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Greek / American Operational Group Office of Strategic Services (OSS)
Memoirs of World War 2

North Africa and Italy

Italy: Taranto to Manfredonia

After three long days and nights on the Stratfordshire we landed in Taranto, a port on the heel of Italy. Our friends, the 2½-ton trucks, were waiting for us. We were shuttled a few miles to a billet next to a cemetery near the city of Taranto. There was also a replacement depot (repple depot) for all the new arrivals from America. These soldiers were replacements for the various divisions in the Italian campaign. I had empathy for these GIs because they did not have a chance to bond in a unit like our group. They were slated to join a division, regiment, battalion, etc , that needed replacements for their casualties. A repple depot was not unlike a meat market.

That afternoon we explored; the port of Taranto had been bombed the night before we landed (lucked out again) and also the cemetery near our base (air bombing at that time was not very accurate). The cemetery was surreal, with many graves exposed from the bombing and some of them recent burials. Bodies and skeletons were scattered all over the cemetery and adjacent streets.

That evening after chow we took a stroll around the neighborhood. Perry, who was outgoing and a great personality, was surrounded by Italian teenage girls. He spoke to them in broken Italian he had learned from his Italian-American buddies in West Oakland. Nick Cominos made a profound statement as he watched Perry charming the young Italian girls. He shouted out, Perry Phillips, God's gift to the teenage girls! After the war Perry as a church choir director and also a leader of the Western Choir Federation recruited many young teenagers for both groups. He was an honorable man and respected by the young girls and boys.

First Sergeant Strimenos and the Black Soldier

It was the first week of February 1944 when we boarded the 2½-ton trucks in Taranto on the way to Bari on the eastern coast of southern Italy, the Balkan headquarters of the OSS. There was an incident on this trip that may disturb many today. The quartermaster unit was composed of Negroes (as they were called at the time). The road we traveled was narrow with many curves and hills. The truck I was assigned to carried part of the 4th group including our First Sergeant Theophanes Strimenos. Tom Georgalos had praised Sgt. Strimenos when they were together in "C" company in Colorado, but this was the first of many times I observed this 22-year-old mountain of a man show his leadership and courage. On one of the steep and curving hills the Negro driving the truck in front of ours stopped the convoy and was arguing with our commanding officer Captain Houlihan. The Negro refused to drive his truck because he was carrying ammunition. An enlisted man refusing an order from an officer was absolute insubordination. This 6-foot-plus husky Negro was looking down at the much shorter Captain Houlihan and was adamant about continuing to drive the truck. In a split second Sgt. Strimenos, who was seated toward the front of the truck, jumped out and asked Captain Houlihan, What is going on, Captain? And why is this man holding up the convoy? When Strimenos realized the Negro driver had refused Captain Houlihan's orders, Strimenos faced him and ordered him, in his Alabama accent, Nigger, get in the truck and drive! The Negro knew where Strimenos was coming from and got back into the truck. People today might call Strimenos' statement racist. The Negro soldier was in a non-combat unit and would never see frontline duty; more importantly he was refusing an order from an American army officer. If Captain Houlihan had acquiesced, it is possible the rest of the drivers might have joined in and refused to drive their trucks. All hell might have broken out because the Greek/USOG would have supported their leaders and joined the fray. We were loaded for bear and it would have been a bloodbath.

The Greek/USOG had volunteered for hazardous duty. Insubordination was not in our terminology; the Negro was dead wrong. Strimenos came back to our truck, showing no emotion; it was his job as our leader. He had replaced Colonel Clainos as the catalyst of our unit. The enlisted men loved this terrific guy; he was a courageous leader, very sensitive to his men, and although he was raised in Mobile, Alabama, I met Theo many times in civilian life and found him the antithesis of a racist. Years later, Houlihan and Russell both agreed that Strimenos was the main man of the Greek-American Operational Group; they added, Sgt. Strimenos always followed the orders of his superior officers.

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It is important that I digress at this time and write about the Strimenos/Black incident. Many of you in the 21st century will probably be disturbed by Sgt. Strimenos' language and attitude. The Greek-American soldiers were sons of immigrants; the majority came from cities in the Boston-New York-New Jersey corridor, Chicago, Detroit, the steel towns of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio and cities on the West Coast. These soldiers grew up during the depression and their parents' priorities were to sacrifice their own future and feed, clothe, educate, and raise honorable families. Most of these men lived in Greek-towns or in ethnic neighborhoods where they attended schools with other minorities. In West Oakland where I was born and raised there were no WASPS in my grammar and junior high school, and all of us, Blacks, Whites, Chicanos, Asians, were the Children of the Great Depression!!

The Greek nationals were from a different and a much more difficult background. Their families in Greece had been under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years and during the revolution of 1821 the Greeks revolted and became free of Turkish Rule. Some of them left Greece in the 1930s because of the great poverty there. After the Nazis took over, men who were in the Greek Navy or merchant marine jumped ship in America; a few had fought with the Greek Army against the Italians and Germans in 1940 and escaped from Greece and came to America. From necessity, these Greeks had left their beloved homeland, families, and parents. Now, Greece was being ravaged by the Nazis, and these men voluntarily joined the OSS to liberate Greece yet again.

Greek-Americans and Greek nationals were also second class citizens in the United States.

Both the Greek-Americans and the Greeks nationals had been raised in poverty, prejudice, and intolerance. Living conditions in many parts of America were dreadful, as I have related when I discovered the terrible conditions poor whites and Blacks lived in the South. We knew the terrible prejudice against blacks; we were very disturbed with the colored/white toilets and we would use the "colored toilets" to make a statement.

This was the mood of the Greek-American Operational Group at the time of the Strimenos/Black soldier confrontation. The men in the Greek-American Operational Group volunteered for hazardous duty and were anxious to go into combat under trying conditions, though they were told that the casualty rate would be very high. Ask me if we were prejudiced and I would tell you, Hell no. Bottom line the Black soldier did not follow the orders of a United States army officer; he was a coward and deserved to be severely reprimanded by Strimenos who wisely used the word Nigger. If he had not been Black he would have received the same severe treatment from Strimemos.

For armies to be successful you must have loyalty, respect, and discipline.

Our trip ended with no further problems; we camped at an OSS Camp in the town of Manfredonia, a temporary headquarters for the OSS. Our camp was moved to Torre Mare a few miles from Bari and eventually was named Kallitsis for the first Greek OSS soldier killed in combat in Yugoslavia.


Captain Houlihan, who was waiting for further orders, continued our training: never a day of rest for our outfit. One day Captain Houlihan decided that we could spend a day on the beautiful beach near Manfredonia, swimming in the Adriatic Sea. I had spent a lot of time during my days in Salinas swimming in Monterey Bay and I miscalculated the undertow in this bay; big mistake. If I had not been in great shape I probably would have drowned. I fought like hell to get back onto the beach. I was embarrassed to tell my buddies. The Adriatic was not only beautiful but as we discovered later it was a great place to fish.

Manfredonia was in a pleasant and rich valley. As "conquerors" we took whatever we wanted from the Italian farms. There were fruit trees and we picked as much as we needed. Of course we had an excuse for our behavior because the Italians were our enemy and they had fought and killed American soldiers. We had no qualms in ravaging their orchards.

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