The Greek Battalion

FEATURE BY Willard Manus

In the summer of 1944 the leaders of the numerous Allied commando groups operating behind enemy lines in Greece gathered for a secret meeting. Showing up at the town of Palia Yiannitsou, high in the Pindus mountains, were an American, a New Zealander, an Australian and several Englishmen. After the introductions and some small talk, the British officers poured out tsipouro for everyone, raised their glasses and said, "Cheers!" The American raised his glass and said, "Stin Iyasas!"

This took the others by surprise. "Where did you learn to speak Greek?" the New Zealander asked.
"In Chicago," answered Lt. John (Yannis) Giannaris, a 22-year-old Greek-American who was leading one of the eight groups of OSS commandos stationed in Greece. Collectively these tough, gutsy fighters were known as The Greek Battalion, if only because 99% of them were either Greek-American or Greek nationals. They had been recruited by Major General "Wild Bill" Donovan, head of the OSS (Office of Strategic Service; the forerunner of the CIA), and tasked with fighting a shadow war against Greece's occupiers, the 150,000-strong German 12th Army division.

The story of The Greek Battalion was kept secret for 40 years on orders from the CIA, which did not want certain "sources and methods" revealed. The men who fought in The Greek Battalion were ordered to remain silent about their exploits, which relegated them to the status of unknown soldiers. In 1984, though, relevant CIA and military documents were declassified and the gag rule on the survivors lifted. Four years later Giannaris published a book, Yannis (Pilgrimage Publishing), about his exploits in wartime Greece, and then Free Press (a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster) issued Patrick K. O'Donnell's Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs, a comprehensive history of the early years of U.S. intelligence and special operations efforts. A chapter in the book deals with the OSS's underground mission in Greece.

Additionally, several ex-commandos who now live in California recently sat for videotaped interviews arranged by The Greek Heritage Society of Southern California as part of its ongoing oral history program. Their reminiscences of the clandestine war in Greece have not only been archived but featured in a documentary film, The Promise of Tomorrow, 1943-2004.

In Chicago not long ago Giannaris awarded the Bronze Star to (Ret.) Corporal Hercules J. Sembrakis, who served under his command. All 22 men in Giannaris' unit have been given the Bronze Star (with V-Device for valor and combat in battle). As for Giannaris himself, at a ceremony at the U.S. embassy in Athens marking the 60th anniversary of The Greek Battalion, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military decoration, given "for gallantry at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty."

"OSS operations in Greece began in August 1943, when SI (Secret Intelligence) agents began to be infiltrated into Greece by submarine," O'Donnell writes. "Throughout most of the war, insertion of agents presented the greatest obstacle to clandestine operations in the country. Agents were parachuted in, or more typically, arrived in small fishing vessels. The agents would depart from Alexandria and sail to Cyprus in cargo ships. From Cyprus the ships proceeded to secret bases in Turkey, which operated with the blessing of the Turkish government. The final leg of the journey was made in caiques that surreptitiously slipped the agents into Greece."

The intelligence gathered by these 80-odd agents enabled the OSS to devise a bold plan, known as Operation Noah's Ark, to keep the German army on edge in Greece. The Allies wanted the Germans to think the invasion of Europe was going to take place either in the Balkans or the Mediterranean. Noah's Ark called for intensive guerrilla action which the enemy would presumably interpret as the prelude to an all-out attack.

Soon after that The Greek Battalion was organized. Made up of volunteers from the 122nd Infantry Battalion (nearly all of whom were of Greek ancestry), the battalion was sent to Camp Carson, Colorado for training. The mountainous terrain there was similar to the terrain they would find in Greece.
"The training was long and arduous," Giannaris recalls. "The men were so exhausted that they were dropping like flies. When I got there, there were a thousand of us--enlisted men and officers. When we were through, there were only two hundred of us left--18 officers and 182 enlisted men."
Many of those in the OG (Operational Group) were Greek ex-seamen who had jumped ship in the USA and joined the army to qualify for American citizenship. They were tough and courageous, qualities the OSS admired most. Their knowledge of Greece and its people were invaluable too, especially when it came to politics.

The resistance movement in Greece was made up of Royalist, Communist and religious groups who not only battled the Germans but each other. The covert war was largely led by the British, but the Americans struggled to become independent of their authority. Additionally, the Greek government-in-exile (based in Cairo) was also trying to throw its weight around.
"We knew we were going into a danger zone," said George Vergis, a Greek-American from California who had gone from the National Guard to Officers Candidate School to The Greek Battalion. "We were told that the battalion would probably suffer 90-95% casualties, and that if we wanted to bow out now, we could, without being penalized."

