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Ashe County Veterans History Project: Phillip Holland

Phillip Hollan'ds name on blue background with three red stars above

Phil Holland's Photos

Phil Holland in Coast Guard Uniform
Shadow box containing medals and patches

Contains: National Defense Medal/Ribbon; USGC Unit Commendation with "O" for Operational Excellence; USCG Pistol Marksman Eighth Coast Guard District Patch

Color photo of coast guard hat resting on a wooden table

The first Coast Guard hat with a bill.

Color photo of Phil Holland holding the older photo of himself

Phil Holland, Then and Now

Phil Holland in 2021

Phil Holland in 2021

Phil Holland's Story

(Editor's Note: What follows are annotated excerpts from Suzanne Moore's interview with Phil Holland. Mr. Holland's recollections are provided in quotations.)

Phil Holland was born in Statesville, NC, in January 1951, and is the youngest of five children.  "When I came along, my parents had been done with kids for seven years.  I was a surprise, so it was kind of like, 'Go raise yourself.'  As long as I told mother goodnight when I came in at night everything was all right.  I worked a lot during high school.  I drove the school bus, I worked for my dad, I worked at the local theater.  I was always busy."

His oldest brother, Verlie Holland, Jr., (Buddy), joined the Army Reserve in the late 1950s and served around fifteen years.  Phi’s father, Verlie Holland, Sr., was a Navy veteran of WWII, having entered the service in 1944 when he was 34 years old with three children and a fourth on the way.  Phil’s dad was a ship’s serviceman, running the laundry and dry cleaning facility at the Bainbridge, MD, Training Center.  He also worked with Japanese POWs.  He got out at the end of the war, after serving a year and fourteen days.

Phil remembers his dad always served in some capacity.  He was a prominent businessman in the community and also worked for 35 years as a volunteer fireman.  His brother went into the Army Reserve when Phil was about eight years old.  Both his father’s and his brother’s service had an influence on him and reminded him that he needed to do service too.

When Phil was in high school he remembers watching Walter Cronkite on the TV news and seeing all the vivid reports about Vietnam.  This weighed heavily on him as a 15–17-year-old boy.  While in high school band, he stood beside Roger Dale Sprinkle during both his sophomore and junior years.  During Phil’s senior year he heard that Roger, who had finished school the year before, had been killed in Vietnam on Christmas Eve, 1968.  His name is on the memorial wall and every time Phil goes to Washington, DC, he will look him up.

"Hearing about Roger, kind of affected me. So when I graduated in high school (in those days, you could get a deferment for going to college), I decided I would go to college.  I went to college for about three weeks, did not like it, and dropped out.  At that time they also instituted something that was called 'The Selective Service Lottery System.'  I think for three years they did the lottery.  What they did was, they pulled your birth date out of a big revolving drum, and if you were picked first, you had draft number one. So I thought 'Well, I'll take my chances, and if I have a high draft number then I won't get drafted, and I won't have to go to the Army.'  But as it came to be, my draft number was pulled out: number 57.  I knew I was going to get drafted if I didn't do something, and I knew I wanted to serve.  I didn't want to run away or go to Canada like some people were doing in '69 and '70.  I didn't want to protest the war. I wanted to serve in some capacity. So, as fate would have it, I had a discussion the next day with a friend of mine.  He said, 'You ever heard of the U. S. Coast Guard?'  I had never heard of the Coast Guard, being from Statesville, which is not close to the coast.  He said, 'This is what they do: they go around and save people who are in trouble, whose boats are sinking or on fire, who have medical issues, they save people.'  I thought that's pretty good.  I can save people rather than shoot people, or be shot at.   So I went to talk to the Coast Guard recruiter in Greensboro and he said, 'Well, I've got an eight-month waiting list.  You can take the test. I'll be happy to give you the test, but if you get a letter saying "Greetings from your President, you are being drafted to the Army," then there's nothing I can do for you.  You'll have to go to the Army.'  So I said, 'Okay, let me take the test.' I took the test and he called me about a week later and said, “I've got an opening in boot camp in ten days. Do you want it?”  And I said, 'Absolutely!' So that's how I got in the Coast Guard.  I didn't know a whole lot about what they did, other than they were a life-saving service." 

When Phil joined the Coast Guard, his father was 60 years old. He had already had four kids to make up their own minds as to what they wanted to do.  His mother thought that joining the USCG sounded like a good choice also.

"Dad told me, 'Keep your nose clean and remember where you came from.'  I think he was happy to see me in some place where I could serve humanity and do good."

