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‘One big adventure:’ World War II veteran recalls largest Navy battle in history

Battle of Leyte Gulf, Battle off Samar, October 25, 1944. (US Navy/Released)

Robert Rayburn was tired of milking cows.

Working on a farm meant the Chattanooga-area man wasn’t drafted to fight in World War II. But he was ready.

So he turned in his farm deferment and volunteered for the U.S. Navy. He was just 18.

In mid-1944, after finishing gunnery training, he was shipped out aboard the destroyer escort USS John C. Butler, nicknamed the Fightin’ 339, en route to Honolulu.

Their job was to provide “screening” — anti-submarine and anti-aircraft protection — for convoys. They’d be aboard the ship for up to three months at a time on some trips, he said.

Rayburn was one of six men who operated one of the ship’s guns. He was the trigger puller.

Over the course of his deployment, he was involved in a number of battles, including Morotia, Lingayen Gulf and Iwo Jima. But the largest battle he was involved in was the battle of Leyte Gulf, he said.

“It’s the largest Navy battle in history,” Rayburn said. “There was 13 of us little ships, and we were outgunned — could only shoot about seven miles — and we were up against Japanese battleships that had a range of about 15 miles.”

The battle lasted about two-and-a-half hours, and out of the 13 ships his was the only one that was not sunk or damaged.

“When I think about it now, it’s very scary,” he said. “But then we was just — it was just part of the adventure. At no time was I ever afraid.”

Rayburn’s ship, along with three others, stood by to rescue survivors. The John C. Butler took in about 130 survivors, according to a document of the ship’s history.

Rayburn’s crew was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its action in Leyte Gulf.

“It was an experience,” he said. “It’s a funny thing. Not one time was I ever scared.”

On Feb. 23, 1945, he watched the six Marines raise the U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima.

“It was just one big adventure,” he said. “But I’m glad I did my part.”

Finally, the war ended, and Rayburn met his wife, Virginia. The two married and eventually had three children.

Since then, Rayburn has had two careers lasting more than 30 years. He was vice president and general manager at General Oils Co. for 36 years, and after retiring he started Chattanooga Heating and Air Conditioning in 1984. The company remains within the family, and Rayburn still serves in a limited capacity.

He also started the East Brainerd baseball program in 1962, where he coached for 14 years, and now has a field named in his honor at the current complex on Batters Place Drive.

Rayburn, now 95, has been married to his wife for 74 years. They now have six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.


© 2019 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press