Reluctant Hero

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Philip Emerson Wood, Junior, was born in September, 1920. His father, Phil Senior, was a professional actor making a name for himself on Broadway; he married Anna Margretta Rapp shortly after his return from serving in France in the first World War. He had driven trucks in French supply convoys for some time before the official American entry into the conflict and had been recalled to infantry officer training in 1918; Margretta had worked as a hospitial technician caring for wounded soldiers. After their experiences, neither had any desire for their children to serve with the armed forces, and Phil and his younger sister Gretchen were raised to appreciate literature and the arts over the waving flags of patriotism.

Phil Jr. graduated from high school ahead of schedule, and attended Swarthmore college, where he majored in English. Despite the warnings of war in Europe, all was well with the Wood clan. Young Phil was accepted to the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, earning high marks in his senior year, and was seriously seeing a young lady he had met on the train to freshman orientation – affectionately called “Rusty.” The elder Phil was well received in his first film role – the Marx Brothers classic “Room Service” – and had been cast as Simon Stimson in the film version of the play “Our Town.”


During that time, the peaceful young man was weighing his options. Rightly figuring that there would be no way for him to sit out the coming war, either politically or socially, he evidently figured that the best way to help would be to join up – following in the footsteps of his father and uncle. Perhaps he was influenced in his decision by relative Edmund Billings, a Lieutenant Commander in the regular Navy, aboard the USS Quincy; maybe it was the reputation of the service, but in early 1942, Philip Wood enlisted at the New Haven recruiting center, and reported for duty as an officer candidate at MCB Quantico.

Phil Wood passed the rigorous coursework required to create the Corps’ Leaders Of Men on short notice, and along with the rest of Company K of the Ninth Candidate’s Class, graduated with a commission as a Second Lieutenant on September 26, 1942. After completing additional training, six of the young lieutenants of Company K were assigned to the First Separate Battalion (Reinforced), which was then forming at New River, North Carolina. Most of the enlisted men had just completed their boot training – some had even had their training cut short – but were supplemented by several Parris Island instructors, and even a veteran Marine or two, though none had seen combat. At the age of 22, Phil Wood was only slightly older than many of his men, and even younger than a handful, and felt that he would need to make a strong first impression.

Training at New River focused on forming a cohesive unit out of the Marines who found themselves thrust together by fate. However, there were occasional highlights to the monotony. As a lawyer-in-training, Phil Wood was assigned to defend a sergeant who had been accused of some vast crime by a Colonel. Seemingly against all odds, the defense was victorious. The Colonel chewed out his staff after his defeat by “that God-damned sea lawyer;” the remainder of the battalion dubbed the young lieutenant “the Legal Eagle.” Often shortened to just “Eagle,” this nickname would stick with Phil for the rest of his life. The case, along with his backhanded suggestion that his platoon help themselves to heating oil from the officer’s hut, cemented his popularity with his enlisted men.

By the end of 1943, Phil Wood was in a state of mind he called “equal parts of nervous apprehension and the most poignant nostalgia.” He was feeling the first stirrings of fear that he might fail when the chips were down.  He found solace in reading, writing to his family, and singing with an ad-hoc acapella group with friends Fred Stott, Harry Reynolds, and Ted Johnson.

After landing on Saipan, Able Company was in almost constant contact with the Japanese. They lost heavily on June 17; then on June 22 the machine gunners were isolated and cut to pieces. By the end of the month, many friends had been lost and the company was running low on officers. Still, the battle raged on.

On June 15, Phil Wood sent home the last letter his family would ever receive. Scarcely a paragraph long, it mentioned vaguely the discomfort of being aboard ship, missing home, and his hope to be home and “see it all again” by next summer.

In early July, the Marines were preparing to roll up to the northern coast of the island. Able Company was told to realign itself along a prescribed jump-off line, and be ready to attack by 1300 hours. The mortars were laying a barrage on the ground in front of the company when the Marines saw wounded women and children emerging from caves in a ravine before them. Phil Wood and Sergeant Ervin appealed to Captain Schechter for permission to take a twelve man patrol forward and get the Chammoros out of danger. Schechter allowed the patrol, and soon the civilians were being treated by company corpsmen. It was discovered that several more civilians – apparently the male relatives of those rescued – were still in the caves, being covered by Japanese soldiers who would not allow them to surrender.

After a quick conference with his patrol, Phil Wood again requested permission to rescue the civilians. Again, the Marines left the safety of their lines – but this time, the Japanese were waiting. Phil Wood, at the head of the column, was thirty yards from the caves when a Japanese machine gun shot him through the stomach, mortally wounding him. He managed to gasp out “Say hello to my mother and aunt for me” before succumbing. Sergeant Ervin, immediately behind him, raced forward to help, followed by a corpsman. Both were cut down; Ervin was killed. The remainder of the patrol, pinned down by heavy fire, tried to rescue the wounded Lieutenant, but each man who tried was riddled with bullets. Finally, a rescue patrol hastily organized by Lt. Harry Reynolds managed to extricate the battered survivors. Every one of the dozen Marines who had tried to save the civilians had been hit. Five – Phil Wood, Arthur Ervin, Arnold Richardson, Lawrence Knight, and Davis Kruse – had died in the firefight. A sixth, Frank Hester, would die of his wounds before the day was out.

Philip was recommended for the Silver Star for his selfless bravery; somewhere along the line this award was reduced to a Bronze Star.


For heroic service while attached to the Twenty-Fourth Marines, Fourth Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces at Saipan, Marianas Islands, on 5 July, 1944. Volunteering to lead a patrol forward of our front lines to a cave believed to be holding Japanese soldiers and civilians, First Lieutenant Wood boldly advanced and, upon reaching the vicinity of the cave, learned that friendly natices were being held prisoner by a group of enemy soldiers. Fully aware of the danger involved in attempting a rescue, he unhesitatingly pressed forward, but was mortally wounded while performing his perilous mission. First Lieutenant Wood’s exceptional fortitude, his vailant fighting spirit, and cool courage in the face of extreme danger were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

After the war, Philip Wood was reburied in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. His final resting place is F-227

Duane A. Vachon PhD works at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. He is the author of “Gems From The Antipodes: 12 Collections of Faith-Focusing Insights.” He also writes a weekly column “in The Big Island Reporter”. Reach him at