PFC Luther Lerue Rhodes


Luther Lerue Rhodes
Hendersonville, NC
Father, Mr. Harley Rhodes
March 22, 1924
November 11, 1941
October 7, 1942
Guadalcanal L/3/5 PFC KIA
Gunshot wounds
Purple Heart
Presumed buried in the field
Edneyville Cemetery, Henderson County, NC
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.

Birth and Early Life:
Luther Rhodes was born on March 22, 1924, to Harley and Lexie Rhodes of Hendersonville, North Carolina. He was the second oldest child of the farming family, and was just starting high school when the 1940 census was taken.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Like many Americans, Luther Rhodes knew a conflict was coming; unlike many of his age in 1941, he decided to do something about it. He was only seventeen and below the minimum age requirement for the Marine Corps, but begged and pleaded with his father to sign the required permission forms. Harley finally relented, and Luther enlisted on November 11, 1941. He was still a “boot” on Parris Island when Pearl Harbor was attacked; his training was accelerated and Private Rhodes was soon on his way to his permanent berth with a fighting outfit.

Wartime Service:
If Rhodes thought his troubles were over after completing boot camp, he was sorely mistaken. He reported to Company L , Third Battalion, 5th Marines on January 29, 1942, and immediately made an impression.

“The kid… Luther L. Rhodes [was] a very young lad who had joined L Company from boot camp, just before we’d left New River, North Carolina,” wrote Ore J. Marion in his memoir “On The Canal.” (1)

Back then, just about everybody in the corps got a nickname, whether they asked for one or not – and this kid, having the name Rhodes, naturally got the nickname “Dusty.” When the war started, he’d probably lied about his age and claimed to be eighteen to get the marines to accept him. In those days, and with a war going on, the recruiting offices were less fussy about birth certificates than they are today. To look at Dusty Rhodes, you’d probably guess his age to be anywhere between fourteen and seventeen, though most likely not more than sixteen. He had a big shock of very light blond hair and a boyish face to go with it, and I don’t think he was old enough to shave. In other words, he really was what [we] called him: a kid.

Although Rhodes was obviously capable – he was promoted to Private First Class within weeks of joining Company L – his youthful appearance began to present itself as a problem. Although he had turned eighteen in March of 1942, and most of his comrades were only a year or two older, his youthful appearance made Rhodes an easy target.

There were a few older wise guys in Rhodes’s platoon who picked on him, mainly because he was so young – what they called a “chicken.” But he was a spunky kid and would flare up at his antagonizers, often going at them with fists flying. We older guys (I was all of twenty-one) didn’t take the situation seriously at first, but after a while the bullying started to bother us. That’s when my good buddy Larry Gerkin decided enough was enough.

PFC Lawrence Gerkin had eighteen months in the Corps, and that was enough to exercise authority.

On day several young blowhards had ganged up and were giving Dusty a hard time. I noticed that the kid was sobbing, but his fists were flying. Larry noticed it, too, and decided on the spot that we’d all seen and heard enough. Larry Gerkin was about five-foot-ten, not unusually tall, but he was husky, tough, and very strong. I’d once seen him pick up a six-footer and throw him through the air. Larry had small hands that made small fists that could knock you cold. Under all but the most extreme circumstances, he was a very gentle man, but rile him and you’d be facing a bulldog. When the occasion called for it, he was also as quick as a ferret. Now he jumped into the center of the brawl, and within a second or two, several of the bullies suddenly went flying without wings. Rhodes was on the ground, but Larry had one foot on his chest to hold him down and keep him out of further trouble. Gerk wasn’t even breathing hard.

“I’ve watched you one-balled bastards pick on this kid since he came aboard,” Gerk said to the guys he’d just picked up and thrown. His foot was still on the kid’s chest. “You’ve made him into a good fighter, but I’m telling you here and now that the next son of a bitch who gives this kid a hard time is going to irritate me. And if you irritate me, I promise to bust your fucking head wide open so everybody can see the shit that’s in your skull instead of brains.” They know that from them on, anybody who fucked with the kid was fucking with Gerkin. “Pass the word,” he told his battered antagonists. They knew that when he said, “Don’t fuck with this kid anymore,” they had damn well better listen to him.

