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Donald F. Griffin's Memories

by Donald F. Griffin (353R/353B D/A)

While in the Army early in December 1941, I was visited from home by a then current girlfriend and a couple for whom I was best man at their wedding. They came 500 miles just to say hello. As Fort Belvoir was just across the Potomac River from Washington, we decided to go to the then small southern town to get a late breakfast. We never found a place to eat but, as we came upon the old statehouse building, we noted two cameras being set-up on either side of the entrance to the building. Out of curiosity we stopped to see what was of possible interest. Suddenly Cordell Hull came out of the side door and passed us. We all noted that he seemed to be crying. A few minutes later two little Japanese, Foreign Minister Nomura and his assistant, Saburo Kurusu, came out and ran into a waiting car, jumped in and took off. Just then someone came running down the street shouting, “We are at war!! The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor”. Collectively everyone said in unison, “Where in Hell is Pearl Harbor?” On our car radio they kept announcing, “All military personnel report to your units at once”. We were included in the newsreels and we have some great photos. The last time I saw us on TV was on “The Waltons”. The four of us were included in a story of John Boy being drafted and they included us in the newsreel. We have some excellent pictures that I treasure. I wonder if they have any value? Well, our meeting lasted about four hours.

In a shortened basic training, eleven weeks, I and a few others were sent to Plattsburg Barracks in upstate New York on January 1, 1942. The post was the officer training locale for all officers for WWI. We joined the famous 36th Combat Amphibious Engineers. The post was right on the shore of Lake Champlain. It is now a New York state college.

All of us were in panic to think we were not in the same class as the “Rugged” 36th but somehow we melded in. They had just returned from Louisiana maneuvers where they set all kinds of records and caught the eye of old George Patton. Eric Severeid, the TV commentator, said they were the greatest unit in the army. He was a war correspondent at Anzio.

About 3 or 4 weeks in Plattsburg I was told to report to Regimental Headquarters. I wondered what I had done to warrant such a meeting. I reported to a lone captain. He said, “The Army is looking for qualified men to go to O.C.S. and we want you to go to Fort Belvoir for training in the Engineers”. I was taken by surprise but I somehow managed to say in all seriousness and keeping in mind the three West Pointers who gave us our basic training, “Sir, I do not think I am qualified to become an officer”. He said, “You scored a very high mark on your induction exam and furthermore we consider you a natural born leader” and he continued “you would not have been called before me if I did not think you were qualified”. Little did he know of the great insecurity I had. Asked if I had second thoughts: I again refused.

At Fort Bragg I was called before a three man officer team and asked to go to Miami Beach to become an Air Force Administrative Officer. This I refused as I did not equate the Air Force to the Engineers.

We spent the summer of 1942 at Fort Bragg. We took a hell of a pounding with “Old Blood and Guts”. I swear on our almost daily extended order drills we got, at times, into North Carolina and West Virginia.

We were put on alert, moved out of our barracks and were sitting on our A & B bags awaiting trucks to take us to Indiantown Gap, PA for what ended in the November 8, 1942 landing in North Africa. An officer I did not know came up to me and said, “Do not get on a truck as you are not going with the 36th. You are going on a cadre to form the 353rd Engineers”. I honestly must admit I have cried but twice in my adult life; the day JFK was killed and the day I was taken away from the 36th. The officer said, “I don’t want you to get killed as the 36th will be one of the most combated units in all the army.” How true.

A close buddy of mine kept me up to date on their trials and their service all thru the war. Anzio was a supposedly three day minor landing to establish a beachhead. Six weeks later they finally closed and contained their objected landing. The 36th at one stretch was used as infantry for forty straight days on the line. One night they had forty killed.

