Portrait of an American Hero: Remembering the late Griffin Norquist Sr.

By JAMIE PATTERSON,

The late Griffin Norquist Sr. was a dedicated family man, a true gentleman, a committed attorney and an unselfish community leader.

But he was also a hero.

The beloved local leader rarely spoke of his service during World War II. But he was highly decorated within the military, earning the Silver Star, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman’s Badge and a Bronze Star for his combat service.

Griff Norquist served in some of the heaviest fighting in the American offensive against Germany. Taking a head wound, he almost lost his life. But he survived the horrors of war, and returned home to build a successful career and grow a loving family.

“I am honored to be asked to do an interview, but I left all that over there,” he politely told The Yazoo Herald when asked for an interview several years ago.

Humble, he focused on his faith, family and the community he loved.

His grandson, Griffin Norquist III, graciously assisted The Herald in documenting his grandfather’s story for this special edition.

“They all went through different things as individuals,” Griffin Norquist III said. “It was incredible, vicious fighting. And it is important to understand their exact stories.”

Following “Big Griff’s” passing in 2018, his actions and service within the military are documented for his family thanks to both official records and several books.

“As a little boy, I knew my grandfather was a hero,” Griffin Norquist III said. “But he would always tell me that a true hero is one who does it every day, not just one event. A hero is one who wakes up every morning and keeps going.”

Griffin Norquist Sr. was born on March 9, 1921 to Judge Rayner Reid Norquist and Sarah Griffin Norquist. He attended Saint Clara's Academy and graduated from Yazoo City High School and the University of Mississippi and received his juris doctorate from the University. While at Ole Miss, he was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity, president of ODK and the Cardinal Club.

Big Griff graduated from Ole Miss, with a commission from ROTC as a 2nd Lieutenant of Infantry in the U.S. Army.  He was assigned to the 94th Infantry Division as a Rifle Platoon Leader in the 302nd Infantry Regiment, and he trained in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  The Division shipped to Europe on the Queen Mary, and after a brief stint in England, they landed on Utah Beach on September 8, 1944. 

The Division advanced west to contain German troops in the Channel Ports, and saw consistent fighting in a series of small-scale actions.  Griff’s memories of this period were of fighting alongside the Free French troops and being “eased into the war.”

The Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944, led the 94th to be called to the East and join Patton’s Third Army in the bitter cold. 

“I can remember him telling me that when he arrived at the frontline in late 1944, it was so cold that their overcoats were frozen solid,” Griffin Norquist III said. “It was deep winter, and they were breaking into Germany after the Battle of the Bulge. What they did shortened the war. It dramatically saved an incalculable amount of lives. They did their part to finish it off.”

Griff became the Executive Officer, or XO, of A Company, 302nd Infantry at this time, serving as second in command.  The Division began offensive action against the Germans, leading the key assault against the southern part of the Siegfried Line in the Saar-Moselle Triangle.  Griff was heavily involved in the intense fighting in the bitter cold, and the unit suffered many casualties as it assaulted fortified positions in Germany.

On January 26 of 1945, the unit assaulted Butzdorf, a heavily defended German town.  Griff helped lead the assault across clear ground in full view of German pillboxes on a ridge above the town.  As the fire increased in intensity, he moved in front of the supporting tanks, directing their fire with hand signals onto the German positions, stopping the German fire and leading to the town being secured.  For this action he was awarded the Silver Star.

“My grandfather and his men were the most basic American infantry unit,” Griffin Norquist III said. “And they were going up against the best the Germans had, but they beat them badly. Our men were tough men, but they were not considered the superior elite. But they were warriors who were able to beat the Germans on their own turf.”

Soon after this action, Big Griff became the Company Commander of A Company, leading many direct assaults against sections of the Siegfried Line until February 19th, 1945, when the Division broke through the Siegfried Line, opening roads for American tanks into the heart of Germany.  The 94th Infantry division was lauded by Patton and awarded the highest unit award, the Presidential Unit Citation.

Heavy fighting continued for the division, as they fought to take the key town of Trier.  On March 2, 1945, Griff led his men in a supporting attack on Hill 536 at 0900 hours.  He signaled to his men to advance and jumped up to lead the assault.  He was facing Austrians from the 2nd Mountain Division of the German Army. 

Griff recalled clearly that that he saw a very young German step from behind a tree and shoot, and he remembered a bright flash.  He had received a gunshot wound to his head, which entered near the ear and exited without hitting his brain.  He was thought dead, but another of his men had been shot in the leg near him.  The man, a true cowboy from Wyoming, crawled over to Griff and got a pulse.  He called for help and the Chaplain quickly showed up, dragging Griff down the hill.

After surgeries and recovery, Big Griff came home with other seriously wounded soldiers and officers on a ship.  His rehabilitation and recovery continued in Memphis, TN, until he was released to begin his civilian life. 

“He recovered from his wounds, and he was proud of his service,” Griffin Norquist III said. “But he didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t let it drive the course of his life.

Along with the Silver Star and Purple Heart that he was awarded, he also received a Combat Infantryman’s Badge and a Bronze Star for this combat service.

“All this, is an important aspect of what he accomplished,” Griffin Norquist III said. “But this was not the center of his life. He was a devout Catholic, an incredible father, husband, grandfather and family man. He was a community leader who greatly enjoyed his friends, family and job.”

While practicing as an attorney in Yazoo County, he was the former Yazoo County Attorney, and attorney for the Yazoo Board of Supervisors, the Yazoo Valley Electric Power Association, King's Daughters Hospital and the Illinois Central Railroad. A partner in the law firm of Bridgforth, Love and Norquist, he was the longest serving Board of Supervisors attorney and rural electrification authority attorney in the U. S. at the time of his retirement.

A kind and humble man, Big Griff lived his faith daily. He had a strong work ethic, but nothing surpassed his love and devotion for his Church, family, and friends, as well as Ole Miss football and playing cards.

Mr. Griffin Norquist was right in believing that true hero does not reflect on one event to display the title.

He took on some of the toughest German enemies, a serious wound that could have ended his life and kept going. He returned home with memories of the war and kept going on.

He was a true hero who woke up every morning…and kept going.