Thursday, November 10, 2016

Veteran's Day Salute: Phil Marchildon, major league pitcher, tail gunner, POW

It always amazes me when I read about the sacrifice so many major league players made during World War II. Yes, it was a different time and a different type of war, but for the most part they all joined in when called, with little public grumbling. Few of them had any idea of what they might be getting themselves into, or of the horrors they might see, but they went and did what they were told. And many of them were changed forever by what they experienced.

I recently came across the story of Phil Marchildon. He is not a household name. But he should be remembered.

Phil was born in Ontario in 1913. Raised in a struggling family during the depression, his destiny appeared to be working in a nearby nickel mine. His life's course was altered, however, when he starred for the company baseball team as a pitcher with a blazing fastball. A friend arranged a tryout with the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. Even though at 25 he was a little old to be starting a professional baseball career, he was signed and two years later was pitching in the major league for Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's.

In 1942, fresh off an impressive 17-win season, Phil was inducted into the Canadian military. As a known professional athlete, he was given the opportunity to remain in North America as a physical trainer but he opted instead for the Royal Canadian Air Force. "I didn't want people saying that Phil Marchildon, the big-league ballplayer, had taken the easy way out," he later wrote.

Judged too old to start training as a pilot, Phil was made a gunner--because of his excellent eyesight and depth perception, he was told. He was assigned to a Halifax bomber crew as a tail-gunner and soon found himself in England, ready to battle the Germans for control of Europe.

The Halifax was a bulky four-engined bomber, not unlike a flying crate. And it was not built with stealth in mind. When the beasts filled the sky on a mission, the ground trembled and the noise reverberated for miles, announcing their arrival to all.The fact that it had a target painted on it's butt did little to inspire confidence in the crew.

 On missions, the Halifax flew in a slow, tight formation without maneuvering to evade the enemy. The defense of each plane was based on maintaining the integrity of the formation; each gun was vital to the protection of its neighbors.

The Halifax compensated for the lack of speed and deception with dependability and the ability to take a punch. This came in handy on one of Marchildon's early missions in which he heard a loud noise from his plane amid heavy antiaircraft artillery and felt a shudder. When they made it back to base they counted 30 shrapnel holes in the bomber, including one perilously close to the fuel tank.

Marchildon and his 6-man crew flew out of a base in Yorkshire. Their early missions included softening up the Germans in France in advance of the Normandy invasion.

It was harrowing duty. The Halifax flew night missions. The gunners sat cramped and uncomfortable -- so cold their guns sometimes froze--and strained their eyes scouring the sky for enemy fighters. Once the danger of fighters was passed, another terror awaited--anti-aircraft fire. The crew could do little but helplessly sit and wait as shrapnel burst all around; and occasionally watch as fellow planes fell from the sky.

The tail gunner sat alone in the rear of the plane, completely exposed with nothing but a sheet of plexiglass and open air between him and shrapnel and enemy fighters. Moreover, the enemy fighters knew where the guns were located in the formation and planned their attacks accordingly. Tail gunners had the lowest survival rate of any bomber crew.

While the Americans faced enormous risks during their daylight bombing, night duty held terrors of its own. "In the day you can't see the stuff shooting up at you," Marchildon explained in a Sporting News interview in July, 1945. "But at night, Wow! It's tracers and rockets all around that scare you to death." Also by the time Marchildon arrived in Europe, the Germans were employing powerful searchlights that scanned the night sky looking for targets.

On the night of August 16, 1944, Marchildon and his crew took to the sky. They had already endured 25 missions; only 5 short of completing their tour. A German fighter surprised them before they reached their target, however, and in a flash the bomber was crippled and on fire at 17,000 feet. The Captain gave the order to bail out. Aware that everything could explode into a ball of flames at any second, Phil plunged into the darkness and felt his parachute jerk open, not knowing if he was over land or water.

Phil splashed down into the icy Baltic Sea, near the Denmark-German border. After clearing the entanglements of his parachute, Phil heard his friend, the navigator, screaming for help. It was well-known that the navigator couldn't swim. Phil managed to maneuver over through the crashing waves and calmed him down, assuring him that the life jacket would do its job. The navigator later credited Phil with saving his life. They never saw any of their other buddies again (it was later confirmed that all the others had died in the crash).

The pair floated in the rough sea for several hours, nearly succumbing to hypothermia before they were plucked by a Danish fishing trawler. But the danger was far from over. A German patrol was waiting for them when they pulled into port. They were prisoners of war.

Phil was taken to the infamous Stalag III, which held more than 10,000 Allied prisoners. Six months earlier a large breakout, later made famous by the Steve McQueen movie The Great Escape, had taken place at Stalag III. The attempt had been largely unsuccessful as 50 of the 76 escapees had been shot to death by the Germans.

