EDITOR’S NOTE: Thursday (Feb. 21) will mark the one-year point since the death of evangelist Billy Graham at age 99.
SPRINGFIELD, Vt. (BP) — A soldier stuck his head into the tent where Alfred Rawson was quartered during the Korean War with several other soldiers at an Air Force base in Japan.
It was in November 1952. The soldier asked if anybody wanted to go hear Billy Graham at another Air Force base about 30 miles away. A bus would take them there; Rawson and another soldier in the tent agreed to go.
“I told ’em I’d go see the show,” the Vermont native said with a laugh.
“I didn’t even know what the meeting was about. The guy’s going to give a speech — that’s all [the soldier] said. I don’t remember him saying it was a religious meeting or anything like that, just somebody that was going to speak to the troops.
“He spoke to us, alright,” Rawson, now 89, said at the one-year point of Graham’s death at age 99 at his home in North Carolina.
About a thousand troops, by Rawson’s recollection, were in a gymnasium-type facility on a cold night when Graham spoke.
“I got way up back as far as I could away from the meeting,” Rawson admitted.
But then: “Billy gave us a good lecture from the Scriptures, from the Bible…. He got the Word across. I know everybody listened to him.”
Graham told the soldiers Jesus died for their sins.
“I realized I had done a little sinning,” Rawson acknowledged.
“And if we didn’t accept Jesus Christ we were headed for hell. I didn’t like that message very well. So I knew I had to do something about it.”
Graham “gave us an invitation to come forward if we wanted to receive Jesus Christ as our personal Savior.” Rawson left his seat and made his way to the front. “There were about a hundred that went forward that night,” he recalled.
Rawson talked to one of the volunteers, saying, “Yes, I want the Lord to come into my heart.”
“I was a sinner,” he told Baptist Press in an interview, reiterating, “I needed to do something about it.”
He received a small New Testament, “and they told us we should all read the book of John because the message was in there about how God so loved the world and gave His only begotten Son.”
Back at the base where Rawson was one of the welders who repaired aircraft parts and later became a supervisor, he read from the New Testament he had been given, later receiving a Scofield Study Bible from someone in his family back home.
Otherwise, he didn’t talk much about his profession of faith.
“They kept you pretty busy. We were working seven days a week. We got time off only when they wanted to give us some time because we were at war.
“I went to the chapel three or four times. I didn’t get much out of that because they kind of lean towards a little of everything,” he said.
Life on the farm
Rawson knew little about Christianity while growing up.
His father was a farmer who had several cows and a team of horses. “As a kid … it didn’t give you much chance to try to go to church or anything like that because you were busy on Sundays doing chores.
“I went to church a couple times when my grandfather died and when my grandmother died. I went to their funerals,” he said, and he went to Sunday School a couple of times “but I don’t remember much about it.”
He heard about Noah and the ark and about David and Goliath from someone he described as a “lady missionary who was allowed in those days to come to the school and bring a story about the Bible.”
And he knew of a single missionary in town who had to leave China during World War II and was living with another single woman who was a doctor.
A few years ago he came across diaries his grandfather had kept, and Rawson learned that his grandparents were active in the local Baptist congregation.
“He was a man that would write down a diary every year, what he did, what the weather was, where they went and things like that,” including “how many people were in church sometimes, some of the dinners they had.”
Rawson was deployed for the Korean War from August 1951 until January 1954. “That meant I had three birthdays, three Thanksgivings and three Christmases that I was tied up in Japan.”
When he returned to Vermont, he soon married his fiancé Ruth. “Any woman who waited for me two and a half years, I’d better marry her,” he said.
After Rawson was transferred to an air base in Cheyenne, Wyo., he and Ruth became active Christians.
“A lady asked my wife, ‘Would you mind going with me. My daughter is in the Christmas program at the Cheyenne Baptist Temple,’ just up the road. And my wife — she used to go to a Methodist church in Weston, Vt. — said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go with you.’
“When she came home she told me, ‘Boy, I never heard such preaching.’ She said we need to come back and visit that church come Sunday. So we did.”
Ruth subsequently made a profession of faith and Alfred rededicated his life to Christ — “I knew I hadn’t been living according to what I should have been” — and they were baptized on Easter in 1955.
Their faith grew as they trekked across the street “to discuss the Bible” from time to time with a man “who was from the South, a Southern Baptist … a real strong Baptist believer,” and his wife. Discipleship also came at the home of a Temple Baptist deacon and his wife in visits for coffee or a meal. The Rawsons became regular in their church attendance and participated in home evangelism visitation.
The same occurred when Rawson was transferred to another air base in Rantoul, Ill., where they became involved in a fledgling Baptist church and began teaching Sunday School.
Over the years in four churches, Rawson also has been a deacon, choir member, youth worker and church bus driver.
It was in Rantoul when, in 1959, the Rawsons were invited to a home to meet Graham along with music leader Cliff Barrows and soloist George Beverly Shea.
“It was nice of [the hosts] to invite us over because I had told them I had been saved under Billy Graham years ago,” Rawson said of the brief visit.
For a year, Rawson was stationed in Iceland, where a small group met in the home of the chief of the Navy station each Sunday night for Bible reading, song, fellowship and a devotional which Rawson enlisted from someone from the group.
A young Navy man who “always had some tough questions about the Bible” was of the attendees. Years later, Rawson was surprised to see in a Baptist magazine that the man had received theological training, gotten married and was a missionary in the Philippines.
Gratitude to Graham
Rawson had been a welding supervisor and trainer when he retired from the Air Force in 1972 with 21 years of service. He wrote a thank you letter to Graham in 2008 on the occasion of the evangelist’s 90th birthday.
In the letter, he recounted his conversion during Graham’s preaching in Japan in 1952, noting, “This was the first time that I had ever heard about the salvation we can have through Jesus Christ.”
He told of his and Ruth’s baptism on Easter Sunday in 1955 and the churches where they had served in Wyoming, Illinois, Texas and Vermont.
He mentioned his two daughters, Susan, who became an elementary school teacher in Vermont and raised five children with her husband, two of whom were adopted, and Sharon, who taught English in China, married a Southern Baptist minister and now works at the SBC Executive Committee as an executive assistant.
“I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your devotion and faithfulness to the ministry for which Jesus Christ called you to do,” Rawson wrote. “Your faithful preaching of the Word of God throughout the world has reached thousands of souls for Jesus Christ. One of those souls is mine!”