Twitter thread recounts extraordinary story of U.S. sailor rescued by Newfoundlanders in WWII
TORONTO -- Thanks to a Twitter thread, Canadians are remembering the life of the late U.S. Second World War veteran Lanier Phillips, who had a special connection to Canada after being saved by Newfoundlanders more than 80 years ago.
He was the sole Black survivor of USS Truxtun, a U.S. Navy ship that crashed off the coast of Newfoundland in February 1942. His Newfoundlander rescuers from St. Lawrence had shown him kindness and dignity, which vastly contrasted the discrimination he faced from his own servicemen and growing up in the Jim Crow era in the U.S., according to a Twitter thread from Canadian Forces in America.
The group regularly highlights stories of service members on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border who overcame adversity, racism, or discrimination.
That seminal moment for Phillips would inspire him to become the U.S. Navy's first Black sonar technician in 1957 and join the fight for civil rights in the U.S. That work was recognized when he became the recipient of the U.S. Navy Memorial's Lone Sailor award and when he received honorary membership into the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2011.
“He wanted to do for others what was done for him. Because he believed that being here in Newfoundland -- and what happened to him -- made an impact on his life,” Thomasine Barry, who met him in 2011, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Monday.
“He thought of us like family. He thought of Newfoundlanders as family,” said Barry, who sits on the executive council of the Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Protocol Office, which inducted Phillips into the order.
“I remember him saying, ‘it’s not me that should get the Order, it’s they, the people from St. Lawrence, N.L., who deserve that Order,'” she recalled of bestowing Phillips with the province's highest award a year before his death on March 12, 2012.
“He was a very, very gracious man,” she said. “When you’d meet him you’re were just sort of drawn to him. He was the type of person that would give you a big hug … he was so down to earth.”
It's February, 1942. Nazis U-Boats patrol the Atlantic.— Canadian Forces in (@CAFinUS) January 18, 2021
USS Truxtun and USS Wilkes are escorting USS Pollux through a treacherous winter storm and "Torpedo Alley."
When Truxtun slams into the rocks, Lanier Phillips thinks it’s an iceberg or a torpedo. pic.twitter.com/97gfJy2Dns
His great-grandparents were slaves.— Canadian Forces in (@CAFinUS) January 18, 2021
His parents were sharecroppers.
The Ku Klux Klan terrorized his childhood in Georgia.
Fear like that changes you.
Fear like that stays with you. pic.twitter.com/ACbOi1SfIw
Violet had never seen a Black person.— Canadian Forces in (@CAFinUS) January 18, 2021
She continues bathing him. She feeds him. She cares for him. She takes him into her home and sits him at the table to eat with her family. She treats him like family.
The experience changes Lanier Phillips forever.
PHILLIPS SPENT LIFE 'PAYING IT FORWARD': BARRY
Born in Georgia in 1923, Phillips’ life was steeped in the segregation of the American South but he joined the U.S. Navy in 1941 to fight for his country anyway. A year later, Phillips’ ship and another, USS Pollux, had run aground in Newfoundland waters during rough seas, which were patrolled by Nazi U-boats at the time.
According to the Maritime History Archive, Phillips, a mess attendant at the time, initially hesitated to escape because he’d been told Black people were forbidden to go ashore and that he’d be lynched. But he took his chances and rafted ashore, wet and covered in oil from crashed ships. The villagers who rescued him and other servicemen were convinced that the oil had seeped into Phillips’ skin.
A 2010 Washington Post profile described how Phillips was shocked that the villagers continued to treat him and even welcomed him to the town. “Scarred in the crucible of racism, he vowed to live like the people who saved him,” the article went on to say.
Recounting his story the non-profit U.S. Naval Institute historical blog in 2010, Phillips said, “not only did they save my life, they gave me a sense of value I had never had before.” He vowed to repay the town’s kindness, even donating money to St. Lawrence to build a children's playground.
He joined Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement’s historic marches from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery in March 1965, according to the Maritime History Archive. Phillips, an oceanographer by trade, went on to spend a great deal of his life fighting against racial discrimination.
“So for him to pass along that good feeling to everybody else I think that’s why people now are so interested,” Barry said. “When you talk about Black Lives Matter and all these types of things, everything kind of comes into play.”
She marvelled at his advocacy work, describing it as him “paying it forward” and she agreed with people online who said Phillips’s story is long overdue for a dramatized movie or TV treatment. Although, his story has been showcased in several features, books and radio documentaries.
One person tweeted the story was “perfect for today;” with another tweeting that “the story of one black sailor having his skin rubbed clean has long been a story in my family. Thank you for a face.” One person tweeted that “story deserves a wider audience.”
Documentary filmmaker Terry Strauss’s documentary "...As If They Were Angels," which recounts the Lanier’s and other sailors’ stories, will be released on iTunes and Amazon on Feb. 2.
“I’m thrilled that the story is being told today,” Strauss, based in California, told CTVNews.ca over the phone, referring to the revival of Lanier’s Newfoundland experience.
She’s been working on her film since 1988, when she documented sailors, including her father, reuniting for the first time since the Second World War. “We follow [Lanier] to see the house where he was taken into, it was very emotional, very moving.”
'HIS STORY MEANT SO MUCH FOR OUR TOWN'
After the war, Phillips visited the coastal town a handful of times and it was the people of St. Lawrence who repeatedly nominated him for the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador. Phillips’ work fighting racial injustice led to him to also receive an honorary degree from Memorial University of Newfoundland in 2008.
Paul Lambe, who helps facilitate outreach and fundraising for the St. Lawrence Historical Advisory Committee told CTVNews.ca that Phillips’s story “meant so much for our town,” which took pride in being even a small part of Phillip’s life.
“All of this stuff that happened over the years when he became an activist and came back a number of times, more and more [kept being] added to the story,” he said in a phone interview. “He was such a personable man, he spoke to everyone, he gave time to everyone… He kept all the people in high regard for the rest of his life.”
In the past several years, efforts have been made to cement the experience of Lanier and others rescued from U.S. Navy ships.
In 2019, Wayde Rowsell, a former mayor of St. Lawrence, N.L., published a book entitled “Waves of Courage: A WW2 True Story of Valor, Compassion & Sacrifice,” exploring the rescue of the ships that ran aground on Feb. 18, 1942.
And according to the St. Lawrence Historical Advisory Committee, it’s currently waiting on a funding grant for a virtual museum project that’ll involve a graphical reconstruction of the ships in partnership with Shipwrecks NL.