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Helen C. Phillips: Preserving the History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and Fort Monmouth

Editor’s Note:  On February 5, 1959, a story in the Asbury Park Press related how sharp-eyed staff working for Helen C. Phillips at the U.S. Army Signal Corps Museum prevented some priceless historical artifacts from being sold at the thrift shop.  Col. Lloyd Burns Magruder (USA-Ret.) of Rumson had given the thrift shop the epaulettes worn by his grandfather, Maj. Gen. William Wallace Burns, in the Civil War.  Having been trained by Ms. Phillips, a longtime teacher, in being able to discern between old trinkets and genuine historical artifacts, the one-of-a-kind donation would up where it belonged, in the museum, instead of being sold off for a fraction of its worth.  Helen C. Phillips was a woman of remarkable intelligence and achievement, with many firsts and recognitions to her career.  Monmouth University Specialist Professor Melissa Ziobro, herself a former historian for Fort Monmouth, has authored this excellent look at the life of someone who made great contributions to documenting the history of Fort Monmouth and the U.S. Signal Corps.

by Melissa Ziobro

Women worked at Fort Monmouth from the base’s very inception during the First World War, initially in civilian, and then, from World War II forward, in both military and civilian roles.

Civilian women at work, c. 1918, Camp Alfred Vail (as Fort Monmouth was once known). Photo credit: Melissa Ziobro/U.S. Army

One notable woman in Fort Monmouth history is base historian and museum curator Helen C. Phillips. A highly respected professional recognized in The World Who’s Who of Women and the Dictionary of International Biography, Phillips was born in Bridgeton, N.J. in 1904. She soon moved with her family to Red Bank, where she would live for much of the rest of her life.

Phillips attended Star of the Sea Academy in Long Branch before earning a Bachelor’s degree from the College of St. Elizabeth in 1923 and eventually a Master of Arts from Columbia in 1944. She also eventually received certificates from Harvard and Oxford Universities, and an honorary doctorate from the College of St. Elizabeth. The latter was awarded in appreciation of her career and because of her generous donation to the college of 1,000 rare books and 600 rare maps and atlases, valued at $250,000.

Phillips held numerous teaching and supervisory positions in schools throughout New Jersey and in Italy before being named chief of the Museum and Historical Office at Fort Monmouth in 1952. In 1954 she was elevated to founding director of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Museum at Fort Monmouth. This was a massive responsibility. A 1952 memo from the Signal Corps Tradition Committee to the Commanding General of the Signal Corps Center and Fort Monmouth noted, “The establishment and operation of a museum is a job of appreciable size, including such things as planning; housing; correspondence; receiving and shipping; collection of items; accounting; filing; cataloging; repair and maintenance; budgeting; personnel management; display and safeguarding items; and doubtless many other activities. Even the determination of the scope and nature of the job requires considerable study and preparation of realistic estimates.” Ms. Phillips, by all accounts, tackled the daunting task with aplomb. The Museum quickly became, for its time, the largest communications museum in America. Ms. Phillips served at its head until 1967. A 1967 Signal article declared, “Her talent for searching out and efficiently organizing historical facts…makes her an invaluable asset to the Signal Corps Museum.”

Unafraid to be the only woman in the room, Ms. Helen Phillips often was – here, at a meeting of the Fort Monmouth Tradition Committee. L-r: MAJ Glenn S. Steward, Mr. J.P. Hoffman, LTC Melvyn W. Fuller, LTC Ted J. Palik, COL R. I. Ulans, COL Raymond H. Bates, Chairman; COL Murray A. Little, former Chairman; COL Leonard Draze, COL Robert C. Barthle, COL Walter C. Ellis (USA Ret.), Mr. James A. McClung, Mr. William M. Myers, and Miss Helen C. Phillips, Secretary. 14 Sep 1962. Photo credit: Melissa Ziobro/U.S. Army

Even in retirement, Ms. Phillips kept busy. She generously volunteered her time and expertise, to include, but not limited to, serving as a trustee of the Monmouth County Historical Association, as a fellow of the Company of Military Historians, as a member of the New Jersey State Advisory Committee to the Twin Lights, and on the New Jersey State Committee for Historic Site Evaluation.

Her many publications include History of Rumson (editor; The Schuyler Press, Asbury Park, N.J., 1944); seven editions of Fort Monmouth: History and Place Names (a guidebook given to all personnel stationed at the Fort); History of the U.S. Army Signal Center and School: 1919-1967 (Fort Monmouth, N.J., U.S. Army Signal Center and School, 1967); and Red Bank on the Navesink (Caesarea Press, Red Bank, N.J., January 1, 1977).  

Ms. Phillips died on May 21, 1981 at 77 years of age. She was survived by three nephews and three nieces.

With the closure of Fort Monmouth, the bulk of the command archive moved to Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD, while the bulk of the museum collection was absorbed into the broader Army museum system.

Thanks to Helen’s grandniece, Dorothy A. Harbeck, for her support of this piece.

About the Author

Melissa Ziobro, M.A., is the Specialist Professor of Public History at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., and the primary point of contact for the public history minor. Her service to the University includes administration of the Monmouth Memories Oral History Program and the Department’s social media and newsletter. She serves as the campus coordinator for the National History Day program, and the faculty advisor for the History and Anthropology Club.

Melissa currently serves as the President of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region and as the editor for New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, a joint venture of the N.J. Historical Commission, Rutgers University Libraries, and Monmouth University. She is currently a trustee of the N.J. Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, InfoAge Science and History Learning Center, and Ocean County Historical Society. She serves on the Board of Directors of Preservation N.J., and works regularly with other public history organizations such as the Monmouth County Park System, Monmouth County Historical Association, Monmouth County Historical Commission, Monmouth County Archives, Asbury Park Historical Society, Asbury Park Museum, Middlesex County Office of Culture and Heritage, National Guard Militia Museum of N.J., Princeton Preservation Group, and more.

She worked as a command historian at the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command, Fort Monmouth, N.J., from 2004-2011.

Sources:

Dr. Helen Phillips Hit by Car; Critical. (1974). The Daily Register, Red Bank, N.J., November 1, 1974, P. 3.

Helen C. Phillips biography file, U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command Historical Office, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

Helen C. Phillips; ex-history teacher.  (1981). Asbury Park Press, Asbury Park, N.J., May 24, 1981, P. 59.

Material Sought by Historical Branch. (1953). The Monmouth Message, Fort Monmouth, N.J., April 28, 1953.

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