The Way We Were: Philip Stockton May

The Way We Were: Philip Stockton May
Phil and Gloria May Wedding 1960

In the late afternoon of January 1944, 19-year-old Philip Stockton May was close to the Rhine River in Germany as part of the 87th Infantry Division of the US Army. He described what happened next. 

“Our commander decided that we were too close to the road and could be too easily spotted by the Germans. So, we moved up the hill; we didn’t realize the Germans were on the opposite side,” he said. “They laid down a barrage of fire and BLAM! the next thing I knew I was flat on my back with a wound in my right leg above the knee. That ended my active participation in the war.”

As if getting wounded wasn’t enough, May was flown from Germany to France in a C47 with no door on the compartment, his right leg in a huge cast and his left exposed to the freezing temperature.

“The frost bite was the worst; I still have problems from that,” said May, who spent 40 months in hospitals in Germany, France and England and endured over 35 surgical procedures on his wounded leg.

“The wound from that German shell fragment was so enormous and it got a big infection in it,” he said. “I was a surgical exhibit; one of the first people to have a pedicle skin graft.”

Phil May recovering at Oliver General Hospital, 1946

Phil May recovering at Oliver General Hospital, 1946

Ask this cheerful 92-year-old gentleman who has endured more pain and suffering than most people could ever imagine how he is and the answer is a quick, “Don’t see how I could be any better!” His conversations with family and friends are sprinkled with “Bless you. Love you. Take care of everyone!”

May mentioned how lucky he was to be put on a beautiful British liner being used as a troop ship when being sent overseas; he tells of seeing the remains of the old Normandie on its side in New York Harbor as he was headed to war. Still on the positive side, he recalled, “I was sent to an amazing place in Augusta, Georgia, which had been a luxury hotel and had been turned into an army hospital for surgery and recuperation.” About his Purple Heart? It was presented to him in his hospital bed. No fanfare. No fuss. 

The Rhine is a long way from Avondale where May spent his childhood.

“I’d just take off on my bike from our house on St. Johns Avenue. We could go down to the river and fish or over to Mr. George B. Hills’ house. He was an engineer – later his business became Reynolds, Smith and Hills – his wife was one of the kindest, sweetest ladies. She let us dig up her side yard and make a cave down there. She even gave us a rug to put over it,” May recalled.

Delavan Baldwin, who passed on in March 2017, was one of May’s neighborhood pals. May said he and Baldwin shared a bottle of wine before Christmas a couple of years ago.

“We had a great time talking about those fun childhood days,” he said.

May was born in old St. Vincent’s Hospital, part of which still stands and is the Jacksonville Historical Society. He attended Fishweir Elementary, John Gorrie Junior High School and graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in 1943.

“I wasn’t a big sportsperson. My parents were divorced. My mother was very caring but a bit overprotective. I loved to read but was depressed throughout high school. When I came home from the war I was all lined up to go to the University of Florida where I had been accepted as a junior, but my friends Bill and Charlie Towers said I needed to go to Princeton,” he said.

“I was on a trip up north and decided to stop by and see the dean who explained that I would have to apply as a freshman. I was five years older than the other freshmen and I never thought I’d get in since I was such a lousy student in high school,” May continued. “I got a letter: “Welcome to the class of 1952!” I thought, ‘Man, why not?’ If it wasn’t for the GI Bill I could never have afforded it. Majored in history and it was the four most fascinating years of my life. I didn’t want to set any academic records – I wanted to have fun.”   

May’s mother went to live at the Martha Washington Hotel on Oak Street but kept the house on St. Johns Avenue even though May lived in Savannah for a couple of years after college working as a stockbroker.

He moved back to his childhood home around 1957. “I had a great office downtown; worked for a couple of different companies but I only wanted to sell stocks that would give people good protection. I didn’t like to try to just get people to buy stocks. I just got tired of it and decided to retire,” said May.

Ann May and Robert Wetherill, Ann Hill May, Phil May

Ann May and Robert Wetherill, Ann Hill May, Phil May

“Then I got tired of being retired and met a guy with Mumford Book Company – I always loved books. I traveled with him to libraries in Georgia and South Carolina. I just sort of faded out of that but ended up buying a warehouse and having about 10,000 books. I decided the books owned me, so I got a book dealer to put out a catalog of my South Carolina and Florida collection and we had two big online book sales,” said May.

On the side May continued to work for Charles Schwab, who he said “is the finest brokerage company. They didn’t pressure you to sell. They paid a salary.”

May was living the high life in Jacksonville in the 1950s – a “roustabout, freewheeling, bachelor” as he called himself. He went to dance clubs in Lake City, jitterbugging and winning twist contests, escorting debutantes to parties and having a great time racing his Porsche 914 or taking his super-charged Corvair up to some deserted Georgia road to run it up to 120 or 130 mph.

