For The Madera Tribune
Navy Blue Angels; 1949. Maderan Raleigh Rhodes is shown, third from the right.
Welton Rhodes and William O. Justice both served as sheriff of Madera County, one right after the other. Rhodes was sheriff from 1927 to 1934, and Justice served from 1935 to 1955.
The two men had something else in common. They both had sons who went off to fight in World War II, but that’s not all. Once the sons went off to battle, the fathers never saw them again, but for very different reasons.
When Sheriff Justice told his son, Carroll, goodbye in 1944, he never saw him again because the younger Justice was shot down while on a bombing run over Formosa in 1945. His remains were not brought back to the United States until 1947.
Likewise, when Raleigh (Buddy) Rhodes, son of Sheriff Welton Rhodes bid his father goodbye and went to war, the two never saw each other again — but for a reason far different from the Justices.
Buddy Rhodes graduated from Madera High School in 1936, the year after Carroll Justice, and like Carroll, he was the pride of the community. Among other things, he was the youngest Eagle scout in California and the president of the MHS student body in his senior year.
Buddy joined the Navy in 1942 and became a fighter pilot. In November of that year, the Rhodes family received word that their son was missing in action in the Solomon Islands. On Oct. 26, 1942, Ensign Rhodes had been a member of a team of four escort fighters when about 60 miles from his own carrier he was attacked by 12 hostile fighter planes. In a desperate air battle against tremendous odds, Rhodes fought the attackers while the other three American pilots went on to their target. Raleigh destroyed three enemy planes before he was shot down. As to his fate, the communication only said he was missing in action.
The Rhodes family was left to wonder until 1944, when the Navy informed them that Buddy had survived and was being held by the Japanese as a prisoner of war. Hope reigned, and in September 1945, the family learned that Buddy had been released from the prison camp and was on his way home.
Buddy Rhodes came home by way of Guam and Pearl Harbor to California, but not everyone was there to meet him. His father, former Sheriff Welton Rhodes had died of a heart attack two months after he learned that his son was missing in action.
So Sheriff Rhodes never saw his son again after Buddy left for war because the father died before the son could be liberated and returned home.
And Sheriff Justice never saw his son again after Carroll left for war because the son never returned home. One father lived; one died. One son lived; the other died, and all before they could see each other again.
One of Buddy’s first acts upon his return home was to share with his town what it was like to be a prisoner of war for 35 months. Speaking before the Soroptimists Club, Buddy stated that he had been in the water for 30 hours after being shot down. He was picked up by the Japanese and taken to a prison camp near Naikido where 300 officers, enlisted personnel and civilians were held.
His diet was mainly a “repulsive” soup, although he was one of the few who did not suffer serious illness.
When medicine was needed, a Japanese civilian was bribed to bring some in, however, during the last year, the Red Cross was allowed to make some available. The prisoners were made to work — no exceptions.
Rhodes learned of his imminent release from leaflets dropped from American planes flying overhead. He said his first act after liberation was to eat a steak.
There is a postscript to this story. In the December 1949 issue of Life Magazine was an article that featured the acrobatics of a team of Navy jet pilots — the Blue Angels — flying at close formation at supersonic speeds. The team leader was Lt. Comdr. Raleigh Rhodes. Buddy had remained in the Navy and went on to become a member of the famous flying team.
Earlier in the year, Maderans got to see their local hero in action. In May the Blue Angels performed over the skies of Fresno with Buddy in the lead. He led the air circus in some daring maneuvers, some of them only 150 feet off the ground.
Buddy wowed the crowd; his dad would have been proud.