In June, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community elder and Army National Guard veteran Harrison Rhoades celebrated his 90th birthday with friends and his entire family. Rhoades was surprised as he was recognized for his many talents, accomplishments and services throughout his lifetime. What he thought was going to be a family gathering for his birthday celebration grew into more of an awards ceremony for Rhoades, although he didn’t mind.
Au-Authm Action News thought it would be a good idea to feature Rhoades as well, which led me to meet this very gifted and talented man and interview him about the journey of his life.
Harrison Rhoades was born on June 18, 1920 to Lena Kisto-Stone at the home of his grandparents, Joseph and Julia Kisto. They lived in the Gila River Indian Community in the lower San Tan area.
“My mother had three brothers and six sisters,” said Rhoades. “My uncles were Elliot, Samuel and Paul; my aunts were Ina, Dorothy, Helen, Maude and I can’t remember the last one. I kind of don’t think very good ’cause I’m 90 years old; you kind of get a little old,” he said, laughing.
Rhoades’ father was James Rhoades from Laveen. He is Maricopa and Mojave. He also had two brothers, his older half-brother Franklin and his younger brother Everett Rhoades.
Joining the Army National Guard
After attending the Phoenix Indian School for eight years, in 1937 Rhoades joined the Army National Guard along with his brother Everett. They were sent to bases in Texas and Oklahoma, and back to Texas for maneuvers.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese planes on December 7, 1941, “The Japanese made a sneak attack on American ships; they sunk the USS Arizona, which was the largest ship there. No American planes went up to attack, and I was surprised,” said Rhoades. “During that time I was stationed with the Army’s 45th Infantry Division in Louisiana, where we were doing jungle-type training.” The 45th Infantry was activated into service after the Pearl Harbor attack.
Rhoades’ unit, the 158th Infantry Regiment, was separated out from the 45th Infantry and sent to Panama for jungle training and to protect the Panama Canal. The unit arrived in Panama in January 1942. Rhoades was in Company B.
“In Panama, there is a [snake called the] bushmaster, similar to the rattlesnake in Arizona except it is a jungle snake,” said Rhoades. “That is where we got the name ‘Bushmasters’ for the 158th Regiment.”
In 1943, Rhoades was stationed with the 158th in Brisbane, Australia for six months; they then went to New Guinea and saw combat with the Japanese.
During this time, Rhoades had his brother Everett with him, explained Rhoades’ daughter, Pauline Antone. They were together in the same regiment fighting side-by-side during those five years, and came home together.
“I would always ask him (her father) how it felt having his brother with him,” said Antone. “He said it bothered him, but when you’re in a war like that you can’t think about him being out there too, you have to think of your orders and nothing else; that is how you survive. But when they would stop for a rest they would find each other and then go again; that is how they made it.”
The regiment became the 158th Regimental Combat Team and went to the Philippines. Rhoades continued, “From New Guinea to the Philippines is where I got discharged in 1945. I remember that because when I was waiting for the boat to the United States, my brother came to me and said, ‘Hey, remember today is your birthday?’” said Rhoades. “That was June 18, 1945.
“I remember we loaded the boats and headed back; we sailed [across] the Pacific to the United States for 30 days. [It seemed like] Every day, when we woke up we were still sailing; we finally arrived in the United States in July,” explained Rhoades.
He returned to the Community in August 1945. “I had just turned 25 years old and I just met my gal!” he said, laughing.
Bushmasters Patch Design
When Rhoades and his regiment were in Noemfoor Island in New Guinea, the company commander wanted to design the shoulder patch for the 158th Regimental Combat Team. Representatives from each of the 12 companies in the regiment were all assigned to come up with a design for the patch. “I was appointed from my company to make a design. I designed one with a shield, machete and a snake. I turned it in to the company commander, and after they put all the designs together it turned out my design was chosen,” explained Rhoades.
“He told me that he chose the machete because that is what they used to cut their way through [the jungle] in the beginning,” said Antone.
Getting Married, Having a Family
“After returning from the Army in 1945, I was in Lehi with my friend Howard Goodwin,” said Rhoades. “We were walking around the streets of Mesa, crossing the street towards the corner drugstore. There were these girls standing there; one was Deborah and there was this other girl with her.
[Deborah] introduced to me to her and her name was Lillian.
“She (Lillian) was kind of eyeing me all over, you know,” Rhoades said, laughing. “We were talking, then she started coming to my place in Lehi. Then we just got married I guess.” They were married at the Presbyterian Church and had five children: Pauline, the late David, Darlene, Della (Mardella) and Robert Rhoades.
Working with the Salt River Police Department
After the war Rhoades attended welding school in Phoenix, and he worked at a company welding streetlight poles. He then later moved to a different company in Gilbert. While working there, he was approached by a brother-in-law, William Rivers, Jr., about joining the Salt River Police Department as a police officer.
Rhoades said yes, and told his boss about his career change. The boss simply said if it didn’t work out, to come back to the job in Gilbert.
“I joined the Salt River Police Department, and through my eight years there I served as an officer, sergeant and captain,” said Rhoades. “During that time I decided to design a shoulder patch for the department, and we [police officers] wore that on our shoulders. After eight years I had to quit because of my hearing.”
A Man of Many Talents
After leaving the SRPD, Rhoades took up beadwork as a hobby. His artwork led him to be featured in Arizona Highways in 1978.
“I made capes, bowties, leather work, purses, checkbook covers and the Miss Salt River crowns,” said Rhoades.
Antone explained that her father had a natural talent for art. “When he saw beadwork, he just said, ‘I’m going to try that.’ It started as a hobby, then the hobby became a full-time job; he just taught himself,” she said. “He traveled all over; he would go to New Mexico and Colorado to seek out certain types of beads. He would get orders from different tribes, so he would go here and there. He went to museums and some people requested his artwork. That is how he got into the Arizona Highways magazine. He did great designs.”
When news spread of his family’s planned big birthday celebration for Rhoades in June, the SRPD thought it would be a perfect opportunity to acknowledge Rhoades for his service to the Community. So they presented him with a special plaque.
“I was surprised, because I didn’t know what they were awarding me for,” said Rhoades. “The captain of the police department gave me a certificate for what I did for the police force.”
“I told him this Father’s Day how much we appreciate him, even though he doesn’t have a lot of words to say. I told him that he has taught us a lot just through his behavior and good attitude—more than what he could have said,” explained Antone. “I said that ‘This world is a hard place to live in, but by watching you in your life, even up to today, we have learned that as we go on in our lives we’re going to face hardships but we can still go on.’ I told him that and I thanked him.”
Just before his birthday celebration, Rhoades kept saying, “I think I’m going to make it to 90—yeah, I think I’m going to make it,” Antone said.
She continued, “Then when it came, I said to him, ‘How do you feel? You made it.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I always wondered, and I never thought I would ever get this old.’”
Rhoades told her, “You know what? I don’t feel old. Yeah I can’t walk, I can’t see, I can’t hear, but in my mind I’m not 90. I still feel like a young man.”