But fate intervened, and the foot-loose bachelor met the young widow of a fallen Navy officer. He and the lovely Gloria Binzel Sullivan were set up by friends for a Christmas Party. 

“We hit it off and had a nice time, so we started dating. We went to the Yacht Club and the Green Derby and we went dancing,” said May. “I decided maybe she was the one. I ramped up my courage and asked her to be my wife. I gave her my mother’s diamond then later bought her a ring.”

May went from being a freewheeling bachelor to a husband and stepfather to Gloria’s children, Gloria (Reid Phillips) then age 9, Johnny age 7 and Susan (Dr. John Scott) age 6, on May Day of 1960 at St. Paul’s Catholic Church, a month before May’s 40th birthday.

May, who had grown up at Riverside Presbyterian Church, explained, “We just went to different churches on Sunday morning. I had sort of quit going after the war but realized I was not setting a good enough example, so I started going to church again.”

Now a member of St. John’s Presbyterian Church, May has a strong faith and peppers his conversation with references to God, remarking that he looks forward to being reunited with his wife, who passed away in July 2016.

“Gloria was one of the most outstanding human beings. When we first married I was sort of continuing my bachelor life and my sister came to me and told me to stop carousing around,” he laughed. “So, I had to be re-trained!”

The Mays had an exciting life together. “We both loved the water and spotted an old house on McGirts Boulevard that had been deserted for years. They were asking $35,000 for it – around 1962 or ’63. There was big old stove in the living room with a pipe,” he said.

“We took the children to see it and young Gloria started crying. It took almost two years, but we added a screen porch, dock – it was really nice. I was tired of waiting and didn’t want our mutual child to be walking by the time we moved in.”

Of their “mutual” child, May said they saw an Exxon (Esso) ad – the ones where they said, “Put a tiger in your tank” and Gloria, who was very pregnant at the time, said: “If anybody has a tiger in their tank, it’s me!”

So Philip S. May III, born in 1965, was nicknamed Tiger. Now married to Stacy Watson May, Tiger said he thought it might have something to do with him being “rambunctious,” and his dad agreed.

“Tiger became a boating nut. He tore up the river. It was a great life over there. Tiger had a diving company – took people on fishing trips to South Pacific – built a shooting range, On Target Sports in Orange Park. All of the children are off doing fantastic things!”

Poppo, as May is called by his seven grand- and four great-grandchildren, reminisced about the great times he and Gloria had.

“We enjoyed a great friendship with Bob and Carol Shircliff. The Green Derby was THE gathering place in Jacksonville and each year we would take the girls there for their birthdays – Gloria’s was January 10th and Carol’s was the 6th. We did that for many years and that was the party I enjoyed the most,” May said.

Phil and Gloria May with Gloria, Johnny and Susan

Phil and Gloria May with Gloria, Johnny and Susan

“We traveled about every corner of the globe. We ate at an outstanding restaurant in Japan way up a mountain road, a lovely location. We crossed Australia on a train. I heard you could ride an elephant in Thailand, so I told Gloria we needed to go ride an elephant. She was such a good sport. We rode for three hours on the most gentle elephant, crossed a little river into the jungles of Siam. It was one of the most delightful days of my life. One of my favorite memories,” he said. 

May remarked that he does not have the time to do all the things he wants to do but he drives to meet friends for lunch and conversation. “I’ve been driving since I was 10 years old. My dad used to take me out to Camp Johnson, which is now NAS, on the weekends. The roads were paved with red brick then. It is my way of staying connected with the world. I belonged to a club, the Honey Do’s but I want to spend time with my family and personal friends one-on-one.”

May emphasized how blessed he is and how the Lord has helped him through the war, the loss of his beloved wife and friends and family, and two bouts of cancer. He has combined his love of history and his interest in the Normandie into what he calls his Memorabilia Museum. A four-foot model of the Normandie from his collection will find a new home at a restaurant which will open later in the year.

“Dad is a treasure trove of local history and has fascinating stories of Jacksonville and of WW2,” said Tiger. “He did an amazing job of overcoming that wound. He taught me to drive a stick shift even though he had to use his left leg for the brake and the clutch. I don’t know how he did that. He would roar down the road in one of his sports cars or his Pontiac GTO. He was the best driver.” 

At 92, Philip May does not “roustabout” nor (hopefully) blast down the road at 120 mph but he still has a “freewheeling” spirit and doesn’t worry. He said with confidence, “I’ve done just about everything on earth; at 92 I don’t know how much time I have left but the Lord is in charge.” 

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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