Walter Rhodes : Benton resident to be recognized for service to country

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published October 28, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated October 26, 2012 at 9:50 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Walter Rhodes shows the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver and Bronze Star and Purple Heart he earned while in the military.

— Walter Rhodes of Benton, one of 15 veterans from Arkansas who will be inducted into the Arkansas Military Veterans Hall of Fame, “qualifies for his valor,” said Bill Russell, who handles communications for the hall of fame.

The armed forces veterans will be honored Nov. 9 for their extraordinary service to their state and nation.

Russell said that of this year’s 15 inductees, four were selected for their combined military and civilian service, while 11 more were named for their valor as members of the military.

Rhodes, who is an honored veteran of the Korean War, fits into that category. For his actions in Korea, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest national medal for bravery in combat. He was also awarded the Silver Star for valor and the Bronze Star for his service in combat in Korea. Rhodes also received the Purple Heart, the nation’s oldest military medal, given to those wounded in combat.

Rhodes said he is honored at being named to the veterans hall of fame, but only because it puts him in the company of men he called real heroes.

“I was interested to find that the hall includes 25 Medal of Honor winners,” he said. “I knew Nick Bacon, the state’s last surviving Congressional Medal of Honor Winner, who passed away in 2010. I presented a certificate from the Military Order of the Purple Heart to his wife after he died.”

Rhodes is active in the Order of the Purple Heart, an organization made up of recipients who “won” the award with combat injuries.

“The order has a responsibility to veterans to let them know about the services and benefits that are available to them,” he said.

Rhodes now serves as the state chaplain for the Purple Heart organization in Arkansas and has served as the commander and in other leadership positions within his regional chapter of the order. The organization supports veterans with programs ranging from finding medical care and assistance to honoring first responders across the country who have been injured or killed in the line of duty.

Although he was born in Texas, Rhodes’ parents were from Saline County, and the family returned for three years in 1937. They returned to stay in 1945, and he graduated from Glen Rose High School in 1947.

After high school, Rhodes looked for work but didn’t like what work he could find, so when a friend suggested they join the Navy, he went along.

“The recruiter said my friend would need a parent’s signature to join, so we left and went next door and joined the Army.

As an enlisted man, Rhodes was trained as a forward observer who could direct artillery fire. He was on his way back to Fort Lewis, Wash., after a 30-day leave during which he had met his future wife, when word came that the United Nations, including the U.S., would send troops to aid the South Korean army that had been invaded by communist North Korea.

Transferred to another artillery unit, Rhodes was shipped to Korea in July 1950. He arrived in Pusan, where the United Nation forces held only a small region around the port in the county’s southeastern coast.

“The Pusan Perimeter was about 50 miles by 100 miles; the rest of the country had been overrun,” Rhodes said. “I was not a [Gen. Douglas] McArthur man, but landing at Inchon on the other side of the country put us back on our feet.”

On May 17, 1951, Sgt. Rhodes was showing a young officer and a radio operator how to direct artillery fire to support French troops when the area was overrun by the enemy.

Rhodes said he never really remembers those times of fierce combat, but he is credited with offering cover fire and killing at least four of the enemy while the officer and radioman made it to safety.

“I left after I ran out of ammo,” Rhodes said.

For his actions, Rhodes was awarded the Silver Star for valor and given a battlefield commission to second lieutenant.

His next assignment was to train a unit that supplied ammunition to a unit of 12 artillery guns in combat, and for that service, he was awarded the Bronze Star.

On Sept. 22, 1951, after more than a year in Korea, he was back as a forward observer in combat in the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge in what is now North Korea.

Again, Rhodes said he does not remember all the details, but the story is told in the citation that accompanied his Distinguished Service Cross, supplied by his daughter, Deborah.

“Lieutenant Rhodes was attached to an Infantry Company as a forward observer engaged in an assault against a well-entrenched hostile force located near the crest of an almost vertical slope.

“The friendly force attacked repeatedly only to be hurled back by the numerically superior enemy who was supported by mortar and artillery fire. As the friendly troops fought their way up the slope, Lt. Rhodes moved forward with them and made his way to a position which was completely exposed to the observations of the enemy in order to direct friendly artillery fire more effectively.

“Upon realizing that the hand-to-hand nature of the conflict rendered artillery support impossible, he began carrying ammunition up to the slope to the hard-pressed infantrymen.

“After making numerous trips, Lt. Rhodes picked up a rifle, and moving to the point which was bearing the brunt of the hostile fire, he began firing with deadly accuracy at the enemy emplacements. His actions were entirely voluntary and so inspired the men about him that they effectively repulsed a fanatical enemy counterattack.

“The extraordinary heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Lt. Rhodes reflect the greatest credit on himself and are in keeping with the highest tradition of the military service.”

Rhodes added some details by saying he remembers seeing machine gunners running out of ammunition during the battle.

“I could not stand to see that, so I started carrying ammo up the hill and taking wounded soldiers back down,” he said. “I do not remember most of it — it is a complete blank.”

A few days later, he was seriously wounded when a tree near his position was struck by mortar fire with a white phosphorus round.

“You can’t put that stuff out; it just burns,” Rhodes said. “I covered it with mud and stuff and got it off of me.”

His hands were burned, and he said he almost lost his right eye.

“I remember the doctor who saved my eye,” Rhodes said. “He was from Memphis.”

Rhodes was treated at the battlefront and never made it to a hospital, but continued on duty as the fighting continued.

“The battalion commander said I would not have to go back into combat,” but he told me he would have to break his word, that they had lost 14 forward observers, and I would have to go back on the line.”

Rhodes finally left Korea in October 1951 and was back home for a while.

When he returned, he ran into Sammie Owens, the young woman he had met while he was on leave before the war began.

“We were married on the night she graduated from Benton High School in 1952,” Rhodes said.

In the U.S. for more than a year, he was sent for officers training before being assigned as a commander of an artillery battery in Germany.

“I was training 240 men,” he said. “I had left a 6-month-old daughter at home, and I was told that for a first lieutenant, it would take a year before my family could come here. After six years, I left the Army on June 11, 1954.”

Returning to Saline County, Rhodes joined Alcoa, working as an operations supervisor in a variety of positions for the next 35 years.

As a civilian, he remained connected to his comrades in the military through his work as a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

“My dad loves everything to do with helping veterans,” said Deborah Hobbs, Rhodes’ daughter. “He never used to talk about the war, but now he does, and I am glad he has. We have grown closer through those stories.”

His role as chaplain reflects his deep faith, which he said is a major influence in his life.

“I’m not a minister, but I’m a deacon and elder at the Northside Church of Christ,” Rhodes said.

Only a few days from turning 84, the Benton resident is active in building a church camp on Sardis Road.

Rhodes said he is pleased that the country now has all-volunteer armed forces, but he wishes there would be more volunteers.

“We have to have people willing to serve so we can have the kind of country we want,” Rhodes said.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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