While captive, Phil suffered from dysentery and lost almost one-third of his weight. As the war neared its end, the prisoners were hastily roused one morning and told to line up for a march. Not knowing where or why, many fearing the worst, they were led on several forced marches over the next few weeks--they later learned they were being moved to keep ahead of the advancing allies. Finally they were liberated by a British patrol in May, 1945.

The war had ended for Phil Marchildon, but the fight was far from over.

Phil returned to the United States, married his pre-war girl and resolved to regain weight, get in shape and resume his baseball career. After pitching briefly for publicity at the behest of owner Connie Mack near the end of the 1945 season, Phil was back good as ever in 1946, winning 13 games. In 1947 he was 19-9 for a lousy A's team in one of the best years a Canadian pitcher not named Fergie Jenkins ever had.

But it was not to be a Hollywood, feel-good ending for Phil Marchildon. He began to be plagued by nightmares and grew distant from teammates. While warming up before a game in 1948, he experienced an episode of severe dizziness and numbness. The ball felt like dead weight; his body felt drained of all strength. He went home and the next day was back to normal but the episodes began to come and go without warning and with increasingly alarming frequency. He began chain-smoking and was noted to be irritable. Phil's record in 1948 sank to 9-15.

Phil never talked about his war experiences with anyone. Teammates were confused. "My, he had good stuff," shortstop Eddie Joost said years later. "He could throw the ball as hard as anybody. We called him 'Fidgety Phil.' He could never sit still or stop moving his hands. I was told he had been gassed during the war and that had changed him. . . . He'd often get into what I called 'thinking trauma,' and would wander behind the mound, fool around with the resin bag, and hit his palm with his glove for maybe thirty seconds. You'd know something was wrong. . . . Every once in a while he'd start to shake and not be able to concentrate. We'd walk to the mound, but we couldn't settle him down."

"[Older players had said] he had been confident and gung-ho [before the war]," said third baseman George Kell, a teammate in 1945 and 1946. "The way I heard it, and I never could get it confirmed, was that he had been a prisoner of war. All the guys told me that he became a different fellow. He could still pitch, but he had a funny look in his eye that hinted his thoughts were about the war and not baseball. He was extremely nervous."

After the disappointing 1948 season in which his mental and physical condition had deteriorated alarmingly, Phil checked into a Toronto VA hospital. When physical tests were normal, he was told to "lighten up" and consider all the blessings he had.

In 1948 the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder did not even exist. No one knew how to treat it. Phil was left alone to sort out his problem. "On every mission I'd spent hours scanning the sky for night fighters, always fearing the worst," Phil later wrote. "During the march I never knew what to expect . . . a guard might shoot me because he was in a bad mood that day. . . No one around me seemed to understand the emotions I was experiencing."

"My hands shook as if I had palsy, and I was constantly on edge. My biggest struggle was overcoming the left over fear that something terrible was going to happen."

"I'd kind of drift away from concentration. I'd think about how lucky I was to get out of it all." Along with the feeling of luck, was guilt over surviving instead of his comrades.

Phil's baseball career unraveled. He hurt his shoulder in 1949, was ineffective and finally released by the A's. He caught on with the Red Sox for one game in 1950, then his baseball career was over.

Phil struggled after baseball but, with the help of his patient wife, eventually recovered. He worked at a Toronto furniture factory until retiring at 65. He was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, published his memoirs in a very good book, Ace: Phil Marchildon, and lived a full life. He died in 1997 at the age of 84.

As Veteran's Day approaches we should pause to remember--and thank--Phil Marchildon, and everyone who fought with him, for sacrificing so much so that we have had the opportunity to keep playing ball for generations.


  1. I love the posts about old timers who lived through WWII. Should be required reading for the generation who think they need to take a few days off because of the results of a presidential election.

  2. They did things and made sacrifices that should never be forgotten. It helps to remember them to put things into perspective about what is important.

  3. Phil was also named to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, located in historical St. Marys, Ontario, at its inception in 1983.

  4. One of the best Canadian baseball players of all time. Without the war he could have had a great career.

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  6. Uncle Phil. My fathers side is from Midland, Penatagne area of Ontario. My Uncle Etienne Marchildon told me stories about Uncle Phil. Wasn't till later in my life did I realize what a Hero he was. Makes me proud to be Canadian, my Grandmother's maiden name was Marchildon, and my last name is Valle'e. Yep...French Canadian for sure eh!. I played ball and hockey and nearly played pro in both. Actor, singer songwriter and radio comic. Like to think I got some of my dedication and athleticism from Uncle Phil. Not just a Canadian war hero...but this nephew of his too. Peace Jamie Joseph Valle'e

  7. Would love to get a copy of Uncle Phil's book but can't find one here in Las Vegas where I live. Any help would be appreciated. Thank you Jamie

    1. Nice to hear from you Jamie. You should be proud. I have seen copies of his book advertised on both Amazon and ebay.

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