Greek-Americans were one of the best represented ethnic groups in the U.S. Army during World War I. A high percentage of those soldiers were also Balkan War veterans.
Of all of them, one in particular, stands out as the highest decorated surviving soldier of the U.S. Army and confirmed Balkan Wars veteran. Sergeant Hercules/Harry E. Korgis was a hero many times over, first serving in the Hellenic Army and later in the U.S. Army. He was known as the ‘One Man Army.’
As time marches on, we become more and more oblivious of our history. Time and events continue forward and we tend to forget more than we care to remember. Two very short yet extremely eventful wars, the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and1913, represent a blip on the modern timeline of global history, especially next to the scale of WW I. But it turns out that those short wars had a momentous impact on the events that followed, and for Greeks and Greek-Americans the impact of 1912-1913 is still felt every day, whether we realize it or not.
The Greek-American veterans that returned to the United States post-Balkan Wars (mainly in 1914) arrived in the United States to establish their lives in new communities. However, the pull of global circumstances would reach those men again with the continued turmoil of the Balkans and Europe, now in arms from east to west.
Bulgaria was enormously dissatisfied with the outcome of the Second Balkan War and prepared to take actions to rectify their perceived exploitation. That resentment carried them into their decisions to join the Central Powers. The Serbians had their own issues, and the Hellenic Kingdom had a widening divide between the interests of the King (who had strong leaning tendencies for Germany) and the Hellenic Government led by Eleftherios Venizelos who was strongly on the side of the Western powers.
As WWI erupted the Hellenic King and government stayed neutral as a compromise between their opposing allegiances. Knowing outside forces would eventually force a decision, they placed their armed forces on alert as a precautionary measure.
Greek-Americans watched the events closely. As 1914 unfolded many chose sides and prepared for American involvement. Although the United States stayed neutral until 1917, ethnic Americans were choosing sides. Greek-Americans that fought in the Balkan Wars were exempt from further service in the Hellenic Army, and many of them had become American citizens, making it a remote chance that they could return to the Greek army a second time. Many of the men that came from the liberated and unified areas of the new Greek Kingdom and claimed Greek citizenship were expected to return for military service, and hundreds did.
For the thousands of men that remained in the United States, a new sense of duty emerged. They had served their homeland and now were prepared to take up arms for their adopted country.
That service did not come until 1917 when the United States finally entered WWI. Amongst the Greek- Americans that served was Korgis. Unlike other narratives, Korgis had a comprehensively documented military history. Korgis was originally from the island of Mytilene, Greece, came to the United States in 1903 at the age of 14, and lived in Lynn, Massachusetts. Once the Balkan Wars began in 1912, he left amongst the tens of thousands and served in both the First and Second Balkan Wars – he was awarded his Hellenic military medals for his service, all of which is documented in multiple official sources.
Upon his return from Greece to the United States he opened his own restaurant. That did not hold him back from enlisting in the U.S. Army at the onset of America’s entry into WWI. While serving in Company L, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division, American Expeditionary Force, in France, near Letanue from October to November of 1918, Korgis proved worthy of the U.S. Army’s second highest medal, the Distinguished Service Cross (second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor). Korgis was leading a small patrol seeking out French positions and came under direct short-range fire from two enemy machine guns which halted their advance. He split his unit and led an attack to outflank the enemy position, which he successfully did, neutralizing both guns and a crew of eight. The next exploit was similar to the first: his section became disorganized when they came under surprise fire from enemy machine guns. Korgis jumped into action and rushed to keep the men focused and although he exposed himself to direct enemy fire, he was able to successfully lead them to cover, reorganized them, and led them on an attack on the enemy position.
Korgis also holds additional distinguishing military accomplishments. Although Korgis was wounded in the leg and neck, he singlehandedly captured 256 Germans at Chateau Thierry. He attempted to convince the enemy that he could lead them to a weak spot in the American lines, and the Germans believed him. Korgis led them right up to the fortified American lines. By the time they realized his plan, it was too late, they were forced to surrender. For his exploits Sgt. Korgis was additionally awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart, and the French Medaille Militaire and Croix de Geurre with Palm.
Korgis later moved to Detroit where he operated a grocery store for decades and died at the age of 72 on August 2, 1961 at a Veterans Administration hospital in Allen Park, Michigan.
Sgt. Hercules E. Korgis, and all Balkan War Veterans, including the Greek-Americans that served, may we continue to remember your brave sacrifices. May Your Memories be Eternal.
Next time we learn of American interest in the Americanized Greeks and their exploits in the Balkan Wars.
Peter S. Giakoumis is the author of The Forgotten Heroes of the Balkan Wars: Greek-Americans and Philhellenes 1912-1913.
Follow him on www.Facebook.com/1912GreekHistory.