If You’ve seen the miniseries The War or The Pacific, you’ve seen Sid Phillips tell war stories and wisecrack. A lifelong pal of Marine author Eugene Sledge (With the Old Breed), the 86-year-old vet has finally written about his time with H Company, 1st Marine Regiment on Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, and Pavuvu. Characteristically wry, he calls his book You’ll Be Sor-ree! “That’s what they yelled at us on Parris Island,” he drawls, “but we didn’t know what they meant—yet.”
Why enlist at 17?
It was just the thing to do, the day after Pearl Harbor. That’s about all you can say. I wanted to enlist in the navy, but the line was too long. That’s a hell of a way to decide, but I wasn’t very smart. Seriously, it’s impossible to reconstruct that period. The whole world was in turmoil. I was just out of high school, had no vocation in mind, and wasn’t anxious to rush off to college. Anyway, they would’ve gotten me sooner or later.
What was training at Parris Island like?
We arrived at Yemassee [South Car-olina] after riding all night in a day coach. Drill instructors boarded our train and started screaming at us. We were totally intimidated and began just doing as we were told. We were well trained there and at New River [North Carolina]. As a Marine private, you become a robot. Obey orders. Follow the program. You have no choice. That probably saved a lot of lives.
Then you shipped out for New Zealand.
We thought the plan was girls, booze, liberty. But we didn’t have any liberty at all. We stayed with the ships and began a 24-hour working party system that was brutal, really brutal. It was either sleeting or drizzling, never stopped for more than an hour. It was too cold to sleep on the ships, and too noisy, with the hatch covers wide open. So we seldom went aboard, except to eat; when we could, we went into [the capital city of] Wellington to a restaurant. But you were not free to roam around. There was somebody on you every minute, so we stayed in our working parties.
What were you doing?
Unloading the ships. The dockworkers were on strike. The work was brutal. We had no gloves, but we unloaded barbed wire, cases of ammunition, on and on. They’d give you a little time to sleep in a warehouse. Big fun. But we had no idea this was abnormal. We didn’t know what war was supposed to be.
What was war like on Guadalcanal?
The landing was a cakewalk: guys were sitting on the shore making jokes. Then all hell broke loose. Later, what stood out in my mind was thousands and thousands of men with dysentery and diarrhea and no toilet paper. We tore up our clothes, our socks, our shoes, whatever we had to use. A lot of guys couldn’t even stand up, they were so emaciated. There was no medicine, not even paregoric. They gave us Atabrine [for malaria], which turns your skin yellow. Scuttlebutt said it would make you impotent, so nobody wanted to take it. They had to station a corpsman on the chow line. He’d make you swallow it in front of him and open your mouth so he could see if it was still under your tongue.
You write about the “comedians” you served with. Could you explain?
We were all comedians, but one boy in our outfit could’ve been a professional. He’d imitate FDR: “I’ve been in war, and I’ve been in Eleanor, and I prefer war.” We kids all listened to the radio at home, and he must’ve known 25 or 30 radio commercials, like for Rinso White. He’d sing ’em into his bayonet, walking around pretending to be an announcer. He knew Orphan Annie and all the kids’ shows and sang the theme songs. He kept us in stitches.
How did that help?
The worse things got, the more sarcastic everyone got, instead of showing sympathy or emotions. I realize now—I didn’t then, exactly—that humor fights horror. It got pretty bad. When we saw the first F4Fs fly in, we thought, “Maybe they’re gonna fight for this damn place after all.” Remember, we were left on our own a lot. We didn’t have a third of the men we needed to put a ring around [Henderson Field]. We just had the east and west flanks pretty secure. But the jungle was so dense, it was almost impossible for the Japanese to land a battalion and move through it without starving to death by the time they got to our perimeter’s rear. The geography was in our favor, defensively.
What worked against you?
There was never a moment’s rest. Som-ething disturbed you every 20 minutes. The Japanese loved to fight at night. And they loved to irritate you. Washing Machine Charlie—that’s what we called him—flew almost every night, dropping flares and an occasional bomb. You finally got to where you could sleep through it.
Your outfit left Guadalcanal in December 1942. What then?
We were completely worn out, ex-hausted. Most of us were in rags. We couldn’t believe we were surviving and were gonna get off that place. For a long time I thought none of us ever would—and I was far from the only one. Pulling into Melbourne [Australia], we felt like we were in heaven. We were issued new weapons and uniforms and had time for liberty. Finally.
What Melbourne memory stands out?
I was on division guard duty at the beautiful new 10-story hospital, where I’d done two weeks with hepatitis. One day, all these staff cars pulled up, and generals and admirals got out—then Eleanor Roose-velt. She walked straight to me. She was tall: I’m 5-foot-10, and our eyes were level. I was scared to death, with all that brass, so to everything she asked I’d say, “Yes ma’am.” Finally she asked, “What state are you from?” I said, “Alabama.” She smiled: “I should’ve known that.” Then she walked in the front door with the brass—and I was off the hook.
And on to Cape Gloucester. What was that like?
A swamp with rain all the time. Awful. About 30 Marines were killed by falling trees, one in my outfit; the tree came down at night about 20 feet from me. They got the whole company out and picked that tree up right then. Then the mess tent floated away in a flood. That was hilarious: it meant the end of my extended KP detail. I had mess duty on Pavuvu, but that was fortunate, because I met Chesty Puller. We were both Civil War buffs so we’d have hours of conversation about it each afternoon.
How did you meet Eugene Sledge?
We were inseparable in grade school and high school. I didn’t believe it when he showed up on Pavuvu. He was in the 5th Regiment, and came in with a shipload of replacements. He knew I was there, but I didn’t know he’d come in. One day he came walking down the company street to my tent. We spent as much time together as we could till I rotated stateside.
How did that happen?
We had a drawing. If you drew a number, you rotated back. If you drew a blank, you stayed. I drew a number. We didn’t believe it would actually happen; we just figured it was the usual BS. But it wasn’t—luckily for me, because some guys who drew blanks got killed on Peleliu.