Bravery, tears, and flipping coins with Frank Sinatra: Reflections of a WWII veteran

Jan 7, 2022, 3:19 PM | Updated: 3:20 pm

“Courage personified” describes one of my all-time favorite guests of the Dori Monson Show: World War II U.S. Army combat veteran Phil Sulman of Bellevue. His stories are those of a great man.

It’s possible Sulman is a lot like your dad, your grandfather, or maybe your great-uncle.

Seattle veteran shares his story of fighting in WWII as a young man

In 1943, Sulman (then 18 years old) went from walking the halls at Seattle’s Garfield High School to marching at a California boot camp. Mere months later, he was crossing the Atlantic Ocean with U.S. troops to defeat Adolf Hitler and stop the Nazi Holocaust. Sulman was pulled into a war that took nearly 420,000 U.S. lives in Europe.

His sharp memories – told first-hand – are priceless history lessons for me and my listeners. It’s why, just weeks before his 97th birthday, I visited Sulman at his Eastside home. Sharing his stories by phone always elicits countless powerful, positive responses. This time, I needed to tell Sulman, in person, how much our listeners respect him and value his service.

In return, Sulman – more commonly known to listeners as Phil – agreed to a videotaped interview, sharing his memories of liberating a concentration camp; playing pranks while on duty driving a military garbage truck; and, post-service, competing in weekly coin-flip games against the late crooner Frank Sinatra.

Looking for a powerful boost of inspiration? I invite you to watch and listen to Phil Sulman here:

You’ll hear Phil describe preparing for war near San Diego before he and fellow soldiers went to the European battlefronts.

“Well, we had some good training, good people teaching us,” Phil recalled. “We knew what to expect, but the training and the real war are two different things. In fact, I learned a lot more in the Boy Scouts than I did in some of our training.”

I’ve spoken with Phil, but he had never before revealed to me the life-or-death Catch-22 he faced with his military dog tags while under enemy fire by the Nazis.

One of his most heart-breaking recollections is of liberating the Nordhausen (also known as Dora-Mittelbau) concentration camp in Germany.

“It was right after the Battle of the Bulge,” Phil explained. “We had heard about the concentration camps, but we didn’t know what they were. It’s all they said it was. It held about 5,000 inmates – not necessarily Jews, but political people, gypsies, political dissenters.”

Barbed wire fenced in the camp’s occupants, but Nazis had abandoned the site. Isolated from news of Allied Forces’ success, the prisoners of war didn’t know “who we were or what we were.”

“Crematoriums, the ovens — we saw it all,” Phil said.

As POWs poured out of the barracks, they were “just skin and bones” and suffering from malnutrition.

“We fed them parts of our K-Rations – the cheese and crackers and candy bars — gave them cigarettes,” Phil described, while choking up. “In some cases, the food was so rich for them that they died at our feet. It’s hard to believe but that is exactly what happened.”

Returning to the United States after his European service, Phil was assigned to an Army base in California awaiting his next role: “We were to be one of the leading forces on the Japanese empire.”

“If it wasn’t for President Truman dropping two atom bombs, I don’t know if I would be sitting here today or not,” he said.

Not all Phil’s stories are heavy. He enjoys talking about his post-military job supplying music records and tapes in southern California. This led him to meet iconic singer Frank Sinatra. His story about low-stakes gambling with Sinatra on Monday mornings is a memory worth all the laughs it deserves.

As his birthday approaches, Phil remains humble while reflecting on the history-changing military service he and fellow GIs gave to his own and future generations.

“It was a job to do,” the Bellevue man reminisces. “We did it. We were too young to realize what the rest of the world was like.”

And today?

“I’m lucky to be alive,” Phil said. “Lady Luck is on my left shoulder and the Good Lord is on my right shoulder. Somebody has been watching out for me.”

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from noon – 3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Bravery, tears, and flipping coins with Frank Sinatra: Reflections of a WWII veteran