I will always consider George Patton the greatest leader in all of WWII, unlike that egocentric Dugout Doug whom I truly hated. I will always remember the day that Patton gave us what became the famous or infamous speech that was given as a rally call. If you remember George Scott in the picture “Patton,” he stood before the giant flag and rallied us into a bunch of wild war heroes. However, his speech was not exactly the same as it was in the movie. His vocabulary that we got would make an old army first sergeant blush. Every other word was not fit for family listening. Poor 1st Sgt Butler brought his lovely bride, Angie, to the speech. He tried to dig a hole to hide from his embarrassment.

[After being trained as a combat engineer, Don was now in a non-combat construction engineer outfit – Ed.]

When we landed in Caledonia my first letter to my parents was addressed Mr & Mrs Jerry N. Griffin. My father’s correct address was Jerry F. Griffin. My 2nd letter was Mr & Mrs Jerry E. Griffin. The third was as Mr & Mrs Jerry W. Griffin. My oldest sister questioned my constant change of the middle initial when she suddenly realized I was sending a message. Of course, I was trying to keep them posted as to where I was. I used the same method in GUADALCANAL and MANILA.

As for any memorabilia about the 353rd. I am afraid that in my moving from Lanesboro to my daughter’s home in Lenox, Mass I lost the memorabilia that might have been. I had some relative to promotions, internal information with promotions and I saved a batch of news bulletins when we were aboard ship. All useful items were lost – a lot that I wish I still had.

I would like to relate to you some information you could not know. First of all, in the history of our existence I was not listed in that I was in the advance party to Frisco. We stayed at the Presidio (they put me on guard duty the first night there). I met with the ship’s Captain and we went aboard setting up guard posts on the ship as I was to be head of security. Who conned me into this job was, I think of Company Commander Don Matheson. The strange thing about this assignment was I got the same duty when we went from the Canal to Manila. The first voyage was routine but the second was tough. He ordered me to put the fire hoses on the kids approaching our ship, something I didn’t wish to do. One of my platoon men was on the hose when he was cold cocked by a big marine master sergeant. He knocked him out for following the Captain’s orders. Well, my guys, nasty Chicago and country boys, tried to locate him. This was in Cebu, and they planned to knock him out and throw him overboard at night. Thank God they never could locate him – it saved a murder.

Another duty I got when we landed in Caledonia was when I was approached by an Army Captain who handed me an official looking directive and said, “Read this.” I did read it and he said “Did you read it carefully?” and I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Well, read it again.” It was a statement I signed that made me a “Secret Agent” investigating espionage and sabotage. I had to give him a code name that I would use, namely “Allan.” I had to send a written report to Island Command, namely Nimitz, and later to McArthur’s headquarters. I was never to tell a soul of this duty. But it was a rather useless thing as you knew and as I knew patriotism was paramount in our lives at that time. Who would sell our country to an enemy? My discharge has the notation “SECRET AGENT” in big bold letters.

When the outfit left for Japan, I stayed in Manila as I had sufficient points to go home. The sad thing was, when I got to the dock looking for a ship going to the U.S., I found all ships were going to Japan and nothing to the good old U.S.A. I sat there alone awaiting a chance for a ride on a ship going to the U.S. I lived in a beat up old tent for six weeks. It was a terrible feeling being stranded not knowing how or if I would ever see home again. I now know how Edward Everett Hale, the man without a country, must have felt. I ran out of money for food as I had no way of getting assigned to some quartermaster unit. I finally found a dock outfit that let me eat with them and take a shower. I got home and was discharged Dec 10, 1945.

My oldest son finished his masters at Harvard but never submitted his thesis. He is a very low key type, caring little for money or fame. He works for a large book company serving Harvard, M.I.T. and Boston College.

My daughter-in-law (above son her husband) got her masters at the University of North Carolina in Computer Science, walked right out of college to take over the M.I.T. printing department with 90 employees. My son said her salary is an embarrassment, it being so large.

My younger daughter graduated from Smith College and works for Weston Hotel. She was manager of a brand new 50 million dollar Holiday Inn on the beach in the Cayman Islands (spent a week there last year). She is now manager of the Crown Plaza 350-room hotel at the Orlando airport. She and I took a trip as a college present to Spain. We crossed the Mediterranean at Gibraltar to Africa. What a beautiful country Spain is and what a mess Tangiers is. I hated the filth of those people.

