Hundreds gather for burial of former Vietnam MIA Marvin Foster Phillips

Hundreds gather for burial of former Vietnam MIA Marvin Foster Phillips

September 27th, 2011 by Todd South in News

Army honor guard members transport the remains of U.S. Army Spc. Marvin Foster Phillips, 20, out of the Grundy County High School gym at the end of a funeral service for the soldier who went missing 45 years ago in Vietnam.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

COALMONT, Tenn. -- The smiling face of Marvin Foster Phillips matured from boy to man in alternating black-and-white photographs on the flatscreen television in front of a crowded Grundy County High School gym on Monday.

The gentle eyes of the "sweet, shy, cute boy from Gruetli" looked across 45 years into the faces of his 1964 high school class and seven surviving siblings.

Pieces of his body lay inside a flag-draped casket beneath the television. Pieces of his short life echoed in the memories of those seated before the display of flowers and medals.

On Monday, more than 700 people filled the seats of the gymnasium for an hourlong service, 45 years to the day that Marvin went missing in the Vietnam War.

When Marvin's seven siblings last saw him, he was their 20-year-old soldier. He was the oldest of the family's children, headed to Vietnam as a door gunner for the Huey helicopter. Months later, on Sept. 26, 1965, his helicopter crashed into the waters of the South China Sea, a short distance from shore.

Army officials told the Phillips family that Spc. Marvin Phillips was missing in action. Searchers did not recover his body.

"I remember them calling me over the intercom from my classroom," Lucy West, one of Marvin's sisters, said before Monday's service.

The family gathered, comforting and consoling one another in the home of Marvin's grandmother, a place where children would scour the forests for ginger and berries. Marvin always found the most, a cousin said.

"Over time it was inevitable that he wasn't coming home," said James Earl Phillips, one of Marvin's brothers.

But in April, James first learned that the U.S. Army had identified his brother's remains, which a Vietnamese fisherman had recovered in April 2010.

James flew to Hawaii this month, where the remains had been held and the body fully verified using DNA and dental records. He returned Saturday, first to Nashville and then via a military escort to Palmer, Tenn.

In honor of Monday's service, Grundy County schools closed for the day. Some businesses and the courthouse closed early so folks could welcome home a Grundy County boy.

Recent local veterans' remains returned

• U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Lewis Brickell's remains were identified and returned to his family in October 2009. He had fought in the Korean War and went missing during an infantry assault in 1950.

• U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Stancil's remains were identified and returned to his family in October 2009. Stancil had fought in the Vietnam War and went missing in 1965 after his helicopter crashed in the jungle.

Source: Times Free Press archives

"Roll call!" an honor guard staff sergeant's voice boomed across the gym, beginning a tradition of recognizing those who've died or gone missing in action. He called the names of some of the detachment's members, who answered, "Here." Then he came to Marvin's name.

"Spc. Phillips," he called.

Silence.

"Spc. Marvin Phillips," he called again, his back to the soldier's casket.

Silence.

"Spc. Marvin Foster Phillips," the sergeant called a final time.

Silence.

The sergeant then read how Phillips' helicopter crashed 45 years ago and the soldier was listed missing in action.

Rain pulsed strong then weak on the gym's roof throughout the ceremony, a soft background noise to the shuffling feet and words of honor spoken. At the graveside service afterward, the rain soaked through the clothing of those who didn't bring umbrellas.

As the funeral procession drove from the gym to the cemetery, well-wishers lined the two-lane state Highway 108. Some waved wet American flags; others simply stood to watch the hearse go by.

At least eight television cameras, one from Fox News in New York, jockeyed for spots to capture images of the casket carry, the shots fired from rifle and cannon and the looks on the faces of Marvin's brothers and sisters as soldiers rendered salutes and handed them flags, medals and shell casings.

Until Marvin's mother, Rubie Phillips, died in 1991 at age 64, she told others her son would come home, her children said. Rubie and her husband, David Phillips, now lay beside their eldest son in the Palmer Cemetery.

During the ceremony in the gym, classmates remembered Marvin as a quiet boy, a friend who always helped when help was needed. And they remembered the hair.

Looking at the photos of Marvin growing up, they noticed how his hair grew, thick and dark, always slicked over to the side. His hair remained his pride. "Elvis hair," some called it when thinking back on Monday.

"That's my thing about it, how he got it up so high," said Harold Woodlee, 1964 class president.