As told to Kathi Bramblett, Kathy Nunes and Chris Bateman
Childhood on the ranch
I was born in early 1918 in Banta, a small town just northwest of Tracy in San Joaquin County. My parents, Harry and Irene Amelia Canale Rhodes, raised me on the family ranch, which was homesteaded by my grandparents, Jacob and Anna Hannah Rhodes.
We had horses and cattle, and grew barley and other vegetables. But rain was essential to success and in my early years, 1921, ’22 and ’23, the weather was dry and times were tough. The ranch was not doing well and it was very hard work. Over the years, I saw enough tears from my mom and dad to decide that I was not going to go into farming.
Higher education, I instead believed, was the key to a better future. My parents had gone only as far as the eighth-grade. My grandpa ran the grocery store in Banta and my family expected that I would either join in running the store or stay on the ranch with my dad. But I went to school instead.
I graduated from San Jose State in 1940 and then went to the University of Southern California for a master’s degree in biological science.
I was active in sports throughout high school and college, then coached high-school baseball and soccer.
Early on I had a sense that war was inevitable. I knew I didn’t want to join the Army, but I thought I might like being a Navy pilot. So I went in for a Navy Air Corps physical in, I think, late 1940. I was rejected because the examiners said I was colorblind. They said I might be able to cure this by changing my diet of hot dogs and hamburgers! I did that, I got back to eating more home-style food. I don’t know whether I’m colorblind, but to this day I still have trouble distinguishing pastels.
No, I didn’t become a pilot, but I did join the Navy. As World War II progressed in Europe, the Navy had a tremendous need to build up its forces, build defense plants and ships, and prepare for war.
More specifically, it was looking for athletic types with coaching backgrounds – guys they figured would make good boot camp instructors and wouldn’t be scared of these young recruits.
Since I was in education, psychology and sports, the Navy seemed to think I’d be a good fit. I was invited to the San Francisco Naval Recruiting Station in August of 1941, and Gene Tunney inspired me to join up.
Tunney was a former heavyweight boxing champion who was also a Navy lieutenant commander. He was touring recruiting stations nationwide and he convinced me. A few of us enlisted on the spot, and Gene Tunney swore us in. I was allowed to remain in the USC Masters program until the U.S. joined the war, but that came very soon.
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, I was put on active duty within days and received a telegram to report to San Francisco.
When I arrived, the Navy changed my orders and sent me to Norfolk, Va. There were four of us from San Francisco who made the trip: Bobby Feller, Sammy Chapman, an athlete from Berkeley and myself, all recruited in our hometowns.
The Navy was looking for leadership, and for people who were a little nasty. They assumed my experience made me tough enough to train and handle the “boots” (new Navy recruits). After our own training in Norfolk, we were sent straight to bases across the nation as chief specialists and began training recruits immediately.
Training recruits in San Diego
I was sent to the San Diego Naval Training Station in March of 1942, and spent about 18 months there as a recruit instructor. The Navy offered to give me an officer’s commission because I had a degree, but I enjoyed the training job, so I turned it down more than once.
During my time as an instructor I trained about seven companies with 90 recruits each, most of them just high-school age kids. I spent most of the time getting them in shape, taking them out and sweating them to death. That would take a lot of pounds off them.
I also got a nickname, Dusty, that would stick with me for the rest of my life. But it was nothing unique – pretty much every guy in the Navy with the last name Rhodes got the same nickname.
Codes, secret communications
After being a recruit instructor in San Diego for a year and a half, I was told that I would go to sea as a gunner’s mate if I didn’t take a Navy commission, so I accepted, became an ensign, and was sent to the University of Arizona in Tucson for communications training.
There were about 20 in our group from all over. They put us in a hot gymnasium and we spent most of the time learning to use the electronic cipher machine. This was the newest intelligence tool and it enabled the Navy to securely send messages throughout the world.
We also had to learn important security procedures. We spent three months learning how to type the number codes, then for hours practiced typing five-letter codes. Those codes were changed every hour for integrity.
We became proficient at not only typing, but also handling confidential information. At that point I was a lieutenant junior grade.
In November of 1943, I was ordered to Pearl Harbor and assigned to the communications pool under Navy Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. There were about 100 of us on the team. This was a great duty, living up in the hills of Oahu, very pleasant.
