Interviewed March 18, 2005
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Ceremony in his memory Memorial Day 2005, named inscribed on monument-Criteria-established by the Board of Selectmen for inscribing names on the war memorial monument.
Family ties to Concord -- McPhillips, Finigan. Father David McPhillips regularly marched as a Vietnam veteran in Concord's Memorial Day Parades and Brian grew up knowing the-meaning of these parades and the camaraderie among the veterans. Great uncle Fred McPhillips a veteran of World War II,received bronze star at Guadalcanal, another great uncle Herbert died in World War II.
Decision to enter the Marines following-college,-belief in the responsibility of service to country. Basic training at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, specialty tanks, became a platoon commander and scout. Part of a marine column that stretched over 100 heading towards Baghdad ran into an ambush of non-Iraqi fundamentalist jihad Brian kept reloading 50-caliber machine gun against insurgents on roofs, in houses, in abandoned cars, and in bunkers. Discovery Channel documentary made about this engagement as the biggest firefight to date, called Battlefield Diaries about April 4, 2003. Receipt of bronze-star. Notification of Brian'st death by four marines coming to the family home at 5 a.m.
Memorials in-honor of Brian- Request to-Concord Board of Selectmen for name to appear on the Memorial. Brian buried in St. Bernard's. Dignitaries attending Brian's funeral at St. Bemard's Meaning of Concord as hometown for the family. Difference in treatment and tributes by the public of servicemen in Iraq from Vietnam. Experiences in Vietnam, memories of fallen Concord boys Tommy Dickey and Jay Sheehan. Quiet reception for Vietnam servicemen returning home.
This Memorial Day we will be remembering and honoring Marine 1st Lt. Brian McPhillips who died in combat on April 4, 2003 while engaging enemy forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom two days before Baghdad fell.
Brian was excited about the Marines and upon his graduation from Providence College in 2000, much to the chagrin of his mother and father, accepted a commission in the Marine Corps. At that time it was a momentous day for his family because his commissioning occurred on the U.S.S. Constitution. We were given the ship to ourselves, and Brian was able to invite his family. Included that day were his uncle John Finigan, James Finigan, Concord Marines Jack Martinson, Jack Dalton and Robert Recco, all from the Vietnam era, and many of his cousins. So we had- quite a day there. He was the only Marine commissioned, and we all posed for pictures with Brian afterwards. As part of his ceremony, I presented him with a sword. Unfortunately, we would have liked to have his Uncle Fred McPhillips come. But at that time Fred was just turning 91 so he was unable to make the trip. Fred McPhillips lives on Lexington Road, and Brian always looked forward to going to his Uncle Fred's house. In one of the drawers always handy was the Bronze Star that Fred had won at Guadalcanal. Brian would always look at it, and I think it had a huge effect on him.
During that ceremony Brian was able to talk a little bit about himself and what it was that drew him to the Marines. He gave a 10-minute speech, but what I remember from it was the duty he felt after all the things he had been given by this country. It always felt to him like an obligation. It was something you owed, something that you gave back. He was happy. He was a very proud Marine that day. So he looked forward to the military.
He didn't know if he would make the military a career, but the door was open. I was a Marine also. At one time I asked him, "Gee, did I do anything to embellish stories?" He said, "Well, you have that book of photographs and the camaraderie between the Marines and just your duty, and it looks like something I've always wanted to do." While he was in college, he met another fellow named John Dwer. They both had the same obligation and they were both from families that had somebody in the military. That kind of went together for them. The other thing is I always attend the Memorial Day ceremonies in Concord center. Brian was always there. Sometimes he was on his roller blades a few feet ahead of the parade. Other times he was there with his girl friend. When he was very small.,I can remember him being there with his grandmother and grandfather. At the end of the ceremony, most of the veterans stand across from the bookstore where the parade ends, and everybody kind of breaks apart and we always have that back slapping and great to see you. I think that had an effect on him that he wanted to maybe have those types of friends when he became a veteran.
