Hero in our Midst: Staff Sgt. John Katsaros, WWII – Part 1



John KatsarosBy: Helen Mooradkanian – September, 2011

Out of the darkness, engines roaring, hundreds of American B-17 Flying Fortresses took off March 20, 1944, in World War II, from Deenethorpe, England. Destination: Frankfurt. Mission: destroy production of dreaded Luftwaffe FW-190 fighter planes.

At 30,000 feet, under heavily overcast skies and turbulent winds, two B-17s collided over the base.

Formation flying over Germany was impossible. Miraculously avoiding a B-17 that plunged out of control, the pilot dived thousands of feet. On regaining altitude, he lost formation. The bombers were recalled to another target but due to radio silence all turned back except one.

He kept going to Frankfurt. Alone.

Staff Sergeant John Katsaros, 20 years old, Haverhill, Mass., was on that doomed aircraft, as aerial engineer, gunner and photographer with the 612th Bomb Squadron, 401st Heavy Bomb Group, 8th Air Force. This was his 11th mission on the B-17 “Man O’ War” Flying Fortress.

While successfully bombing their target, the B-17 was hit by 88mm anti-aircraft fire, losing two of four engines. Five ME-109s strafed the bomber, chasing it to France—but the crew shot down three of them. Outside Reims, their plane exploded in flames—seconds after the crew bailed out!

In the darkness–a beacon of hope

Yet what appeared to be “a mission to hell” turned into a drama of divine intervention and miraculous escapes.

Although France had surrendered to Germany in 1940, the darkness could not quench the spirit of freedom.

Out of the darkness of despair, the French Resistance arose like a beacon of hope—one of the greatest mass movements of freedom-fighting patriots. For downed American and Allied airmen, it meant the difference between life—and death.

Because of their sacrifices, John Katsaros is alive today.

Beyond man’s control

Two days after Pearl Harbor, with “patriotism jumping in my veins,” 17-year old Katsaros joined the Navy Air Cadets, later enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and sworn in December 7, 1942.

He flew 11 combat missions against Germany, February 11 to March 20, 1944: Frankfurt (3 missions), Leipzig (producing ME-109 fighter planes), Lippstadt, Wilhelmshaven, Cologne, Berlin, Berlin/Erkner, Augsburg, and Landsburg am Lech.

He took part in the massive operations that blitzed Germany—the “Big Week,” February 20-25, 1944—“the largest and most successful missions ever run.” For their role, the 401st received two Presidential Distinguished Unit Citations, for raids against Leipzig and Frankfurt.

The day his plane was shot down, four crew members were KIA, Katsaros’ body was riddled with shrapnel, his mangled right arm hung paralyzed. Yet before bailing out, he wrapped his scarf around the neck of a fellow gunner, hemorrhaging from a severed artery, and helped him bail out.

With seconds to spare, Katsaros bailed out at 27,000 ft in a 25,000 ft free-fall, losing consciousness. But first he said a fast prayer.

Valley of the shadow of death – 
His prayer was answered.

He landed on the “Bonne Maison Farm.” Alive, but shattered with six broken ribs, a fractured left ankle, a badly twisted and sprained right ankle and severe contusions to head, back and leg.

A farm worker saw him and carried him to the farmhouse.

Then the Gestapo arrived . . .

Thus began “the long escape”— a three-month, 3,000-mile journey from the north of France to the south, climbing the Pyrenees before reaching Spain, then Gibraltar and freedom.

Thanks to the French underground, Katsaros survived. They whisked him from one safe-house to another, often right under the nose of the Gestapo!

The Germans offered a $10,000 reward for Katsaros.

Twice the Gestapo captured him! After his bail-out, and later when an undercover German collaborator betrayed him.

Each time the French Resistance stormed the scene, guns blazing and rescued him!

Repeatedly, he narrowly escaped death.

John Katsaros literally walked “through the valley of the shadow of death”—and beyond it to life.

Code Burgundy–the long escape

The French Resistance, working with British Intelligence, code-named Katsaros “Burgundy” and mapped out his entire escape route. Slipping through enemy lines, he gathered strategic information.

Katsaros took on many disguises. He was a cell leader’s deaf-and-dumb nephew injured in a Paris raid, a French “gendarme,” complete with uniform and cap that walked the beat with his rescuer and a French citizen, with papers and photo expertly forged.

Messengers of mercy

Through it all, the brave men and women of the French Resistance sacrificed their lives and endured torture to save his life. Among his many angels of mercy:

• The underground doctor, a French Jew, who performed three surgeries in three days on his right arm, with little or no anesthesia available! When he advised amputation because gangrene had set in, the Resistance leader pointed a pistol at his head and shouted, “NO!” Katsaros’ arm was saved.

• The elderly woman who came daily to feed him, though fearing for her life. Her son was a German POW.

• The family who loved and cared for him like their own son, when he was weak and emaciated. His extended stay put their lives at peril.

• The men who hid him in a winery’s storage cellar, deep underground.

• The farmer who hid him in a covered dry well, 20 to 30 feet underground.

Above him, Katsaros heard the Gestapo interrogating the farmer!

Enemy’s eyes are blinded

Often the Gestapo looked right at Katsaros without “seeing” him.

Once he laid crumpled in the street, while German soldiers strolled by.

On Easter Sunday, he received Holy Communion in a church filled with German soldiers. Not one “saw” him. Later he celebrated Easter dinner with three Resistance leaders and their families. Before eating, “we had special prayers, rejoicing in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“One more mountain”

The unexpectedly long, four-day, four-night trek, with a Basque guide, across the Pyrenees into Spain was grueling and torturous. The trail circuitous, rated “severely difficult.”

No food. Virtually no water.

No winter climbing clothes.

German patrols with dogs. Spotter planes circling overhead.

Since Katsaros’ right arm was useless, others often pulled him up, using a branch.

Worse yet, he had only dress shoes, two sizes too small! His feet became cramped and frozen. The soles wore thin. Over snow-covered rocks and steep, icy slopes they hiked, fording rivers with stony beds.

Yet he kept walking. One step at a time. In faith.

“One more mountain, one more mountain,” their Basque guide kept urging.

Weak, exhausted, weighing 87 lb, Katsaros told the others to go on without him. They refused. “You’re one of us. We will not leave you. See, we’re getting closer to freedom. We’re all going to make it.”

Someone slipped him two sugar cubes. Their kindness kept him going.

Finally, they reached Spain. Another lockup. Another rescue. Freedom at last!

The Light shines in darkness

What sustained a 20-year old in such fiery trials? John Katsaros says, “Faith in God, knowing He was always with me. That gave me courage to act in the face of death. I firmly believed He always heard me when I prayed. He sent His people to save my life. When you experience the miracles of God, you know!”

Ultimately, good always triumphs over evil.

As the Apostle John wrote, “The Light shines on in the darkness, for the darkness has never overpowered it.”

(To order the book “Code Burgundy: The Long Escape,” contact author: jkatsaros3@comcast.net)

Helen Mooradkanian is former senior editor of a national specialized business magazine and currently a freelance writer and book editor. A Wellesley College graduate, she has a master’s from Fuller Seminary. Email her at: hsmoor@verizon.net