Laying mines, 1944
There had been a real problem in the Pacific when the amphibious craft could not make their landings because of the large coral reefs and shallow waters. In previous battles, all hell broke loose when the Japs had the high point on both sides, and our landing craft were stuck on the coral. They were just machine-gunning our guys. Thousands of kids in those situations lost their lives. It was a sad, dreary time, and every kid was a hero. We knew we had to get rid of the coral so that our amphibious craft could make their landings. So in early 1944, they ordered me out in the Pacific quickly because of my communications background.
I was assigned to Mine Squadron 1, which consisted of Capt. Robley Clark, his steward, a yeoman (the Navy’s term for a secretary) and me. We were involved in determining how to start using mines and mine sweepers in amphibious operations. We acquired 20 minesweepers and moved to Makin, in the Gilbert Islands, and eventually onto the Marshall Islands.
Each of our task forces worked on 93-foot-long wooden ships. They were called YMS, yard mine sweepers, and most of them were made in Stockton. These wooden ships were safe to maneuver close to magnetic mines and also around acoustic mines. They were the workhorses of minesweeping in the Pacific.
In the beginning we used Japanese charts of the islands because the U.S. did not have any of its own. We had to determine the depth of the water to decide which type of mine to lay: acoustic or magnetic.
We used the Navy’s new Underwater Demolition Teams to plant explosives aimed at clearing coral and other obstructions from invasion paths. We called the team members “swim boys” – young kids who were excellent swimmers and afraid of nothing. Theirs was a tough, risky job. These guys were the beginning of the Navy Seals – highly trained specialists who worked with explosives underwater.
A small task force charged with defusing Japanese mines also went in ahead of the larger invasion. They used glass-bottom boats. The boys would lie down on their bellies to spot Japanese mines, and radio in their locations. Then a minesweeper crew would go take care of them. It wasn’t hard to spot the mines; the water was so clear out there that you could see the fish at the bottom! All told, we cleared the routes for 13 island invasions, including Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Solomons.
On to Japan
At that time, we had the Third Fleet and the Fifth Fleet. These consisted of the same ships for the most part, except for separate commanders. Admiral William F. Halsey was assigned the Third Fleet and Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, the Fifth Fleet.
The USS Terror was our control ship, with a lot of electronics on it, including radar. Each wooden yard minesweeper was always communicating with us. We would be on the front lines, laying our own mines. It was our job as we moved closer to the Japanese mainland, our ultimate attack target. One fleet was always ready to go and the other one was always preparing. My job was to make sure we followed the plan I was given to clear the way for the fleet ships.
The technical people were under me. The key to mine-squad work was maintaining integrity under the water: checking mines, disarming Japanese mines, laying our own mines, blasting coral reefs, identifying and clearing invasion routes, and recon. It was dangerous work, as each mine had about 600 pounds of TNT. We went through all of the possible invasion passages, clearing Japanese mines.
My responsibility was coordinating with the Marines and with flight groups flying over us so we didn’t shoot at each other. We were always preparing for the next battle, always on the move working with different ships and using different communication plans. We improved with each route we cleared.
Almost all of the islands we were working on were atolls, rings of land or coral with water in the middle. Most were old volcanoes, and we were there to clear out the lagoons to make anchorages for the fleets. The big atoll we were involved with was Ulithi, a key American base between the Yap islands and the Philippines. Yap was a major power base for the Japanese.
Ulithi was big, about five miles wide and three miles long. All of the fleet ships would stay at this atoll – ships that were preparing for the next operation and ships that had minor damage. Ships’ crews could make minor repairs at Ulithi. They did a really great job. Ships with more serious damage were towed back to the states.
A day in the life
My typical day of work aboard the Terror was getting up at 5 a.m. to eat and check in at the shipboard communication center, which I worked in. We would receive messages, then decode them, type them up and take them to Captain Clark. Sometimes I was called out at night to decode messages, and I had to change the cipher code daily for security. Aboard ship I wore a key wheel, which could be inserted into the electronic coding machine and dialed in with the proper date to break the code.
There were six wheels and four classes of code. After the communications work was done, I would go out in a small boat and update charts as the swim boys set red flags to triangulate obstacles for destruction. The Navy was unique, because its logs of every action and of every unit were written and communicated daily to Washington. There was always a carrier ship nearby to send them off.
