Part 7: Bum Phillips heads unarmed into the jungle

Aug. 30, 2010 at 3:30 a.m.

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

Father Redmond, me and two other Raiders crept again from the camp and toward the enemy base.

Redmond wanted to retrieve the dog tags off the 300-plus men who fell dead in the battle. He wanted to return to the battleground knowing full well enemy machine guns would be trained on us.

First, however, the chaplain asked us to leave our rifles against a tree, to break the habit we'd been ingrained with since boot camp. We looked puzzled, worried. We trusted Father Redmond, however, and always did as he said.

We set off into the jungle unarmed, walking through the trees to look for the bodies of Americans.

"He was always with that padre," Van Fleet said. "That padre would just walk out there, machine guns firing, shooting like hell, and he'd just walk out there and pray. Bum would say, 'That son of a gun is going to get me killed.' He never left his side, though."

As we inched farther into the tree line, we stumbled across the bodies of fallen comrades. One by one, we pulled the dog tags from their necks, slipped them into a pocket and crawled north.

There is no doubt the Japanese could see and hear us. It's amazing they didn't shoot. I promise you, a bullet from a rifle can go farther than a voice, and they could hear us.

Somebody looked out for us that day, and I didn't have anything to do with it. It took us hours, but we collected all the dog tags and sent each one back to the families.

The Army later helped us to retrieve all the bodies. All but three men were found and given proper burials.

Fighting comes to an end

The fighting on New Georgia lasted a few weeks. On June 20, 1943, we moved to a place called Sergi Point. On June 30, we paved the way for the construction of an airfield, a strategic strip from which Allied air attacks could launch. We then captured a harbor and another airbase. By Aug. 25, 1943, the fighting was finished.

For months, we had survived on sparse food - moldy chocolate bars, island scraps and little else. I'd entered the Marines at 200 pounds but had whittled away to 130.

Father Redmond asked me to join him in the Jeep for a visit to the Army's camp, which was quite a distance around the bend. Just as he'd done on the ship with the piano, the priest ran interference, this time telling stories about gun swaps.

He promised Army officers rifles, swords and ammunition in exchange for food and juices. The Army bit. Father Redmond and I loaded the Jeep full of food and drinks, and we sped away. We never did share the weapons.

We joked that we'd "liberated" the Army's food, clothing and alcohol, which none of us had at the Raider camp. Many Marines, especially those with yellow jaundice, claimed their lives were saved by the fruit and juices the priest provided us. I know he saved my life.

On Jan. 8, 1944, commanders disbanded the Raiders. Because of our heavy casualties and the nature of the new war, those of us who still stood had outlived our mission. Light attack forces were no longer needed in large-scale amphibious assaults in the South Pacific.

I joined with other Raiders to form a reclamation group assigned to the Russell Islands. I operated a bulldozer, plowed new roads and worked to make once teeming, beautiful islands inhabitable again.

In all, I spent six months in training, 18 months in combat and 11 months busy with reclamation work. I finally boarded a ship in the Russell Islands bound for San Francisco. After I reached California, I hopped aboard a train headed for a military hospital in Norman, Oklahoma. I spent six weeks there in treatment for malaria before returning to Beaumont.

Van Fleet returned to his home in South Texas, too. Although we lived hundreds of miles apart, we never lost touch. Van Fleet was in the stands 30 years after the war when I coached the Houston Oilers. He still visits me in Goliad.

"He got into the coaching business and I got into the construction business," Van Fleet said. "You know, there are only 200 Raiders living still from all four battalions. Bum and I are the only two living in Texas."

Like I said before, I didn't look back after the war ended - except to recount my memories here. During the 1980s, however, I saw a newspaper ad while coaching the New Orleans Saints.

The Raiders were to hold a reunion in The Big Easy. I traveled to a local hotel, asked the man at the front desk for Father Redmond's room number and rode the elevator to the priest's floor.

I'm not much of a fraternity guy. I never went to a Raiders reunion, but I did go see Father Redmond. I'm just happy he remembered me. We laughed about a lot of things: stealing a piano and getting food on the promise of guns and swords.

When it comes to the war, Father Redmond and Van Fleet are my only pleasant memories. I also witnessed an event - which I'll tell you about next - that almost inexplicably pushed me later into coaching.

Like I said before, God works in mysterious ways, and He surely found a faraway place in which to labor in my life.

TUESDAY NIGHT: Bum signs his new book beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the Leo J. Welder Center for Performing Arts.



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