Foods. And they took care of me, and I took care of them. There's no doubt about it. Both of us -- we both made money. But as far as I know, that's -- that's about it. I -- I hired kids out of -- young people out of Kansas Uni -- KU and Wichita University and Oklahoma State. No. Oklahoma U. And at that time, the college kids were going through a transition period of too many in classes. And I don't know whether it's changed yet or not. But some of the kids I hired, I didn't want -- I have to be honest. I didn't want to pass them because they could hard -- they couldn't pass a computer test and they could hardly sign their own name. This -- I'm not saying this to be mean. I'm just stating the way it was. And I didn't hire Mickey (Fentress?). Somebody in Kansas City did. They sent him down to me in Joplin, and then I had to go ahead and train Mickey, and -- real nice young man and had a beautiful young wife. They was just the ideal couple. And I had -- I got a promotion, and they shipped me to Wichita. And of course when my wife got cancer, they bought our property and shipped us back here. And -- but Mickey -- I said to Mick one day, I said, "How in the world did you get through OU?" And he said, "Dad owned Muzak down in Texas." Well, he owned it in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and part of Missouri. Real good business. Piped-in music. So Mick said to me -- he was very honest. He said, "Charlie, they didn't even know I was there." He said, "I went out to play football, but," he said, "I wasn't good enough, wasn't big enough. So they put me to carrying the water bucket for the boys." But he said, "I enjoyed being with them on the field." But he said, "The only time we had to really be in school was when we had tests, you know." Which is, I think, probably true even today. That's all I had to do in Wichita University. But you'd better know what you're -- what it's all about. So I said to Mick, well, I said, with what he was doing and wasn't doing, I said, "How in the world did you pass? You know, get through this school?" And he said, "Charlie, they didn't even know I was there, and they signed those darn things. And we went right on through." And it was true at that time. I don't know how it is today, but I said to Mick -- and I transferred to Wichita, and I said to Mick, I said, "I'm going to tell you something, Mickey. We're friends." I said, "You work with me and for me, but -- or under me, however you want to call it, but," I said, "I'm going to give you some advice. I don't know whether you'll (find it?) or not or use it." But I said, "You -- go back home to your dad, and you get down on your knees and beg him to take you back in the business, like he wanted you to do in the first place." And I said, "Your dad has a wonderful business in Muzak," and old Mick just stood there and looked at me. He says, "Well, I'll think about it, Charlie." So I went on out to Wichita, and about, oh, three months later, he called me. And [inaudible] was put in charge of my men down in Joplin and Springfield. And nobody liked him. His [inaudible]. He was no good. But anyhow, he was giving Mickey a hard time, and Mick kept calling me on the phone. I said, "Listen, Mick. You're -- you're going to get in trouble. Unless you're paying for your own long-distance calls, you can't do this, you know." So -- and I said, "I can't -- I can't help you that much anymore because you're not my man." And I said, "If we get caught doing this, why, your territory manager can fire you on the spot, and your district manager can fire you, too." So I said, "You know, I gave you some advice, and if it gets to be too unbearable, you go. Go back to your dad. Do what I'm telling you. It would be the best thing you and your wife could ever do." So I was in Oklahoma City at a bowling tournament. I can't remember the name of that thing, anyhow. ABC Bowling Tournament, I believe. And we were bowling, getting ready to go to lunch, and a guy walked up to me and hit me on the arm, and he said, "Charlie?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "I saw your name in the paper," and he said, "I knew you were here, and I'm glad to catch you." So he took us to lunch and -- he and his wife. And he told me everything that happened. And he said, "You done me the biggest and best favor, getting me back to my dad. I'm in the business. I'm happy. We're doing fine. He's happy. And it's all going great." And he said, "I want to tell you right now," he said, "I'll get an affidavit from my dad, have it notarized." He said that "If you ever wanted a job, you come out here, and I'm going to put you to work." And I said, "Well, you tell your dad I thank you, Mick, and I'm sure -- and I can tell that you're happy and so is your wife." And I said, "I'm glad." It's a good thing. Mick was out of the -- he never could make a salesman. He was no salesman. There is a -- there's a difference in being just an everyday -- a salesman is different. And when I say that, Meagan, I don't mean to be a smart aleck, but everything you see in this house, everything -- everything you see -- (End of interview.)

 
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