His given name was John, but I have no recollection of anyone ever addressing him that way. To other Marines he was just “Greek.” I learned later that at home he was known as “Junie,” which was his family’s version of Junior. When I first met him, Greek was 25 or 26 years old, which made him about six or seven years older than the average trooper in our outfit.
Greek’s charm was not in his physical appearance. His hair was dirty-blond and stringy. His top front teeth were a bridge, and, dentistry being what it was in the late 1940’s, it was obvious the teeth were not original equipment. His complexion had a rough quality, as if there may have been a go-around with acne during his early teen years. Stature-wise Greek stood right at six feet tall and his shoulders, while not extremely broad, were very square and gave the impression of being broader than they were. The rest of his physique, however, looked like a collection of spare parts. If you have ever seen the movie Gunga Din, and can recall how Sam Jaffe, who portrayed Din, looked standing at attention, then you have a fair idea of what I’m talking about.
I first became acquainted with Greek through his friendship with Dave G., who was one of the 5 other guys assigned to our 6-man tent in boot camp. Dave G. and Greek had enlisted together and were from the same town north of Chicago. Greek was a frequent visitor to our tent in off-duty hours
At the end of boot camp a large number of our graduating class, including Greek and I, were sent to the 6th Marine Regiment. We were both assigned to the same platoon of “Charlie” Company, but to different squads. We would serve together in C-1-6, until mid-1952, when we both received orders to the 1st Marine Division, which was serving in Korea at that time. Again, we were both assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment. Greek went to the 81MM Mortar Section of Weapons Co. and I was sent to “B” or “Baker” Company.
It was during our time in the 6th Marines that our friendship was cemented. Within our platoon six or seven of us formed a social group and Greek was unquestionably the leader. He introduced all of us to a fictional character named “Shel Scott.” Shel had been a Marine before becoming a private eye in the mold of Mike Hammer. No question about it, Shel was one cool, tough guy, and I realize now that in many ways Greek wanted to be just as cool and tough as Shel.
In addition to a sense of humor without boundaries, Greek had a talent for music. He played a pretty fair harmonica and I recall being impressed because his harmonica had a plunger on the end that allowed him to hit flats and sharps, or something like that. It wasn’t just the plunger that impressed me, but the fact that he seemed to know when to use it. He was also the group song leader and was always organizing a sing along of his favorite tunes, such as “Blue Moon,” “Deep Purple,” and “Sentimental Journey”. When there was one available he could also pound a piano pretty well.
One of my early Boot Camp recollections of Greek happened on a cold, clear South Carolina night. Greek was on fire watch, patrolling the street between our two rows of parallel tents. It was about two in the morning when he shook me awake and said I had to come outside. I knew I was not on the fire watch schedule, but his voice had a note of urgency in it, so I got out of the sack and stepped into the street. When I did, he said “Look at that!” I looked around, saw nothing, and asked “What?” He pointed to the end of the street and said, “Look! A Carolina Moon!” Cold, shivering, and annoyed at being awakened, I asked him, “What the fuck do you expect, we’re in Carolina!” then I looked. The just rising moon appeared to be at ground level at the end of the street. It was so broad that its circumference spanned the tents on both sides of the street. It had an orange cast to it and was the biggest, brightest, fullest moon I had ever seen. I know I didn’t fully appreciate what I was seeing at the moment but looking back in time I’m glad he woke me. I often think of Greek when I see a particularly full or bright moon, but in all the years that have elapsed since then I have never seen another moon that could compare to that one.
Another Greekism had to do with smoking. I didn’t smoke at the time, but watching this happen time after time to the same guys always made me wonder why they didn’t catch on. One of the guys would have a cigarette going and Greek would ask for a drag. When they passed him the cigarette, he would take a monster drag that added about a half inch of ash to the end of the butt. Seeing that and knowing that the cigarette was not going to taste very good after that, they often told him to keep it. He did. Only Big Steve ever caught on. He would give Greek an unlit cigarette with the admonition, “You ain’t screwin’ up my smoke.”
