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Preservation of American Hellenic History


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


Preface

During a period of 219 days from 23 April until 20 November 1944, troops of Co. C., 2671 Special Reconnaissance Battalion were continuously in occupied Greece. The type of warfare they engaged in was unique in the history of the American Army. The record they made is of some interest and bears close examination.

My memoirs tell the story of Co. C, 2671 Special Reconnaissance Battalion, also known as the Greek American Operational Group ~ principally the story of Group 4 of the unit from April 1943 at Camp Carson, Colorado, until we disbanded in Bari, Italy, November 1944. Group 4 was mine.

Co. C had six groups; we trained together as members of the Greek Battalion at Camp Carson, Colorado, and later with the OSS. Groups 1, 2, and 5 were separated from the other three groups from February 1944 to November 1944. My Group 4 along with Group 3 and Group 6 were sent to the island of Vis in the Adriatic Sea for four months, before being deployed into Greece. All six of our groups operated in Greece. Each group operated autonomously, however.

Our six groups briefly reunited at Italy in November 1944 when the Greek/USOG was disbanded. In these memoirs, I shall refer to us with the acronym Greek/USOG and its abbreviation Greek/OG .

Every veteran of our six groups has personal and interesting stories. My information about the other five groups (other than my own Group 4) cannot be first hand, of course; so I have added some accounts from the National Archives about a few of their missions in Greece, including the names of members of those groups.

Especially close to my heart and vivid in these memoirs are the so-called "California Five". This was a nickname we had. We were five young men from California, all good friends before the war, who volunteered for service in the (United States) Greek Battalion, then again into the OSS. We served together in Group 4, and remained true and loyal friends until the deaths of Perry Phillips, Alex Phillips, and Tom Georgalos diminished our ranks.

The Phillips brothers (Perry and Alex) and I had been childhood friends since 1934 when we were altar boys at Oakland's Assumption Greek Orthodox Church. Nick H. Cominos, Tom Georgalos, and I became good friends in Salinas, California, during the many summer breaks from school I spent with my Aunt Helen and Uncle George Cominos and my cousins.

This narrative is not an academic endeavor; rather a first person account, relating one participant's involvement, observations, and convictions. Understandably, many events, battles, and raids cannot be included here; nor can numerous other members of the Greek/USOG who deserve accolades.


Part 1

Pearl Harbor

Sunday December 7, 1941

Sunday morning December 7, 1941, one day after my 17th birthday, I was in the choir loft of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption in Oakland, California. My childhood friends Perry and Alex Phillips were members of the choir; in fact we were charter members of the Assumption church choir.

During the liturgy rumors were flying in the choir loft that the Japanese had bombed a place in the Pacific Ocean called Pearl Harbor. After church services, the congregation always gathered outside for an unofficial social hour. Automobiles were double and triple parked on the street in front of the church. One of my contemporaries had his car radio turned on and we all circled his car to hear the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. We were all somber realizing the United States would enter WW2.

Most of the young men 14 years and older who were in church that December morning either volunteered or were drafted into the US Armed Forces; many of them saw duty overseas. A good friend and classmate at Oakland High School, one of the best and brightest, Frank Franjeskos, would be killed in action three years later in the Battle of the Bulge. Of course as in all societies there were a few of our young men who knew how to play the "game" and finagled to spend their service time either in the States or in a cushy job overseas.

In my wildest dreams I never imagined from induction day in the army, March 31, 1943, until I was discharged from the OSS, October 29, 1945, I would travel around the world twice. I was on troop ships for four months; passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, was stationed near the Pyramids, and visited many Capital cities including Washington DC, Cairo, Rome, the Vatican, Athens, Melbourne, Calcutta and Chunking.

The next day, December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war against the Japanese Empire. December 9, 1941 Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.

Draftees

When the war broke out I was a senior at Oakland High School. The next day, Monday, the school administration, as confused as the students, dismissed classes at noon because of an air raid alert and we were sent home.

My parents and relatives were understandably concerned, especially my dad, who left tranquil America and joined the Greek Army in the 1912-13 Balkan War. As an infantry veteran of the Greek Army who had seen combat at its worst, he was hopeful that hostilities would terminate and his only child would be spared from the conflict. In the meantime, cities and towns along the Pacific Coast were preparing for possible bombing raids by the Japanese. A brownout was ordered; all neon signs and most of the street lights were turned off for the duration of the war to protect our shores from probable air and submarine raids by the Japanese. Later, while stationed at Camp Carson Colorado, it was not unlike Christmas to see street lights and bright neon signs in Denver and Colorado Springs. There was no need for these inland cities to douse their lights because they were far removed from either coast.

Before Pearl Harbor, most of America's teenagers and young adolescents were expecting the United States to go to war against Hitler and the Axis, and hoped that the war would not end before they had a chance to participate.

June 12, 1942, I graduated from Oakland High school and in the fall I attended Salinas Junior College, majoring in "basketball" knowing that I would be drafted soon. From a youngster Salinas was my home away from home every summer where I was welcomed by my mother's sister, Aunt Helen, Uncle George Cominos and my cousins as one of their own. Salinas is the County seat of Monterey County, 20 miles from Carmel.

The original military draft age was 21-to 44-years old. The older the wiser, it was believed, a huge mistake. The age limit was subsequently lowered to 36 and then to 28. The 18-year-old draft age was passed by Congress December 1942, the month I turned 18. I had dreams of joining the Naval Air Corp but the navy accepted only students who had attended college at least two years; another mistake by the military that I recall was rectified later in the war. My childhood friend Perry Phillips and I decided to join the Maritime Service. Three of our Oakland Greek-American friends had joined the Maritime Service: George Paris, Chris Boutos and George Stratos. We had succeeded them as Altar boys, and we were anxious to join them in the merchant marine. More importantly, Perry and I decided that at least on a ship, unlike in the army, we would get three square meals and a warm cot.

