Part 3: Bum Phillips lands in a makeshift military jail

Aug. 26, 2010 at 3:26 a.m.
Updated Aug. 27, 2010 at 3:27 a.m.

Editor's note: This is the third part of a seven-part series.

The night before we shipped out for the South Pacific, Van Fleet and I took a trip that later landed us in a makeshift military jail.

We boarded a train bound for Los Angeles. We mingled with the local women and enjoyed civilized life one last time before heading to the muddy jungles.

The problem was we were supposed to return to base by 6 a.m. About midnight, we went to the train station, but the seats were all full. We walked to the bus station, but it was full, too. Finally, we headed to the highway and hitchhiked in.

We got in about 7 in the morning - an hour late. Our superiors couldn't punish us then and there. They waited until we reached the first of many islands we'd visit during our tour.

A few hours after hitchhiking to camp, I stood on the shoreline with 3,000 other men. On Feb. 8, 1943, our stateside training was complete. I boarded the U.S.S. President Polk, a Marine transport. Two boilers were removed to make room for additional men. Van Fleet and I slept below deck in rooms with cots stacked five high. The space between each cot left just enough room for a Marine's nose to point upward. The transport lacked air conditioning. Poor ventilation to the lower decks made us sweat and stink, and we were angry.

The ship crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean to avoid enemy submarine attacks, sailed beyond Hawaii and continued southwest toward New Hebrides, an island chain about 800 miles northeast of Australia. Two Raiders wrote music and spent hours belting tunes from a small spinet piano. Despite the mind-numbing boredom onboard, we were excited to finally be at sea.

When we crossed the equator and the International Date Line, we joked about going to bed one night and waking up yesterday. We gathered at the ship's rails, marveled at the sea's deep blue tones and stared into its smooth, glassy appearance. The ship sliced through the water for more than 6,000 miles, and the trip lasted 29 days.

We landed in Espirtu Santo, New Hebrides Islands, a staging ground for a push north and through the Japanese stronghold of island chains. I went to shore in a Higgins boat. While the rest of the Raiders established a base camp, superiors ordered Van Fleet and me to set up the jail.

"Supposedly, they was punishing us for coming in late that day we shipped off," Van Fleet said. "The jail was a tent. We each had a cot and a guy guarded us. We spent three days in that jail."

After being released from jail, we rehearsed boarding and unloading Higgins boats - only now along the various small, foreign islands. While going ashore, natives often approached us with baskets of breadfruit, papaya and taro root.

While on New Hebrides, I met Father Paul James Redmond, the battalion's chaplain. Redmond was a 44-year-old Connecticut native, and he'd already served during World War I. One day, we crept along a log, which other Marines chopped down and positioned so we could cross a washed-out ravine.

Father Redmond slipped and I caught him, grabbed the skinny man by the collar and saved the chaplain from a dangerous fall. He stood, reached the other side and asked me if I'd be his personal bodyguard. I told him I would. I didn't go to his services during the war, however, because Christianity wasn't important to me then. Still, I did whatever he needed.

The Jan. 26, 1961, edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune details Redmond's most famous rule-bending story, although he has many. Redmond and my battalion sat in the mud of the New Hebrides Islands awaiting orders to spearhead the invasion of New Georgia. Redmond knew the Raiders had several good piano players. A Navy transport in the harbor had a good piano, but no pianists.

Redmond thought a piano was a great morale builder for his men. A great storyteller, he boarded the transport at night, stood on the quarterdeck and talked to the Navy men. A few unidentified Raiders sneaked onboard, beyond the quarterdeck, down the ladder and onto a rubber boat with a bulky package covered by a tarpaulin. Redmond ran interference while the Raiders stole a piano.

I deny any part in the theft, but I never forgot what Father Redmond did. He gained our confidence and respect. He was a priest who also joined us in battle. He crawled through enemy lines to administer last rites to wounded Marines, and he risked his life to gather dog tags from the dead. Some say he personally buried 3,000 Marines and one third of my battalion.

"I don't know what kind of scrap he got into, but Father Redmond always tried to get Phillips out of the trouble he was in," Van Fleet said. "Phillips stayed with him for quite some time."

SATURDAY: Bum endures his first fighting in the South Pacific.



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