There at Pearl Harbor
For Walt Phillips, mention of Pearl Harbor Day conjures up visions of black smoke in the distance. He remembers it well. His father, Col. Walter C. Phillips, had just a month prior been transferred to Hawaii as the Chief of Staff for the Hawaiian Department under Commanding General, Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, charged with responsibility for all the Army forces in the Pacific.
Walt was 13 at the time. While shining his riding boots at on the back porch of their home at Fort Schafter in Honolulu at 7:48 that morning, he noticed smoke across the harbor and ran inside to awaken his father, who assured Walt that it was a group of B17s coming in as scheduled. Within minutes, the elder Phillips and his boss, Lt. General Short, who lived next door, would receive word that Pearl Harbor was under attack. His father would speak on a hotline with General George Marshall and take off immediately for the base.
As they say, the rest is history. Japanese planes – 343 of them – would be responsible for the deaths of 2,386 Americans on December 7, 1941. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress would declare war on Japan, entering World War II.
Young Walter, his mother and sister would spend the day in the basement for safety and the next several days in a tunnel into a mountain with other personnel. “Each family was given a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood to put their stuff on, to live on,” Walt remembers. “We got word that the Japs had poisoned the water … everyone was afraid to touch the water … we drank Coca Cola instead.”
Walt’s sister helped burn victims at a local hospital for two weeks before the family returned to the US within a month’s time. They shipped the car to San Francisco,” Walt recalls, “and we drove to West Virginia, my mother’s home. We lived there during the war.”
Ten days after the attack Lt. General Walter C. Short and his counterpart, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the commander of naval activities in Hawaii, would become scapegoats and be relieved of their duties. Chief of Staff Phillips and others surrounding the two top men were also removed from their positions although not treated as harshly as the commanders.
Phillips’ fluency in Chinese would make him of value during the war, but years later he would learn of a letter in his secret file in Washington – signed by FDR – saying Phillips should never be promoted after Pearl Harbor. That’s when he decided to retire from the Army after 30 years.
The younger Walt continued in his father’s footsteps, pursuing a career in the Army starting with a degree from West Point in 1951. Strangely enough, Walt never received a high school diploma during the war but did earn three Masters degrees – one in mechanical engineering, another in aeronautical engineering and a third in business administration.
Walt was in the first astronaut class held by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the 1950s, a classmate with Ed White, who perished in the fire that engulfed the Apollo spacecraft in 1967. (He'd also been classmates at West Point with Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon.) Despite an invitation by NASA to stay in the program, the Army said “no.” “The Army thought it was for test pilots,” Walt reflected.
His 30-year career with the Army included briefing General Al Haig during President Nixon’s tenure on projections for drawing down troops in Vietnam. Back then, when rounding figures, Walt said, “We rounded to the nearest 50 million dollars.”
He reported to the son of General George Patton when he took retirement, turning down an opportunity to return to Germany where he would have been promoted to Brigadier General.
That’s when he and wife Polly moved to Evergreen. They’d spent some time in Colorado Springs, and Polly had fallen in love with Denver. In 1977 theirs was the third home to be built in Soda Creek; it was the thirty-third place Walt would call home. As with any important army office, a map on their wall shows blue pins denoting each of the 26 places they lived in the first 25 years of their marriage. Their three children had changed schools every year.
The map is overpowered with red pins, however, denoting places where they’ve dived during a 12-year period when that was their favorite pastime. “We stopped logging after 600 dives each,” Walt points out.
“We were diving when others were skiing,” said Polly, naming a few of the many destinations from Egypt to the South Pacific and the Caribbean. It was in the Seychelles that they saw their first whale up close and personal.
Along with diving came underwater photography, and Polly became quite accomplished at it after taking classes from Boyd Norton. “I fell in love right away with diving and photographing,” she says with great enthusiasm. “We went to lots of places we would never have gone to otherwise.” The fish, reefs and coral made for spectacular photographs and colorful memories of their travels.
Sylvia Brockner’s weekly column in the Canyon Courier had inspired them to pay more attention to birds, and they learned their diving expeditions also exposed them to a variety of feathered wildlife. Polly had joined the Audubon Society in Evergreen soon after moving here. “I didn’t know one bird from another except for robins…,” she admitted with a laugh. “Walt then got involved. We went camping with Audubon members all over Colorado. The group was very compatible.” They’ve been members for more than 40 years.
Their move to Jefferson County was early into the expansion years for Evergreen. “Initially, people worked to get acquainted,” Polly pointed out. “Newcomers were younger with small children and didn’t have time … not as involved with community. After being in the Army where you had to be part of the community or else….,” she left the sentence unfinished but with an implied ending. “We enjoyed Audubon. Sylvia kept everyone busy making things.”
Being used to a strong regimen of working daily, Walt found himself engaged in business in his retirement – first, an advertising company, then as business manager for the Clear Creek School District (CCSD), and later helping to build one of the office buildings near Buchanan Park.
During his 10 years with CCSD, Walt was involved in the start of King-Murphy Elementary School and buying the property for the new high school on Floyd Hill, as well as drilling the well and securing an architect. “The district had been losing a lot of income to Jeffco because the people over there [Upper Bear Creek and Witter Gulch] attended Jeffco schools.”
After a lifetime of moving, it still feels good to Walt and Polly to be planted in Evergreen. When you see them, thank them for their service to their country. When one member of the family is working for the military, all members of the family are sharing in the commitment.