During the winter break from Salinas Junior College in January 1942, Perry Phillips and I went to the Maritime Service recruiting station in San Francisco. We completed the examination and as I was ready to sign up, Perry, who was in a line in front of me, told me that he did not pass the physical. Perry was in excellent physical shape and was prone to pranks, so initially I didn't believe him. During the physical examination Perry could not place his upper arms against his body, extend his lower arms and turn his hands 180 degrees; the merchant marine rejected him. The recruiter asked me if I would sign. I said no, and we decided to wait for our draft notices. Perry's hand problem changed the course of our lives, and that of Perry's brother, Alex.

Having received my draft notice to report to the army on March 30, 1943, I played my last basketball game for Salinas Junior College at Menlo College in the middle of March 1943, said goodbye to my teammates, and boarded a bus to Oakland to spend a few days with my parents and family before I was drafted.

The Oakland Greek Community was committed 100 percent behind the war effort, long before Pearl Harbor, because of the Italian invasion of their homeland in 1940. Whenever one of the Greek-American sons from our parish would leave for the service, parents, relatives, koumbari and friends would join the draftees at the bus or railroad station to wish them bon voyage. The Sunday before I left for the army, the annual Greek Independence Day dance was held at Oakland's Scottish Rite Temple. It was a very emotional time for parents and relatives. Five of the Oakland Greek community's favorite sons who had grown up together were drafted into the army that week: Milton Alfier, Nick Kourafas, Gus Petris, Perry Phillips and I. We were 18 or 19 years old.

Popular Songs: Moonlight Serenade, by Glenn Miller ~ I think I heard that song before, by Harry James.

Presidio of Monterey

There were rumors that a Greek Battalion was being formed in Colorado recruiting Greek-American volunteers. Rumor (rumors are part and parcel of the Armed Forces) was heard the battalion was scheduled to go into combat in occupied Greece. Perry and I inquired about the battalion and discovered it was being formed at Camp Carson, Colorado. When Perry and I received our draft notices we had numerous discussions about joining the Greek Battalion and other options. We also contacted some of our childhood friends who were of draft age to discuss the Greek Battalion. Perry Phillips and I, and later Alex Phillips, were the only volunteers from Oakland. The bottom line that influenced our decision to join the Greek Battalion we would be together in the armed service.

Perry and I were in different draft boards in West Oakland. Perry's draft board #73 was recruited on the 29th of March 1943, and my draft board, #66, the next day. My group of draftees left on a bus from Oakland to a recruiting area in San Francisco then was bussed to the Presidio of Monterey. We arrived at the Presidio around 5:00 p.m. and were marched immediately into the mess hall. As I was standing in line, a soldier I did not initially recognize because of his GI haircut told me to get in line and called me "rookie." I realized it was Perry. His West Oakland group got in trouble the first night at the Presidio and they were put on KP (kitchen police) duty their first day of service.

We were issued our dog tags at the Monterey Presidio with our name, serial number, blood type and religion. When I requested Greek or Eastern Orthodox to be placed on my dog tags, I was advised that I had only three choices: Protestant, Roman Catholic or Jewish. I insisted on GO for Greek Orthodox, though our religion was not recognized at that time by the US government. My original dog tags that I saved are stamped GO. Most of the Eastern Orthodox servicemen did not press the issue, and many of my brethren who entered the Armed Forces during WW2 had their dog tags stamped with a "P" signifying Protestant, a "C" for Catholic or in many cases nothing. Hell, it made no difference because there were no Greek Orthodox chaplains in the American Armed Forces to administer last rites. Ten years later as a member of the board of Directors of Oakland's Assumption Church, I was delighted that an edict from our Greek Orthodox Archdiocese informed the Greek Orthodox Parishes of America, GO (Greek Orthodox) would be stamped on all the dog tags of Greek Orthodox servicemen.

At the Presidio of Monterey we received our GI haircuts, inoculations, IQ tests, uniforms, indoctrination, and numerous other tests. Perry and I both volunteered for the 122nd Infantry Battalion (Greek Battalion) stationed at Camp Carson, Colorado. We were issued two duffle bags, A and B, for our clothes, equipment, etc; the two duffle bags and my rifle would be my constant companions during my army career. While waiting to transfer to the Greek Battalion in Camp Carson, Colorado, my aunt Helen and uncle George Cominos' family visited me from nearby Salinas.

A few weeks before I was drafted my Salinas Junior College basketball team played against the strong Presidio of Monterey team. A couple of my basketball teammates visited me in Monterey, and brought my block letter I had earned for varsity play at Salinas Junior College. I had always coveted the letter but I never had the opportunity to wear it on my sweater.

An interesting sidelight at the Presidio taught me a lesson about human nature. A nerd type from my Oakland High School days whom I had befriended, was assigned as an acting Corporal. He had taken ROTC training in high school and became our group leader. His personality change was drastic and from this nice and composed person, the corporal stripes brought out the "nouveau powerful" syndrome in this nerd.

On the Rails to Camp Carson

Four days after arriving at the Monterey Presidio, I was bussed to the Salinas, California railroad station, where my mother; my maternal grandmother, Bessie "Toula" Caredis; aunt and uncle, Helen and George Cominos; and other family members wished me a tearful farewell. I boarded the train and was on my way to Camp Carson. I was 18 years and four months old, very naive, but anxious to proceed with this new and exciting adventure. The train stopped in Oakland where we boarded a troop train. My dad and a few relatives visited me for a very short time and wished me goodbye. Although I'd been sheltered in a very close and loving family, I can honestly say that I never became homesick.

