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Riceboro icon experienced segregated Army

Henry Relaford on next Honor Flight for WWII vets

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POSTED: October 22, 2010 10:33 a.m.
Photo by Denise Etheridge/

Army Reserve Ambassador and Honor Flight Savannah board member Luis Carreras, left, poses with World War II veteran Henry L. Relaford at his home in Riceboro.

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Well-known Riceboro resident Henry L. Relaford, 90, served his country when called, despite the fact America and the military were segregated in the 1940s.  
Relaford said he and fellow African-American service members had a rough time in those years. He said most regular black soldiers were given manual labor intensive duties and had to endure overt discrimination.
Tomorrow, Relaford will receive a pat on the back for his military service. He and 22 other World War II veterans will fly to Washington, D.C., with Honor Flight Savannah. The veterans will return at 11:30 p.m. Saturday to Savannah International Airport.
“The trip is a way for the community to say thank you to these men and women who 65 years ago sacrificed so much, so that we could enjoy the freedom we have today,” said Carol Megathlin, Honor Flight media liaison. “From the greatest depression the nation has experienced they went on to fight the greatest evil our nation has faced.”
“I was 21 years old and living in Savannah when I was drafted,” Relaford said.
He enlisted on Nov. 11, 1942 and was discharged in November 1945. A private first class, he was assigned to the 761st Chemical Warfare Service, re-designated the Chemical Corps in 1946.
“We were trained how to use chemical weapons and the first thing we learned was how to keep our equipment from hitting the ground and how to put on gas masks,” he recalled. At the time, the American military feared the Germans would use poison gas, as they had in World War I. “The Germans had an outfit the same as Americans — somehow or other the Germans backed down, so we backed down. We didn’t have to use it,” Relaford said.
The poor farm boy-turned-soldier said Army officials tried to persuade him to stay in the service, telling him he would face greater employment disadvantages in the civilian world when he got out. Relaford answered he would take his chances. He could not in good conscience continue to serve in a segregated military, he said.
“I don’t hate nobody. The good book says pray for those who spitefully use you,” Relaford said.
He returned to the states, “farmed some” and worked as a heavy equipment operator on Camp Stewart. He married Louise Bertha and they raised nine children — eight boys and one girl.
After 55 years of marriage Relaford lost his first wife to cancer. Five years ago he found love again and married widow Barbara Hines.
Relaford returned to school after his stint in the Army. Having just finished the fifth grade, he was intent on finishing high school through the Veterans Education Program. He earned credit for a high school diploma but did not actually receive an official diploma until just three years ago.
Relaford said discrimination has “twisted the fabric” of this nation and he has worked hard over the years to end it in his community.  
The World War II vet served on the Riceboro City Council for more than 20 years and currently serves on the executive committee for the Liberty County Branch NAACP. He was awarded the local NAACP’s President’s Award last October. Relaford is credited with helping to establish the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Liberty County.
“I enjoy life. I don’t have no bad days,” he said. “We (really) don’t own nothing. We’re just stewards here (on earth.)”
Relaford credits his longevity to his strong religious faith and says he “is headed for the century.”
“I always try to do what the good book says,” he continued. “There’s only two ways — the right way and the wrong way.”

 

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