REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. — “He could have shot me. He could have hung me. But instead, he told me to get the hell out of here,” 101-year-old Jimmy Phillips said about one of his many close encounters with an enemy combatant during World War II.
Phillips, a former Security Assistance Command employee, is a beloved member of his southeast Pennsylvania community. He is known for loving local grocery store sugar cookies and sharing stories from his life. He has over a century of experiences to recall, and the stories are as varied as the decades he has lived through.
It all began in Middletown, Pennsylvania, on August 2, 1921, just days after Adolf Hitler became leader of the Nazi Party in Germany and days before the first radio baseball game was broadcast. You could buy a loaf of bread for five cents and a nice sized home for about $6,000.
As the oldest of four siblings growing up in a small rural town, Phillips wasn’t sure what he’d do with his life, but traveling across eight countries to fight the Second World War wasn’t part of the plan.
At age 20, he was drafted into the Army and assigned to the 313th Field Artillery Battalion, 80th Infantry Division, nicknamed the Blue Ridge Division. The 80th was initially composed of draftees from the mid-Atlantic states and would later become the workhorse for Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, playing a key role in the breakthrough at Normandy’s Avranches.
As the war was just starting up, from down in Tennessee “they called Harrisburg and said, ‘We don’t have enough young men. Could you send some down,’” Phillips recalled.
He and other draftees were processed and put on a train. They reported to Camp Forrest, Tennessee, where they were trained before Phillips was promoted to sergeant and placed in charge of a forward observation squad equipped with weapons and radio equipment.
“To this day, I was just a poor Pennsylvanian,” he said. “I didn’t even finish high school. There were three southern boys with me that graduated from college. Why did they pick a dumb man like me?”
Phillip’s humble mindset and will to survive would see him through three and a half years of fighting in the war and gave him much fodder for the stories he would share with family and friends decades later.
He tells of brutal winters in which he and fellow Soldiers would take turns sleeping in a hole beneath a running Jeep to avoid freezing and multiple near-death experiences. One of the most outstanding periods during his service in wartime was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest single battle fought by the United States in World War II and the third-deadliest campaign in American history.
The Bulge was a turning point in the war to defeat the Germans but caused the U.S. to suffer 75,000 casualties. Phillips made it through the battle and the war and recalls returning to his hometown looking forward to some sense of normalcy. He remembers it as a time of happiness and said it didn’t take time for him to settle in and fall head over heels for his soon-to-be wife Ruth.
They never had children of their own, but that didn’t stop them from spoiling many of the neighborhood children at Ocean City every weekend or serving the local community. Phillips joined the Elizabethtown American Legion Post 329, serving as commander in 1963.
In the years since, Phillips has continued to share his love of the military from his retirement home in Masonic Village at Elizabethtown.
To celebrate his 99th birthday, he flew in a helicopter for the first time. He’s not sure which exciting adventure he will pursue this year to celebrate turning 101 years old, but he has the rest of the month to decide. A true American treasure, Phillips isn’t sure what the future holds, but he hopes to continue sharing his life experiences, one story at a time.