Part 4: Bum Phillips endures the first of many battles

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

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


We built our company headquarters along an island chain - on a low ridge that sloped toward the beach.

Coconut trees abounded. We followed a simple rule: Drink from the coconuts you snatch from a tree and eat the ones found on the ground.

When the rain fell in buckets, we rejoiced. Rain meant a break from the heat, but we knew the ground would soon flood. Water oozed into our tents and deposited an ever-nagging sludge on everything. Physical ailments began to mount. A lack of regular food, a rain-induced infestation of mosquitoes and long days spent training and fighting began to take a toll. I suffered from fungus infections, the shakes, malaria, jaundice and yellow fever. My weight dropped dramatically.

While we fought the Japanese and the nuisances of jungle life, I tried to remain in contact with my family back home, although all my letters were censored.

"So, this is the way Bum devised to let us know where he was: He signed a letter, 'Your son, N.H. Phillips' and it got past the censors," JoAnnette, my sister, said. "Mama and Daddy figured it meant 'New Hebrides Islands.'"

From June 28 to July 10, 1943, we engaged in the first of many battles against the Japanese.

The clear night sky seemed perfect for the invasion of Vanguna, an island just south of New Georgia. Problems, however, brewed beneath the surface. An underwater storm created swells 20 feet high and loading into the Higgins boats turned into a deadly struggle. The swells, which heaved and rolled the Higgins boats, forced us to time just right our jumps from the nets that dangled down the side of the destroyer. If we waited too long, the Higgins boat dropped 20 feet below. If we jumped too soon, the Higgins boat rose high above our heads. There wasn't any second try. If you missed it, you went missing.

We lost three guys before we ever made it into the boats.

Luckily, I loaded into my boat just fine. I stood on the destroyer platform, reached overboard and grabbed the netting. Slowly, I climbed down it, keeping a boot and hand tight against the rope. Just before the Higgins boat began its steep ascent, I jumped and met it halfway to the top of the swell. I landed in the boat with a thud, but at least my feet touched wood and not saltwater.

Storm waves kept us from docking on the beach and we unloaded into the choppy water. Ben, a friend, crushed his leg between solid, heaving masses when he jumped from the destroyer to the Higgins boat. Van Fleet carried him through the shallow waters and to the island.

"He was a big ol' boy," Van Fleet said. "Weighed a ton. I asked him, 'Why'd you stay in the Higgins boat if your leg was broken?'"

"I didn't think I could make it back on the destroyer," Ben said.

Luckily, the Japanese didn't see the invasion coming, and thus didn't fire one shot during our landing. I reached the shoreline and joined a small group and a guide. We marched in the shadows, deep into the jungle and finally neared the Japanese camp. We attacked it. During a 14-day battle, we destroyed the enemy's radio facilities, supply depots and eliminated the garrison. The raid distracted the Japanese from reinforcing the Guadalcanal with soldiers.

Instead, the Japanese sent reinforcements to Vanguna, but their ships, struggling in the ocean's swells, became grounded. We dug in on the shoreline, hidden by steep, rocky crops or high atop the cliffs - and lobbed hand grenades. They were sitting ducks. We pushed the occupying force into the ocean, and then we camped.

After securing the island, we transferred to an unoccupied section of Guadalcanal to restore our supplies. We had little food, less ammo and a short supply of energy. We needed a break. Most of us lived through what Winston Churchill said was life's most exhilarating moment: We were shot at and missed.

Our role in the war was far from over, though. Beau, the Raider historian, said that of the 8,600 Raiders in four battalions, 2,600 earned Purple Hearts and 1,000 were killed.

SUNDAY: A superior writes Bum up four times in one day.



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