Eagle Point resident Barbara Northrop got little information out of her father, Howard James Phillips, about his service during World War II before his death in 2001.
Like many veterans, Northrop’s dad “didn’t talk much about the war.” A Portland native, Phillips served his time and returned to raise his family and live a quiet life.
Having served from March 1943 to December 1945, Phillips simply had to have some stories to tell, his daughter reckoned.
Northrop had to rely on small clues and an ever-evolving World Wide Web to put together pieces of information — “much like a jigsaw puzzle.”
“The main reason I started researching World War II records was because my father never said a word about his service, and I wanted to know what he had done. It took a lot of legwork to discover it, because the records, particularly for the Army, were destroyed in a fire in 1973,” she said.
“Everything I’ve put together about my father has been through things I had at home, that I’ve been able to put together through pieces of memorabilia or from getting help from other people who are war buffs online.”
One of her first clues, a form called a “DD 214,” was deemed unavailable other than to a spouse or representative of someone’s will. A persistent Northrop called one office enough times that a clerk was able to read limited information over the phone.
From that call, Northrop was able to create a timeline of service dates, discharge location (Klamath Falls) and even a list of medals her father had been eligible to receive though he’d never applied.
“I wanted my father’s medals. I was able to take that information and call Veteran Services. My father was not buried in a veterans’ cemetery, but I wanted to be able to order a medallion to be put on his headstone,” Northrop said.
By luck, a box of legal papers turned up, including an incomplete Veterans Affairs loan form filled out by her father.
“With that I finally got an actual copy of his DD 214,” she added.
Another key find was her father’s final pay stub, issued on Christmas Eve 1945, which provided a job code. With that Northrop was able to figure out the type of work her father had done during the war. Much to her surprise, he’d worked on machines used to decipher messages from the enemy.
“I was able to find out that the reason he didn’t say one word about his service was because he couldn’t say one word. He worked on top secret SIGABA machines,” Northrop said of the cipher machines used to decode messages intercepted from the Germans.
“He was a repair man who worked on those machines, and his locations were always top secret. Something else I’m lucky enough to have are letters my grandmother saved that my dad wrote from when he enlisted until he went overseas. That was when all the communication stopped.”
Northrup noted even the smallest pieces of information helped fill in the jigsaw puzzle.
“It just makes so much sense now, the whole military picture of my father,” she said.
Quiet by nature, her dad was a hard worker who was honorably discharged and went to work for the Klamath Falls police. He later moved to Medford and worked for an early predecessor of Pacific Northwest Bell. For a time, he was selected for work on top secret alarm systems for the government on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.
Now armed with her own arsenal of skills, Northrop plans to help decipher clues and aid in piecing together the stories of other veterans.
“Because of all that I’ve learned, I feel like I’ve completely been able to understand my dad a little more. He was hired to work in the Aleutian Islands … now it makes sense why he was picked for that,” she says.
“To know all that he did, I feel so proud of him. He was a very honorable guy anyway, but it just makes me that much more proud of how he served his country. I have his dog tags and other memorabilia, and now I have some of his story.”
Reach Medford freelance writer Buffy Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org.