Several years ago while working on a project for The San Diego Veteran’s Museum, I had the honor to meet Col. Steve Pisanos (USAF, ret.). Steve was in his early 90s and lived in Rancho Bernardo with his wonderful wife Sofia. He was working on a biography which has since been published: The Flying Greek” (Potomac Books, April 2008).
Steve is my hero of the month for June. He passed away on June 6th after a long and extraordinary life, full of vigor until almost the end of his 96 years, preceded in death by his beloved Sofia. You just had to meet the man to see the sparkle in his eyes and the joy in his heart. And he was physically and mentally as tough as they come.
His story is another chapter in the American Dream fulfilled.
Steve was born in Athens, Greece in 1919, the son of a subway motorman. Steve was fascinated with airplanes from an early age but had no hope of flying. In 1938 at the age of 18 he got a job on a cargo ship picking up ore from Algeria and delivering it to Baltimore. Pisanos had never heard of the city and didn’t know anyone there. When the ship dropped anchor off Maryland, he talked his way onto a boat and arrived in Baltimore, bought a train ticket to New York City and arrived with $4 in his pocket.
He was taken in by a Greek theater owner whom he happened to overhear talking to a friend, was given a job at the theater, and saved his money for English lessons and flying lessons. After taking flying lessons at Floyd Bennett Field in Long Island and Westfield Airport in New Jersey, he earned his pilot’s license. Shortly thereafter, he was picked up for immigration violations, but had the good fortune of being deemed a refuge because Germany invaded Greece in 1941. While the United States was still neutral, the British were allowed to recruit American volunteers to fly for the RAF, which at the time was desperately short of pilots because of attrition from The Battle of Britain, and Steve signed up. He quickly completed his fighter training and was assigned to an RAF squadron at Newmarket, flying P-51s. After about a year of combat, he later transferred to one of three Eagle Squadrons in the RAF, comprised of American volunteers flying Spitfires. Initially, Steve flew Spitfires over occupied France on ground attack missions for the RAF.
The Eagle Squadrons were eventually absorbed into the USAAF in 1942. In May 1943 Pisanos became the first individual in American history to become a naturalized citizen on foreign soil, in London at a ceremony attended by Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, who became a life-long friend. Cronkite later said Steve was the most interesting man he ever met and wrote the foreword for his book.
Pisanos scored his first victory by shooting down a German FW-190 over Ghent, Belgium in May 1943. By January 1944 he had become an ace with five confirmed victories. In March 1944, he obtained his 10th victory. That same month, while returning from escort duty for B-17s over Bordeaux France his plane developed engine trouble and he was forced to crash land south of LeHavre. Despite a dislocated shoulder and head injury, Steve evaded German soldiers and managed to eventually hook up with the French Resistance. The resistance offered to help him escape to Spain (the same day Chuck Yeager was shot down over France and walked over the Pyrenees with help from the Resistance), but Steve declined to do so and instead, spent the next six months fighting with the Resistance, helping sabotage trains and other operations near Paris. He was still there when Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944. For the last year of the war, he was flight-testing captured German airplanes to analyze their performance and help the USAAF.
After the war, Steve flew Lockheed Constellations for TWA but eventually went back into the Air Force as a test pilot and served with distinction in Vietnam, retiring in 1974 after 30 years of active duty.
You would truly have to read his book to do his life justice, but let me just add a few noteworthy achievements: 33 decorations and distinctions, including designation as an American Ace, five Distinguished Flying Crosses, the French Legion of Honor, and the last survivor of the Eagle Squadrons. Steve spent his sunset years speaking to groups all over the country, emphasizing his love for America, while living a modest life in San Diego.
Steve, you were certainly one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation and you will be greatly missed by all who knew you: a shinning example of courage and patriotism for the ages. God Bless You. — Jim