By MARTIN E. PARKER | Special to the Democrat
ROUND ROCK – Ninety years old, and April 1, 2013, was the first day of Dr. Joe Ray Griffin’s retirement.
We call him Brother Joe, for that is what he is to us, a brother in Christ. We have known Brother Joe and his wife, Hazel Dean, for many years.
It was our privilege and delight to sit down with this couple and recall the last 71 years of their service to God, country and mankind. I, Martin E. Parker and my wife, Francinn, sat down to discuss their experiences over the past 90 years. It is now our great joy to let the world know the complete dedication this couple has displayed under sometimes harsh – yet, rewarding – conditions.
For the past seven years we have tried to get them to tell their story. Understanding that they are people of humility, Francinn and I decided to “pester” them until we were finally able to spend three hours visiting with them at their kitchen table. The result of that visit must be put in print so others will know … “The Rest of the Story”!
Joe R. Griffin was born Dec. 20, 1922, in Hooks, Texas. Hazel Dean (Lester) Griffin was born Dec. 17, 1923, in Comanche, Texas. Joe was the son of a successful farmer who became a carpenter to help build oil field buildings at Ranger, Texas, during the 1920’s oil boom.
In 1928 his family moved to Brownwood, Texas, and then to Austin in 1931, during the Great Depression. Joe’s father was a contractor in Austin.
Joe attended Austin public schools – Baker Elementary, University Junior High and Austin High School.
Draft notice arrives
In the fall of 1941 Joe entered the University of Texas in Austin. He transferred to Baylor University in September 1942. In December of that same year Joe received an invitation to serve his country by means of a draft notice. He, along with some 18 million boys and girls, served Uncle Sam over the next four years. Joe told me that he found out that Pearl Harbor was NOT a lady. Like the rest of us, we soon discovered Pearl Harbor was a military base and port for the U.S. Navy.
Because of his draft notice, Joe left Baylor University in January of 1943. It was then that he and six or seven friends decided to join the Marines.
Joe was sent to boot camp at San Diego, Calif. After boot camp he was assigned to Camp Pendleton Marine Base in Oceanside, Calif., for four months of combat training. The Fourth Marine Division was formed. (Early in January 1944, the Fourth Marine Division boarded ship at San Diego, combat loaded, and “Operation Flintlock” was under way.)
The Fourth Marine Division set three new records on its first operation: It became the first division to go directly into combat from the United States; and it was the first to capture Japanese territory in the Pacific, and it secured its objective in just 16 hours. On Feb. 1, 1944, the first wave of Marines hit the beach of the Roi-Namur islands. The Fourth Marine had 190 casualties and 547 wounded while they captured 264 prisoners and 3,472 enemy troops lay buried on Roi-Namur.
“Operation Flintrock” was now history.
(As a personal bit of this writer’s history, Roi-Namur was the first island our ship visited in early 1945. I was on the USS Kitty Hawk AKV-1. We never became involved in combat.)
On Feb. 13, 1944, Fourth Division returned to Maui. The victory of The Marshall Islands became the stepping stone for future battles.
R&R comes to an end.
On May 29, 1944, the Fourth Division sailed for Saipan, capitol and stronghold of the Marianas Islands. Saipan was 3,715 miles from Pearl Harbor and just 1,485 miles from Tokyo – within range of the B-29 bombers.
The stage was set to land on Saipan on June 15, 1944. This would be the largest amphibious landing in warfare history, a fleet of seven battleships, 21 cruisers, 69 destroyers, 15 aircraft carriers carrying 956 aircraft protecting troop ships carrying 130,000 troops. More than 800 ships took part in this landing.
The Fourth Division landed on Green Beach and took the airfield on June 19, 1944.
The Japanese had 22,702 Army troops and some 7000 “Imperial Marines” on Saipan to protect the island.
Pastor Joe and his friend, Dave McEwen, were wounded by rounds of rifle fire as they jumped into a self-dug foxhole late on the evening of June 27, 1944. One bullet grazed the lower part of Pastor Joe’s nose. He also took a direct hit to his right arm and shoulder, shattering his right arm. Forty years later, Pastor Joe went back to Saipan in February 1984 and found the place where he was shot and wounded in that foxhole.
On July 9, 1944, after 25 days of battle, Saipan was secured but with a cost of 5,981 American boys killed, wounded or missing. The Japanese had 23,811 known dead and 1,810 taken prisoner.
The Fourth Division went to Tinian and Iwo Jima and on to Japan, but a different battle faced Pastor Joe. He was flown to a Pearl Harbor hospital, where he spent three months being treated for wounds and a Gangrene infection. Then he spent three additional months at Oakland Bay Hospital. His last three months of hospitalization were in Corpus Christi before he was well enough to be discharged from the Marines. Recovery was long and slow but God strengthened him for the challenges still to come.
Back to Texas
After his long hospital stays, he returned to Austin, where he and Hazel Dean Lester were married on March 17, 1945, at Hyde Park Baptist Church. Pastor Joe says it was at Hyde Park where he found his master, the Lord Jesus Christ, his mate, Hazel Dean, and found his mission in life as God’s servant – a pastor.
Previously, Joe preached his first sermon on Nov. 23, 1942, at Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin before serving in the Marines. Three years later he received his first pastorate at Bee Cave Baptist Church of Austin, where he served until 1948; Pastor Joe and Hazel Dean continued in their service to God at Elmont Baptist Church in Van Alstyne, 1948-52; Fairview Baptist Church in Sherman, 1952-55; First Baptist Church in Abernathy, 1955-61; and then served 20 years at Northside Baptist Church in Weatherford, 1961-1981.
On a mission
While at Northside Baptist Church, Pastor Joe and Hazel Dean applied to the International Mission Board for foreign mission service. They were accepted as missionaries and assigned to the Kanto Plains Baptist Church, in Tokyo, Japan, where they served from 1982-88. During these six years, Brother Joe typed out his sermons and preached through an interpreter assigned to an English-speaking church. Pastor Joe never did learn the Japanese language, but over the years, the Japanese people were drawn to his preaching with a desire to hear English spoken. As a result, 65 Japanese came to faith in Christ Jesus.
This is really the “Rest of the Story.” The Japanese inflicted near-fatal injuries on Pastor Joe, yet God called him to minister and serve the people of Japan. It is this story of forgiveness that should not be left untold.
Pastor Joe completed 11 years of academic education in preparation for the ministry. He graduated from the University of Texas with a Bachelor of Science degree. From Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary he received Master of Theology, Master of Education and Doctoral of Ministry degrees.
During his 41 years as a devoted pastor, Pastor Joe delivered 7,280 sermons and baptized 1,063 people.
Upon returning from Japan, Pastor Joe served three interim pastorates and taught at area high schools before accepting the position of chaplain and director of Pastoral Care at the Pflugerville Care Center in Pflugerville, Texas, where he served the last 10 years.
“Retirement” is not in Pastor Joe’s vocabulary. He continues to teach the Senior Adult Men’s Sunday School Bible Study, the Caleb class, at First Baptist Church in Round Rock.
Pastor Joe’s favorite words of wisdom: “To know God’s will – is man’s greatest knowledge. To do God’s will – is mans’ greatest achievement.”
For 71 years, Pastor Joe has used this knowledge to achieve God’s will and purpose.
There is no doubt in our minds that when the day comes, Pastor Joe and Hazel Dean will each hear the words:
“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put in charge of many things. Come and share your Master’s happiness.” (Matthew 25: 21)