Larry Rhodes of Venice grew up in Far Rockaway, N.Y. Just out of high school in 1941 he went to work for Republic Aviation building P-47 “Thunderbolt” fighter planes on Long Island, N.Y. for World War II.
“My dad had a very serious heart attack in ’41, so I had to stay home the first year of the war and be the principle bread winner,” the 89-year-old local resident explained. “My older brother went into the service shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“About the time I got out of high school I signed with the New York Giants farm baseball team as a shortstop,” he said. “Then I injured my elbow while playing in the minors and that was that.”
It was at this point he got a job working for Republic Aviation building fighter planes. That lasted for the first year or so of the war. In 1943 he enlisted in the Air Force’s Aviation Cadet Program, but his eyesight washed him out of pilot training. Rhodes became a sergeant in a B-29 “Super Fortress” flying as a gunner in the heavy four-engine bomber.
“We went to basic training at Miami Beach and lived in a beach front hotel. It was tough service,” he recalled 70 years later with a smile.
After basic his 10-man crew picked up their B-29 in Harrington, Kan. and flew it to India and the China, Burma, India Theatre.
“We were based near a little town called Paradoban, India, about 60 miles northwest of Calcutta. We flew from there, by way of ‘The Hump’ to China and refueled,” Rhodes said. “Then it was on to Japan and the bombing runs. The trip took us a little over 20 hours to make.”
He and his crew flew 27 combat missions over Japanese territory from Jan. 1, 1945 until Aug. 20, 1945. His handwritten list of missions noted: Singapore Jan 31, 1945; Yokohama May 29, 1945; Kobe, June 5, 1945; Osaka June 7, 1945 and on and on.
“We started out dropping our bombs at 26,000 feet. Then Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the 20th Air Force who we called ‘Old Iron Pants,’ cut the fire bombing altitude over Tokyo down to 12,000 feet. We bombed as low as 3,000 feet at times,” Rhodes recalled.
“I want to mention how lucky the 767 Squadron, 462 Bomb Group of the 20th Air Force I flew with was. We flew the same missions as the 770th and 779th Squadrons, but they had a 200 percent turnover in personnel because of bomber losses. My squadron lost no planes,” he said.
How could this be?
“I have no idea. All I can say is the man upstairs was looking out for us. We didn’t even get a hole in our B-29.”
What impressed Rhodes the most were the bombing missions he flew over Tokyo in which 800 B-29 “Super Fortresses” fire bombed the capital at one time. Each bomber carried 40, 500 pound incendiary bombs that wiped out the city and killed tens of thousands of people, many more than the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ending the war.
“On one of these missions we used Mount Fuji as our initiating point from which we began our bombing run. It was very foggy, but all of a sudden, when we got over Fuji, the sky cleared and I could see that beautiful mountain,” he recalled.
“About that time this two-engine Japanese fighter-bomber flew out of the sun toward us. As it flew through our formation of B-29s it began firing its guns. I could see this little Japanese guy with his leather helmet and mustache as he flew by my wing tip. He shot up the two bombers directly behind us, but he never touched us. Then he flew off and was gone,” Rhodes said.
Weather was a serious problem flying bombing runs over Japan. It could cloud up in a hurry and make flying a four-engine bomber in formation a life and death situation.
“One time, on a flight over Tokyo, I was sitting in my blister on the side of the airplane, but I couldn’t see our wing tip because of the fog,” he said. “Just then a B-29 flying above us with its bomb bay doors open was ready to drop its bombs. We got out of there in a hurry.”
Rhodes’ job aboard the bomber was to control six of its .50 caliber machine-guns remotely from his side blister.
“I fired the bottom front two guns, the two top turret guns and the two tail .50 calibers,” he said. “When we got the enemy plane in this little orange circle that was our gun site I just pressed the trigger and that as that,” he said.
At the request of Lord Louis Mountbatten, commander of the CBI, his squadron while still based in India was asked to take out a Chinese bridge with their bombers.
“He wanted the bridge blown up, but nobody seemed to be able to hit it. So our squadron was called in. We flew over the bridge with four, 4,000 pound bombs.Two of the four bombs we dropped on the bridge were direct hits.”
Late in the war the 768th Bomb Squadron and Rhodes were transferred to the island of Tinian in the Pacific, about 800 miles off the coast of Japan. Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets flew from Tinian to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Rhodes made a trio of emergency landings on Iwo Jima when his B-29 was low on fuel and might not have made it all the way back to Tinian after bombing Japan. That was the primary reason American Marines captured the island from the Japanese–to use it as an emergency landing strip for bomber pilots. The eight-square-mile island cost the lives of 6,800 Americans and another 12,000 were wounded, but it saved the lives of 2,500 B-29 crews–25,000 aviators–like Rhodes who made emergency landings on Iwo.
“The day the first A-Bomb was dropped all our bomber missions on Tinian were cancelled, but we didn’t know why. Nobody told us anything about the A-Bomb. We were hundreds of miles away from Hiroshima, but when the bomb was dropped that morning we could see the sky in the distance light up from the explosion,” he said.
“One day after the war I was playing baseball on Tinian and got word the colonel, our squadron commander, wanted to see me right away. ‘How would you like to go home for a few days?’ he asked. ‘Sure,’ I said and the next thing I knew I was taking a flight from Tinian to California to pick up supplies.
“When we landed in Sacramento we were met by Gen. Jimmy Doolittle. When he learned our crew all had enough points for discharge he said there was no way we were flying back to Tnnian. It took him a couple of weeks, but he got all of us out of the Air Force in California.”
Rhodes went home to his parents’ house in Tampa. They had moved down there from New York during the war.
Shortly after getting out of the service in 1945 he got a call from the Cleveland Indians baseball team. Lou Boudreau, the player-manager of the club, wanted to make him a shortstop.
“Three days later he called me into his office and told me he couldn’t keep me. Boudreau said, ‘I have so many experienced players coming back from the war and they want their jobs back.'”
That was the end of Rhodes’ baseball career.
It was at this point he decided to attend the University of Tampa. After graduation he got a job as a D.J. at several radio stations around the country for the first few years of married life.
With the backing of a silent partner he and his wife, Florence, founded Radio Station WAMR in Venice in November 1960. In 1984 they sold their station to a conglomerate and retired. The station is no longer in existence.
During the time Rhodes ran the station he got involved in local politics. In 1969 he decided to run for the Sarasota County Commission. He won and for the next three terms, until 1980, he served on the board.
The Rhodes have three grown children: Jeffrey, David and Billy.
Name: Larry Rhodes
D.O.B: 23 July 1924
Hometown: New York
Currently: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: 5, Feb. 1943
Discharged: August 1945
Unit: 767 Squadron, 462 Bomb Group, 20th Air Force
Commendations: Distinguished Flying Cross, 3 Air Medals, American Theatre Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal and World War II Victory Medal
Battles/Campaigns: Bomb Japan
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, June 16, 2014 and is republished with permission.
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