Phil had basic training for eight weeks (Aug.–Oct. 1970) at Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, NJ.   After that he elected to go to Class A Storekeeper's School located in Governor's Island, NY, right off the tip of Manhattan Island.  This is an island in the middle of the Hudson River, which at that time was owned by the U.S. Coast Guard.  That was a 16-week course in Storekeeping.  In the Coast Guard, since it is such a small service, the storekeeper does about five things that five different rates in the Navy would do. 

"So we learned all about supply. We learned how to fill out Milstrips, which were the mechanism for ordering supplies.  We learned how to do pay records.  We learned how to do temporary and additional duty-pay.  We learned how to transfer household effects for people being moved from one place to another or moving back home. Mainly the job was supply, requisitioning."

"There are 35,000 Coasties in the United States Coast Guard at any one time.  It fluctuates from 32,000—35,000 in the entire world. There are more Navy personnel in the Tidewater, VA, area, than there is in the US Coast Guard worldwide."

"At the end of Class A School, I got my Crossed Keys, which is the rating symbol for Storekeeper.  Upon graduation I received orders to go to Hawaii for further assignment, which meant that I could have gone anywhere in the Pacific and been put on any Coast Guard vessel in the Pacific Area or placed on isolated duty on a Loran Station in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which would have meant that my family would not see me for at least 1 year.  At that time, I was planning a wedding with my first wife for August of that year, and she didn't want to go to Hawaii.  That was a long way from Statesville, NC.  So I found a guy who wanted to trade his orders with me.  He wanted to go to Hawaii, and he had orders for Galveston, TX.  I was a SNSK (Seaman Storekeeper, E3) when I went to Galveston, TX. That means I had finished my storekeeper's school, but I had less than one year of service."

"My first wife and I got married in August in Statesville, and we packed up our car and headed to Galveston.  Three days after we got there Hurricane Edith came.  Neither of us had ever been in a hurricane, so we had no idea what was to come.  We were told to evacuated our families inland to higher ground. Of course I had to stay behind and ride out the storm. Luckily the other storekeeper in the office said my wife could evacuate with them and go to their parents’ house in Houston.  It turned out to be a 120-mile per hour hurricane.  Pretty intense, but not a lot of damage.  When my wife came back to the island, we moved into our apartment and a week later, another hurricane hit!  Back-to-back hurricanes, but this one was only a category one.  Of course the Coast Guard has to stay behind and all of our cutters (ships) have to go out to ride out the hurricane and be available to rescue people or help the ships in distress, or whatever.   But those of us on land had to be there to assist with any evacuation or flooding issues, so my job was to be in the Rescue Boston Whaler with a shot gun to shoot any snakes that tried to get in the boat.  Luckily, I didn't see any snakes!"

After Phil had been in Galveston about three or four months he was promoted in rank to an SK3 (E4).  He had reached his one-year service anniversary and received his chevron, which noted that he was a petty officer third class. He did all the ordering of all supplies for the base. Everything from toilet paper and pens all the way up to engine parts.  Whatever they needed to keep the small boats running. 

"I had had typing in high school, so that was the reason I got selected for Storekeeper School, because I could type. You typed out these little IBM-looking cards on an IBM selective typewriter, with the Milstrip number—a military part number.  I ordered everything that USCG Base Galveston needed to operate.  From 8–5 Monday through Friday, that was my job."

"I did like my office job, ordering supplies.  It didn't require a lot of physical labor, but every fourth night you were required to 'stand duty.' This meant that you stayed on the base for 24 hours.  So every fourth night, when I got off regular work, from 4:00 p.m. to the next morning at 7:00a.m.,  I was assigned to the duty station called 'Quartermaster of the Watch.'  This meant that I sat at the radios monitoring the FM radio frequencies for any kind of maydays or any kind of distress calls."

"I sat beside the Officer of the Day and the two of us were responsible for reacting to any emergencies or distress calls that would come in to the Base. If we had a search and rescue call we would dispatch whatever unit we needed to do the rescue, one boat, two boats, a helicopter, a 210-foot cutter called the Valiant, which was home ported there.  USCG Base Galveston had two 30-foot rescue boats, one 40-foot rescue boat and one 44-foot 'self-righting' heavy surf rescue boat. We made decisions on which of the assets would be needed to effect the rescue, and then I directed the units as they were proceeding to go to the scene, on the scene, and returning from the scene of the emergency.  I was required to make notes in the logbook that would become part of the permanent maritime record.  In case there was a death, or something like that, that log book would be entered into evidence as to what the Coast Guard did or didn't do, as to how long it took us to respond, and those types of things. So that was my job every fourth night.  If you didn't have an ongoing SAR (search and rescue) mission in progress and there was a boat out, there was a cot that we could set up in the office right beside the phones and the radios so we could get some sleep.  But we had to stay up and alert if there was a boat out.  The rule was: if the boat got back before 4:00 a.m., you had to go work the next morning, but if it got back after 4:00 a.m., you were allowed to sleep in until 11:00 a.m."

