For The Madera Tribune
Lt. Commander Raleigh Rhodes, shown here, survived WWII to become a Blue Angel.
Raleigh “Buddy” Rhodes was everybody’s hero.
Rhodes was born in Madera in 1918, and graduated from Madera High School in 1936. He lived a long, valorous life and was admired by his home town. None could have guessed, however, that when he departed this life at the age of 89, he would endure the most unspeakable of ironies.
Buddy was the son of Madera County Sheriff Welton Rhodes. He was the youngest Eagle scout in California and the president of the MHS student body in his senior year.
After graduating from Fresno State, 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.
One of Buddy’s first acts upon his return was to share with his hometown 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.
On Thanksgiving Day 1948, Buddy, who by now had picked up the nickname, “Dusty,” was married to Betty Jean Williams. He remained in the Navy and gained a national reputation with his flying.
In its December 1949 issue, Life Magazine ran 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. Cmdr. Raleigh Rhodes.
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, including the famous diamond barrel roll.
Buddy remained in the Navy, and when the Korean War broke out, there he was once again, flying combat missions off a carrier and earning three air medals in the process.
In 1961, Cmdr. Rhodes retired from the Navy and joined Lockheed as a project planner. He and his family moved to San Jose, and he worked in his highly-classified position for 30 years.
The dedicated life of Raleigh Rhodes came to an end on Nov. 26, 2007. He died of lung cancer at the age of 89. In an unbelievable twist of fate, six months earlier his son, Raleigh Rhodes Jr., also died of lung cancer.
So almost 13 years ago, Madera lost a hero. He would have been 101 if he were alive today. There are just a few Maderans who remember Buddy, and one of them is Charlotte Lesan. This lifelong Madera resident and graduate of Madera High School has firm memories of Buddy Rhodes. She was a little younger than he was, but she remembers the handsome, popular student leader well.
Charlotte says Buddy was held in awe by most everyone, including her. Although because of her shyness, she observed him from afar, she wasn’t at all surprised when he survived two wars and became a nationally recognized aviator.
“We have a lot of young people from Madera who have gone on to make good,” Charlotte told this writer, and she promised to send along the names of some of them.
I can’t wait.