By Pierre Kosmidis
An unknown chapter of World War 2 is unveiled, thanks to the combined efforts of three authors, Dimitris Vassilopoulos, George Chalkiadopoulos and Kyriakos Paloulian
The three authors meticulously researched and documented dozens of airmen with Greek roots, who fought with the USAAF and the RAF during World War 2, when Greece was under the boot of the triple occupation by Germans, Italians and Bulgarians.
Those brave pilots fought for the Allied cause against the Axis and several died, their memory though remains, through the two volumes of “Greeks in Foreign Cockpits: Pilots of Greek descent flying with the USAAF and the RAF”.
www.ww2wrecks.com reached out to one of the authors, Mr. Dimitris Vassilopoulos, in order to learn more about those pilots, who wrote their names in History.
What has been your inspiration to start your research?
1996 was the year that I began to read foreign literature on aviation history, focusing mainly on WW2. The famous Osprey Publishing series, ‘Aircraft of the Aces’, was the one that prompted my interest in reading about the actions and the exploits of the aces of that era. Enriching my library, I slowly began to discover through the pages of the books I bought, Greek names.
It was natural for me, to start looking at the subject in any way I could. I cannot hide that I spent many hours in the ‘Eleftheri Skepsis’ bookstore at 116 Ippokratous Street, searching for books that I could not buy at that time, under the watchful look, of the owner, the late Mr. Vladimiros.
The year 2001 was a landmark for me personally. In the ‘WAR & HISTORY’magazine, an extensive report was published for the first time on Greek pilots, or of Greek descent, who flew and fought with other air forces than the Royal Hellenic Air Force (RHAF), under the title ‘GREEKS IN A FOREIGN COCKPITS’. Author of five articles in this magazine, from 2001 to 2002, was Kyriakos Paloulian, a well-known defense journalist, who was a professional light aircraft pilot and trainer, and accredited by the Hellenic Air Force for flights with its fighters.
You can’t imagine how I felt. From the very first article, I contacted the magazine and soon I met Kyriakos Paloulian, exchanging opinions and trying to find a way to participate in the whole project. Since then, our goal has been to collect as much information as possible about all these unknown Hellenes heroes and to write a book that would finally reveal their actions.
The first samples of our work began in 2004 in a word file, with various airplane images and profiles that we found from the internet. At the same time, I was in contact with Robert Vrilakas, the Cretan-parentage pilot of the USAAF with 2 kills and 1 probable to his credit, while flying with 1st Fighter Wing, over North Africa and Italy. Kyriakos had constant correspondence with Steve Pisanos and at the same time we wrote and collected photographs from these two veteran pilots. Nevertheless, we were far away from publishing our own book. In 2007, the monograph of the great Greek RAF ace, Vassilios Vassiliades by Angelos Dalassinos was published in 2007, from a series entitled as ‘ELLINIKA FTERA’ (‘HELLENIC WINGS’) of the ‘DEFENSE LINE’ editions.
We immediately thought that perhaps these monographs would be the way that would allow us to publicize our own research. Indeed, in discussions that we had, the Vrilakas monograph was planned as the 4th or 5th issue of this excellent effort. Unfortunately, after the 4th issue, the project did not proceed further, and along with it, our dream to publish a small part of our research. We didn’t surrender to these shortcomings and kept collecting data, looking for veterans alive, asking the various forums and collecting whatever information that we could draw.
The web searches brought us the third member of our writing and research team. Often in the various forums we saw the name George Chalkiadopoulos to investigate exactly the same things with us. I took the courage to approach him, explain to him the ultimate goal of our venture and ask him if he would like to participate.
At the same time I sent him some of the files I had in my possession, as well as some of the profiles of my good friend, Bertrand Brown, with whom I had already started my collaboration. The response was positive, we trusted each other and soon we exchanged our records, creating a huge database that will partly answer your next question.
