By Gray Bostick
A right instead of a left. The flip of a coin. The luck of the draw.
A simple twist of fate, and lives are forever altered.
And one area family with deep and historic local roots epitomizes exactly how fate can set a dramatically different course for two brothers.
To many long-time Florence-area residents, the surname Griffin holds a special place in their hearts and lives, partially the result of their owning and operating the local Oldsmobile dealership from the 1940’s until 1962, a time when the new car industry was just beginning to blossom, as every year saw expansion in market and a pushing-of-the-envelope approach to design, with each new model year bringing on flashier styling, more powerful engines and performance enhancements, and interiors loaded with more convenience or comfort innovations than the last.
It was the Golden Age of Motoring, Detroit was king, and—much like today, only with more novelty–the model, make, and style car you drove “spoke” of your status or personality. And many new-car buyers became familiar with the Griffin brothers, Tommy (T.C.) and Bobby, through their hands-on, customer-first interaction at the dealership, where they were dedicated to the credo that “The new car salesman sells the first car, but the Service Department sells the next ones.”
And the Griffin family were serious car people, so enthusiastic that they were supporters of and participants in NASCAR races dating back to the days when they ran races along the beach in Daytona. Moreover, learning of Harold Brasington’s plan of converting a farm field into Darlington International Raceway, the Griffins were quick to sign up, becoming active in the track’s earliest days and, with the announcement of the running of the inaugural Southern 500, recording Entry #1 for that historic first Darlington race, a 1950 Oldsmobile that was raced by the famed Buck Baker—after first being driven around the Pee Dee for a couple months by the Griffins as a mobile billboard, cementing a long-time connection between the family and the “Track Too Tough To Tame.”
But the paths the Griffin brothers took to be there for that historic entry and landmark day could not have been different.
Many area residents are perhaps more familiar with younger brother, Tommy, better known as T.C., due to his many contributions to the community, both civically and professionally, serving as the first executive director of the Florence Regional Airport and founding the Florence Air and Missile Museum, which contained many one-of-a-kind pieces and, at one time, was among the most popular stops for travelers motoring between New York and Miami. He also founded the once-popular Griffin Motors and Antiques Museum and interacted with many area residents thru owning and operating the driving range and Putt-Putt course at the Florence airport. Recognizing Florence’s unique location and logistical advantages it offered, T.C. also worked tirelessly on behalf of his community, serving as a founding member of the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation, in addition to numerous other civic-minded committees that would later help establish Florence as a regional hub for commerce, transportation, and medical care, while also becoming a more metropolitan city.
But then, what else would expect from the “Greatest Generation,” the men and women who fought and sacrificed–on all fronts–for the sake of liberty and human rights, a generation of Americans who were patriotically, and perhaps genetically, inclined to do more? And then some. And the Griffin brothers stepped up, proving that their commitment to service extended beyond the car customer, but was even more critical when the cause and call of their country beckoned.
Tommy, a Florence High School and University of South Carolina alumnus, as well as a graduate of the General Motors Institute of Technology, did his part, leaving a job he had taken with Atlantic Coast Railroad in 1942 to serve a four-year tour during World War II with the pre-U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army Air Corps, working in the tropical South Pacific as a mechanic repairing and maintaining the B-29s that were being used in an attempt to bomb Japan into submission.
But for brother Bobby, fate had different plans. Entirely different.
A former page for U.S. Senator “Cotton Ed” Smith and 1943 Citadel graduate, Bobby was dealt a much more challenging, and dangerous, war mission: fighting the Nazis in the cold and wet European Theatre as a member of the 26th Division of the 3rd U.S. Army, under the command of General George Patton. In this role, Griffin had an up-close and personal experience with the viciousness of infantry warfare, fearlessly leading his company into action and being among the first to encounter and engage German troops in the Battle of the Ardennes, earning a battlefield promotion to First Lieutenant for his meritorious service and heroic actions during a particularly savage Christmas Day battle.
Griffin also had a unique war record in that he was among the few Allied soldiers to have become a German prisoner of war, not once, but TWICE, originally being captured on January 14, 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, one of the largest and bloodiest European battles of World War II, while leading Company A of the 26th Division of Third Army’s 104th infantry on a special-duty patrol. With luck and daring, Griffin was able to escape his original captors, but was soon re-captured and confined to Stalag-9B, a notorious encampment where he remained until the rescue of Allied POWs near war’s end, which was joyfully celebrated by his family, who had only known only him to be missing in action until a neighbor recognized his face in a newspaper photo taken of Allied prisoners being liberated.
So selfless and brave were Griffin’s actions in the European Theatre that, in recognition of his war service and valor, Griffin was justifiably awarded a chest full of medals, including: the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, four Purple Hearts, and a P.O.W. Medal, among numerous others. In fact, Bobby Griffin’s efforts and unselfish service to his country were so significant that, upon his passing in 1994, a tribute to him was read into the Congressional Record by South Carolina Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings.
But a man can’t constantly see the combat, carnage, and cold acts of inhumanity and not be altered, and like many WWII veterans across the nation, Bobby returned to his home and job at Griffin Motors a changed man. But he didn’t rest on his laurels, nor dwell on what he had experienced, or how it had impacted him, but, instead, in keeping with his generation’s dedication to protecting American freedoms and values, he quietly looked for ways to continue to serve, remaining active with the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), serving as Commander of Florence’s VFW Post 3181 for many years, and as State Commander of the VFW in 1951.
Changed by his war memories, perhaps, but not broken by the burdens of battle, Robert “Bobby” P. Griffin represents just one of millions who have bravely and selflessly stepped up, day after often deadly and dreaded day, and repeatedly placed themselves directly in harm’s way. For us. For me. For you. For America, and for the generations to come.
Ask not what tomorrow may bring, but count as a blessing every day that Fate allows you, and remember with reverence those whose fate it was to give up the prime of their lives so that yours would be better.
As Griffin’s commanding officer General Patton noted: “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who were at the front and were wounded or died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.” And Bobby Griffin was such a man.
So, this Veteran’s Day remember with respect all those who wear the uniform and carry our flag into battle. And don’t forget to thank a vet.
Do it for Bobby.