After this intercession, Lawrence Gerkin had a devoted shadow.

Dusty Rhodes would go to Gerkin the way a kid will usually go to his father or a big brother. Maybe he’d have a problem, and Gerk would hear him out, give him some advice, and say, “Okay, son.” He always called the kid son. “You’ll be alright.” Gerk thought very highly of that kid.

The Fifth Marines set sail for the South Pacific in the summer of 1942; after a brief spell in New Zealand they shipped out for the island of Guadalcanal. Although they landed with no opposition on August 7, 1942, Company L suffered their first casualties that night; Sergeant William J. Steen was accidentally shot by one of his own men, who subsequently lost his mind and had to be evacuated. It was a harsh lesson to learn – and there were many more in store for Company L.

Fighting began in earnest within days; Rhodes survived an attack on a village near the Matanikau which claimed the lives of his lieutenant George Mead and platoon sergeant John Branic, probably witnessed the bloody remains of Colonel Frank Goettge’s patrol, and spent weeks campaigning and on patrols as his company, platoon, and squad were slowly whittled down. They even participated in the defense of  “Bloody Ridge” in mid-September; holding his own  through such fighting would have earned “Chicken” Rhodes the respect of his platoon mates, even without Larry Gerk’s protection. (2)

September ended with a disastrous attempt at crossing the Matanikau River; Rhodes’s battalion was not involved, but 2/5 bore the brunt of the frontal attacks which ended in a withdrawal back to the Marine main line. American planners needed time to organize the next attack, and for a week life for Company L was almost quiet.

Date Of Loss:
Dusty Rhodes, like the rest of his company, was wide awake at dawn on October 7, 1942. They would be taking place in the latest advance against the Matanikau River, but fortunately – for the time being – they were in reserve for the battalion. However, as Ore Marion noted, “Being ‘in reserve’ is not always an enviable position. In fact, it’s often downright hazardous.” Company L was to follow the main advance and then hold a position on the river’s east bank, ready to cross at a moment’s notice, but had only covered about half the distance before a firefight erupted to their front. The Japanese had crossed the river and were on the “American” bank. Casualties began to appear from the direction of the shooting.

Company L was ordered to fill in a gap between Companies I and K of the 5th Marines; Marion described the area as “vegetation so thick that if I’d stuck my hand forward and into it, I couldn’t have seen my fingers. It was the edge of what today they call a rain forest. On the Canal, we just called it jungle.” Soon they were taking casualties of their own, and remained pinned under cover for the next twelve hours until darkness brought a temporary end to the fighting.

You lie there or crouch behind the cover of a tree, wondering what to do next. You know the enemy is only fifty feet away. You can hear them. You call back and forth to your buddies, and the Japs can hear you. We didn’t know a word of Japanese at that time, and they probably couldn’t understand anything we were shouting. So you just sit tight. You learned patience, because if you didn’t have the patience, you were going to die.

The Marines held onto their positions, and tried to rest up before continuing the advance the next day. In the middle of the night, the trapped Japanese decided to make a move. After firing a smattering of shots to unnerve the Marines, they attacked out of their holes and ran smack into Company L.

Sergeant Ore Marion, a platoon leader by attrition, recorded his impressions of the midnight battle.

It was mayhem first-class, with bayoneting, screaming, shouting, and the constant crackle of small-arms fire in that black night. My outfit was right in the middle of it all, bullets flying in every direction, men running every which way, all of us scared, confused, and firing blindly half the time…. We couldn’t see anything, but we could hear plenty, and we could practically smell and feel the movement all around us…. At first light of day crept over the jungle floor, the after-battle scene looked like an artist’s rendition of Dante’s Inferno. There were bodies all over, ours and the Japanese, some on top of others, many of them dead, others wounded.

Those who were still standing, like Marion, began searching through the piles of bodies for any still alive. Marion remembered seeing a young Marine who had been disemboweled by a Japanese sword, chewing on a piece of wood as a battalion surgeon washed the dirt from his intestines. Without orders from on high, the Marines on the line did what they could for the casualties they could find.

Sometimes you counted noses. Or you went around and looked for someone, hoping he was wounded but still alive. “Where the hell is so and so?” you asked a buddy.

