Monday, March 19, 2012




days shy of his 89th birthday, and just a month after his last visit to Chambers Cove, Newfoundland, where he was rescued from freezing, oil-clogged waters in 1942, Lanier Phillips, the lone remaining survivor of the Truxtun/Pollux sea disaster passed on to his final reward.

The son of Georgia share-croppers and great-grandson of slaves, who had seen his school burned down by the Ku Klux Klan and saw little future for himself, joined the Navy in 1941 at age 18. In the world as it was then, he could not
hope for any assignment other than work in the kitchens, and it was there that he and the only other black sailors aboard the USS Truxtun fell to their knees on the galley floor when they felt the ship lurch and smash so violently that they were convinced they had been torpedoed.

In fact, the ship had foundered after going greatly off course in a vicious storm. There had been three ships in the convoy, bound for the American Naval base at Argentia, Newfoundland, and early that Ash Wednesday morning two of the three were smashed on ice-coated coastal rocks in the freezing waters near the small fishing villages of Lawn and St. Lawrence.

Chambers Cove on the Burin Peninsula, southern coast of Newfoundland, site of the wreck of the Truxtun. Between the two ships, 389 men went into the icy water clogged with a foot-deep coating of oil.

The oil line still visible at the base of the cliff.
Some who made it to shore expired at the bottom of sheer cliffs before they could be rescued. But, in what seems like a miracle but is in fact just a testimony to the essential goodness of the human person, 186 survived to tell the tale. They did so thanks to the inexpressible courage and perseverance of the few sailors who clawed their way to the top of the cliffs, and of the townspeople of Lawn and St. Lawrence who, without hesitation, mobilized every able-bodied boy and man to haul the desperate crews up the cliffs in the freezing dark, and every available woman in the towns to wash, warm, feed, and nurse the survivors back to life. (Described in a rescuer's letter regarding the Pollux break-up near Lawn.)

That's where the iconic story of a remarkable young black sailor kicks in. All the survivors were brought into town covered in the oil that had spilled from the broken-up ships on impact. As they were brought in and laid out on kitchen tables and floors, the first task was to wash the gummy mess off their skins. When it came to the semi-conscious Phillips, the women scrubbed and scrubbed but seemed to be getting nowhere.

In one terrifying lucid moment, the young m
an was forced to tell his rescuers that they could not scrub the black off of him -- that was the colour of his skin. No one in this remote Newfoundland outport had ever seen a black man before. What followed was, to Lanier Phillips, the real miracle of the day: the colour of his skin made absolutely no difference. The man who could truthfully say that he had never had a kind word from a white man before in his entire life, found himself engulfed in the loving care and boundless sacrifice (the rescuers at the cliff had clearly risked their lives, and the people of the towns ran out of stored food for themselves when they had fed all the sailors) of the kindest people he had ever met.

In the dawn of that day, Lanier Phillips' life changed forever.
Follow the story of what happened on the seas and the land that day in Cassie Brown's Standing Into Danger and at the website Dead Reckoning.

Read about the 70th anniversary memorial celebrations at which Phillips and his rescuers were the most honoured guests last month -- his bright eyes surveyed the cliffs and seas for the last time, and he spoke in the strong voice now familiar to the citizens of Lawn and St. Lawrence.

Watch him tell
the story of how he was inspired to make a career for himself in the Navy against all odds and a history of racial discrimination, here (NPR's A World Without Racism), and below:

And read of his passing, in the Burin Peninsula
Southern Gazette, St. John's Telegram, Toronto Globe and Mail, Epoch Times, and the CBC.

He is memorialized
here by the U.S. Navy. (good video)

Of special interest is a clip from Lanier's eulogy delivered by his son Terry. I don't know about anyone else, but I could wish that this fine young man had been America's first black president.

He became
Dr. Lanier Phillips in May of 2008, when he was awarded an honorary degree by Memorial University of Newfoundland.

And in true Newfoundland f
ashion, here's a ballad to tell his story.

Lanier Walter Phillips
March 14, 1923 - March 12, 2012

Requiescat in pace.

Fair winds and following seas.