Shipwreck survivor recalls how town altered his idea of race

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010; B01

The woman cradled Lanier W. Phillips's head in her arm as if he were a baby, gently feeding the shipwrecked sailor hot soup she had brewed to help save his life. "Swallow," she said gently. "Swallow."

Phillips could scarcely believe what was happening: a white woman caring for a black man as if he were her son. Back home in Georgia, he thought, she could have been run out of town, and he could easily have been lynched.

But Phillips wasn't in Georgia. He was in the tiny coastal mining community of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, with its population of about 1,000. It was February 1942. He was an 18-year-old Navy mess attendant, steeped in the segregation of the American South and the U.S. Navy. Yet as he rested in the tender care of a rural housewife named Violet Pike, the course of his life, he said, was altered forever.

Scarred in the crucible of racism, he vowed to live like the people who saved him.

On Wednesday night in the District, Phillips, 87, a retired oceanographer, civil rights activist and the Navy's first black sonar technician, received one of the U.S. Navy Memorial's Lone Sailor awards for Navy veterans who have had distinguished civilian careers.

Other recipients were comedian Bill Cosby, who once served as a Navy hospital corpsman, and former Washington Redskins star Eddie LeBaron, who was an officer in the Marines.

Past recipients have included presidents, admirals and members of Congress.

But Phillips, who was the lowest of the low in the segregated Navy of World War II, also has a powerful story he has made it his mission to tell. Mess attendants were essentially officers' waiters, said Phillips, a resident of Washington's Armed Forces Retirement Home. They were trained to polish silverware and shoes and to serve meals. They were forced to wear bow ties, he said, and were not permitted to wear brass buttons on their coats. Their buttons could only be black.

Many attendants were African Americans, and as such were relegated to bunking in segregated portions of their ships. "The Navy was as racist as the state of Mississippi," he said. But even the most junior mess attendant had a battle station. His was on a large gun mounted on the ship's bow, where he used special gloves to grab hot expended shell casings and throw them overboard.

"You never hear anything about the Navy mess attendant," he said. "They were the fightingest African American group of any military service. And every Navy Cross that was given out to blacks was [to] a Navy mess attendant."

Phillips, the son of a sharecropper and the great-grandson of a slave, grew up in a three-room house with no running water in Lithonia, Ga., east of Atlanta. There, he said, he saw the Ku Klux Klan terrorize black communities and burn down the black school. There, his great-grandmother cautioned him, "never look a white man in the eye. . . . If you do you'll get a whipping, or maybe lynched," he said.

He had to move to the home of an aunt in Chattanooga, Tenn., just to attend a segregated elementary school. He joined the Navy in October 1941. "I was glad to get away from the South," he said, and the Navy "was the lesser of two evils."

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.

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