One evening in Naples, Italy, our regular group was gathered at the bar in a nightclub. I’m not sure how it all began but an argument started between a sailor and Greek. Stepping into his Shel Scott persona, Greek proposed to the sailor that they settle this man-to-man but in a more dignified manner than just a barroom brawl. Each of them was to get one free punch at the other guy and the loser would buy the winner a drink. A coin was flipped to see who would go first and Greek lost. The sailor’s swing landed right on Greek’s chin and sent him asshole over teakettle into some unoccupied chairs. Well, Greek got up, put on what I am sure was forced smile, and already tasting the free drink he was going to win swaggered in his best Shel Scott fashion back to the bar. To the swabbie’s credit, he played by the rules and waited what was to come. Greek took his best shot and his punch landed right on the sailor’s jaw. His head snapped back, his hat fell to the floor behind him, and that was it. One free drink for the Navy and weeks of derision for Greek.
Another of our ports-of-call was Oran, Algeria. Here we came into contact with quite a number of French Foreign Legionnaires. As I recall there were not many Frenchmen in the ranks, mostly Germans. There had recently been several movies about the Foreign Legion in circulation, Beau Geste being the most notable.Typical of Greek, this captured his imagination and he began soliciting the group to consider that when our hitch was up in the Corps, we would all come back to Oran and sign up in the Legion. I was the only one who paid him the slightest attention and the next thing I know he is presenting me with two copies of a contract that he has drawn up, one for each of us. To make it official and binding, he insisted that it had to be signed—in blood! I held out for a plain old signature. We compromised at a signature in ink and an accompanying “X” in blood after our names. Obviously this contract was never executed, but I still have my copy in a scrapbook.
When our convoy pulled into the harbor that serves as Athens, Greece’s seaport, Greek and I along with two other Marines hit the beach armed with the name and address of the brother of Greek’s father. We figured it would be easy to look him up in a phone book, but we had not factored in the Greek alphabet. After hitting several dead-ends in our search, we were fortunate enough to recognize a Bell System logo on the front of a building. In we went and found out it was the main telephone exchange for Athens and there were English speaking people working there. They proved most helpful in locating Greek’s uncle, or I should say in helping Greek’s uncle to locate us. The operator who tracked him down told us to wait in front of the building and his uncle would be there shortly.
In less than 15 minutes a chauffer driven limousine pulled up and Mr. K. got out to meet the nephew he had never seen. It seems Greek’s uncle was the head man at the largest textile mill in Greece, and the limo was his normal mode of transport. We learned later that he also traveled a bit by boat because his residence was on an island he owned just off shore. We piled into the limousine and were taken on a personally guided tour of Athens which included the Acropolis and the Parthenon. Later we were taken to a very upscale restaurant for dinner. I don’t recall what I had to eat, but I was really impressed when the bill was presented and no money changed hands. Mr.K. just signed his name and away we went. A lot of eyebrows went up when the limo dropped off four enlisted Marines at the Fleet Landing where we caught a launch back to our ship. Following this excursion Greek was able to get a 72-hour pass and spend the time with his uncle on the island.
While Greek was living the high life, the rest of us were pulling regular liberty in downtown Athens. One evening four of us hit the beach and we had very little in the way of funds. Then we made two discoveries. First, the exchange rate was 10,000 Drachma to $1.00 U.S. dollar. Secondly, there was a market for G.I. raincoats, which we all happened to be wearing. In a matter of moments we went from near paupers to almost millionaires, but only if your wealth was calculated in Drachma. As it turned out that was not a lot of money in any currency, but it got us through the night.
Upon our return from the Mediterranean, Greek decided to get married. He wanted to be married in dress blues and asked Big Steve and me to be in his wedding party. The wedding was to be held in his hometown. For personal reasons, Big Steve had to decline. Under normal circumstances planning a wedding can be complex. When Greek was involved nothing was normal. All of us being infantrymen, we had never been issued dress blues. We were able to find a couple of guys who had previously been on sea duty and borrowed their blues. The next obstacle was that neither of us had enough cash to fly round trip from North Carolina, and on top of that we could only get 7 days leave. By pooling our money we were able to get Greek a one-way ticket to Chicago. I was able to catch a ride with a couple of guys as far as Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and hitchhiked across Ohio and Indiana to my parents’ house. The plan was for me to show up at Greek’s house the day before the wedding, and after the wedding and a one day honeymoon, he would use some of the money he expected to get as wedding gifts to buy us both a return flight back to camp in time for roll call Monday morning
Right on schedule I showed up with my dress blues on a hanger the day before the wedding. The rehearsal went off without a hitch. The next day I went to his house about an hour before we were to leave for the ceremony. It was then I learned that instead of carrying his borrowed uniform home with him he had shipped it—and it had not arrived. Everyone else was in their tuxedos and Greek was in his underwear sitting at the piano, playing “Blue Moon” and smoking a cigar. Fortunately, someone had the foresight to order an extra tux and as it turned out I wore the tuxedo and Greek was married in the dress blues that had hitchhiked home with me.
