CJ Phifer's military career started in 1943 and ended in 1973. In other words, he was on active duty through three major American wars - World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Phifer, who died last month at 87, in Vineland's Veterans Memorial Home, started his life in uniform as a U.S. Marines grunt during World War II. He dropped out of Camden High School to enlist, and spent his 18th birthday in the water off Guam, waiting to attack the Japanese-held island. His time in the Pacific would leave him with a few souvenirs, including malaria and dengue fever.

But after the war was won in 1945, he got home - something his family knows was too rare in his circles.

"Not many of them came back alive and in one piece, but he did," said his daughter, Cynthia Phifer, of Virginia Beach, Va.

CJ - short for Clifford John - finished his last two years of high school in eight months through a program at Temple University. And in a restaurant near home, he ran into a girl he recognized from high school, Dorothy Przybylski. He asked her out, she said yes, and it wasn't long before they were married.

Dorothy never forgot that she was two years older than her husband. She couldn't - he wouldn't let her.

"He always teased her about her age," said another daughter, Tricia LaCarrubba, of Somers Point.

Dorothy was a nurse, and CJ went to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh with help from his military service. He studied journalism, but he never became an ink-stained wretch. Instead, when he graduated, he took an ROTC commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

That was in 1950, when the Korean War was just starting, but Lt. Phifer - or Dad to a family that would grow to six kids, four girls followed by two boys - didn't get to Korea until the fighting was finished, LaCarrubba said.

He wasn't so lucky in Vietnam, though. He was in combat there and was exposed to Agent Orange, which his family blames for some of his health problems later in life. But Vietnam was still going on when Col. CJ Phifer retired in 1973.

His family had been stationed with him in Germany through three separate tours of duty - including in Munich in 1972, when Col. Phifer was the American post commander during the terrorist killings of 11 Israeli athletes in the Olympics.

"We were on alert for a long time after that," daughter Cynthia remembers.

When he left the Army, the Phifers moved to the Philadelphia suburbs. But after just a year or so there, CJ and Dorothy brought their family to live in Ocean City.

And CJ soon got a job that was brand new in the town, and in South Jersey. He became the director of a program to collect money from people who used Ocean City's favorite natural resource - by selling these things called beach tags.

"He wrote a proposal up, and his main premise was to keep overhead as low as humanly possible, so it wasn't chewing up the funds it was taking in," Cynthia said, adding that that even though her dad never used his journalism degree professionally, it did help his writing.

"And it certainly allowed him to quiz his children rather well," she added, with a little laugh.

CJ and Dorothy also ran a store in downtown Ocean City, the Yankee Trader. But after a few years, CJ moved on to yet another new industry, Atlantic City's casinos. He started in security at the Playboy Casino before it opened, but moved up quickly to become vice president of personnel. He also served on the Ocean City school board and was on the board at Shore Medical Center, as the Somers Point hospital is called now.

Later, CJ and Dorothy would move to Somers Point, Linwood and Upper Township before Dorothy died in 2010. CJ had been on a waiting list for the Vineland Veterans Home, and his family was thrilled by the care he got and the concern the staff showed him.

They say it was also a fitting place for their father, the colonel.

Even after all his moves, jobs and roles, "I don't think he ever wanted to be anything but the colonel," said his youngest son, Chris Phifer, of Upper Township. "He would tell me all the time, 'I'm a soldier. I'm just a soldier.'"

And that title, he kept right to the end.

"He was buried in his uniform," Chris added, "because that's who he was."

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

609-272-7237