CHICAGO – Spyros ‘Steve’ Nicholas Pisanos had a dream. He wanted to fly more than anything. It was that dream, steadfast determination, curiosity, and a dash of luck, that eventually earned the fighter pilot wings in the United States Air Force, and numerous prestigious honors.
The story of an immigrant boy who became an American Ace is indeed unique, and one that film producer and artist John Mollison’s documentary Mettle Behind the Man seeks to highlight.
Premiering at the National Hellenic Museum (NHM) October 3rd in Chicago’s famous Greektown, the film was sponsored by the Distinguished Flying Cross Society and John P. Calamos Sr., founder of Calamos Investments, Chairman of the NHM, and a veteran Vietnam War military pilot.
“One thing that this film does is it shows how various nationalities comprise the American dream, how wherever you come from, you can come here and be an American,” Mollison told TNH. “The Greek community should be proud of Steve Pisanos,” he said.
Born in Athens, Greece in 1919, Pisanos looked to the sky as a child, captivated by the world of flying aircraft. “I was on my way to school one day, and all of a sudden a biplane of the Greek Air Force appeared overhead and performed the most astonishing acrobatics I had ever seen,” Pisanos said during his video interview for the film. “I stood there with my mouth wide open and pounding heart…and when it flew away I said to myself ‘when I grow up, I’m going to become a military aviator and nothing else,’” he said.
The son of a subway worker, a young Pisanos used to skip school and walk 25 kilometers to the airport to watch airplanes fly. Lacking the grades to pursue a satisfactory path in Greece, he left his home and made his way to America in 1938 as a navy merchant marine, jumping ship in Baltimore. Having memorized the three words “ticket to New York,” Pisanos ventured to the Big Apple, happened to find some fellow Greeks, and picked up work in local bakeries and restaurants as a covert immigrant.
“The people who came to America were usually, pretty much not typical…to leave your country not knowing the language…that takes a tremendous amount of purpose, courage, and of course the opportunity to truly make your own way when you get there,” Mollison said. “In Steve’s case, no place on earth represented that opportunity like America.”
At the time, Pisanos could not have imagined his life story would earn him the title of famed, decorated WWII fighter pilot, but in his heart, he knew he wanted to fly, and that he did. He signed himself up for flying lessons at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, then settled in New Jersey and continued his lessons at Westfield Airport, earning a private pilot’s license.
When war broke out and Greece was attacked in 1940, Pisanos tried joining the United States Army Air Corps, but was denied due to U.S. neutrality. Unable to join the U.S. military as an immigrant, Pisanos instead launched his military career in August 1940 as a Greek national serving in the British Royal Air Force. Following more training, and while still a Greek national, Pisanos joined an American squadron, and gained popularity as a pilot among comrades.
The United States government was convinced Pisanos was a gem of a pilot they could not give up to another team, and on May 3, 1942, he became the first individual naturalized as an American citizen outside the continental United States. That same month, he scored his first victory when he downed a German FW-190 over Belgium.
Flying on as a fighter pilot, by March 1944, he counted ten victories against enemy aircraft, but his mission was not yet over. While returning to France, Pisanos’ plane experienced engine failure and crash landed south of Le Havre. Evading German gunshots, he fled into the woods and spent months working with the French and Americans before returning to England following the liberation of Paris that September.
“It’s truly an American story, especially to those of us who are of Greek-American descent,” said Dr. George Korkos, president at Plastic Surgery Associates, Rejuva Skin Care & Laser Center, and member of THM Board of Trustees. “It just took my breath away to know that a native born Greek came from Greece as a child and reached the heights that he did in the Air Corps,” he said.
Upon his return to the United States, Pisanos served as a test pilot, retiring with the rank of Colonel in 1973, after a distinguished 30 years of service in the United States Air Force. He passed away in California in 2016.
Pisanos is author of “The Flying Greek: An Immigrant Fighter Ace’s WWII Odyssey with the RAF, USAAF, and French Resistance,” an autobiography featuring a foreword by esteemed broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite, who had interviewed and befriended the aviator.
“His biography reads like a movie script too perfect to be real…If you can picture yourself as an 18-year-old with eight bucks in your pocket deciding to make it on a freighter to go to some foreign country, not speaking the language…becoming an aviator? That was my father,” said Jeffrey Pisanos in a message to film screening attendees.
In attendance were also NHM Board of Trustees members Alexander Gianaras, Peter Parthenis, and John S. Koudounis, as well as members of the Distinguished Flying Cross Society, Bruce Huffman, Patrick Owen, and Chuck Sweeney, among others.
“Steve really, really loved America…more than the average person,” Sweeney said. “He was the most patriotic person I know.”