Griffiss Air Force Base got its name on September 20th, 1948, in honor of Lt. Col. Townsend E. Griffiss of Buffalo N.Y. Griffiss was an Army Air Corps pilot who died in an aircraft accident in England on February 15, 1942. The British aircraft with Lt. Col. Griffiss aboard was mistaken for an enemy aircraft and shot down by two Royal Air Force pilots off the southwest coast of England. Lt. Col. Griffiss was the first U.S. airman to lose his life in the European Theater, during World War II. After his death, the Busy Park military installation in England was also named Camp Griffiss in his honor.
Griffiss was born in Buffalo N.Y. to 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 Coronado, California, an affluent coastal suburb of San Diego.
Griffiss graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1922 and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. He trained as a fighter pilot in Texas, then served in Hawaii from 1925 to 1928. In 1933 Griffiss was assigned to Bolling Field in Washington D.C. During this assignment Griffiss was able to make connections which allowed him to be posted to Europe in 1935 as an air attaché in Paris, Berlin and Spain. Griffiss spent most of his time in Europe, between 1936 and 1938, observing the civil war in Spain at close quarters.
In 1938, Griffiss returned to the United States where he attended the Air Corps Tactical School, worked as Assistant Secretary of War, and then for the War Department Chief of Staff. In 1941, he was one of the first US officers sent over as "special observers" to London. There he was part of the staff of General James E. Chaney, the team was coordinating U.S. military cooperation with the U.K. in the North Atlantic Theater. Griffiss was ordered to the Soviet Union to discuss planning for US air cargo flights between Alaska and the Russian Far East.
On February 15, 1942, their return flight to England took an unusual route over occupied Europe. The then-unfamiliar B-24 Liberator bomber, in which Griffiss was a passenger, was mistakenly shot down over the English Channel by Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots. Unfortunately, the intercepting pilots had not been adequately briefed about the inbound B-24 flight. All nine aboard were never recovered and Griffiss become the first American aviator killed in the European Theatre of World War II.