SOLANA BEACH — A business relationship that started at Fiesta del Sol has evolved into a friendship and the creation of a book that will be submitted to the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
During the 2012 Solana Beach event, resident Seymour Phillips stopped by the ScanDiego booth, where he met Brett Weiss, owner of the digital conversion company.
“I had a million pictures and I needed help getting them organized,” Phillips said. “But I’m probably the doofus of all computer operators.”
As they worked together Weiss, who describes himself as “an archivist and a bit of a historian,” became fascinated by his new client’s history, especially his service as a submarine electrician’s mate during World War II.
Phillips, now 89, grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Encino, not far from Phillips Bootery, the family business his father established in 1936.
After graduating high school, Phillips joined the Navy in 1943. Following his training in San Diego, Iowa, Connecticut and Northern California, he arrived at Pearl Harbor on Jan. 3, 1944.
A few months later he received orders transferring him to the USS Herring. But the next day new orders arrived.
“I was assigned to mess duty for 10 days, which was reporting to the commissary at 5 a.m., to a room with potato-peeling machines,” Phillips said. “We spent two hours filling 20 vats of peeled potatoes.”
Phillips said he doesn’t know if the reassignment was a mistake. Although he wasn’t happy about it at first, it appears to have been life-saving. The USS Herring’s eighth war patrol, which he had been assigned to, was its last. The submarine sank and no one aboard survived.
“Life is really funny,” Philips said. “Sometimes I think I have some karma looking over me.”
Not long after, Phillips was assigned to the USS Billfish, a submarine credited with sinking several Japanese ships and schooners.
A few years ago, while browsing the Internet, Phillips came across an account of the Billfish’s seventh war patrol and noticed the details of one incident were missing.
During his lookout, it “was as if a giant had taken a telephone pole and butt ended it into our hull,” he wrote in an account that has since been added to the report.
“All of the men on the bridge felt the shudder as the hull was hit on the port side aft. … We all knew that Japanese submarines patrolled the area.
“We arrived at Midway the next morning and by afternoon we went into dry dock,” Phillips wrote. “When I saw the hull stove in, with the perfect shape of a torpedo head, I couldn’t believe our luck. Many memories are dulled by time but this is in my head like it happened yesterday.”
When his service ended in 1946, Phillips returned to California and began classes at the University of California Los Angeles, where he met the woman who would eventually become his wife.
But his college plans ended after less than two years when a heart attack landed his father in the hospital for three months. Phillips left school in 1948 to help with Phillips Bootery.
Following his father’s death in 1963, he took over the family business, but eventually closed it in 1984, nearly 50 years after it began.
He then put his electrician skills back to work for a few years, helping his cousin develop medical equipment. He retired in 1990, and he and his wife, Barbara, moved to Solana Beach.
But when his daughter announced a few years later that she wanted to go back to school, Phillips went back to work since tuition “wasn’t in my budget at that point,” he said.
He started Seymour Phillips C/A (the initials stand for college account), a corrective footwear company that makes custom-made shoes.
“It’s a one-man operation and it’s not a robust business, but it gives me something to do,” he said.
Also keeping him busy for the past two years is his project with Weiss. The family photos, movies and slides are almost all converted.
The two are also working on a book that includes his World War II photos, something Phillips had long wanted to create.
Weiss suggested he submit a copy to the Veterans History Project, which “collects, preserves and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war,” according to the website description.