Lanier W. Phillips, a black man from the South, changed his outlook on life after experiencing one episode of kindness from the people of a small coastal community in Newfoundland during World War 2.
Scarred in the crucible of racism, he vowed to live like the people who saved him.
"I can never repay them," he said. All he can do is tell their story.Steeped in racism Phillips hated all white men and joined the Navy in order to partially escape it although racism also existed there. Phillips considered the Navy the "lesser of two evils." A winter storm shipwrecked his vessel. Getting to shore was as fraught with danger as staying with the ship. He and a few others made it to shore but over 200 men died in the catastrophe. A local man found him and gently helped him stay warm by walking him around near a fire. Phillips was astonished.
"I had never heard a kind word from a white man in my life,"The town's women cleaned the oil off of the survivors. They could not figure out why they could not completely clean Phillips. He told them his skin was permanently black. At that point, he thought their kindness would end, but it didn't. One of the women insisted on taking him to her home and nursing him there.
Phillips could scarcely believe what was happening: a white woman caring for a black man as if he were her son.This experience changed his life forever.
Phillips, 87, a retired oceanographer, civil rights activist and the Navy's first black sonar technician, received one of the U.S. Navy Memorial's Lone Sailor awards for Navy veterans who have had distinguished civilian careers.