21 Aug 2014
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Memoirs of a Hero

A Rocky Hill resident's recordings of World War II memories reveal personal valor.

Memoirs of a Hero


"I joined the Naval Reserves that same year, memorizing the eye chart to pass the physical. Our unit was federalized for active duty Oct. 28, for one year of active duty. Five years later, it proved to be the longest year of my life."

So begins Chief Machinist Mate Herb Philbrick's account of his tenure in and leading up to World War II, a travail that would begin in 1938 and last far longer than he ever imagined. The France St. resident served in a detail that fixed damaged ships in the Pacific Theater so that they could rejoin the fighting without having to leave the arena for repairs. 

The 95 year-old veteran recollects his wartime experience in startling detail. He describes his participation in the Iwo Jima campaign as follows: 

"We anchored off Red Beach on the east side of the island, 300 yards off the beach. The surf had picked up, and the landing area had to be cleared of landing craft. Many had broached and were swamped. Men and material kept coming in. There were tanks and vehicles stuck in that volcanic fine sand. The crowded beach came under heavy fire, including accurate mortar fire. Some units suffered as high as 75% casualties."    

Philbrick's admission of cheating on the mandatory vision test in order to be eligible for duty recalls tales of enlistees  lying about their age so that they could serve. Such stories likely seem foreign in a century where  only .5% of Americans are members of the armed services.

Philbrick's impaired sight never stopped him from fighting for his country—or his comrades. He recounts the events of the last night before he departed for the Pacific, when one of his crew-mates was attacked by some troublemakers in a dance hall:

"Leaving my hat and glasses with my friends, I approached the smiling foursome. The puncher had his back to me. He knew I was coming. I knew his game-plan. Touching his shoulder to get his attention, I had to duck under his wild punch and deliver my first. The fight was on, the music stopped, the crowd formed a circle around us, including band members. We fought even until he was stung. As he was sliding down my body, I caught him by the collar of his jumper, holding him as you would a rabbit, but not by the ears."

Philbrick displayed the same devotion to his brothers-in-arms during combat. He remembers the determined effort he made to retrieve a keepsake form a fallen soldier to preserve for the man's family:

"Knowing the pilot and part of the first plane were buried in the wreckage under the bridge, I went for his family flag. Working my way with a flashlight to the young man's head and shoulders, I saw a smudged face with no visible injuries. His body was wedged among the wreckage...."

Harrowing circumstances were a constant reality for Philbrick's unit during the war. His description of one excursion typifies conditions American fleets faced in the course of their execution of General Douglas MacArthur's " island-hopping" strategy:

"Underway, after a two-day stop, our large, slow, and cautious moving convoy was headed for Suva, Fiji. Japanese submarines were looking for us, and our destroyers were looking for them. Throughout the trip, we heard depth-charges going off."

He also delves into some of the specific perils his division encountered in the course of its repair work on the hulls of naval vessels:

"Most of our diving was with a mask and airline. It was quite dangerous due to torn steel and debris. Adding to the excitement, Jap ' snoopers' would fly over."

Philbrick shared his war memories in early November via a series of audio recordings —timed to coincide with Veterans Day—conducted by Nancy Moore of the Volunteer Care Teams, a town program that serves the enfeebled or chronically ill. According to Director Douglas Robbins, "life history recordings" are a standard service that VCT makes available to all of its clients "with a chronic health condition" and is intended as a "gift" for themselves and their families.

In Philbrick's case, however, the recordings represent a more significant item: an oral history account of the war against Japan from a local hero who served in its epicenter.

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