By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
Bert McGriff was one of five children born to Lonnie and Bell McGriff on a tenant farm in the Kelly Community between Cullman and Eva. All they ever knew was hard work.
They planted sweet potatoes and cotton in the sweltering southern sun. It was back-breaking work; even the younger children pulled their weight, spending 12-15 hours a day in the fields. They plowed all those fields with mules, then planted, tended and harvested their crops by hand. Half of everything they grew belonged to the owner of the farm.
Things changed when Bert turned 18. He was drafted into the Army right in the midst of World War II.
On Feb. 23, 1945, he was one of a group of young men who were ordered to report for duty. He showed up at the local post office to board a bus for Ft. McClellan, Alabama.
“Mama cried,” he recalled.
In spite of the rigorous training he received, McGriff liked the Army much better than the farm. “I knew that I didn’t want to plow [with] a mule anymore,” he laughed.
By the age of eighteen, he was an infantry rifleman in the 32nd Infantry, 3rd Battalion; an M-1 rifle became his constant companion.
Upon completion of basic training, his unit boarded a ship bound first for Hawaii, then Saipan. He vividly recalls one of his first assignments on the island. “We policed the area, but didn’t see a sign of anyone. Our lights were curtained off at night to prevent anyone seeing us. When we lined up for the evening meal, starving Japanese soldiers came out of the woods to surrender because they were so hungry,” he said. The Americans fed them and turned them loose because they didn’t have a stockade. It was a startling sight for someone who had been raised on a Southern farm, where money was scarce, but people generally always had enough to eat.
After almost a month on Saipan, more troops arrived to take their place and McGriff’s unit was ordered to their next stop – the invasion of Okinawa.
“The Japanese were loaded for bear,” he said. “They thought we’d come in from the west side of the island, because our ships and planes had been bombing them from that direction for days.”
The U.S. troops came stealthily ashore in small rubber boats — from the opposite side of the island. “There were sheer bluffs at least 100 feet high with little cracks that we used to climb. It was three days before they even knew that we were there.”
“When you are young, you aren’t afraid of anything,” he mused. “I didn’t know enough to be afraid.”
Eventually they drew fire from the enemy and he became a little wiser. “It took several months but our ships finally bombarded them, clearing the way for us.”
They found the remaining Japanese hiding in caves. “They were dug in and could have possibly lived back there for months,” he explained. On this volcanic island the cave systems were so extensive that cities could have been hidden in the vast underground network of tunnels and caverns.
The only way they could flush them out was with fire. “The flamethrowers shot into the caves,” he said, a distant look in his eyes as he recalled memories long buried. “Japanese soldiers came running out with their clothes blazing.”
He recalls their screams. He has never talked about this to his family until now. Some things are hard to relive — this is one of them. “We had to,” he said stoically. “They didn’t believe in being captured. Many committed suicide rather than surrender.”
The U.S. troops existed on C-Rations. They endured the annual monsoon season, dipping the rainwater out of foxholes with their helmets. Supply vehicles couldn’t get through because of the mud. Finally, after almost a month of living in what amounted to a wet, miserable ditch, medics were able to get through to them. They brought with them gallon buckets filled with butter and dry socks.
The men used the butter to repel water, and McGriff says that the dry socks felt wonderful after weeks of wet feet.
McGriff and his friend, Sgt. Andy Mahalic, saw things that they never dreamed of, and couldn’t ever entirely forget. They would remain friends for decades.
Hunkered down in a foxhole one night, McGriff was wounded in the back and eye by shrapnel from a grenade. Evacuated to a field hospital behind the line of fire, he was bandaged up and spent a week recuperating before being sent back out on the line.
That campaign became known in history as the Battle of Okinawa. McGriff would later receive a Purple Heart for his injuries.
Their next assignment was to be the Invasion of Tokyo. However, until they were moved, they continued to train on Okinawa.
The area was riddled with land mines, most thought to be without fuses. McGriff’s unit was out in the field away from the base camp one night when suddenly, glowing lights lit up the horizon and the sound of artillery fire and tracer shells filled the air. “We thought that we under attack,” he said. Donning their gas masks in case there were chemical weapons, his crew headed toward the commotion.
“It turned out that they were celebrating,” he smiled. “The war was over. Truman had dropped the bomb. I wanted to find him and kiss him.”
McGriff believes that if not for the atomic bomb, he wouldn’t be here telling this story today.
After the surrender, McGriff’s unit was transferred to Korea as part of the occupation forces. They traded tropical monsoons for bitter cold and deep snow. Koreans, who had endured years of war, wrapped their bare feet in anything they could find to ward off frostbite.
For McGriff it was an opportunity to transfer. He applied for and was transferred to the motor pool at base headquarters. His new assignment involved driving a two-ton truck over treacherous mountainous terrain on icy roads.
Like the Japanese on Okinawa, the Koreans were starving. McGriff and his roommate, who was his First Sergeant, took in a ten-year-old kid who hung around their camp. The boy had the job of keeping the fire going at night in sub-zero temperatures. One night he doused the fire with gasoline, blowing both soldiers out of their bunks.
Located on the 38th parallel, their camp was on a river lined with Russians on one side and American troops on the other. At night, North Koreans would risk swimming the icy water to surrender to the Americans because they knew they would be fed and sheltered.
Eventually, after McGriff spent 18 long months in Korea, his unit boarded a ship for Washington state. He was formally discharged at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. He was ready to come home.
He considers himself fortunate to have received a ride on a military plane to Birmingham. He remembers the twinkling lights of the city looking beautiful from the window as they descended about eight o’clock that night.
His entire family was waiting for him when he walked into the terminal. His mother cried again — this time the tears were happy ones from a thankful heart.
The entourage moved to the home of an aunt who lived nearby and the celebration commenced. They served him like royalty; it was the best food he’d eaten in three years. It was good to be back in Alabama.