He was born in the United Kingdom of Ghanaian origin, and also had Dutch and German maternal bloodlines. Among other earlier achievements he showed an excellence in sport, particularly the art of boxing.
Born in the UK in 1912, he returned to Ghana with his parents and his newly born sister, Mary Ruth Ernestina, Edmondson (née Hayford), in 1914, commencing formal education in 1916 at the Baptist School in Accra. Between 1916 and 1922, he studied at a Pedagogium in Godesberg, Germany. He attended the Bellahouston Academy and Ibrox Public School in Glasgow, Scotland (1925–28), then went on to the Baptist Collegiate School, Accra (1929–30). Between 1931 and 1939, he passed several courses in: Infantry and Army Signals Training, Shorthand, Typing and Short-Story Writing, qualifying through the Regent Institute of Journalism. In 1941, he passed the Royal Air Force RAF medical examination, after treatment for a broken jaw sustained in the sport of boxing, and passed the Non-Commissioned Officers courses in 1943. In 1944, he qualified in the issuing and handling of Supplies; Accounting; Inspection of Food Stuffs; Warehousing; Baking; Butchery; Vehicle Mechanics and Operational Driving. In 1945, he studied course subjects as an external student of London University, as well as military matters such as Leadership Potential and all basic Infantry subjects. He matriculated in September 1945. In 1946, he passed all Transport and Service subjects with high grades and passed his inter-B.Sc. Economics Degree from London University in November, 1947. In 1951, he received his Diploma in Public Administration from London University by private study and was awarded the title of Fellow of the Economic Society of Ghana in 1958. In 1966, he gained his B.Sc in Economics.
On 7 February 1964, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Economic Society.
Between 1931 and 1939, de Graft-Hayford was actively involved in various careers including literary work and the sport of boxing, but nevertheless he passed his Civil Service Examination and was employed as a Second Division Clerk then Assistant Officer Gazeteer and was also a broadcast announcer with a radio station called ZOY.
From June 1937 to December 1938 de Graft-Hayford together with the British Assistant Colonial Secretary Harold Cooper, and with the assistance of Dr. Ebenezer Ako-Adjei, organised and established the Gold Coast Broadcasting Service, the beginnings of what is now the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation GBC.
He enlisted with the 3rd Battalion Gold Coast Regiment, otherwise known as the Gold Coast Territorial Force, on 1 May 1939, specialising in Infantry and Army Signals Training. On 26 August 1939, he was mobilized with the 5th Battalion, Gold Coast Regiment, Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF). In 1940, he was promoted Sergeant and posted to command pay office. In 1941, he passed an interview for training as Fighter Pilot with the Royal Air Force (RAF). In 1942, he was a staff sergeant in command of the Pay Office in the Gambia, as well as having part-time attachment duties with the RAF. He was also on war office circular cancelling inter-service transfers and remained in the RWAFF. In 1943 he was posted to the 6th battalion Gold Coast Regiment for training with a view to a commission in the infantry. 1944 saw him as an instructor for the Unit NCOs Cadre, specialising in battle drills, small arms and organisation in the field of war. However he was debarred from commission in infantry by reason of notified age limit and continued with the 821 Company, West African Service Corps training, still with the aim of a commission in the Royal Service Corp.
In 1945, de Graft-Hayford, as a sergeant in 13 I.T.C. & Queen's Own Regiment in Maidstone, Kent, UK, was recommended for training at a Royal Army Service Officer Cadet Training Unit. He was subsequently interviewed on 3 August 1945 by the War Office Selection Board at Golders Green, UK, and was found suitable for training as an Officer at an Officer Training unit in Britain. He was now cadet 148 Pre-OCTU, Wrothram, Kent, UK.
In 1946, he was Officer/Cadet at the Royal Army Service Corps Officer Training Centre, Aldershot, UK.
De Graft-Hayford was only the third African to be commissioned Lieutenant as a British Officer in the Royal Army Service Corps Land Forces in 1946.
He served in North Africa and the UK, rising to the rank of Captain, until demobilisation from the armed forces in the United Kingdom on 14 June 1948. He continued working in the UK as Assistant Welfare and Scholarships Officer at the Colonial Office in London for a while then returned to Ghana.
Between 1948 and 1953, he was with the Gold Coast Cocoa Marketing Board. He initially worked as Secretary/Accountant rising to the position of Acting General Manager. He was also during this period Chairman of the Ghana Legion and a member of the Constitutional Assembly.
In the late 1950, he was recalled back to the Ghana Armed Forces with the offer of the position of as Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion of Infantry, Ghana Army Volunteer Force which he accepted.
In 1961, de Graft-Hayford was seconded to the 3rd Green Jackets Rifle Brigade, British Army of Occupation of Germany (for Senior Officers) Battle Training. He soon after gained promotion to lieutenant Colonel and in 1962 to Brigadier, re-designated Air Commodore and appointed Chief of Air Staff CAS Chief of the Air Staff taking over from Air Commodore John Whitworth.
