MOUNT VERNON — Although he may deny it, Laurence Rhoads has lived a pretty interesting life. At 94, a lot of his life seems like history rather than something someone you know has lived through. But Rhoads has lived the quintessential 20th century American life. And he has it all down on paper. It is his legacy to his family.
The story seems familiar in many ways: Born of a large family, growing up during the Great Depression, hiring out to work off bills, attending one-room schoolhouses and serving in World War II.
“The years have gone so quickly,” he wrote. “Like most people’s life, mine has been woven with problems and achievements, joys and sorrows, sickness and health, aloneness and togetherness. But all tied together with love and companionship and occasionally some tough spots.”
This life began for Rhoads in a log cabin he describes as being on Green Creek Road, about three-quarters of a mile north of Center Village Road. His father worked for farmers Mike and Seth Gorsuch, who owned the farm where the cabin was located.
“I started to school when we lived on Redbank Road,” Rhoads recalled. “The one-room school is still there in good condition. I went to both grades one and two there, even though I started at 4 years old.”
The family moved around a lot as work presented itself. This was during the Depression, and people went where the work was to be found. Eventually, Rhoads encountered a school with more than one room and an attitude not impressed with his life experience.
“I wasn’t old enough to know or even wonder why people moved from farm to farm,” he wrote. “But the family moved down to a farm on the county line and we children started (at) another one-room school where I was demoted back to the first grade. This was because the teacher felt that as I was 6 years old that is where I should be.”
Although the family moved around a lot and times were difficult, Rhoads’ life was pretty typical of the Depression years. Then things abruptly changed.
“On Jan. 30, 1942, I received a greeting card unlike any I had received before or since,” he recalled. “It simply stated ‘Greetings, Your friends and neighbors have selected you to represent them in the great campaign to remove the Nazi and Fascism from the face of the Earth.’ I never did know just who my friends and neighbors were, but now I realize it was everyone who had a desire to be free from the oppression of people like Hitler.”
The just-married Rhoads was sent, first to Fort Hayes in Columbus, then to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he went to artillery school.
“That was my second choice in choosing the mode of service,” he said.
For the boys from the north, North Carolina was a bit hotter than they were used to. Between all of the shots and hot weather, Rhoads came down with a 104-degree fever and his training was interrupted for 10 days while he recovered in the Fort Bragg hospital.
After completing training, Rhoads shipped out to Fort Devens, Mass., where he was assigned to a regular Army outfit.
“Most of us were assigned to the 645 Tank Destroyer Battalion,” he said. “It was newly formed from a cadre taken from the 189 Field Artillery, part of the 45th Infantry from Oklahoma.”
He then went to Pine Camp in New York and Camp Pickett in Virginia.
“I can’t remember anything really interesting happening at Camp Pickett,” Rhoads said, “except that we were on the list to ship overseas and soon. We loaded our heavy equipment on LSTs for shipment [overseas] and took a train to New York Harbor to board ship — The John Ericson, a converted Liberty ship — for troop transport. Someone told me there were 15,000 troops on that ship. We assembled as a convoy in the harbor. There were ships as far as we could see. We were told it was the second largest convoy of the war up to that time.
“I remember watching the Statue of Liberty fade in the distance as we sailed out to sea. I was fascinated by the ocean and the ship, as it was a new experience for me. So I stayed up top so I could see everything that was happening.”
Rhoads’ destination was Africa, with a stopover in Oran on the Algerian coast. The soldiers lived in pitched tents for several weeks until the heavy equipment arrived.
“When we were notified the heavy guns had arrived in port, my squad was sent to unload the ship,” Rhoads said. “This took most of the night and was my first experience with an air raid. The German planes were over the harbor most of the night with American anti-aircraft artillery firing all the time. It beat any fireworks I had ever seen.”
Rhoads would see more action, but perhaps the most interesting part of his time overseas was outside the battlefield. He was in Italy with his outfit, which was preparing to move north in a few days. Rhoads said he had met another soldier whose family was from Italy.
“In May of ’44 when we broke from the beachhead and headed for Rome, the Germans were headed north for another easily defended position,” he recalled. “We had an Italian in our crew who was only one generation from Italy. He had a great desire to see the Vatican, so our captain told us to go ahead.
“We took a jeep and parked on the street opposite from the Vatican, only to find out the M.P.s had put it off limits,” he continued. “There was a garden in back, surrounded by a good-sized iron fence, and there was a good-sized tree with a limb hanging over the fence. We felt it was our only chance, so I boosted Pete up the tree and he climbed out over the limb and dropped down into the garden. I followed him.
“Luck was with us that day. The Pope — Pope Pius XXII as I recall — was in his garden at that time and came over to see what was going on. I told him why we were there and why we had to use the tree limb to get in. We were his special guests and he showed us all around the Vatican, explaining everything to us. He even gave Pete a special blessing. When we started to leave the same way we came in, he took us to the front gate where the M.P.s asked us how we got in there. The Pope told them we were his special guests and to treat us that way. It was just a few days later that the Vatican was open again for tours — but not by the Pope.”
After the war in Europe was over, it was planned for Rhoads’ outfit to be sent to Japan.
“Luckily, before that could happen, President Truman drop the two bombs on Japan and the war was over for us,” he said.