When I was in the Marines, I wasn't as enthusiastic as he was. Officers that came in went to Quantico in Virginia. He did very well there. They have physical tests and the highest you can score is 300. He was one of two Marines out of 250 that scored the 300. I went down for the ceremony and I noticed the other Marines came over to congratulate him. During his basic training they called him Captain America. That was a good day for us.
After that Brian had to go to what is called "basic". You train to become infantry as all Marines are trained, and Brian learned all the weapons. If you score high, they give you an occupational specialty. Brian's choice was tanks. He did very well at tank school. He went to Kentucky where he trained at the Army tank school, and he was assigned to Camp Lejuene, North Carolina. In the Marines there aren't many tanks. There's one battalion in California, and one battalion at Camp LeJuene, North Carolina. I remember him telling me, "Dad, it's a very small unit and everybody knows everybody." So he ended up at Camp LeJuene with the Second Tank Battalion and stayed there.
Once he got there, he was a 2nd Lt. and as a 2nd Lt., you become a tank platoon commander. That means you have four tanks under your control. His tank platoon was Charlie Company. So he trained with those guys as a senior staff officer. He was a new officer, but he did very well. What they have there once a year is a big deal that's called "gunner". Most Marines have on the rifle range a top score to beat, and they had the same thing with the tank shooting. So Brian scored the highest that's ever been scored there. It's still on record and he was very proud of that. For that, before he left Camp LeJuene, he was awarded the Naval Achievement Award which is very unusual for a Marine 1st Lt. That year in that battalion they only gave out two of the awards, one was to Brian and one was for a Navy chaplain who was retired and had spent 30 years in the service. So that was pretty good for Brian.
By that time of course we had had 911 and this deal with Iraq was beginning to heat up. More and more teams were being deployed to Kuwait. So it was only a matter of time. On January 1, 2003, Brian called us and told us he was headed to Kuwait with his tank battalion. His mother and I flew down and had our goodbyes. Besides e-mail that's the last we ever saw of him.
While he was in the United States, he could keep in touch by e-mail. Once he got to Kuwait, everybody started sending packages. That was a heartbreaking thing. We sent a lot of packages, and when he was killed, those packages came back. Going down to the post office to pick up three packages from friends, relatives, and one from people he didn't know. There was one package from school children in California addressed to him. There was a school class from a teacher who had a whole class write letters, and all those letters came back. At that time he had a girl friend and her letters came back. There was a lot of mail he never got. That was one of the tough things to deal with.
The 2nd Lieutenants are the ones that are tank commanders. After you spend a year in that, you have to get out of the tanks, make room for a new 2nd Lieutenant. The best of the ones moving out become either platoon commanders as scouts or something else called TOW. Brian became platoon commander of TOW (tubed launched optically guided missiles). So when they left for Kuwait, Brian's platoon of the 2nd tanks had about 35 vehicles, 111 Marines that were to fire these missiles from the top of the Humvee type vehicles. We got one or two letters from him from Kuwait, but when the mission began on March 30, 2003, we didn't hear from him again. The reason is that there was a Marine column that he was in that consisted of Marine vehicles and Marines that stretched over 100 miles. They weren't stopping and they were headed straight for Baghdad. We did see over the Internet one picture of Brian taken by a news photographer in a meeting with other Marine officers discussing tactics. So as far as we know, Brian up until around the first of April was with this column traveling with the 1st Marine Division up Route 6 towards Baghdad.
On or around April the platoon commander, Mike Zummo was injured in a firefight. He was platoon commander. He had to be medivaced out. Brian McPhillips took over scout platoon. That's seven vehicles with 50-caliber machine guns that go ahead of everybody. So on April 4, 2003, scouts with Brian as platoon commander was in the head of that 100 mile column headed towards Baghdad. They ran into an ambush that was six miles ahead that consisted of over 600 non-Iraqi fighters-. Nobody really knows all the details. The fog of war. Later on I wrote to Camp LeJuene and I talked to the Marines that were there. I talked to Corporal Mark Vaughn who was in the truck. He said that Iraqi civilians were warning the Marines not to go any farther. They were flashing their headlights, waving their arms, beeping their horns, and were yelling stop. Corporal Vaughn said to Brian, "Do you see this?" Of course, Brian had the headsets on talking in the radio to command that was five or six miles back. They were telling him to proceed ahead. So they ran into the ambush.
