13 March 2010

LIEUTENANT COLONEL JOSEPH K. GRIFFIS, Jr., USMC

For the men who read this, I think we will all agree that there are men who we meet in life who stand out, men who are “giants in the earth in [our] days.” My Dad, my grandfather, Rector H. Smith, and my friend, Lieutenant Colonel Pat Oates, are three such men. So, too, is Joe Griffis. While I have mentioned him in passing elsewhere, and shall set down some specific adventures in future posts, allow me the privilege of fully introducing Joe Griffis, Lieutenant Colonel of Marines.

Colonel Griffis assumed command of the battalion while I was on R and R. A new commanding officer can be unsettling to a unit. Who is this new guy? Does he know his stuff? What does he expect of his commanders? His staff?

I met him the day after I returned from R&R. The XO called me down and informed me that the battalion would be returning from the Arizona to An Hoa that night for one night, and then would move to Phu Loc (6) for about a month. The new CO wanted to have a cook out for the troops and they need a place to bed down. I turned to.

My S-4 Chief, a Staff Sergeant, coordinated with the Regimental Mess Chief, a Master Sergeant, to arrange for grills. The menu was steaks grilled on the spot, baked potatoes, mixed vegetables, and two Cokes and two beers per man.

In the meantime, the Police Sergeant organized a working party from the casual personnel we had in the rear. We moved a dozen 40-man General Purpose tents into an open area and began setting them up. There being no law of which I am aware that prohibits an officer from getting dirty (contrary to the belief of some) I was the 6th man on one of the 6-man teams that erected a dozen tents in about three hours.

At about 1600, the battalion arrived on foot, still wet from fording the Song Thu Bon. The grills were up and burning, we had a couple of jeep trailers filled with ice, Cokes and beer, and we began to feed the troops almost immediately. I met the Colonel and gave him a quick rundown on what we had done. He nodded.

He was a man in his early 40’s, somewhat grizzled, graying. In 1943, he left home and tried to join the United States Marine Corps. He was 15 and too young to enlist, so he joined the Merchant Marine and sailed on Atlantic convoy duty. The next year, at 16, he fudged his age a bit and enlisted in the Marine Corps. He went through boot camp and then served in combat in the South Pacific. After the War, he attended Officer Candidate School, was commissioned, and led troops as an infantry officer in the Korean War. Vietnam was his third war and this was his second tour of duty. He never stopped being a Grunt!!

Now, the Old Man had a couple of quirks, as all great commanders seem to have. He wore a blue bandanna tied around his neck; he was never without it. He had obtained a carbine version of the M-16 with a folding stock and carried it everywhere. And he thought every Marine, officer and enlisted, in his battalion ought to carry a rifle unless he was a gunner on an M-60 machine gun.

“I want it done quickly, Four. Get moving.”

The good news was that because we were under-strength, we had excess rifles in the armory. I approached the Regimental Four, Major Castagnetti, to see about getting the rest of the rifles we needed.

“Are you outta your mind,” he counseled? “How do you resupply?”

“Sir, my Six says he wants it done. I’m just asking if I can get the rifles?”

“Yeah, you can, but it is gonna bite you in the ass one of these days, young Lieutenant.”

Unbelievably, we swapped out all the pistols from officers, SNCOs and others by the time the battalion entrucked the next afternoon. The Old Man said nothing, which I soon learned was high praise. He had ordered and his staff had performed to his standard. Simple.

Thirty years later, at my first reunion of the Division, I went to re- introduce myself. “Colonel, you probably don’t remember me, but….”

“I know who you are, Mac. You’re my Four. Nice job on the rifles.” Oh, man!

As reported in his obituary, he was a strong proponent of education for everyone and set the example by earning his Associates, Bachelors, two Masters and a Doctorate. After he retired from the Corps, he taught in many venues, including University of Louisville, Adelphi, Pontifical Universidade, Catolico (Rio de Janeiro on a NIMH grant), and presented workshops and seminars. He had a private group psychology practice in Burlington , Vermont, from which he retired in 1989.

Bored, he soon came out of retirement again to work as a counselor at the Veterans Center in Key Largo , Florida, and then transferred to Lake Worth , Florida. Until his final retirement in 2006, he was the team leader at the Veterans Center in Lake Worth .

In his obituary, it was said that “Hurting veterans build walls; he helped them and their families build bridges. He carried these skills and abilities to battalion and other military reunions where he offered unconditional help to participants.” It was thanks to his urging that I finally turned to the VA for help in 2007.

He was a fixture at reunions of the battalion held in conjunction with the reunion of the 1st Marine Division Association. His last was in Philadelphia in 2007. He had been gallantly fighting cancer for years. To see him with “his Marines,” you would never have known how sick he was…but we did.

As we were leaving the hotel for the Battalion Dinner, most folks planned to walk to the restaurant. I was quietly grabbing people to ensure that the Old Man and the XO, Colonel O’Toole, had rides. The Colonel saw what I was doing and, grinning broadly, wagged a finger at me. “Still the Four, aren’t you, Mac?”

It was at that reunion that I could finally introduce my kids to Joe. He was gracious, as ever. When I introduced Andrew, I mentioned that he was named after Chip.

“Then you are a lucky boy, Son,” he said to Andy. “He was a good man!” (Such was Chip's reputation in the battalion; he was KIA before the Old Man took command, but the Colonel had heard the stories. The next night, as we walked to the hotel from the Company Dinner, Andy reduced me to tears. He suddenly stopped and looked up at me. “That Mr. Chip must have been a good man. Everybody says so.” And the people of God say “Amen” and “amen.”)

As we were leaving the final banquet to head home, I went over to say goodbye, praying that it would not be our last, suspecting that it would. He stood up and when I said “So long, Sir” he hugged me. “I love you, Son,” he said. “Love you, too, Sir.”

In his introduction to his classic memoir of WWII, On Valor’s Side, T. Grady Gallant talks of Marines as men who “are not ashamed.” At the conclusion, he writes that when they returned to the States after the War, as they tied up at the pier, they wept openly. “And we were not ashamed.”

That night, as I took my leave of the Old Man, I wept and was not ashamed.

We had had our last conversation that night, at least for a while. He reported to Marine Barracks, Heaven, the next winter. I traveled to Arlington for the interment. As we got to the grave site, there was a figure leaning against a tree, checking a blackberry. Several other young people hovered around.

“Well, it’s nice to see Charlie Company could make it,” said the former Delta-6 and now- Senator Jim Webb. His staff seemed a little concerned that the then-newly minted Senator was missing several committee meetings, but none of the people who counted were bothered. This was the Old Man’s funeral. Nothing was more important.

I trust that we will serve together again. I expect to hear “Now, Four, this morning I was talking with God and we really need to do something about . . .”

“Aye, aye, Sir.”

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.

4 comments:

Reformed Catholic said...

Absent Friends !!

Mac said...

The marvelous thing about our faith is that we don't have to say "goodbye," just "so long."

Cajun said...

Mac,
Capt. Frank Satterfield is searching to contact you..
He is my best friend. Please contact me.
GBU
Semper Fi
Cajun
5th Marines
'67-'68

Matt Fields said...

Mac,

Just found this today. LTC Griffis was my grandfather and the father of my mother. Thanks for writing this, I only knew him as the kind grandpa who loved chocolate and had a very soft carpet. My father is a Ret. Army Colonel and I am following in the family tradition, fixing to commission here soon as a butterbar in the Army. It's a great feeling to know that I'm following the footsteps of a man who, even after his death, has such wonderful praise written about him. Now I just need a blue bandanna.
Thanks,
Matt