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
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reminiscences of the clandestine war in Greece have not only been archived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
"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
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
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
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.