Issue 15 - Hurricane: A Greek in the RAF Eagle Squadron
By: Norm deWitt
As one of the foreign pilots who flew with the RAF before the American squadrons arrived in England, Spiros ‘Steve’ Pisanos of Greece became a double ace and the first American citizen to be naturalised in an overseas ceremony.
Spiros Pisanos was born in Athens, Greece, in 1919 and it wasn’t long before he became completely infatuated with aviation. But his ambition to become a pilot was frustrated at first. He said: “I first fell in love with aeroplanes when I was young, and when I was 12 years old I was planning to attend the Greek Air Force Academy. Unfortunately, I was so bad in school that I did not have the qualifications to take the exams.” It was time for plan B.
“Near the end of high school, I began to dream about going to America to become an aviator,” he said. “My first attempt was to stow away on the Italian liner Rex when it had arrived in Athens to pick up passengers bound for New York, but they found me.”
Time to commence plan C. Steve said: “Later on I was playing football with my friends and a fellow wanted to join. He was an American from Buffalo, New York, visiting his uncle, who was a friend of my father. I told him about what I had attempted to do on the Italian liner.
“He told me that I would have probably died in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but that there was another way. ‘Get a job on a Greek merchant ship and eventually when that ship arrives in an American port, just jump off, walk away and get yourself to New York. There you will find many Greeks’. So that is exactly what I did. The only places I knew about in America were New York City, Chicago with the gangsters, and the West with the cowboys.”
Pisanos left Greece on March 25, 1938, and jumped ship while docked in Baltimore, Maryland, in the middle of April. He got on to a train bound for New York City.
“I arrived at Pennsylvania Station and when I walked out, honest to God I was crying like a baby that lost its mother at the shopping centre,” he said. “There were Greek and American flags on a small theatre where they were playing the first movie made in Greece, a movie I had seen. Behind me I overheard two gentlemen talking about the movie in Greek.”
Those two brothers he met in front of the theatre brought Pisanos to where they lived in Brooklyn.
“The older brother was a chef, and his friend worked for an employment agency for restaurants and bakeries,” said Steve. “He got me a job at a bakery at 147th St and Broadway that was owned by a Greek family. I went to a recruiting office to join the Army, but they noticed my accent and discovered I wasn’t an American, so they wouldn’t take me.” Trying a different angle now, all of Steve’s spare money went towards taking flying lessons. “There was a flying school at the airfield in Brooklyn, like a flying club. You had to pay 25 dollars… and I started to fly,” he said.
“Unbelievable! Well, I had a friend who told me about how in New Jersey I could pay eight dollars for instruction, and six dollars for solo (Brooklyn was 12 dollars and eight for solo). So, I quit my job and told the employment agency fellow that I needed to move to New Jersey.
“I got a job at the Park Hotel by the Westfield airport, where the cheap flying was. The owner of the hotel was a German guy who had come to America the same way. He had been a waiter on the SS Bremen and when they stopped in New York he said, ‘to hell with this life’.”
Steve impressed the owner to the point that he soon offered to send him to Cornell to learn the hotel business, but Steve wasn’t interested. “I told him the centre of my heart was in the airplanes,” he said. “In late April 1941, the newspaper reported how the Germans were shelling the Greeks in Athens and stealing all the food they could and sending it to Germany. I was really upset and when I got to the airport my instructor spotted me and asked why I looked so angry. I told him what I had seen in the paper and if I could only get my hands on a plane to fight those damned Germans.
“He asked me ‘do you really want to fight the Germans? How would you like to join the RAF? In New York they have a recruiting office at the Waldorf Astoria on the 13th floor, they are looking for aviators. Look for the sign on the door that says The Clayton Knight Committee’.”
It was the HQ for the American Eagle Squadron which had been formed 18 months earlier, with Squadron 71 becoming operational early in 1941, equipped with the Hawker Hurricane. Eventually there were three RAF Eagle Squadrons, the 71, 121 and 133, and by this time some of the earlier issues, such as asking Americans to swear allegiance to the Crown, had been resolved.
