Dori: Stories live on from my hero, World War II vet Phil Sulman

Apr 8, 2022, 3:59 PM | Updated: Jan 7, 2023, 7:31 am
Phil Sulman (The Dori Monson Show) Phil Sulman (The Dori Monson Show) Phil Sulman (The Dori Monson Show)

Editor’s Note: Dori Monson’s recent passing reminded us of his relationship with World War II veteran Phil Sulman. This is Dori’s entire tribute to Sulman, shortly after learning of his death in April 2022.

Original story posted April 8, 2022:

I learned a long time ago that I’m a very emotional person – and if you’re a listener to The Dori Monson Show, you know that, too.

Painfully, this emotion is part of today’s broadcast. That’s because I lost my hero.

Just minutes before today’s show, I learned that Phil Sulman, 97, – Seattle’s 1943 all-city track champion, humble World War II U.S. Army veteran, and proud Bellevue father and husband – died yesterday.

Right now, I’m crying with sorrow. But I am also crying because I’m honored. I am so filled with joy that I got to know this great man. To be my age and finally meet your hero? What a blessing Phil Sulman has been for me.

When I was a little kid, I thought my heroes were ballplayers. Brooks Robinson was the first. And then I started covering sports for a living and I realized professional athletes weren’t different from anyone else. Often, they were somewhat flawed.

Only after I got married and became a dad did I realize who my real heroes were.

In many cases, they were you. Listeners who lived their lives with dignity and respect. People who worked their butts off to provide for their families. Those who raised their kids to have a decent sense of values. Or people who didn’t raise kids at all – but did good things for other people. Those are the real heroes.

These days, it’s tough to recognize heroes. And yet it has never been more important, especially when all this stuff is being thrown at us – when people and issues want to tear us down emotionally and spiritually.

That is when heroes are needed the most. When their humanity becomes our lifeline. It is when we discover people who take great risks. It is when we find those who experience great accomplishments.

Several years ago, right when we were at the depths of emotionally and spiritually “flatlining” during COVID’s stay-at-home shutdown, his daughter reached out to me. You should meet my dad, she told me. Eighty years ago, he had a vision to save the world, she said. Literally. From Hitler. From tyranny.

“He has good stories,” Phil’s daughter told me. “And he’s a very good storyteller.’

She was right. That’s when, every six weeks or so, I began visiting with my hero and began sharing him with our show’s listeners. Today, I cry when I talk and write about Phil – but I’m not going to apologize for my tears.

That’s because his life made a difference. Not just to me, but to countless others.

Let me tell you a little bit about Phil Sulman.

Phil graduated from Seattle’s Garfield High School in 1943, where he was an all-city track champion. Right after graduating, Phil gets a letter. He’s been drafted. He’s been assigned to basic training with the U.S. Army. Within a few weeks, Phil was off to Europe – along with countless young men from allied forces. Their mission? To save the world. Think about that: one of the fastest kids in Seattle, vaguely aware of the horrors of war, but not afraid of the horrors of war. These young men and women were ready because there was a selflessness about them. They were ready to fight for the survival of mankind.

When I first met Phil, his mind was as sharp as ever. He told my listeners stories about the Battle of the Bulge – the single bloodiest battle fought by the U.S. in WWII. How he stripped off his military dog tags and buried them during a deadly Nazi onslaught because he was Jewish – only to later return to the site days later and retrieve it. Phil talked about surviving 195 straight days of shelling and shooting while on the front lines. He described liberating a Nazi concentration camp. He wept while recalling the camp survivors – weak from imprisonment – who died after their release.

In later conversations, I learned about how Phil found joy again while sidewalk gambling with pennies for doughnuts against a young Frank Sinatra. How he met a yet-to-be-discovered Dolly Parton. How he married a wonderful woman and raised a strong family.

