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A Renaissance Man Who Always Pushed the Envelope: Col. Norman Phillips, USAF (Ret.)

By Peter D. Lennon, Federal Gov’t (Ret.), Granite Flight #53

Norm Phillips as Cold War 22d Fighter Squadron Commander seated in blue uniform in middle of 1st row (“An American Solo” documentary film by Jay MacNamee & Bob
     Bear, Star Island Films, 2017)

Col. Norman Phillips, USAF (Ret.), Granite State Flight #53’s last World War II veteran, flew west earlier this Summer.  A courageous fighter pilot who rejected the “hero” label in World War II and also flew combat missions during the Vietnam War, he was just five months shy of his 100th birthday at the time of his death.  

Colonel Phillips truly was a renaissance man.  After a noteworthy Air Force career, he became an instructor in sculpture for nineteen years at the University of Massachusetts, a published novelist, and the host of a local New Hampshire authors’ group known as the “Writers of the Round Table.” 

Norm’s obituary on Seacoast Online recounted that he was a man of exceptional vigor, curiosity, and talent, and that he did what he wanted to do every day of his life, packing several lifetimes into one. 

Norm flew numerous combat missions in the heavily armed and ruggedly survivable Republic P-47 “Thunderbolt” fighter bomber, one of the Army Air Corps primary aircraft during WW II.  Over Vietnam, he flew dozens of missions in the supersonic Republic F-105 “Thunderchief” strike bomber.   

During the Cold War, Norm commanded the “Red Hot Fighters” 22d Fighter Squadron at Bitburg Air Base, Germany.  As a major, he led his squadron to win Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards as it flew the F-86 “Sabre” and the F-100 “Super Sabre.” 

Insignia for the “Red Hot Fighters” 22d Fighter Squadron (US Air Force Historical Research Agency)

Colonel Phillips’ unique story, spirit, and character were best captured in an article in the local newspaper to mark Veterans Day in 2016 and his 95th birthday later that month: 

Stratham vet is 95 years of the ‘right stuff’ 

By Hadley Barndollar     Seacoastonline.com/Exeter (NH) News-Letter  
 Posted Nov 10, 2016, at 4:26 PM Updated Nov 11, 2016, at 11:14 AM  

STRATHAM — The United States of America is 240 years old, and Norman Phillips has been around for nearly 95 of them. He takes pride in that. 

Phillips, who turns the big 9-5 at the end of November, is a World War II and Vietnam War veteran turned sculptor and writer. He and his wife have lived in Exeter and Stratham for 24 years now. 

In World War II Germany, Phillips led a strafing attack which destroyed 29 airplanes. He received the Silver Star for that. But Phillips said it was nothing heroic. 

“I was just like a high school kid that saw a bunch of airplanes and said, ‘Let’s bust them up!’” he laughed. “It was just youthful exuberance. It was nothing heroic.” 

Phillips said he doesn’t believe in heroes or the phrase “the Greatest Generation.” 

“We’re no different than anybody else,” he said. 

Phillips was born in Ware, Massachusetts in 1921 where he was raised by illiterate Polish grandparents. He didn’t know his father and only saw his mother on Christmas and in the summertime. As a child he was a rebel. He laughs that he loved to steal apples and stole his first car at age 14. He often skipped school. In the seventh grade, Phillips went to live with his mother in Queens, which ended in a hitchhike back to Ware. Phillips has always done what he’s wanted, something he ascribes to a “true inner attitude.” 

A high school principal, Bob Fox, made a deal with Phillips that if he started coming to school, he could enter senior year on time. Phillips said that was the beginning of a lot for him, as he was able to enlist in the Air Force because he had a high school diploma. 

Phillips became a fighter pilot, flying the P-47 Thunderbolt. He started World War II in Italy, just south of Rome, about a week after the Germans had left. He then moved to Corsica, where they invaded southern France. Phillips said his fighter unit was the first flying unit in Germany. 

On the last day of the war in 1945, Phillips’ unit was flying over Hitler’s “Eagle Nest.” He was leading a 12-ship formation that was ready to roll over and dive bomb a concentration of troops on the ground. It was then the pilot received word that the war was over. Phillips said they dropped their bombs safely in Lake Constance and “got drunk as hell that night.” 

During the Vietnam War, Phillips’ F-105 was shot out of the sky in Laos on Memorial Day 1968, or as Phillips put it, “I got my butt blown out of the sky.” 

The way Phillips describes that day could be straight out of an Ernest Hemingway story. 

