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WWII vet recalls 'humbling experience' singing during Billy Graham's crusade

Cary Ashby • Mar 7, 2018 at 2:00 AM

MILAN — After Paul Paterson Jr.’s first stint with the U.S. Navy in the mid-1940s, he was looking for answers to life’s big questions.

That led to three semesters of studying at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. Then Paterson joined a gospel quartet through Grace Church of Huntington Beach (now known as Grace Lutheran Church). That experience led to him singing for two weeks in one of the nearby crusades of the late Billy Graham. The pastor was an acquaintance of Graham’s.

Since Paterson was familiar with the Bible Institute, he said he went to the library to retrieve reference books for Graham to study in preparation for his sermons.

“I knew Billy before Billy was (popular),” recalled Paterson, who usually saw Graham in a small-group setting. “There were eight of us together.”

Paterson was asked to describe Graham, who became known as “America’s pastor” and “a profoundly godly man.” Graham died Feb. 21 in Montreat, N.C. at the age of 99.

“He had a personality that’s just unbelievable — just unbelievable,” Paterson said. 

“He’s Christ-like,” he added, also describing the evangelist as humble. “He was as natural as can be.”

Paterson, who turned 93 on Sunday, joined the Navy when he was a junior in high school. After he passed his physical test in July 1943, he was shipped to the Farragut Naval Training Station in Idaho.

“I went into the Navy the first time from ‘43 to ‘46. … After I left Farragut, they put me in the Lion 4 outfit,” said Paterson, who was trained in communications. 

“They shipped me to the San Francisco federal building,” he added.

Paterson remembered going under the Golden Gate Bridge on Christmas Day 1943. At one point, a ship took him from New Caledonia to the Admiralty Islands.

On Nov. 10, 1944, the USS Mount Hood exploded in Seeadler Harbor at Manus Island in Papua, New Guinea. Paterson was nearby and ended up with shrapnel in his back. 

“We were there preparing to get the ships ready to go,” he said.

About 15 years ago, Paterson’s doctor discovered scar tissue on his back due to the shrapnel.

“I didn’t know about that until then,” said Paterson’s third and current wife of 35 years, Carolyn. “He turned down the Purple Heart so they wouldn’t send him back.”

Paterson again served in Navy starting in 1956. He has two honorable discharges.

After serving in the Navy, Paterson said he and other men “wanted some answers,” which led him to studying at the the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. Soon thereafter, he started singing bass in a Grace Church gospel quartet, which performed on morning radio broadcasts for about four years. On average, the singers performed four times a week.

“I did it for four years with the morning chapel hour,” said Paterson, who has lived in Milan since 1985.

When Graham was doing his crusades, Paterson said the evangelist prepared to lead 12 to 14 worship services over that two-week period in 1949.

“His crusades were all on Olive Street in Los Angeles. That was in a big tent — a humongous tent,” said Paterson, who remembered singing for thousands of people at each event.

“No, I didn’t get a case of the nerves,” he added. “If I could do something to help (other people) along, that was what it would be. All I know is it was a humbling experience; that’s all I can say.”

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