The wedding and reception went smoothly enough and I left with the agreement to meet Greek at the airport Sunday afternoon for the trip back to base. I should have known better . . . .
Sunday morning I got a call from the newlywed and he had decided to extend his honeymoon another day. Plan B was that he would meet me at the airport Tuesday instead of Sunday. With some trepidation I arrived at the airport Tuesday, and lo and behold there was Mr. and Mrs. Greek, with two airplane tickets in hand. We arrived at the main gate of camp quite late Tuesday night. I half expected the MP’s at the gate to pull us off the bus as deserters, but they passed us thru.
At Wednesday morning’s roll call it only took the Gunny a moment to spot Greek in the front rank and immediately call him out of formation. As soon as Greek stepped forward I became visible and was also called out of ranks. We were instructed to get into the uniform of the day and stand by for office hours with the Colonel. Once dressed, we were sent to the Sergeant Major’s office to await the Colonel’s pleasure. Greek was marched in to present himself and I was told to wait in the hall outside the office. After 15 or 20 minutes had passed, Greek came out and said, “Let’s go.” Remembering how I got to this point in the first place I was not about to walk away from an appointment with the battalion commander on Greek’s say so. A few minutes later the Sergeant Major came out and said, “You can go.”
As we walked back to the company area Greek filled me in. We had both been placed on restriction to the immediate area until we received and presented confirmation from the airline that we in fact had reservations which would have gotten us back to base on time and that such reservations had been cancelled. That evening we spent several hours crafting a very carefully composed letter to the airline hoping it would draw a response acceptable to the Colonel. In a week or so a letter arrived addressed to Greek that verified that reservations had been held in our names for Sunday, but had been cancelled and rebooked for Tuesday. The letter made no mention of the fact that the cancellation and rebooking had been done at our request. The letter was taken to the Sergeant Major for delivery to the Colonel. Later that day we were notified that our restriction was lifted and no entries would be made in our service records of the incident.
I must have learned something from this because later when we were in California just before sailing for overseas Greek and I were in an all-night hash house having breakfast in the wee hours of a Monday morning. He decided he was going to spend the day in San Diego, and that as an infantryman on his way to Korea there wasn’t an awful lot The Corps could do about it. I sat on the curb in front of the restaurant with him for half an hour trying to talk him out of staying but he wasn’t listening. I got back to camp for roll call and Greek showed up late that night. His punishment was being assigned as the Gunny’s personal valet on the ship crossing the Pacific. His duties included sitting on a bucket next to the Gunny’s sack and playing the harmonica.
After our arrival in Korea, I didn’t see much of Greek for a while. Even though we were in the same battalion, the 81 MM Mortars had a range of almost 6000 yards and were usually sited one or two ridgelines behind the letter companies whom they supported. It so happened that when the 5th Marines came back on line in late January of 1953, the 81’s were situated behind the next hill from the one occupied by “B” Company and adjacent to the main supply road. As a result, whenever I was able to shake loose for a shower or go to the rear for any other reason, I would pass right through their position.
On my first visit to the 81 site, I stopped at a gun pit and asked a couple of mortar men if they could point out the Greek’s bunker. They showed me where it was but advised caution if I intended to enter. As I approached I could hear what could only be gunshots coming from within. I paused and announced myself at the entryway and was rewarded with a “Come on in!” Inside Greek was lying on his back with one hand across his chest holding a .45 Automatic. He had been shooting at rats as they scurried along between the timbers that formed the support for the roof of the bunker.He was not wearing his boots and the bottoms of his socks had a light reflecting crust that was probably between an eighth and a quarter inch thick. I asked him when he was going to shit-can those socks. He told me that he was going to wear them home and have taps put on the heels and toes. He just wasn’t sure if they would ever take a good spit shine.
