Corsairs from Heaven

Reprinted from Naval History magazine, July/August 1997

 “Corsairs from Heaven” by Captain Diane Diekman, U.S. Navy

Corporal Berry Rhoden, U.S. Army, crossed his arms over his head in a futile attempt to soften blows from the North Korean rifle butts that knocked him to the ground.  One of his captors kicked him in the stomach, reopening the bloody wound he had sustained from a firing squad two days before. The enemy soldiers wanted him to walk, but the bullet had damaged the nerves in his legs so severely that he could barely crawl.

“Kill me now or carry me.  I can’t walk,” he told the North Korean officer who was leading the patrol that had discovered him as he searched for a hiding place.

A boot in the middle of his back propelled him off the trail and into a ravine.  When Rhoden looked up, the officer was laughing as one soldier cocked and aimed his rifle.  Another brought up his rifle.  Rhoden could tell they were toying with him, arguing which one should have the pleasure of killing him. He had escaped the first time he had been captured and shot.  This time, escape looked impossible.

Rhoden was assigned to Charlie Company, 23d Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division–and he was in the middle of the Korean War. He was 18, the youngest squad leader in the 1st Battalion, when his unit arrived in Korea late in July 1950 and joined the defenders of the Pusan perimeter. Because of troop shortages, platoons sometimes covered fronts more suitable for battalions.  During the last week in August, Charlie Company was spread out along the Naktong River, with as much as 400-500 yards between platoons. Rhoden and the six members of his anti-tank squad were in foxholes on a small knoll, covering a bridge crossing.  They hoped their 57-mm recoilless rifles would counter the threat of any Russian-made T-34 tanks coming across the bridge.  Because the communications wire ended at their position, they relayed messages between company and battalion.

The North Koreans attacked, surrounding the Americans and cutting them off.  Captain Cyril Bartholdi, Charlie Company commander, radioed battalion headquarters that his position was untenable, and he requested permission to withdraw. He was told to hold his position at all costs. The fighting was fierce, sometimes hand-to-hand.  As daylight arrived, the North Koreans overran the company; they killed the wounded and some of the survivors, apparently for the sake of killing.

Rhoden had acquired a .45-caliber pistol, and he planned to save the last bullet for himself.  He had seen the way prisoners were treated. He knelt by a rock to use that last bullet, but decided he still had a chance as long as he was alive.  Just then, a North Korean lunged at him with a bayonet.  Rhoden killed the enemy soldier, and was immediately captured.

Beaten with sticks and rifle butts, spat on, and abused, the Americans seemed to offer amusement to their captors. The young North Korean soldiers were more vicious than the older ones.  They didn’t curse, they snarled.  One teenager growled through his teeth as he smashed Rhoden with a rifle butt.

The North Koreans moved them to an old barn near a village, where the prisoners subsisted for several days on green cornstalks and sweet potatoes they dug from the ground.  They stopped digging potatoes when they realized all would be confiscated by their captors, who were not well fed, either. The Americans buried their dead whenever an opportunity was available, and the North Koreans did not interfere.

Rhoden was singled out for special treatment when it became apparent he was the leader. On 31 August, the North Koreans took his precious wallet-sized calendar with the 23rd Psalm printed on the back.  They took his fatigue jacket and his boots and socks.  He was offered a pair of sandals, which he rejected because of the foul smell. His captors led him to a dry rice paddy and stood him before a firing squad armed with Russian burp guns.

The officer in charge (who spoke excellent English, as did many of the others) said, “If you will be more helpful, if you cooperate with me, you will not be shot.”

Not knowing what else to do, Rhoden tried to flatter him.  “Your people wouldn’t give us any information if we captured them.  And my army wouldn’t want me to give you any information.  Even if I knew the answers to what you’re asking, they wouldn’t expect me to tell you.”

The response was, “I will now kill you.”

The officer turned and walked back towards his men. In those few seconds, Rhoden thought of all the things he wished he’d never done, and the loved ones he would never see again. He prayed, “God, forgive me for all the bad things.  If I must die here, please give me the courage to die in a manner that my army, my country and my family will be proud of me.”

Suddenly a force knocked him to the ground, and he realized he had been shot. He lay motionless, afraid they would come to bury him and discover he was still breathing.  He had absolutely no feeling in his body, just numbness throughout. After some time, electricity started shooting through his right leg.  He could feel the leg trembling, as his body started to come alive.  Fearful that someone would see his leg moving, he tried unsuccessfully to keep it still. He had been shot in the stomach, and the gurgling inside his body told him he was bleeding.  He knew he had problems with his legs, particularly the left leg, but could not judge the extent of his injuries.