But the spirit within the Battalion was indomitable. The men were ready and determined to fight for Greece, pay the Germans and Italians back for what they had done to their motherland. Other powerful motives drove them as well. One recruit, Andrew S. Mousalimas, came to the army smarting from the prejudice he had faced as a youngster. "My last name was an enigma," he recalled. "Italy's Benito Mussolini was at the height of his power; students and even some of my teachers teased me because my name was similar to that of Il Duce, and they purposely mispronounced my name...The handful of Greek Americans and Italian Americans at Oakland High were treated like second-class citizens."
Determined to show "them" how brave Greeks could be, Mousalimas volunteered to join The Greek Battalion--not once but three times, until he was finally accepted.

It was Vergis, though, who led the first OSS team into Greece, on April 23, 1944. A veteran of three wars (Vergis later became a professional soldier), he is still haunted today by his first roadblock, which he and his men set up one night in the Epirus region of northwest Greece.

When a convoy of five German army trucks came close, the Greek commandos opened fire with bazookas and automatic rifles. The Germans fired back with Schmeissers (MP-40 submachine guns). During the ensuing firefight one of the trucks was hit and burst into flames, as it was loaded with gasoline. When the battle was done, the road was littered with scorched German corpses.

"By the middle of the summer approximately 150 Greek commandos were roaming Greece, destroying bridges and barracks, mining roads, ambushing convoys and trains," O'Donnell states. "Troop trains were a primary target."

Although some of the guerillas were dropped into Greece by parachute, most were transported by British landing barges. That's how Giannaris and his squadron arrived, on June 16, 1944. Waiting for them in the Parga area, opposite the islands of Paxi and Andipaxi, was a handful of Greek andartes who had brought supplies and donkeys for them. Their destination was the mountaintop village of Papa, just northwest of Lamia. The route slithered through the heavily patrolled province of Roumeli.
"It took us two weeks because we couldn't take any of the main roads, except at night...We had to be extremely careful," Giannaris recalled.

Lamia was important because the Athens-Salonika railroad line and the main highway north ran through it. The German army's strategy was to concentrate its forces around the larger towns, roads, railway lines, ports and rivers, leaving the mountains and rural areas to the commandos and andartes.
Over the ensuing months the tactics of The Greek Battalion changed. When the Allied forces landed at Normandy--and Russia attacked Germany from the east--Hitler was obliged to pull some of his troops out of Greece. To impede their withdrawal, The Greek Battalion was ordered to avoid minor skirmishes and concentrate on attacking and slowing the northward exodus of men and equipment. The code name for the operation was "Smashem."

It was while he was reconnoitering the area around Lamia that Giannaris made a shocking discovery. "I came across a mass grave in a dried-out lake," he said. "The place was called Niziro. There were German strongholds there. We could only cross it at night on our way to attack the railroad tracks. The Germans had executed 103 Greek civilians here and buried them on the spot. When I saw their bodies, my heart went out to all enslaved people under the Nazis...I couldn't wait to go on missions against those Huns." Soon after that he gave the order: take no prisoners! "We are a small force," I told the men, "constantly on the move, short on food. We can't afford to feed prisoners, and we don't have the manpower to guard them, or the facilities to keep them."

Even though the Germans had a regular, not irregular, army stationed in Greece, they too carried out an equally ruthless policy. Back in 1942, following a deadly British commando raid on the Channel Islands, the Nazi high command had issued a wrathful order:

"In the future, all terror and sabotage troops of the British and their accomplices, who do not act like soldiers but rather bandits, will be treated as such by the German troops and will be ruthlessly eliminated in battle, wherever they appear."

This was followed two weeks later by an even more categorical order (one that contravened the Geneva Convention): "All sabotage parties, whether in uniform or civilian clothes, armed or unarmed, are to be slaughtered to the last man."

From that day on, the taking and executing of non-combatants became commonplace. Soon the Germans were burning whole villages to the ground.

In an attempt to alleviate the plight of the local Greeks, Giannaris ordered his men to save their empty cigarette packs and leave them behind after each raid, to let the Germans know that Americans, not Greeks, were responsible for the attacks on them.

Despite the danger, many villagers went out of their way to help the commandos, often providing food, drink and shelter. Some people also acted as messengers and lookouts, women and children included. "We were welcomed like younger brothers," a former commando, Angelos Lyzigos, recalled. "They were overjoyed to discover we were not only Greeks but Americans. The notion of America with its freedom and democracy meant so much to them. Not one single villager ever betrayed us."

Germans aside, the greatest danger to the commandos was posed by the ongoing conflict between the left and right in Greece. The fragile truce between these two factions began to fray over time. The Americans were soon caught in the middle of a blood feud, resulting in numerous brushes with death. Johnny Athens and Spiros Cappony, members of a unit known as The Chicago Mission, were on the move through the mountains when they were attacked by a bunch of leftwing andartes (known collectively as EAM).

