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First Name: Charles

Last Name: Willeford

Birthplace: Little Rock, AR, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Air Force (1947 - present)

Middle Name: Ray

Date of Birth: 02 January 1919

Date of Death: 27 March 1988

Rank: Master Sergeant

Years Served:
Charles Ray Willeford

•  World War II (1941 - 1945)


Charles Ray Willeford
Master Sergeant, U.S. Air Force

Charles Ray Willeford was born on 2 January 1919 in Little Rock, AR. Following the death of his father from tuberculosis (TB) in 1922, Willeford and his mother moved to the Los Angeles, CA, area. After his mother's death in 1927, also from TB, he lived with his grandmother, Mattie Lowey, on Figueroa Street near Exposition Park until 1932. At the age of thirteen, in the midst of the Great Depression, he boarded a freight train in Los Angeles, assumed a false identity, and-passing as a seventeen-year-old-traveled by rail along the Mexican border for a year.

In March 1935, he signed up with the California National Guard; a few months later, he enlisted in the regular U.S. Army. He spent two years stationed in the Philippines serving as a fire truck driver, a gas truck driver, and briefly as a cook. At the end of 1938, he was discharged from the Army, though he re-enlisted in March 1939, joining the U.S. Cavalry stationed at the Presidio of Monterey, CA. In the Cavalry, he learned to ride and care for horses and spent several months learning the art of horseshoeing. He also served as a "horse holder" in a machine gun troop and earned a marksman qualification.

In 1942, Willeford married Lara Bell Fridley before being stationed at Fort Benning, GA, for infantry school. He was assigned to the Third Army, Company C, 11th Tank Battalion, 10th Armored Division and sent to Europe as a tank commander. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and earned the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for outstanding bravery, the Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster, and the Luxembourg War Cross. After V-E day, he studied at Biarritz American University until he was shipped back to the U.S. He again enlisted in 1945 for a term of three years and was stationed in Kyūshū, Japan, from 1947-49, where he ran the Army radio station WLKH and was promoted to Master Sergeant.

His first book of poetry, Proletarian Laughter, was published in 1948. In May 1949, he and his wife, Lara, divorced. In July of the same year, he left the Army, leaving a mailing address of General Delivery, Dallas, TX. He enrolled in the Universitarias de Belles Artes in Lima, Peru, studying art and art history in the graduate program. He was dismissed from the university when officials learned that he had neither an undergraduate degree nor a high school diploma. He lived in New York City for a month at the end of 1949 before re-enlisting in the armed forces.

Willeford was stationed at Hamilton AFB, CA, through April 1952. He married Mary Jo Norton in July of that year, and lived for a while in Birmingham, AL. In 1953, Willeford's first novel, High Priest of California, was published. Bound as a double volume with another writer's novel, it sold 55,000 copies, about a third of its print run. In January 1954, he re-enlisted once again; he was stationed this time at Palm Beach AFB, FL, while living in West Palm Beach. In 1955, he was re-assigned to Harmon Air Force Base in Newfoundland. Willeford finally left active duty in November 1956. By that time, two more novels of his had been published.

Later Years

Post-Military Life

After his departure from military service, Willeford held jobs as a professional boxer, actor, horse trainer, and radio announcer. He studied painting in France for a time, returning to the U.S. to attend Palm Beach Junior College. After receiving an Associate's degree in 1960, he studied English literature at the University of Miami, attaining a Bachelor's degree in 1962 and a Master's in 1964. During this period, he also worked as an associate editor with Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and began a long tenure as a book reviewer for the Miami Herald. Willeford had been very productive as a novelist after leaving the military, but after 1962's Cockfighter, he would not have another novel published for nine years. Upon receiving his M.A., Willeford taught humanities classes at the University of Miami through 1967, then moved to Miami-Dade Community College where he became an associate professor, teaching English and philosophy through 1985.

In 1971, The Burnt Orange Heresy, often identified as Willeford's best noir novel and The Hombre from Sonora appeared (the latter under a pseudonym). Though he would continue to write fiction, there would again be an extended hiatus-thirteen years-before another novel of his came out. He wrote the screenplay for the 1974 film adaptation of Cockfighter, which he also acted in. In 1976, he and his second wife were divorced. The following year he appeared in a small role in the film Thunder and Lightning, produced by Roger Corman. Willeford married his third wife, Betsy Poller, in 1981. Three years later came the publication of Miami Blues, the first of the Hoke Moseley novels and their twisted take on the hardboiled tradition for which Willeford would become best known. The "series was almost nipped in the bud," notes Lawrence Block. In Willeford's first unpublished sequel, "he had his unlikely hero commit an unforgivable crime, and ended the book with Hoke contentedly anticipating a life of solitary confinement." As it turned out, the popularity of Miami Blues and its first two published sequels led to the largest financial windfall of the author's life: a $225,000 advance for the fourth Hoke Moseley book, The Way We Die Now. Released in early 1988, it would be his last novel.

Death and Burial

Charles Willeford died of a heart attack in Miami, FL, on 27 March 1988. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA.

Honoree ID: 3225   Created by: MHOH




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