When Orland Phillips went into the Army, he was 21. Part of the first draft, he had been working in the Naval Ordnance Plant in West Virginia. He was doing well at the time, he recalled. He had a girlfriend, a 1935 Plymouth and money and was “living high on the hog”.
He and his three brothers were raised in Jackson County, West Virginia. The family worked as sharecroppers. Phillips quit school in eighth grade and would often go stay as much as a week at a time with his granddad, who lived alone. Those visits also gave him an opportunity to make some extra money by mowing a large cemetery. He used a push mower, and it would take a week to mow it. Once in awhile it was dry and the grass didn’t need mowing, so he would help farmers get up hay, he said. The pay was 10 cents an hour. “There wasn’t much money flowing back then, in the Thirties.”
He used a bicycle for transportation even on the 44-mile trip (one-way) to and from his grandfather’s house.
He said he got to thinking about his education and future and saw an opportunity when the National Youth Administration began taking young men – 16 to 24 years of age – and training them inside the Naval Ordnance Plant. Phillips, who went to school in the Plant in 1939, was one of 500 who were taught different trades from mechanics to carpentry. The young men lived there and were paid $7 a month.
Phillips said his dad was also a blacksmith and he had worked and helped him, so he had interests in that area. He had come to the school in the middle of the semester and wanted to work in the machine shop. Instead they told him “you’re going to be a cook”. Each class consisted of four hours of class, followed by four hours of shop each day, with a total of three months in each class. He did get to the machine shop and eventually was made junior foreman in charge of the tool room. While at the Plant, he made extra money cutting hair for those hundreds of fellow students. He charged 15 cents a haircut at first, before eventually going up to a quarter. With all of those customers, Phillips said he was making $10-$12 a month cutting hair.
The Naval Ordnance Plant had opened in 1918, and military equipment for World War 1 was made there. It closed in 1922, but was reopened in 1939 to help with World War II needs. “When they saw the war was coming…they needed machinists,” Phillips said. He began working for $2 an hour and made armor plates for the battleship USS Missouri.
Phillips was drafted in April 1941, and before he left for the service, he sold his car and the motorcycle he also owned. He went to Mississippi for training and remembers when the troops got off the train a band was playing “The Old Gray Mare”. The Army paid soldiers $21 a month.
In the service, he worked as a machinest in maintenance ordnance. There were 120-140 men in his company in the machine shop section. He had a portable machine shop in a four-wheel drive Army vehicle that could be moved from place to place. He made repairs and used steel to make parts that weren’t available.
When the first atomic bomb was dropped, Phillips was on a ship in Manilla Harbor. “I was up at daylight leaning over the deck…spitting tobacco juice.” Around the harbor, he recalled, were hundreds of ships, gathering to go into Japan.
Rather than setting up shop, his company started filling in anywhere they were needed. “They gave me a crew of Filipinos, a 6X6 truck and another truck. The war was over in Europe , and they were shipping equipment to the Pacific.” Phillips’ crew went to the docks, got the equipment off the ships, and took it out to the country, filling “acres and acres” with the tanks, trucks, jeeps and guns.
Phillips served four years and seven months in the military. As he put it, “I was in there before the war started and in there when it was done.”
During Phillips’ time in the Army, his father had started working at the Radford Arsenal, and the family moved to Virginia. It was in Virginia that Phillips would connect with Leora Marshall from Indian Valley. The two met while roller skating. Their wedding was supposed to take place in a church in the Valley, and they were on their way to the church, but there was a big snow storm and they had to back up their vehicle several miles to get turned around. They ended up going to Radford and finding a preacher to marry them there. They honeymooned in Pulaski.
He and his wife had four daughters - Geneva McPeak, Mary Hodge, Nora Bentley and Paulette Gardner. His family has now grown to include five generations. In November 2018, the newest member of the family arrived, and with Phillips reaching the century mark on February 5 – they have 100 years difference in ages between them.
Phillips, whose birthday will be celebrated with friends and family on Saturday, February 2 at the Indian Valley Rescue Squad building, said it is important to “keep eating and breathing” and go to work every day.
After military service, Phillips worked for a short time in the mines and then opened a garage in Floyd for a year. The demand for mechanics was high, he commented. “They didn’t make cars during the war, and after the way they didn’t make them fast enough.” Keeping the older cars running was thus a task, he said. In 1948, Phillips suffered from health problems and spent extensive time in the hospital. After his recuperation, he and his brother opened up their own garage behind his home in Indian Valley. He started making farm trailers for people’s trailers and then began welding. He acquired his welding certification, and with portable equipment, he was able to travel to different locations to provide his services. His main job was working on bridges. At the home shop – a massive 4,000 square feet structure, welding reels were made. He and his wife and Aaron Altizer worked together there for 19 years. He retired at age 62.
Phillips has also had a lifelong hobby of photography. He learned early on to develop his own film and print photos in a darkroom. When he was in school, he was a member of the photography club, and he carried his camera with him everywhere. He got to see President Roosevelt two times in his lifetime. One time, the President had visited the Ordnance Plant to inspect it. The President and his entourage rode through the plant and stopped in front of the machine Phillips operated, but he wasn’t on shift. However, when they passed by the boarding house, Phillips snapped a picture of the President’s motorcade. It is a very special keepsake.
Phillips still enjoys photography and sets up a camera and watches the birds in his yard, said his daughter Mary.
In addition, Phillips has been quite a woodworker and enjoyed making things through the years.
Family is very important to this centenarian, and in October 2017 he treated them to a train trip aboard the Cass Scenic Railway in West Virginia. Forty-two members of the family – from the youngest to the oldest – joined in the fun, and smiles and memories were abundant.
(Editor’s Note: Anyone wanting to send a card to Phillips may send it to his address at 124 Homestead Rd., Willis, VA 24380.)