The Chinese really did not like the 81’s at all. They spent a lot of time searching for them with their own mortars of the 82 and 120 MM variety. As fate would have it a small piece of shrapnel from one of these probing bursts found its way to Greek’s ass. There’s an old axiom in the Marine Corps, that if you are looking for sympathy it can be found in the dictionary: it’s between shit and syphilis. All Greek ever got from his friends was being asked to explain how a guy gets hit in the ass if he’s facing the gooks.
When the 1st Marine Division went into Corps Reserve it was like old home week. Big Steve had come overseas and was assigned to “B’ Company, so he was just two tents down in the same row as my tent. Weapons Company was bivouacked across the road and Greek’s tent was about 50 yards from mine. The three of us got to spend a lot of time together. Once we went back on line and after the ceasefire we rarely saw Greek until we assembled in Ascom City for the trip home.
Greek’s family was in the restaurant business. His uncle was the owner and the whole family was employed there. His Dad was the chief cook and his Mom was the cashier. This was no small scale operation. Their specialty was fish and the restaurant had its own fleet of fishing trawlers which plied Lake Michigan daily to insure the freshness of the servings. Junie, as he was known there, liked to tell the story about his Pop. When a patron would request “something without bones,” the old man would say, “For cryssa sake! This is a seafood place. Give the sumanabitch pancakes!”
After we had returned to civilian life I would occasionally drive up and visit on a weekend. The first couple of trips Junie was tending bar in the restaurant lounge. This was good for me because I could sit at the bar and we could talk in his free moments.
On a subsequent visit there was a new bartender on duty. I asked if it was Greek’s night off and was told that he was now working in the kitchen. He said it would be OK if I went back there. As I entered, Greek was putting a lobster order under the warming light to wait for waitress pick-up. In addition to the sprig of parsley adorning the plate, the lobster was holding a lit, half-smoked cigarette in one of its pincers.
Greek explained to me how he came to be working in the kitchen. His uncle told him that for every five bottles of scotch that he bought, he was only selling two and Junie was drinking three.
Certain automobiles were a passion with Greek. He had a Packard Coupe. In fact, he had three of them but two were strictly spare parts for the one he drove. Shel Scott drove a Packard also. For those too young to know, Packard was the chief competitor for Cadillac and Lincoln in days gone by.
Early in 1954, Big Steve asked Greek and me to be in his wedding party. The wedding was to take place in a town just north of Detroit. I was working the four-to-midnight shift and usually arrived at the house about 12:45 a.m. A couple of nights before the ceremony was to take place I arrived to find Greek sitting at the kitchen table with my mom and dad. They were having a great time. I got cleaned up, packed a bag, and Greek and I were off into the night headed for Detroit.
It was close to 4 a.m. when we passed a sign in southern Michigan that said “Paw-Paw.” I casually mentioned to Greek that Paw-Paw was the home of another Marine that we had known in Charlie-One-Six and in Baker-One-Five. That’s all it took. In a matter of moments we were in downtown Paw- Paw and Greek was on the phone telling Willie we would pick him up in 15 minutes and that we were all going to a wedding. Willie was game and we picked him up and continued on our way. Interstates were on the horizon back then but most roads were two-lane. To facilitate passing, Greek would get the nose of his Packard about 1 foot from the back end of a semi at 65 or 70 miles per hour and then swing out into the other lane. We arrived safely, the wedding went very well and a good time was had by all.
In 1957 I reenlisted in the Marine Corps and haven’t seen Greek since about a year before that. Indirectly I heard that life has not been good to Greek. On a business trip to New York in the 80’s, I called another old friend, J.P., and he told me that Greek showed up at his front door in the early hours one morning. He said he learned that Greek was divorced and unemployed and added that Greek looked like shit. Greek had no plans, and at the moment, he was just traveling around visiting any of his old service buddies that he could find. It’s possible he may have tried to find me also, but between the service and my job I was a moving target in those days.
I can recall on several occasions hearing Greek describe how he wanted to leave this world. He would be standing on the crest of a hill with a pearl-handled revolver in each hand heroically holding off swarms of an enemy. Of course, in Greek’s version of this, there would be an American flag flying just behind him and the Marines Hymn would be playing in the background and somehow this whole scene would be captured on film.
I was truly sorry to hear about Greek’s bad luck. I guess if there was one thing I could give him it would be the two pearl-handled pistols and the chance to end his days according to his vision. I know he would have liked that. Shel Scott would approve also.