USAAF

B-17G FLYING FORTRESS PILOT

351st BOMBARDMENT GROUP / 511th BOMBARDMENT SQUADRON

 

Second Lieutenant George J. Pappas was born in Caldwell, Texas in 1916, to Greek immigrant parents who arrived in the United States via Ellis Island, New York, seeking a better life and refuge from the oppression of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire both in Greece and in Asia Minor. His father John G. Pappas was from Moutsounitsa in the Fokida district in Greece while his mother Georgia Pappas was from Halkidiki, then under Turkey occupation and end up in Thessaloniki  The family eventually settled in Houston with his father John, who engaged in the restaurant business, where usually Greeks excelled. He was the oldest of 4 boys (Nick, Victor, and Thames), and the family was fiercely proud of its new homeland and citizenship. George loved to fly, and his patriotism and desire to serve the country that welcomed his parents and brothers never waned throughout his life. His beloved wife, Ella (“Pug”), had a similar Greek immigrant story and her father ran a confectionery candy store both in Houston. He attended Texas A&M and the University of Houston, before deciding to join the Army a year before Pearl Harbor. On November 25, 1940, he entered active duty and initially served briefly in the cavalry at Brownsville, Texas, before receiving his commission at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He later opted to attend flight training and an eventual assignment with the Army Air Corps. On January 7, 1944, he graduated from pilot training at Columbus, Mississippi, and received his wings. Later, Pappas arrived in England on June 2, 1944, as a B-17 bomber pilot, where he was assigned as a co-pilot with the 511th Bombardment Squadron, 351st Bombardment Group at Polebrook, England. In a similar way, two of his younger brothers also served during the war, both in the US Marine Corps. Corp. Victor Pappas was a veteran of the Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan battles while Corp. Thames Pappas was a radioman in the USMC Air Corps.


SHOT DOWN & POW

On August 6, 1944, Pappas’ B-17 was one of 39 aircraft comprising the 351st Bomb Group’s Mission #185 attack on the Daimler-Benz Motor Works in Genshagen, Germany. This was the aircraft’s fourth mission. Each B-17 carried ten (10) General-Purpose 500-pound bombs and one marker bomb. The first plane took off at 07:10; the last by 0810. Approximately 4 hours later, at 12:24, Pappas’ plane and the others in its group dropped their bombs over the target. Then, tragedy struck. Immediately upon dropping its bomb load, Pappas’ aircraft was hit by flak. 1st Lt. Wilson R. Strange was piloting Pappas’ aircraft. Wilson directed Pappas to check the fire in the bomb bay, caused by the flak, and report back to him.  The stricken aircraft was flying at 22,000 feet when Pappas arose from his pilot’s seat and took off his oxygen mask. In his handwritten note, he mentioned.

"All I remember is leaving my position to check the fire in the bomb bay as instructed to do by the first pilot. Then he saw how critical the situation was, and he banged the alarm to bail out. Due to taking my oxygen mask off to put on a walk-around bottle & he (1st pilot) sounding the alarm. I put on my parachute & at the same time motioning to the navigator to jump. All I remember is getting to the hatch & coming to about 9,000 ft & opened my ‘chute. The engineer told me later that the plane blew up after he left. I was in Germany for a day & half, trying to get to France. After captured, I was told by the German interrogator that the bodies of the pilot, navigator, and waist gunner were found."

 

A tail gunner in another B-17 flying below and near Pappas’ plane later testified in an official report MACR7587

"Just after bombs away (sic) I noticed Lt. Strange's plane [Pappas’ aircraft] above me was on fire, which had been started by flak or fighters as both were present. He stayed in formation for five (5) minutes or more before falling out and was under control. Then he sideslipped over to the left and three (3) parachutes came out. Shortly afterward, he went into a spin and the plane exploded in mid-air. I saw the pieces fly in all directions. I heard nothing on VHF."

