Leland's Hometown Hero
Story contrubuted by Amanda hutcheson, Communications Specialst, Lower Cape Fear LifeCare
Since he was 12, Paul Phillips has worked continuously, serving in the Navy during World War II, Korea and the beginning of Vietnam, and spending decades working for the Department of Defense and then at Cameron Art Museum.
“I went a lot of places and I’ve done a lot of things, but at 93 I’ve forgotten a few things,” he added with a laugh.
Paul started working at age 12, delivering groceries from a local store on his bike. He later worked in the warehouse on the nearby Laurinburg Army Air Base, before joining the Navy at age 17, with his father’s signature.
It was 1945, four months before World War II ended, and Paul was assigned to the USS North Carolina.
“I didn’t see any combat [in World War II],” he said. “I went to Panama through the canal, to the Pacific, and then we turned around and came back.
“There was no TV on the ship,” Paul said. “It was hot; there was no air conditioning, just fans. Destroyers would get so hot you couldn’t sleep in your bunk, so you’d take your mattress off and up to the main deck and sleep there, on a steel ship in the sun in the south Pacific.”
After ten years in the Navy, Paul trained to be a diver.
“I went through underwater swimming school in 1955,” Paul said. “When the current was real bad, you couldn’t use scuba gear. They’d put you in a heavy suit and you’d do what you needed to do under the ship.”
That was prior to the Navy Seals starting, added his wife, Evonne. For the rest of his 21-year military career, Paul was an underwater swimmer and assisted with demolition and bomb disposal.
“We learned American ammunition, foreign ammunition,” Paul said. “They put you in a unit, and if they found an unexploded ordinance, they’d send the units out to look at it.”
Though he spent some time working on a demolition range in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, before long Paul was once again on a ship, sailing through the Indian Ocean and seeing Ethiopia, Pakistan, and other countries along the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
“We were supposed to spend money in those countries,” he said, adding that the sailors were seen as goodwill ambassadors by spending money in those countries when they were on leave.
“We didn’t have money to mess around on the Riviera, places like that,” Paul said. “We did get to go into town: Cannes, Nice. I didn’t carry a camera with me, but I wish that I had. We had a telegraph on the ship, but no phones,” Paul said. “If we went into dock and they had a phone booth, we could call, IF they had a phone booth. Most of the countries I went to didn’t have anything.”
“We didn’t get to hear from him a lot; that was the hard part,” Evonne said. “Two of my most precious pieces of mail are from Italy, I think; he had found two cards with dogs that squeaked.”
He and Evonne had married in 1958. Paul was on the USS Independence stationed out of Portsmouth, and Evonne was living in Norfolk, Virginia.
While Paul’s mother was visiting Evonne in Norfolk, the two women had a chance to board a Navy ship with Paul for a family day, and Navy crews landed a plane on the deck so the family members present could watch.
“Back then, ladies did not wear pants,” Evonne said. “In order to go on the ship, we had to buy [Paul’s mother] a pair of pants. And it’s a good thing she did, because she and I had to go up these little steps; they were so narrow!”
Paul’s job was to help with the plane landing on the ship, assisting with the equipment on deck that helps grab a plane as it lands on the deck and hold it on the ship.
never forget worrying about him as the plane landed,” Evonne said. “That was really a beautiful, exciting time for he and I with his mother.”
Paul was already planning to retire from the Navy when the Vietnam War started. At that point, he was a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy, he said, and the Army offered him a job as a Warrant Officer if he would go into the Army, deploy to Vietnam and run a river boat. But Paul decided to stick with his plans of retirement and turned down the offer.
“He came home that day and said he didn’t want to go, that he had been away from his boys and he wanted to stay home with them and with me,” Evonne said.
“He’s been the best father two boys could ever ask for,” she added. “He never said a harsh word to them, never raised a hand to them. He’d always say, ‘I can’t punish them Evonne. I might be gone.’ He was their buddy, and I always had to be the one to make them mind.”
After retiring from the Navy, Paul worked for the police department in Charleston, then for a railroad company in Rockingham, before accepting a job working for Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point outside of Southport. Paul worked there from 1968 to 1988.
“The biggest change was getting out of the Navy, coming in to civilian life,” Paul said. “In the Navy, you get up every day and have a plan for exactly what’s going to happen that day, that week. You had to do exactly what the schedule said. You get out of the Navy and you don’t have a plan.”
After working for 20 years at MOTSU, Paul started a new job, providing security for Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington. He got up every morning at 5:30 so he could be at work at 7:15.
Paul was dedicated to his job at the art museum, Evonne said, adding, “He did it for 20 years, almost 20 years, when he got sick. The only reason he had to stop was because he had mini-strokes, and it just wasn’t safe for him to drive, or he’d have gone.”
Each year, visiting artists would come to the museum to teach classes. One of the visiting artists had a special rapport with Paul.
“She loved him, and we thought the world of her,” Evonne said of the artist. “When she started to leave, she said, ‘Mr. Paul, I’m coming back next year in January and I am going to paint your portrait.’
“Mr. Paul said ‘Ok,’ never thinking she meant it. But sure enough, she came back and she was going to paint his portrait. She saw something in his face that she seldom saw in anyone’s face.”
Cameron Art Museum purchased the painting done of Paul, and when a party was held at the museum for his 90th birthday, museum officials presented Paul with a giclee print of the painting.
“His portrait is in the museum on the wall. A lot of famous artists have worked at the museum; his portrait is on the wall for display,” Evonne said.
In 2020, Paul turned 93, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. To thank Paul for his service to his community and celebrate his birthday, while still maintaining safety precautions for COVID-19, a parade was organized by Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman and officials with the Town of Leland, Gerald Decker and members of Leland VFW Post 12196, and officials with the Cameron Art Museum, the Red Cross, and the USS Battleship. Dozens of first responders, veterans, and community officials joined Paul’s friends and family, driving by his home with balloons, banners, and birthday wishes, and Mayor Bozeman issued an official proclamation in his honor.
With a diagnosis of congestive heart failure, Paul had been in and out of the hospital a number of times. He is now a patient of Lower Cape Fear LifeCare.
“His doctor told him, ‘For 20 years, we’ve been patching you up and getting you back to the museum. Now it’s time to go home and rest. I’m going to call hospice right now and you won’t have to go in the hospital again; you can rest at home,’” said Evonne. “And they’ve been coming here since. It’s been wonderful. He’d been in the hospital [near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic] and we couldn’t be with him; we’ve been there for each other for 62 years and I wasn’t going to let that happen again. That’s not what it’s about, coming home to die; it’s about coming home to be cared for in your house so you can be home.”
Lower Cape Fear LifeCare is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing access to the highest quality LifeCare, education, and supportive services to our patients, their families, and the communities we serve. For more information, visit lifecare.org.