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WWII vet, POW, 80, honored by Pataki

“Your country right or wrong,” George V. Tsounis always told his family.

Tsounis, a World War II veteran of the European front and Bayside resident, was recognized by Governor George Pataki on August 17, his 80th birthday, for his heroism and personal sacrifice as a belly gunner in the 777th bomb squadron of the 464th bomb group, said Catherine Siolas, his only daughter and oldest of four children.

A first generation American from a Greek father and Turkish mother, Tsounis grew up in Aliquippa, Penn., a steel mill river town outside of Pittsburgh. The town was a melting pot of Eastern European immigrants and African Americans who lived in harmony and worked at the steel mill in pursuit of the American Dream, Siolas said.

The oldest of six children, Tsounis went to work as soon as the Great Depression hit, selling candy bars at the age of eight to help raise money for the “beans, beans and more beans,” his family ate for dinner. At 16, Tsounis left his family in Aliquippa to make a living at his godfather’s deli in Harlem. Once he earned enough money, he brought his whole family to the Bronx.

“At the age of 16 he was supporting six children, a father and a mother,” Siolas said.

Tsounis joined the army on April 17, 1943, taking after his father who enlisted for service in World War I to gain citizenship. After scoring highly on an entrance test, Tsounis was rewarded with the rank of Staff Seargant, the highest rank obtainable without a college degree, Siolas said. Serving as a belly gunner over Germany, his plane was shot down in 1944 and he sustained shrapnel wounds to his neck.

“He often told us that, ‘several soldiers refused to parachute out of the plane because of fear. I pushed them out and pulled their parachute for them, thereby saving their lives,’” Siolas said.

After the plane was shot down, Tsounis was listed as “missing in action” for several months until the Red Cross located him at a Stalag POW camp in East Germany. He spent 11 months in the camp, and lost 60 pounds, going down from 190 to 130. He told his daughter he would have died in the camp had the Russian Army liberated it just one month later. To preserve his sanity as a POW, Tsounis wrote poetry and read the bible three times.

“I gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Tsounis says. “Not only was I wounded, I gave my life for my country by being a POW.”

Tsounis returned from Germany in 1945 to find his oldest sister dying in a sanitorium. Her passing was immediately followed by the unexpected deaths of his mourning mother and youngest sister. The successive deaths were more painful for Tsounis than anything he experienced overseas, and for a while he wished he had not survived the war, he told Siolas.

However, Tsounis’ life took a turn for the better two years after he had returned home, when he met Cleopatra Pappas. The two married soon after, and have taken care of each other for 55 years until Cleopatra died of emphysema in January.

When Tsounis returned to New York in the forties, he returned to the food business, opening a grocery store and then a luncheonette in Astoria. The family sold the luncheonette in 1969 when Tsounis became 100 percent disabled at the age of 47, suffering from what Siolas called a “nervous disability.” With Tsounis unable to work, the family got by on his war pension.

“All his life his country helped him with pensions,” Siolas said. She, along with her three brothers, were graduates of City University of New York schools with their educations federally funded under the G.I. Bill. Tsounis always insisted his children go to college so they could have the opportunities he never had, Siolas said.

Tsounis has mostly kept to himself since returning from the war in 1945, and has spent much of his time at home.

“He doesn’t like to be around people,” Siolas said.

She describes Tsounis as an outspoken father who encouraged work ethic, honesty and community service. Although he never had much money, Tsounis always donated to charity, Siolas said

“He would always tell us that we didn’t need great wealth,” said Siolas. “He said it is better to know you have great honor and follow the rules and walk it alone, independently, knowing you’re doing the right thing.”

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