With three scholars and writers passionate about the subject, excellent collaborators for profile illustration, digital paintings and paintings with oil and pencil, plus the fact that I decided to teach myself how to set up a book on indesign, it was almost certain, at least for me, that our book was in the right track. If we could have the resources required and of course the publisher then we would succeed. The two volumes certifies that we did it.
How many Greeks fought with the USAAF and the RAF?
The answer cannot be given with precision. Because, Greeks in foreign cockpits, served and continue their service until our days. Right now in our database we have at least 300 names of pilots, bombers, pilots and gunners, from WW1 until today. All of them have definetly a Greek surname. Still more ‘hiding’ behind American surnames. For example “Spears” from the Greek surname “Speropoulos”! The issue is inexhaustible and very interesting.
If you should only choose just one pilot, who would that be and why?
The question is difficult and I really cannot give an answer because for me all of them are special. Everyone in their own way. Of course, I feel a special honor for all the veterans I met alive. Robert Vrilakas was for me the inspiration to keep searching and writing, the man who urged me to overcome my difficulties and keep tracking my target.
Steve Pisanos was the legend I had the honor to shake his hand and interview him. John Lolos was the unveiling of another Greek Ace, while John Kouris, another veteran, still alive, flew over Europe with his Mustang ‘GREECE LIGHTNING’.
Continuing with the greatest Greek pilot, John Agorastos Plagis, with 16 kills. How can I not feel awe when I own the original archive and photographic material of this great ace, entrusted to me by his daughter, Jill Plagis. I could also talk about Harry Coronios and Spiros Karavedas, whose Thunderbolts nose art (‘GREEK’ and ‘GREEK GUERILLA’) will always impress me and make me dream of flying with them over Europe and the South – Western Pacific. I could mention others, equally impressive, but I will keep it as a surprise for the near future.
Which incident impressed you the most and why?
I could refer to many incidents our team has published and many of which are expected to be published. However, so far, the report written by John Plagis for the April 1, 1942 engagements, when he shot down 4 1/2 planes in one day, has actually thrilled me. The writing is so impressive, so live, that it puts you in the scene of action, as if you have made a journey through time and you are there.
You can live it with him! If you read the report, looking in parallel the really amazing painting by George Morris, (which was created as a gift in the form of a pencil drawing to the Greek daughter of Jill Plagis) then you have the action in front of you. It is no coincidence that this reference and this painting was the subject of the cover of the Second Volume.
What is it like, meeting in person a pilot who fought in the skies over 7 decades ago?
I could compare it to the feelings of a little child who has just received his gift from Santa Claus. My questions and their answers are the process of unboxing a gigt. The writing of his life and his career with his help, the creation of the profile of his plane and the drawing of a significant moment of his action on a board, digital or canvas, based on his memories, is the same as when you discover the content, the gift itself.
What is the thing you remember the most?
What I always remember has nothing to do with the pilot himself and his actions, but with the typical question, WHY? WHY do you do this; WHY you are so interested in his story and WHY do you want to honor him by writing about him in your book? But I do not answer them. I give them the opportunity to answer these questions themselves. And alway, judging from the outcome, all those who helped me had already answered the above questions first.
How difficult is it to conduct your research?
Research into American and British records is relatively easy and basic files can be ordered online. However, to get deeper, a visit to the National Archives of both countries is required. Because this is impossible, we hired professional researchers who have access to the respective institutions, and by directing them with as much information we can, they discover the desired files, be it personal military files, or combat reports and photographic material.
An important parameter for recovering files is the written permission of the pilot himself or his relatives. Furthermore we were fortunate to be helped by great researchers and writers in the history of aviation. For the acquaintances, the names Carl Molesworth, Steve Nichols, Frederic Galea, Brian Cull, Jonathan Berstein, Paul Lovell, Robert Watkins, Peter Randal, Nigel Julian and many others. Αlso well known collectors like Jack Cook and Chad Barnes proved valuable for us, by giving us permission to publish photos they had in their possession, a far cry from our own collectors here in Greece.