As this airman stated, Lieutenant Strange did not get out, and neither did the navigator nor the left waist gunner; all were instantly killed when the aircraft exploded. However, in addition to the three parachutes seen by the witness, above, another three members of the crew did manage to bail out, as well. In all, of the nine-man crew on board that day, Pappas and five others survived. Pappas regained consciousness at 9,000 feet and had the presence of mind to pull his rip cord. His parachute opened normally and landed safely between trees, not far from Berlin. Upon assessing his situation and regaining his wits, he immediately started back towards the French border, 250 kilometers (150 miles) away. For a day and a half, he moved west, until captured by German civilians, who treated him rather well, considering the by now incessant Allied bombing. The Germans took him to a beer garden where they provided him with two glasses of beer and some black bread. Pappas later remarked that “I had not eaten in nearly two days, and it (the black bread) was better than the bread rationed to us later in prison.” Afterward, he was turned over to a Luftwaffe motor policeman and put in a cell in a German cadet school. The next day, fortunately, he was joined by the tail gunner from his plane, who had been wounded in both arms by flak.


STALAG LUFT III

Pappas was transported to Stalag Luft III on August 8 to begin his captivity. Stalag Luft III was a German Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war camp designed and built to hold captured Western Allied airmen. Located in Sagan, Germany (now Poland), the camp was situated approximately 100 miles southwest of Berlin. German officials had selected the site specifically because its sandy soil would make it more difficult for POWs to escape by tunneling. Ironically, Stalag Luft III witnessed two escape plots by Allied POWs, one of which provided the basis for the fictionalized movie “The Great Escape”, filmed in 1963 and starring Steve McQueen. Second Lieutenant George J. Pappas, U.S. Army Air Forces, was incarcerated at Stalag Luft III for five months. Under the laws of war, the Germans allowed the International Red Cross to provide each prisoner with a diary and a pencil. Pappas promptly began recording his experiences in the camp. On the cover page of the diary, Pappas wrote, "To Pug: My Wife; I dedicate this diary—with Love". He ended every entry with "Good Nite Pug" or "Good Nite Love" in adoration of his beloved wife, Ella. Coincidentally, the first dated entry in Pappas’s diary, August 21, 1944, is also the day a telegram from the Adjutant General arrived at his home in Houston, Texas informing Ella that 2LT Pappas "has been reported Missing in Action since six August over Germany...". Precisely two weeks later, on September 4, Ella received a subsequent telegram informing her that "your husband, Second Lieutenant George J. Pappas is a Prisoner of War of the German government". 

Pappas’s diary provides a valuable and fascinating insight into the life of a POW in more ways than one. It is filled with a dynamic and riveting narrative. In what is basically a preamble, he wrote “this camp contains all nationalities—Polish, Greeks, French, English, S. Africans, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, and Americans. It has all sorts of sports—a theater with plays and films. Pappas was in the same room along with the Greek Hurricane pilot of the No.336 (RHAF) Squadron, Spiros Diamantopoulos and with another Greek, Pilot Officer Zaharias Spendos, a member of British SOE and frequently had time together. During his stay there he also met the Greek American B-17 pilot, Constantine Karamberis, and Greek Australian Lancaster Mid-Upper Gunner, Pilot Officer Diomede Alexandratos. His Greek heritage created a strong bond between all four presumably.  Food is furnished by Red Cross and the rest by Germans. Potatoes, carrots, and cabbage are the only vegetables furnished by the Germans. Also ham, sugar, bread, oatmeal, and barley. Each room has a small garden. He noted that "all POWs are called 'Kriegies'". Pappas provided detailed accounts of the daily activities of prison camp life, with its attendant boredom and moments of German intrigue at keeping the prisoners on edge.