That’s what my platoon assistant, Larry Hardrock Gerkin, must have been feeling when he eased up to where I was standing and told me he wanted to go over to the area where L Company’s 2nd Platoon was situated. He told me he wanted to check on “the kid.”

…Gerkin and I stood in the middle of a battlefield, the battle now ended, but the blood, death, moans, dismembered bodies, and general ugliness were all around us. No sooner had Gerkin told me that he wanted to go and check on the kid, when I saw Dusty Rhodes’s corporal and squad leader coming toward us. He spoke to Gerk.

“Larry, I’ve been looking for you.”
“Oh?” Gerk said. “How’s the kid?”
“That’s why I came over here, Gerk,” the corporal said. “I wanted you to know the kid got hit last night.”
“How bad?” Gerkin asked. “Will he be okay?”
“Look, Larry,” the corporal said. “It was dark, all hell was busting loose, and I don’t know what the hell happened.” He stopped talking for a second, then said, “He’s dead, Larry – and I just wanted to tell you personally.”

Gerkin didn’t say anything. He lowered his head and kicked at the dirt a couple times. He didn’t say anything at all, and I didn’t say anything either. There was nothing I could tell him. The only decent thing I could do was keep quiet and leave Gerk alone.

Finally Gerk looked up again and asked the corporal, “Where is he? Where’s the kid?”

“He’s over here a little way,” the corporal said.

Gerkin looked at me. “I’m gonna go take a look at him, Ore.”

“Okay, Larry,” I said. “Go ahead – No, wait. I’ll go with you.

So we followed the corporal over to where his squad was situated, and as we got there, we saw the kid’s body.

Gerkin choked up and let out a sob. There in front of us, in the midst of all the dead and wounded, two men from the 2nd Platoon were rolling Dusty onto a poncho. My thought then, and my vivid memory sixty years later, was how white Dusty’s light blond hair looked as they wrapped him in the poncho.

Gerkin pulled himself together and went directly to the two men who were getting ready to take the kid’s body away. He said to them, “Don’t drop that kid while you’re moving him in that poncho. Don’t bump him on the ground, or I’ll kick the shit out of both of you.”

“Okay, Gerk,” one of them said quietly. “Don’t worry. We’ll take good care of him.”

Larry wandered off somewhere, and it was about thirty minutes before he showed up again. I never heard him mention the kid again or say anything about him. Not ever. I understood his silence perfectly. It was the only way you could keep on going  and keep yourself from cracking up altogether. Death was everywhere, but to keep going, we had to push the dead out of our thoughts. And from that day on, I never heard anyone mention Dusty Rhodes’s’ name in Larry Gerkin’s presence….

Soon after Gerkin came back from wherever he had wandered, I’d gotten word to prepare for moving the platoon out of the area.

What became of Dusty Rhodes after his platoon departed is unknown. The battalion muster rolls record that he was killed by a gunshot wound to the head, but that his body was “not recovered.”

After the war, a sergeant from Company L came to visit the Rhodes family. He explained that “the jungle grew so fast they couldn’t find the bodies” – a sadly accurate assessment. While the sergeant’s name was not recorded, it’s likely that it was none other than Larry Gerkin, Dusty’s self-proclaimed mentor and friend.

A memorial to Dusty Rhodes stands in a cemetery in North Carolina; his physical remains lie somewhere on the island of Guadalcanal.

Today I allow myself to think of that kid, and I think also of several others I knew who didn’t make it off the Canal, or off several other Pacific islands. It still hurts, thinking about them. By now, they should be old men like me. Old men who have lived long, eventful lives. But they didn’t make it past their boyhood.

Next Of Kin:
Father, Mr. Harley B. Rhodes

Status Of Remains:

Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
Edneyville Cemetery, Edneyville, North Carolina
(1) All quotes in italics are from On The Canal: The Marines of L-3-5 on Guadalcanal, 1942 by Ore J. Marion, Thomas Cuddihy, and Edward Cuddihy, pages 138-149.
(2) Company L was extremely active in the early fighting for Guadalcanal. Marion’s memoir provides a far more vivid account than any blog post can capture, and is well worth the detailed read.

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