Larry Wayne Rhodes lived 20 years.
And although he has been dead for more than twice that long, the memory of this Wichitan often crosses the hearts and minds of family and friends.
Connie Rhodes Trego remembers her youngest brother as a sweet kid.
His Vietnam War buddies nicknamed him “Dusty” and say he was a good guy who could laugh and make jokes but did his job exceptionally well.
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On April 28, 1969, Rhodes was killed after an M79 shell exploded near him, peppering him with shrapnel.
“As a vet, we don’t forget any day in Vietnam,” said Larry Bennett of Colville, Wash., a member of Rhodes’ squad. “Every person put in a body bag or chopper, you relive those days over and over and over. You don’t go a day without remembering.
“The guys who stand out are exceptional people, that’s why you remember them more.”
This Memorial Day weekend, one of Rhodes’ buddies will travel to Wichita to visit Rhodes’ grave at Resthaven Gardens of Memory in west Wichita. Wayne Montgomery said he is representing the 3rd Squad, 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company from the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
Montgomery said he is coming from central California on behalf of the surviving members of the 3rd Squad who can’t make it.
“We feel a greater connection with our squad and platoon than to the larger organizations (of the Marines),” Montgomery wrote in an e-mail to The Eagle. “Our company was an infantry company that at different times provided bridge security, patrolled the villages south of Da Nang and participated in large scale Search and Destroy operations.”
It was a close-knit unit, Montgomery said, as much as it could be in the midst of war.
Rhodes was the squad’s radioman.
“His job was very important, and he did it well. He was absolutely dependable in fire fights,” Montgomery wrote.
“What I remember most about Dusty was his interest in the Vietnamese people. Whenever we were around Vietnamese civilians, Dusty would be talking with them, sitting down and getting acquainted with them and giving out little gifts – pencils, items from C-rations, or items received in church ‘care packages.’ ”
Rhodes was born on Feb. 18, 1949.
Connie Rhodes Trego was born five years earlier and said she remembers her brother always tagging along with his older siblings. They have an older brother, Vernon, who now lives in Dover, Ark; Trego lives in Viola.
After graduating from Wichita South High School in 1967, Larry Rhodes began classes at Wichita State University.
As controversy and tensions about U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated and protests began to build across the nation, Rhodes made a decision, his sister said.
“He wanted to go into the service,” Trego said. “Dad had been in the Navy and his brother also. Larry thought it was his duty to serve his country.”
He enlisted in the Marines.
Life as a Marine
Montgomery, now 66 and a retired engineer librarian from California Polytechnic State University, jokingly recalls a young version of himself during his stint in the Vietnam War.
“I was imagining I was going to be the next Hemingway and write the next great American novel about Vietnam,” he said.
But then along came Rhodes three months into Montgomery’s tour.
“He made me jealous, because he came in with a 35 millimeter camera,” Montgomery said. “Back then, nobody had one of those cameras. We all had Instamatics.
“But with his camera, he took pictures all the time and took notes. He’d whip out a notebook and write things. And I’d be going, ‘Hey, hey, hey, I’m the next great American novelist.’
“And here he was very quiet and shy. He was always there, always with us wherever we went.”
Montgomery also remembers a spirit about Rhodes, who quietly savored the moments in a day.
“The one thing people sometimes don’t understand about combat is you are out in the field, outdoors, 24 hours a day,” Montgomery said. “You are often sitting on edge, wanting to hurry the day.
“I’d be on night watch, waiting for the sun to come up and glance over at him, and he’d have that camera pointed at the sunrise, tilting his head and waiting to take a picture.
“I was always anxious for the day to come, he was always taking shots of nature – of rivers and mountains and of people.”
When the 3rd Squad gathers for reunions, Rhodes’ name is always brought up.
They remember the Marine and how he died. It was nothing heroic; it was an accident.
“We felt bad because of the accident,” said Randy Crawford of South Carolina, who also served with Rhodes. “When you die from a noncombative wound, it’s a bad thing. He was a good Marine who did his job well.”
The night before Rhodes died, the squad took fire from enemy troops, Crawford said. Rhodes fired several rounds on a grenade launcher.
The next morning when the squad went out, they found some unexploded rounds, and one of the men picked one up and brought it into the compound.
As another Marine was attempting to take it over a berm to detonate it, the round exploded, sending shrapnel into Rhodes.
“We were all within 50 feet of Larry when the incident happened,” Montgomery said. “We all rushed over. There were six guys who all gave him first aid.
“We all pulled out bandages and had our hands on him the moment he died. It hit us very hard.”
No one has forgotten.
“I think it is a function of post-traumatic stress,” Montgomery said. “I was deeply affected by it. I never forget that day and moment.
“I said to the guys last year: ‘That’s it. We have to do something.’ The rest are too emotional to show up. I invited them, but I don’t believe we will see any of them there.
“I said I will go, for my own closure, but it may not be closure. I feel a sense of obligation to say we were with Dusty and have never forgotten him.”
Trego will be unable to meet with Montgomery when he visits this weekend. But in her place, she said, will be her son, Steve Grier.
She said she welcomes future contact with her brother’s squad members.
“After all these years, we have missed him,” Trego said. “We miss him so much because he wasn’t here. He died so young and wasn’t able to live out his life or become a parent.
“He was such a sincerely caring person.”