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George J. Pappas photo during his training, probably in a photo for his Class Yearbook (Dean Pappas)
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George smiles for the camera after a successful training flight with a Beechcraft AT-10 Wichita, a twin-engine trainer used for pilots destined to fly multi-engine bombers or transports. (Dean Pappas)
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Lt. Strange's crew pose in an official photo probably during their tour in England, with a B-17G as a background. George Pappas is on the back row, standing second from the right with Lt. Strange right beside him, second from the left. The crew flew together 15 missions (Lt. Strange flew one more while flying as a Co-pilot to another crew to gain experience) before their bomber was shot down by flak. Being a Co-pilot was a crucial task for the Flying Fortress operation. According to B-17 Pilot Training Manual -1943 for airplane commanders regarding co-pilots: "Always remember that the copilot is a fully trained, rated pilot just like yourself. He is subordinate to you only by virtue of your position as the airplane commander. The B-17 is a lot of airplane; more airplane than any one pilot can handle alone over a long period of time. Therefore, you have been provided with a second pilot who will share the duties of flight operation.Treat your copilot as a brother pilot. Remember that the more proficient he is as a pilot, the more efficiently he will be able to perform the duties of the vital post he holds as your second in command." (Dean Pappas)
The B-17G-65-BO Fortress 43-37533 was delivered to Cheyenne Army Airfield, a completion and modification center for B-17s on April 26, 1944, and force landed in Wyoming on May 1, 1944. After the needed repairs it was flown to USAAF Training Base in Lowry on May 10, 1944, and back to Cheyenne on June 16, 1944, before being transferred to Kearney Army Airfield on June 27, 1944. On July 7, 1944, it flew to Dow Field in Maine and prepared for a transatlantic flight to Britain, in order to be assigned to an 8th Air Force Group. On July 17, 1944, it was assigned to the 511th BS, 351st BG based in Polebrook, and received the DS-G identification letters. It was shot down over Brandenburg on August 6, 1944, with Wilson Strange at the controls and George Pappas as his Co-pilot. Direct flak hit set fire to the bomb bay, and the bomber exploded soon after and crashed in Treuenbrietzen, SW of Berlin. The pilot, the navigator, Frank Booth, and the gunner Ed Prokop were Killed in Action. George along with bombardier Otis Smith, the flight engineer/top turret gunner Ken Barlow, the radio operator, Ross Morell the ball turret gunner Lionel Zeigler and the tail gunner Don Killoran parachuted to safety and quickly were taken POWs (Missing Air Crew Report 7587). There is also another interesting story about 43-37533.  The Boeing B-17G-70-BO Fortress 43-37716 was the 5000th Boeing-built Fortress built in Seattle since Pearl Harbor. Christened by Mrs. Gertride Aldrich who was a Boeing worker who had lost her son in a B-17 on Mar 13, of that year. She broke a bottle of champagne against the chin turret. The plane was autographed by workers from the Boeing plant. By the end of the war it had completed 78 missions plus 2 food missions and two POW trips but when it returned back it was cut up for scrap before it could be used as a memorial. However, according to Dave Osborne's lists, there is a strong possibility that the actual 5000th Fortress was the fateful 43-37533 flown by Pappas the day he was shot down. (Profile by Bertrand Brown, further information from Dave Osborne, B-17 Fortress Master Log, and Chris Brame in http://www.warbirdinformationexchange.org/)
Diamantopoulos
Spiros Diamantopoulos was the Squadron Leader of the No.336 (RHAF) Squadron. He was shot down while flying his Hurricane KZ598 during Operation "Sociable" while flying a mission in Crete. He was taken prisoner and held at Stalag Luft III taking part in the Great Escape. He was arrested while entering the tunnel. Spiros was a roommate to George and both were spending their time together along with Zaharias Spendos. (HAF)
Spendos
Zaharias Demetrios Spendos was a Merchant Marine radioman who was recruited by Royal Hellenic Air Force in order to train radiomen for its bombers. He was promoted to Pilot Officer but he always want to fight. He was trained in Para units and he entered British SOE as a Greek Officer. He was captured during a mission in Corfu, he managed to escape while in Italy but he was recaptured and sent to the Stalag Luft III. George Pappas frequently spent his time with Zaharias and Spiros Diamantopoulos. (George Spendos)
Caraberis
John Caraberis was another B-17 Greek American pilot (who will be covered in the near future) who was shot down over Italy and held in Stalag Luft III. John was able to escape initially his captors and help his crew and other allied aviators to flee in safety,  working with the local underground resistance. For his contribution to the rescue of so many aviators disregarding his own safety, he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. John and George met each other and John signed his famous dog tag page. (USAAF)
Diomedes 2a
Diomede Alexander was a RAAF Pilot Officer and Mid-Upper Gunner on a No.460 (RAAF) Squadron Lancaster. After his aircraft was shot down he was captured and sent to Stalag Luft III where he met George Pappas. Their common Greek heritage acted as a strong bond between them as it did also with Spiros, Zaharias, and John. For more information regarding Alexandratos click the following link: https://www.greeks-in-foreign-cockpits.com/pilots-crews/gunners/diomede-alexandratos/ (Dean Pappas)

