A few days ago, about fifty people from our airport community gathered together to take part in a lifetime achievement ceremony for our neighbor and friend Dick Phillips. Everyone got dressed up, there were speeches and slide shows, humorous stories were told, and some very fun ones were whispered. At the end we all walked outside to stand there while a flight of homebuilts from our airport came by in a missing man formation as the bugler slowly played taps. Before that moment we were behaving just as Dick would have wanted it, an upbeat gathering of his friends, not a somber event. As the lone plane peeled away to the west the sailor from the honor guard knelt in front of Dick’s wife, handed her the flag and said “On behalf of a grateful nation…” I stared at the neatly folded blue triangle and wiped away my tears.
As we drove away, the gray clouds lifted and a bright blue sky showed itself. Driving back to the airport, the mood also lifted, and we returned to a remembrance of happy times shared with Dick. He truly was a larger than life guy. He made it all the way to 86, and he had one hell of a good ride. Bravo Zulu is Navy speak for “well done,” and looking at the life of Dick Phillips, this is the number one thing you could say about him. He was an enlisted man in WW II, an aircraft mechanic on the USS Bunker Hill. After the war he became an officer and stayed in naval aviation for a full 30 years. In the 1960s he joined the EAA and subsequently built a number of homebuilts. He was always in love with flying, and took great pleasure in promoting a facade of a curmudgeon while actually directly supporting anyone interested in aviation.
I only knew him the last 6 years, but it was a timely overlap. He was getting to the point in life where he was in a mood to speak of things in his life experience, reaching out to share some things that he probably was moving too fast to previously think much about, and I was at a point in life where I could take the hours to get to get to know a neighbor in a way that could teach me something of life. He was our EAA chapter’s tech counselor, a task he took very seriously. Over time he passed this to me, and I took his insights on how to get homebuilders to do better work as very valuable lessons in dealing with people. But the greatest thing that Dick offered anyone in his world was a first class example how to aggressively get the most out of every day you are alive, no matter how old you are. A particular set of events in his youth made him this way, and I don’t think he would mind if I shared them here.
Above, Dick in the 1960s. He was a tough kid from Brooklyn. He joined the Navy after his 17th birthday, at the height of WW II.
Above, Dick’s ship, the USS Bunker Hill, hit by two Kamikaze off the coast of Okinawa in the spring of 1945. It was the worst single such strike of the war. 393 men on the ship perished, one out of every seven members of the crew. The ship did not sink because the crew fought like animals to save it. Dick was on board, likely in the hangar deck when this photo was taken.
Above, this is what the topside of the ship looked like after the fires were out. The hangar deck looked much the same. Both were filled with fueled and armed planes when the ship was hit. There are photos on the Net that are far more graphic, photos that make the above two seem pleasant by comparison. If it is hard to look at such a photograph from six decades ago, it is worth remembering that there are people who saw this in person among us. Dick was 18 years old when this happened to his shipmates.
The day that Dick passed I took an hour in the morning and finished reading Ernest Gordon’s To End All Wars, a very moving story of one man’s experience as a POW from 1942-45 working on the death railway the Japanese built with POWs and slave labor, linking Bangkok to Rangoon. They killed more than 350 people per mile to build it, and it is several hundred miles long. I grew up in Thailand, and I can remember being very spooked as a child seeing all the cemeteries in the jungle on the train ride to Kanchanaburi. Gordon survived what 50% of the POWs did not, and he went on to forgive the Japanese for their crimes out of the belief that forgiveness is the highest act of humanity. The book contains chapters about how hard it was to return to England, and even though people at home had survived The Blitz, he could not relate to them, and he felt alienated. The book made me think about things that Dick had said about his own life, about his personal perspective.
Dick told me that he was determined to get into WW II. All he wanted to do was attack the Japanese and do as much damage as possible before he was killed. He hoped to live to 18 or until he could see that the tide had changed in the War. After the attack, he said that he still felt that he would not live to 20, and that his goal was simply to “Go Down Fighting.” At the end of the War, he realized that he knew much about death, but little about life. He gave it some thought and decided he would try life, and he would concede to live to 21 and see how things looked, if there really was any reason to live longer than that. He told me that by the time he was 21 he had enough good things happen his in life that he decided that he wanted to live forever.
He didn’t make it, but he got a lot closer than his 393 shipmates. When there were few people around, Dick would directly say that he just felt that it was his obligation to get everything out of life. This had many facets. Although he worked very hard honing a first class hard guy image, he was actually very kind. Example: He catches you fussing over a tiny cosmetic detail on your homebuilt. He cries out “You’re building a plane, NOT A GOD DAMNED WATCH! Leave it and get something done!” but a minute later he would patiently instruct you in some crafty thing that you thought no one on earth still knew how to do, like a 5 tuck navy splice in a control cable (because nicopresses are for sissys who are afraid of bloody fingers). At Dick’s service, it is revealed that although he lived a humble life, he had devoted a giant amount of funds to sending dozens of students through aviation schools. He has never told anyone except his wife this. A few years ago a young, but serious guy shows up in our EAA chapter. Dick takes him down to his hangar and shows him a VW powered homebuilt he made in the 1970s. It needs air in the tires, gasoline and a condition inspection to fly. Dick gives the plane to the new guy.
The stories like this go on for a long time. At the root of it all is Dick’s life as a teenager, and his determination that he was going to fill up each day with as much good as he could. Not good in the Mr. Rogers Neighborhood sense ( unless you can picture Mr. Rogers drinking beer and telling stories about liberty in exotic ports), but in the real sense of going flying, teaching people things and enjoying the moment among friends. In a way, WW II was a portal that men like Dick and Ernst Gordon stepped through. They were very young one day, and in many ways they were vastly older a short time later. It was a one way portal, there was no going back. Dick was never a young man again. Ernest Gordon could not find his way “home”.
Many times when something transformative happens to people, it takes a long time for them to realize that they have changed. This doesn’t seem to be the case with men of Dick’s generation. After the 50th anniversary of VJ day, I read an essay by Edward Beach, the USN sub skipper who was in WW II and went on to write Run Silent, Run Deep. Beach cited James Michener’s introduction to his 1948 novel Tales of the South Pacific. In it, Michener pointed out that most men who had just lived through the worst parts of the War were well aware that the most interesting thing that would happen in their lives had already come and gone, leaving its scars, all before they were far into their 20s. He pointed out that names like Guadalcanal were already fading from general public awareness by 1948, and these names were going to take up residence in history books beside other names like Antietam, long before the men who had seen these places had faded away.
Dick was my living connection to things I had only previously had access to through literature. He told me a hundred things you could never get out of a book, but the real value of knowing him was being able to witness a first class example of an adventurous life well lived, and I will remain grateful for this simple but uncommon gift.