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Opinion

Mesa Musings: A POW’s story

Daily Pilot

Mal Phillips dropped into Normandy in the pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944 — D-Day.

He was a member of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, attached to the 82nd Airborne Division. He later was awarded a Bronze Star.

Phillips served for 36 years as a professor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. Now 86, he lives in retirement in Tustin.

A day after parachuting into wartime France, he and seven other troopers were ambushed and captured by Germans after a 30-minute firefight. A prisoner of war for 11 months, he was ultimately assigned to a forced-labor camp in eastern Germany and was sent on a 900-mile forced march during the war’s final two months.

Raised in Glendale, Phillips was drafted in 1943 at age 19. He elected to go airborne, and was assigned to jump school at Ft. Benning, Ga. The 507th embarked for the British Isles later that year.

With a host of other American, British and Canadian units, the 507th took part in the invasion of “Fortress Europe.” On June 4, 1944, Phillips and his comrades were advised that they’d be leaving their English base the next morning for France.

“We were given material to blacken our faces and were told to ready our equipment,” he said. “The adrenaline was pumping, and we were in a state of high anticipation.”

Heavy casualties were expected.

“I’ve since read that Gen. Eisenhower agonized long and hard about dropping paratroopers into Normandy,” Phillips said. “He felt there were good tactical reasons for doing so, but also believed the potential for a horrendous slaughter was great.”

Casualties were high, but not as high as anticipated.

At 10 p.m. June 4, the invasion was scrubbed for 24 hours due to inclement weather. Pfc. Phillips and his fellow troopers made their way back to the hangar. After stowing his gear, he fell asleep on his cot.

“I’d been granted a reprieve and was ready for some sack time,” Phillips said.

By the next afternoon it was clear the invasion was on. That night, burdened with nearly a hundred pounds of gear, each 507th paratrooper climbed aboard his appointed C-47 transport plane.

Two airborne divisions (the 82nd and 101st) — a total of 13,000 men — jumped into Normandy early the next morning.

Phillips jumped from an altitude of 400 feet and landed in a small field surrounded by a hedgerow. H Company, Phillips’ unit, was dispersed over a broad area.

After hitting the ground, Phillips began searching out other GIs in the predawn darkness. Bob McMahon was the only trooper he found for hours. Phillips and McMahon were members of the same 81mm mortar squad.

“Though there was a war going on everywhere, it was deathly quiet where we were,” Phillips said. “We didn’t see another soul for hours.”

Later that morning the two troopers linked up with six other Americans.

“One was a second lieutenant from the 505th. He became our commander and we continued searching for the main force and for our initial objective, the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise.”

On June 7, Phillips was operating on the point as the unit moved through a hedgerow.

“We came to a stone wall where we began to take small-arms fire,” he said. “We recognized the helmets as German.”

The firefight continued for minutes when the trooper next to Phillips caught a bullet in the shoulder. Phillips gave him first aid. A short time later, the numerically superior Germans had the small contingent surrounded.

“I heard a shout in German, commanding us to drop our weapons and hold up our hands. We were prepared to resist, but our lieutenant told us to comply.

“I felt cheated, but I also felt a sense of relief. I’d encountered the Germans and survived.”

Thus began Phillips’ 11-month odyssey as a POW. He was transported by boxcar to a POW camp in Germany.

“Many months later, in late February 1945, as the Russians closed in on our camp from the east, the Germans got us up before dawn and led us on a forced march west.”

Phillips and 30 other prisoners marched together for the next two months, covering more than 900 miles. They proceeded in a zigzag fashion between the Russian lines in the east and the Americans to the west.

Phillips lost 60 pounds, weighing 90 pounds when freed.

One morning in May, the prisoners awoke to discover that their German guards had slipped away during the night.

“We assumed they’d donned civilian clothes and made it to the nearest village,” Phillips said. “Jubilant, we began walking west. We encountered the American lines 24 hours later.”

The freed prisoners were assigned to a camp in France designed to help them regain strength.

“I was there for a week,” Phillips said. “The mess tents were open 24 hours per day, and we were given all the food we could eat.”

Phillips returned to the U.S. by troop ship and was furloughed to the West Coast. He awaited orders to the Pacific.

“I expected to drop into Japan just as I’d dropped into Normandy,” he said. “We were greatly relieved when the atomic bomb put an end to the war in the Pacific.”

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology, Phillips began his OCC teaching career in 1957.

He counseled thousands of students over the years, and taught classes ranging from introductory psychology to advanced research. He retired in 1993.

“I loved teaching,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with a great life.”