Steve said: “My instructor told me to take my licence and logbook, as I had a private licence by that time with 170 hours. I got there and said that I was there to enquire about joining the Royal Air Force, so they introduced me to Squadron Leader George Graves, the man who was in charge of recruiting civilian aviators.
“He informed me that the minimum was 200 hours, and I told him if he would allow me, I’d go back to fly some more and come back later on. Graves said ‘that won’t be necessary’ and he turned to his secretary and asked her to help Mr Pisanos to fill out his application. Then he told me that he would call and let me know.
“I was so happy you have no idea… when I got back to the hotel, I didn’t say anything to anyone. A month later the public phone rang in the dining area and a waiter said ‘Steve, somebody wants you on the phone’. A voice said ‘Mr Pisanos, this is Squadron Leader Graves from New York… you have been accepted to join the Royal Air Force. You need to take a flight check at Flushing Airport and take a physical’. I did the physical and then did my flight check with a Stearman biplane that I had never flown. The old pilot that gave me the check was a First World War fighter pilot. We did some acrobatics, this and that and he didn’t say anything yay or nay.
“After the flight, we sat down for coffee. I was so damn anxious to hear from the guy… and then he said ‘for never having flown that aircraft before, you did very well my boy. You are going to the Polaris flight academy where you’ll get some more training’. I asked the guy behind the counter to give us some apple pie with ice cream, I was so happy! This was in October of 1941.
“Now I was faced with… how do I tell my good German boss Albert Stender, who had helped me so much? I went to his office and told him that I had joined the Royal Air Force and that I was going to England to probably fight the German air force. He got up and came around to where I was sitting and said ‘Steve, I have never approved of what Hitler and all his gang have done to Germany, my country. Germany is in my heart like Greece is in your heart. I want you to go there and give Hitler and his pals hell’.
“He had a big shindig for me with the newspapers about the boy from the Park Hotel who has joined the RAF… it was unbelievable. When I was over in England, you wouldn’t believe all the packages of cookies and things I received from his wife. In November, I reported to the Polaris flight academy.”
Soon it was off to England and flying with the RAF. Steve said: “I was with the 268 Squadron, flying the Hurricane, P-40s, and P-51s with the Allison engine, not the later model with the Rolls-Royce engine. Well, one day I got a phone call from a wing commander of the Greek Air Force and he told me that he wanted me to come to London and that he needed to talk to me.
“I told my flight commander, who said ‘you’d better go then’. This Wing Commander Kinatos was the aide to King George, who was also staying at this hotel since he escaped from Greece when the Germans invaded. The wing commander told me how many of the Greek Air Force pilots had escaped to Egypt, Malta, and Cyprus.
“To find his pilots he had sent his people to the Air Ministry for a list of every pilot in the RAF, to pick out the Greek names. I told him that I belonged to an RAF squadron here and that if I survived the war, I wanted to go back to America. He was getting kind of angry, telling me that I was a Greek soldier and that I had to go to Egypt… when I had nothing to do with the Greek Air Force.
“I walked out and figured I’d better go to the Eagle Club where the manager was Mrs Dexter, an American lady who had gone to England. I told her that I needed to talk to Squadron Leader Chesley Peterson, the commander of the 71st Eagle Squadron, who I’d met before. She got him on the phone, and I told him that I needed to speak with him about something important.
“So, I met him at the Regent Palace Hotel by Picadilly Square. He asked me ‘do you want to go to Egypt?’ and I said ‘no sir, I want to stay here in the RAF’. So he told me that he was going to Fighter Command tomorrow, and to let him handle this. The following day, Wing Commander Anderson of 268 Squadron said ‘what is this? I just got a phone call from Fighter Command telling me to release you immediately to report to 71 Eagle Squadron’.
“I got into the 71st Eagle Squadron of the RAF, flying Spitfires V’s in the very beginning of September 1942. Don Gentile was my room mate during the rest of the war, and he ended up with 28 aircraft destroyed – 22 in the air and six on the ground.
