99-year old Greek Immigrant Peter Poulos leapt to action following “Day of Infamy”. These days he volunteers to help other veterans.
Vet Peter Poulos looks back
We recently had the opportunity to meet with U.S. Army veteran Peter Poulos. He spoke about his exploits in the Southeast Pacific, helping other vets, and about turning 100.
Peter Poulos enlists in the U.S. Army
The year is 1940 and the USA has yet to enter World War II. Twenty-four-year-old Chicagoan Peter Poulos, an immigrant from Greece, watches intently as his former homeland Greece becomes the first nation to openly defy Germany in what later became known as ‘Oxi Day‘ (translation: “No”). On a quiet Sunday, December 7, 1941, a Japanese bomber squadron decimates almost the entire American Pacific naval fleet in an hours-long ambush attack of Pearl Harbor. US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declares it “a day that will live in infamy,” and America goes to war against Axis powers Japan, Germany, and Italy. Immediately, the fired-up Peter volunteers for the US Army.
“I had the idea they’d send me to Greece to fight Nazis. They asked me where I was from and I said Chicago. They said we’ve got the perfect place for you. Little did I know I’d wind up island hopping in the Pacific.”
Peter (no relation to this writer) eventually rose to the rank of Gunnery Sergeant, Company A, 58th Battalion. His bravery and heroism were rewarded with three Bronze Stars.
An Illinois legend
Peter is revered at Hines Veterans Administration Hospital in Maywood, IL, the nation’s largest such facility, and he’s an Illinois legend. He’s been volunteering at Hines for 33 years and he’s now the oldest living veteran who frequents the facility. Whether assisting veterans with myriad tasks, errands or paperwork, helping someone out of bed on occasion, or providing companionship to lonely vets, Peter remains on patrol.
Peter spoke about his volunteer work in a 2010 Chicago Tribune interview.
“These guys don’t go home at night like I can. You don’t know the meaning of freedom, until you see someone who has lost it.”
While he’s nearing 100, he’s still full of energy. Peter told WindyCity Greek that he just has to keep moving.
“I can’t watch TV. I have to do something with my hands. I have to fix things, whether it be things or people.”
His exploits and selflessness are well-chronicled. In addition to the Tribune and other publications, Peter was interviewed on TV and once had a standing offer to sit with Frank Sinatra whenever the famous crooner visited Chicago. Former President George W. Bush once met with Peter for an hour.
“He asked my secret to longevity. I told him, `Mr. President, I can’t tell you. It’s a military secret’.”
About his life
Perhaps it’s his Greek diet and genes, or nightly glass of wine that keeps him going. The Tripoli native came to America at age seven, arriving with his parents, Gus and Madeline. The family left Greece to find opportunity following WWI. They moved to Chicago’s south side near the steel mills and later settled in west suburban Elmwood Park. His siblings include Nick, Jim, Helen, Bessie, and Madeline.
Beginning at age 13, Peter worked for his father for a decade, then joined the army.
“My dad had a horse and wagon and was selling produce at South Water Market.”
His military service led to a career with the US Postal Service as he was one of a few who could navigate the military surplus postal Jeeps. He joked about his tenure with the post office.
“I got stuck there for 31 years.”
But first, he was stuck in the jungle for four years.
“They rushed us right out in August of ’42. We were among the first wave at Guadalcanal, an amphibious landing. Then came New Guinea, Bougainville, and the Sullivan Islands. I was with the battalion that escorted (General Douglas) MacArthur when we liberated the Philippines — including some of our own boys who were in the Bataan Death March.”
About the war
When asked if there was any joy amidst war, the three of us (we were accompanied by Project Join Us official Diana Anastazia, who arranged the interview) all shed tears as Peter recounted the faces of the Philippine captives they liberated. His voice broke as he spoke, often hesitating, as he recalled the events.
“Seeing them up in the mountains, cheering `Americans,’ and throwing flowers and coconuts — it was the greatest moment I can remember.”
Peter was also at VJ Day for the Japanese surrender and was personally charged with collecting enemy weapons. Not only did he have to dodge rounds from those weapons, he battled the rifle itself.
“A Japanese soldier jumped out of a tree with a bayonet. I grabbed it and pushed him away, then shot him with my sidearm. My hand was badly cut. He fell onto me and I didn’t have the strength to push him off because I was suffering malaria. He died on top of me. The mosquitos at times were as much a threat as the enemy. But we never stopped to think, it was kill or be killed. I still try to forget, though it’s hard.”
Things were easier when his late wife, the former Julie Verviniotis, was still around.
“I have too much time alone now to think, and it scares me. I start to think back to the jungle. Especially at night. Like a rerun movie. Nightmares. It wakes you up and you can’t go back to sleep. It’s starting to wear off a little. It was different when Julie was here.”
In a twist of fate, Peter met his wife indirectly due to the war.
He once told the Tribune‘s Ron Grossman about the strange coincidence that led to meeting his wife.
Grossman wrote: “During a battle in the Philippines, Peter saw a tank, nicknamed `Snafu,’ get hit and a soldier jumped out, his clothing on fire. Peter took off his uniform jacket and smothered the flames, saving the soldier whose name he didn’t know. After the war, Peter stopped by a confectionary at Irving Park and Kedzie and got to swapping war stories with the clerk, who said his tank was shot up in the Philippines.”
Turns out, it was the same person. Shortly thereafter, Peter met the man’s family, including his “pretty sister, Julie.”
In another example of how small the world can be, during the war Peter met a soldier named Anthony Czerwien, who later authored POW: Tears That Never Dry. Years later, during a chance encounter at Hines, the two recognized one another immediately and began a close correspondence. Peter helped Czerwien filter through a final title for his book.
100 years young
On December 23, Peter will turn 100 years young. He’s still got the wits and mind of many half his age and the body of those 10-to-20 years his junior. He has a long, distinguished record serving his country and fellow soldiers, and led an exemplary life. He didn’t get to fight Nazis in Greece. His fate was to deliver a thundering “Oxi” in the Southeast Pacific and because of that he found a beautiful wife and life.