Currently, the North Carolina Museum of History is featuring an exhibit, “North Carolina and World War I (http://ncmuseumofhistory.org/exhibits/NC-World-War-One),” in honor of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of what was called, “the War to end all wars.” My grand uncle, Percy Walter Phillips fought in World War I, not with a North Carolina unit, the state of his birth, but with a unit from New Jersey where he was then living.
Percy Walter Phillips was my mother’s favorite uncle, my grand uncle. He was born 4 Nov 1895, in Asheboro, Randolph County, North Carolina, the son of Samuel D. Phillips and Mary Louise Smitherman, and he was a Miles Lassiter descendant. Percy registered for the draft on 5 June 1917 in Elizabeth, Union, New Jersey, where he lived with his wife, Florence (Bright), and daughter, Mary Louise, employed by Singer Manufacturing. He enlisted on 28 January 1918.
Percy served with the Battery F, 92nd Division. The 92nd became known as the Buffalo Soldiers, fighting in France. The 92nd was part of the “Negro Combat Division.” The 350th Field Artillery along with the 317th Trench Mortar Battery, were headquartered at Fort Dix in Wrightstown, New Jersey. The Field Artillery units deployed in June 1918. Upon arrival in France they began another training period. Their serious training began in July in Montmorrillon, in the Department of Vienne. In August the 92nd would end its training and move to the town of St. Die not far from the Rhine and close to the foothills of the Alps. St. Die’s claim to fame was that the explorer Americus Vespucci had been a monk there and they had coined the term “America” to refer to the western continents. St. Die was across from Alsace, then in German possession.
From August to September 1918, the 92nd attacked German front lines, themselves coming under attack with one of the worst being on 31 August from German artillery, including mustard gas and “flame projectors” (Scott, 1919). The Germans were eventually pushed back, leaving the 92nd primarily monitoring and repairing trenches. Nevertheless, there would be other attacks including aerial attacks. Percy would suffer from the effects of these battles the rest of his life, suffering from “shell shock,” according to my mother, Margaret Lee Williams, his niece, and dying of lung cancer in 1949, an associated health risk of exposure to mustard gas (VBA, 2013). Today “shell shock” is recognized as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (NCPTSD, n.d.).
Percy returned home to New Jersey and was honorably discharged on 19 March 1919. Things would change. By 1920, his wife and daughter had returned to Greensboro, Guilford County, North Carolina to live with family. Percy eventually moved with his mother, Mary Louise “Louisa,” in Elizabeth. He would live with her until she died in 1936.
In the summer of 1920, Percy’s grandmother, Ellen Dunson Smitherman Mayo, Louisa’s mother, had a stroke. Percy accompanied Louisa and his nieces, Margaret and Verna, daughters of his deceased sister, Elinora (Phillips) Lee, to Asheboro, to help care for Ellen. Ellen died in August, but the family decided to stay in Asheboro. Percy and Florence had a brief reconciliation resulting in the birth of their son, James Edward Phillips, in 1921. However, by 1923, Louisa, the children, and Percy returned to Elizabeth, New Jersey while Florence and the children, Mary Louise “Louise” and James Edward, moved to Stanly County, south of Asheboro. .
By 1930, Percy was living with a “Mary,” identified as his wife in the census, although there is no other supporting documentation. However, the relationship had to be brief since his niece, my mother, Margaret did not remember her even though they all lived in the same house. In 1936, his mother, Louisa, died. About this time he returned to Greensboro, eventually marrying Agnes Kepler Hunter, a widow who also had family roots in Asheboro.
By 1949, Percy’s exposure to Mustard Gas had caught up with him. He had lung cancer. Percy entered the VA hospital in Columbia, South Carolina. Percy died there on 7 December 1949. According to the request for a headstone from the VA made by his widow, Agnes, he was being buried in Asheboro City Cemetery. However, he was actually interred in the Oddfellow-McAlister Cemetery, in Asheboro (Barnes, 2014).
Barnes, T. (2014, Dec 3). Percy W. Phillips. Find A Grave. Retrieved (April 12, 2017) from: https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=139542587
National Center for PTSD (NCPTSD). (n.d.). What is PTSD? PTSD: National Center for PTSD. Retrieved (April 12, 2017) from: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/ptsd-overview/basics/what-is-ptsd.asp
Scott, E. J. (1919). The Negro Combat Division. The American Negro in World War I (Chapter XI). Retrieved (April 12, 2017) from: https://net.lib.byu.edu/estu/wwi/comment/scott/SCh11.htm
Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). (2013, October 22). Exposure to mustard gas or Lewisite. US Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved (April 12, 2017) from: http://www.benefits.va.gov/compensation/claims-postservice-exposures-mustard.asp