Feature   Know Your Military

Sports Heroes Who Served: Legendary Coach 'Bum' Phillips Was a Marine in WWII

Jan. 26, 2021 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Oail Andrew "Bum" Phillips, best known by his nickname, served as head coach in the National Football League for the Houston Oilers from 1975 to 1980 and as NFL head coach for the New Orleans Saints from 1981 to 1985.

As Oilers coach, he had the most wins in franchise history with a 59-38 record. The Oilers reached American Football Conference game, losing to the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers back-to-back in 1978 and 1979.

A man wearing a cowboy hat stands next to former President George H.W. bush.
'Bum' Phillips
Bum Phillips laughs with former President George H.W. Bush (left) at the Houston Texans’ sidelines during a game with the New York Giants in Houston, Texas, Oct. 10, 2010.
Photo By: Courtesy of Bum Phillips
VIRIN: 101010-O-ZZ999-001A

When Phillips resigned as Saints coach in November 1985, his son Wade took his place as interim head coach.

While Phillips is famous for being a football coach, what's less well known is that he served in the military during World War II.

Phillips was a freshman at Lamar Junior College in Beaumont, Texas, when he turned 19 on Sept. 30, 1942. The next day he enlisted in the Marine Corps in San Antonio and was soon deployed to the South Pacific as a Marine Raider after training at Camp Pendleton, California.

An historic photograph from 1943 shows Marines crossing a stream.
Soloman Island Marines
Marines cross a stream on New Georgia, an island in the Solomon Islands, in August 1943.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 430810-O-ZZ999-001

The Raiders were special operations forces established during the war to conduct amphibious light infantry warfare.

On June 30, 1943, Phillips was with the 4th Marine Raider Battalion of the 1st Marine Raider Regiment that landed on Vangunu, an island in the Solomon Islands. 

The Japanese defenders outnumbered the Marines 10 to one, according to Phillips' 2010 autobiography, ''Bum Phillips: Coach, Cowboy, Christian.''

In a four-hour firefight, two-thirds of the battalion were killed or wounded, he said. At one point the men ran out of ammunition and attacked the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.

''When men fell to the ground wounded, we created makeshift stretchers by tying shirts to bamboo poles. We hauled 360 Marines out. Soon, though, we lacked enough standing soldiers to carry every wounded man to safety,'' he wrote.

Phillips said he was lucky to have survived the battle, but the experience of so many fellow Marines getting killed deeply affected him.

Troops wade to seaplane as it sits on the water.
Seaplane Boarding
U.S. casualties from the fighting on New Georgia island in the Solomon Islands are evacuated by seaplane, July 21, 1943.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 430721-O-ZZ999-001

He also served on Guadalcanal, the largest of the Solomon Islands, and elsewhere and was honorably discharged in 1945.

Phillips had a number of high school and college football coaching jobs throughout Texas beginning in 1951, until his NFL debut in 1967 as defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers. He was with the Chargers until 1971.

''I was blessed to have him as a father and coach,'' Wade Phillips told Houston Chronicle sports writer John McClain, shortly after his father passed away on Oct. 18, 2013 at age 90. ''I got to coach with him for 11 years. He taught me everything I know about coaching. He taught me right and wrong. He taught me to enjoy life.''

Phillips is known for his colorful quotes, including:

  • There are two kinds of coaches, them that's fired and them that's gonna be fired.
  • Dallas Cowboys may be America's team, but the Houston Oilers are Texas' team.
  • The harder we played, the behinder we got.
  • I never scrimmage Oilers against Oilers. What for? Houston isn't on our schedule.

In 2014, the Marine Special Operations Regiment, serving under the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, was renamed the Marine Raider Regiment. The change was implemented as homage to the World War II Raiders.


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Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903