Extraordinary heroism

by Donna Lampkin Stephens 

Lt. Walter Rhodes of Benton won the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart during his Korean War service, but his second military career more than 50 years later might be dearer to his heart.

For about the last 12 years, Rhodes, 84, has served in various capacities with the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Chapter 431 in Little Rock.

“The thing that we try to do is get the information to all the soldiers and veterans; 90 percent don’t know what is available to them,” Rhodes said. “We have helped lots of people get what was available to them, and I’m still doing that.

“I’ve done a lot of speaking over the last three years. I’ve spoken to nearly all the civic clubs in Benton, high school students, a (University of Phoenix) history class. When I got out (of the Army), nobody talked about the military, but things have changed a whole lot, absolutely for the better. And the government, as far as I’m concerned, is treating veterans much better than they ever have before, and they can’t do too much for them, as far as I’m concerned.

“It’s my second career, and sometimes I think that’s as important as what I did before.”

And what he did before is pretty impressive.

Rhodes earned his medals as a member of the 37th Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division.

Inducted into just the second class of the Arkansas Military Veterans’ Hall of Fame in 2012, Rhodes was just young enough to miss serving in World War II. He joined the Army on Sept. 16, 1948, only because his buddy with whom he had attempted to join the Navy required a parental signature because of his youth. To avoid the return trip to Traskwood from Little Rock, the two young adventurers settled on the Army, which didn’t have the parental signature requirement.

“I had never thought about the service hardly whatsoever,” he said.

Rhodes was born in Pecos, Texas, but his family roots were in Hot Spring and Saline counties. His family moved to Hot Spring County in 1937, when he was 9, and returned to Texas three years later. They came back to Arkansas in 1945, and he graduated from Glen Rose High School in 1947.

A peacetime enlistee, he took basic training at Fort Lewis, Wash. He was returning from a 30-day leave — during which he met his future wife, Sammye Owens — when he learned on June 27, 1950, that the United States would send troops to assist South Korea after the North Korean invasion.

“Two weeks later, I was on board a ship to Korea,” he said, adding that the conflict seemed to take everyone by surprise. “I was about 21 and didn’t really know what to expect, but the men I was with, most were going to go volunteer anyway.”

He left stateside as a private first class; two days before his ship landed, on Aug. 2, he was promoted to corporal. His original assignment was in the fire direction center.

“We did all the plotting and giving directions to the guns to point in the right direction,” he said. “Then a few days after we landed, we got a big influx of sergeants, and the consequences were I lost my job because of rank.”

< span style="font-size: 10pt; font-family: times new roman,times"> He then became a driver for the captain. After Gen. Douglas McArthur’s landing at Inchon in September, Rhodes and his fellow troops were able to cut off the North Koreans’ supply lines.

“This is when we started moving north, and then the Chinese began to get involved,” he remembered. “On Thanksgiving Day, we were just fixing to sit down and have a hot meal, which was rare, and we got a radio message to the captain that we were going to be moving forward. When we got ready to leave, I went and got me a turkey leg and away we went.”

He recalled the temperature dipping to 20 below on Nov. 20, to 25 below five days later and to as much as 40 below before winter’s end.

“The latter part of November is when the Chinese hit us, and in that one day, about Nov. 29, we lost more people from the 2nd Division than any one division had ever lost during any American war,” he said. “We were trying to keep the Chinese from overrunning our position and letting the other divisions go through us in order to get relief from the Chinese at the time.

“But the thing of it is, we had to go through a gauntlet of six or seven miles, and this area was more or less lined with machine guns with North Koreans and Chinese, mortars and about all kind of firepower. This is one of the reasons we lost so many people — all the destruction and firepower against us.”

Another promotion came after one of the gunners got drunk. Rhodes was promoted to sergeant and became a gunner for one of the howitzers.

“After that we went to Chipyoung-ni, a center for transportation, and were given the chore of holding it at all costs,” he said. “That’s what it boiled down to. I was working with the 23rd Infantry, and we had about 4,500 people and we were surrounded by five Chinese divisions. A division is about 15,000 people, so you can calculate right quick we were quite outnumbered, but we held out.”

Supplies were air dropped in for about a week before “a fabulous conflict” at the Twin Tunnels, following which he became a forward observer working with a South Korean unit.

His next assignment was to teach a young second lieutenant about field artillery as a forward observer. During the May Massacre on May 16, 1951, he earned his first medal, the Silver Star.

