Today’s post comes from Zach Kopin, intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.
On May 28, 1943, a B-24 airplane crashed into the Pacific Ocean leaving only three survivors. The survivors floated on the sea for 46 days with almost no food or fresh water. On the 47th day, they were picked up by Japanese sailors and imprisoned for the remainder of the war.
Does that story sound familiar? Chances are you heard it before.
The Army Air Force bomber, nicknamed the Green Hornet, was Louis Zamperini’s. A former Olympian, Zamperini was one of the crew who survived on the raft after their plane went down over the Pacific Ocean. His story has been featured in several books, most famously in Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book Unbroken and a major motion picture of the same name, but he was not the alone on the raft. Both pilot Lt. Russell A. Phillips and tailgunner SSgt. Francis P. McNamara survived too.
Unlike Zamperini, however, neither Phillips nor McNamara received much notoriety from the incident. Instead, they have been largely ignored by historians and the public alike, merely a footnote on Zamperini’s biographic odyssey of herculean proportions.
At the time he and his comrades bailed out over the Pacific, Phillips was a 27-year-old first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. A native of Indiana, Phillips held a forestry degree from Purdue University. When he enlisted in the Air Corps on November 7, 1941, Phillips’s education made him eligible to become an officer.
Unlike Zamperini’s or Phillips’s all-American upbringings, McNamara was an immigrant. A native of Ireland, McNamara emigrated along with his parents shortly after his birth, and by the 1930 census, when he was 10 years old, he was living in an Ohio orphanage.
A high-school dropout, McNamara was a tool sharpener and machinist by trade. He enlisted in the Army in May 1942 and eventually received the Air Medal for his service. He died on the 33rd day at sea; he was 23 years old.
Zamperini and Phillips, however, floated for another two weeks before being captured by a Japanese vessel.
Despite efforts to locate the plane and any survivors, Air Corps attempts at search and rescue came up empty. Eventually, all the crew members, even those who survived, were declared dead by the U.S. Government. As a result of the crewmembers’ deceased status, their families became eligible for death benefit and received their sons’ Purple Heart medals. Zamperini’s Purple Heart certificate is currently on display in East Rotunda Gallery and was covered in a previous blog post.
The families were also eligible for a death gratuity, a form of life insurance, from which Phillips’s father received $1,650 in July 1944.
In the meantime, Phillips and Zamperini were still prisoners of the Japanese. After a period at the Kwajalein POW camp, Phillips was separated from Zamperini and taken to the Ashio camp, where he was forced into slave labor in a copper mine. He remained there until the end of the war.
Phillips survived the war and was repatriated to the United States in September 1945. His evacuation order from the General Headquarters, Army Forces Pacific in at the National Archives at St. Louis (below). He returned to Indiana in October 1945, much to the joy of his friends and family.
After the war, Phillips returned to Indiana and married his sweetheart, Cecile “Cecy” Perry. He eventually became a science teacher and basketball coach for La Porte High School.
Phillips did not talk much about the war or his role in it. Many of the people who knew him only learned of his ordeal through the publications of Zamperini and others. While he never received the attention Zamperini did, Phillips began to gain some notoriety by the time of his death in 1998, thanks in part to his comrade’s writings .
Phillips is buried, along with his wife, in La Porte, Indiana.
Copies of the certificate awarding Zamperini the Purple Heart, Zamperini’s Purple Heart medal, and a condolence letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Zamperini family are on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, through tomorrow (March 4, 2015).