"What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight - it's the size of the fight in the dog."
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
John and Bertie Griffin, of Troup, sent two sons to war. Only one would return.
A farm family from Cherokee County's Blackjack community, they had moved with their sons, Cecil and John Vincent, to Troup, where the young boys went to school and worked as farm laborers alongside their father.
Even before Pearl Harbor, both Griffin boys were seasoned veterans. Cecil, the oldest by six years, joined the Army in 1932, serving a stint in the Philippines before returning to the farm. John Vincent joined in 1939, while America was at peace.
When war was declared, Cecil rejoined the Army, requesting to serve alongside his brother. The two Texans would go into battle together in Company L, 16th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. The "Big Red One," a mechanized infantry division with 17,000 troops, sailed for England on Aug. 2, 1942, on the H.M.S. Queen Mary, a converted luxury liner. It was the first complete division to sail for foreign waters.
After hurried training in England, the division joined the invasion of North Africa, where it endured eight months of desert combat, battling German infantry, repelling tank attacks, enduring artillery bombardments and digging in to survive air assaults.
John and Cecil left Africa in July 1943 to take part in the invasion of Sicily, where attacks and counter-attacks would take a heavy toll. In Sicily, PFC John Griffin was recognized for gallantry in action with these words: "When his company was being fiercely counterattacked by the enemy, Private Griffin seized an automatic rifle and succeeded in the face of intense enemy fire, in destroying a machine gun nest. His courageous action contributed materially to his company's success in repelling the counterattack." That was his "first" Silver Star.
D-Day, June 6, 1944, found PFC John Vincent Griffin huddled with his squad in the belly of a landing craft, part of the first wave to hit Omaha Beach. Nearby, in another boat, Staff Sergeant Cecil Griffin targeted the same stretch of sand labeled Fox Red. From atop a fortified cliff, German defenders poured murderous fire onto the beach.
After advancing through that killing field, Company L was pinned down at the base of the cliff. John Vincent Griffin volunteered to go forward with two other men and cut a gap in the barbed wire. Griffin "picked his way through a minefield, marking a path for his company to follow and reached the base of a hill," the report reads. "From this point, he laid accurate rifle fire upon the enemy emplacements, forcing them to cease firing long enough to permit part of his company to move through the gap in the wire and the minefield and join him at the base of the hill."
But he was not done. "Private Griffin then moved out to the flank and from an exposed position directed his accurate fire against the enemy" allowing his company to assault the position. Later that same day, when the enemy counterattacked, Griffin "worked his way around the enemy and engaged them from the flank. Despite intense enemy fire to dislodge him, Private First Class Griffin remained at this exposed position until the enemy counterattack was beaten off."
For his "extraordinary heroism" on D-Day, he received the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor. It was pinned on his chest by none other than Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Once the beachhead was secure, Ike and Gen. Omar Bradley personally decorated 24 men of the Big Red One – pinning medals first on the chest of a brigadier general and lastly on the rumpled field jacket of the lowly private first class from Troup.
Of that group, three would die before the war's end. The first to fall would be John Vincent Griffin. Two months after D-Day, Griffin (now a staff sergeant) suffered multiple wounds in a battle near Mayenne, France, and died the next day. For "gallantry in action," he received his second Silver Star (with oak leaf cluster), and a third Purple Heart awarded posthumously. He was buried in a temporary military cemetery, but his remains would be exhumed and sent home after the war at the request of his parents.
Today, he rests in Troup's Bradford Cemetery near the grave of his parents. With a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars with oak leaf clusters, three Purple Hearts, a Presidential Unit Citation and campaign ribbons from the Algerian, French Moroccan, Tunisian, Sicilian and Normandy campaigns, he is arguably the most decorated soldier from Smith County in the Second World War.
This is not my research. I learned of John Vincent Griffin in an enjoyable conversation with John H. Luckey, co-author of two books on Texans in the Civil War ("Texas Burial Sites of Civil War Notables" and the two-volume "More Texas Burial Sites of Civil War and Reconstruction era Notables.") After more than 20 years of researching Texas veterans of the Civil War, Luckey had turned his focus to Texas veterans of World War II and graciously gave me a copy of his extensive research. He doesn't plan to write a book and he doesn't want credit for what he found. Instead, he wants to give his stories to the public, sharing tales of overlooked Texas heroes and donating his research to community libraries. In this case, John Vincent Griffin's story will go to the Troup Municipal Library.
Few remain to celebrate this unknown hero. His parents died in the seventies. His brother Cecil – who survived the war with a Silver Star and Purple Heart of his own – moved to Oregon and died in 1987.
Possibly the last living relative who knew John Vincent and Cecil Griffin is a first cousin, Claud Obar, 91, who lives with his wife Lee at Prestige Estates in Tyler. "We always called him Vincent," Lee said. "He was a very nice person." She and Claud had been married just three weeks when the casket, accompanied by a military escort, arrived at the Troup train station on June 18, 1948. "So many people showed up at his funeral," Lee said. And Claud remembered a large crowd gathering at the family home afterward.
But that was 67 years ago, and memories fade, people move on and the stories are forgotten. John's name is listed with 41 others "who gave all" on the War Memorial at Troup City Hall, but finding someone who knows his story is difficult.
When I drove to Troup on Sunday to pay my respects, I found dozens of small flags flapping in the cool breeze above many graves. But at the marker for John Vincent Griffin, Smith County's most decorated soldier of World War II, there was nothing.
The flag I planted to honor him in death pales in significance to the Distinguished Service Cross Ike pinned on his chest while he lived. But the message of both was simple: Your bravery was extraordinary and your sacrifice will not be forgotten.
Dave Berry is the retired editor of the Tyler Paper. His Focal Point column runs every Wednesday in the My Generation section. If you knew John Vincent or Cecil Griffin, I would love to hear from you. Email me at email@example.com.