Early Life and Military Service

James Dickson Phillips, Jr. was born on September 23, 1922, in the small town of Laurinburg, North Carolina.1 His mother was a school teacher and his father a World War I veteran and cotton mill executive. Phillips grew up during the height of the Great Depression, but he enjoyed a happy childhood surrounded by a close-knit community of friends and family in Laurinburg. In 1939, he graduated from high school as salutatorian and entered Davidson College.

He distinguished himself during his college years with an excellent academic record and served as the captain for Davidson’s baseball team. With war looming on the horizon, Phillips joined Davidson’s ROTC program as a freshman and continued his service throughout his college years. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1943 and immediately began Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Following his completion of officer training, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the United States Army.

When an opportunity arose to attend the Army’s new parachute school, he volunteered for training and was assigned to the 513th Parachute Regiment of the 17th Airborne Division, and his regiment was sent to fight in the European theater of World War II in August 1944. Phillips and his regiment saw heavy fighting while in Europe, including taking part in an assault on a village near Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. When asked what was most memorable about his experiences during the Battle of the Bulge, Phillips noted two things: it was Germany’s “last real effort and one that came surprisingly close to success to drive a wedge through the Allied Armies,” and the weather, which was “the worst scientifically gauged weather for fifty years in northern Europe, and it was practically impassable with snow and ice throughout the battle period.”2 On March 28, 1945, he and his platoon parachuted into the Rhineland as part of Operation Varsity, the largest single-day airborne operation in history.

James Dickson Phillips photograph, taken in 1948
J. Dickson Phillips, Jr., member of the Class of 1948

Although Phillips landed safely, he was later severely wounded in a firefight near the town of Munster, Germany. For his bravery in service, he was awarded both a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Following the completion of his military service, Phillips returned to North Carolina in 1945 and joined the University of North Carolina School of Law’s Class of 1948. He again excelled in his studies, serving as Associate Editor of the North Carolina Law Review3 and earning Order of the Coif honors at graduation. After a year’s service as the assistant director of the UNC Institute of Government, Phillips returned to Laurinburg and entered private practice with his partner, Donald McCoy. In 1955, the practice moved to Fayetteville and joined with Terry Sanford’s firm. Phillips honed his skills as a courtroom attorney and represented clients in both civil and criminal matters, gaining experience he would often draw on during his judicial tenure.

  1. Much of the information in this section of the digital collection draws from the Phillips family obituary in remembrance of Judge Phillips, as well as from reporting included in a News & Observer obituary.
  2. A Dialogue with Judge Phillips, 92 N.C. L. REV. 1813, 1820-21 (2014) provides a transcript of remarks made at a 2013 ceremony honoring Judge Phillips. The law school has also made a video of the event available.
  3. You can read a case note written by Judge Phillips when he was a student Declaratory Judgment — Challenging Restrictive and Regulatory Statutes — Requirement of a Specific Threat of Enforcement to Justiciability, 25 N.C. L. REV. 486 (1947), available through the Carolina Law Scholarship Repository.