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The Greek Soldier Who Became an American Icon in WWII

WWII greek soldier evangelos klonis
The photo of Greek soldier Evangelos Klonis in WWII became an iconic image of the war. Credit: W. Eugene Smith/Public Domain

The unlikely story of the life of Evangelos Klonis reads like a novel of adventure and heroism. It is the story of a Greek man whose photograph became the iconic symbol of the American soldier in WWII.

Yet, he died about forty-five years later, oblivious to the photograph which had made him a legend.

One of the most famous images of World War II, the candid shot was captured by the great photographer W. Eugene Smith.

The stark black and white image shows the strength and resolution of an anonymous soldier scanning the horizon with a cigarette on his lips, epitomizing the toughness of America’s fighting troops.

Greek soldier was illegal immigrant in US before joining forces

Yet, the figure who became an indelible symbol of the American military was actually Greek, and his name was Evangelos Klonis. Furthermore, Klonis had been an illegal immigrant in the United States before he joined the army after war was declared.

The man who would later serve as the very embodiment of the brave American soldier was born on the island of Kefalonia on October 28, 1916. He was the second child in a poor family, and six more siblings soon follow after his own birth.

Klonis did not have the opportunity to attend school past third grade because he had to work to help support the family. At the age of fourteen, he moved to Athens with his elder brother, where he worked as a bus conductor. One day, while at Piraeus, he saw sailors carrying supplies into a ship.

That was when Klonis made the fateful decision to sail to America in hopes of creating a better future.

He was only sixteen years of age when he snuck onto a ship as a stowaway with the help of the captain, who was also from Kefalonia. Klonis stepped off the ship in Los Angeles and soon moved to Denver. Once there, he worked as a hot dog vendor for a living.

This is where a young Greek girl met him and fell in love with him, and soon asked him to marry her. Klonis had grown up to be a handsome man and was known as a sharp dresser.

At the time, he felt that he was too young for marriage, but he also wanted to keep helping out his family by sending part of his earnings back to Greece.

The girl became so angry at him after his refusal that she threatened to turn him in to immigration services. The young Greek hotdog seller then felt he had no choice but to leave the area. He moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico with another Greek compatriot.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the U.S. officially entered the war, a decree offered American citizenship to immigrants—both legal and illegal—since they were so badly needed for the war effort.

Klonis joins the US forces in WWII

Klonis, who then shortened his name to “Angelo,” signed up for the Army in 1942 and entered boot camp at Fort Bliss, Texas.

Because of his stellar performance there, the army sent him to Virginia to train as a Marine. When that training was completed, Klonis hoped that he would be shipped to the Pacific theater. However, it was then that he received the stunning news that his entire family back in Greece had been killed in the war by Nazi troops.

Deeply grieved and angered by this horrifying news, the Greek soldier asked to be sent to fight in Europe in WWII, as if to somehow avenge the loss of his family.

Klonis fought bravely for his new country, the United States, on many fronts throughout Europe, including Germany, France, Austria, and Poland.

Klonis turned out to be a notable Marine. He received many medals for his service and even a congratulatory letter from President Harry S. Truman himself.

After his honorable discharge from the army, Klonis moved back to Santa Fe. It was then that he finally learned his family had survived the war contrary to what he had been told years earlier. He began corresponding with them again, and, in 1950, he was able to travel to Greece to visit them.

It was on this trip that he met Angeliki (“Kiki”) and married her within a month. The couple moved to Santa Fe to work in a restaurant which was partly owned by Klonis.

They had three sons in their new home: Evangelo in 1952; Nikolaos (“Nick”) in 1954; and Demosthenes (“Demo”) in 1955. When they lost the lease on their business in 1958, the Klonis family decided to move back to Greece and raise their children there.

Klonis then set out to build a home for his young family. The house was made primarily out of bamboo and other Polynesian elements, an indication perhaps that he had fought in the Pacific despite the fact that he had never mentioned anything publicly to that effect.

The iconic image of the Greek soldier in WWII

The Klonis family lived in Greece for ten years, but in 1969, they returned to Santa Fe for an opportunity to work at the Plaza Restaurant, owned by his good friend Dennis Razatos, who was Evangelos’ godfather.

In 1971, Klonis bought a bar and named it “Evangelo’s.” Again, Klonis designed the interior with a Polynesian-inspired “South Seas” décor much like their home in Kefalonia.

In 1972, Nick, who was then a young soccer star, told his father that he was to be photographed by someone from a sports magazine.

It was then that Angelo Klonis happened to mention his to son that a photographer from LIFE magazine had taken a picture of him with a cigarette in his mouth during the war, and he asked his son to search for it.

Nick went to the Santa Fe Public Library and scanned all the covers of LIFE available at the library but found no such photograph. The young man did not know at that time that the photo was never published as a cover image. Nevertheless, he continued his search.

At long last, in 1991, Nick located the photograph for which he had been searching for years. It was exactly how his father had described it, an image of Angelo. But it was on the cover of a book published by Time-Life called LIFE—50th Anniversary of World War II.

Unfortunately, the man who had served as the very personification of the American soldier had died two years earlier on February 18, 1989 without ever seeing the photograph that had become a symbol for millions of people across the world.

It does, however, turn out that he had indeed fought in the Pacific as he had hoped for in 1942. The photographer had noted that the photo had been taken on the island of Saipan. It was simply captioned “Alert Soldier, Saipan.”

In 2002, the U.S. was reminded once again of this great American immigrant soldier, as W. Eugene Smith’s iconic photograph became a stamp in the series called Masters of American Photography.

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