Three main topics dominate the 42 pages of narrative entries in Pappas’s diary: homesickness and being so far away from loved ones, food, and the weather. Overall, and not surprisingly, the prisoners were perpetually homesick, mostly hungry, and endured severe cold starting in the early fall. While throughout his narrative Pappas’ cheerfulness, resourcefulness, and resiliency abound, there are understandably moments where he expresses the sad, harsh reality of his plight and laments his fate. On August 28, a week after his first entry, he expressed unhappily that, "[it] looks like rain...it makes one feel blue— here we are in this forsaken place and loved ones far away—so one can’t help but feel blue— patience is the greatest obsession now...".  He learned quickly the unpleasant realities of prisoner life, particularly regarding food. While it seems that, overall, the guards in Stalag Luft III treated the prisoners relatively humanely, the food ration was meager and bland. Red Cross packages were highly prized. Pappas initially noticed that some prisoners would save a little of their food, especially some tastier items, for special occasions. However, eventually, the Germans started seizing leftovers. On November 22, Pappas wrote bitterly that "Had a big breakfast—bread pudding—jam and bread— everyone is eating—bashing all food by Friday—goons will confiscate all extra food Saturday—our Xmas food went to Hell—all that saving for nothing—we will get rations daily and must be consumed daily or we lose leftover food." 

In addition to his lengthy and vivid account of routine life in the camp, Pappas’ diary also contains 44 pages of miscellaneous material that is amusing, informative, and philosophical. On the very first page following his last dated diary entry, he wrote an ode to his three comrades killed in his aircraft’s explosion. Entitled "To Members of the Best Crew", he paid homage to their dedication and sacrifice. He was a talented and meticulous artist; there are some sketches that rival those appearing in magazines of the day, such as the New Yorker or the Saturday Evening Post. They include one of furniture, another of Disney cartoon characters, and another, with four-leaf clovers surrounding it, of a woman’s crossed, shapely legs—no question Ella’s. Pappas also drew one of an airman, obviously him, falling from a burning aircraft. It’s labeled "Berlin, Aug 6, 1944".  The entries also include prisoner poems, which he titled "Poems written by Kriegies", as well as multiple pages of fellow prisoner addresses and signatures. Again, using his drawing skills, he penciled in a few pages of blank "dog tags", where his POW colleagues could then insert their personal information and addresses, for posterity. He clearly valued the camaraderie of his fellow captives; the diary also has two pages for fellow POW signatures, just like a high school yearbook. He honored his fellow surviving crew members by having a page titled "The Lucky Ones" for the six of them who made it out. Somehow, he obtained maps; there are five small maps of central Europe in the back of the diary. Constantly hungry, Pappas committed the bulk of his musings to food--and he was specific about it. One entry gives the "Weekly German Rations per Man, March 6, 1945", while another outline, in detail, the contents of an American Red Cross Parcel, "10 LBS—Net". He devoted several pages to the meals he intended to enjoy once back home. One lengthy, notable entry--in particular--was labeled "My Meals When I get Home." He laid out a precise menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, carefully adding "All Greeks like olive oil (virgin) imported from Greece" and that "Hope to get home to enjoy all this—as the menu above will be eaten on the first day of arrival home." He wanted to ensure there was no misunderstanding about his food preferences, also offering his "Second" and "Third Favorite Meal". Lastly, once more reflecting his close affiliation with his fellow POWS, he included a page listing "Kriegie"—prisoner—recipes, which included such delicacies as “Prune Tart” and “Barley Cake”.

