Although Rayford Davis was stationed on Okinawa Island and in Japan for 22 months during the Korean War, he said his scariest moment came before he left American soil.
“A sewer plant had flooded, and I was in there pumping out the water when I flipped an electric switch. They told me later, ‘You should be dead,’” said Davis, whose unit was responsible for water sanitation and purification at Muroc Air Force Base near Los Angeles.
That was the summer of 1949 – nearly a year after Davis enlisted in the Air Force as a 17-year-old. Since joining the military, he had finished basic training at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas and water-sanitation school in Wyoming, and was on his first tour of duty.
Davis, 89, said he learned a lot at Muroc, now Edwards Air Force Base. He worked nights and weekends, digging ditches by hand using a pick and an air gun, and helping to maintain the pumps that filled the tanks that provided water to the base and off-base housing.
“I was a troubleshooter,” said Davis. “If I could fix it, I did. And if I couldn’t, I found someone who could.”
Davis got word he was shipping out to Okinawa, Japan, in September 1949. “I had gone home to Alabama on leave and when I got back to California, I had a surprise,” said Davis. “They had put me on the overseas list.”
It was during his 14-day voyage across the ocean that Davis got his first taste of working around electricity.
The morning after boarding the ship, he was assigned to kitchen police (KP) duty in the galley. Because he was already suffering seasickness, he couldn’t stand the smell of food and knew he had to “get out of there fast.”
“I had to get another job,” said Davis, who retired in 1991 as vice president of Power Delivery after nearly 34 years with Alabama Power. “The sergeant asked us if anybody knew anything about electricity. I raised my hand. I didn’t know anything about electricity, but I wasn’t going to be on KP anymore. They made me an electrician.”
That was only the beginning, Davis said. During the trip, a severe storm buffeted the ship for seven days, forcing Davis and his comrades to remain below deck.
“The whole ship would shake,” Davis said. “The first time, you thought it was going to break up. But after a while, you were so sick that you didn’t care if it did or not.”
When they arrived at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Davis and his unit were far from finished with storms. He lived through five typhoons during his months on the 50-mile-long island.
It was then that the unit went into high gear. Because the storms knocked out the power plant, Davis and the others went to work manning six diesel engines to pump water through pipelines to the island residents. When the sun was shining, it was the unit’s job to maintain and repair the pipelines.
After a few months, Davis decided he wanted to do some sightseeing on the Japanese mainland or in the Philippines. But he didn’t want to take leave. He signed up for an electronics training program at Nagoya Air Force Base in Japan.
Davis said 10 days after he arrived for electronics and radio repair training, the Korean War began. It was June 1950.
“Everybody went crazy,” he said. “We all thought we were going to Korea. I thought, ‘I’m about to get shot at, and I haven’t been trained to use a gun.’ But instead, after finishing school, they gave me a set of orders and told me to get back to Okinawa the best way I could.”
Davis said finding a flight was almost impossible. The airplanes were filled with officers’ wives and families who were trying to get back home to the United States, as well as troops who were headed to Korea. Davis finally got a seat a week later on a cargo plane bound for Okinawa.
Soon after he returned to Kadena Air Force Base, Davis was reassigned to the radio-repair shop. He worked on communications systems on cargo planes that brought supplies to the island and he repaired radio transmitters in jeeps used by the base military police.
Davis said because Kadena was a supply post, the officers on the base thought the Koreans might invade the island. All enlisted personnel were armed with carbines and ammunition.
“They told me to get behind some bushes, and I said, ‘Are we playing games or is this for real? Bullets will come through those bushes,’” said Davis. “I got in a foxhole.”
Although the men were prepared, Davis said North Korean soldiers never came near the island.
Davis said the living conditions were somewhat rustic. When he first arrived on the island, his unit’s quarters were in a Quonset hut at the end of the base runway. The base was loaded with bombers and personnel.
After moving to the radio-repair unit, Davis lived in a 12-man tent and slept on a cot under mosquito netting.
“When a typhoon was coming, we had to pull our beds, footlockers and all our other stuff into the middle of the floor. Then, we would strike the tent and tie it down,” said Davis, noting they took cover in the communications hangar because it was equipped with a generator.
“The wind would blow so hard that we couldn’t get the hangar door open, so we had to climb out the window to go to the mess hall for supplies,” he added.
In November 1951, Davis returned to the U.S., where he was stationed at Memphis Municipal Airport in Tennessee as a radio repairman. He was then sent to Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter, South Carolina, where he remained until his discharge in August 1952.
Davis said thanks to the GI Bill, which provided college tuition and living expenses for veterans, he attended the University of Alabama and received a degree in electrical engineering. Without the federal aid, that would have been almost impossible for a small-town boy from Wilmer, he said.
Davis came on board at Alabama Power as a student engineer during the summers of 1955 and 1956, and was hired full time in June 1957 as a junior engineer in the Birmingham District.
Although it was nearly 70 years ago, Davis said the military made a lasting impact on his life. In 2016, he got the chance to remember those years when he traveled to Washington, D.C., with a group of veterans as part of the Tuscaloosa Rotary Honor Flight. They spent the day visiting war memorials and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“I was patriotic then and I still am,” Davis said. “The flag and my service to my country mean a lot to me.”
This story originally appeared in Powergrams.