“My gun - an M1 rifle - was my constant companion, but I didn’t have to fire it. ... I hated to give it up (after the war).”
Danny Griffen, co-owner of Griffen’s Flowers in Hannibal, Mo., was recalling his U.S. Army experiences in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
He was not injured, but “I saw some action,” Griffen said. He had some narrow escapes, when his company was shot at or bombed in the Pacific islands.
LeVon, Griffen’s wife, was living in St. Louis with her parents during the war, so when he was discharged from the Army on Jan. 1, 1946, in St. Louis, she was waiting.
Griffen became emotional as he recalled the moment he was reunited with her. He told her he would take the bus to her home, and when he got off the bus, “I walked as fast as I could,” Griffen said. “It was good to feel her in my arms again.”
The Griffens returned to Hannibal and raised their four children while continuing to operate Griffen’s Flowers.
LeVon died in August 2012, after they had been married for nearly 69 years. When they were married in 1944 in Virginia, she was 18 and he was 20.
Griffen is still actively involved in the flower business, as he prepares to celebrate his 90th birthday on Nov. 12.
He is grateful he was taken on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., in 2010.
Drafted at 18
Griffen was drafted into the U.S. Army, the Combat Engineers, at age 18. He was working in the family’s flower business, and was taking care of his mother and two sisters, after his dad had died in 1939.
“That was what I thought I should do, but the draft board thought otherwise,” Griffen said. “If you could walk and talk, they took you, if you did not have something drastically wrong with you.”
His mother then went to work at the Wendt-Sonis company, because “the flower business was too emotional for her.”
She had never had a job before, as she raised her five children, he explained.
Griffen’s basic training was at Fort Story, Va., in 1943. He planned his wedding before going overseas, and LeVon took the bus by herself to Camp Pickett, Va., for their wedding.
Soon after their wedding he had a two-week furlough and they returned to Hannibal. “We had a wedding reception at the American Cafe on Main Street next to the Windsor Hotel,” Griffen recalled.
After one year at Army camps along the East Coast, Griffen was shipped overseas, and his wife went back to St. Louis.
Page 2 of 4 - His training in combat engineers included “learning how to handle tools of all kinds,” Griffen said. “I was a bridge carpenter. But you did almost anything.”
His ship stopped in Hawaii and he saw his brother, Arthur, who was already serving in the Marines at Pearl Harbor. Later Arthur became a Methodist minister. At age 35 Arthur went back in the service, serving in Germany and Vietnam, and then returned to the ministry. “He is 93 now and lives in Reno, Nev.,” Griffen said. “He wrote a book about himself.”
Danny Griffen’s next Pacific landing was on Guam, where his Army company followed the Marines in taking the island from the Japanese. The first job of Griffen’s company was unloading the ship. Then they went on higher ground near the capitol city and stayed three months. They built a road named Johnson Road after an officer, “and that road is still in existence,” he said. “Part of our company made a quarry,” to have road-building material. Earlier the roads were a “corduroy roads,” made with coconuts.
Next, his company landed on Leyte Island. They were bombed every day, Griffen said, and “we did not have anti-aircraft at the time. The largest we had were 30-caliber machine guns.”
One of his narrow escapes came during this bombing. “One night we got a whole pile of mail, so I took up a position under a Philippine hut and had my helmet on (to read his mail). I saw the plane coming, and they dropped a bomb and it killed our company clerk, distributing the mail.
“The second blast wasn’t 50 feet from me, and I was showered with rocks and gravel from the beach. It scared me to death,” Griffen said. “I sat and shivered. I was by myself. That was the first scary thing.
“Another time on the same beach, we had a job of digging graves. One time we heard a small plane coming and you could see a great big bomb on the bottom of that plane. We said ‘what better place to be’ because we were already in the graves. It dropped 500 feet away. That was the closest it got.”
Griffen was still on bridge detail, reinforcing bridges. Once, in their headquarters village, a gun began being fired at them. Later it quieted down, he said, and “we learned the Philippine guerillas took care of the gun.”
Another time, he continued, “I was in my foxhole and saw a flash, and that missile went across my foxhole and landed near. If I had been sitting on my foxhole, it could have taken my head off. I thought strongly about coming home then.”
Page 3 of 4 - His commanding officer was “very theatrical,” Griffen said. The company was the 77th Division, and they landed on Dec. 7, 1944, at 7:07 in the morning,” Griffen said. This landing was not as dangerous, because “the Japanese had already been driven off the peninsula.”
He next served on Okinawa. “We arrived about six or eight days before it was invaded,” Griffen said. “We saw a lot of action there.” While on the ship they were threatened by the Kamikazes (suicide bombers),” he said. “Some came straight down and one came toward our ship and hit the ship in front of us. It blew up and didn’t damage the ship at all.” ... On Okinawa his company worked on roads and set up a quarry. When they erected a building with a concrete floor, “we had cement from Hannibal,” Griffen said. “We used wheelbarrows and brute strength to wheel that concrete in to make a floor, and built a building to store medical supplies. Then we had a typhoon, and it blew it all away, but the concrete floor was still there.”
When his company heard the first atomic bomb had been dropped, Griffen said, “it was like the end of the war for us - everybody on the island started firing up in the air. It was quite a show.”
They were still there when the war ended, and the men were being sent home by the point system. This meant the ones who were drafted “did not have too many points,” he said, so others went home first.
Then he learned his company was going to Japan, where they stayed for two weeks, until the occupation forces arrived. When they arrived, a crew on a Japanese ship “lined up and saluted us,” Griffen said.
In Japan, they went to Hiroshima to see the atomic bomb site. The first thing they noticed was five or six inches of dust. “Now we know it could have been radioactive” dust, Griffen said. “One dome-shaped building was still there, and it is used as a shrine, Griffen said. “We looked around that basin and saw nothing but grey dust.” In later years, Griffen was treated for more than one type of cancer but he does not know if they were related to this radiation exposure.
When the company was in Japan, a Japanese crew fixed their meals, and “when we left, they had a farewell party for us,” he said.
After arriving at home, he said, “when we were discharged, they asked if we wanted to re-up, and none of us did.”
Page 4 of 4 - Now he has a great-grandson is high school who has already enlisted in the military, Griffen added.
The military “is still a good choice for some young people,” Griffen said. “It could help them with their education, and they can get some education while in the service. ... A lot of people it helps in deciding what to do in life.”