The late great Jim Valvano, iconic basketball coach at North Carolina State University, once said this about living: Every day you should laugh a little and you should cry a little. That’s what experiencing human emotion is about. That’s living, Valvano said. Even the great sorrows in life should be embraced, he continued, because when you feel such intensity of emotions, that’s when you know you’re alive.

That is why I both grieve and celebrate the life of Phil Sulman – a leader in the Greatest Generation and a great American hero.

Listener tributes via the textline:

“I am so sorry for the loss of this precious soul. I hope his stories live on and keep getting passed around to generations. People will never know the things that his generation has endured. I am crying like a baby over listening to these audio clips again. Keep on sharing. ♥️”

“Within 30 seconds of your opening comments, I said, `Rest In Peace Phil’ with a tear in my eye.”

“Noooooooooooooo, we have lost a great American. `Soldiers don’t died though; they go to heaven to regroup.’ He served his time in hell; may he now find peace in heaven. Thank you for letting us meet this great man.”

“Sounds like Phil was in the same places as my father. My father made a deal with God that if he survived the war, he would spend the rest of his life working for peace and he did that.”

“He is a true hero. I have truly enjoyed listening to him. And yes, he is from the best generation ever. God bless you and him as well as his family.”

“I had a similar experience around 2014. I was taking a lunch break at a Subway sandwich shop. It was the North end of the Sammamish Plateau across from the Safeway. As I was sitting to eat my sandwich there was an older gentleman with his beautiful wife sitting in another booth. As I looked at him I noticed the hat he was wearing. It read “USS HORNET”. I had to ask him if he sailed on the Hornet. He looked at me and said `Son, I was on the Hornet when it was sunk.’ It was October 1942. A wave of emotion poured over me. I could only imagine the hell he survived. I was literally speechless. I went to the counter and bought a $50 Subway card for him. When I gave it to him all I could get out was `thank you.’ Truly these men were the greatest generation.”

“OMG Dori! People around me in a traffic jam are wondering why I’m crying. Prayers for the family and thank you for bringing his story to all of us. His story, history.”

“Dori, I can’t thank you enough for sharing Phil with all of us!!! He was a gem!!! What a Blessing!!! God Bless Phil & his family!!”

“Thank you for bringing Phil into all of our lives. He truly was a hero in so many ways. I made sure I was listening when you had him on your show because I appreciated his life experience and the fact that he was vulnerable when sharing his emotions. As we lose more people like Phil we truly are losing a great generation. Godspeed to him and prayers to, and for, his family and friends.”

“Thank you Dori, for sharing Phil’s story. He has enriched my life. Heaven is welcoming home a true gem of a human. A hero for sure.”

“The segment about Phil was heartbreaking. I enjoyed his story about Dolly Parton a few weeks ago. I feel as if I too lost a friend. Perfect homage. I . . . had to pull over to listen to it all. Thank you for sharing and Godspeed Mr. Sulman. Be at rest with your friends.”

“Thank you for sharing that with us, Dori. I am not a person who wears my heart on my sleeve, but that made me tear up, hearing about his encountering a concentration camp. God bless the greatest generation, and the lifetime of sacrifice they made in WWII and the decades after for the survivors. Thank you again, and God bless you for sharing with us.”

“I’m so sorry for the loss. Even though we didn’t know Phil like you did we grew a connection and love for him just as you did. He was such a great person and beautiful soul. I know I looked forward to hearing Phil’s interviews each segment he was on the show. Just the sincerity in his voice and the love and pain in his voice put you in his shoes when he would tell a story. My heart is with Phil and his family as they grieve through this loss of SUCH a great man, soldier and friend to many many people he didn’t even get the chance to meet.”

“Phil took me with him with his wonderful ability to tell his heroic (unbeknown to him) life. He was a true hero and a gentleman. I will miss his voice very much.”

Dori Monson on KIRO Newsradio 97.3 FM
  • listen to dori monsonTune in to KIRO Newsradio weekdays at 12 noon for The Dori Monson Show.

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Dori: Stories live on from my hero, World War II vet Phil Sulman