Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Vietnam vet from AFA's first class to be buried Friday at academy cemetery

By Tom Roeder Published: April 23, 2014

Brig. Gen. James Rhodes is coming home to the Air Force Academy on Friday.

A member of the first class of cadets to graduate from the school in 1959, the Vietnam veteran will be buried at the cemetery on the campus after a noon service in the Cadet Chapel.

His son, Jeff, says that's an appropriate ending for a man who credited his life philosophy to the academy.

"His motto was proud, positive and professional," Jeff Rhodes, a 1987 graduate of the academy said of his father.

As a test pilot, James Rhodes rocketed to record altitudes in the NF-104A, a modified version of Lockheed's F-104 Starfighter that could reach the edges of space under rocket power.

In combat, James Rhodes flew the first missions against North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles at the controls of an F-105 Thunderchief.

He described one combat mission to his grandson.

"I circled my wingman as he came down in his parachute. As soon as he landed in the water, round from the nearest island came a patrol boat. It wasn't like a World War II PT boat, but more like a Coast Guard cutter. It was a very hazy day. The Gulf of Tonkin was very calm. I couldn't really see where the air and the water interface was. I knew I had a taken a big hit in the back end of the airplane, but I had no warning lights. So I circled around in a big circle and with my Gatling gun, I sunk that boat - with one pass."

James Rhodes later flew close air support missions to help troops on the ground in an A-37 Dragonfly.

In 1969, Rhodes earned the Air Force Association's Schilling Trophy for outstanding flight. It is an award normally given to whole units of airmen rather than individual flyers.

Jeff Rhodes said his father seldom talked about his achievements.

James Rhodes loved the academy, but told his son the choice was his on where to attend college.

"He was smart enough to know that guys who get pushed through the gates by their parents don't last," his son said.

James Rhodes was part of a small group who practically invented what the academy has become.

He graduated 10th out of that first class of 207 and helped adopt the school's honor code, pick its mascot and carve the first traditions into the academy's 60-year history.

The class made its mark in the Air Force, with 15 of the 1959 graduates going on to earn stars, including James Rhodes.

The general pinned on his star, appropriately, in Colorado Springs, where he worked in the underground Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station.

When he retired in 1988, James Rhodes had spent 4,000 hours in the air and flew 350 combat missions.

He died in December and was remembered in a California memorial service.

But on Friday, he'll be welcomed home by his classmates.

"We're having the monthly class of '59 reunion at my house after the funeral," Jeff Rhodes said.

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