RIP Spiros “Steve” Pisanos (1920-2016)
Boy, the hits just keep on coming.
I just learned that my friend of 30 years, Colonel Spiros “Steve” Pisanos, died yesterday. It’s a surprise but not really, since he was 96. I remember when I saw him last year, he looked so good I joked with him about how he must be keeping a portrait in the attic.
Steve’s life reads like an adventure novel. As he often said, “My life is the American Dream.”
No less an observer of men in war than former UPI war correspondent assigned to the 8th Air Force Walter Cronkite – later “the most trusted man in America” – described Steve as “the single most interesting individual it was my privilege to meet during the entire Second World War.”
Born in 1920 in Athens, Greece, the son of a poor streetcar motorman with a large family, Spiros Pisanos grew up expecting he would follow his father. In 1935, he met his destiny. “I was out in the country, when I heard a noise and when I looked up I saw two airplanes practicing aerobatics.” Transfixed, the boy forgot about the everything else as he watched the fighters high in the sky. Minutes later, they broke away and flew to the nearby Greek Air Force base; Steve followed them. “They let me close to the airplanes and explained them to me. I thought they were wonderful, and said I wanted to be a pilot and fly airplanes like these.” He was quickly returned to reality when one pilot replied that, in Greece, a working class boy like he was could never fly airplanes.
“When I got home, I told my father I was going to America, where all things are possible, to become a pilot.” His father could make no argument that would change his son’s mind; he did, however, manage to get Steve he wouldn’t leave until he completed school.
In 1938, he was ready to leave for America. Too poor to pay for passage, he signed aboard a freighter as a cabin boy, planning to jump ship on arrival at his destination. “It took me three trips, because I didn’t know there was a North and South America.” After trips to Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, he finally arrived in New York City, where he became what would be called today an “illegal immigrant.”
He found work shelling oysters in Delmonico’s Restaurant for ten dollars a week, which was where his name was “Americanized” to Steve. “I knew I had to learn English before I could fly, so each day on the streetcar, I would read the New York Post with a Greek-English dictionary.” Within a year, he felt ready to begin flight training at Floyd Bennett Field. A one-hour lesson cost $5; by this time his pay was $15 a week. “I moved to Plainfield, New Jersey after I soloed, when I found a better job and a cheaper flight school.”
By 1941, Greece had fallen to the Nazis. Steve, with all of 70 hours in light planes, “bumped” his record to 200 hours with an hour’s work on his logbook and sneaked across the Canadian border to join the RCAF. Accepted for flight training, he was a newly-minted Pilot Officer by the spring of 1942 when he arrived in England. After training in the Spitfire and several missions with 402 Squadron, Steve was assigned – as an American – to 71 Eagle Squadron.
In August 1942, it was decided the three Eagle squadrons would join the USAAF., where the boys who couldn’t get in the Air Corps at home would immediately become the most-experienced group of fighter pilots in the air force. At this moment, when his paperwork was being processed, the fact Steve wasn’t an American citizen became known. “Ambassador Winant learned Congress had just passed a law that said if an immigrant joined the American armed forces, they could become a citizen immediately.” On September 10, 1942, in a ceremony led by Ambassador Winant at the American Embassy in London, Spiros “Steve” Pisanos became the first immigrant to take advantage of that law; immediately after he took the Oath of Allegiance to The United States as a citizen, he was sworn in as a 2d Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces. The son of the poor Athens streetcar motorman was not only a pilot, but an American citizen and a commissioned officer by Act of Congress.
By February, 1944, Steve was an element leader with 4 confirmed victories. On March 5, 1944, the Fourth Fighter Group demonstrated what was possible with the Mustang by flying a strafing mission to Bordeaux, in the south of France on the Biscay coast, until then far beyond the range of fighters based in England. Pisanos was shot down by German flak as he tried to make his way back to England after chasing a Bf-109 into Spain and shooting it down for his fifth victory.
“All of a sudden, I was surrounded by flak bursts, and then the engine quit.” It then caught fire. “I tried to jump, but my parachute was caught on something in the cockpit. The plane went into a dive as I tried to get the parachute loose, and that dive put out the fire. Then I realized I was too low to jump, and tried to get back in the cockpit to fly it to a crash landing, but the parachute harness was so twisted I couldn’t climb in! My only chance was to reach in the cockpit and grab the stick and make as gentle a crash landing as possible.” His last memory before the impact was lining up to set down in an open field. “When I came to, I was lying in the middle of the field, the plane was burning over at the other end, and my shoulder hurt like hell.” As if that wasn’t enough, he heard German voices and saw troops across the field slowly approach the burning Mustang.