In 1962, under Kwame Nkrumah's initiative the first National School of Gliding was successfully set up jointly by Hanna Reitsch, once Adolf Hitler's top personal pilot, and Air Commodore De Graft-Hayford, who during this period also held the positions of aide de camp to Nkrumah, then President of Ghana, and at the same time, the first Chief of the Air Staff and for brief period acting Chief of Defence Staff.
De Graft-Hayford was posted by Nkrumah to the Ghana High Commission in the UK as Ghana's first Military Attaché in 1963 and was actively involved in intelligence work.
He retired from the Ghana Armed Forces on 28 February 1965.
In 1966, still residing in the UK, he occupied himself as a sales consultant for Encyclopædia Britannica and as the secretary of the British Legion Club situated in Fulham, London.
Soon after the downfall of Kwame Nkrumah and during the regime of Lieutenant General Joseph Ankrah, De Graft-Hayford was invited back to Ghana from the UK and offered senior appointments within the Government. He became the national organiser of the Ghana Workers Brigade (GWB) on 21 December 1966. On 10 September 1968, he was also Chairman of the National Emergency Food Supply Committee.
He stayed with the Workers Brigade until 1971 and performed exceedingly in reversing massive debts. The GWB was an Agricultural Industrial and Construction Organisation made up of civilians and military logistics personnel of approximately 35,000 workers.
On 11 January 1972, he headed the Investigation Branch, Ghana Cocoa Marketing Board, then was re-designated Chief Security Officer.
He was the first Chairman of the Ghana branch of Amnesty International between 1972–1974 and whose secretary was the lawyer, writer and famous Ghanaian historian Dr. I. S. Ephson (born 1923).
Between 1974 and 1979 De Graft-Hayford held various portfolios: Special Assistant to the Commissioner for Trade, Special Assistant (Security) to the Commissioner, Cocoa Affairs and Co-ordinator at the Ministry of Cocoa Affairs, responsible solely to the Commissioner. His Ministry of Cocoa Affairs contract of service ended in 1979.
In 1980, he was Chairman of the Ghana Legion and Advisor to President Hilla Limann at the Cabinet Secretary's request.
From 1981 to 1984, De Graft-Hayford continued as Chairman of the Ghana Legion having been appointed by the Peoples National Democratic Convention PNDC then led by Jerry John Rawlings. In 1984, de Graft-Hayford retired from the Chairmanship of the Ghana Legion and Boxing authority returning to the UK.
Between 1984 and 1994 in the UK, he served in the voluntary sector of national and local charities as treasurer, fund-raiser and administrator, as well as council member. He was a Freemason, having been a member of Lake Victoria Lodge and Acturus Lodge in London, and Militia Lodge in Accra. He received LGR in 2000.
He remained in the UK semi-retired, occupying himself with his literary works and part-time social work.
His military awards include the Territorial Decoration Medal, the 1939-1945 Star, the Coronation 1953, the Republic Medal 1960 and others.
During the 1930s de Graft-Hayford was a professional boxer under the pseudonym of "The Chocolate Kid". From humble beginnings of barefist boxing on the beaches of Accra, Chocolate Kid would swim way out into the ocean with no fears, run marathons and even won the Queen's Coronation Cycling Championship Trophy. He became Welter and Middle-Weight Boxing Champion of Ghana and West Africa respectively retiring as an undefeated uhampion in 1941.
As a welter-weight boxer, "Chocolate Kid" claimed the Welter-Weight championship and the Sir Arnold Hudson Trophy in 1935. In 1939, in the second round of a friendly non-title bout, he knocked out one Jack Pullan, the Far Eastern Command Welterweight Champion, on board the troop ship New Northland. 
In 1941, Chocolate Kid won the Middle-Weight title and the George R. Benest Championship Silver Bowl donated by Nestlé-Switzerland, retiring from boxing as undefeated champion.
Between 1974 and 1978, he established the first Ghana Boxing Board of Control and as chairman was instrumental in Ghana acquiring her first world boxing champion, D. K. Poison. De Graft-Hayford later became Vice-President of the African Boxing Union and Member of the World Boxing Council.
De Graft-Hayford had two siblings, Dr Mark Davy-Hayford and Mary Ruth Ernestina Edmundson OBE. His mother Matilda Goy was German and his father was the Reverend Mark Christian Hayford MA, DD, FRCS whose father was the Reverend, Joseph De Graft Hayford, the son of Reverend James Hayford, whose ethnic name was Kwamina Afua.
The Hayford (Afua) family or clan of Cape Coast and Accra includes relations with the surnames Casely Hayford, Davy Hayford, degraft-Johnson, Yankah, Wilson, Welsing, Hutchful, Wilberforce, Graves and Brew, among others.
J. E. S. de Graft-Hayford was from a royal Fanti family of political nationalists and veritable Christian reverends and was first in line to follow in his father's footsteps as a reverend or be installed as the Chief of the Fanti stool (throne). He instead chose to become a civil servant, a champion fighter, a military man of esteem and, like his forefathers, a true believer in freedom and human rights.
He was married to Phyllis de Graft-Hayford (née Stiff, 1919–2001), who co-established the first Child Care Centre in Ghana. They have five children.