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How the loss of her father inspired this journalist to tell thousands of survivor stories

Jessica Manfre Avatar

The Vietnam War was a tumultuous time in American history and it’s only recently that the veterans of the conflict began to share their stories. This is for the more than 58,000 who can’t. 

Marine Corps Captain William “Bill” Griffis, III was a Texas native who grew up in San Angelo as the oldest of three children. When he was in high school, he was on the track and field team, was a member of the Zocolos (a fraternity of the YMCA) and was active in his church youth group.

Though Bill and his future wife, Sally, knew each other growing up, it was not love at first sight. They became acquainted in the summer of 1962 when they ran into each other at a gas station in their hometown. 

Bill was attending university in Tennessee when he felt called to service. His family came from a long line of service. After two years, he enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy. During his junior year, he brought Sally with him to the Army-Navy Game and asked her to marry him at his graduation dance.

Bill graduated and was commissioned into the Marine Corps in 1964 as a 2nd Lieutenant. He made his way to Quantico for his basic training before being assigned as a platoon leader with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, First Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

In early 1966 he left for his first tour in Vietnam and was assigned to Headquarter and Service Company, where he commanded the Quick Reactionary Force. While in Vietnam, his first daughter, Sarah, was born in March 1966.

He made his way home a year later and was assigned to Camp Pendleton as Aide de Camp for Major General Lewis J. Fields. In 1968, he was a Captain and sent back to Quantico for schooling. He departed for his second tour attached to the Naval Advisory Group, Military Assistance Command-Vietnam on June 7, 1969, and was assigned to the Delta region.

On January 24, 1970, Bill was a passenger on helicopter UH-1H tail number 67-17559 of A Troop, 7th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Division. The aircraft picked up some marines and soldiers near a rice paddy during their flight.

The troops had captured an ammunition box during their ground operation and had brought it on board the helicopter. As the aircraft was being lifted off, one of the soldiers sitting next to Bill started to open the box. He attempted to intercede, anticipating that the box was booby-trapped and it exploded. The helicopter crashed and although the others made it off, reports indicate he died within minutes. 

Hours later, his second daughter was born and his wife was notified of his death in the maternity ward of the hospital by a Chaplain. Over 20,000 became Gold Star Children during the Vietnam War.  

That daughter, Mitty Mirrer, devoted her life to telling their stories as a journalist. 

“His life ended and mine began. My mother was faced with a newborn and an almost 4 year old to raise on her own. At that time, there were no support groups in place to help military families grieve and cope with their loss. The Vietnam War was also a very divisive time,” she explained. “Our grief was silenced for many years. As children, we didn’t have the language to ask about our father and begin to understand what his service meant for him and our family.”

In 1992, she made her first trip to the Vietnam War Memorial Wall and saw her father’s name etched in the stone. Five years later, she brought her family to Vietnam to make a documentary series for her ABC affiliate and it won her a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award. 

“I interviewed my mother in Vietnam and asked questions about my dad in a way I never had been able to articulate before that trip. Together, my mother, sister and I met Vietnamese families who also shared the stories of their loss. We visited the graves of their war dead and showed one another pictures. While we were only allowed to speak to families chosen to talk with us by the Vietnamese government, the universality of sharing our grief was healing,” Mirrer said. “With the help of the Marines, we were able to pinpoint the location of where his helicopter exploded. We spent time in the field where we were told he took his last breath, and our Vietnamese counterparts helped us leave flowers in remembrance.”

In 2008, she founded Gold Star Children – a nonprofit organization and film created to tell their stories.

“I produced and directed the not-for-profit documentary Gold Star Children to tell the story of child survivors of war casualties, and all designation of death while serving—that sudden tragic loss—in juxtaposition with older gold star children of the Vietnam War who wanted to mentor the younger generation and give back in a way that was not possible during the era of Vietnam,” she explained “Gold Star children whose parents served in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq in the film work together to ensure that all child survivors know they are not alone.”

In 2013 it debuted everywhere. Mirrer said at the time that her goal was to have people walk away asking how they could help Gold Star Children, often forgotten in the aftermath of war. 

“I tell his story by remembering the families and especially the children left behind. In any war, or death during military service, it is the loss and the secondary loss (home, community, place in the military family) that young people, especially, must overcome. With community through organizations such as Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors that brings bereaved military families together, healing happens,” she shared. 

As America heads into Memorial Day, her thoughts surrounding the solemn day were simple. 

It is a day of remembrance,” Mirrer reflected. “It is also a time to honor and support our families of the fallen—they are the heroes on the homefront.”

Jessica Manfre is an author and freelance writer for multiple publications. She is a licensed social worker, earning her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Central Florida in 2020. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Northwestern State University. Jessica is the co-founder and CFO of Inspire Up, a 501c3 nonprofit promoting global generosity and kindness through education, empowerment and community building. She is the spouse of an active duty Coast Guardsman and mother of two. When she isn't working, you can find her reading a good book and drinking too much coffee.