Airborne paratrooper, fighting infantryman, prisoner of war—for 66 years Tustin’s Malcolm Phillips, 87, has been remembering the personal part he played in history’s largest invasion: D-Day–June 6, 1944.
The landings that day at Normandy along the English Channel coast of Northern France initiated the Western Allied effort to liberate mainland Europe from Nazi occupation during World War II. PFC Phillips was a paratrooper with the U.S. Army’s 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) attached to the 82nd Airborne division. A day after parachuting into France, he was captured by the Germans along with other soldiers in his company and held as a prisoner of war (POW) until his liberation on May 8, 1945.
Here is his story: The 507th PIR was activated on July 20, 1942, at Camp Toccoa, Ga., located 175 miles north of Fort Benning adjacent to the Currahee Mountains. Lt. Col. George V. Millett Jr. was given the command.
Phillips, born in 1923 in Lafayette, Ind., was drafted into the Army in Feb. 1943. After completing basic training at Camp Roberts in Paso Robles, Calif., he volunteered for paratrooper duty.
Following jump-training at Fort Benning, Phillips’ regiment deployed to the Army air base at Alliance, Neb., then on to Fort Rush in Northern Ireland. After arriving in Ireland in December 1943, the 507th was attached to the 82nd Airborne along with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Still under the command of Col. Millett, the 507th moved in March 1944 to Nottingham, England, to prepare for the Allied invasion of Europe.
Phillips and the 507th PIR first saw combat during the June 6 D-Day invasion, which was conducted in two phases: air and amphibious. Phillips was part of the air assault that landed 24,000 American, British, Canadian and Free French airborne troops shortly after midnight. The more famous amphibious landing of Allied infantry and armored divisions on the coast of France commenced at 6:30 a.m.
The 507th and the 508th PIRs were to be dropped near the west bank of the Merderet River. The objective of both regiments was to establish defensive positions in those areas and prepare to attack westward to seal off the Cotentin Peninsula.
The sporadic jump patterns of the 507th and 508th PIRs in the predawn hours of D-Day left troopers spread out over a twenty-mile area. Some who overshot the Drop Zone (DZ) landed in the Merderet River and its adjoining marshes. Many troopers who jumped with heavy equipment were unable to swim free and drowned. Others roamed the countryside until they encountered other units and joined their effort. Even Col. Millett, the commanding officer of the 507th, was unable to muster his troops and was captured three days after the drop in the vicinity of Amfreville.
Following what he described as a “perfect jump” from a Douglas C-47 “Dakota” military transport aircraft, Phillips landed in the dark in a French hedgerow field. By 10 a.m. he had linked up with other U.S. troops. In the early afternoon the group engaged in a firefight with German soldiers. Phillips was able to fire his M1 rifle and tend to a wounded American soldier before Phillips and half-a-dozen other GIs were surrounded and forced to surrender.
Phillips was immediately interrogated as a prisoner of war by an English-speaking German officer, to whom he revealed only his name, rank and serial number.
“That man wore the finest officer’s uniform I had ever seen, and he spoke better English than I did,” Phillips recalls.
Following their interrogations, Phillips and a group of other prisoners were taken to a barbed wire compound in the nearby town of Balognes de L’ Orne. After the town was demolished by allied bombs (which provoked threats against the prisoners from angry townspeople), the men were trucked to Le Havre, a city situated in northwestern France on the English Channel.
Next, they went east to Chartres, a town in north-central France located 60 miles southwest of Paris. After spending a month in Chartres packed into a warehouse, the prisoners were sent by rail in boxcars to Grossenhain, Germany, a town located on the river Röder, 19 miles northwest of the city of Dresden near the Czech border.
In Grossenhain, Phillips and 1,000 other prisoners were assigned to Stalag 12A. (Stalag was a German term used for POW camps.) Phillips lived in a barracks next to a German Luftwaffe air force field where the world’s first jets aircraft were flown.
“We had no idea what was going on because we had never seen jets before—these were the first jets ever built,” he remembers. “We would hear the sounds of the planes but couldn’t see them. Only later did we figure out that these were a new type of plane and you had to look for the plane far out in front of the sound trail.
Along with 30 other men, Phillips worked in a factory six days a week, 12 hours per day, month after month, making “blackout paper” used in the windows of German factories and homes to cover up all artificial light in order to deprive Allied bombers of easily seen nighttime targets.
Phillips was nearby for one of the most controversial incidents of WW II. During the final months of the war, Dresden became a safe haven to some 600,000 refugees, including women, children and wounded soldiers who had swollen the total population to 1.2 million. Dresden was attacked seven times between 1944 and 1945, and the city was completely destroyed by the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Force in an incendiary bombing campaign conducted February 13-15, 1945. Early reports estimated 150,000 to 250,000 deaths, but the German Dresden Historians’ Commission in an official 2010 report published after five years of research concluded that there were up to 25,000 civilian casualties.
Despite a starvation diet of bread and water, many of the POWs were still alive in the late spring of 1945 when their captors began marching them westward out of Germany to escape the advancing Russian forces invading Germany from the east.
On the morning of May 8, 1945, eleven months after D-Day, Phillips and his fellow POWs awoke to find that their guards had abandoned them and they were free at last. They were able to find clothing (including a top hat) and change out of their POW rags. They made it to an Allied-occupied airport and were flown to “Camp Lucky Strike,” one of the several camps situated on the Normandy coast near Le Havre and which had originally been used as staging areas. The camps were used to take care of American ex-POWs until the soldiers could be sent home.
At the camp a meeting of a lifetime took place between Phillips and an American icon—Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe who had led the planning and carrying out the Allied assault on the coast of Normandy in June 1944 under the code name Operation Overlord, the liberation of western Europe and the invasion of Germany.
“I just happened to see him one day and he took the time out from what he was doing to talk with me in a very personable way…a great man who I always admired,” Phillips says.
In June 1945, a year after jumping from the Douglas C-47, Phillips was shipped back to the United States, where he was immediately given a 60-day furlough (and back pay for his time spent as a POW) to see his family and engage in some much needed rest and relaxation.
On June 6, 2010, former U.S. Army PFC Malcolm Phillips visited the Lyon Air Museum at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif. He stood next to the museum’s own Douglas C-47 and shared his memories with other museum guests on hand to commemorate the historical date.