February 18, 1942
The American destroyers Wilkes and Truxtun and the supply ship Pollux were on their way to the Argentia Naval Base when they went off course and smashed on the rocks in Lawn Point and Chambers Cove on the Burin Peninsula on February 18, 1942.
The Truxtun and Pollux were a total loss. Two hundred and three officers and crew (203) lost their lives. Their life jackets which were not equipped with crotch straps slid off on impact with the water.
Residents of nearby St. Lawrence and Lawn managed to rescue 186 survivors.
At this time the US Navy was segregated. Of the 46 survivors from the USS Truxtun, one was black. When Lanier Phillips was rescued by residents of St. Lawrence they treated him the same as they treated the white survivors. He woke up in a room surrounded by a group of white women who were bathing him — many of the rescued sailors had jumped into cold ocean waters covered with a layer of heavy black bunker C oil, which then coated the men. All were in need of cleaning. Phillips noted that if he had woken up in his home state of Georgia,USA, naked and surrounded by white women, he would have been lynched (and the women branded and run out of town).
“NO M’AM, THAT’S THE COLOUR OF MY SKIN’
One of the women helping with the rescue had never before seen an African American and was puzzled that the crude oil seemed to have soaked his skin to the point of colouring it. She was determined to scrub it off, and Phillips had to tell her that, no m’am, that’s the colour of my skin. Phillips later found himself sitting at the family table, using the same china cups and plates that the family used, and was dazed (and appalled) to find himself in one of the family beds, looked after by the lady of house who didn’t seem to be afraid of being in the same room with a black man. He said he didn’t sleep all night, it terrified him.
This experience in St. Lawrence galvanized the Navy Mess Attendant to fight racial discrimination within the US Navy. He later became the Navy’s first black sonar technician. After completing a 20 year career in the navy, Lanier Phillips joined the exploration team of Jacques Cousteau. He helped find and uncover a sunken atomic bomb, became active in the civil rights movement, and now travels’ speaking to young men and women in the U.S.military about the destructiveness of bigotry and racism.
Dr. Lanier Philips received an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree May 31, 2008 from Memorial University of Newfoundland. The university cited what it called ‘his resistance to and capacity to rise above repression’. In 2011, Phillips was given honorary membership into the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador for his work in civil rights in the U.S.
Phillips died on March 12, 2012, at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives read MG 956.187, A letter from Joseph Manning, Lawn to Gerard Ryan, Corbin: a description of Manning’s experiences during the rescue of seamen from the USS Pollux and USS Truxton.
Recommended Reading: Oil and Water, a play by Robert Chafe is based on the true account of shipwrecked African American sailor / veteran Lanier W. Phillips and his experiences in St Lawrence, Newfoundland. (Text above taken from the play list of Oil and Water)
Recommended Reading: Standing Into Danger by Cassie Brown Flanker Press Ltd, St. John’s, NL