“My great grandfather Phillips ran a tobacco shop in a little town near Charles Dickens’ home in England. Dickens made a daily stroll to the shop to buy tobacco and gossip. My grandfather overheard Dickens say he had some Americans coming to have breakfast with him the next morning. Grandfather thought Americans were red with feathers in their hair and wanted to see what they looked like. The next morning, he peeked in the window of Dickens’ home. Dickens sent a servant to bring him in and asked if he was hungry. They brought him in a little table and chair. My grandfather was disappointed because all of those Americans looked like Englishmen. The first chance he could, he got out and ran down the hill. Charles Dickens left my great grandfather one of his walking canes.
They brought my grandfather to America when he was 12 because he was smart but they couldn’t get him in the good schools in England because he wasn’t of that class. Grandfather went to Colgate in New York and became a Baptist minister. He went back to England and graduated from the University of London in Egyptology. When they found King Tut’s tomb, he was one fo six men called to Cairo to help translate the hieroglyphics and catalog everything they found. They gave him a few items from the tomb including a jade scarab and the seal of a military officer of King Tut. He was on the Chautauqua Lecture Series in the 30s and 40s and talked about King Tut and Charles Dickens. He knew Mark Twain on the lecture circuit. He also knew Teddy Roosevelt
Dad’s father came to Mobile in 1911 and preached at the First Baptist Church. My mother’s father came in 1922 and was a pastor at Christ Church. When my mother and father married, they were children of the pastors of the biggest churches in Mobile. Since both men preached at the wedding, mother’s grandfather gave her away. He rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest during the Civil War. On their wedding day, the streets were too crowded to get to the church. Great grandfather told mama to hold on to his coat and he would get her there. He let out the rebel yell, the only time she had heard it, and the crowd parted like the Red Sea. The rebel yell may not have been heard in Mobile since.
My grandfather retired and came to Mobile when my grandmother had a stroke and the doctors said she needed a warmer climate. He read the satsuma orchards opening in Grand Bay were going to be a big thing in the 1900s. He bought an orchard and moved my grandmother here. He came out of retirement to preach at First Baptist Church. My grandmother didn’t last a year.
My parents were tired of moving from church to church with their families and stayed in Mobile. They had three children. We grew up during the Depression and didn’t have much, but education and experiencing life was important to my parents.
The Depression and being poor prepared our generation for the War. My brother Sidney fought at Guadalcanal and said the boys had only one pair of shoes and not much to eat. They accepted they had nothing to eat but rice and fish heads because they were used to being without.
Sid had his 18th birthday in Guadalcanal. He sat on the beach and thought that water goes all of the way to Mobile. They felt alone and forgotten on Guadalcanal. They were surviving on the rice the Japanese left and were bombed constantly. Bombed at night, too. Sid was at the end of his field in a foxhole and heard the droning of planes. He thought here we go again. As they got closer he realized it wasn’t a Jap engine. It was a squadron of Marine fighters. He said they yelled and cried because someone had decided to save them. They had been there for almost two weeks without supplies or help.
Sidney’s voice is on the Road to Tokyo at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. He was also one of the Marines in the miniseries The Pacific. At an international press conference, Sid was on the stage with Stephen Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman. Someone asked him what the worst part of Guadalcanal was. He said probably the bombing and the constant shelling. and nearly starving to death. She kept asking what was worse than that. Sid finally said, ‘If you insist, the whole island had diarrhea and there was no toilet paper.’ Tom Hanks nearly fell out of his chair and told the reporter that will teach you to keep asking. Sid didn’t like The Pacific miniseries because of the profanity. He said they didn’t use that language because they were brought up in Sunday School. The writers added much more to that.
Ken Burns found us when he was making his documentary about the war to honor his father. He wanted to tell stories of veterans because he realized they were dying off rapidly. He read Eugene Sledge’s book, The Old Breed. Sid and Eugene were the closest of friends. Ken called Eugene’s family and they said he had died but to call his best friend, Dr. Sid Phillips, who was also a Marine. Sid met the producers at our house and we visited with them. They went out and sat in the car and said if Kathy can answer questions, we can show what both sides did during the war. How the ones at home coped with it. They interviewed more than 400 people to get the 40 you see. They loved Mobile and spent a lot of time with the people here.
Ken said he named it ‘The War’ after I made three syllables out of it. My generation called it the War, not World War 2. It influenced our whole lives.
Our brothers, friends, and boyfriends were fighting all over the world. It took them almost a year to get home after the war ended. Harvey Singer didn’t get out of the Navy until a year after the war. He was an evacuation pilot and flew the DC4 hospital planes into the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. They picked up the worst ones to get them back to the hospital to save their lives. He always put more men on the plane than he was supposed to carry.
The 50s and 60s were also scary times. Our kids learned how to duck under their desks at school if there was a nuclear bomb. We thought we were going to war with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The veterans were ready to be called back up and go in again. There was such shock, fear, and quiet the day Kennedy was shot. I think our generation also created some of the problems we have today. We spoiled our kids, the Baby Boomers, and made their lives easier giving them the things we never had. They didn’t have to do without the way we did. Maybe we took that too far. We have the greatest country in the world and they aren’t teaching our history so we can learn from it.
God has been good to me. I have had a full life. There were also downs. Losing most of the men in my life has been the hardest part. My dad died when I was 26. I lost Harvey when he was 78 and I list Sidney four years ago. I don’t like being alone. My brother John and I are the last ones left. He lives in Pensacola and he fought in the Korean War. He is a great guy, they just haven’t made movies about him.
In my day, children, especially girls, were raised to be seen and not heard. I am thankful to come from a family who didn’t believe that. They encouraged us to learn and go into the world and live our dreams. It has been quite a life.”
(Katherine Phillips Singer’s story is the first in a series of The Souls of World War 2)