That train trip was one of the first of many new adventures I would encounter in my army career. The Santa Fe Railroad train took the southern route and I was the only one aboard assigned to Camp Carson. Most of the recruits on the train were children of the Okies and the devastating dust bowl of the Southwest, who had come to California with their families in the 1930s and found work as migrant workers and later in the defense plants. I was not comfortable or compatible with this group (another of the many cultural shocks I experienced in the service). I befriended an older Black man (probably in his thirties) who had a fabulous wit, but was very depressed. I told him I was going to Camp Carson, Colorado, and he told me how fortunate I was, because he was going to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, the other side of the sun as he described it. My naiveté came into play and I did not understand where he was coming from. Months later when I was stationed in Maryland and South Carolina, I was shocked by the conditions the Blacks lived in those areas. I was born and raised in West Oakland and attended Prescott School from grades K-8. My schoolmates were Blacks, Mexicans, Asians, Southern Europeans, Irish and Gypsies, as we called them. With the exception of the Blacks, we were children of immigrants and of the great depression. There was healthy competition but I honestly recall very little prejudice in West Oakland.

Continuing on to Colorado on the troop train, we crossed into Arizona the first time that I had been out of California. At this point, I had traveled only as far south as Fresno and north as Redding.

After an uneventful trip, we stopped in Denver, Colorado. I was the only soldier to disembark. I said goodbye to the black soldier and wished him well, never to cross paths again. I recall the recruits on the train, who were predominately white, were very quiet and in most instances unfriendly. I hoped I would find a more congenial group at Camp Carson.

At this point it's important that I add an experience that I had a month or so before I entered the army. My mother's brother, Bill Caredis, was a partner in a cafe at San Miguel, California, near Camp Roberts. The Salinas Junior College basketball team was scheduled to play the Camp Roberts basketball team. My uncle knew our schedule, so he called me and suggested, if it was feasible, that I try and leave early enough the day of the game that I could visit him. He also wanted me to observe the clientele, and their music in his café, army recruits primarily from the South and Southwest. I received permission from my coach, and two of my teammates and I drove ahead of the bus. My uncle's cafe was a cultural shock to say the least. The southern and Okie twang of the soldiers and their country music was foreign to my teammates and me. It was the first time I heard country music like the Wabash Cannonball. In the San Francisco Bay Area the radio music stations played pop music (big band). One station featured cowboy music one hour in late afternoon. The United States, before air travel and television, had many different cultures and no doubt our country was much richer because of the diversity.


Camp Carson, Colorado: The Greek Battalion

Company B 122nd Infantry Battalion

The 122nd Infantry Battalion, also known as (aka) the Greek Battalion, was founded in January 1943 by an executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was expected that the battalion would eventually deploy in Greece, which was occupied by Nazi German forces. The unit was named the 122nd Infantry Battalion to mark 122 years of Greek independence from Ottoman Turkish oppression.

When I arrived late in the evening in Colorado Springs, eight miles north of Camp Carson, a jeep and driver was waiting for me at the train station, and I was driven to Headquarters Company of the 122nd Infantry Battalion. Excited and apprehensive, I checked in, and I sheepishly requested if I could be placed in the same group with my friend Perry Phillips. There was no need for my request; they assigned me to Company B, 122nd Infantry Battalion, the company Perry had joined the day before.

Picking up my duffle bags I was escorted to B Company. Perry was the first to greet me in the barracks. He was as happy to see me as I was to see him. Our bunks were next to each other. Perry and I were the first Greek-American volunteers in company B. The rest of the enlisted men in the barracks were Greek nationals. The "Greeks" greeted us royally, they welcomed us as their younger brothers, a far cry from the group of soldiers I had encountered on the troop train. This was the first time the two groups, Greek nationals and Greek-Americans, would serve together in the American armed services. The nationals learned the English language from the Greek Americans, and the young Americans learned some choice Greek words, songs, rebetika dances, jokes. The Manghes of Piraeus, particularly, were excellent tutors. The native-born Greeks were in their late twenties and thirties, and the younger Greek-American sons of emigrant families from across the United States, though of different cultures, bonded quickly.

The Greek Battalion was stationed at Camp Carson near Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the foothills of the Cheyenne Mountains. The terrain resembled many areas of Greece.

Personnel

President Roosevelt appointed Major Peter Clainos of Manchester, New Hampshire, commanding officer of the 122nd Infantry Battalion. He was the first Greek-born American to graduate from West Point. Born in Sparta, Greece, in 1907, he arrived in America with his father and one of his four sisters in 1912. Prior to attending West point, he was one of the two founders of the Greek-American fraternity, the Sons of Pericles, an AHEPA auxiliary.

The officers of the 122nd were Americans, and Americans of Greek descent. The Greek-American officers, all volunteers, were recruited for obvious reasons. Since there was not a sufficient number of Greek-American officers who volunteered into the Greek Battalion, non-Greek-American officers were assigned to the Battalion. Many of these officers were qualified to join the Greek Battalion for absurd reasons. For instance, the army decided Lieutenant Robert F. Houlihan was eligible because he had studied classical Greek while a student at a prep school in Wisconsin. Lt. Houlihan was ultimately appointed commanding officer of Co. C 2671 Special Reconnaissance Battalion aka Greek Operational Group, or USOG.

The initial group of men who arrived at Camp Carson were Greek immigrants. Most if not all of these men either arrived in America prior to WW2, or they were stranded in the United States as members of the Greek merchant marine when the Germans occupied Greece. These recruits were older than the average draftee and streetwise. A few of these men had fought against the Italians and Germans in Greece in 1940. Not having spent enough time in America, the large majority were not American citizens. Many were not volunteers; they had no choice and were assigned to the Greek Battalion. By no means is this to disparage the Greek national draftees' reluctance to volunteer in an infantry unit; a very small percentage of Greek-American officers and enlisted men volunteered to join the Greek Battalion. Infantrymen are the grunts of the army and in every war in every army a scant few men volunteer for infantry duty.

The Greek-American enlisted men, all volunteers, began arriving at Camp Carson in February 1943. Included among them was 22-year-old, 6-feet, 3-inch 1st Sergeant Theophanes Strimenos from Mobile, Alabama, by all accounts of the officers and enlisted men the catalyst of the Greek USOG. The Greek-American recruits were second-generation Americans, the children of immigrants. Though they were from different parts of America, their backgrounds were similar. In the East and Midwest, most of the men grew up in Greek neighborhoods. In other parts of America where Greeks did not cluster as such, their social lives centered among their Greek families and the Greek Orthodox Church. These men grew up as Greeks; most of them did not know a word of English when they entered kindergarten; as youngsters they proudly sang the Greek national anthem; some had trouble differentiating between the Greek and American flags, and their common enemy was the Turks.

