A lot of Medal of Honor recipients have engaged in the fight of their lives, just to fight on another day. This was true for Marine Corps Cpl. Lee H. Phillips, who earned the nation’s highest honor during a vicious fight in which he emerged victorious, only to die a few weeks later.
Phillips was born on Feb. 3, 1930, in Stockbridge, Georgia. He went to school in nearby Ellenwood until 1945, when he moved north to Atlanta to work. On Jan. 17, 1948, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. Six months later, he was recruited to active duty.
Phillips served at home, in the Caribbean and in the Mediterranean until August, 1950, when he was assigned to Company E, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marines Division to prepare for service in Korea, where they were sent a month later.
Less than two months after that, the 7th Marine Regiment was directed to march north and relieve an allied South Korean regiment that had reportedly been hit by Chinese units. Their objective was also to reach the Chosin Reservoir, a man-made lake about 45 miles inland.
The reservoir became a major battlefield in the war when China entered the conflict, infiltrating the northeastern part of North Korea. It would also mark Phillips’ final resting place.
On Nov. 4, 1950, Phillips’ company was near Sudong, North Korea. They were tasked with trying to overtake an enemy position on a vital hill, despite five previously unsuccessful attempts by Marines and other friendly forces.
As his company’s squad leader, Phillips assumed the point position in the attack, which he knew would be difficult because the target was strongly defended by a well-entrenched, much larger enemy force. Phillips bravely led his men in a bayonet charge up the steep slope. They were immediately greeted with mortar, small-arms and machine-gun fire.
Despite the onslaught, Phillips rallied his squad and continued to lead them through the bombarded area. By the time they got to the crest of the hill, only five men remained. Those who survived were immediately hit with a counterattack.
They were heavily outnumbered, but Phillips didn’t give up. Instead, he engaged the attackers, firing his rifle, throwing hand grenades and getting the few surviving men he was with to storm forward. They were able to overwhelm the massive enemy force.
By then, Phillips and only two other Marines remained. But they pushed on, determined to get to the last remaining strongpoint, a rocky, nearly inaccessible portion of the hill that four enemy fighters were using as cover.
Phillips used one hand to scale the jagged cliff while using the other to throw grenades. The three men succeeded in knocking out the pocket of resistance and were able to regroup before another counterattack came. Phillips and his men fired on those insurgents, and despite the odds, were able to push them back. Phillips wasn’t injured, and the trio emerged victorious, thanks to the young corporal’s leadership and bravery.
Unfortunately, Phillips was killed in action on Nov. 27, 1950, only a few weeks after that hard-fought battle. He was buried at the Chosin Reservoir along with other fallen troops.
On March 29, 1954, Phillips’ mother accepted the Medal of Honor on his behalf from Navy Secretary Robert Anderson during a Pentagon ceremony.
Phillips was the 40th Marine to earn the Medal of Honor for actions in Korea. Along with that honor, his decorations include the Purple Heart and the Presidential Unit Citation with two Bronze Star medals.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Source: Department of Defense