If you ran into Ed Phillips on the street, you'd never guess his smiles covers up the terror his eyes witnessed when he was 18.
"It was my first Christmas away from home and I was really, really sad that I couldn't be home," said Phillips.
Christmas Eve 1944: Phillips was one of 2200 U.S. soldiers on board the Belgian troopship Leopoldville. He was an 18-year-old on his way to fight the Battle of the Bulge. Just five miles off the French coast, the Leopoldville was torpedoed by a German U-Boat.
"What a disaster. I was bib-racked up in this part of the ship, here. And when the torpedo hit, it hit right here in the back," said Phillips, as he pointed out locations on a picture of the Leopoldville, "There was never an abandon ship order, so everyone just stood there. We ended up singing Christmas Carols, nothing else to do on Christmas Eve, so we sang Christmas Carols."
The ship eventually sank, taking Phillips and 2,000 other soldiers into the 48 degree water.
"I didn't get taken under by the undertow. It didn't bother me at all. I just popped up to the surface like a good solider," said Phillips.
More than 750 American solders died.
"I had to fight off five or six GIs. They were trying to hold onto me to hold themselves out of the water. I found a plank of wood, put it between my legs. The last thing I remember, doing was screaming for my mother. In fact, I wasn't screaming, I was crying for my mother, and then I passed out and woke up I think it was on board a minesweeper.
"When I woke up, there was a Navy guy looking at me. He told me, 'I'm glad you woke up, because I was getting my butt chewed for picking up dead soldiers.'"
Phillips spent a week in the hospital, suffering from hypothermia. He eventually recovered and returned to the battlefield transporting artillery to the front lines, but that's only part of the story.
After serving in the Army, Phillips went to work in the Steel Mills up north. He retired in 1987 and moved to Panama City. For more than 50 years, Phillips never told anyone, except his wife, of what he went through on the Leopoldville, and he never told his wife many details. That's because, the U.S. and British governments swore all the soldiers involved to secrecy.
"I never let my parents know anything about it. Never let my family know about it. Until 50 years later when it was pulled out of the secret file and made public."
In 1996, the British government declassified documents surrounding the Leopoldville. It was then that Phillips was able to tell his sons why dad was never really happy on Christmas Eve.
"It's quite a Christmas I have every year. My thoughts are often with the soldiers who didn't make it back.
Phillips shrugs off any talk of his being a hero, but his friends at World Gym know, and wanted to thank him for serving our country during World War II. That's why Wednesday, they gave him a framed picture of the Leopoldville.
"It brings back a lot of sad memories, makes me think of all the GIs that didn't make it home, me being one of the lucky ones."
"I always congratulate the Navy people for saving my life. Without them, I wouldn't be here today."
Phillips has been back to Germany to visit many times since the Leopoldville disaster. He says at first he didn't like the German people, but his view has changed in time.
"I have German heritage in me. I don't dislike the German people, I just dislike the way they were trying to rule the world."