One Marine that I talked to, Sgt. Langouis, was in the ambush with Brian, and he was on top of a machine gun. He said it was like at first a target that would pop up and shoot at you but as they got closer and moved on farther and farther, they were in buildings that began to get a little bit more populated- They had fighting positions on tops of roofs, in houses, in abandoned cars, and in bunkers. He said, "They were throwing dynamite at the Marines." I said, " You mean like sticks of dynamite like in Clint Eastwood." He said, "Exactly. When we first saw them, we couldn't even figure out what they were." He said at one point they had an old fashioned anti-aircraft gun. They were shooting those at the Marines. They had rocket propelled grenades, heavy duty machine guns. But the Marines kept on going. Brian also had another Marine who was passing him up ammunition and Brian was able to reload his 50-caliber machine gun six times, that is 200 rounds per reload or 1200 rounds. I asked Corporal Vaughn how he did with that and he said he was right on, very effective. Up until that point, they were still moving and Brian got shot in the back in the head. First he collapsed inside the Humvee. It didn't look like he was even wounded. Another Marine saw the gun unmanned and sort of twirling around. They pulled that truck up and Corporal Keller jumped from one moving vehicle to the other and grabbed the machine gun. They were able to aid Brian, and they saw the wound but it was fatal.
At that point the tanks began to move up and flank them on each side. They were supposed to turn right. They missed it and they had to turn around after going a half mile too far and had to go back to the intersection. It wasn't much of a right. It looked like a, big intersection on the map but you and I might see it as just like a side street. They were able to stop there. The Marines were able to put Brian in a sleeping bag. A helicopter came in and medivaced him out.
I talked to Lt. Col. Oehl who was in charge of that battalion. He said up until then they were able to pull the tanks up in time to flank the scout platoon when they got in trouble. But on this occasion the action was so fast and so furious that they weren't able to do it in time. Not only that, the MIA1 tanks was disabled. Brian wasn't the only Marine killed in this ambush. Four Marines died including one in one of these disabled tanks, Corporal Bernard Goodin of New York. As far as the Marines were going, this was their biggest engagement. They had run into some resistance before, but on the way to Baghdad in their whole 30 days, this was their biggest firefight and the worst trouble they had. The Discovery Channel has made a movie that will be released this summer. It's called "Battlefield Diaries - Ambush in Iraq" and it's about April 4, 2003. I have the movie already. I've seen it. Brian's in it. It's not a large shot of Brian but as they report he is killed. Brian's call name was scout 6 and it went across that scout 6 is down. They stop the movie and they talk a little bit about Brian and they show his picture.
But as far as we knew, he was with the TOW platoon and still doing okay. We knew that Kazumo was in the scouts and they were having a rough time. But the first we knew was a Sunday morning, a day that defined my life, at 5:00a.m. there was a banging at my door. It never occurred to me that it might be Marines. I thought maybe my daughter had stayed out all night and she locked herself out. It was four Marines with three in uniforms.
It's policy to come right away. If somebody's not dead, they don't come, they call. It's like a shock. I just sat down. I called my wife down. They wait until everybody's in the room. I just had this look on my face like this is unbelievable. They tell you and all these Marines are wonderful men, but you just want them to go. Margaret Dickey told me the- same thing. She said, "They came. They were nice boys but I just wanted them to go." Margaret Dickey became like the best friend of all the Marines that showed up at each and every Memorial Day. But she told me she was angry that day, she wanted them to go. Only later did she come around to like the Marines as her family.
The ambush was by non-Iraqi insurgents. More than 200 were killed b' the Marines. Coming up behind was the infantry. The ones that were killed were from Lebanon, Egypt, United Arab Republic, Palestine, and Syria, also as reported by the Boston Herald and also as told to me by the other Marines. They were members of the group called Islamic jihad. The same group that in 1998 united itself with Al Queda.