The commanding officer of B Company was Captain Milton; he had arrived with his family in the United States as a teenager from Greece. The officers I recall in B company were Lieutenant Nick Stathakos of Dallas,Texas,Lieutenant Frank Blanas of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a 22-year-old Lieutenant Dada, a non Greek, who was very happy to have a couple of young Americans join him in the company. Later, another Greek American, Lieutenant Panagiotopoulos of Massachusetts, joined us from the 101st Airborne Division. There were two or three other officers whose names I do not recall.

We did not receive the usual army basic training. The new recruits of the Greek Battalion were given a crash course under Lt. Stathakos. Basic training was in the morning and we joined our respective companies for further training in the afternoon. There were four recruits from the Bay Area: Perry, me, Jerry Petsas of Richmond in B Company, and George Andros from San Francisco in C company. The latter two would play an interesting albeit infamous part in the battalion's history.

For the first three weeks of basic training we were not allowed to leave the camp. In fact we were told that our first leave would be given to us after the six-week period of basic training was concluded. Fortunately Greek Orthodox Easter fell late in April and we were given a two-day pass and ordered to return to Camp Carson for reveille Easter Sunday morning. An Easter celebration was planned at Camp Carson. Perry and I attended Good Friday services at the Greek Orthodox Church in Denver. How exciting and emotional it was for both of us. I recall closing my eyes and imagining myself back on Brush Street at my Assumption Church in Oakland while listening to the Lamentations on Good Friday. We attended "Anastasi," the Saturday night Resurrection service, and met many friendly and cordial Denver parishioners, and of course the beautiful Greek girls of the community. Throughout my military career the Greek Orthodox Church, in the respective cities and towns where I was stationed, was my home away from home.

On our numerous trips to Denver, Perry, Alex, and four or five of our buddies would rent a hotel room in one of Denver's finest hotels. Two of us would check in and the rest of the group would join, separating the mattresses from the beds, sleeping on the floor, and whatever else was in the room. Our monthly pay was $31.00 and by pooling our money we had wonderful facilities. I recall staying at three four-star hotels: the Shirley Savoy, the Cosmopolitan, and the Brown Palace.

Denver was a beautiful city, not unlike Oakland in the prewar days, and because it was 1500 miles from the Pacific Coast there was no brownout. It was a joy to walk the streets at night, with the neon lights and lampposts lit. Interesting how much one misses something we take for granted. We returned to Camp Carson on Easter Sunday, in time for reveille. It was a two-hour bus ride from Denver to Colorado Springs. Taking the last bus to Colorado Springs, we discovered a great way to travel on the many trips that we made from Denver; we would board the bus early, jump up on the baggage rack, spread out and catch some much needed sleep.

Leonidas of Thermopylae

The day after Easter, 22 days after I joined the battalion (the 22 days have been etched in memory ever since the day I made the hike), Major Clainos led us on the first of many grueling hikes. We left the camp at 7:00 a.m., carrying a rifle and a backpack, a total of 70 pounds. We hiked to the foothills of the Cheyenne Mountains and then straight up through a wooded area to the top of one of the mountains. Perry and I were in good physical shape, having recently been active in sports, but the high altitude took its toll. Many of the older fellows had a difficult time and there were many stragglers, but with very few exceptions the full battalion reached the summit, where we discovered the beautiful Cheyenne lodge that was closed for the duration of the war. Looking east, it was breathtaking; we were able to see across the flat plains for miles. Our mess crew (kitchen) was set up next to the lodge; we had lunch, rested, and started our return to camp. On the way back we walked on a paved road which serpentines through the mountains. Although it was all downhill it was a difficult hike. We arrived at our barracks around 8:00 p.m. and Major Clainos gave us a few minutes of close order drill until he was satisfied we executed the drill like fresh troops and then dismissed us.

This was the first of the many 25- to 35-mile hikes that Major Clainos put us through during our training at Carson. Clainos was 36 years old and he always led the battalion. We nicknamed him "Leonidas" of Thermopylae [note 2]. We continually cussed him for driving us so hard, but we had tremendous respect for him. After the war I had the good fortune to meet many times with this great leader and wonderful gentleman.

Major Clainos' training was punishing. After our first hike to the summit of the Cheyenne Mountains, every week through the spring and summer months of 1943 we would hike 25 to 30 miles to a bivouac area. We would depart from camp on Monday mornings, maneuver all week, and unlike most units we would return Saturday evening instead of Friday and have only Sunday off. During the hikes the Greeks sang the many Greek songs we enthusiastically learned; in turn we would sing American songs and they joined in with their Greek accents.

I was 144 pounds when I entered the army and by September 1943, when I went home on leave, I had dropped to 132 pounds. I was exhausted. My feet were warm, no, hot, all the time, even in the morning when I would first put on my boots.

I recall on one of the grueling hikes during a 10-minute break I was exhausted. Resting against a tree with Perry next to me; I put my arms against my body and turned my hands 180 degrees and called him an SOB, reminding him about the Maritime Service test.

During the bivouacs, the first order of "'business" was to dig a latrine and a garbage pit at least six feet deep and 500 feet from the main camp. Every army unit was responsible for cleaning up their respective area after maneuvers, because the areas were frequently in use by different army units. On our first bivouac, after an exhausting week of training, we began our hike back to our barracks. A few miles from our bivouac area, Major Clainos halted the battalion, about faced us, and we returned to the bivouac area. This was the angriest that I had seen Clainos at any time under his command. The soldiers in our battalion were primarily Greek immigrants and their hygiene was different; they did not use the latrine, especially at night, and unloaded their bodily waste near their pup tents. Clainos lined the battalion in a straight line and had us clean up the feces; we then hiked back 25 miles to Camp Carson. When we arrived at our barracks, he did not dismiss us, but gave us close order drill for at least another hour. This was a great lesson for all of us. The bivouac areas were never abused again.