According to materials from the AMVHOF, Rhodes earned the Silver Star while a Sergeant First Class attached to a French Company. “Their position was overrun by an enemy of superior force, which completely surrounded them. Disregarding his personal safety, he jumped up out of his foxhole and began firing upon the onrushing enemy. His fire was so effective that he killed four enemies, and the others dispersed enabling the other members of his Party to escape to safety while Rhodes continued to hold the enemy off.”

“I had started firing on the people advancing on our position,” Rhodes said. “I had quite a lot of ammunition, but when I ran out I looked around in our foxhole and nobody was there but me. I tried to make my way back to the French line and found our second lieutenant. I was credited with killing at least four of the enemy.”

On June 2, he received a rare battlefield commission to second lieutenant and was assigned to the service battery to keep sufficient ammunition supplies.

“Then things were not all that bad until the 13th of September,” he said. “While I was with the ammunition train, I was awarded the Bronze Star, and then we were given the job of taking Heartbreak Ridge, and during that period of time, on Sept. 22, I was awarded the Purple Heart and the following day the Distinguished Service Cross.”

His Distinguished Service Cross Citation for extraordinary heroism reads in part, “On 23 September 1951 Lieutenant Rhodes was attached as a Forward Observer to an Infantry Company in the vicinity of Pia-ri (Pee Ah-Ree), Korea. The Company was engaged in an assault against a well entrenched enemy located near the crest of an almost vertical slope. As the Company struggled up the slope against hostile fire, Lt. Rhodes moved forward to a position which was directly exposed to 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 hard pressed infantrymen. After making many such trips up the piteous slope, Lt. Rhodes picked up a rifle and moving to the point of the unit bearing the brunt of the hostile fire he began firing with deadly accuracy at the enemy’s emplacements. His actions were entirely voluntary and so inspired the men about him that effectively repulsed a fanatical enemy counter attack.”

The Distinguished Service Cross is the second-highest military award that can be given to a member of the U.S. Army. It is awarded for extraordinary heroism that does not meet the criteria for the Congressional Medal of Honor (the United States’ highest military honor). According to usmilitary.about.com, the act justifying the Distinguished Service Cross “must have been so notable and have involved risk of life so extraordinary as to set the individual apart from his or her comrades.”

The Purple Heart, the United States’ oldest military medal, goes to those wounded in combat.

Following his service in Korea, he returned stateside. He and Sammye were married May 23, 1952, and he went to basic officer’s school and later served as battery commander of a training center at Fort Sill, Okla. He was eventually promoted to 1st lieutenant and spent a year in Germany as battery executive officer before being discharged in June 1954.

“By that time, we had a daughter who was 6 months old, and it was going to take a year for her to come over (to Germany),” he said. “That made up my mind it was no place for me trying to raise a family.”

A month after his discharge, he went to work for Alcoa in Bauxite, where he spent 35 years, five months and six days before retiring.

For years, he spoke little about his service, but a conversation with a friend with whom he had served in Korea started him thinking about reaching out to other veterans. He has served as chaplain and commander of the local Military Order of the Purple Heart, only recently resigning.

“A friend I worked with for 20, 25 years didn’t know that I was a recipient of a Purple Heart, and I didn’t know he was,” Rhodes said. “We just didn’t talk about it.”

But now he relishes such opportunities, including his induction in the AMVHOF. The first class in 2011 included the 25 winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor (all deceased) and 15 more inductees. Rhodes was inducted among the second 15.

“That’s quite an honor,” he said. “It makes you think twice about how people have changed their attitude toward the veterans.”

Bill Russell, communications contact for the AMVHOF, said next to Vietnam, Korean War veterans probably experienced a sort of letdown by the American public upon their return home.

“Everyone was just engaged in World War II, and I don’t think there was that mass coming together of the public for the Korean War,” he said. “Some of the veterans, Walter included, endured some unspeakable combat and had a tremendously valorous record, which is all a testament to his valor and the extreme conditions he suffered during that time.”

Russell said the AMVHOF is soliciting nominations from the public for the Class of 2013, which will be inducted Nov. 1. For nomination forms and other information, visit amvhof.org.

Rhodes is also a member of the American Legion, Arkansas Veterans Coalition, Disabled American Veterans, Korean War Veterans Association and the National Order of Battlefield Commissions. To schedule a speech by Rhodes, call 501.794.1508.

“For him to be such an advocate these many years later speaks to his dedication to current veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq,” Russell said. “Any veteran who has been in a combat zone will always have tremendous love and dedication for the current soldiers at war, especially these days. Some of those kids are going back to Afghanistan six or seven times, and the mental stress is just incredible.”