“But it was mostly a ‘rhubarb mission’, what in RAF terminology meant strafing locomotives. That and convoy patrol. I destroyed a couple of locomotives in France. When the American Eighth Air Force came over to England, they didn’t have any experienced fighter pilots then. Guys like Doolittle were looking with binoculars for pilots from the Eagle Squadrons – we had combat experience, and with dogfighting.
“The decision was made that the three Eagle Squadrons would transfer over to the Eighth Air Force. I figured that they were not going to take me, as I was not an American. Well, Peterson was the liason officer between the RAF and the Eighth Air Force and he said that they needed every one of us, including me. Well, I went to London to be interviewed, facing three Army Air Force colonels.
“They asked if I lived in America and I said ‘yes sir’ and explained how the RAF had trained me in California. They asked if I intended to go back to America and I answered ‘yes sir’. They asked if I would accept a commission in the United States Army Air Force and that they needed every one of us. I just couldn’t believe it.
“So, I was practising dogfighting with my room mate Gentile in our P-47s. We had to get 30 hours in the aircraft to be considered combat-ready. Over the radio, I was ordered to return to base immediately. There was a staff car waiting for me with Chesley Peterson at the wheel, I was afraid that an order had come from the Greek wing commander that they had to have me in the Greek Air Force.
“Well, the Group Commander Colonel Anderson told me to sit down and called the ambassador at the American Embassy. Now I was afraid they were going to tell me that I could not stay in the air force. Well, the ambassador asked me ‘lieutenant, how would you like to become an American citizen? There is a special envoy from Washington who is here to naturalize about half a dozen of you boys, and we want you to be the first one’.
“I looked at Peterson and he was smiling like nobody’s business. He asked if I was surprised. ‘Surprised? You almost gave me a heart attack, the Greeks wanted me to go to Egypt, I said’.
“On March 3, 1943, because of a recent Act of Congress, Steve Pisanos became the first individual ever in American history to be naturalized as a US citizen outside the borders of the United States.
“Walter Cronkite was there, Ed Murrow was there, Andy Rooney was there… oh my God, Ed Murrow came up to me with that cigarette in his mouth and said ‘lieutenant, what took place this afternoon in this room, I’m going to relate to the American people tonight’.”
America had a new fighter pilot, forever to be known as ‘the flying Greek’. Now flying the P-47 for the Americans in Squadron 334, Pisanos was to become an ace with six confirmed victories.
He said: “My first victory was on May 21, 1943, over Belgium. I got on this Fw 190’s tail and I blasted him. Once, over Belgium, I came down on this damn 109. We found ourselves on the deck and I was still on his tail trying to get into position when out of the corner of my eye I saw these high tension wire towers. Knowing the area, this gentleman was trying to get me to fly into these wires, so I raced my P-47 and barely missed the top wire and got him on the other side.
“I made my report and they went to my aircraft and got the film. The film was completely blank. As far as I’m concerned, I killed that son of a bucket; he blew up right in front of me.”
Steve got no official credit, although he still ended the war with 10 confirmed victories, six with the P-47 and four with the Mustang – a double ace. By 1944, he was to receive a P-51B.
He said: “It was the first one with the Rolls-Royce engine, but it did not have the bubble canopy. It was a good aircraft and I went on the first Berlin mission on March 3, 1944. After the war, I sat next to Adolf Galland at the Paris Air Show. He asked me ‘what kind of airplanes did you fly?’ I told him ‘I don’t fly any more general, but in the war I flew Spitfires with the 71 Eagle Squadron’.
“When I said ‘Spitfire’ I think he went about four inches up in the air. He said ‘my friend… that was Colonel Blakeslee’s organisation, the Fourth Fighter Group, 1016 victories. We knew him well in the Luftwaffe; he was one of the greatest aerial commanders. You know, when we learned that (Hubert) Zemke was shot down, I was in Berlin that day and told the marshal that if we could get this fellow (Don) Blakeslee, our problems with the Americans would be over’. Truthfully, looking back, they were the two greatest commanders we had, Zemke and Blakeslee.”
