03/12/2012 08:59 EDT | Updated 05/12/2012 05:12 EDT

Lanier Phillips, survivor of 1942 disaster, dies at 88

Lanier Phillips, a black U.S. serviceman who has credited his 1942 rescue off Newfoundland as transforming his life and igniting a passion for civil rights, died Monday. He was 88.

Phillips, who would have turned 89 on Wednesday, passed away at a military retirement home in Gulfport, Miss.

Phillips was just 18 when the U.S. warships Pollux and Truxtun went aground at a cove on Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula, near the towns of St. Lawrence and Lawn.

"They changed my way of thinking and it erased all of the hatred within me," Phillips told CBC News last month, when he came to Newfoundland to take part in a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Pollux-Truxtun disaster.

"Because of that tragedy, I joined up with Dr. [Martin Luther] King. I just had to join up with Dr. King and that's because of the change they did for me in St. Lawrence."

The story of Lanier Phillips, whose black skin was washed vigorously by women who mistakenly thought it had been coated in oil, has been told many times over the years, including in television and radio documentaries and recently in the Robert Chafe play Oil and Water.

Warmly embraced by rescuers from the Burin Peninsula towns of St. Lawrence and Lawn, Phillips often said the experience opened his eyes to a world beyond the harsh racism he encountered in the South.

Although visibly frail, Phillips came to St. Lawrence just last month to take part in ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the Pollux-Truxtun disaster, which claimed the lives of 203 men.

"My health is not too well," Phillips told CBC News last month.

"From that terrible day and night, the frostbites and whatnot, it affected the circulation in my legs and then I have other, you know, maladies, so it's going down hill.

"I'm just so glad that I was able to come for this great 70th anniversary."

He went on to a distinguished career in the U.S. navy as a sonar technician, the first African-American to do so. He also became a civil rights activist.

In 2008, Phillips was awarded an honorary degree from Memorial University in St. John's.

"Had it not been for the people of St. Lawrence, I would have had no family," Phillips said at the time.