Chatting with Jimmy Phillips is like sitting in a history class with a teacher who’s been there. Remarkably spry for a 96-year-old, the memories he shares of his youth and service in World War II are as sharp as tacks, filled with details of colors, sights, and smells that one would assume have been forgotten long ago.
Born in 1921 in Middletown, PA, Jimmy was the oldest of four children. He dropped out of high school during the Great Depression and started working at a shoe factory in Elizabethtown to help support his struggling family. Despite his family’s financial struggles, Jimmy thought life was pretty great. He belonged to a lot of clubs, had great friends, and his job at the factory had him surrounded by women. “I worked in a fitting room. All girls. Man, I was a king!” he cracks.
Three years into working at the shoe factory, Jimmy received a draft notice. “It wasn’t something I was looking forward to,” he admits. He reported to the New Cumberland Army Depot and then rode the “troop train” down to Camp Forrest near Nashville, where he received basic training and learned he would be part of the 80th Infantry Division. Jimmy spent a few more months training in Texas, Arizona, and Kansas before learning he would be sent overseas.
Having never before seen the ocean, Jimmy boarded the RMS Queen Mary in New Jersey, bound for Scotland. After a brief stop in England, his unit crossed the English Channel— exactly 58 days after D-Day. When he arrived in France, Jimmy remembers, “It was a moonlit night… we landed on one of the beaches. We made a circle, put guards out, and went to sleep. The next day, General Patton comes down, because we’re going to be part of his Third Army. He comes down and makes a speech. I never heard a better speech in all my life. His vocabulary—he swore better than anybody I ever met!” Regarding the infamous Patton, Jimmy says, “You either liked him or you hated him. I liked him. The reason I liked him was he got the job done. Patton was a pusher. And a swearer.”
The 80th moved rapidly through Europe, pursuing and attacking the German army. Jimmy forgets many of the names of the towns, because they traveled through them so quickly, but he remembers the stories.
He remembers the time his captain asked him to return to a battlefield to retrieve a lost map case. He and his driver got lost on the way back to the 80th and ended up in a small French town. The people there greeted him like a champion, giving him flowers and cheering. He shook their hands, relishing the attention—until a little girl pulled him down and whispered in his ear that German soldiers were hiding in a barn nearby. He calmly told his driver to get back in the Jeep, and they turned around and sped away, narrowly escaping the range of the rifles.
He remembers the time he disobeyed orders to leave a wounded friend behind. “I said, ‘Captain, I’m going down there to get him,’” Jimmy recalls, “and Captain said, ‘Oh no, you’re not. Stay right here.’ So I waited a little bit, walked out into the woods, and I just took off down to get him. By the time I got there, the medics were there too, so I helped them carry him up over the hill. They cut his shirt open, and he had a little hole… I saw men chopped in half and everything else, and it had never affected me. But I walked back in the woods and threw up, just because I knew him so good.”
He remembers the freezing cold weather of the Battle of the Bulge, crossing pontoon bridges over wild waters, raucous nights in Paris where he continued his reputation as a ladies’ man, and the sickening disgust and anger he felt when liberating concentration camp victims. The stories are numerous, and the memories have remained through time.
But just like that, it was over. Jimmy was one of the lucky ones who made it home, after three and a half years of service—a blink of an eye in his 96 years of life. When he returned from the war, he met his wife on a blind date, and they lived happily until she passed four years ago. He counts every day as a blessing. Of his years in the war, he sums up, “I learned a lot. I saw the world, and I met real nice young men.”