2LT 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 Asia Minor. The family eventually settled in Houston. He was the oldest of 4 boys, and the family was fiercely proud of its new homeland and citizenship. He 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.
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. 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.
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 0710; the last by 0810. Approximately 4 hours later, at 1224, 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. 1LT 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. He was in the process of donning a “walk-around bottle” of oxygen to move back inside the plane when, unexpectedly, the alarm sounded, directing the crew to bail out. Pappas wrote that all he could remember was “put[ting] on my parachute and at the same time motioning to the navigator to jump.” He recalled getting to the hatch, and no more. He blacked out as he fell through the hatch and hurtled towards the earth below.
Pappas regained consciousness at 9,000 feet and had the presence of mind to pull his rip cord. His parachute opened normally, and he 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.” Afterwards, 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.
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. 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.
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.”
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 outlines, 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 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 of 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, and is family remembers him as a Soldier and patriot, through and through.