Staying in touch with home was tough. Our ships moved around a lot, so mail was infrequent and took a long time. We would get 20 to 25 letters at a time, and then nothing for a month or more. We weren’t allowed to write about where we were or what we were doing.
Morale stays high
Things were just happening at intense levels out there, with extreme damage and the constant threat of attack from the sea and from the air, where kamikazes were always looking for targets. But our morale remained high. Even though some of these kids were just three months out of boot camp, they and the officers were a close-knit group. There was always someone protecting your back no matter who or what rank you were. When we were doing mine operations and going boat to boat, we even took off our insignia, went shirtless and wore shorts just to survive the heat.
The kids down in the engine room were hot, dirty, oily and greasy. Those of us moving ship to ship to deliver food were so hot and so humid that the shorts were absolutely necessary. We had left our officer’s blues at Pearl, which was fortunate. If we had them with us, we would have been constantly cleaning them.
We occasionally had happy hours in the Pacific – simply drinking cold beer while sitting on one of the atolls. Beer was our most treasured cargo! Each kid was allowed two bottles a day, but this ration wasn’t guaranteed. Larger ships had priority and greater needs, so smaller ships like ours didn’t always get extras like beer.
Those cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers were like cities. They would have USO shows or entertainment that smaller ships would never see. They had everything – even tailor shops. Some had their own ice cream parlors. One of the things we missed the most was ice cream. When we brought a couple frozen boxes of it on board, some of the kids would actually start singing!
I wasn’t always on the Terror. Over my time in the Pacific I served on several ships, including the USS Keokuk and the USS Montgomery, both mine layers, and the USS Cornell, a net-laying ship whose aim was to protect harbors from enemy attack.
Montgomery hits a mine
I believe I was on the Montgomery from about April to October, 1944.
On Oct. 17, we were anchored in the Ngulu Lagoon in the Caroline Islands. The crew spotted a mine floating close to the ship, but the wind quickly made the ship drift just enough to connect with the mine, which exploded.
I was a half-mile across the lagoon on a small, 50-foot boat spotting enemy mines and reporting their locations. When I saw the explosion we headed back. We all worked as quickly as we could to stop the water from flooding into the ship. Four crew members were killed, but we kept the Montgomery afloat. She was towed to Ulithi and then back to San Francisco, where she was decommissioned.
I lost all my clothes and personal things in the explosion. It took a while before we got new clothes. I was moved over to the light cruiser USS St. Louis. I finally got some new clothes, and we sailed about five days to Pearl Harbor. There I was assigned to the administration group for the Pacific mine fleet. I mainly handled supplies and parts for our ships.
When the big ships came into Pearl I would get them some good food. They were particularly grateful for the big freezer chests of ice cream. I made sure the ships out in the fleet had what they needed if at all possible.
In the late fall of 1944, back on the Terror, we moved on to Peleliu, in the Palau Islands. Earlier, the Marines had taken it back from the Japanese in a two-month battle. Its airfield was secured and a supply base set up. Then we swept for mines and destroyed them.
On to the Philippines
The U.S. by this time was getting close enough to Japan to fly B-29s based in Saipan toward the mainland. Still, the Palau islands were real tough; there were an awful lot of heavily fortified islands still under Japanese control and large companies of Marines were invading.
Next, as 1944 drew to a close, it was on to the Philippines. Until we got there, we had blown up coral reefs surrounding dozens of islands and the Japanese never fired at us. They seemed to think we were not worth bothering with, and they did not want to reveal their location. We pretty much did what we had to do unhindered. So when the Japs began firing at us in Philippines, it was a real surprise. We didn’t lose even one of our swimmers until then, and suddenly we lost quite a few. This really created havoc.
Nevertheless, U.S. Forces were making great progress in the Pacific: Saipan fell in August of ’44, and Tinian and Guam followed in September. We took Iwo Jima in March of 1945 and Okinawa in April. But, with the Japanese growing increasingly desperate, we were hardly out of danger.
Kamikaze’s deadly toll
In early 1945, we were planning for the Kyushu invasion in the southern plains of Japan. But on May 1, the Terror was hit by a kamikaze.