I don't know what's going to happen in Iraq. I do know on that day common Iraqis tried to help my son and that he was killed by fundamentalist Islamic jihad. It heartened me a little bit.
I think if the command had known the extent of the ambush they might have led more with tanks, but as I told you one of these tanks, the MIA1 tanks, as we learned from the Gulf War are nearly indestructible yet they took one out. They disabled a tank. I was told they hit the fuel bladder. I didn't even know anything on the tank was exposed, but apparently enough of it was so that they could kill a tank. Nothing up until that point had been as ferocious as what they ran into that day.
Despite the fierceness of the battle, Brian was up to it. I talked to the driver. He was a young man from Florida. He called him the Lieutenant and said Brian never showed one ounce of fear. Corporal Vaughn said Lt. McPhillips made him make a cross on the windshield to screen out targets as they popped up. He would do it using the cross like a clock and he would go 12:00, 3:00 and 9:00. It was just all around them.
I can remember one circumstance myself in Vietnam. You never know what you're going to do under stress. The other Marine that was in the truck had a very difficult time under stress, and he wasn't even able to unstrap Brian's helmet. Other people have been hit in the helmet and it did not penetrate the helmet. This particular round penetrated Brian's helmet. All I can say is that of course we're proud of him, and the Marines are very proud of him.
He got the Bronze Star and that is a big deal for a Marine. The Colonel wrote, "His efforts saved the lives of countless fellow Marines." That's pretty important. Now at Camp LeJuene in the second tank battalion, April 4 lives with them forever and they have special moments set aside for that now for Lt. McPhillips and the four that died. I went down to Camp LeJuene because they dedicated a building to him. When I went in, there's a training room and they have his picture hanging all over that particular room with his medals. To be honored by your peers like that says a lot.
I went before the Board of Selectmen to ask for Brian's name to be added to the veterans' memorial in Concord. All eight of Brian's grandparents are from Concord. My wife's family is Finigan who first came in 1864. James Finigan worked with the town and was one of the first Irish families to buy property, which he purchased on Bedford Street. The maternal family was the McNallys. Another funny thing about this, two of Brian's uncles, Fred McPhillips and Bill McNally both got Bronze Stars. Fred earned his at Guadalcanal and Bill his in Korea.
All these families seemed to have moved to Concord because there were jobs here. James Finigan came from Ireland. In 1907 the McPhillips side of the family came to Concord. Jane Ashmore McPhillips worked as a nanny on Nashawtuc Hill. She came with a letter of recommendation from Ireland through the Presbyterian Church who sent her to a family on Nashawtuc Hill. Thomas McPhillips was here, a little bit before 1907. They married in 1911 and lived on Belknap Street. My other grandmother and grandfather's name was Banks.
So Brian was born here in 1978 and lived the first few years of his life here. It wasn't an easy time. I think we were in a very bad recession. Inflation was very high. Nobody's salary was really very high. I think we've forgotten how things were not really well in the '70s. The difference between the house I could have bought on Arrowhead Lane for $45,000 and where we ended up in Brockton I would say around 1982 for only $35,000. It seemed absurd that $10,000 made such a big difference, but it did. We didn't stay in Brockton and eventually moved to Pembroke.
But we always returned here. This is our roots. John Finigan is his uncle. John McNally still lives here. His Uncle Fred lives here. I have many cousins here. I always considered Concord my home and always came back to it. I always brought my son back here and when he was killed I brought him home here to be buried here. He started here and he ended here. He was baptized at St. Bernard's. His godfather was Jim Finigan, my brother-in-law and his godmother, my sister-in-law, Betsy Finigan. He was 25 years old when he died.
When he signed up for the Marines right after college, there was no war. But he seemed anxious like a lot of them here not to participate in a war, but a just war. I knew he felt that this was a just war. The other Marines said they could see the lights of Baghdad. That is the sad part for me because I wish as I watch what happened at least in the early parts of the war, it was the Marines and the Army that arrived in Baghdad and there was terrific celebration. He didn't get to participate in that, but he helped make it possible. Later on, of course, they ran into trouble. The history on Iraq, the history on Baghdad is not written yet. Probably more people have been killed since what they called the cease of hostilities than what they called the actual war. As we stand now, there are about 1500 service men and women killed.
