Griffith Hall at Fort Gordon will be rededicated in January to honor the first Signal Corps officer killed in Vietnam, 1st Lt. Thurston “Turk” Griffith Jr.
The Jan. 17 ceremony will be a special moment for retired Col. Homer Pickens, who worked behind the scenes for a year to pull it together.
Pickens’ father was best friends with Griffith’s father back in their native New Mexico, but their sons met only once, in a chance encounter at the Fort Gordon officer’s club. It was 1964, and both young officers were on orders that eventually would take them to Vietnam.
“After that first meeting, I never saw him again,” Pickens said. Nearly half a million service members would eventually be sent overseas. “It was hard to find out what happened to any individual.”
What happened eventually earned Griffith several posthumous medals, including a Bronze Star for valor and a national medal from the Republic of Vietnam. In 1967, Griffith Hall, a military lodging hall, was dedicated at Fort Gordon and Griffith’s high school in Los Alamos, N.M., named its gymnasium in his honor.
But Pickens didn’t feel this was quite enough. He wants to be sure Griffith’s actions on Jan. 17, 1965, and the memory of all American troops who fought in Vietnam, are honored.
Griffith, who died three months before his 25th birthday, “sacrificed his future. He sacrificed any possibility of marriage, children, grandchildren, all of those things, when he stood toe to toe with the Viet Cong,” Pickens said.
Griffith, a West Point graduate, arrived in Vietnam in December 1964 after volunteering to be sent overseas. He was assigned to the Binh Thuan province, about 100 miles east of Saigon, to serve as an adviser for the Vietnamese army.
On Jan. 17, Griffith and Capt. Richard Johnson received intelligence that the Viet Cong were harassing villagers in a small hamlet called Ham Tan. Griffith and Johnson set out with Vietnamese soldiers to flush out and eradicate the Viet Cong, but they were ambushed en route by a much larger force.
Johnson was killed early in the battle along with many of the other soldiers, but Griffith held his ground. An expert marksman, Griffith shot many of the Viet Cong before he was overrun and killed. An interpreter for Johnson was one of the few survivors and relayed the incident to American forces after his escape to Saigon.
A short narrative of that battle inscribed on a bronze plaque will be part of the new display at Griffith Hall. A shadowbox holding photos of Griffith and his medals will accompany it.
Pickens said troops returning from Vietnam were not met with the same degree of respect and affection shown today’s veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. He wants to remedy that.
“We want to be sure that those who lost their lives get a modicum of the respect we see today,” he said. “They certainly deserve it.”