When the plane slammed into our ship, I was sleeping on the Coast Guard Cutter Bibb, which at the time was quartering some members of our crew. We had big staff on the Terror because it was the communication center for the entire mine group, and we needed the extra room. I had gone over to the Bibb around midnight with Yeoman Tommy Robinson and Robby McBride to get a shower and clean clothes.
The only reason the three of us survived is because we had gone over to that cutter. The kamikaze hit about 4 a.m. It was a real sad day – a terrible morning. We lost Captain Clark and a lot of kids. The casualty count, according to the Navy: 41 dead, 123 wounded and 7 missing.
There was very serious damage to the Terror and the entire operation unit disintegrated. This created a real problem for the future. At the time we were right in the middle of planning for the invasion in the southern plains of Japan.
After the attack, about 15 of us went back to Pearl Harbor aboard the St. Louis. I went home to Tracy for a brief stateside leave, and when I returned to duty, I made several trips back and forth to Pearl. I worked with the admin group to get the supplies we needed out in the field. Ships were breaking down and needed parts. My experience made me good at knowing what was needed and getting it shipped out quickly.
Still, with the planned attack on Japan on the horizon, we needed more ships. But the economic forces of America came through, and before long we had more ships than we could use. It was amazing. Luckily, the attack on Japan – with casualties that certainly would have been horrendous – never happened.
President Harry Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August of 1945. After that, and after a second bomb hit Nagasaki, Japanese surrendered and the war was immediately and officially over!
We were so thankful. It had been a long road – from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. A lot of intense things happened and lives were lost, but it was just child’s play compared to what could have happened.
The industrial machine of the United States is what won this war. It was all because of our technology, our people and the numbers of products we turned out. The Navy had to change because the world was changing, and U.S. technology advanced much faster than the enemy’s. All we servicemen did was use that technology and carry out our missions.
We were able to, and did, break the Japanese codes and read their messages. Our technology had much to do with winning World War II. Thousands of technical people deserved Navy Crosses, and I mean that.
When the war ended, I was a lieutenant commander and I wrote my own discharge orders. I flew back to San Francisco. All I needed to do this was a yeoman with the necessary forms, then I could be a passenger on any plane or ship going back to the states.
I had teamed up with Red Johnson from Texas on many Naval trips. We said goodbye at Pearl and agreed to keep in touch, but he was killed in an auto accident just 30 miles from his stateside homecoming.
Yeoman Tommy Robson and I wrote for many years, but he has since passed on. He lived in Arkansas and was part of the original team with Captain Clark.
After the war everyone spreads out and sometimes that bond can fade away.
Reflections on service
There were so many interesting times during World War II. The stress of combat brings out the real person. There was a very strong camaraderie in the troops.
There were always people you could trust and who would have your back no matter what the situation was or what rank you were. It was a means of survival. The attitude of crews aboard small ships was very cohesive; we stuck together and formed tight bonds. We had to work on a level of friendship and as a team, no matter what rank we held.
I retired from the Naval Reserve as a commander in 1966. By the end of the war, I had been on the crews of two ships that had been hit – the Terror and the Montgomery. Both times I was on another boat nearby. I lost all of my equipment and more, but never spilled a drop of blood. I was one of the lucky guys. But I saw a lot of friends and a lot of young kids die.
Many people try to erase the memories of war, saying they were too terrible and not worth recalling. But even though my service was well over 65 years ago, I still remember the faces of so many of my “kids.”
It all happened so fast, and only the man upstairs knows why some our friends came back and some didn’t. War makes you very religious. It was such a different world. Life was so flimsy, so transparent and so unpredictable.
I never did anything heroic in the Pacific. I was just lucky as hell that I didn’t get hit or killed by something or, even worse, damaged physically.
I didn’t talk about the war for a long, long time. I really wasn’t able to because the memories of death and lost friends were too painful.
But then my grandkids started asking me about it, and I opened up. I can’t say it felt good to describe my experiences, but maybe it gave my grandchildren an idea of what war can be like.
Career in education
I arrived back in the states just in time for the 1945 fall semester at Modesto High. I almost took a teaching job at a high school in Santa Barbara, but my granddad was quite ill and I decided to take a job closer to home. That turned out to be a pretty good decision.
I taught science, did some coaching and eventually became dean of the boys and vice principal. I was still in the Naval Reserve as the Korean War was coming up, and in 1950 I got orders to go back on active duty. But I wanted to finish out that school year and the Navy agreed to let me do so if we set up a Naval Reserve unit in Modesto and trained young recruits.