Since Phil served while the Vietnam War was still going on, he earned a National Defense Ribbon.  You only get that ribbon if you serve in the military while the country is at war. Although he wasn’t involved in combat, he was going out on a regular basis with search and rescue missions. 

"We were putting our lives on the line to save somebody else, be it a drowning, overboard situation or medical emergency.  One particular day a family was out and their boat starting taking on water.  It was a husband and wife and three kids.  Their boat’s pumps couldn't keep up with the flooding, and their boat was going down.  We had to save them.  We dispatched a USCG Helicopter that dropped them extra pumps which allowed them to stay afloat until one of our 30-footers was able to reach them and tow them back to Galveston."

"One other memorable SAR (Search and Rescue) case involved a man who had a heart attack while underway on his small boat, and his wife was the only other person on the boat with him.  In order to perform the rescue a Coast Guard Helicopter out of Houston, TX, Air Station needed to do a 'basket hoist' in order to get him to the hospital.  My job was to be the go-between communicating the helicopter pilot’s instructions to her on how to steer the boat, at what course and speed, so that the helicopter could come and match that speed and course, drop the basket with a Coast Guardsman in it, and put the victim into the basket so that he could be hoisted off the boat and taken back to shore for medical treatment.  That one was tricky because the wife had never steered the boat before!  She did exactly what she needed to do and her husband survived."

"Galveston is located at the southern end of the Houston Ship Channel. Texas City, TX, is located several miles up the channel from Galveston, and Texas City Refinery, one of the largest oil refineries on the Gulf Coast, is located there.  Unfortunately, in the early 1970s environmental laws were not as strict as they are today and consequently we had a lot of environmental issues with spilled oil, fires, that type of thing, to deal with and those were a little hairy at times."

Phil tells of the biggest search and rescue/recovery case he was on while in Galveston:

"On February 1, 1972, I was on watch and it was about 4:30 pm.  I had just come on watch and the Rescue Coordination Center in in New Orleans called with a report from a private pilot who was flying at 3,000 feet (above the cloud level), and had reported a smoke plume and a ball of fire.  This pilot was going down under the clouds to investigate, so we were on standby expecting a major incident.  We alerted the Coast Guard Cutter Valiant (home-ported in Galveston) and also our small boats that something big was happening.  Something had exploded, we didn't know what.  Then the RCC called again and said the guy didn't see anything when he went below the cloud deck. He didn't even see an oil slick.  There was nothing down there.  'Don't worry about it, disregard' came the order from the RCC in New Orleans.  So we told everybody to stand down." 

"The next day Base Galveston received a call from Texas City Tankers saying that one of their ships, the VA FOGG, was supposed to have checked in the day before with a position report.  It had offloaded its cargo of benzene gas at Freeport, TX, and was going out to sea to clean her tanks.  In those days you could use sea water to clean a ship’s tanks of all the residue left behind from your previous cargo, and you could flush it out into the ocean, as long as you were in International Waters. The last report from the VA Fogg came in about 1:45 the previous day at about the same coordinates where the private pilot had seen smoke.  So putting, two and two together, we knew we were looking for—a tanker about 500-600 feet long with 39 men on board. We knew exactly where it went down, because the pilot had given us the exact position the day before.  We searched for two and a half weeks and the only thing we found was a life ring and a wooden door.  The life ring had VA FOGG written on it, the name of the vessel, so we knew it was down.  During the first several days we were searching, it was referred to as a search and rescue mission.  We were searching for life rafts, people in life rings, or whatever, any sign of survivors.  After about 3 or 4 days of searching around the clock and finding no survivors, the mission changed to search and recovery.  So now we were trying to recover bodies or anything that might tell us what had happened.  The families of these people had come to the Command Center at USCG Base Galveston where we were coordinating the mission to wait on information about their loved ones. After two and a half weeks of searching, we couldn't find anything. Could not find a thing. So the Coast Guard called off all attempts to find the VA Fogg.  The families of the crew got together and hired a research vessel with side scan sonar, and they located the ship in 100 feet of water, exactly where it went down.  We lost 39 civilians that day."

