Shot at and Missed - The Story of Guyon Phillips
Guyon Phillips knew privation from a young age. He lost his father at age twelve, and his widowed mother struggled to make ends meet while raising young Guyon and his brother in Depression-era Spartanburg, South Carolina. Phillips went to work each day after high school classes ended, and though life was hard, he found true love in all things aviation. He was fascinated with airplanes, and when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Phillips was ready to volunteer immediately for the Army Air Forces (AAF). At his mother’s wish, Phillips agreed to wait until he got his draft notice, delaying his exposure to war. After waiting nine months, Phillips got his notice, volunteered for flight training, and was inducted into the AAF in early 1943.
Phillips had been fascinated by flight ever since seeing Charles Lindbergh parading through Spartanburg in the back of a large four-door touring car following his solo non-stop flight from New York to Paris. Soon after getting into flight training, Phillips was as comfortable upside down as he was right-side up, and by the time he reached advanced training, Phillips felt fortunate to be assigned to single-engine aircraft, which would be followed by transition to fighters. After a couple of weeks in advanced training, however, he and 27 other men received orders transferring them to multi-engine aircraft, which dashed any chance for fighters. “It was the last thing I wanted, but what can you do?” he recalled.
Phillips completed the training, got his wings and his commission, and went off to Idaho for combat crew training. A few months later, Second Lieutenant Guyon Phillips was at the controls of a B-24, fresh off the assembly line at Willow Run, Michigan, with only eight hours’ flight time on its engines. It was heavy on the controls and felt sluggish and underpowered, “the last plane I wanted to fly,” he recalled.
By the time the crew arrived at Torretta Field and the 461st Bomb Group, Fifteenth Air Force, the war was nearly over. Phillips flew one mission as a copilot for another crew on a milk run to a target in northern Italy in mid-April 1945. As for the rest of his crew, 25 April was to be their baptism by fire. When the briefing officer pulled back the curtain that morning to reveal Linz, Austria, as the target, Phillips didn’t understand why the veteran crews emitted moans and muffled curses. He soon would.
Phillips flew in the Tail-End Charlie position for the 767th Bomb Squadron. Green crews were typically put there because that spot in the formation was the easiest to fly. An hour into the mission, however, the B-24 in the number six position developed engine trouble and turned back for base. After another hour, a second Liberator pulled out with the same problem. Phillips had started the mission at the back of the formation and now was off the wing of the squadron leader. “Upon moving up in (the) ranks, you didn’t feel like a rookie any longer,” Phillips recalled.
As Linz neared, flight engineer Walt Dubina handed an armored vest and apron to Phillips, who tucked the latter over his groin and lower torso to protect his sensitive areas. Next was the large steel flak helmet, “the biggest helmet I ever saw,” as he described it. Very soon after turning onto the bomb run, the black puffs of flak bursts were visible right at his eye level. Even though gunners across the formation had been dumping bundles of chaff to confuse German radar, the flak crews had the altitude nailed.
The volume of flak grew heavier and heavier. Phillips focused his attention on staying close to the lead ship, but he would periodically sneak a peek out the front window to see what was going on. “Looking out ahead, the air was just carpeted with puffs of anti-aircraft shells,” he recalled. Suddenly, a burst passed between Phillips’ Liberator and the lead ship. “I jumped, and when I did, the big helmet dropped over my eyes, and I had to take my right hand off the throttle and shove it back up,” Phillips remembered. The B-24 slipped slightly out of formation, but Phillips quickly brought it back in tight on the leader in time for bomb release.
“With the bomb bay doors open, you felt like your drawers were down, and you were naked and exposed,” Phillips recollected. The rookie pilot flew straight and true through the tempest of explosions, the oily bursts resembling dark hourglasses that angrily twisted and boiled into amorphous shapes. The formation’s bombs struck in a good pattern on the North Main Marshaling Yard, and Phillips rallied off the target with the rest of the squadron.
The green crew survived the European air war without a scratch, the pilot later writing that, “We were there long enough to know what it was like to be shot at, and the good feeling to know that they missed.”
