By LESLIE COLLINS
December 4, 2013
Richard Warford has come a long way from being a self-proclaimed “beach bum.”
Born in Kansas City, Mo., Warford, now 76, grew up in California and hung out as a youngster with Ricky Nelson who starred in the television series “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” Warford’s favorite pastimes included fishing, surfing and camping with his family.
As a teenager, Warford knew he wanted to serve in the Navy.
“I wanted to join when I was 15, but my dad said, ‘No,’ and the Navy said, ‘No, not until you’re 17,'” Warford said. “So, on my 17th birthday, I made up my mind to go into the Navy.”
Warford dropped out of high school to enlist in the Navy and later earned his GED and completed two years of college.
“I wanted to make it a career. I liked the adventure – I saw three quarters of the world and just about every state in the Union. It wasn’t easy as a 17-year-old boy, but I learned a lot.”
His overseas travels included Japan, China, the Marshall Islands, the Philippines, Guantanamo Bay, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, among others.
“It opened my eyes,” he said of his travels. “I was really thankful that I was an American. When you go to different countries and see people starving to death, it changes you, completely changes you.”
On May 14, 1955, he was one of about 6,800 servicemen who participated in Operation Wigwam which aimed to study the effects of an underwater nuclear blast and determine its feasibility in warfare.
According to the Washington Nuclear Museum and Educational Center, the underwater detonation created a “fireball-bubble” that soared 12,000 feet high, and the eruption spanned 1.5 miles.
“The explosion was so powerful it blew out the fire in the boilers,” he said. “The sound wave was so powerful, it popped the lightbulbs in the ship, knocked down the ventilation and we lost part of the stern gate. I heard on the radio that people were picking up dead fish off the Gulf of Mexico and people were told not to eat them because they were radioactive.”
The column of water spewed onto his ship, and Warford was treated for an overdose of radiation at a makeshift decontamination station, he said.
On a separate occasion, he feared for his life during a practice run with two naval destroyers. One of the destroyers inadvertently veered off course and slammed into the destroyer he was on, punching a hole in the side of the ship below the water line in the boiler room. As a damage control officer, Warford walked down to investigate. To keep the water from gushing in, he pressed his rear against the hole and stayed in that position until someone lowered a mattress for him to use.
“If the water had hit the boilers, it would have been an instant explosion because you don’t put cold water on a boiler,” he said. “I stayed there for eight hours in the water up to my neck. I prayed to God. I thought I was going to die.”
Not all of his Navy career was so intense. During his almost 11-year service, he also worked in the sea and air rescue unit and helped rescue comedian Jerry Lewis. Unbeknownst to Lewis, when he placed his record player and speakers near his compass, it caused the compass to malfunction and Lewis became lost at sea. Soon, his boat, the “Pussy Cat,” ran out of gas.
“So, we rescued him and towed him back in. He was all jokes, funny. We charged him $10,000 to pull him back in. He didn’t mind paying the money; he learned a lesson, too.”
In 1972, Warford moved back to Kansas City and settled in the Historic Northeast area where he worked as a welder and punch press operator for 27 years at Butler Manufacturing.
In his Northeast neighborhood, neighbors looked out for each other, he said, and a number of his neighbors became a second family to him. They continue to visit him at Glennon Place Nursing Center, where he currently resides, and take him on outings.
Warford has terminal cancer and said he’s taking it a day at a time and setting goals. His next goal is to live until Christmas.
“I’ve lived a pretty good life,” he said. “I can’t complain. I’ve had my ups and downs in life, but I really can’t complain.”