Townsend Griffiss

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Townsend E. Griffiss
Born April 4, 1900 (1900-04-04)
Buffalo, New York
Died February 15, 1942 (1942-02-16) (aged 41)
Bay of Biscay
Buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo
Allegiance United States United States of America
Service/branch Army Air Force
Years of service 1925–1942
Rank Lieutenant Colonel
Awards France's Legion d'Honneur (1938)
Distinguished Service Medal (1942)

Lt. Colonel Townsend E. Griffiss (April 4, 1900 - February 15, 1942)[1][2] was a United States Army aviator, the first American airman killed in Europe, following the United States's entry into World War II.

Early life[edit]

He was born in Buffalo, New York to polo player Ellicott Evans and Katherine Hamlin, both from wealthy New York families. His mother later married San Diego banker Wilmot Griffiss and Townsend took his surname. Known to his family as "Tim", he was raised in the affluent coastal suburb of Coronado, California.

Professional career[edit]

Townsend Griffiss graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1922, and joined the United States Army Air Corps.[1]

He trained as a fighter pilot, and between 1925 and 1928 served in Hawaii. His family's wealth allowed him to rent a house on Waikiki Beach, and there he wrote a guidebook When you go to Hawaii you will need this guide to the Islands, which was published in 1930.[1] He shared his birth-father's passion for polo, and joined the military team based in Hawaii, led by Major George S. Patton.[1]

After operational postings in California and Texas, Griffiss was assigned to Bolling Field in Washington DC in 1933.[2] This helped him gain connections to allow him to be posted to Europe in 1935 as an air attache, working in Paris and then Berlin. He was then assigned to Spain during the Spanish Civil War, as an observer.[1][2] Returning to Paris, he was awarded the Légion d'honneur.[1]

Returning to the United States in 1938, he became a student at the Air Corps Tactical School. In 1939 he worked for the Assistant Secretary of War, and then for the War Department Chief of Staff, where in 1940 he was appointed Major.[1]

In 1941, with Europe already at war but before the United States had entered World War II, Griffiss was seconded to London. There he was part of the staff of General James E. Chaney, the team was coordinating US military cooperation with the UK in the North Atlantic theater, and organizing the US occupation of Iceland.[1] Ordered to the Soviet Union to discuss planning for US air cargo flights between Alaska and the Russian Far East, he spent two months in Moscow, before moving to Kuibyshev when advancing Nazi Germany forces threatened to overrun Moscow.[1]


Griffiss died in 1942, aged 41, when, on the last leg of his return journey from the Soviet Union, via Cairo, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator in which he was a passenger was mistakenly shot down over the English Channel by Polish fliers in the Royal Air Force (RAF), thus becoming the first American aviator killed in the European Theatre of World War II.[1]

Griffiss was posthumously awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal.[1][2][3] His body was not recovered; there are memorials to him in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo and in the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, England.[4]


Camp Griffiss, a US military base in Bushy Park, London, which served as the European Headquarters for the USAAF from July 1942 to December 1944 and was Dwight Eisenhower's SHAEF headquarters, was named after him. The USAF had originally named the Fort Worth Army Airfield "Griffiss Air Force Base" on 1 January, 1948, but the name was changed on 27 February to memorialize native son and Medal of Honor winner, Major Horace Carswell, who gave his life while attempting to crash land his crippled B-24 over China.[5] Later the same year, Rome Air Depot, an Air Corps base in Rome, New York which opened the month Griffiss died, was renamed Griffiss Air Force Base. USAF aircraft operated from there until 1995; it is now Griffiss International Airport and Griffiss Business Park which supports a detachment of the Air Force Research Laboratory.[6][7]

His great-nephew and namesake is Rear Admiral Townsend Griffiss Alexander of the United States Navy.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Stephen Mulvey (February 14, 2012). "Townsend Griffiss, forgotten hero of World War II". BBC News. 
  2. ^ a b c d Joe Kelly (May 14, 2008). "editorial". Booneville, New York: Booneville Herald. Retrieved February 14, 2012. 
  3. ^ "Valor awards for Townsend Griffiss". Military Times. 
  4. ^ "Col Townsend Griffiss". Findagrave. 
  5. ^ "Namesakes: Carswell". Air Force Magazine. 99 (10): 76. October 2016. 
  6. ^ "Griffiss AFB, NY". Retrieved February 14, 2012. 
  7. ^ "About the Griffiss Business and Technology Park". Griffiss Business and Technology Park. Retrieved February 14, 2012. 


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