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Ray Radke: 95-year-old veteran and Prisoner-of-War medal recipient 

CDN's weekly community profile

Ray Radke stands in his yard in Ferndale on June 24. On his 95th birthday, Radke's friends surprised him with his official Prisoner of War medal and ribbon. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)
By Charlotte Alden General Assignment/Enterprise Reporter

Raymond Radke

Age: 95

City: Unincorporated Whatcom County near Ferndale

Lived here for: 47 years

Originally from: Chicago, Illinois

Notable: Served in the U.S. Army for 30 years, Korean War and Vietnam War veteran, Prisoner-of-War medal recipient

What brought you to Whatcom County?

I used to have a map of the U.S. and periodically I would unfold it and select an area. I would send a letter with a $10 bill addressed to the postmaster of that town and ask him to provide me $10 worth of the local Sunday paper. [One time …] I sent Yakima 10 bucks and Bellingham 10 bucks. Got both papers. The first paper I got from Yakima, I knew I didn’t want to live there. But Bellingham sounded pretty good. 

Where are you originally from?

From age 5 to 10, I lived on a dairy farm in northern Illinois with my paternal grandparents … I went to a one-room schoolhouse, literally one room with eight grades, one teacher. 

And I loved to read. The farm had bushel baskets of books up in the attic. I found the kids’ books, “Bobbsey Twins”, “Tom Swift,” “Huckleberry Finn,” all those things were up there. You could just read for hours. 

I was an incorrigible youth. I wasn’t bad until I went to high school. I failed everything in high school except literature. I left home.  I was 15 working underground hard rock mining. Kingman, Arizona. White Eagle Gold and Silver. Eight bucks a shift … I worked there for quite a while.

How old were you when you joined the Army?

I came back home to join the Navy. I was 16. That was in the late spring of ’46. But the Navy, when I went to the examination, the Navy wouldn’t take me because my teeth were too bad, but the Army would. I was 17 and a half.  

You were deployed to Panama for three years. What then?

After I got out, I went home. I worked for about three weeks making roofing. But I didn’t like that job, so I quit and I decided to hit the road again. [Eventually] I decided to go back to the army. I caught a bus out to Fort Bliss, El Paso … I reenlisted for the seventh infantry division. I wanted to get as far from the States as I could. I enlisted for six years. If I had been on a shorter enlistment, I probably would not have stayed in because – Korea. Hell, you’re going to war; that’s a whole different picture. 

You fought in the Korean War, and were held as a prisoner of war during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir for three days. Tell us about that experience.

Our unit went in at the Inchon invasion. I physically went in on the 17th of September 1950. Thanksgiving 1950, the war was over as far as we were concerned. Three days later, we’re in deep shit with the Chinese. Things change.

What had happened was that the Marines wanted to consolidate the division, which was an intelligent thing to do and left the whole right flank, kind of heavily exposed … There were two Army battalions that wound up to replace the replacement which had been withdrawn. I was with the forward command posts and happened to be with the 32nd Infantry unit when the Chinese hit us on the 27th of November. Caught us with our pants down. What a screw up. 

What is it like, talking about your experiences at the frontlines now?

If people ask me how I’ve lived so long, it’s because there’s big things and little things in life. Big things kill you. Everything else is little. And if you got a lot a bunch of little things, you take care of what you can if you can’t take care of it, don’t worry about it. And I believe that, man. I don’t sweat the small stuff.  

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