A local family recently received a message informing them that 2nd Lt. Royce E. Griffin had been killed in the war.
The telegram was dated May 9, 1945.
On Thursday, Portland police Officer Matt McDonald delivered the telegram to several members of the family at Heritage High School, where John Griffin — the pilot’s nephew — is the dean of students and a former history teacher. The setting was an Advanced Placement American history class taught by Jackie George-Mayor.
Maybe an earlier generation of the Vancouver family received that telegram more than 68 years ago; nobody knows for sure anymore.
The telegram can only be tracked back about 15 years, when a Portland garbage collector salvaged a small metal pitcher from a trash bin; the crumpled piece of paper was later found crammed inside.
The fate of the World War II fighter pilot was never a mystery. His death was reported in The Columbian on May 22, 1945, and Griffin was buried at Park Hill Cemetery. His family was given a flag, presented with the thanks of a grateful nation.
Family members were proud of his service as a P-47 fighter pilot in the Philippines. Although many of the details have been blurred over the decades, his final sacrifice was documented by that telegram to his mother, Mrs. Laura Griffin, 915 E. 45th St.
“The Secretary of War desires to express his deep regret that your son 2/Lt. Griffin Royce E. died in Luzon 25 Apr 45. Confirming letter follows.”
The Vancouver High grad was six weeks shy of his 24th birthday.
Whatever path that telegram took over the next half-century brought it, and another one of Griffin’s WWII keepsakes, to a garbage bin in Portland.
After the garbage collector found the tarnished metal pitcher, he took it home and showed it to his then-girlfriend. When she took the lid off, she found the telegram.
She thought that somebody might want it, but never got around to looking for the Griffin family. She came across the items about three years ago and gave the telegram and pitcher to her mother — who is officer McDonald’s mother-in-law. She set the items aside, too. When she came across them a few weeks ago, she gave them to her son-in-law, a 20-year veteran of the Portland Police Bureau.
“My job has been finding people who didn’t want to be found,” McDonald said, so he decided to try a slightly different take on that process.
Investigating on his own time with publicly available references — no police resources — McDonald was able to learn a few things about Griffin. A website that provides information on military graves showed Griffin’s marker: He flew for the Army Air Force’s 69th Fighter Squadron, which was based in the Philippines when Griffin died.
A stamp on the bottom of the small pitcher indicated that it had been made for the Army‘s medical division and was a creamer.
Baseball was link
The link to the Griffin family came via an Air Force Academy sports website. Drew Griffin — son of the Heritage dean of students — played baseball for the academy for a couple of years.
“In middle school, I did a school project on my family’s military history and I was able to learn a lot about Royce from my late Grandpa Byrl (his brother),” Drew Griffin said in an email.
“When I played baseball at the Academy, the form we filled out for our bios asked if we had any family members who had served in the Air Force. While he had served in the Army Air Corps, before the Air Force existed, I felt that it was important to include” 2nd Lt. Griffin.
As he searched the Internet, McDonald found that reference, and it was just what he needed. The policeman figured that Drew Griffin was part of the Facebook generation, and was able to follow up a couple of other contact points.
“When Matt called, I was pretty surprised,” the former Fort Vancouver Trapper said. “My grandpa had always done a good job of keeping parts of our family history together, so I was shocked that the telegram had left our family’s possession. None of us realized that the document was out there.
“It’s also pretty incredible that it hadn’t been destroyed through all of these years. I knew my dad would be shocked by the news,” Drew Griffin said.
The metal creamer likely was part of another chapter of the WWII pilot’s history. Royce Griffin had been badly burned in an aircraft accident, and was hospitalized. He probably took the medical division creamer with him when he left the hospital and returned to duty.
In addition to bringing lost family keepsakes back home, John Griffin realized that the return of the telegram could be a learning experience.
“Wow! This is a primary document for our advanced-placement history kids,” the Heritage administrator said.
And in the classroom that day, John Griffin reminded the Heritage students: “History is in a book, but it’s not about a book.”
Every person in that room has an interesting family story, Griffin added.
“I guarantee it,” Griffin said, even if “you don’t know it.”