He was within view of the village and the prison camp.  Every time he heard a noise, the wind rustling the grass, fear seized him.  Were they coming to bury him? He thought he might have a chance when darkness arrived, if he survived that long.  The hours dragged by as he lay there close to panic.

When it was dark enough to attempt escape, he removed his bloody undershirt, folded it in a pad over the stomach wound, and tightened his belt to hold the bandage in place.  Dressed only in fatigue pants, he started for a nearby stream.  He could use his right leg slightly by drawing it up under his body, and pushing off while he pulled with his arms.  His left leg was useless.

Fortunately, the stream flowed in the direction he needed to go. He tumbled down the steep bank and into the shallow water.  Pulling himself along with his arms, and stopping to rest occasionally, he moved slowly downstream until daylight.

As the morning fog lifted, he searched for a place to hide. The landscape resembled a carpet of grass.  All trees had been cut down for fuel, but he saw a mass of kudzu vines and decided to hide there. When he pulled himself out of the stream, his hands and feet were shriveled from hours in the water.  Naked from the waist up, he was chilled to the bone. He was also badly bitten.  Mosquitoes had been feeding on him all night long. He rested in the warm sunshine for a few minutes before crawling under the cold wet vines, covered with heavy dew that looked like rain.

As the sun warmed the day, the vines gave him a sense of security. His thoughts went to his family.  “You’ve got to get back home,” he told himself.  “Think of the hurt they will feel if you don’t return.  You can’t let that happen to them.” He stayed in the vines all day and resumed his journey after dark.  The mosquitoes were just as bad as the night before.

The North Korean patrol captured him the next morning as he was looking for a place to hide.  Now he was lying in a ravine while they joked and argued about who would kill him.

Suddenly, a spotter plane in the distance caught his attention.  Almost immediately three F4U Corsairs appeared, with big white stars and “U.S. Navy” painted on their fuselages.  They came straight in, strafing the patrol without let-up.  They flew so low that it seemed their propellers would chew up the North Koreans. He could see the faces of the pilots.  He felt like cheering.  He wanted to stand up and holler “Hooray!” As one Corsair peeled off, the next one was already lined up and firing.  The North Koreans didn’t have a chance. In his elation, he thought of buying them steak dinners.  First for what they were doing to the enemy–and then because of what they were doing for him.

The first pass killed the officer.  His body fell in the ravine, close enough for Rhoden to reach for the Russian burp gun the officer carried. After considering what he could possibly do with the gun, Rhoden reached instead for a small aluminum pot on the officer’s belt.  All North Korean officers carried such pots for making rice; they did not eat from the communal pots enlisted men used.

As the Corsairs continued to strafe, Rhoden crawled to the stream and started pulling himself through the water.  About 75 yards downstream, he slid under some kudzu vines along the bank. The strafing stopped and the sound of the powerful Corsair engines faded in the distance.  It was still. The Corsair pilots had kept the patrol under fire until he was downstream and hidden in the vines.  Surely, they had to have seen him, he thought.

He lay motionless as the surviving members of the patrol looked for him.  He could hear them walking through the vines and calling to each other, but they finally gave up the search. For the rest of that day and all night, Rhoden would move a short distance and then stop to listen.  He thought a search team would be sent to look for him, but no one came.

Every day he hid.  Every night he pulled himself downstream in the direction of the American lines. Born and raised in the woods, he felt comfortable with his sense of direction. He oriented himself by keeping the morning sun on his left shoulder.  Then he knew he was looking south, and headed in the right direction. He lived on water.  He drank water all night, and filled his aluminum pot each morning before he went into hiding. Sometimes the water would stay down only a little while and then come back up.  He didn’t spend much time looking for food.  After two or three days, he didn’t care whether he ate.

One morning as he was preparing to hide in yet another mass of kudzu vines, he saw a cucumber on a vine in a little garden. He ate it because he knew he was weak, not because he was hungry.  It made him extremely ill.

Each night, as time went by, he traveled shorter and shorter distances. When he couldn’t go any more, he told himself, “Move.  You’re a corporal in the United States Army, dammit!  Go on!” After that no longer worked, he thought of John Paul Jones sailing into the enemy fleet, being asked to surrender, and saying, “I have not yet begun to fight.” Rhoden would chastise himself,  “And you’re going to give up here?  Move!” He thought about Nathan Hale and George Washington.

