John Katsaros heard the news while working at his family’s grocery store in Haverhill that December 1941 day.
The Japanese had bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. The teen, then a senior at Haverhill High School, called home, where no one knew exactly where or what this Pearl Harbor was.
It didn’t matter, Katsaros, now 93, says. His country — America — had been attacked.
He enlisted in the service two days later. Before the war was over, he would join the legendary Eighth Air Force, bombing Germany in high-altitude runs in 1943 and 1944. That would lead to a chain of events so improbably heroic it might have daunted any screenwriter.
'The Long Escape'
Katsaros’ first effort to join the Naval Air Cadets was aborted when he flunked an eye test. He was subsequently accepted, however, by the Army Air Corps. Recalling how he was trained as an aerial engineer, photographer and gunner, he laughs.
“I’d never fired a gun before,” he says.
He flew missions from England, joining the 401st Bomb Group on daylight runs that brought record-high casualties. The Germans amassed thousands of guns to protect their cities. They knew Allied bomb sites required a steady flight path over the target and they aimed accordingly.
“You were over the target for three or four minutes,” Katsaros said. It was a very long three or four minutes.
In March 1944, his B-17 bomber Man O’ War was shot out of the sky while returning from its 11th mission, targeting an aircraft factory in Frankfurt. Three comrades were killed at once. Katsaros was able to apply a bandage to one man, despite having his own arm shredded by German bullets.
“You needed a lot of luck,” Katsaros says of what happened next.
A wing on fire, the navigator bailed out, but his chute failed to deploy properly. Katsaros followed at 27,000 feet. It was his first jump.
“I woke up coming down in a free fall,” he says.
He was fortunate not to be struck by pieces of his disintegrating airplane, but he did break his ankles on landing.
On the ground, in France, luck was again on his side. He was picked up by the Gestapo, but not for long.
“I got help from the French Resistance,” he says.
A raid freed him from German hands. His luck extended so far that he was subsequently recaptured and freed a second time by the Resistance.
Over a three-month period, his gangrenous arm was repaired by a Jewish doctor named Levy, who was also being sheltered by the Resistance.
Katsaros, meanwhile, donned various disguises, including the uniform of a French police officer, as he made his way to the Spanish frontier. The Germans put a price on his head. Getting into neutral Spain required climbing the Pyrenees Mountains with no gear and ill-fitting shoes. But he made it.
“You pray every night,” he says. “You know you’re getting help from some source larger than yourself.”
Back home, he was rejected for a slot at West Point after a doctor judged that, given his injuries, he did not have the stamina required. Katsaros can still laugh at this judgment — no stamina. “After all I’d been through,” he says.
But he could not tell the doctor what he’d been through. Or anyone else. To shield some of those who had helped him, he was sworn to secrecy until long after the war.
Only in recent years was he allowed to write a book, “Code Burgundy: The Long Escape,” telling his story. Burgundy was the name he was given by the Resistance.
For his service, in 2011, Katsaros was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government. At a Haverhill ceremony, he declared, “I will never forget the brave and courageous men and women of the French Resistance. … Merci beaucoup, vive la France and God bless America.”
In peacetime, Katsaros attended Boston University on the GI Bill, embarking on a career in finance and real estate. He married at age 33, and he and his wife of 60 years, Mary, had two daughters, Lynne and Laurie, and now four grandchildren.
These days, Katsaros speaks to groups about his World War II ordeal.
“I go to the schools and talk to the kids,” he says. “I tell them it’s up to them to save our freedom. We’re about to lose it.”
He worries particularly about Islamic radicals in America, many arriving without the vetting his immigrant parents experienced.
He does believe, however, the sacrifices made in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack have resonated.
“We gave the world 71 years of freedom,” he says.
And, to that end, he urges today’s young people, “Cherish your freedom.”