Veteran never tossed memory of tragedy of ditched plane
BY TIM STANLEY World Staff Writer
Saturday, October 13, 2012
10/13/12 at 5:27 AM
The war was over, but for John Rodolf and his companions, the enemies seemed to just keep lining up.
For starters, there were the circling sharks.
Add to that a leaky raft, no food, little water, a merciless sun and the miles of sea between the men and any hope of land, and nobody would have blamed them if they had raised the white flag.
But they were alive, and that was something.
Before they were forced to ditch their plane after running out of fuel, then-Army Air Forces Capt. Rodolf of Tulsa and six men had been headed for Australia, just days after Japan's surrender and the end of World War II.
But now, clinging to two rubber life rafts, the men weren't in any celebratory mood.
Keeping a diary on a roll of toilet paper, Rodolf and the others documented their experiences at sea for 11 days, including, tragically, the deaths of two of their number.
After they finally made land, Rodolf kept the toilet paper. He wanted to preserve the account of the events.
"It was one of those things," he later told the Tulsa World. "It was tough, but we got through it together."
John Hemphill Rodolf, a lifelong Tulsan and professional engineer who also became a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, died Sunday. He was 90.
A memorial service is set for 1 p.m. Wednesday at All Souls Unitarian Church. The Cremation Society handled cremation arrangements.
Rodolf collected a lot of model airplanes, including one of the P-38 he flew during the war as a photo reconnaissance pilot.
"We're giving away a lot of those to friends now," per his directions, said his daughter Susan Rodolf.
But there are many things the family will never part with, she added.
Rodolf, who was stationed in the Pacific, saved a lot of mementos. Among them are the official letters to his parents, telling them of their son's disappearance and then of his rescue.
There's also that toilet paper diary, which still captures many of the details.
On Aug. 26, 1945, with the war over, Rodolf had taken off from New Guinea aboard a C-47 transport plane, bound for Australia with six other men from his air group.
Flying at night, they became lost and eventually ran out of gas. Forced to put their plane down in the ocean, the men boarded two 9-by-4-foot rubber rafts only to discover that they had no food - the rations had spoiled - and enough water for only an ounce per day per man.
Their troubles mounted. One of the rafts sprung a leak, and sharks - some of which Rodolf estimated at 15 feet long - kept bumping against them.
With each passing day, their hopes of rescue declined.
Two of the men, whose health deteriorated rapidly, died, and they buried them at sea.
Just a day later, the survivors finally reached land.
They were discovered by Japanese soldiers who, with the war over, turned them over to the Australians.
Rodolf, who had lost about 60 pounds during the ordeal, was elated to be reunited with his wife, Barbara Rodolf.
The pair had met on a blind date at a Red Cross canteen in Sydney and married in March 1945.
The two settled in Tulsa, where John Rodolf went to work as an engineer, working in pipelines and construction.
He didn't cut his ties to the military, though. He remained in the Air National Guard, eventually retiring as a lieutenant colonel, and he continued to fly in his spare time.
One more takeoff is in order, Susan Rodolf said.
"After the service, we're going to drop his ashes from the sky," she said. "That was his wish. One last flight."
Rodolf's survivors include four children, Susan Rodolf, Stephen Rodolf, Kim Bryden and Mark Rodolf; two sisters; and seven grandchildren.
Tim Stanley 918-581-8385
John Rodolf of Tulsa, who survived 11 days on a life raft after his plane went down after the end of World War II, displays pieces of a daily log he kept. Rodolf, who with four other survivors finally made it to land, died Oct. 7. He was 90. Tulsa World file