The Owensboro Veterans Affairs (VA) Outpatient Clinic on New Hartford Road had a much fuller waiting area than usual on Friday afternoon, as over 30 people throughout the tri-state area gathered to honor one special man.
WWII veteran James Bernard Rhodes was scheduled for his routine VA appointment on Friday, but when his granddaughter called to say that he would be celebrating his 100th birthday the day of his appointment, Clinical Nurse Manager Phyllis Hearn knew she had to do something more.
Hearn contacted her public relations manager in Marion, Ill. and then began to reach out to the community.
The Marion VA Medical Clinic selected Mr. Rhodes as their “Veteran of the Day” Friday, making the following post on their Facebook page:
“Today is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, and today we recognize the 100th birthday of James Bernard Rhodes. Mr. Rhodes, a World War II Veteran, was 23 years old when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Two years later, he entered the U. S. Army. We are delighted that Mr. Rhodes chooses Marion VA for his healthcare needs, and we are thankful for his service to our great Nation. We salute you Sir!”
Hearn said the outpouring of local support was overwhelming as well, especially considering Rhodes’ age and veteran status, as well as the date of the event.
“We don’t have too many WWII vets,” Hearn said. “And with today being Pearl Harbor, it was just amazing.”
The Color Guard from VFW Post 696 created a receiving line as Mr. Rhodes entered the waiting area to a chorus of those in attendance singing, “Happy Birthday.”
Rhodes was presented with challenge coins and commendations from various individuals and organizations including State Representative DJ Johnson, Daviess County Judge-Executive Al Mattingly, as well as a lifetime membership to VFW Post 696 from the senior vice commander.
As he sat in a centrally placed chair of honor, Rhodes continued to be showered with gifts of appreciation in the form of a rose bouquet from the Daughters of the American Revolution and a red, white and blue handmade quilt from the Owensboro Area Quilters Guild.
“I don’t deserve all this,” Rhodes said, as the gift-giving came to an end and each member of the uniformed Color Guard walked up and saluted him one-by-one.
Rhodes seemed to enjoy every moment of the day, including sharing stories with patients and others passing time in the waiting room.
“He was able to drive up until a few months ago. He’s pretty miraculous,” Rhodes granddaughter Julie said. “He’s got just great memories of his childhood and of the war. He’s just super sharp — he tells a lot of great stories.”
One story that brought humor to those in the waiting area was of a time Rhodes was in the Army working under General Patton.
“I worked under Patton and his food was a lot better than the other general’s,” Rhodes said, eliciting laughter from those nearby.
Rhodes also recalled celebrating his 23rd birthday in Owensboro, prior to serving, and riding downtown to get a copy of the paper the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked. He would not join the fight for another two years.
“My brother was drafted right out of high school,” Rhodes said. “I had three kids when they drafted me. My daughter was just a year old when I left — I was gone just a little over two years.”
Although Rhodes recently buried the brother he served with, he credits his family’s good genes and hard work for his longevity. He was even able to recall a family member on his grandmother’s side living to be 105 and his own father living until the age of 98.
As for all the attention he received for commemorating his 100th birthday, he found himself a bit overwhelmed.
“I can’t get used to all this publicity I’m gettin,’” Rhodes said. “I’m not used to that. I’m an old country boy.”