published Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Hundreds gather for burial of former Vietnam MIA Marvin Foster Phillips

Army honor guard members transport the remains of U.S. Army Spc. Marvin Foster Phillips, 20, out of the Grundy County High School gym at the end of a funeral service for the soldier who went missing 45 years ago in Vietnam.
Army honor guard members transport the remains of U.S. Army Spc. Marvin Foster Phillips, 20, out of the Grundy County High School gym at the end of a funeral service for the soldier who went missing 45 years ago in Vietnam.
Photo by Dan Henry.

COALMONT, Tenn. -- The smiling face of Marvin Foster Phillips matured from boy to man in alternating black-and-white photographs on the flatscreen television in front of a crowded Grundy County High School gym on Monday.

The gentle eyes of the "sweet, shy, cute boy from Gruetli" looked across 45 years into the faces of his 1964 high school class and seven surviving siblings.

Pieces of his body lay inside a flag-draped casket beneath the television. Pieces of his short life echoed in the memories of those seated before the display of flowers and medals.

  • Honoring the fallen: Marvin Phillips
    U.S. Army Spc. Marvin Phillips was laid to rest Monday in Palmer, Tenn. His helicopter was shot down 45 years ago to the day during the Vietnam War.

On Monday, more than 700 people filled the seats of the gymnasium for an hourlong service, 45 years to the day that Marvin went missing in the Vietnam War.

When Marvin's seven siblings last saw him, he was their 20-year-old soldier. He was the oldest of the family's children, headed to Vietnam as a door gunner for the Huey helicopter. Months later, on Sept. 26, 1965, his helicopter crashed into the waters of the South China Sea, a short distance from shore.

Army officials told the Phillips family that Spc. Marvin Phillips was missing in action. Searchers did not recover his body.

"I remember them calling me over the intercom from my classroom," Lucy West, one of Marvin's sisters, said before Monday's service.

The family gathered, comforting and consoling one another in the home of Marvin's grandmother, a place where children would scour the forests for ginger and berries. Marvin always found the most, a cousin said.

"Over time it was inevitable that he wasn't coming home," said James Earl Phillips, one of Marvin's brothers.

But in April, James first learned that the U.S. Army had identified his brother's remains, which a Vietnamese fisherman had recovered in April 2010.

James flew to Hawaii this month, where the remains had been held and the body fully verified using DNA and dental records. He returned Saturday, first to Nashville and then via a military escort to Palmer, Tenn.

In honor of Monday's service, Grundy County schools closed for the day. Some businesses and the courthouse closed early so folks could welcome home a Grundy County boy.

Recent local veterans' remains returned

• U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Lewis Brickell's remains were identified and returned to his family in October 2009. He had fought in the Korean War and went missing during an infantry assault in 1950.

• U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Stancil's remains were identified and returned to his family in October 2009. Stancil had fought in the Vietnam War and went missing in 1965 after his helicopter crashed in the jungle.

Source: Times Free Press archives

"Roll call!" an honor guard staff sergeant's voice boomed across the gym, beginning a tradition of recognizing those who've died or gone missing in action. He called the names of some of the detachment's members, who answered, "Here." Then he came to Marvin's name.

"Spc. Phillips," he called.


"Spc. Marvin Phillips," he called again, his back to the soldier's casket.


"Spc. Marvin Foster Phillips," the sergeant called a final time.


The sergeant then read how Phillips' helicopter crashed 45 years ago and the soldier was listed missing in action.

Rain pulsed strong then weak on the gym's roof throughout the ceremony, a soft background noise to the shuffling feet and words of honor spoken. At the graveside service afterward, the rain soaked through the clothing of those who didn't bring umbrellas.

As the funeral procession drove from the gym to the cemetery, well-wishers lined the two-lane state Highway 108. Some waved wet American flags; others simply stood to watch the hearse go by.

At least eight television cameras, one from Fox News in New York, jockeyed for spots to capture images of the casket carry, the shots fired from rifle and cannon and the looks on the faces of Marvin's brothers and sisters as soldiers rendered salutes and handed them flags, medals and shell casings.

Until Marvin's mother, Rubie Phillips, died in 1991 at age 64, she told others her son would come home, her children said. Rubie and her husband, David Phillips, now lay beside their eldest son in the Palmer Cemetery.

During the ceremony in the gym, classmates remembered Marvin as a quiet boy, a friend who always helped when help was needed. And they remembered the hair.

Looking at the photos of Marvin growing up, they noticed how his hair grew, thick and dark, always slicked over to the side. His hair remained his pride. "Elvis hair," some called it when thinking back on Monday.

"That's my thing about it, how he got it up so high," said Harold Woodlee, 1964 class president.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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GlacierClipper said...

Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

From heaven you smile down upon us. Your voice will be heard across the mountain, you will not be forgotten.

September 27, 2011 at 12:23 a.m.
singe said...

Welcome Home Sp4 Phillips, It has been a very long time in coming but many have worked hard to make sure you and others from every war make it home. To the family my thoughts and prayers go out to you and it was a pleasure to have been able to meet many of you this weekend. The support from your community was amazing and everyone i met treated me like a old freind though I have never met any of them or SP4 Phillips. Lets make sure the goverement continues to search for all our POW/MIA and Never Forget God Bless America

September 27, 2011 at 4:34 a.m.
Iowa48 said...

Grundy County has done itself proud in welcoming home its Warrior son. May God bless and keep the citizens who have fulfilled the Warrior Ethos of, "Leave no man behind." Welcome home my brother. RVN 69-71 2/503rd Infantry 173rd ABN BDE

September 27, 2011 at 7:03 p.m.
Ken said...

A great story that shows the values held by small town America. Where else would you get a whole community coming out for a soldier who passed away 45 years ago. From NY to California it is only in small towns and cities where the American values are still held in high esteme.

September 28, 2011 at 10:07 a.m.
Namvetdakto said...

Grundy County paid homage and a most befitting tribute to one of their fallen soldiers in the most respectful and dignified memorial services ever witnessed on the mountain. The Chattanooga Times Freepress video clip of this event was exemplary, touching, and professionally done. Rest in peace at home classmate of 1964.

September 29, 2011 at 11:23 a.m.
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