SAN DIEGO – A memorial luncheon to honor WWII fighter pilot Spiros Nicholas “Steve” Pisanos, took place at the San Diego Air and Space Museum on June 30, a place with which Pisanos had a lifelong affiliation.
Born in Athens in 1919, Pisanos died a few weeks ago in San Diego, where he had spent his retirement years.
He arrived in the United States in 1938 and became the embodiment of an immigrant’s achievement of the American Dream.
Docking in Baltimore as a crew member on a merchant ship and without knowing English, Pisanos worked in bakeries and restaurants in New York.
With the money he saved, he took flying lessons, earning a private pilot’s license. Once WWII began, and because he was not eligible, for citizenship purposes, to enlist in U.S. military, he enlisted instead in the (British) Royal Air Force (RAF).
He joined the 71 Eagle squadron that was comprised of 244 American volunteers who flew Spitfires at Debden RAF Aerodrome.
His first victory came on May 21, 1943 when he downed a German FW-190 over Belgium and by March 1944 he had obtained his 10th victory earning the nickname “The Flying Greek”.
When his plane crashed due to engine failure that landed him in Le Havre, France, he joined the French Resistance and in cooperation with the American OSS sabotaged the German army. He returned to London following the liberation of Paris.
His wartime heroics compelled his naturalization, and on May 3, 1943 he became the first person to become an American citizen outside the United States (the event took place in London).
News legends Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow flew to London to interview Pisanos for the occasion – and they became lifelong friends. His son Jeff called it “the proudest moment of his life.”
Jeff told TNH about his father “wanting me to join the Air Force. He was disappointed when I did not, but I knew I could not take orders very well and I did not believe that I could have sustained myself in that environment.”
Though he didn’t follow his father in the air – he made a successful career in the finance industry – Jeff learned a great deal from his dad.
“He taught me how to build things. He liked to take things apart and re- assemble them,” he told TNH.
He remembers when he bought his first motor bike in junior high school: “My dad loved motorbikes but he had never owned one. When I bought the Vespa, a popular Italian brand of scooters, he took apart the engine and tried to put it back together. But it did not work out that time and I had to sell the bike” Jeff recalled with a smile.
As an Air Force kid, Jeff had to move often depending where his father’s next mission would be. “My father’s last assignment was as a Chief of the U.S. Air Force Mission in Athens. He felt he had come a full circle.”
After retiring in San Diego, Pisanos became very involved with the Air & Space Museum. As it is also the home of the Eagle Squadrons, Pisanos considered it “his aviation home,” Museum President and CEO Jim Kidrick told TNH.
Steve Pisanos was on the team that acquired the Spitfire now on exhibit, “his affiliation meant everything to us. For someone of his talent and love of country to appreciate this Museum and for him to call it his, was very gratifying…we had to live up to his standards and we never wanted to let him down. He knew how to provide support and encouragement.”
The Museum was also the place where Pisanos was awarded the French Legion of Honor, the French Republic’s highest decoration for his participation in the French Resistance.
Pisanos was also awarded the Purple Heart and was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame among many other honors.
In 2008 his memoir, The Flying Greek, was published. “He had handwritten all the notes on a legal pad. He did not want to dictate it to someone else. His memory was incredible to the end,” Jeff said.
Only about 300 of 1700 hundred pages of material made it into the book. “My father was very frustrated that so much material was going to be left out. I am planning to put the entire book together, not necessarily for publishing but to maintain in it the archives and make some copies for family.” Cronkite wrote the book’s introduction.