Local vet did his duty in Korea, Japan
Published 9:02 am Friday, November 14, 2014
The cold is what John W. “Billy” Raiford remembers vividly about his time in the Army.
Looking at the picture from the mid-1950s of his 21-year-old self standing in the snow, a reader can see why. He’s at Chitose Air Base in Hokkaido, Japan.
“As far north as you could go in Japan,” he said.
Raiford, today 81, came to The Tidewater News on Veterans Day to speak a bit about his experiences in the service.
“I didn’t go in as a volunteer. They called me,” he said, referring to the military’s search for eligible soldiers. “They picked me up and carried me there to Richmond [for a medical exam] in 1953. There was a busload. I got back home and got a letter that I had been chosen. I went to the draft board and asked ‘When’s the next group going’?”
A couple of weeks later, Raiford shipped to Augusta, Georgia, for basic training. Following 10 days leave back at home in Courtland, he was sent to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. There he was trained in engineering for building bridges and working on runways. After which, Raiford was posted in Oakland, California. He remembered the ship traveling under the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco as it made way for across the Pacific Ocean. The vessel first landed in Japan.
When Raiford got to Kimpo [also spelled Gimpo], South Korea in January 1954, he became part of the 811th Engineers, a unit of the 417th Engineering Aviation Brigade. The 811th, which was formed in 1941 at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, is described notably in a clipping that appeared in the “Stars and Stripes” newspaper for the U.S. armed forces.
The hat that Raiford wears at the interview features the lettering of that engineering fraternity.
By the time he had arrived at Kimpo, there was no active fighting.
“The battle was over. We built warehouses, patched runways and crushed rock,” Raiford said in recollection. “It was said you could see Russians across the water. But I didn’t know for sure.
Later he went to Hokkaido, where the 811th had moved in October 1954, and worked until the two years service had ended in 1955. Discharged at Ft. Sheridan, Illinois, Raiford returned to Courtland.
He worked at the former St. Regis Paper Co. for awhile and then “piddled around” before going to do delivery truck work for S.W. Rawls. Following 16 years there, Raiford went onto work for the street department of Franklin in 1972. There he did “some of everything — trash trucks, whatever was called for.”
In the meanwhile, Raiford also married Joan Lowe, and they have two daughters, Joann Gadden and Sue Beale, who each have two children of their own, Barkley Gadden and Gabby Gadden, and Meagan Beale and Myles Beale.
Throughout the interview, Raiford spoke matter-of-factly about his experiences, and has no obviously strong feelings about it all.
“Something had to be done,” he said. “I did it and came home.”