Lanier W. Phillips (March 14, 1923 – March 11, 2012) was a survivor of the wreck of the USS Truxtun off the coast of Newfoundland, a retired oceanographer and a recipient of the U.S. Navy Memorial’s Lone Sailor award for his distinguished post Navy civilian career. Phillips is an African American who was raised by sharecroppers in Lithonia, GA and who became the US Navy’s first black sonar technician. Phillips died on March 12, 2012, at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Mississippi.
While growing up in the segregated South, Phillips witnessed the terror of the Ku Klux Klan and was taught to fear white people. “[N]ever look a white man in the eye. … If you do you’ll get a whipping, or maybe lynched,” his great-grandmother once warned him.
In order to escape the South, Philips joined the Navy in 1941. Although the Navy was still segregated and blacks were confined to duty as mess attendants, Phillips considered this the lesser of two evils.
Sinking of the Truxtun
On February 18th, 1942 Phillips was aboard the USS Truxtun (DD-229) while it was battered by a severe winter storm. Eventually the Truxtun and the supply ship the USS Pollux (AKS-2) were forced onto the rocks of the southeast coast of Newfoundland. Hundreds of men from both ships died, but Phillips was among the survivors.
Initially afraid to leave his doomed ship because he thought he was off the coast of Iceland where he had been told blacks were forbidden to go ashore, Phillips boarded a lifeboat which capsized as it reached shore. Exhausted and covered in oil that had leaked from the sinking ships, Phillips collapsed on the shore. Gently prodded to his feet by a local resident who told him he’d freeze to death if he didn’t get up, Phillips was confronted by an experience that was totally new to him: “I had never heard a kind word from a white man in my life.”
Phillips was taken to a place where the local women were washing oil from the survivors, and when they realized they could not scrub his skin white he was afraid their kind treatment would end. Instead a local woman, Violet Pike, insisted that he come home to her house where she nursed him with soup and put him to bed with blankets and rocks she’d warmed in her stove.
Profoundly touched and forever changed by the kindness of the residents of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, Phillips went on to become the Navy’s first black sonar technician and vowed to do everything in his power to repay the kindness he had experienced, eventually donating enough money to St. Lawrence for them to build a children’s playground.
After giving speeches at schools across the U.S., Phillips was awarded an honorary degree from Memorial University of Newfoundland in 2008 for his efforts to end discrimination. In 2011, Phillips was given honorary membership into the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador for his work in civil rights in the U.S. In 2012 Oil and Water, a play about Lanier’s experience in St. Lawrence after the shipwreck and the influence it had on him, was produced by Newfoundland’s Artistic Fraud theater company.