Author: Jamie Watts
In the summer of 2011, I was wrapping up a 20-year stint in the granite business, one that we would eventually sell in two years, consequently starting up this venture called Hex Head Art. Our business found it’s advantage by becoming a direct importer of all thing’s kitchen; granite, sinks, cabinets etc. So, when salespeople would come by to peddle their products, we didn’t have much use for their wares and the girls up front would run interference. However, some salespeople are more persistent than others.
That summer once a week or so we would have a certain salesman come calling and demand to talk to the owner, he was selling the best stainless-steel sinks ever made, or so he said. And every week he would be told that we have a whole warehouse full of the exact same product and we are not interested. Yet every week he would come back. Finally, one day our receptionist begged me to please meet with this incorrigible old man and give him the 5 minutes he is demanding. And that’s where my unique friendship with Morris “Red” Phillips began.
He was what you would expect from a man in his mid-eighties, thick coke bottle glasses, a full polyester suit from the late 60’s, a wobbly gait and a briefcase. Literally such a visual throwback I was immediately intrigued, like he just walked off the set of the Barney Miller 70's sitcom. He introduced himself as just “Red” and his bravado just screamed that he would make all my stainless-steel sink dreams come true. He immediately went into his sales pitch, brochures, price sheets…he started off with this Dale Carnegie sort of build up, then whopped me with the Glengarry Glen Ross closer of “let’s get your order in today!” I explained to him that I have 1500 of those sinks in stock and that we are not interested. He was not dejected in the least; in fact, I think that made him even more emboldened. I had to break free from his full court press sales pitch, so to deflect to a new subject I asked the obvious question to a man of his generation, “Were you in World War II?” His eyes beamed.
Red went on for 30 minutes, all about his days as a B-17 tail gunner, the boys, the fights, how he made it back alive. It was like watching a color documentary from a time that I only knew in black and white. He had the greatest way of describing every detail, his experiences, what was said, what it looked like, how it felt. That Fred had blue eyes and a girlfriend in Iowa, the smell of fumes and oil as they ascended into thin air before putting on their oxygen masks, the pure elation at the end of every mission. By the time Red left that day I knew we had only scratched the surface, he had me hooked. “So, you’re coming back next week Red?”
From that summer into fall Red came back a dozen times. We talked about his family, about his first wife that passed and that his second was not in great health, part of why he was working. But mostly we went back to 1944 and worked out the glory days of the war. The stories were fantastic for me, maybe more cathartic for him. His eyes would light up as he recalled every sensational detail, then sag again as the heaviness of the events and lost brothers still weighed him down. When Red joined the US Army Air Corps, he was assigned to the Flying Fortress division, heavy bombers that were meant to hit specific targets in Germany to weaken their infrastructure; Oil refineries, manufacturing facilities and government structures. B-17 bombers flew at 30,000 feet, it was a brutal existence being a part of that 10-man crew. There was a lot of waiting around, a lot of time to think. Statistically only 25% of B-17 crewman would survive the full tour, making it one of the most dangerous assignments in our military’s history. The psychology of the experience is what breaks guys, the unknown. B-17 crewman were required to fly 20 missions and in 1944 that changed to 25. The legendary Hell's Angels and Enola Gay were the first to reach 25. Incredibly, Red flew in 35 missions, 10 more than what is required. He volunteered to fill in for other airmen who might have been sick or in one case a soldier went to see a girl off base and didn’t make it back in time. So, the risk of a 1 in 4 chance of making it home on 20 missions grows exponentially at 35.
The stories were unreal, I must assume they were true, but stuff you would never even see in a movie. Once Red was flying a mission and the bomber to his right took a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire. The blast destroyed the entire plane except for the tail. In what appeared to be a complete physical anomaly the tail began to spin like a helicopter maple seed, it did not just free fall, the spinning slowed its accent and the tail gunner actually lived and was rescued. Mostly he told stories of friends, the barracks, the 60 degree below zero cold at altitude, conversations he still remembered with dates and details, too many for me to even recall. Every time he left, I found myself thinking about when Red would come back and what historical journey, he would make new again. It was truly the highlight of my day to get a visit from Red. But then a few weeks passed and no Red. Then months went by and winter turned into spring.
After a few months I was concerned so I called the office on his brochure and the owner told me that Red never worked there… that he kept coming to their office asking for a sales job. He said that years ago Red owned a plumbing supply business and wanted to get back to what he knew to make extra money. To get rid of Red the owner gave him some brochures and a price sheet and told him that if he could sell something, he would pay a commission. I got the impression that he didn’t sell much. He said that he hadn’t seen him for a quite some time and did not have any contact information. I was floored, what a unique human being, the definition of making your way no matter the circumstances.
I thought about Red often and I always figured he would walk back through my door with that huge tie knot and pop open his briefcase to show me the latest greatest in sink ware, but he never did.
A few years later I did a search for old Red and found out that he died on March 22, 2013 at 88 years old, broke my heart. Morris “Red” Phillips was a true war hero. And although he was just one out of the 16 million that served in WWII, his effort made a difference in all of our lives. I figured there is no better way to honor a man on Veteran’s day than to push forward a tiny bit of his legacy in the written word. I didn’t know Red well, but I knew him enough to know that he was a hell of a guy. The type of guy you would want as your tail gunner, selling your sinks or being your friend. I’ll drink a beer for Red this Veteran’s day and think about what he did for me, for you and for our country. Truly the best we had to offer.