News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 10, 2011

Historical Perspective: World War II hero in the non-fiction bestseller hails from Terre Haute (Part II)

By Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

----- — Capt. Russell Allen Phillips, pilot of the B-24 bomber that crashed in the Pacific Ocean on May 27, 1943, was a native of Greencastle.

He was born there April 1, 1916, while the Rev. Russell L. Phillips, his father, was completing studies at DePauw University.

“Allen,” as he was called at home, had a nomadic childhood. His parents moved from one Indiana community to another, wherever Rev. Phillips was assigned as a pastor.

The family’s first stop after Greencastle was the village of Hamlet in Starke County. Sister Martha, Allen’s only sibling, was born there on Christmas Eve, 1918.

Rev. Phillips served at the Trinity Methodist Church of South Bend (1919-1924), First Methodist Church of Princeton (1924-1929) and the First Methodist Church of LaPorte (1929-1936) before becoming pastor of the Centenary M.E. Church.

Allen graduated from LaPorte High School in 1934 and studied agriculture, forestry and conservation at Purdue, earning a degree in 1940. He was amiable and articulate but not extroverted. After his parents moved to Terre Haute in June 1936, he made frequent visits home. On one of those sojourns, Martha Phillips introduced her brother to Cecile Perry, a member of the church choir. “Cecy,” as she was known, was a 1938 graduate of Wiley High School and a student at Indiana State.

Ironically, Cecy moved to Terre Haute with her parents, George and Cecile (Greer) Perry, in February 1936. In her non-fiction best-seller, “Unbroken,” author Laura Hillenbrand wrote:

“She had blond hair, a curvy figure, a buoyant disposition, a quick mind, and a family cat named Chopper …  At a prom in Terre Haute, Allen kissed Cecy. He was a goner and so was she.” Terre Haute soon became Allen’s permanent address.

George Perry arrived in Terre Haute after an eclectic business career that included stints as a drug store owner and president of Moberly (Mo.) Trust Co. Before becoming vice president and general manager of Citizens Independent Telephone Co. in Terre Haute, he was president of the Community Telephone Co. of Clinton, Ill.

Cecy was the youngest Perry child. Five more children survived infancy: George R., Katherine, Martha, William and Marian. Martha married journalist Neal O. Hines, son of former Indiana State president Linnaeus N. Hines.

Marian Perry (Class of 1940), who wed Thomas Groscop, and Cecy (Class of 1942) graduated from Indiana State. Both were members of Alpha sorority. Cecy, who was active in Sycamore Players, was president of the Alpha chapter in 1941-42.

Though he had an unimpressive ROTC record at Purdue, Phillips enlisted in the air corps and discovered he was “a natural.” When Allen departed Fort Benjamin Harrison for active duty in November 1941, he told Cecy he wanted to marry her. For her 21st birthday May 1, 1942, he sent her his paycheck and asked her to buy an engagement ring.

Cecy was wearing the ring in June when she traveled to Phoenix to see Allen get his wings. The pair committed to wed at his next training venue but, when that turned out to be Ephrata, Wash., Phillips reluctantly refused to invite his bride to such “a dump.”

It was at Ephrata that Phillips met Olympian Louie Zamperini, who became his bombardier and lifelong friend. The two men were opposites but they immediately liked one another. Louie often asserted that Phillips, whom he called “Phil” instead of Allen, was “the nicest man I ever met.”

Other members of Phillips’ initial crew, assigned to the 372nd Squadron, were co-pilot George Moznette, Jr.; engineers Stanley Pillsbury and Clarence Douglas; navigator Robert Mitchell, belly gunner and radioman Frank Glassman; tail gunner Ray Lambert; and waist gunner Harry Brooks. Co-pilots were rotated frequently from plane to plane.

Co-pilot Moznette named Phillips’ first B-24, “Super Man.” It made a spectacular inaugural bombing run on Wake Atoll about midnight Christmas Day 1942. When Super Man departed for home that night, the Japanese island was ablaze. Flying with lights out, Phillips escaped friendly fire attacks that left Super Man’s bomb bay doors stuck open. Super Man landed safely on American-occupied Midway island out of fuel with two dead engines. The other engines died before the aircraft rolled to a stop.

In a frantic battle in April over Nairu, the site of a phosphate works, several crew members were seriously injured. Brooks’ multiple bullet wounds proved fatal. Pillsbury, Lambert and Douglas were too badly injured to return to duty.

The shell of Super Man, which had saved all but one occupant, was unable to continue. On May 24, 1943, Phillips and his crew were transferred to the 42nd Squadron of the 11th Bomb Group and assigned to “The Green Hornet.”

Three days later, Phil and Louie embarked on a historic 2,000 mile, 27-month odyssey that included 47 days at sea, where they learned how to collect rain water and lure albatross to their raft so they could strangle the bird and eat it raw. They also faced attacks by sharks and Japanese aircraft. Ultimately, they were captured and spent two years in Japanese Prisoner of War camps, subjected to acute physical and mental abuse.

Ten crew members of The Green Hornet died at sea. The families were in the dark about the fate of their loved ones for nearly two years. In December 1944, the Red Cross notified the Phillips family that Allen was a war prisoner.

The war officially ended Aug. 16, 1945, but it was not until Sept. 16 that the Phillips family received a telegram that Allen had been released from Rokuroshi POW Camp. One month later he arrived at Kelsey Phillips’ home in Princeton.

On Nov. 10, 1945, at the Perry residence at 926 S. Center St. in Terre Haute, Cecy and Allen were married. Rev. Russell L. Phillips, who arrived from Europe Nov. 7, performed the ceremony. Marian Perry Groscop was the bridesmaid and Ben Small, Jr. was best man.

This columnist’s parents attended the wedding. Clifton E. McCormick succeeded George O. Perry as general manager of Citizens Independent Telephone Co. in April 1945.

Allen and Cecy resided in Albuquerque for four years before returning to LaPorte, where they raised two children, Karen and Christopher. Cecy taught at Kesling Middle School. Allen also taught science there but he rarely talked about his war experiences.

Allen Phillips died in Marietta, Ga., in December 1998. Cecy passed away on Nov. 18, 2002.