PFC Paul Alexakis officially enlisted in the United States army on April 7, 1941, in New York City. He accepted an assignment with the Field Artillery division in the Hawaiian Department of the army. I’m sure that to a 19 year old boy, Hawaii must have sounded like a pretty good gig, but I don’t think that PFC Alexakis thought that he was going on an extended vacation. I asked him once why he enlisted, and he said simply, “I was ashamed not to.” It was a sense of duty that compelled this young man to sign his name on those enlistment papers, not a longing for adventure.
His entire life up until that point had already been quite an adventure, one that most 19 year old boys in the United States couldn’t begin to imagine. He was born to Greek immigrants in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1922, but two years later there was a rift between his parents, and Paul and his brother Bill were sent by steamship across the Atlantic to live with their father’s family in the province of Thessaly, in Greece. Paul was only two, and Bill was four. They made the journey alone, with a French nurse as their caretaker; Paul still vividly remembers crying on the voyage, and his nurse threatening to throw him overboard if he didn’t stop.
Paul and Bill were raised by their grandparents and extended family of aunts and uncles. The family farmed livestock on a large ranch, in the remote and rocky hills of Thessaly. Life there was hard; as a very young boy Paul was assigned herds of sheep or goats to look after, and he was out in the fields alone for days at a time. During the hours that he spent alone, he wondered about his family in America, and would daydream about what kind of great man his father might be.
By the late 1930’s the dramatic changes to the political landscape in Europe and the Balkans had made Greece an increasingly unstable country to live in; but Paul and Bill were not without options. They were, after all, American citizens. They had some knowledge of where their parents were living, and once again boarded a steamer to cross the Atlantic, this time heading west.
They found their mother living in Hudson, New Jersey, and lived with her for a time. Paul took odd jobs working in the kitchens of hotels and restaurants, trying to work on improving his English. How strange the New York metropolitan area must have seemed, to a young man used to a quiet rural life. He still remembers the cold New Jersey wind biting through him as he waited to catch a bus to get to work.
If the boys thought that by coming to America they could escape the war, they were wrong. In spite of the isolationist policy in Washington D.C., on the streets of Hudson, New Jersey young men were eager to enlist in the armed services. They could feel a storm coming, I guess. Paul had a friend who wanted to join the Navy, and Paul went with him to the recruiting office. The friend was turned down by the Navy and the Air Force, and by the time they got to the Army recruiting office, Paul was convinced that this was the right thing to do.
Eight months later, on December 7, 1941, his life would be dramatically changed forever. Is there any way that one could live through the events at Pearl Harbor on that day and not be forever different, if not on the outside, at least on the inside?
As part of the 24th Infantry Division, he fought for 3 long years in the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippine Islands. And he didn’t just fight human enemies, he fought off snakes, spiders, crocodiles, and microscopic enemies that brought on diseases like malaria, which he suffered greatly from. And this wartime army didn’t have KBR catering services to provide meals for them; they ate rations out of their helmets. It was all they had.
I’m not sure which army genius was in charge of assignments in my dad’s unit, but he was given the job of artillery spotter, which meant that he directed artillery fire…given the fact that his English was pretty rusty, this fact never ceases to amaze me. But he did it, and he did it well. His rusty English caused other problems, as well. There were times when he was trying to get back to his encampment after dark, and spent the night in a ditch rather than speak the password out loud, for fear of being shot. Once, he carried a wounded man on his back all night, until they made it to a field hospital.
My dad has many stories of his time in the army, and I’m sure that there are many, many more that I’ve never heard. But it doesn’t matter. I know that he lived through hell and came back again. He’ll always be a hero to me.
“In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield.” ~ Douglas MacArthur
Paul and Bill, sometime around 1924 or 1925, just before they sailed for Greece:
Paul, seated on the left, with Bill on the right, and their father, Louis, standing behind them. This picture was taken just after the war. Bill served in the U.S. Navy.