Each pup tent held two soldiers and Perry and I shared a tent. The first time that the "city boys" were on the field we scared the hell out of each other, talking about snakes, lizards, and large animals. We went sleepless most of that week.

Infantry training is very strenuous: hiking, obstacle courses, rifle range, hiking, map reading, compass reading, hiking, live grenade throwing, antipersonnel mine detecting, hiking, live machine gun fire with limited crawling space, hiking, digging fox holes, learning infantry tactics, hiking, and boring guard duty.

Perry and I were chosen for G 2 and given an intelligence course. This sounded impressive (the innocence of youth) until we learned that we were slated to be the point scouts of the company. The instructor was Staff Sergeant Dimoposam, a Greek-American Cajun from New Orleans with a great sense of humor. We enjoyed his wit and later became great friends in the OSS.

The battalion had five companies: Companies A, B, C, D, and Headquarters. A, B, and C were rifle companies; D was the heavy weapons company. Headquarters Company housed the battalion commander, executive officer, clerks, cooks, doctors, medics, and one platoon of 37 millimeter and other weapons. We never reached a full complement in the battalion.

Alex P. Phillips arrives at Camp Carson

July 1943, Alex Phillips, Perry's brother, joined us. Alex had been in the army only a few days, checked into Headquarters at Camp Carson and was immediately transported to our bivouac area. Perry and I, now "veterans," welcomed him and he was allowed to share our pup tent the first few nights. As luck would have it we experienced a hell of a rainstorm and our pup tent area was flooded. "Welcome to the army and the Greek Battalion, Alex." Needless to say we were happy to see him and he brought us up to date with the news of our families and friends in Oakland.

Previously I have mentioned that Major Clainos' training was intense, and many soldiers who could not keep up were removed from the battalion. We kept complaining that all of our hikes were always west onto the mountains; finally we got our wish to march east onto the plains. Major Clainos led us on a grueling 30-mile hike on a very hot and humid August summer day. On this day I was fortunate to be his runner during that hike. Major Clainos, who was at the head of the battalion, would give me an order for one of his company commanders; I would wait for the Company to march by and relay the order. A jeep would then pick me up and bring me back to the head of the column where the major was leading the battalion. Going back and forth, I noticed, unlike on the numerous other hikes, not only were there many stragglers but many soldiers were dropping on the roadside from exhaustion. We were a few miles from Camp Carson when the Camp Carson commander became aware of our predicament. The camp commander sent his trucks and ordered Major Clainos to bring us back to camp. After the war I mentioned this hike to Colonel Clainos. He told me that he knew that the hike would be difficult and that hiking on a flat road was much more strenuous than mountain climbing. He wanted to teach us a lesson. The camp commander visited the major that evening to reprimand him because he had heard that Major Clainos was not with us on the hike. He ordered Major Clainos to stand up, but to his surprise he found the major was soaking his feet, recuperating from that arduous hike. Nevertheless, he ordered Major Clainos to discontinue the 25-to-35 mile hikes for the Greek Battalion.

We were elated with the colonel's orders, but then the camp commander died two weeks later. The Monday after the colonel's death, Major Clainos resumed our training with another 25-mile hike and a week of maneuvers. Major Clainos was planning the ultimate hike to the top of Pikes Peak and a nine-day trek to Camp Hale, 9,000 feet in elevation, where the 10th Mountain Division trained. We were saved from these two grueling hikes when members of a group that was unknown to us, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), visited our battalion.

During our maneuvers and bivouacs we would simulate war tactics: Company C, for example, would try and capture the colors of Company B that were usually placed in the center of their bivouac area, and vice versa. Captured men would be tied up in the middle of a creek or river for the duration of the maneuver. They were treated like an enemy. Lieutenant Panagiotopoulos, a blowhard of sorts, joined B Company late in our training. He had transferred from the 101st Airborne Division and still wore the Screaming Eagle patch on his sleeve. Perry, Alex, and I convinced him that the officers got the worst treatment if captured and he was visibly upset listening to our stories, which we had embellished. So much for the vaunted 101st. Though Lieutenant Panagiotopoulos joined the OSS, he remained in Washington DC for the duration of the war. The only Company B officer to volunteer and join our OSS group was Lieutenant Frank Blanas.

Major Peter Clainos at 36 years of age was a great and tireless leader and always spearheaded our training. A tough disciplinarian, he honed a top-notch unit. When he was interviewed in 1991, this career officer repeated time and again, The Greek Battalion was the finest outfit of my army career. [note 3]

Social Activities and Visitors

There were many highs and a few lows during our stay at Camp Carson.

A few days before I arrived at Camp Carson, the 122nd was invited by the Greek community of Denver to celebrate Greek Independence Day (March 25,1943), and the Greek Battalion paraded in downtown Denver.

Relatives and friends frequently visited the soldiers of the battalion: My mother, dad, and cousin Sophie Cominos Britton spent a week in Colorado Springs. They were invited to visit our unit and were treated royally by the Northern California contingent. My dad gave me two bottles of rare liquor to give to Major Clainos and Medical Officer Captain Markoutsas, of Chicago, Illinois. Being young and headstrong, I refused to give the officers the gift. I placed them in my B duffle bag (duffle bag A was carried by soldiers and B was transported by boat or vehicle). I forgot about the two precious bottles for over a year and half and rediscovered them when I was in China. Fifty years later when I met with Colonel Clainos and told him the story, I gave him a rare bottle of Old Crow (1941 vintage) from my dad's liquor inventory.

Another visitor was Toula Christopoulos of Oakland, the wife of Dr. Basil Christopoulos and an old family friend. She had relatives in Denver and was considerate to take time from her vacation to visit us at Camp Carson. A beautiful lady, the officers swarmed all over her. I'm sure she enjoyed the attention but was more interested in spending time with the three of us from Oakland, whom she had watched grow up. Visitors and mail from home were always highlights.