Pappas spent only five months at Stalag Luft III. Thus, the second half of his diary narrative spans the period from his departure from Sagan until his liberation and departure for home. By January 1945, the Russian advance was threatening eastern Germany. On January 27, the prisoners received orders to move, which started that day. It was a miserable experience. Upon leaving Stalag Luft III, the prisoners marched 34 miles over a period over five days, during which Pappas experienced severe blistering and swollen feet, as well as a sprained ankle. The POWs arrived at a train station and later boarded a train. On February 4, he wrote, “...left for Nuremberg—about 250 km from Switzerland—issued food parcels—stayed 2 nites (sic) and a day on the train—what a mess—rumors flying around—defecate and urinate best we could—passed a lot of towns.”  The new camp in Nuremberg was dismal and filthy compared to the relative comfort of Stalag Luft III. By this point in the war, the German effort was crumbling, resources were constrained, and more and more POWs were being crammed into Pappas’ camp. He complained of crowding, sparse food, the lack of hot water and medical supplies, and noted that “we live like pigs...everything is scarce...WAR is hell—Hell couldn’t be any worse than this.” Yet, while lamenting the declining standards of living and daily misery, Pappas’ innate optimism could not be restrained. As the weeks went by, he commented often on increasing Allied bombing. By mid-March, his entries became noticeably more positive: Red Cross food parcels were increasing, the weather was improving, and the prisoners sensed that the tide was perceptibly changing in their favor. On March 26, an obviously buoyant Pappas noted “...war looks good; food is secondary now—plenty to eat—cakes and pies. Everything is looking good—maybe home before long—in 12 days' time lots (sic) have happened—bombing on all sides...”

On April 15, the Germans uprooted the prisoners yet again to move away from the incessant Russian advance. Eventually, after marching 69 miles in 12 days, the prisoners reached Moosburg. Pappas remained upbeat, even jubilant; he obviously believed that the end of his nightmarish existence was near an end. On the day the prisoners left Nuremberg, he wrote “...weather has been lovely—Red Cross parcels have been issued every 2 days—potatoes are plentiful—egg, bread & flour. Ate my first piece of ham—ate out of dishes & in a kitchen. German people have been very nice to us...”. Later, after being on the road once more for a few days and stopping in Mulhausen, he added, “we had all the potatoes we could eat & candy—had my first fresh egg there since I was shot down.” All his entries during this march comment on the daily presence of friendly bombers and fighters and how a few times fighter aircraft flew low over the column to cheer the POWs. The prisoners knew it wouldn’t be long now. On April 29, 1945, in Moosburg, Germany, American forces liberated Pappas’ camp. Under the heading of “The Great Day”, he exclaimed,” What a day--Today we are “free”—a long-awaited word—Home soon...”. He didn’t have long to wait. Pappas departed for France aboard a C-47 on May 9. At 6 PM on May 19 he was aboard a troop transport bound for Boston. His last narrative entry is dated May 20, 1945. Unquestionably, Pappas was aching to get back home and to his cherished Ella, and his impatience and boredom must have been overwhelming; he wrote tersely, “Sea’s rough today—been in the sack all day—have a long voyage home—12 days—monotonous.” Ten days later, Ella received a message from the War Department on May 30 informing her that “your husband, 2LT Pappas George J has arrived in the United States”. They were reunited shortly thereafter.

Upon his return home, Lieutenant George J. Pappas enjoyed a sixty-day leave, after which he was debriefed, out-processed from the service, and was discharged on Christmas Eve, December 1945. LT Pappas served in the U.S. Army for 58 months, in the European Theater of Operations for twelve months, ten as a prisoner of war. The diary he has left us is an extraordinary account of life as a German POW during the maelstrom of the war’s final months. It is also a deeply philosophical and fascinating memoir of a noble young man whose humility, resilience, patriotism, and love of family during a period of deprivation and hardship serves as an inspiration for us all.  After the war, 2LT Pappas returned home and, like most of the Greatest Generation, said very little to either family or friends about his wartime experiences, preferring to start a business and raise 3 children with his beloved Ella. He was an avid golfer and umpired baseball at the high school and college levels. Health issues prevented his re-enlistment for the Korean War. He died in 1978 after a serious illness. His family remembers him as a Soldier and patriot, through and through.

