GEORGE FREDERICK PHILLIPS (1862 ~ 1904). Medal of Honor recipient George Frederick Phillips was born on March 8, 1862, to Irish immigrants Andrew and Elizabeth Phillips in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. On March 30, 1898, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at Galveston, Texas, as a Machinist First Class.
He was stationed on the U.S.S. Merrimac, a coal supply ship, during the Spanish-American War in Cuba. Admiral William T. Sampson ordered Assistant Naval Constructor Richmond Hobson scuttle the Merrimac in order to block the channel into Santiago Harbor, thus trapping the Spanish fleet at port.
Hobson rigged the Merrimac with 10 explosives, referred to as "torpedoes," and asked for a volunteer skeleton crew, which Phillips joined, to steer the ship into position and detonate the explosives. Phillips was charged with operating the engines and detonating one of the explosives. When the Merrimac entered Santiago Harbor on June 3, 1898, it was immediately fired upon by a hidden Spanish picket boat, disabling its steering gear. The Merrimac continued as planned but without the ability to steer. Only two of the explosives detonated and a strong current carried the Merrimac out of the channel and into view of the Spanish fleet.
Thinking that the Merrimac was an American warship entering the harbor, Spanish warships fired on the Merrimac and in the confusion of the smoke the Spaniards also fired on each other. The ship sunk, but not in a position which blocked the channel. The volunteers survived the sinking but were unable to swim against the current to the American fleet. They clung to an overturned catamaran during the night, and were picked up by a Spanish launch the following morning. The men were treated well by their captors until they were exchanged on July 6, 1898. Though the mission failed, the eight volunteers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1899. In addition to his Medal of Honor, Phillips was promoted to Chief Machinist as of June 3, 1898, a permanent appointment received in honor of his courage.
He was discharged from the U.S.S. Newark on July 24, 1901, and reenlisted in the Navy in New York on November 21. Phillips served on the U.S.S. Independence, a receiving ship at Mare Island, California, as a Chief Machinist until his discharge due to physical disability on August 12, 1903. Phillips died on June 4, 1904, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is buried in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada.
Bibliography: "Above and Beyond: The Medal of Honor in Texas." Capitol Visitors Center, State Preservation Board of Texas; Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, University of Texas, http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles; McSherry, Patrick. "The Sinking of the U.S. Navy Collier Merrimac." http://www.spanamwar.com/merrimac.htm;
Official U.S. Military Records, National Personnel Records Center, National Archives and Records Administration.