One of the highlights of my army/OSS career was the visit to Colorado of my cousin Nick G. Cominos. As a young boy Nick almost lost his eyesight and because of this liability he was not drafted into the armed services. He was anxious to meet up with me, along with Perry and Alex Phillips and Tom Georgalos whom Nick had known for many years; in addition he visited his cousin, Nick H. Cominos, stationed in Greeley, Colorado. Nick H. Cominos enjoyed our comradeship so much he left a cush job in Greeley and joined our OSS unit a few days before we left Camp Carson for Washington DC

One evening on maneuvers, as I was ready to lay down my tired body in my pup tent for the night, I was ordered to report to headquarters. The officer in charge told me to pick up my gear and head into camp. Only for an emergency would an enlisted man be excused from the bivouac area. My dad had a serious heart condition and I suspected this was the reason for the emergency. A jeep drove me 25 miles to Camp Carson. When I reported at 122nd headquarters, I was told to put on my class A uniform and head to the Antlers Hotel in Colorado Springs. The officer in charge said that a Mr. Cominos was waiting for me. I was driven by jeep to the hotel. Eureka! Cousin Nick was waiting to welcome me in his beautiful hotel room. Needless to say I was absolutely elated meeting up with Nick and I could not wait to jump in bed and check out the mattress and sheets. I went from hell to heaven in a few short hours. Nick and I have talked about his coup many times and he cannot recall how he was able to get me out of camp. He was only 22 years old at the time. Nick enjoyed Colorado Springs so much he stayed a month; he found a job as a bartender for a Greek restaurant owner. His hotel room became our headquarters away from camp, a terrific place to lay our tired bodies.

Denver Greek Community

Even though our training was strenuous we took every opportunity to visit Denver on the weekends. The Denver Greek community welcomed us as its own children. We would attend church services and afterward be invited to various Greek homes, or during the summer to picnics at Lakeside Park. Families I recall are the Argiropouloses and Allisons. Most of the Greek-American soldiers enjoyed the wonderful Denver Greek hospitality that was not unlike that in our respective Greek communities. Our relationship with the young Greek girls our age in Denver was similar to that with the young girls we'd grown up with-no sexual relations, just dancing, holding hands, some petting, playing games; we had the utmost respect for them and their families. While growing up in our Greek communities our parents and relatives had instilled in us: A Greek girl is not to be violated. Sex relations would be outside of the Greek community. Later I discovered the Greek nationals did not share the same moral attitude. Our parents brought from Greece values from a more innocent time. Most of them arrived in the United States around the turn of the 20th century and brought their conservative moral ethics and standards to America from the villages of mainland Greece. Most of the Greek nationals were from the islands and port cities such as Athens and Piraeus, and many had been in the merchant marine; they teased us about our Victorian attitude toward the Greek-American girls.

The Greek Orthodox Church in America in the vicinity of our training camps was the focal point of our social gatherings, primarily for the Greek Americans. The Greek communities, whose sons had entered the Armed Forces, welcomed us as their own. This was a special time in our lives.

The Boxing Match

Perry and a Greek-American staff sergeant, Harry Fergadiotis from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, had never gotten along. He was a little guy with the Napoleon syndrome. He liked to push people around and could not handle Perry's constant chatter. Fergadiotis was a little older and because of his high school ROTC training, was a noncommissioned officer. One evening at one of our bivouacs, and after many weeks of bantering between them, Perry and Fergadiotis challenged each other to a prizefight. A general court-martial would be in order if an enlisted man punched out an officer or noncommissioned officer or vise versa; but when two adversaries decide to fight, they are allowed to box in a ring. Fergadiotis was not a popular fellow; Perry was the sentimental favorite. The Greeks were excited about this bout and a couple of them opened up a betting booth. I don't recall the odds, but Perry kicked his ass and became company B's favorite son.

Money was not scarce in the battalion. Some of the Greeks had left lucrative businesses in their hometowns, primarily restaurants or cafes. The fortunate ones, who were able to turn their businesses over to honest relatives or friends, were receiving large amounts of money from home. We were told the PX, adjacent to our barracks, had the highest income of any PX or service club in Camp Carson. Although I had played cards and dice in civilian life, I learned a new and exciting game played with two dice and is very popular in Greece and the middle East called Barbouti; a very equitable game; you have a 50/50 chance of winning. I tried it a couple of times, but like most gambling games you must have a sufficient amount of cash to back up your gambling. The Greeks had some incredible games in our day room (recreation room), hundreds of dollars changing hands-a huge amount in those days-with lots of hollering and swearing by the marvelous Greek personalities.

Easter Sunday at Camp Carson

Easter Sunday 1943 was the highlight of the 122nd's social experience in Colorado. Major Clainos met with the leaders of the Denver Greek Community and the good people of Denver decided to celebrate Agape services at Camp Carson. They arrived early Easter morning in a caravan of automobiles. The community brought 20 lambs prepared for souvla (barbecue), Greek salads, pasta, mageritsa, Greek pastries, dyed Easter eggs-a veritable feast. The men of the 122nd marched to an area a few miles from their camp, where the Denver community joined us in their automobiles. Agape services were celebrated followed by a picnic. Some Greek nationals helped the Denver parishioners prepare the souvla, and many played soccer; the Greek Americans played softball, volleyball, and football.

The extraordinary day was capped when the entire entourage, soldiers and civilians, returned to the barracks for dancing. B Company and C Company had cleared their bunks; one barrack had a jukebox with American music, another had live Greek music. The Greek Battalion was the envy of the entire camp. The Denver community's wonderful hospitality will never be forgotten by the men of the 122nd.

Hollywood could not have written a better script for our 1943 Easter celebration at Camp Carson.

The following day Major Clainos returned to business. He ordered a 35-mile hike and continued the rigorous training.

FDR and George Marshall visit the Greek Battalion

In May 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and US Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall paid a special visit to the 122nd. It was a thrill to see these two great men; of course in those days there was no television to view our leaders and they were not unlike a myth to most Americans. As I mentioned, FDR founded the Greek Battalion and had a special interest in our battalion.