Searching one morning for a place to hide, he was more concerned about getting away from the mosquitoes than the North Koreans. The insects swarmed over him and left him burning from their bites.  He saw a haystack, crawled inside, and went to sleep. Explosions jarred him awake. Looking out through the hay, he saw North Koreans everywhere. Navy Corsairs were strafing, and he knew his haystack would be a target. As he crawled toward an area that had just been strafed, a rocket exploded the haystack.  Hay covered him, and he stayed where he was until dark. The presence of the North Koreans prevented him from trying to attract the attention of the American pilots bombing and strafing the area.

During that night’s journey, Rhoden could hear American artillery. The flashes in the sky reminded him of bombs bursting in air.  He thought of how Francis Scott Key must have felt to see the flag still flying over Fort McHenry, and he told himself, “Fella, it’s just around the bend in this next stream.  Get there and you’ll see it.” He repeated this scenario numerous times.  By morning he could hear shells exploding not far from the stream. Knowing how close he was getting to the American lines, he tried to move faster, but he was so weak that he could only travel two or three body lengths before stopping to rest. That morning, fog provided cover and allowed him to keep moving after daylight.

But the fog lifted and the North Koreans were still there. Rhoden desperately glanced around for a place to hide. With as much energy as he could muster, he started crawling toward a pile of brush-covered rocks, where he startled three North Korean soldiers hiding from the artillery fire.

As the four men absorbed the mutual shock of discovery, one of the North Koreans pointed to Rhoden’s stomach wound. “You get shot by North Koreans?” When Rhoden answered yes, the response was, “That is good.”

Another asked where he was going and what he was doing there. Rhoden used hand signals and his limited Korean vocabulary to say, “I have to get water for an officer.  Hurry!  Hurry!” He held up the aluminum pot to convince them he was a prisoner on an errand for a North Korean officer.

The three soldiers did not believe him, so he continued his attempt to convince them.  “The officer will shoot me if I don’t hurry back.” He added, “I’ll tell him it was your fault I’m late, that you wouldn’t let me go.  He’ll shoot you, too.” With this, they agreed to let him get the water.  They said they would watch him, though. One pointed a rifle as Rhoden slid backward over the edge of the bank and into the stream.  He moved as rapidly as he could, until he came to a grass mat half in the water and half on the bank.  He slipped under the mat and stayed there, with only his face out of the water.  When darkness came, he moved downstream once again.

The next morning, as the fog lessened, he began his search for a place to hide. He came around a bend and looked up when he heard a noise. He saw a bridge 50-75 yards in front of him.  Three tanks, with big white stars and guns pointed north, rolled over the bridge.

His mind raced:  Stars–American tanks–could be captured tanks–might be North Koreans inside–guns pointed north–right direction–must be good guys. He had no words to describe his feelings.  He merely moved forward. He didn’t know how long it took to travel that short distance.  He moved a few feet and stopped, then a little farther, and stopped again. Finally he reached the bridge.  He could see no sign of life in either direction.

After filling his aluminum pot with water, he crawled up on the road and sat in the middle of the bridge. His chin resting on his knees, he announced, “North Koreans, South Koreans, Americans, or whoever, I’ve done about all I can do.  I’ve got to have some help.  Whoever you are, so be it.”

He drifted in and out of reality as he sat in the road, the pot of water in front of him. He took an occasional drink while he waited.  Then he heard a noise. He lifted his head and saw a jeep, followed by a truck. The jeep was driven by a U.S. Army sergeant.  The truck was full of G.I.s. He was home.


Rhoden weighed 98 pounds when he reached the field hospital at Miryang on 8 September 1950. After an operation to remove the bullet fragments, he was evacuated to Tokyo. He was a patient at the Naval Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, until February 1951, and continued as an out-patient there until 1953.

About the Corsair pilots, he says:  “To this day, I do not know if the Navy pilots knew I was with the patrol, but they sure gave it to the North Koreans until I was downstream and hidden in the vines. Even today I would really like to buy those fellows a drink, and the largest steak in town.”

Master Sergeant Rhoden retired from the Army 1 September 1969. He and his wife Faye live in Macclenny, Florida.

Editor’s Note: The carriers Valley Forge (CVA-45) and Philippine Sea (CVA-47) were on station at the time. VF-53 and VF-54 flew from the Valley Forge, and VF-113 and VF-114 flew from the Philippine Sea. The odds are that the Corsairs that saved Rhoden came from one of these squadrons. 

One Response to “Corsairs from Heaven”

  1. Jeniffer Thompson Says:

    I love your blog Diane. Great article – thank you for sharing this.

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