“I managed to run into the woods before they spotted me. I had no idea where I was or what I was going to do. Suddenly, I burst through some bushes onto a little country lane and there was a French farmer with a cart full of hay.” The farmer motioned Steve to the cart and hid him under the hay, driving off before the German troops could arrive.
He was far from safe. “When we got to the farmhouse where the local Resistance was, they wouldn’t believe I was an American because of my Greek accent.” This was not an unfounded fear, since the Germans often attempted to introduce a “ringer” into an escape network to capture those who assisted. “I lay in that barn for three days with my shoulder hurting so bad I could barely move.” Finally, the group leader asked for the code word each Allied pilot was given so the Resistance could identify him with London. “An hour later, he came back and everything was all smiles.”
It was found he’d dislocated his shoulder. The Resistance had no doctor they could trust. “The local Countess was part of the group, and she had them dress me like a peasant. She took me to the airfield we’d attacked, where she told the Germans how this stupid Greek peasant boy had fallen out of an apple tree and needed his shoulder fixed. My shoulder was fixed by a Luftwaffe doctor!”
Steve ended up in Paris. With the invasion near, he was unsuccessful three times in making rendezvous for pickup and evacuation back to England. Among many adventures he had with the Resistance, one night stands out. “I was with a very disagreeable RAF Wing Commander in a flat owned by a concert pianist, who lived with his mistress. He assured us we’d be safe for the night, but I wasn’t so sure.” When he discovered that the only hiding place was a portico outside the rear bedroom, ten feet above the sidewalk and with no exit, he lost all desire to sleep.
“About eleven, there was pounding at the door. We knew it was the Gestapo.” The Germans searched and found no one. Outside on the portico, Steve and the Wing Commander had jumped four feet through space from that one to the next one. When the Gestapo pounded on the door of the next flat, they made the leap to the next in line. “We did that around to the front, and then there was no place to go, because it was the front door, it was too far to jump down.”
The two spotted a row of bricks above the front entrance that stuck out a bit, part of the building decor. In a scene right out of a movie, they edged their way across, in momentary danger of slipping and falling each time they moved a foot, as they clung to the wall and made their way, ten feet above the German guards. Once in the next portico, they realized there were only three left. They jumped. And jumped again. And jumped again. They were now cornered.
“We heard the fists on the door, and watched the tenant cross the front room and open the door. The Germans were there. When he opened the door they grabbed him, beat him and arrested him ‑ he was the informer who’d told them we were there!”
Steve participated in the liberation of Paris, working with a Resistance team that went out at night and removed the bombs the Germans had placed on the Seine bridges. “We took the explosives out of the boxes they were in, and left the wires so that in daylight, the Germans would think all was well.”
Sent back to the US as an evader, Steve became a test pilot at Wright-Patterson AFB where he would eventually become friends with Chuck Yeager, who later said “Steve was one of the best, most reliable pilots I ever worked with.”
Steve completed his education in 1952 and became involved with the Air Force’s guided missile programs. In 1967, he returned to combat flying in Vietnam. “The Air Force had just taken over the C‑7 Caribou from the Army. My unit was tasked with flying into forward firebases and other dangerous locations, and they were taking a lot of casualties.” Pisanos eventually earned the Legion of Merit, in addition to several Air Medals, for transforming the squadron from a low‑morale unit into an effective combat squadron during his tour of duty.
In 1973, after finishing a tour as commander of a Titan ICBM unit, Steve Pisanos ‑ by now a full Colonel ‑ was assigned as Air Attache to the U.S. Embassy in Athens. Six years earlier, the democratic Greek government had been overthrown by a right wing military coup known as “the Colonels’ plot.” Pisanos’ real job was to cultivate contacts within the Greek Air Force, in hopes of finding officers who would support a return to democracy. As the leading Greek fighter ace, Pisanos’ reputation provided entree to the highest circles of an organization he could never have entered otherwise.
In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus and the Cyprus Crisis resulted in the humiliation of the Greek armed forces by the Turks. In the aftermath, the dictatorship was overthrown. In January 1975, as he was preparing to return to the United States and retire from a 33‑year Air Force career, Colonel Spiros Pisanos – son of a poor Athens streetcar motorman, whose background prevented him ever entering the Greek Air Force ‑ was presented to the King of Greece, who personally awarded him the George Cross, Greece’s highest award for valorous service, for his crucial work in bringing about the restoration of democracy to his homeland, the birthplace of the democratic ideal.
Truly a life that is “the American Dream.” A life that could not have been lived elsewhere.
With Steve’s passing, there are no more Eagle Squadron pilots, and he was the last living ace of the 4th Fighter Group, the most successful American fighter unit ever.