Today in America we pause to remember the service of veterans who served in our armed forces. For the past decade or so, the generation who fought in the Second World War and in Korea has largely passed away, leaving behind family and friends who honor their memories.
I did an oral history with Henry two years ago that I intend to deposit in the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. I had long known that Henry served as a cryptographer during the Second World War and that he had spent some time in the White House shortly after Truman took office. What I hadn’t known was the extent of his service.
When the Germans attacked Poland in 1939, Henry decided that the United States was going to end up in the war and so he ought to go ahead and enlist so that he would have a chance of doing what he wanted in the Army. His choice was the Army Air Corps, since he’d never been in an airplane before. Unfortunately, he washed out of the training program because, as he said, he was too interested in the scenery from up in the clouds and not interested enough in what he was supposed to be doing.
When his commanding officer told him he was done as an airman, he asked for advice on something else that would be interesting. The officer suggested the Signal Corps, so Henry signed on as a radio man. What he hadn’t anticipated was that his first post would be in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he stayed for the next three years.
While in Alaska, Henry taught himself how to use the Army’s coding machine. One day an officer needed someone to decode a message and he volunteered. From that day forward, he was a cryptographer, a job he kept until his discharge. After three years of “overseas” duty in Alaska, Henry was rotated back stateside and, through a series of lucky breaks, ended up stationed in the White House. He was in Warm Springs, Georgia the day Franklin Roosevelt died and sent the official telegram to Washington announcing the President’s death. He told me during my interview with him that it was the only message that he, as an enlisted man, wrote himself. His commanding officer was too broken up by Roosevelt’s death to tell him what to write.
Henry was also on duty in Potsdam, Germany, the day the message came through from Washington that the atomic bomb test in New Mexico had been successful. He said all he knew at the time was that there was a message that said “Officer’s Eyes Only” and it made him a little angry that, after all he’d been through, there was some message too important for him to decode.
Perhaps my favorite story, though, was that one of his jobs in the White House was to help run the switchboard–the old fashioned kind with the plugs for each line. When he was on the night shift, he and the other operators would play cards when no calls were coming in. Apparently Truman had some difficulty sleeping during his first months as President and would often knock on the door of the switchboard room and ask if it was okay if they dealt him in. The response of the enlisted men was, according to Henry, “Well sir, you are the commander-in-chief.” Truman would then sit with them and while away a few hours playing cards.
Henry Philler was one of the gentlest and most optimistic people I’ll ever know. He could whistle like a nightingale (which he did much of the day). He was a fantastic photographer, especially of landscapes and grandchildren.
I’ll never forget you Sergeant Philler.