Twentynine Palms, Calif -- When Navy Seabee Victor B. Phillips arrived at what is now the Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., in the summer of 1976, the young sailor had no way of knowing his name would forever be tied to the remote Marine Corps base thousands of miles from home.
The 20-year-old Statesville, N.C., native was among an eight-man team from the 31st Naval Construction Regiment out of Port Hueneme, Calif., sent to Twentynine Palms to build a road connecting Mainside to Camp Wilson and its new expeditionary airfield. What should have been just another construction project to be tucked away into individual memories when the Seabees moved on to their next project was seared into the collective memories of both services when Phillips was killed Aug. 31, 1976, in an accident while performing maintenance on a rock spreader.
That December, Phillips’ parents, Thomas W. and Kansas “Kancy” Phillips, and his younger sister, Melonia, traveled from North Carolina to attend a ceremony that included the unveiling of a monument honoring the equipment operator constructionman’s sacrifice and the naming of the 6.3-mile-long road in his name. Phillips’ older sister, Deborah, who now lives in Charlotte, N.C., did not make the trip.
Forty-two years later, on Nov. 16, 2018, Melonia Phillips Anderson returned to the Combat Center with her husband, Randy, to tour the base and visit the roadside monument near the Center Magazine Area.
Accompanying the Wilmington, N.C., couple were Government and External Affairs Director Jim Ricker, three members of his staff, and retired Marine Col. Billy D. Bouldin, who was chief of staff in 1976 and oversaw construction of the airfield and the road. The group was later joined by Col. William F. Schoen, assistant chief of staff, Installation Support Directorate; Lt. Cmdr. Jason Dooley, Public Works officer; and other Marines and sailors with the directorate.
“I’d like to give you a hug,” Bouldin said to Melonia Anderson as they stood near the monument, which features a bronze plaque embedded in a large boulder atop a cement slab, and a second bronze plaque bearing 24 Seabee collar emblems embedded in the concrete. Just beyond the monument is the blue and white sign marking the heavily traveled thoroughfare’s transition from Del Valle to Phillips Road.
The airfield was necessary for the base to provide Marine units the combined-arms, air-ground training required for success in combat, and the road was a critical part of the project, Bouldin told the Andersons.
“He did a good job,” Bouldin said of Phillips. In the 42 years since the construction was completed, millions of service members, civilian personnel and visitors have traveled the road.
Melonia Anderson was 17 when her brother was killed on the first day of her senior year in high school. She was 18 when she attended the Dec. 10, 1976, ceremony with her parents, both whom have since passed away. “Vic,” as he was known to family, friends and fellow Seabees, would have celebrated his 21st birthday on Dec. 2, 1976.
He joined the Navy on the buddy plan with his best friend, Boyd Ivey “Chip” Brown, in 1975, both achieving their goal of becoming heavy equipment operators. Brown left the Navy after finishing out his enlistment, Melonia Anderson said. He lives in California.
By all accounts, Phillips was a hard worker who loved his job.
In a Nov. 24, 1976, letter to Phillips’ parents requesting their consent to name the road after their son, Brig. Gen. Edward J. Megarr, Commanding General, wrote that he talked with Phillips’ fellow Seabees on the day of the accident.
While the military had lost a valuable and promising young sailor, the Seabees were heartbroken that they had lost a comrade, he wrote.
“They characterized Victor as industrious, conscientious, and dedicated, and as a solid friend who could be counted on,” Megarr wrote. “As a heavy equipment operator, your son’s skill and enthusiasm contributed significantly to boosting the morale and furthering the ‘can-do’ spirit which is a hallmark of the Seabees.”
As the Andersons toured Camp Wilson and Mainside with Ricker, Bouldin, Schoen and Dooley, Melonia Anderson shared family stories, and the others talked about the Combat Center’s mission and the role Camp Wilson plays in training for missions around the world.
“It’s a pretty realistic environment for desert warfare,” Randy Anderson observed. “The temperatures, terrain and conditions are very realistic,” Schoen agreed.
“Look at this road that your brother was part of building, and all the Marines and sailors who have used it,” Ricker said. “It’s a horrible tragedy that your brother lost his life at such a young age, but he’ll never be forgotten.”
Melonia Anderson said she appreciated the chance to visit the Combat Center and the monument to her brother so many years after the accident that claimed him.
“I’m just overwhelmed by how much honor and respect has been shown to Vic,” she said. “It means a lot that the monument and the road are still here, and that Vic is remembered in a positive way.