I was privileged to create that unit and was its commander. I had my own training staff and teachers, who taught basic seamanship, Navy orientation and how to be radio men, radar men, and radar techs. Most of the students went on to serve in the Korean War. I was involved in that program for three years.
I joined the Modesto Junior College staff in 1957, as vice president for adult education. That’s when I met my future wife, Patricia Hertert, who was in the college district’s continuing education department. The Yosemite District began planning a new campus in Tuolumne County. Both Pat and I became involved with the project.
Our future was pretty much set when the district’s voters, on Nov. 12, 1966, passed a tax override that included funding for the future Columbia College. Pat and I got married on the same day, and in early 1967, I was named director of the new college. We would drive up the hill twice a week to oversee development of the campus (240 acres off Sawmill Flat Road, 160 of which were bought from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for $2.50 an acre).
Pat also worked on grants, curriculum, hiring and relations with our new community. I was putting in long hours, night and day. And Pat was involved in adult education up here; she even set up classes for millworkers wanting to further their education. She also worked with architect Ray Abst on the design of the Manzanita Building (learning center).
We moved to the Sonora area late in 1967 and bought a home on the shores of Phoenix Lake that we’re still enjoying today.
First classes, fall of 1967
One of my first moves was to establish a community advisory committee of between 35 and 40 members to help guide us. We wanted to be part of the community and if there was a need, we wanted to fill it. That’s why we included forestry, firefighting, hospitality management, business, health care, search and rescue, and other vocational-education classes in our curriculum.
With about 240 students enrolled, and fewer than 10 faculty members, we held our first classes in the fall of 1967 at buildings around the community. We did what we could and were experts at jury-rigging. We held business classes in a closed-down Sonora coin laundry called the Washing Well. We used outlets for washers and dryers for our electric typewriters.
In the spring of 1968 I was named president of the college and in the fall of ’69, with an enrollment of 500 and seven new buildings, our Columbia campus opened for business.
Putting students first
Our philosophy was students first. At Columbia we were dedicated to the worth and dignity of the individual student. A student may fail the college if he or she so chooses, we always said, but the college will not fail the student. I had a sign on my door that summed up our approach: “Students may interrupt any time. Visitors will understand.” Through all of this I continued studying, and in 1969 received a doctorate in education from UC Berkeley.
I was president at Columbia until 1979, when I retired at age 60 after more than 10 years on the job. By that time our faculty had grown to 53, we had more buildings on campus, and our enrollment had grown to 2,854. Columbia College was on its way, and it was time for someone else to take care of it.
Travels in retirement
During our 35-year retirement, Pat and I have traveled extensively. We’ve been to Italy, where my grandparents came from, four times. We’ve also visited Holland, Germany, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand and Peru. I’ve also been active in the Sonora Lions Club, the Chamber of Commerce and the Historical Society.
I had three children, but lost my older son, Gary, to a heart attack last Christmas. He was born while I was in the Navy and I first met him on leave, when he was three years old. Gary earned a doctorate in gene therapy and was a professor at the UC Davis Medical School until retiring in June of 2013. Like all my children, he was a great source of pride to me and losing him was extremely difficult.
My daughter, Sandra, is a retired teacher and lives in Alamo, and my younger son Greg is a surgeon living in Lafayette. I have six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
My Navy experience has stayed with me throughout my life. I remained in the Modesto reserve unit until 1966 and through those years I served four weeks active duty annually and went to Navy War College. I retired as a commander with 30 years of service.
I feel like both my Navy and education careers complemented each other. I employed the same philosophy in building Columbia College as I did aboard ship and in our mine- and reef-clearing operations in the Navy. Regardless of position, we worked as a team, we had each other’s back and we accomplished our goals.
Harvey B. “Dusty” Rhodes received numerous honors during and after his tenure at Columbia. He was a member of the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce’s Roll of Honor, was awarded the county Historical Society’s Order of the Wheelhorse and, in 1990, was inducted into Columbia College’s Hall of Fame in 1990 as a charter member and fellow member with wife Pat. The Rotunda at the college’s landmark Manzanita Building is named in his honor.
Mr. Rhodes died on August 4, 2014 at the age of 96.