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Lanier Phillips: 'Had it not been for the people of St. Lawrence, I would have had no family.' ((CBC))

An American veteran has taken his family back to the scene of a 1942 marine disaster off southern Newfoundland, where his life was not only saved but fundamentally changed.

Lanier Phillips said the kindness he was shown when he was hauled ashore from the wreck of the USS Truxtun taught him that racism could be overcome.

An African-American deckhand who signed up for the navy at 18 the year earlier, Phillips feared he would be lynched when the Truxtun and another ship, the USS Pollux, ran aground near Chambers Cove.

Instead, he was taken into local homes and cared for until he was well enough to leave.

"Had it not been for the people of St. Lawrence, I would have had no family," said Phillips, whose story has subsequently been told in documentaries and television programs.

"I don't know what would have happened to me, because I had no prospect of life. I had nothing to look forward to. I felt that I was the bottom of the barrel, less than the least."

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Lanier Phillips points to the site at Chambers Cove where the USS Truxtun went aground in February 1942. ((CBC))

Phillips said the experience was such a revelation, he decided to pursue a more ambitious career than he ever thought possible. He became the first African-American sonar technician in the U.S. navy, and later became a civil rights activist.

Phillips, who was awarded an honorary degree Friday at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said it was important for his family to visit the place where life changed so dramatically.

"I want my family to meet these great people," said Phillips, one of only 46 people to survive the wreck of the Truxtun.

"The love that was rained down on me in St. Lawrence, I pass it on to my children."

Son Terry Phillips said the trip was a revelation.

"Very few things bring emotion out of my father," he said.

"[This] is one of those rare instances where I got to see the emotional side of him."