Rubin: Finally home from the war, after 65 years

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Toni Murphy’s uncle is home from the war. Finally, 65 years after he died.

There will be a ceremony in his honor Friday at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial, with the presentation of his many medals. He will have a full military funeral next month at Arlington National Ceremony.

Cpl. George Grifford will be at peace, Murphy says ... and maybe she can be, too.

Murphy grew up with her uncle in an almost impossibly crowded home in Grosse Pointe Farms. Now she’s 73, living in a senior community in New Baltimore, showing off childhood pictures of Grifford and more recent ones the U.S. Army used to prove who he was.

A thick spiral-bound report includes charts and numbers and color photographs of Grifford’s remains, laid out in a nearly complete skeleton. There are close-ups of his eroding jaw and his sternum, with red circles identifying useful clues.

Murphy pages through them without recoil or hesitation. “I love him,” she says, and therefore, “I love his bones.”

The only time she has to dab her eyes is when she talks about how she failed him — how five years ago, after a lifetime of missing him and pestering the Army about him and reading the classified ads in case he was trying to reach her, she gave up.

“I didn’t find him,” she says, closing the report. “He found me.”

What’s important, as Memorial Day approaches, is that he’s back.

Grifford enlisted with his best friend at 17, having badgered his mother to sign a permission slip so he could serve his country. At 18, sick and abused, he died in a Korean War POW camp.

A letter from a brigadier general, included in the spiral-bound report, says the cause of death was dysentery.

Sworn to secrecy, Murphy has never told this to anyone before, but the best friend said it was torture.

Grifford’s mother never knew that, and she never stopped wishing for a miracle. She never gave up blaming herself, either, for letting her baby go to war, but mostly she clung to a fantasy.

The idea, Murphy says, was that “he found a nice Korean girl, passed himself off as Korean, and had a bunch of kids.”

Uncle George

Esther and Edward Grifford had four children survive infancy. George, born in 1932 amid the Great Depression, was the youngest — the one his mother doted on.

The Griffords lived in a five-bedroom duplex at 2251/2 Muir Road that contained as many as 24 people, all related, 16 of them children.

For the kids, “It was eight to a bed,” Murphy says. In winter, the tight quarters were all that kept them warm in a house heated by a pot-bellied stove.

“I didn’t have dolls,” she says. The oldest of 10, she had brothers and sisters instead.

Amid the throng, Uncle George was a prankster, usually smiling, likely to launch a sneak-attack tickle.

He stood 5-feet, 53/4 inches, according to his Army records, weighed 140 pounds and wore a size 81/2 shoe. He smoked Pall Malls, and his mother used to send him five cartons at a time, suitable for puffing or trading.

One of the last times Murphy saw him, when he was home on leave, he took her, her mother and a cluster of others canoeing. For balance, he needed her to switch ends.

He was fit and confident, a decade older than his niece. She told him she was afraid.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “If you fall out, I’ll save you.”

Missing in action

Billy Ryan lived with his family in the other half of the duplex on Muir.

The families weren’t related, at least not until one of Murphy’s uncles married one of the Ryan daughters, but they were close.

George and Billy were closest of all. They cajoled their mothers together, went to basic training together, and were together in the brutal winter of 1950 near a crossroads village in North Korea called Kunu-ri.

The Korean War had begun in June 1950 when North Korean troops swept across the 38th parallel into South Korea.

After three years and some 1.2 million deaths, more than 36,000 of them American, a truce left the two nations with essentially the same territory they had before.

“If the best minds in the world had set out to find us the worst possible location in the world to fight this damnable war,” Secretary of State Dean Acheson said, “the unanimous choice would have been Korea.”

George and Billy were with the 27th Field Artillery Battalion, SVC Battery, 2nd Infantry Division.

The account Billy was willing to share with everyone later had them pinned down before George rushed a machine gun nest and obliterated it with a grenade.

Then came a stunning explosion, and when the dust cleared, George was gone.

Esther Grifford wouldn’t open the telegram from the Army. One of her other sons had to read the words: Missing in action.

Preserving the memory

In Korea, Billy assumed George was dead. He didn’t find out otherwise until they reconnected at a POW camp, his second.

He later told Murphy’s mother — and no one else — that George escaped, was recaptured, and then was tortured until he died.

Murphy’s mother told only her, and she believes it. In the spiral notebook, she points to George’s skeleton, essentially complete except for the tips of nine toes.

“I know what was told to me,” she says. “I see no reason Billy would make it up.”

Back on the home front, life moved on.

Murphy married at 17 and again at 19, ran a punch press and waited tables, and outlived both ex-husbands despite a heart attack and nine stents.

She was strict with her four children, then spoiled 12 grandkids and nine great-grandkids because being strict was someone else’s job.

Visions of George were with her through it all. “Grieving becomes a part of you,” she says.

When he was lost, Esther Grifford’s quick, hearty laugh disappeared.

Before she died, she assigned Murphy’s mother to keep up the quest for him and to make sure he was welcomed when he came home, dead or alive.

That was passed on to Murphy, but across the years, her mother died and Billy died and four of her siblings died and everyone scattered.

George, forever a teenager, would have turned 84 in March. Murphy never gave up his memory, but she gave up hope.

“I’m not going through this anymore,” she told herself.

Then, in November, the Army called.

Finally home

What happened, says Jim Fernandez, is that in the 1990s, the Chinese released 300 crates of jumbled bones containing the remains of more than 600 people.

“A lot of them were actually executed,” he says. “The majority died of malnutrition.”

Fernandez, a 65-year-old Navy veteran, is the VFW’s POW-MIA chairman for Michigan. He says a military forensic lab in Hawaii has been diligent in trying to identify the dead servicemen, but diligence takes time.

He will be one of the speakers at 1 p.m. Friday when the Army awards Grifford a Purple Heart and eight other decorations.

Come 11 a.m. June 27, a mortuary in Arlington, Virginia, will dress Grifford’s bones in full uniform, put a cap on his skull and transport him to the hero’s burial Murphy waited so long to see.

Murphy uses a rolling walker, a red one with a black seat, but she has been training so she can follow the caisson to the gravesite. She says she can do two laps around a 30-acre public space in Clinton Township known as George George Park.

It would have been easier to bury him close to where he lived, but she wanted him to be with his buddies.

As for her, she figures she’s one of the few people on Earth who actually remember George Grifford. The rest have passed on, and “I’m not far behind ’em.”

George is home, though, and there are stories to share, and by God, she’ll go down fighting.