When I returned home I leased a small variety store, bought a juke box and a pin ball business. I got a letter from my senior Senator from Massachusetts informing me that the town of Lanesboro Democratic Committee named me Postmaster. To date I never found out who sponsored me for the job as I was about as apolitical as they come. I never even voted. I refused it because I was making about three times as much in business. Soon after I got a letter from John McCormick, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, asking me to reconsider so I accepted it. I was the Postmaster of Lanesboro, New Ashford, Hancock (home of Shakers Hancock Village) and South Williamstown, Massachusetts (home of Williams College). I served almost 30 years. I loved the job. I was named to train all newly appointed Postmasters in the western part of Massachusetts. I got a nice citation.

I built a house in 1949 for my bride. I had help but in 1957 I built my second home. I had help the first day when we poured the foundation but did all the rest alone. It was on a 2¼ acre lot with an 18’ x 36’ in-ground pool – the toughest job I ever undertook. The pool is 34 years of age, still as solid as the day it was built. My 2nd oldest son bought it when my marriage ended. It is now valued at about $350,000. I have six kids, three boys and three girls. My daughter, with whom I live, manages a small private health clinic. My son, who lives in my old house, has a landscaping business, works mostly for G.E. in Pittsfield. Another daughter works in the Pittsfield Post Office and my youngest son is a supervisor of air security at the Bradley Field airport. He was in police work in Lanesboro before going with the government.

In the early 60’s I built a camping trailer similar to today’s commercial pop-up trailers. We took two cross country trips returning home a different way. Our last trip was the King’s Highway from Montreal to Vancouver, B.C. We visited every state in the lower 48 except Louisiana. Saw every National major park, twice to Yellowstone and twice to Glacier, our very most favorite park. Our destination was to my brother’s house in Anaheim, California within sight of Disneyland. My brother was general foreman at the Seal Beach Naval Depot so he was in charge of the shipment of all naval ammo for the Vietnam war.

I am still having my problems in hearing, so much so that I almost live in a world of my own. I cannot communicate with anyone over six feet away. I cannot use a phone as shingles completely mangled the fibers in each ear. I cannot see a movie, have a rough time with TV but thank God for closed caption. Miracle Ear refused to sell me an aid stating that my condition is not correctable. I have had a problem with hiatial hernia for the past three years but it seems to be pretty well cured after three endoscopy operations. I still do my 2-mile walk 5-6 days a week so I am grateful that I am still very mobile.

I was the youngest of eight and am the lone survivor. I had a wonderful childhood in a very happy Irish Catholic home. Four older brothers afforded me wonderful memories in baseball and football. We had a small farm so I never remembered the Depression as such, as we always had enough to eat. My father took great pride in not ever having help like most large and even small families in those trying days.

My next door neighbor was Mark Balinger, the eight time Gold Glove shortstop of the Baltimore Orioles. We became very close. I attended at least 25-30 games with him going out twice with Brooks Robinson in New York to grab a bite of food after night games. I was his guest of honor when he and Earl Weaver were introduced into the Baltimore Hall of Fame. Dale Long (eight home runs in eight days, a record) lived three houses from me. He was younger but we got to play a little baseball and football as kids.

My ex and I had what I thought was a wonderful marriage. We never had as much as a quarrel in 35 years. My kids, to date, still will not believe what happened. My oldest son has not spoken to her in 20 years. He has two beautiful boys that he will not let her see. I am fortunate that all the children have been very close and supportive to me.

I weighed 155 lbs when I came out of the service. I now weigh 153. My hair is about gone. I never smoked a cigarette in my life, never drank and in other words led a rather low key life. We spent several trips to NYC for Broadway shows. Traveled to the Bahamas, Jamaica & the Caymans.

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