Army's Caste System

There is a huge caste system in the armed services which I discovered early on at Camp Carson. On one of my first visits to Denver I met a young lady, Kay Argiropoulos, whose father hosted us at his home and at the picnic grounds. Kay was very cute and a wonderful young lady. At one of the picnics we spent the whole day together, dancing, playing softball, just spending an enjoyable afternoon at the picnic. I was anxious to return to Denver the following week and meet her again, but Captain Milton, my commanding officer, ordered me to be the orderly that weekend: a skeleton crew was always left behind on weekends to handle the company's business. The next two weekends I was confined to quarters because I was told my rifle was not clean. I confronted Captain Milton, but he would not change his order.

I could not understand Captain Milton's decision until I was given a pass the following week to visit Denver. After Sunday church services I rushed to Lakeside Gardens anxious to meet Kay. She was very aloof and then, Eureka! I saw her walking and holding hands with an officer. He turned out to be Lieutenant Frank Blanas of B Company, my executive officer, who had just returned from Fort Benning. He was an engineer and Major Clainos had sent him to Fort Benning to receive infantry training. He was Captain Milton's best friend, and Blanas had been dating Kay before he left for Fort Benning. The caste system worked. Needless to say I did not fraternize with Kay again.

Blanas was a terrific guy and a fine officer. Kay and Frank were married after the war and settled in Denver. Years later my son Jamie's Greek-American basketball team played in the AHEPA national tournament in Denver, and Mary and I met both Kay and Frank Blanas. Frank came to all of Jamie's games, Kay was a little distant. We later discovered Frank was in very bad health and unfortunately he passed away soon after the tournament. Mary and I met up with Kay again at our OSS reunion in Denver in 1991, and subsequent reunions, where we enjoyed her company and became good friends.

Jitterbug at the Stockade

Alex Phillips and I were ordered to guard the maximum security stockade at Camp Carson; it was tedious and boring duty; soldiers who had committed serious crimes were incarcerated in this stockade. Every unit at Camp Carson took turns in guarding the stockade. Alex and I were joined by two Greek Americans from A Company, Alex Psomas and Gust Mukanos. Psomas and Mukanos, as were Perry, Alex, and me, were lifetime friends from Western Pennsylvania. Our paths had not crossed because we were in different companies; but later, in the OSS, we became great friends.

Stockade duty is a 72-hour boring chore; four hours on guard duty and eight hours off. We were told if a prisoner escaped while we were on duty we would have to take his place in the stockade until he was recaptured. Whether this was true or not, it left a great impression on us. The stockade was a square with runways on the outside of the wire fences where we would walk back and forth. The four of us had guard duty at the same time and we were ordered to remain in the adjacent barracks and not leave the premises when we were off duty. To pass the time and get over the boredom, we read and played cards. We were provided with a GI Victrola, a record player that you wound with a handle, and three or four contemporary records. The boredom got so bad that Alex Phillips and I would practice jitterbug dancing. Psomas and Mukanos did not join in but seemed amused.

Later, when the four of us had joined the OSS and we were at the Port of Embarkation at Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, preparing to leave for overseas, Perry Phillips and Bill Georges of Lowell, Massachusetts, promoted a USO variety show for 5,000 GIs. Two USO girls on stage invited volunteers to jitterbug with them. Psomas and Mukanos were standing next to Alex and me when they immediately ran up and jumped on the stage. We were dumbfounded as we watched them jitterbug; our dancing paled compared to these two guys. Before I was drafted I had seen many excellent dancers at Sweet's and McFadden's ballrooms in Oakland, including our two home buddies Sam Tasoulas and Tom Chavalas, both excellent dancers, but Psomas and Mukanos were sensational. Needless to say Alex and I were pissed, but they had a logical answer; there was no reason to show us up at the stockade. Alex and Gust were the John Travoltas of 1943. They had the strut, the swarthy good looks, and the blue collar background similar to that of the character Travolta played in Saturday Night Fever. During our OSS days the four of us, along with Perry, Tom Georgalos, and Nick Cominos, became very close friends. Psomas introduced Tom to his cousin in Brooklyn and they married after the war. Unlike the aforementioned Okies and Southerners, Californians were very compatible with western Pennsylvanians and the men from the Boston, New York, New Jersey corridor.

Gays in the Battalion

During the time I spent in the army and OSS, I knew two gays, or queers as we called them at that time, in our outfit. Following are two interesting albeit different stories: the first involved Perry (always in the eye of the hurricane), who was slightly built but had an athletic body. Perry and I, after completing intelligence school, a misnomer at best, were placed in headquarters barracks. Only a few soldiers lived in that barracks, including the cooks of Company B. One was Sgt. V. who had a class "A" pass because his wife was visiting him in Colorado Springs. He was allowed to leave camp on the nights he did not have duty and return in the morning before reveille. Sgt. V. had an excellent voice and when he would return to camp he would wake us serenading with Greek songs. Perry, who was musically inclined, was always anxious to learn any new Greek song, and he befriended Sgt. V. Ultimately Sgt. V. would sit by Perry's bunk and wake him singing Greek songs. Perry and I were from the streets of West Oakland and had been approached by gays many times when we sold newspapers on the street corners. When a gay would make his move, we would con him, ask for street car fare to meet him, stash the money and never show up. We were not naive, but we believed that Sgt. V. enjoyed singing and appreciated Perry's enthusiasm for Greek music. Up to this time Sgt. V. had not shown any gay tendencies. One morning, loud noises and a scuffle woke me. Perry in his shorts and undershirt had his rifle in his hands with bayonet out of the scabbard and was cussing Sgt. V., who was up against the wall. I jumped out of my bunk and grabbed Perry from behind and asked him what the hell was going on. Perry said, I'm going to kill the son of bitch; he tried to crawl into my bunk! Sgt. V. was scared to death and ran from the barracks. We did not report this incident, but a few days later Sgt. V. was transferred out of the battalion.