Blakeslee was grounded in September 1944, and it has been said that he flew more missions than any other American pilot of the war. By then, Steve Pisanos was similarly out of action, through entirely different circumstances. On May 5, 1944, while on a return flight after logging additional victories against Bf 109s while flying bomber escort, Pisanos was forced down behind enemy lines with mechanical problems.
Ironically it had been the same day that future aviation legend Chuck Yeager was shot down further south in France. Steve joined up with the French Resistance and participated in missions against the occupying German forces until that summer when the Allied armies reached his position in Paris. In 2010, he received the French Legion of Honor in a ceremony held in San Diego to honour his service as both a fighter pilot in the skies over France and his later efforts with the French Resistance.
Steve said: “I’ve been asked ‘of the aircraft that you flew, which one did you prefer?’ Well, the Hurricane was a good aircraft and if you recall your history, during the Battle of Britain it got more victories than the Spitfire. After I flew the Hurricane my instructor in the operational training unit (before Pisanos joined the 268 Squadron), who had 13 victories in the Battle of Britain, asked me, ‘how did you like it?’ I said that it was the best fighter I had ever flown. His response was ‘wait until you fly the Spitfire’.
“If you wanted me to defend San Diego against enemy bombers or what-have-you I’ll take the Spitfire. For aerial combat, the Spitfire was number one. Now if you wanted me to intercept a train full of enemy soldiers, east of San Diego, I’ll take the P-47. If you wanted me to escort bombers up to San Francisco, I’ll take the Mustang.”
After the liberation of Paris, Pisanos was transferred back to the United States for his new role as test pilot.
He said: “In October 1944, after I had returned from France, I went to the Park Hotel in New Jersey to see my friends there. You have no idea – the entire hotel staff had come out to see Lt Pisanos who had come back from the war with 10 victories. They had a big dinner, the mayor, the chief of police, even the mayors from the surrounding cities were there – unbelievable.
“They wouldn’t let me fly again in France, so they sent me to Wright field to test enemy aircraft – the Me 262, the radial Fw 190s, the Bf 109 and the Zero. I was a test pilot along with my good friend Don Gentile. Then, after the war, it was Chuck Yeager, Bob Hoover and me. When Colonel Bill Councill set the records in the Shooting Star going from West to East, actually I was supposed to fly the thing. I had like 100 something hours in the YP-80 program.”
He was later to be involved in the testing of other planes, such as the Delta Dagger and after further service flying in Vietnam, Colonel Pisanos retired in 1974.
Steve said: “The Eagle Squadron Association made up of those of us who served in the Eagle Squadrons 71, 121, and 133 – we made this museum, the San Diego Air & Space Museum, our home. Back in 1980-something, the president said ‘you know, we don’t have a Spitfire’. So, we prepared a letter and sent it to the Air Ministry. An Air Marshal came right back and said that ‘we have a Spitfire for you boys, but we need a favour, we don’t have a Mustang for our museum’.
“Where on earth were we going to get a Mustang? So, what we decided to do was to collect parts of a Mustang. We got the propeller from Australia, the engine from San Francisco, a wing from a Mustang that had crashed... well, we got this fellow with a big garage in El Cajon, and he knew about putting airplanes together.”
There were huge challenges ahead for the Eagles. Steve said: “The biggest guy who helped us was the President of Federal Express, Fred Smith. He gave us $50,000. So, we put the Mustang together and went to the air force and asked them, but some guy came back and said ‘we can’t do it, if Congress finds out we’ve done this, they’ll raise the dickens’. So, it was back to our friend Fred Smith.
“He sent a 747 to Miramar where we loaded the Mustang into boxes after we took it back apart and flew it to England. They got the Spitfire and brought it back.”
That Spitfire now sits next to the Eagle Squadron display at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Steve Pisanos has had a long life and an incredible adventure.
“Of course, this is a wonderful country,” he said. “It is a country that believes in freedom, opportunity, equality and promise, and that’s exactly what Uncle Sam did for me.” One might add ‘with a little help from the Royal Air Force’.