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1st Lt. Clifford F. Phillips: Company 'H', 339th Infantry

1st Lt. Clifford F. Phillips (U.S. Army Archives)

Clifford F. Phillips was born March 3, 1890, the third of three children. His parents, John and Mary (Tice) Phillips had settled in the small town of Beatrice, NE, where John worked in construction as a plasterer, while Mary brought in cash as a dress maker.[1]

John eventually became a general contractor, and he oversaw the construction of many of Beatrice’s important government buildings. Clifford, along with his older brother, James, and older sister, Hazel, attended Beatrice’s schools, with Clifford graduating from Beatrice High School in 1908. He attended the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, earning a law degree in 1914.

Phillips returned to Beatrice and began practicing law at the office of Hazlett and Jack.[2] Not long after this, Clifford married Ann Kathryn Justesen, and in 1916, the couple had a daughter, Ellen. Phillips began his own law practice that same year, and continued as a lawyer until applying for Officer’s Candidate School in 1917.[3] He went to officer’s training school at Camp Snelling, MN, where he was commissioned second lieutenant.[4] From there, Lt. Phillips was sent to Camp Custer, and eventually assigned to Company ‘H’, 339th Infantry. Lieutenant Phillips was promoted to first lieutenant and placed in command of one of Company ‘H’s platoons. Then, the 339th Infantry was sent to Russia.

Lieutenant Phillips’ company was initially part of the force sent to fight on what became known as the Railroad Front, but soon was sent to the area of Onega, approximately fifty miles west of Obozerskaya. Here, Company ‘H’ held the town, and its important port facilities throughout the winter of 1918 and into the first months of 1919. The local Russians grew to like and respect the young man from Nebraska, and he often found himself in trouble with his British Allies, who reprimanded him several times for his honesty in describing what life was like in Russia.

The Bolsheviks, in March 1919, made a push to break the communications line between Obozerskaya and Onega. Their plan was to capture the town of Bolshie Ozerki, a vital town halfway between the two American-held centers. The Reds surprised the defenders at Bolshie Ozerki and easily took the town. The Allied commanders immediately ordered Company ‘H’ to attack the Bolos’ positions at Bolshie Ozerki, and on March 23, 1919, Cpt. Richard Ballsinger ordered his two lieutenants, Clifford Phillips and Edmund Collins to take their platoons and retake the town. The Americans and their British Allies quickly found themselves in serious trouble, and as one Yank noted, “[We] were easy to shoot at as [we] floundered in the waist deep snow.”[5] Lieutenant Collins was mortally wounded by a sniper, and several British officers were also killed. The assault collapsed and the Allies retreated.

The Allies moved in troops east of Bolshie Ozerki and the battle resumed. The Bolsheviks, now confident the Onega force of Americans and British was no longer a threat from the west, threw all their troops against the Allies coming from Obozerskaya. They attacked the Allies with a massive force, and in the next couple days, suffered horrendous casualties due to the Americans of Company ‘M’, British riflemen, and White Russian artillery. The Bolos were stunned. The Allied high command, knowing the Reds were looking eastward, ordered Cpt. Ballsinger to send his riflemen in support of an Allied attack from the west. The Allied attack from Onega had three prongs; a British battle group to maintain the left flank, a second British force at the center, and a Polish troop to advance at the right. Lieutenant Phillips and his platoon were tasked with providing support, as well as rear security.

The assault began before sunrise on April 2, 1919, and unfortunately, quickly fell apart. The British force on the left front got lost in the woods and as its commander stated, “[Was] belly deep in snow … and could not proceed.”[6] The Polish troops on the right, stumbled into a line of dogs who had been tied to trees, who, as one soldier noted, “gave a boisterous, barking alarm.”[7]The Bolsheviks, aware of the Poles’ approach, shredded the attackers with murderous gunfire. The Polish survivors fell back, and thus with the left and center gone, the Brits on the right walked into a maelstrom of fire, and were soon crushed.

The Allied forces’ survivors fled the field, leaving only Lt. Phillips and his small platoon to deal with the Bolshevik horde surging towards them. The 29-year-old from Nebraska pushed his doughboys into line and encouraged them to resist. The Yanks, supported by two well-placed Lewis machine guns, stopped the Reds’ attack, but then the Bolos, who were led by experienced commanders, worked around the Americans’ flanks. Lieutenant Phillips rushed from location to location as he brilliantly kept his men fighting. Then, a Bolo bullet struck him in the chest. A 339th officer wrote, “[It] nicked an artery in his lung … and knocked him down as if a ton of bricks had fallen on him.”[8] Two sergeants took over command of the platoon and led it in its withdrawal

Clifford Phillips was placed upon a stretcher and hustled back to Onega, and from there to Archangel. His family was notified he had been wounded, with Cpt. Ballsinger (Co. H) writing, “His injuries were not serious and that he had been sent to Archangel.”[9] Sadly, 1st Lt. Clifford F. Phillips died of his wounds on May10, 1919. He was buried in Archangel, and it was not until November 1919 that his remains was exhumed and returned to the United States. He is now buried in Wyuka Cemetery, Lincoln, NE.


[1] United States Census, 1900. [2] Edwards, Lewis C., History of Richardson County, Nebraska. (B. F. Bower Publisher: Indianapolis, IN), 1917. [3] Edwards, Lewis C., History of Richardson County, Nebraska. 1917. [4] Beatrice Daily Express, “Lieut. Clifford Phillips Wounded in Action,” 11 April 1919. [5] Nelson, James, The Polar Bear Expedition, 2019. [6] Chew, Allen F., “Fighting the Russians: Three Case Studies.” Leavenworth Papers, December 1981. [7] Cudahy, John, Archangel: The American War in Russia, 1924. [8] Detroit’s Own, “Polar Bear Memorial Association – Military Decorations.” [9] Beatrice Daily Express, “Lieutenant Clifford Phillips Dies of Wounds,” 14 May 1919.

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Thanks for sharing his story of a hero who fought in Russia. Very dedicated and brave.

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