These people embraced our effort, although our book is not in English language, and helped us both with photographic material and archival material from their own researches. We are really obliged to them. However, researching is an expensive sport although highly rewarding when you look at the result, which is, publishing a book.
Apart from the writers, it is important to refer to our partners who, with their art, gave life to our research. First of all, my friend Bertrand Brown from France. He is the man with the artistic pseudonym Gaetan Marie, the man who draws me the profiles of the airplanes that the Greeks parentage pilots flew as well as those of their rivals.
In the field of digital paintings the excellent Antonis Karidis and Anastasios Polychronis, with many successes in their field of foreign publishing and covers of plastic models companies. In the free hand design on canvas using pencil and oil colors, my very good friend, and also passionate about our research, aviation artist, George Morris . George, beginning from Volume B will create all of our covers, but also some art for the inner pages.
He also draws the paintings we donate to the relatives of the pilots whom we have the honor of knowing in first person, making the beginning with the Plagis and Lambros family. This team is also helped by other friends and colleagues like Markos Danezis and Georgios Santamouris.
At this point I would like to reveal for the first time to you and to your website that the most recognizable Greek aviation artist, Sir Kostas Kavvathias will honor us to participate in the next volume with his own original painting! The recommendations of course are unnecessary.
INFO ON THE TWO VOLUMES OF ‘GREEKS IN FOREIGN COCKPITS’
The combat history of the Royal Hellenic Air Force during WWII is not so well known as that of the Greek Army and Navy.
The stories of the many Greek parentage background pilots that served with the Allied Air Forces, RAF and USAAF remains completely undocumented albeit a few exceptions.
This book documents for the first time in Greek bibliography the service record of ten fighter pilots who honored not only the country that they were born at, but also the birthplace of their ancestors, retaining full knowledge of their Greek background.
The authors aim that this first volume is only the beginning of what would become a complete roll of honor, of all the heroes that remain unlisted from the modern history of Greece. Hopefully the service of these pilots would inspire the younger generations, and especially all the current and future Hellenic Air Force pilots.
Authors: Demetrios Vassilopoulos, Kyriakos Paloulian, George Chalkiadopoulos
330 pages (A4 Format)
Eagle Aviation (2014)
435 Photos with bilingual captions, 48 profiles, 11 digital paintings, 4 paintings, Missions and Victories Tables
Three years after the publication of the first volume of the ‘GREEKS IN FOREIGN COCKPITS’, the second volume is now going to print. Inside its 520 pages, the lives and combat careers of seven more Greek parentage pilots, who fought over Europe, Mediterranean and China during the Second World War, are presented.
Among them is the top ranking Greek ace with sixteen victories, John Agorastos Plagis. His story, like the others, is supported by photos and testimonies not seen before in Greek and international aviation history publications. Along with the great ace from Lemnos, there are chapters featuring Richard Demetriadi (Battle of France and Britain), Harry Zavakos, James Vurgaropulos (both in combat over China), and Theodore Lambros, William Manos and George Kouris (all in action over Normandy and NW Europe).
All chapters also include unpublished photos from the pilots’ personal albums. Oil paintings, pencil sketches, digital paintings and colour profiles of the aircraft flown by the Greek parentage pilots and some of their opponents supplement the historical research. Once again, the extensive research by the writers has not only yielded fruit, it’s exceeded their expectations.
Maintaining the same format as Volume A, and having a quality upgraded cover, the much larger Volume B (190 more pages) is impressive. The captions remain bilingual and comprehensive to allow English-speaking readers to enjoy the photos and artistic depictions, as well as understanding the content of the book to a great extent.
Authors: Demetrios Vassilopoulos, Kyriakos Paloulian, George Chalkiadopoulos
Έκδοση: Eagle Aviation (2017)
520 pages (A4 Format)
560 Photos with bilingual captions, 42 profiles, 8 digital paintings, 5 paintings, Missions and Victories Tables