Coming back on Memorial Day to Concord and as I was with the Memorial Day parade, never did I realize when I came back for the next Memorial Day parade they'd be reading Brian's name. But I went to Camp LeJuene and they had a building dedicated to him. Later on we went to Providence College, and they have a little veteran's grotto and they have a bench dedicated in Brian's name. I heard from another Concord resident, Kevin Mara, who has a son who went to Providence College and just got married at the chapel. They came out and there was Brian's bench. I ran into Concord people who were in Vietnam. Everywhere we run into Concord people. Later on we had a tree that was planted in Pembroke. Later on we had a monument that was built by my co-workers in East Boston. Later on we had a golf tournament that was sponsored by Providence College alumni of Boston. They always have a fund raiser every year and it was kind of hard getting participation. They put Brian's name on it last year and dedicated it to him and they sold it out. So that's going to be an annual event with a scholarship that will go to a student in Brian's name every year. At Boston College High School, the president of Boston College, William Kemaza who lives in Concord, they are planning a monument for Brian and another boy who was killed in the 911 attacks, as well as a scholarship for Brian. Then at Emerson Hospital there has been a large donation by a Concord resident for a conference room that will serve as a Civil Defense headquarters in an emergency. That will be the 1 Lt. Brian McPhillips room and will be dedicated on April 14. It's all very good that the veterans are remembered.
At Arlington Memorial Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia the Marines have pictures of all the Marines killed, and there are artists who are moved to paint portraits of those Marines. One is Brian. We haven't seen it because it may be a little too painful to look at right now. Every day you go to the post office box and you never know what's going to be there. Some people draw up some beautiful things and they send them along. There was an article about Brian in the Wall Street Journal, and it always comes with a little photograph and the artist sent us the original. The Journal article was very nice. It was about how much people cared about the soldiers and Marines this time around.
I'm a Vietnam era veteran, and it was completely different. In the Vietnam era in the '70s, it seemed like people did not like the war and it was not popular. But not only that, the soldiers and marines fighting the war didn't seem popular. That is not the case now. Now you get a tremendous amount of support. Everybody supports the Marines, soldiers, Airmen, Navy personnel. It's almost like some people don't like the coach, maybe they don't like the plan, but they love the team. There's a big difference. When Brian was finally brought home, I couldn't believe the people on the side of the road with flags and signs as we left the church, and it went for miles. We had to go from Rockland on the south shore all the way to Concord using Route 128. I was thinking how are we going to do this? There's going to be so many cars. People could get cut off at intersections. There could be delays. The State Police shut down one entire lane of Route 128 for Brian's funeral procession. It was incredible. We got here to St. Bernard's cemetery and it was lined with police. The governor was there and we received all sorts of nice messages from Senator Kennedy and Senator Kerry. Attorney General Riley came. The mass was said at that time by Archbishop Lennon who was the acting archbishop. Wherever Brian went being Catholic, he made friends with the priests. They were all there. I gave a eulogy the best I could. I was afraid I couldn't make it through. One thing I felt I never said enough and maybe a lot of parents don't do this, "I'm proud of you." I wanted to say that. I said it and I got through it. Ted Kennedy did call. He said just have a copy of your eulogy with a trusted friend in the first front rows, and if you can't make it have them come up and finish it. It was good advice. I gave a copy to my brother-in-law, Jim Finigan, but I was happy to make it through.
This Memorial Day there will be a ceremony. The Memorial Day Committee is doing a tremendous job getting it together. Almost all of them knew Brian. It looks like we're going to have Major Bardoff who was with Brian on Second Tanks and was with him on April 4. I called him and said we've got a couple of things coming up, the dedication at the hospital on the 14h and we've got the Memorial Day plaque going up. Brian's uncle, Herbert McPhillips, is already on the wall from World War II. And those circumstances are heartbreaking. It was hard enough for me that four Marines come to my house. My grandmother, Jane McPhillips, got a telegram Herbert was in a bomber and his plane is missing. He wasn't found for a year. There was all that time with that uncertainty before she found out that he had been killed.
