COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- Army veteran William Thomas made a compelling case Wednesday, based on his own research, that city native Daniel Griffin was the first victim killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 80 years ago.
"It may seem hard to prove, as many things are in history," he said. "It's a little-known fact, probably because with more than 2,400 casualties there, no one thought about focusing on who was the first to die. But it's something everyone should know, that he was from Colorado Springs. So we go with the evidence we have. In this case, we have the statements of several key people who were at Pearl Harbor."
Thomas said that Griffin, 30, was stationed at Kane'ohe Naval Air Station, several miles east of Pearl Harbor, where a squadron of PBY planes was kept.
"The Japanese planes flew in from the north and hit Kaneohe a few minutes before Pearl because they considered those planes a high priority," Thomas said. "If those planes had gotten airborne, they could have alerted the American command to the location of the Japanese forces."
Ironically, Thomas said, Griffin was supposed to be off-duty that day but was filling in for a comrade who'd had too much to drink the night before.
Thomas said that when Griffin saw the approaching planes and realized they weren't American, he tried to take off in a PBY to which he was assigned as an aircraft mechanic.
"But he was immediately shot down" Thomas said. "When he tried to swim to safety, Japanese planes strafed the area with machine guns and he was shot in the head and killed."
Griffin was buried at Kaneohe and has a destroyer escort ship named after him in 1943. The ship was decommissioned in 1966.
However, his body was exhumed and reinterred at Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs.
That's when photos of the ceremony with full military honors caught Thomas' attention while he was working in the special collections department of the Pikes Peal Library District in 2015.
"I wondered why, two years after the war, this would be happening," he said. "I spent the next year researching it."
Thomas said that a movement to rename Memorial Park after Griffin, was unsuccessful. A 1948 article in the then-Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph mentioned that citizens opposed to the idea contacted KRDO Radio to express their opinions.
"I think people realized his rightful place in history back then, but have forgotten about it since," he said.
Comments immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack -- from Navy officials and then-Colorado Governor Ralph Carr -- declared that Griffin was the first casualty from Colorado and later, the first American casualty.
The 1948 article mentioned above included a sentence reporting that Griffin was "acknowledged to be the first American killed in World War Two," although then-President Franklin Roosevelt wouldn't officially declare war until the day after the attack.
Thomas said he is considering writing a book about Griffin, and will get involved in seeing that the local hero gets the proper recognition.
"He deserves a street, a statue, something in his name," Thomas said.
Griffin and his wife had two children, including a son who later joined the Navy and now lives in California.
Griffin gravesite at Evergreen is marked by a white, military-style headstone that stands in stark contrast to the surrounding cemetery.
He also lived at a home on Bijou Street, just east of downtown; the house still stands.