"Their families were in prison," Cappony said, "and they had been told by the Germans that their relatives would be freed if they agreed to hunt the Americans down and kill them. Even though some of them had fought shoulder to shoulder with us, they ended up turning against us."

But these and other major problems--such as skimpy rations, sleeping outdoors, forced marches, attacks of malaria--did not prevent The Greek Battalion from fulfilling its mission. Its members were young, intrepid and highly motivated. They had been trained to live off the land as much as possible; nothing but weapons, ammunition and medicine were air-dropped to them.

"For us, it was a war of deep roots," Giannaris explained. "First it was the Ottoman Empire, with independence coming about 1821, and now it was with the Axis powers. And we had this feeling of great passion for pisti and patrida, which translates into country and belief--or faith and religion, both of which were deeply-rooted."

Giannaris' group wreaked considerable havoc in Greece. From the first of July to mid-September, 1944, "We either killed or wounded 675 Germans," he said. "We got this number from reports and broadcasts that the Germans made after our raids. All told, we attacked 3 trains, destroyed 3 locomotives, 31 railroad cars, 6 trucks, almost 8,000 yards of railroad tracks, blew up a bridge and attacked a truck convoy." All this, without suffering a single casualty.

OSS headquarters (in Bari, Italy) refused to believe such a statistic. Wild Bill Donovan sent one of his aides, Col. Paul West, to investigate the situation. When the latter arrived in Papa, he was distressed to see that Giannaris and his squad were unshaven, raggedly-dressed and wild-looking.

"Regulations forbid beards and moustaches," he pointed out.

"Oh, really?" Giannaris countered. "Where are we going to get razor blades? Hell, you people won't even send us incendiary grenades, so I can make sure that we can burn the trains we stop."

West joined Giannaris and his team on a hit and run attack on a German troop train. It was a dangerous and daring sortie--the area was swarming with SS troops and the train itself was heavily manned and armored--but the team brought it off so skilfully and successfully that West, on his return to Bari, recommended that Lt. Yiannaris be promoted to the rank of captain.

Ironically, it was right after that that Group II suffered its first casualties. "We were on another mission against the railroad line, this time near Lianokladion, a railroad junction and marshalling area just west of Lamia," Giannaris writes. "When we reached the target area, on the north end of a tunnel that ran through the mountains, we separated into two groups, one right and one left. We moved forward, down this terrain. Boom! A burst of machine gun fire caught my forward scout. The Germans had these machine-gun posts--these three-story pill boxes--every 50 yards along the railroad line."

The man who was hit and killed was Technician Fifth Grade Michalis Tsirmulas. "He had a premonition of death," writes Giannaris. "'I dreamed I was eaten by a snake,' he said before we went on this mission. And he said that he had 700 dollars that he wanted Cpl. Louis Lenares to give to his sisters, if anything happened to him."

After a brief firefight, Giannaris ordered his men to retreat to the rendezvous area. Minutes later he stepped on a German landmine. Stunned and severely injured--his body was riddled with shrapnel--he somehow managed to crawl up a nearby hill, where he lay bleeding in a ravine hidden from the Germans.
Once they were gone, he crawled down the other side of the hill, reaching the bottom at dawn. Two young Greek girls found him, made a crude stretcher, and carried him to the nearest town, where a doctor administered first aid. A messenger was dispatched to headquarters; he returned with two of Giannaris' men who brought plasma with them.

Giannaris was then carried from one village to another by various left-wing andartes--and finally to a landing strip where a plucky British pilot made a night-time landing and evacuated him to a hospital in Italy. Giannaris spent the next two years in various medical wards, slowly recuperating from his grievous wounds.

Back in Greece, the Germans had just about completed their pullout by October 1944. Not long after that, the OSS began to remove most of its commandos from the country.

One group from The Greek Battalion, headed by Lt. Nick Pappas, was lucky enough to take part in the liberation of Athens. "We commandeered a German vehicle to get into Athens," Pappas relates in Operatives, Spies, And Saboteurs. "Crowds of people were euphoric amd greeting us. We saw Greek flags and even a few American flags. After entering the city, we were greeted by the British Red Devil paratroopers who then took pictures of us. We had nothing, no money or food or a place to sleep. The British wanted to put us in a jailhouse outside the city. They were clearing bombs left in the hotels by the Germans. But we had come this far and wanted to stay in the city. While we were there, fighting broke out between the Communists and the Royalists. They were starting to shoot here and there; it was the beginning of the Greek civil war. Eventually, the Americans came in with a C-47 and pulled us out."

Giannaris isn't sure how many members of The Greek Battalion are still alive today. "I'm not even sure where the survivors are to be found these days," he confided. "Such information is hard to pry out of the Department of Defense."

The survivors may have died or scattered themselves, but thanks to the attention The Greek Battalion has received lately, these lion-hearted warriors will no longer be unheralded.