When I was in Grade 5, my grandfather spoke at my elementary school’s Remembrance Day assembly. Grandpa came in wearing a suit jacket embroidered with the Marine Commando crest, and a red and yellow striped tie, unique to his regiment, tucked into place. A green beret perfectly squared on his head with the gold badge facing forward, his medals dangling over his heart. As the MC, I proudly introduced him to the few hundred students sitting cross-legged on the gymnasium floor, and when he took the mic, the room fell silent.
Grandpa spoke generally about the Second World War and what it was like to train and serve. He described the strength, courage and grit it took to get through those years, and advised students to pay close attention in history class.
After he read his final words and we concluded the ceremony, the students began filing out of the gymnasium in disorderly lines. Among the commotion, one kindergartener stopped in front of grandpa and asked, with his eyes wide and bright, “Are you a real soldier?”
Grandpa politely replied, “Yes!” and the boy continued on his way, grinning as if he had accomplished something in their quick exchange. This boy looked to be about five or six, likely making grandpa one of the first service members he had seen outside of books and movies. For him, meeting grandpa was an opportunity to put a face to the numbers and dates he was learning in the classroom. Having grandpa there reminded everyone that there are real people behind our history; that behind every date in a textbook and line in a movie are the personal stories of war.
My grandmother reminded me of this story while visiting Toronto last weekend. We laughed about the little boy, pausing for a moment to recognize the second Remembrance Day without grandpa. He died on July 1, 2017, after a fulfilling and exciting 92 years.
Without him here, I feel like the boy from the assembly. I don’t have a real soldier in my life anymore to remind me about the personal tragedies of war. No one there at Thanksgiving and Christmas to tell stories of specialized operations in the jungles of Burma. No one there to tell the tales of relentless monsoons and sleepless nights. Like that time, a few years ago when my brother turned 17, grandpa reminded everyone that he was that age when he enlisted in the Navy, on Jan. 22, 1942. Or when I moved to Singapore for a semester abroad, and he told me about the long days he spent patrolling the Singaporean city streets, missing his native Wales. Without him here, we don’t get to hear about those memories anymore.
This made me realize how important it is to remember the people in conflict, not just the dates and times and death tolls of our history.
As a storyteller and a journalist, I’m drawn to anecdotes because they helps me relate, and therefore better understand, the circumstances in which events unfold. If these personal stories can help us remember and comprehend, then they’re even more important now, as veterans die and that tragic time in history inches further from the present.
So, here I am, telling grandpa’s story.
Grandpa’s name is David John Phillips. He was born in 1924 and raised in Cwmaman, Wales. He served with distinction from 1943 to 1946 with the 44 Royal Marine Commando unit in Europe and Asia, including Burma, India, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Phillips started his service as a rifleman in coastal defence near Portsmouth, England. After a year, he volunteered to join the Royal Marine Commandos, a secretive special forces brigade that was formed after the evacuation of Dunkirk, under the direct order of Winston Churchill. He was assigned to the 44 Royal Marine Commando unit during the Burma Campaign as a signal corps, where he was responsible for directing fire at enemy lines and communicating with headquarters.
The brigade stopped the Japanese from capturing parts of India by conducting amphibious landings along the Burmese coast, raiding enemy camps and bombing bridges. They fought through unforgiving monsoons and spent long, sleepless nights in the mangroves. There were times when the brigade would be hiding between tree branches from the Japanese enemy, unable to light up a cigarette for fear the light at the end of the butt would give away their position.
The worst battle came late in the war when his brigade led a 12-day mission to capture an enemy-occupied hill on the northwest coast of Burma. It was known as the Battle of Hill 170.
In an attempt to surprise the Japanese, the brigade landed without any naval or air support. They waded through sea waters and fought uphill under showers of bullets and grenades. Amid the tyranny of bullets, his squad mate, Reg Angell, was hit in the neck by a piece of shrapnel, piercing his carotid artery. Phillips quickly jumped into action to save his friend’s life. He wrapped bandages around the wound and applied pressure to slow the bleeding until Angell could run to a medic. Angell survived and the two stayed friends for many years.
After waging a tough battle on the Japanese, the brigade was able to secure the hill and stop the supply routes of the Japanese to the capital of Burma. When Japan surrendered, Phillips was reassigned to occupy Hong Kong and Singapore. Shortly after, in March 1946, he was shipped home.
Back in Wales, he went on to study at Cardiff College, before moving to Toronto where he worked as a teacher, and later, as director of the York Board of Education.
It took grandpa a long time to be able to talk about the war. He only started opening up about it in 1996, the year I was born and just after the 50th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day. He received an invitation to a ceremony to commemorate the day in South Hampton, England, but refused to go — he promised himself that he would never march again. But, as the date approached, something made him change his mind. In the end, he went to the ceremony and marched with the remaining members of the 44 Royal Marine Commando.
From that point onward, my grandma said he showed a deeper sense of pride about his service, something he carried with him throughout the rest of his life. I believe grandpa thought we could learn from past mistakes and avoid them in the future if he could pass on his memories for us to relay to others.
I will be forever grateful that he was willing, and able, to tell us about his service. It taught me to recognize the horrible ideologies that people like him sacrificed everything to defeat. Ideologies of hatred, nationalism and anti-Semitism, which we see cropping up in present-day Canadian society.
I might not have a real soldier in my life anymore, but I can still carry on his legacy by sharing his stories in hopes that together, we can build a future that our veterans would be proud of.