When I go to my uncle's house, there is a treasure of old articles from the Journal and a picture of Herbert at Monument Hall where the wake was held. I found out recently it was because Dee's was being renovated. He was actually brought back from Holland because his plane had been shot down by German fighters.
I went to Vietnam in March 1969. I was in an engineer battalion working there for a week or two when two other Concord Marines showed up to say hello. One was John Mazzeo and the other was Dom Signoretta. At that time, when you're in such a strange place and of course you arrived and you're just getting to know the Marines your going to be with and trust, it was so great to see those familiar faces. That was wonderful. Later on this young Marine named Jack Martinson walked in and of course we're very good friends. I saw him a couple more times. I was an engineer. Engineers build things. I used to be involved a lot in drawing plans for buildings or different structures we would need. It was a good sort of deal for me.
I was in DaNang near a place called Marble Mountain. Most of the time you would go out during the day and take care of your job. I can remember one time we went out to a refugee camp past Marble Mountain. There was a whole village of people who had been moved from a different spot and the new spot was all flooded. So we had to find the high and low spots on the ground, get some heavy equipment out there, and actually cut across the road so we could build a bridge. We got along great with the Vietnamese. I found that when American Marines in 1969 were with friendly people, we always had a great relationship. There was a huge language barrier, but there was always a lot of laughter. I was there for a year. A normal tour would be 13 months. In 1969 Richard Nixon was president then, he began a program called Vietnamization and turned the war over to the Vietnamese, and began to shorten the tour of duty for soldiers and marines so I went home about a month early. The reaction in Concord was quiet. Once we began to think about it and counting all the Concord boys, there was quite a few. You could make a list of over 50 people I'm sure.
If you all came home together, that's something different. Everybody would be waiting at the train or waiting at the airport and it would be big news. But when you straggle back one at a time it's different. Over the years I've marched in the Memorial Day parade in the Vietnam unit. There are a number of us who've marched. For one thing it brings everybody back to see each other at least once a year. I love the town and I'm very familiar with the town. I feel very comfortable here, and I look forward to that every year. Some of those fellows I knew and some of those I didn't, but every year I think it's good to hear their names read. I knew Tommy Dickey very well. I often think about Tommy Dickey. He was 21 or 22. I went onto many years of life after Tommy died and it always bothered me. It always seemed so unfair. Not only was it a good occasion and a solemn occasion and I have friends, but its people like Tommy Dickey and Jay Sheehan that I want to honor.
The plaque with Brian's name on it is made. It's going to say Iraq. That seems fine to me. I thought maybe it would be War on Terror. We don't know if there's going to be somebody else killed if it said War on Terror. Most of the names say Dominican Republic or Vietnam so it seemed fitting that Iraq would be best.
I first brought this up to Dick Krug, the veterans' agent, who I met at Brian's funeral. We buried Brian at St. Bernard's and then we had a little thank you for his friends and family at Monument Hall. At that time when Dick Krug advanced my wishes for Brian to be on the monument along with Brian's uncle, who's already on the monument from World War II, he wasn't quite sure that there were any criteria because it had been such a long time since anybody had gone on the wall. So he went and later I went and met with the Selectmen and was thankful to them for coming up with some criteria all of which Brian seemed to meet. Number one that somebody be born here which Brian was, not just Emerson Hospital but come home to Concord. Brian lived here - he lived here for four years. That he was killed in combat and he certainly was. Brian was buried in Concord and he is at St. Bernard's. And that Brian has deep family ties which Brian has going back to four Concord families back into the 19th century. A couple of other criteria that could help somebody go up on Concord's wall would be school in Concord, or signed up in the service in Concord, a couple of things that Brian did not meet. But he was well qualified for the four other criteria.