Kenneth Griffith, who earned a Silver Star in Vietnam and retired to a quiet life of public service in Anniston, died July 5 at McGuffey Nursing Home in Gadsden, family members say. He was 79.
“He was a fascinating man and a great patriot,” said his daughter, Keli Griffith.
Born in Blue Mountain, a blue-collar mill town later annexed by Anniston, Griffith was the son of a military policeman. After high school, he followed his father into the Army, training at the military police school at Fort McClellan.
But what Griffith really wanted, his daughter said, was to fly. After a few years as an enlisted soldier, he landed a slot in officer candidate school and was soon on his way to Vietnam as a helicopter pilot.
While stationed at Cu Chi, north of Saigon, Griffith piloted a damaged helicopter full of wounded soldiers back to base for a controlled crash landing. Griffith lost a leg in the crash, and returned home in 1969 as a young military retiree, still at the rank of captain.
“He wanted to go back,” Keli Griffith said. “Once he received his prosthetic leg, he informed them he could fly again.”
The military said no.
“They told him he’d never fly again, and he said, ‘I’ll show them,’” his daughter said. Griffith went on to get civilian licenses to fly both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
The Cu Chi crash earned Griffith the Silver Star, an award for gallantry in combat. In earlier battles he’d picked up two Distinguished Flying Crosses. Pilots typically earn the Air Medal for flying a couple of dozen combat missions; Griffith was awarded the medal seven times, according to a funeral announcement.
Griffith caught the eye of Bill Nichols, longtime Democratic congressman who recruited him into a 1970 race for the state House of Representatives. Incumbent Ray Burgess beat Griffith by about 1,000 votes in a Democratic runoff, according to Star reports. It was considered a close margin at the time, but Griffith said he wouldn’t seek a recount.
“An officer and a gentleman doesn’t behave that way,” Griffith told The Star in 1970.
Highly regarded in the 3rd District he represented, Nichols was “very close” to her father, and acted as his political mentor, according to Keli Griffith.
But on a crucial issue of the era, the men’s views diverged. In 1971, when Army officer William Calley was convicted of war crimes at My Lai, Nichols organized a rally for the convicted officer at Anniston’s federal building. Three hundred people, including mayors of local cities, showed up for the congressman’s rally.
Griffith, pointedly, wasn’t among them.
“If we had said, ‘Buddy, you’re fighting for America, you can’t do any wrong,’ we’d be just like Nazi Germany,” Griffith told The Star in 1971.
Griffith’s own daughter, then 13 years old, was handed a petition in Calley’s favor at school. She signed it.
“In my mind, he (Calley) was a Vietnam veteran,” Keli Griffith said. “I came home and I told my father, thinking he’d be proud of me, and I got a lecture that what he’d done was horrendous.”
Griffith got no backlash for his stance on Calley, his daughter said, largely because of his military reputation.
“For the first couple of years, there were people who’d come up to me and say, ‘Your dad’s a war hero,’ but that faded,” Keli Griffith said. “But he’s a down-to-earth person. He didn’t talk about it.”
By 1988, when Griffith ran for probate judge, news stories noted he was “decorated for valor,” but those references came low in the story. Griffith, now a Republican, told reporters he was seeking the office to supplement his military retirement. He lost the primary, again by a thin margin.
“He said, ‘I’m done with public life. Let’s stay home and have a life with the family,’” his daughter said.
Griffith didn’t actually stay home. He was active in the Masons and at Golden Springs Baptist Church, and coached youth league sports, his daughter said, where kids often knew him as “Cap” or “the Captain.” He found ways to stay in the game despite working with a prosthetic leg, Keli Griffith said.
“He taught us tennis,” she said. “He knew how to throw that leg around so he could shoot across the court.”
Griffith and his wife, Sandra, lived in Anniston, his daughter said, though he spent his last days in the Gadsden nursing home due to Alzhemer’s disease.
He will be buried with military honors at Crook Cemetery in Ohatchee at 10 a.m. July 20, family members say.