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Shipwreck survivor recalls how town altered his idea of race
In February 1942, he was on his second voyage, aboard the USS Truxtun, a spartan, 1920s-era destroyer with four smoke stacks and no internal passageways, he said.
Early on the 18th, the Truxtun and a supply ship, the USS Pollux, were battling a ferocious winter storm when both ships were blown onto the rocks off the southeast coast of Newfoundland. More than 200 men from the ships perished. Phillips and a few dozen others barely survived.
When the Truxtun hit the rocks, Phillips was pitched from the topmost of a stack of five bunks. He scrambled up on deck, where it was snowing and a gale was raging. "The waves would come and . . . just pick the ship up and then slam it against the rock," he said. "You could hear steel cracking."
Eventually, he said, the ship broke in two, and began hemorrhaging fuel oil into the sea. Daybreak revealed icy cliffs, and sailors swept overboard. Phillips tried to decide what to do. Should he stay with the ship? Or try to get into a life raft, braving the storm and who knew what kind of welcome on land?
He and the other black sailors believed they were off the coast of Iceland, where, he said they had been told blacks were forbidden to go ashore.
He decided to brave the raft, which capsized just as it reached land. Wet, frozen and exhausted, he said, he staggered ashore and collapsed.
Just then he heard a voice say: "Don't lie there. You'll surely die." Phillips said he could barely see through the oil in his eyes, but he could tell it wasn't a sailor, and the speaker had an unusual accent. It was one of the locals, and he was white.
The man helped Phillips to his feet and began walking him around a fire to warm him up. Phillips was amazed.
"I had never heard a kind word from a white man in my life," he said, "and I had hatred for white men."
Phillips was taken to a place where women were washing the oil off the survivors. "Everybody was black" with oil, he said. But the women seemed to be having trouble getting him clean. "I can't get it off" him, he said one woman remarked. He said he replied: "It's the color of the skin. You can't get it off."
He said he thought now that the townsfolk realized he was black, the good treatment would end.
Instead, he recalled, the woman said, "I want him at my house."
It was Violet Pike, the humble wife of a miner, who took him home, fed him soup and put him to bed with blankets and rocks she had heated in her stove.
Phillips, one of 46 men from the Truxtun to survive, and the only black survivor, soon recovered and went on to spend 20 years in the Navy. He had a career in oceanography, marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., and raised a family.
But he never forgot Pike, who died at 62 in 1975, or the people of St. Lawrence, whose humanity that wintry day in 1942 so changed his life.
"I can never repay them," he said. All he can do is tell their story.