"In the movie 'The Guardian,' about Coast Guard rescue swimmers, actor Kevin Costner was asked, 'Do you remember how many people you saved?'  His answer was, 'You don't remember the people you saved, you remember the people you lost.'  I have never forgotten those 39 people.  I probably participated in several hundred search and rescue cases with positive outcomes, and I remember very few of them. But the VA FOGG, yes I remember the day.  I remember the feeling. I remember seeing the faces of the families when we finally told them, 'All hope is lost.'  That is something that every Coastie hopes to never experience."

"We always hope we can find somebody.  They did find quite a few bodies when the ship was finally discovered. The inquiry into the sinking concluded that something ignited the fumes that were left over following the offloading of the benzene gas and all the ship’s tanks exploded simultaneously.  Some of the bodies were obliterated, but the personnel who had been in the bow or stern areas were recovered and returned to their families.  Now the VA FOGG is a dive site offshore in Freeport, TX, for recreational diving." 

"Another memorable time was on the Fourth of July when we had 117 search and rescue cases going on at the same time.  People were out on boats and a big storm came up.  Wives on shore got panicky, people on boats got panicky, and everyone started calling in saying that their boats were taking on water, that they had lost power and they were all saying, 'Help us!'  We had four boats out.  We were very busy that day!"

A little over a month after the VA FOGG incident, Phil was transferred to New Orleans and began working at the USCG Supply Depot NOLA on the other end of supply.  Rather than requesting supplies, he was now sending supplies out to various USCG Units along the Gulf Coast.  This depot was staffed entirely by storekeepers and financial people who worked to fill orders, pack them in boxes, ship them out, and put them on trucks.  They would ship supplies out to Coast Guard stations from Pensacola, FL, all around the Gulf Coast, to Corpus Christie, TX.  His job was to take the orders and make sure they had the right amount of money and enough budget to fill the request for supplies.  Basically a nine-to-five job Monday through Friday.  No search and rescue work, this was an office desk job.

"With the encouragement and support of my Commanding Officer, CWO4 Brunner and my XO, CWO3 Robinson, I was able to be selected for promotion to SK2 (E5).  I owe a great deal of my successes in life to these two men.  They taught me that I could do anything if I put my mind to it and worked for it." 

Phil describes an incident at the USCG Supply Depot in New Orleans:

"On January 18, 1974, I got a call from the Coast Guard Base in New Orleans, saying that two ships had collided in the Mississippi River.  One ship carrying home heating oil was hit by another freighter, and they were both on fire.  There were 175 people on board the two vessels.  We needed to provide as much light water firefighting foam as we could get our hands on so the Coast Guard Cutters on scene could fight the fire.  There were 16 people missing and 161 or so that needed rescuing, and the firefighting foam was essential in fighting the fires and saving the remaining souls on board!   While other USCG assets were doing the rescuing and firefighting, my job as Storekeeper Second Class was to find 10,000 gallons of light water foam and have it shipped to New Orleans as quickly as possible. The light water foam came in five gallon cans which when mixed with water created a sea of foam that smothered chemical fires by depriving them of oxygen.  This was the only chance that the USCG had to beat the fire back enough to have a chance of saving the survivors and preventing the ships from sinking in the middle of the Mississippi River and becoming a threat to future navigation on the river.  So I located about 10,000 gallons from about six different locations around the United States and had them flown in on a USCG C-130 plane out of USCG Aircraft Repair and Supply Center Elizabeth City, NC, into a New Orleans airport.  I met the aircraft at the New Orleans airport and off loaded from the airplane to the Supply Depot’s tractor trailer and drove it from there to base New Orleans.  The foam was then driven 90 miles downstream to where the fire was.  It took several USCG Cutters and Buoy Tenders two and a half days to beat the fire down.  That was the first time in history the Mississippi River was closed to navigation.  When they got the fire beat down enough, they then pushed the two boats (MV Key Trader and MV Baune) which were welded together off to the side.  One of them was embedded about 20 feet into the other one, so they had to let the fires burn out."

"Coast Guard Base New Orleans won the highest non-combat related award that you can get, the Unit Commendation.  I was awarded the O for operational excellence for my part in finding and getting the needed foam on site."

Another interesting story:

"After the Key Trader incident, I got a call that the Coast Guard was going to go to new uniforms.  They were doing away with the old Navy style uniforms.  The only difference between the two uniforms at that time was the Coast Guard uniform had a little white shield to distinguish Coast Guard from the Navy on the right sleeve.  But the two service branches are totally different.  The Coast Guard is now under Homeland Security, when I was in it was under the Department of Treasury, and the Navy is under the Department of Defense.  In wartime the Coast Guard goes under the Navy, but the rest of the time they are their own service.  The new uniforms were to designate the difference between Coast Guard and Navy in more ways than just that little tiny shield."