The war ended days later, and, for many of the men, the morning after Victory-in-Europe Day brought not only hangovers, but a return to stricter military discipline than most had experienced since departing the States. At the 461st Bomb Group’s section of Torretta airfield, the powers-that-be called air and ground crew personnel into formation for announcements. “Uptight GI protocol one day after the war was over in Europe seemed totally out of place,” Phillips noted. “My gosh, I hadn’t stood in formation since getting my wings.” Senior officers announced that the men were to participate in a multi-group simulated bombing of the Fifteenth Air Force’s headquarters in Bari.
During the mock mission, Phillips, flying in the number three position off the left wing of the leader, noticed that the aircraft in the number two position was having great difficulty maintaining a tight formation. When the beleaguered pilot drifted farther out of sync, the lead ship began to slide closely under Phillips’ Liberator to take the number two spot. “It wasn’t very smart for me to do so,” Phillips recollected, “but I got on the horn and said, ‘Here’s somebody who’s going to show us how to fly formation.’”
After the hot dog in the lead ship pulled ever closer to Phillips’ aircraft, Phillips put his wing in even tighter. Then, “he did it again,” the airman observed, “and I moved even closer.” The duel of wits got so intense that Phillips placed his wing tip right outside his competitor’s left waist window, and the gunner there began waving frantically for Phillips to back off. After a few minutes of delicate aerial rivalry, the lead ship pulled away. “Mark one up for the little guy who wouldn’t be bested in formation flying,” Phillips claimed.
Phillips found himself at the controls of a war-weary Liberator for the journey home. Though, according to his flight engineer, all four engines needed major service, ground crews had only managed to overhaul both inboard engines prior to their departure. With a lot of tender loving care from Phillips and his copilot, the tired engines made it most of the back to America before one finally gave out. Less than an hour into the flight from Dutch Guiana to Trinidad, the Number 4 engine gave up the ghost, spewing oil in a black cloud behind the right wing. Phillips feathered the propeller and radioed ahead for permission to make an emergency landing at the airfield at Georgetown in British Guiana. “Flying a B-24 on three engines is not an emergency,” he later wrote, “but with the weight of the fuel and twelve men plus baggage, it was more than a routine situation.”
The field was, in Phillips’ recollection, a round clearing carved out of the jungle, with runways radiating outward like spokes on a wheel. He lined up on the closest one and brought the Liberator in hot. “Intent on hitting the first part of the runway,” he recalled, “I failed to notice the olive and green camouflaged vehicles, bristling with antennae, just short of the strip.”
Seeking to dodge the hazard, Phillips gunned the engines, but, to his surprise, “the heavy old bird didn’t lift an inch.” He was certain the landing gear brushed the antennae before settling down onto the runway. They’d made it, and one of Phillips’ passengers ran up and gave him a bear hug after exiting the Liberator.
A few days later, the damaged engine replaced, the men set down at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah. “That was my last time to fly the Lib,” Phillips recalled with nostalgia. “While it was the last plane I ever wanted to fly, we made our peace with each other and had become friends.”
“While I still wish today I had had a chance to fly Mustangs and Thunderbolts,” Phillips wrote in 2006, “the challenge of being responsible for a bigger plane—and a crew of ten—was a valuable experience that forced you to grow up in a hurry. You just have to figure things will work out for the best.”
Guyon Phillips received a bachelor of science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1949. He worked for Burlington Industries for 33 years and retired in 1987. Phillips was an avid golfer and also hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, from Maine to Georgia, in a great adventure with his wife of 62 years, Jeanne. Guyon Phillips passed away in 2015.
Sources: - Guyon Phillips interview with Mike Croissant, 30 August 2013. - Guyon Phillips, “Tail-End Charlie,” The 461st Liberaider, Vol. 23, No. 2, December 2006. - Guyon Phillips, “Dress Parade Over Bari,” The 461st Liberaider. Vol. 23, No. 2, December 2006. - Guyon Phillips, “Meanwhile, Back to the States,” The 461st Liberaider. Vol. 23, No. 2, December 2006.
Photo used with the permission of Guyon Phillips.