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Ella Pappas, the wife of George Pappas, also of Greek heritage, presents the Silver Wings to her husband after completing his flight training and being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. (Dean Pappas)
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George Pappas POW identity card during his captivity in Stalag Luft III. (Dean Pappas)
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Telegram to Ella Pappas referring to her hunsband status as MIA. (Dean Pappas)
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Letter from George to Ella posted from Stalag Luft III. (Dean Pappas)

GEORGE J. PAPPAS POW DIARY SAMPLE PAGES

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GEORGE J. PAPPAS COMBAT MISSIONS

MISSION
NUMBER
MISSION
DATE
GROUP MISSION
NUMBER
BOMBER
SERIAL & NOSEART
TARGET
107-07-1944165B-17G, 42-97492
DS-B, 'Slow Ball'
Leipzig Germany
Aircraft plant
208-07-1944166B-17G, 43-37524
DS-D, 'Queen of the Ball'
Abbeville, France
Airfield - Secondary Target
309-07-1944167B-17G, 43-37524
DS-D, 'Queen of the Ball'
France
V-2 Installation Cloudy Not Bombed
411-07-1944168B-17G, 42-31748
DS-V
Berlin Germany
512-07-1944169B-17G, 44-6139
DS-K, 'Katy Will'
Munich Germany
Industrial Area
613-07-1944170B-17G, 42-97318
DS-S, 'Dinah Might'
Munich Germany
BMW Aircraft Engine Factory
716-07-1944171B-17G, 42-31238
DS-A , 'Devils Ball'
Stuttgart Germany
Industrial Area
821-07-1944175B-17G, 42-107046
DS-Z, 'Screw Ball'
Schweinfurt, Germany
V.K.F. Ball Bearing Plant
924-07-1944176B-17G, 42-97318
DS-S, 'Dinah Might'
West of St. Lo, France
German Front Lines
1025-07-1944177B-17G, 42-97318
DS-S, 'Dinah Might'
St. Lo, France
German Front Lines
1128-07-1944178B-17G, 42-97318
DS-S, 'Dinah Might'
Merseburg, Germany
Synthetic Oil Plants
1231-07-1944180B-17G, 42-37515
DS-L
Munich Germany
BMW Aircraft Engine Factory
1301-08-1944181B-17G, 42-107046
DS-Z, 'Screw Ball'
Chateaudun, France
Airfield
1403-08-1944182B-17G, 42-107216
DS-Y, 'Thunder Ball'
Saarbrucken, Germany
Railroad Marshalling Yards
1505-08-1944184B-17G, 43-37524
DS-D, 'Queen of the Ball'
Nienburg, Germany
Daimler-Benz Motoren at Genshagen
1606-08-1944185B-17G, 43-37533
DS-G
Nienburg, Germany
Daimler-Benz Motoren at Genshagen

SOURCES

 

It must be noted that apart from information regarding George J. Pappas Greek heritage and immigration story as well as the information regarding his fellow Greek and Greek parentage POWs, the article was written and presented by US Army Researchers in 'Soldier Stories' from the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, based on the facts given by Pappas son, Dean Pappas.   

 

1. Personal Correspondence of Dimitris Vassilopoulos with Dean Pappas and Dean Popps.

2. Personal Correspondence of Dimitris Vassilopoulos Zaharias Spendos son, George Spendos

3. Missing Air Crew Report 7587

4. 94th Bomb Group Load List

5. http://www.351st.org/

 

Special thanks to Dean Pappas and Dean Popps for letting me present George's story on our webpage as well as to George Moris for his help regarding the finding of the Zaharias Spendos family.