I went in to my interview with Wendall Phillips knowing that I was going to get a compelling “in their own words” war story for the Memorial Day paper.
He had agreed to talk with me about his experiences as an Army Air Forces radio operator in World War II. I knew the outline: He had been shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans, escaped and later flew “the Hump” in the China-Burma-India Theater, where his cargo plane crashed and he was taken prisoner again – this time by the Japanese, who tortured him.
My plan was to get his account in-depth, maybe open a file cabinet in his mind that he had kept locked.
But as we spoke on March 23, 2010, at his home in Hanover Township, Northampton County, Wendall changed his mind about the interview. He said enough had been written about him over the years and maybe I could interview a veteran whose story hadn’t been told.
Seeing that his sentiment was genuine, I didn’t press him and said, “Of course I can do that.” He just smiled. I asked him for suggestions, and he gave me names and phone numbers. He also put me on his email list so we’d stay in touch.
After that, I spoke with him again almost exactly a year later at the memorial service for another local World War II flier, fighter ace Frank Speer.
Wendall, a productive and patriotic citizen who had been a Presbyterian elder, national chaplain of the China-Burma-India veterans organization and a revered figure in the Lehigh Valley veterans community, died last week at age 88.
Because of his modesty, the only words I ever wrote about him are here. I’d like to add one thing: Thank you, Wendall, for serving our country.