“The air was as smooth as vanilla ice cream, the sun was setting and the rolling hills of Laos were like a dream velvet carpet,” he said. 

Suddenly, he was hit by five or six roman candles (explosives). Phillips described the ordeal, watching his plane headed for the jungle before he ejected himself. He went crashing through the trees where he suffered some broken bones. Not long after, a medic came down on a cable from a helicopter but couldn’t find Phillips through the trees. 

“He was a young man with a camouflaged face,” he said. “I took out my 38 and fired two rounds up to the nose of the helicopter.” Ultimately, the rescue plan proved successful and Phillips came to know his rescuer as Thomas Newman, who ended up teaching at an air rescue school in San Antonio after the war. 

A full-retired colonel and wounded vet by 1969, Phillips went to the University of Massachusetts Amherst to study art, where he received his BA and MFA. 

“I wanted to be an art teacher,” he said. “I had this illusion that with my leadership skills, I could teach art in the ghetto and make people better.” But the more Phillips got involved in the program, the faculty took a liking to him and encouraged him to apply for a staff assistant position to the chairman, for which he was chosen. 

Phillips went on to teach art at the college level for 19 years, where he specialized in sculpting with bronze and steel. 

Phillips met his second wife Mary in 1977 at UMass, to whom he is still married. They have one son together. 

Today, Phillips said he “gets a lot of fun out of living.” Much of that fun he finds in writing composition. 

“When I retired from the university, a lot of people talked to me and said, ‘You outta write a book.’ One day there was an ad in the Exeter paper for a woman running a free memoir program that was eight sessions.” Phillips signed up for the program and the rest is history. 

“What I read on the paper that came out of my head, I didn’t think it was there,” he said. “It’s such a magical process.” 

Now, Phillips hosts “Writers of the Round Table” every Tuesday at his dining room table, where a small group gathers to exercise their creative sides and write from prompts. 

“For two hours we never stray from the subject,” he said. “Every Tuesday, it’s all raw stuff coming out of people. We’re starting a fire of getting people to get in contact with their inner selves.” 

Perhaps his pride and joy, Phillips published a book in 2012 titled “Throw a Nickel on the Grass,” which chronicles his life from boyhood transforming into “a steely-eyed, decorated fighter pilot.” The close to 400-page book is a detailed account of his experiences at war and the men he fought alongside. The book also showcases Phillips’ spirit, which is described as an “independence and insatiable curiosity.” 

The book is dedicated to Newman, the man who saved him in Laos.  

When asked about the recent election cycle, he said he believes people will continue to live the way they’ve been living despite the election outcome. 

“There’s enough people up there to balance all the evil that’s done,” he said. “I’m quite an optimistic person but I’m not a daydreamer. I know people are crooked and politicians lie behind their resume. I would love to talk to Hillary and Donald and say, ‘What are you really talking about, don’t BS me.’” 

Referring to a local politician who knocked on his door the other day, Phillips said he has a knack for seeing beyond people’s façade, their resume. 

“Fundamentally, most people are good people,” he said. “I think I’ve learned to pick out the losers and I always tell them who they are.” 

Phillips and his wife own a home in Prince Edward Island where they spend nine to ten weeks a year. Phillips has homemade photo books, visual narrations of their time on PEI’s stunning beaches. 

“There’s nothing to do there and people are nice, what else do you need?” he laughed. 

Phillips will celebrate his 95th birthday at the end of November with a cocktail party. Phillips likes martinis because “they don’t taste that great but you only need one.” The paper invitation shows Phillips riding a motor scooter and says, “What next?” 

What is next for Phillips, the highly decorated war veteran with a dry sense of humor and meticulous memory? 

“I’m going to be toes up,” he said, pointing to the sky. “My flying friends are waiting for me up there. They have a spot in the flying formation for me.” 

On the last page of his book, Phillips talks about his flying “fraternity.” 

“Each one of these officers, along with some I haven’t mentioned, exemplify the spirit, skill and guts it takes to be a member of the fighter pilot fraternity,” he wrote. “They were all my brothers, and they had the “right stuff.”″ 

It seems that Phillips has been doing the right stuff for 95 years. 

Norm was a Daedalian for twenty-four years and always could be counted on to enliven Granite State Flight #53 gatherings.   He will be long-remembered and deeply missed.    

He is survived by his wife, Mary North Phillips, of Portsmouth, NH, his five adult children, eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his first wife, Leona.  

Norm Phillips (Courtesy Photo and Fosters.com/Seacoastonline.com)