Howland vet took part in covert ops

Editor’s Note: The Tribune Chronicle features veteran stories on Mondays between Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

HOWLAND – Pete Sfikas was deeply affected by the attack on Pearl Harbor – so affected that he volunteered at the age of 19 to defend his country by joining the U.S. Army.

“I was very upset and mad because of the Japanese making a sneak attack on us and I just felt that I owed it to our country to save our freedom. That’s what motivated me to go,” he recalled as he sat in the kitchen of his Howland home.

Now 91, Sfikas said he knew he would have been drafted when he turned 21, but he didn’t want to wait that long.

“I wanted to go over and help fight for my country,” he said.

When he joined the Army on Jan. 9, 1942, he was sent to baker school in Wyoming. Little did he know that he would soon be sought out by what is now known as the CIA.

On Easter Sunday in 1942, he received orders to return to headquarters immediately. He was then sent on an overnight train to Washington with no explanation as to why he was going there.

He was met with a commanding officer who pointed a dagger at him.

“He said, ‘Private, how would you like to use this?'” Sfikas recalled. Of course, being the patriotic soldier that he was, Sfikas said yes.

“Unbeknownst to me, I had volunteered to go to the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services. That was our CIA at the time for the U.S. They were involved in covert operations,” he said.

From there, he was placed on the back of an Army truck, sitting on a full gasoline can and sent to Frederick, Md., to an old camp to train. There he and other soldiers exercised and acquired skills such as map reading, using a compass, parachuting and jumping out of airplanes.

Sfikas still remembers the first time he ever got to ride in an airplane; he also had to jump out of it.

His second jump resulted in injury.

“The next jump was at night time. When you jump at night, chances are you could land on a tree,” he said. Although he landed on the ground, the soldier spotting for him called out “tree” and Sfikas crossed his legs as he was trained to do in the event of a tree landing. Instead, he landed on solid ground with his legs crossed and sprained his ankle.

After being on crutches for nearly a month, he went to radio school, where he scored a 95 out of 100 on his aptitude training test. He learned Morse code and cryptography, becoming very proficient at 20 words per minute.

“We’d go out in the middle of the night with a compass in a kayak, find a boat in the middle of the river with no light, with just a compass,” he said.

He recalled fondly one time when his fellow soldiers informed him that he had stepped on a snake on his way back.

“They told me after. I said, ‘Thank God the snake didn’t bite me,'” he said with a smile.

Sfikas spent some time in Cairo, Egypt, where he was taught Morse code and worked as a radio operator. There, he was issued a Harley Davidson motorcycle. However, a bad accident resulted in more injury when a truck driver pulled out in front of him and he was catapulted over the truck and to the other side. When he tried to get up, he discovered he had broken his foot in two places.

Because of his injury, a covert mission in Greece to which he was supposed to be assigned was given to someone else. The other soldier was discovered and killed.

Sfikas spent eight months in Yugoslavia in the mountains doing work as a radio operator after he recovered from his injuries. He and his fellow troops supplied Partisans – the resistance – with guns, ammunition, food and clothing. It was a dangerous job; if it was dropped in the wrong place, the Germans could get a hold of it.

The Partisans would cook for the soldiers, and Sfikas remembers well their one meal a day.

“They used to tell us, eat as much as you can because you don’t know when your next meal is coming from,” he said.

He also recalled some good times, drinking wine and polka dancing.

“In those days, you didn’t know from one day to the next if you were going to be alive or not. So you took every opportunity to have a good time,” he said.

Sfikas earned three medals for his service during World War II: a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a British Military Medal.

One of them he acquired for his bravery in eliminating a major threat in northern Italy.

“We ran into a Gestapo agent. He was in the back yard picking cherries. He was going to pull his gun. The captain and I, we both fired at the same time. Which one hit him, I think both bullets hit him,” he recalled.

But Sfikas said he doesn’t consider the act heroic.

“It was tit for tat, he wasn’t going to spare us if he caught us. We were outside agents in occupied territory. We weren’t supposed to have any business being there,” he said.

Still, his experience in Italy had a lasting impact on him.

“I ran into dead bodies all over the place in Northern Italy. It was the most disgusting situation. Nobody to bury them, my God. Dead bodies everywhere,” he said.

But Sfikas said he doesn’t regret anything about his service.

“I’m very proud and happy that I was able to complete my mission and do my job without getting hurt too bad. I’m perfectly satisfied with what I accomplished,” he said.

He was discharged on July 29, 1945. He went into the restaurant industry, from where he retired after 45 years. He married his wife, Bessie Kontos, in 1948 after meeting her at a wedding.

“We danced all night,” he said.

They later discovered their families were both from the same island in Greece – Vece Island.

He was also able to bring his family – his mother, sister and brother – to the United States from Greece. It was something he wanted to do when he was 19, to make sure they were safe.

“I’m proud of what I did; you don’t get a chance to do those good things that you did back then,” he said.