"Since I was serving as the Clothing Locker clerk for the Eighth Coast Guard District, I was being sent to San Francisco for a week to attend uniform fitting school.  While I was there a famous men's clothing designer taught us how to take measurements: neck, head size, sleeve length, coat size, inseam, out seam, the whole nine yards.  When I came back, I actually started measuring service members from Coast Guard Station to Coast Guard Station stretching from Pensacola, FL, to Corpus Christie, TX.  Since people wanted to see what the new Coast Guard Uniform would look like I had the first issued new uniform and new hat.  With the new hat, we got a bill.  The old hats were called the “Donald Duck” hat, because they didn't have a bill."

Phil was released from active duty in August 1974, one month before Vietnam ended. He went to work as Assistant Manager of his father’s dry cleaning plant in Statesville, but at the time was married with a two-year-old child and soon realized that he would need more income to support his family.  One thing he was most thankful for was the GI Bill of Support.  He enrolled in Mitchell Community College, which was paid for through his military benefits, and continued working for his dad while in school.  In his sophomore year of college, he received a K.C. Eller Memorial Leadership Scholarship that paid for his tuition and his books were free.  His wife was also able to go to school for her LPN degree.  After graduating from Mitchell with honors, Phil was able to get into UNC Chapel Hill, where he earned a degree in business.   When it was time to buy a house, the GI Bill provided 100% financing on a home loan. 

Phil reflects on life lessons he learned by serving in the Coast Guard:

"The biggest life lesson I learned in military service was that people depend on you whether you know it or not.  If the Coast Guard had not been there, people would have died, iff we had not been willing 'to go out' (to go out refers to responding to people’s cries for help).  In the USCG you are taught to value other’s more than yourself.  The mantra of the USCG is 'You’ve got to go out, but you don't have to come in back in—So others may live.'  That was the mindset that the Coast Guard drilled into us.  'You're here to save lives. You're here to serve other people, and if you don't they will die.'  If I hadn't been there to answer the radio, or on a small boat, or just getting the supplies together for the unit to do what they had to do, missions could not have been completed.  It all works together.  For those four years, my job was to help other people.  This affected my outlook on life in general." 

"Now I am a member of First Baptist Church in downtown West Jefferson and work with a Baptist Men's Group. We do all kinds of activities.  Cutting wood is one of the biggest things we do for people who aren't physically able to cut it or can't afford the wood.  We donate the wood so they can keep warm during the winter."

"I also worked for the North Carolina Baptist Men's Disaster Relief Ministry for years.  We went to New Orleans, three times after Katrina to help with cleanup.  I was actually at the same place where I served in the Coast Guard, which was across the levee at the lower ninth ward.  Sections of the Interstate 10 Bridge as you enter New Orleans were missing or pushed back into the water by the hurricane’s storm surge.  That was an incredible sight!  When you reached the mainland, you could see high watermarks halfway up the second story of buildings.  From the I-10 bridge all the way into downtown everything was under 25 feet of water.  I actually went back to the apartment where I had lived back in 1972-74, and the watermark on the apartment wall was four and a half feet in the living room.  As I watched all the Coast Guard helicopters and rescue vehicles going in and out of New Orleans, I couldn’t help but think that 30–40 years ago, I would have been there doing that.  It was a humbling experience."

"I also serve as the Disabled American Veterans Van Ride Service Coordinator for Ashe County.  The DAV provides rides to Veterans who request them order to get to their medical appointments at VA Hospitals in North Carolina and Tennessee.  This service provides 5–10 Veterans transportation every month at no charge to them."

"If you're looking to serve your country and the people of the United States, the Coast Guard is a great way to do it.  Today you do have to handle drug interdiction and stop smugglers, and that can be very dangerous for the Coast Guard personnel.  But if you want to do something that can give you great reward and you want to see the results of what you are doing, the Coast Guard is the way to do it."

"The Coast Guard’s motto is 'Siemper Paratus,' which means 'Always Ready.'  We were always ready to do whatever needed to be done, whether it was environmental cleanup, search and rescue, firefighting or just changing a light bulb in a navigational buoy, the USCG is always 'standing by' to serve our fellow man.  The Coast Guard is a great way to spend four years, to grow up and to know that the little things you do make a difference."