on March 10, 2013 - 8:09 PM
As American soldiers fought on the islands of the Pacific making their way ever closer to Japan in World War II, John A. Phillips was in the thick of the fight; but when it was mealtime, he paused from combat and cooked chow for his fellow warriors.
“Usually it was just powdered eggs for breakfast; and at dinner, dehydrated potatoes, and I’d make gravy. We had meat that was frozen when I got it. For dessert, you got a couple pieces of candy or cookies,” he recalls.
Every now and then, Phillips says, the limited menu would include a “special” – if a soldier lucked out and killed a stray Asian caribou.
“We’d make a stew because you could get a lot more out of it,” the 90-year-old Delevan resident says.
But the indigenous people of New Guinea would object if they learned that the GIs were feasting off of their food supply. “So,” he says, “we would dig a hole and put the carcass in it, then pour gas on it, burn it and cover it up.”
The locals, though, had another ready supply of food, Phillips points out.
“They were cannibals, and sometimes we would come across the remains of human beings that were sliced up and used for food,” Phillips says.
Past experiences with death, he says, had helped him to adjust.
After being born an orphan in Wheeling, W.Va., he was transferred at 7 days old to Father Nelson H. Baker’s orphanage in Lackawanna. As a teenager, Phillips says, it was his job to build tiny coffins for newborn infants who died from severe illnesses or birth defects.
“I would dig the grave at Holy Cross Cemetery and say to myself they were God’s little angels because they never did anything wrong,” Phillips remembers. “That’s what helped me not get emotional at the sight of the dead people” in wartime.
Growing up in an institutional setting and serving for two years in the Civilian Conservation Corps, starting at 17, had prepared him well for the rigors of military life.
“In the summers, Father Baker’s had a camp on Keller Road in East Eden, an old potato farm, and I would help the woman cook there,” he says. “The Army looked in my records and saw I had cooking experience, and that is how I became a cook.”
But kitchen duties did not spare him from the hazards of combat. Three times, he was struck with shrapnel; but because Phillips did not consider the wounds severe, he never sought a Purple Heart.
“I fought in the Philippines and New Guinea, and when the first atomic bomb exploded on Hiroshima, we were out in the ocean,” Phillips says. “We were miles away, but we could see the mushroom cloud with scopes.”
A member of the Army’s 41st Infantry Division, he caught grim duty when his unit landed in Japan. “We went out on patrols in Hiroshima and would bury the bodies of civilians,” he says. “Or if they were too burned up, we’d just cover them with some dirt.”
Despite the horrors of war, Phillips stayed on with the military when his hitch ended in October 1949.
“The very next day, I started with the Navy Reserve at the foot of Porter Avenue, and I returned to Father Baker’s working in the infant home for unwed mothers,” he says. “I was a maintenance man, and on the weekends I would go the Navy drills and do the cooking.”
In time, he married and helped raise five children. “I always worked two jobs to support my children,” he says.
Over the years, he also became devoted to helping the needy and contributed to missionaries in Nicaragua, collecting clothing and household items for shipment.
“This is what the Lord had provided for me to do,” Phillips says. “I came into this world with nothing, and that’s how I want to leave.”