The second gay, Cpl. A., did not hide his homosexuality. In fact at short arm inspection, mandatory venereal disease inspection by the unit's medical doctor, he would wear pink panties and strut like a model. He was a handsome man of 6 foot 1 inch in height and about 175 pounds in weight. He was with company D in the Greek Battalion and I did not meet him in Colorado. He volunteered and was accepted in the OSS and assigned to Group 6. During our long voyages on troop ships from Virginia to Egypt and later from San Pedro to India, Cpl. A. not only trained with the unit, he was indefatigable. After our training session he would run laps around the troop ship numerous times on his own. When we reached our staging area in Torre Mare, Italy, we became acquainted with Cpl. A. and found him to be very docile but friendly. I do not recall if he had any close friends or with whom he socialized.

During our short stay at Torre Mare, a boxing match was held in neighboring Bari; the light heavyweight champ of the British fleet challenged American servicemen to a match. Perry and I found out Cpl. A could box, although he never flaunted or bragged about his boxing prowess. We asked if he would fight the British soldier and he accepted. Perry and I were his managers/seconds. The boxing ring was jammed, with a large contingent from our OSS unit. The Greeks placed big bets on their "boy" and Cpl. A. did not let them down. He won the decision pummeling the Briton. Our group celebrated the victory but Cpl. A. did not join in the festivities. It was all in a day's work for him.

After the Nazis withdrew from Greece, Cpl. A. again volunteered and with 15 Greek/USOGs, joined the French/USOG to go to China. The troop ship, the General Callan, took 31 days from San Pedro to Calcutta, India, and the weather was very hot. In our sleeping quarters we wore only shorts and as young men in excellent shape, we were very horny. We had been combat veterans together in Greece and Yugoslavia, and Cpl. A. knew by this time we weren't interested in homosexual sex, but once in awhile he would wear his pink panties, strut around our bunk area, jab us on the side, and shake his ass. We would tell him to take a hike and he would giggle and back off. Cpl. A. was an outstanding soldier, a man I was very proud to soldier with, and someone you could always count on in combat.

The Frauds

America by the summer of 1943 was totally behind the war effort with the exception of a few pacifists, cynics, and opportunists. Prior to the United States entering the war, the isolationist America First group and a large minority of German sympathizers tried to keep the United States from entering the war. All this changed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941, and the subsequent defeats of American forces in the Philippines in 1942. Japan had conquered all of Southeast Asia and was primed for an attack on Australia. The Americans had a couple of successful campaigns late in 1942: the battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific and the invasion of North Africa. Most of us who had not reached draft age worried the war would end before we had a chance to serve. Receiving a draft card with a 1A was a badge of honor. Those who received a 4F rating (disability) were stigmatized.

This was the climate in the United States in the summer of 1943. The soldiers in our outfit almost to a man were loyal and proud to be members of the Greek battalion and especially the ones that volunteered for the OSS. American young men and women were for the most part willing to serve their country in WW2.

But in every war there are shirkers. My platoon was detailed to guard three members of the Greek Battalion who had decided to feign mental illness in order to receive a medical discharge. One man was from New York; the other two were from Northern California. Before they were drafted, they'd had lucrative businesses that were not suffering during their absence. Large amounts of money was sent to them while they were in Camp Carson. While in custody they were held in a small room with one tiny window. We had to guard the entrance to the room while these three men were incarcerated. One tried to persuade me to join in his escapade and go into business with him, where we would make millions. Another said that he wasn't going to take any army crap from the Okie noncoms. One became a flamboyant man about town in San Francisco and a friend of the governor of the state of California. Much to my surprise all three were given a Section 8 discharge. It would be interesting to ask all three if they had to do it over again would they take the same road. In retrospect I don't hate them for what they did 50 years ago. I believe if they have a conscience, it left a lasting mark on their psyche. I have never understood why they even bothered to volunteer for the Greek Battalion. Our paths have crossed since the war; once with the New Yorker; often with the Californians; I have chosen to ignore them. I often wonder if the New Yorker made his millions. I never mentioned this episode to my family; one of the few negative episodes of my army career.

Summer 1943 at Camp Carson

Adjacent to Camp Carson the Army had set up a German prisoner of war camp. There was no fraternizing with these prisoners. I found these soldiers, though POWs and incarcerated, were arrogant and proud, unlike the Italian POWs we met later, and I realized how formidable they would be in combat.

Many historians agree by the summer of 1943, four of the most important battles of WW2 had been won by the Allies. The Russians and General Winter stopped Hitler at Sevastopol; the British defeated General Rommel at El Alemain in the African Campaign; the Battle of Britain was won by the RAF; and the American Navy won the major Battle of Midway, sinking four Japanese carriers.

Frustrated that the war would end before we had a chance to go into battle, the men of the Greek Battalion were combat ready with no place to go.

Popular Songs: You'll Never Know, Tommy Dorsey ~ All of Me, Frank Sinatra.


Notes

[Skip the Notes]

1
National Archives, Greek U.S. Operational Groups, Operations in Greece 1944, p. 11 (report filed at OSS Headquarters, 24 December 1944).

My own group had a total of 253 days in warfare: Group 4 of the Greek/USOG (Co. C., 2671 Special Reconnaissance Battalion) on the front lines in Yugoslavia from 16 February to 19 June and then behind the lines in occupied Greece from 16 July to 20 November 1944. See ibid., p. 2.

2
Leonidas became king of the Greek state of Sparta in 491 B.C. His leadership and heroism in battling the Persians at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. aroused all Greece to fight the invaders. In later years a monument to the bravery of Greeks who died at Thermopylae was set up near where Leonidas and his 300 fell. One tablet read: Four times a thousand men from Pelop's land; Three thousand times a thousand did withstand.
3
Colonel Peter Clainos (Ret.) was videotaped by Mary and Andrew Mousalimas for over nine hours in 1989-1991. The tapes are in my files.

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