George was born at Cole Island, a few miles from Saint John and as a young man he moved to the US, possibly Boston and took up work at sea on a cargo vessel called the SS Merrimac, not to be confused with a similar named ship, with a slightly different spelling, that was in the March 1862 famous battle with the USS Monitor.
Phillips was employed as a marine engineer on the ship that traded between New York and Galveston Texas, about 50 miles south of Houston along the Gulf of Mexico shore line.
When the Spanish American War of 1898 broke out the US government found that it needed about 100 more vessels and it bought the 333' long vessel from the Hogan Line for about $325,000. Soon it would convert the vessel in to a coal barge for the US Navy and would christen it the USS Merrimac. At least three of her crew came with the ship, George Phillips being one of these. When the purchase was made the three joined the US Navy and actually got posted to the very same ship.
The purchase was not a particularly good one as the vessel kept breaking down while it was running coal to other vessesl. Often it would need major work and just as often it would to be taken in tow. But that worked in its favor in a way that made it famous.
The plan was to capture all of the Cuban fleet by simlpy blockading the harbour and thus rendering them useless because they would not be able to get out to do battle.
An original idea called for the loading up of several smaller schooners with bricks and stones and floating them into the harbour and sinking them and thus preventing movement through the narrow channel allowing entry and departure. But soon that idea was replaced with the decision to sink one of the larger US vessels... and the Merrimac, pictured above came to mind. Why not.. .it was little more than an ... "antiquated tub" in the eyes of several senior officers.
Soon a plan was hatched to load up the ship with 10 barrels of about 82 pounds of gun powder in each, and set to a series of fuses, drive the ship into the harbour, drop the anchors, light the fuses and dive overboard and make an escape.
Sounds simply enough. But like all good plans, some fail.
Volunteers were sought for this mission. It was yet again another suicide mission as the harbour was very well fortified on two sides. The Merrimac would have to sail between the two, and these were only about 220' apart There were many of the Cuban fleet's war ships that could have been sent out to the harbour face to blow them out of the water... literally. And there were many troops along the water line to bring then yet further trouble.
But volunteers came out of the woodwork. One vessel immediately produced over 200. Another 140-150. Plenty more came to the front from all the US ships on station. But the officer in charge of the operation only needed 6 men. It was a struggle to narrow the numbers down but this was done. Then the ship was sent into dock and stripped of all useful ecquipement and made ready to be wired with the fuses, batteries and gunpowder and made ready for its trip into destiny.
On the early AM chosen, the 6 men headed off with their officer, but not far from the shores they were called back. It was too light and the enemy would soon see them. So they returned only to head off a few days later. This time a sailor so intent to particpate, but not being one of the chosed few, became a stow-a-way if you will. The crew now consisted of 7 and the officer. Each had a job to do. Two would be required to chop away at the two anchors specially arranged to drop once this was done. Our man Phillips would be at the engines. Another at the wheel. Others at the batteries to set the explosions in motion.
Each had a line tied to their wrist and when the officer gave one pull... all would be made ready to put the final actions in play. Three long tugs and they'd all be off to their duties. One of the men was responsible to lower an escape boat. The rest would soon be diving in the water and making their way to the boat to row to safety.
At least that was the plan!
The incredible fire power from the forts created so much smoke that it has been reported that the Cubans at one point were actually firing at each other across the channel. Enemy fire destoyed the escape boat and most of the batteries in place to set the charges off. Only two charges would finally blow, and that was enough to see the Merrimac sink in minutes. But because the rudder mechanism was shot away, the vessel could not be steered and thus sunk in the wrong place. It was also intended to settle crossing the harbour... not parallel to one of the sides like it did.
They lasted a few hours but the cold, their weekening conditions and no doubt the fear of sharks in the area convinced them that they'd best surrend. At about that time none other than the Admiral of the Cuban fleet arrived on the spot in a vessel and Naval Constructor Dobson, the officer in charge of the operation surrender himself and his seven sailors to the Admiral.
It is said that the Admiral was so impressed with the men's bravery that he complimented them on the spot, and did much to ensure that they were well looked after as POW's. They would be held for several months before release. Had they not be able to see so much of the area and its defences they would have been released much earlier.
When news of their safety, whilst still POW's, was transmitted to the US Navy, the word spread back to the US and newspapers across the country started to carry many stories of the heroes and how the government needs to recognize them as such. Dobson was praised so much in Congress and elsewere that at one point an elected representative fianally stood up and complained that it was high time ALL the names of the sailors got the same attention he was getting.
When the sailors were finally released, they rode in an oxen pulled wagon through the town and passed through crowds of many American soldiers including the Rough Riders and most cheered wildely and wanted to grab the hands of all the men to shake and praise their work. Teddy Roosevelt was one of the officers who did the negotiations for their very release.
The men were all promoted for their heroism and the 7 were later awarded Medals of Honor. As Dobson was an officer, he did not get one...until many years later when the rules were changed.
Phillips continued with the navy for many more years and served on at least two other Navy warships. In 1904 he took very ill, and while seving on the USS Ohio, tried to make his way back east enroute back to Canada when he died at Cambridge Mass. His body was later shipped back to Saint John NB and lies today at rest in a small graveyard just a few minutes away from the NB Museum where his Medal of Honor is held.
I assume it is on public display but when last there I found the building closed on a Monday during office hours. It would be one of only two on public display anywhere in the country that I am aware of, though several others are known to be squirreled away in other parts of the country.
George Frederick Phillips was born on 7 March 1862. That was 151 years ago today.