Mystery swells for decorated war hero lost at sea

Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 1:37 AM
Robert Williford of Cortez was one of 78 sailors lost at sea aboard the USS Scorpion in 1944.

Last fall, a hunter happened across a box of military honors, including a Purple Heart, sitting at the base of a tree in a wooded area outside of Mena, Ark.

The medals were later turned over to a funeral home in the area, and a yearlong search ensued to discover what happened to the man whose name was engraved on the medals. Turns out, the military awards were issued to U.S. Navy sailor Robert Williford of Cortez. Stranger still, Williford was reportedly lost at sea in 1944.

“It sounds like an old episode of Unsolved Mysteries,” said Ken Hoyle, Ute Mountain Post No. 75 adjutant.

After an exhaustive genealogy search and a great deal of research by the Arkansas funeral home, Wayne Williford, a nephew of the vanished submariner was located with the help of some Internet magic. Now 77, Williford was 9 years old when his uncle disappeared at the age of 19.

“We have no idea how the medals ended up in Arkansas,” said his daughter Valley Jean Williford. “It’s very odd.”

Valley Jean Williford explained her great-grandparents moved west from North Carolina, but they had already settled in Southwest Colorado when her great uncle Ray joined the Navy.

“It’s a big surprise, and mystery,” added the great niece of the submariner. “We had no idea the medals even existed.”

In addition to the engraved Purple Heart, other honors found in Arkansas included an Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, a World War II Victory Medal, a WWII Navy Good Conduct Medal and an American Campaign Medal. The decorations will be returned to Williford’s relatives during a public ceremony at 2 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 2, at the American Legion Hall in Cortez. The Ute Mountain Post No. 75 Honor Guard will recognize the family’s sacrifice.

“My dad was in the Navy, so he’s very excited,” said Valley Jean Williford.

Captain of the New Mexico Patriot Guard Riders, Rick Romero has led efforts to transport the medals to Cortez. For the past couple of weeks, the military laurels have been on display at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial in Albuquerque, but Romero and his group will hand-deliver the medals to relatives on Saturday.

“This is a very special package,” Romero said. “I feel it’s impersonal to simply ship the case, so we planned an ‘Iron Horse Express’ to deliver the medals in person to the family of a long lost hero.”

After the initial discovery, the Arkansas funeral home held a memorial service, complete with a 21-gun salute, for the missing submariner.

The medals were subsequently displayed at the USS Razorback SS-394 Museum in North Little Rock while officials searched for Williford’s next of kin.

Petty Officer Robert Roland Williford was a Motor Machinist Mate 3rd Class in the U.S. Navy. Assigned to the USS Scorpion SS-278, the vessel was credited with sinking a Japanese gunboat, freighter, passenger-cargo ship, merchant vessel, two combat vessels and destroying multiple sampans, or flat-bottom boats.

Either in the East China Sea or Yellow Sea, crews aboard the USS Herring last sighted the Scorpion on Jan. 5, 1944. Never heard from again, the Navy vessel, which had previously came under attack on at least three occasions, was declared lost on March 6, 1944, 18 months after commissioning.

Awarded three battle stars, the USS Scorpion was one of 20 boats of her class lost in combat in World War II. Seventy-eight sailors were assigned to the Scorpion.