It took almost 69 years, but Henry Lloyd Phillips finally received the Purple Heart and other medals he earned as a young private during World War II.
Friends and family filled his Spokane Valley living room on Friday to watch as Col. Chuck Lehman USAF (Ret.) pinned the Purple Heart to Phillips’ lapel.
“I’m receiving this medal today because my friend Brian Isaac started on a mission,” Phillips, 90, said.
The two met when Isaac asked permission to bow hunt on Phillips’ property. They became friends and when Phillips shared his World War II experiences, Isaac asked to see his medals.
Phillips shrugged. “I never got ’em.”
That was unacceptable to Isaac, whose father is a military veteran. “I told him, ‘I’m on a mission. We’re going to get you your medals.’ ”
No one is quite sure why the medals weren’t awarded in a more timely manner, but a fire in a building that housed military records may have been to blame.
Six months after Isaac launched his quest, a package arrived in the mail. It contained Phillips’ Purple Heart and several other medals including those for European African Middle Eastern Campaign, American Campaign, Army of Occupation World War II, and Victory World War II.
While Isaac was delighted they’d finally arrived, he didn’t want Phillips to receive the medals from the postal service. “I wanted a commissioned officer to present them to him.”
And last week, that’s just what happened. Lehman presented Phillips with his Purple Heart, thanked him for his service and offered him a sharp salute. He said, “I feel so honored to be standing here next to you. You are a true American hero.”
Born at Deaconess Hospital in 1924, the West Valley graduate was drafted into the Army in 1943.
He almost didn’t make it overseas. While waiting to ship out he came down with scarlet fever. Shortly after that he contracted measles and suffered pneumonia and appendicitis at the same time. He was re-assigned to a half-track (armored vehicle) unit, the A Battery of the 574th Anti-Aircraft Battalion.
“I missed D-Day,” he said. “But I caught the next boat with the 574.”
On April 12, 1945, Phillips was part of a convoy of 15 trucks. As they neared Urbach, Germany, they were ambushed. “The first thing we noticed was a truck ahead crashed and hit a tree. We couldn’t figure out what happened.”
They figured it out pretty quickly as enemy fire rained down all around them. Phillips recalled, “We were standing in the back of the truck. My partner, (Robert) Rose, got hit first. Then they hit the gunner. I tried to get him out, but I couldn’t.”
Jumping from the truck he spotted American GI’s in a nearby building and ran toward them. That’s when he was hit.
“A bullet hit my rifle and ricocheted up through my helmet. The other bullet went on the side of my cheek and the bottom of my ear.”
Splinters from his rifle lacerated his arm and embedded in his hand, but he kept running. Entering the building, he discovered the GI’s were POW’s under German guard. “The German commander pointed his gun at me, and I knocked it of out his hand with my rifle. He fell and got up, so I knocked him down again.”
As the fierce firefight waned, Phillips went looking for his buddy. With blood pouring from his own wounds, he found Rose and carried him to safety. In an interview last summer, Rose called Phillips his angel.
Phillips finally received medical attention. “They picked the splinters out, gave me a blood transfusion and bandaged my ear,” he said. “The next day they sent me back out. I was promoted to gunner.”
He thinks he knows why he was fortunate to escape with his life, when so many soldiers perished that day. He said, “It had to be a mother’s prayers.”
In 1946 Phillips returned home. He married and raised his family on the farm he took over after his father’s death.
As he looked around at the friends and family gathered to witness his honor for the heroism he displayed in battle, his eyes lighted on a familiar face.
He said, “I’m so grateful to Brian for all the time he took doing this.”