I first met Phipps (it is a Marine Corps tradition that enlisted men below the rank of Corporal are routinely addressed by their last names) in February 1969. He was a combat engineer attached to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division. I was the platoon commander of 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company. An NVA sapper team had infiltrated the 5th Marines regimental combat base at An Hoa and had destroyed the ammunition dump. We were dispatched to try to find and destroy them.
As we secured a small ville northeast of An Hoa, I came upon a fighting hole at the perimeter of the village. It was complete with overhead cover. In other words, the hole was dug and then logs, earth and finally sod were put in place to camouflage it and to provide cover from artillery and mortar air bursts. It had to be destroyed.
Who should walk up but Phipps. “Watcha got, Lieutenant?” he asked.
I showed him and we agreed that a C-4 charge would do the job. C-4 is a clay-like white substance that is commonly referred to as “plastic explosive.” It came packaged in satchel charges made up of numerous plastic-wrapped quarter pound sticks. All you had to do was punch a hole in the plastic wrap, insert a blasting cap, fuse and fuse lighter, ignite the fuse lighter, and run like hell.
I had a quarter pound stick in my pack. (I had scrounged it to use it to heat my C-Rations.) Phipps had another two sticks. We agreed that that should probably do the job. I peeled the sticky tape on the back of each stick and put them together, while Phipps cut a piece of fuse, inserted and crimped it into a blasting cap and then crimped on a fuse lighter. He pulled the pin, set the charge in the back side of the hole, and we took off, yelling “Fire in the hole!”
We soon learned that in our inexperience, we had slightly overestimated the amount of C-4 we needed. The ground erupted, and I suspect that some of that bunker is still in orbit. The Skipper had a few choice comments, fatherly and memorable, about adding to his age, about our judgment, and the future location of our posteriors if we did it again. Thereafter, Phipps and I laughed about it every time we saw each other.
By April, he had finished his tour in the bush and returned to his parent unit, Bravo Company, 1st Engineer Battalion in Danang.
In mid-May, 1/5 waded the Song Thu Bon River and began a six week operation in what was known as the “Arizona Territory,” a low area of rice paddies and tree lines between the Song Thu Bon and the Song Vu Gia rivers. It was a free fire zone, meaning that non-combatants had been evacuated to a refugee camp and only bad guys were left. Of course, it didn’t work that way, because the peasant villagers insisted on returning to their ancestoral homes. Nonetheless, it was an area in which at least two NVA regiments were operating. It was a very bad place.
At around midnight on 26-27 May 1969, Charlie Company made one of its patented night moves to a small village and established a cordon around it. At first light, we entered the ville, rounded up the inhabitants for an id check, and searched the hooches for weapons and ordnance. We then dug in for the day.
Third Platoon was ordered to conduct the morning local security patrol out to about three clicks (kilometers). We would make sure that there were no enemy forces in the vicinity and also recon the area for that night’s move. We found a couple of dud mortar rounds which we destroyed with C-4.
In the last ville we entered, we found a dud 175mm artillery round sitting next to a hooch. It had obviously been moved there. We also found a rusted sheet of scrap tin covered with a chalk diagram used to teach machine gunners how to lead an American helicopter in order to shoot it down.
I called it in and we then rounded up all the villagers (old men, old women, young women and kids—no young men), and herded them back to our perimeter for air evacuation to the refugee camp. I told the Skipper about the dud. I had no more C-4, so he told me to note the location. I understood that he would send the afternoon security patrol out that way to finish it off.
As we were moving back to the Company, we saw the resupply helicopter land and then take off. As we entered our lines, I told the platoon sergeant to get our people set in and to get them to work on their holes. I headed for the command post.
As I walked up the gentle slope, there was Phipps, with his usual shy grin on his face. He had come out on the resupply bird.
“Phipps, what the hell are you doing here?" I asked.
“Aw, you know me, sir. Me an’ the First Sergeant didn’t see eye to eye. I ain’t cut out to be a garrison Marine, so I told him ‘For two cents, I’d go back out with my friends in Charlie Company.’ Here I am.”
By then, we were both laughing. “Well, c’mon along while I brief the Skipper, ‘cause I’ve got some business for you.”
That afternoon, my OCS Bunkie, Lieutenant Neal Meier, took 1st Platoon out on the patrol. Phipps went along. His Medal of Honor Citation tells the rest:
The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR posthumously to
PRIVATE FIRST CLASS JIMMY W. PHIPPS
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS
for service as set forth in the following CITATION:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a combat Engineer with Company B, First Engineer Battalion, First Marine Division in connection with combat operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam. On 27 May 1969, Private First Class Phipps was a member of a two-man combat engineer demolition team assigned to locate and destroy enemy artillery ordnance and concealed firing devices. After he had expended all of his explosives and blasting caps, Private First Class Phipps discovered a 175mm high explosive artillery round in a rice paddy. Suspecting that the enemy had attached at the artillery round to a secondary explosive device, he warned other Marines in the area to move to covered positions and prepared to destroy the round with a hand grenade. As he was attaching the hand grenade to a stake beside the artillery round, the fuse of the enemy's secondary explosive device ignited. Realizing that his assistant and the platoon commander were both within a few meters of him and that the imminent explosion could kill all three men, Private First Class Phipps grasped the hand grenade to his chest and dived forward to cover the enemy's explosive and the artillery round with his body, thereby shielding his companions from the detonation while absorbing the full and tremendous impact with his own body. Private First Class Phipp's indomitable courage, inspiring initiative and selfless devotion to duty saved the lives of two Marines and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
/S/ RICHARD M. NIXON
Jimmy Wayne Phipps was 18 years, six month and 26 days old, the third youngest Marine to be awared the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. His name appears on the Vietnam War Memorial, Panel 23W at line 2. Phipps Hall at Marine Corps Base, Quantico is named in his honor.
The Marine’s Hymn assures us that the streets of Heaven are guarded by United States Marines. If so, I pray that the ultimate Sergeant of the Guard has given Phipps a special liberty for eternity.