George Dergalis Interview - 05/17/2005
Interview by Alex Jenny and Scott Colantropo
George Dergalis, a World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veteran, now resides in Wayland, Massachusetts. George was born in 1928 and grew up in Greece. A renowned artist, Georges love for art began at the age of five when he was given a paintbrush, a sheet of paper, and some watercolors and told to "shut up."
A draftee into the Greek Army during World War II, Mr. Dergalis was captured and sent to a Nazi prison camp, where he spent three years. After escaping from the camp with some of his inmates, George attended an art school in Italy. He was able to collect enough money to travel to the United States. He first had a custodial job in a hospital, and soon after was drafted into the Air Force. He spoke very minimal English at the time, and did not understand what was going on in the recruiting office, where he got into the line for the Air Force, and all of a sudden was off to his base. He served in the Air Transport Service, picking up wounded and ill soldiers.
George served as a combat artist in the Vietnam War. With this position, he had very high status, priority even over field colonels. George painted many of the battlefields. Following the wars, George has made many symbolic sculptures and paintings based on his experiences. His most recent work was the Wayland Veterans Memorial.
Q: Where and when were you born?
G.D.: I was born in 1928, and thats questionable, possibly 2 years earlier, because in Greece the birth certificate was the priests job. It was not officially documented. My mother tried to change it many times in order for me to not be drafted, because we had a war going on with the Italians, and the Italians had a 45 million population, and we only had 6 and a half. So that was a big imbalance. They drafted from 16 on, till 70, they took anybody they could take . . . .
Q: What was your childhood like before the war with the Italians?
G.D.: Childhood was actually quite unique, very beautiful really in a way. My father was an immigrant from Russia, he was an ex-officer from the Tsars Army, and his family immigrated to Greece. So, in a way, we were immigrants already, and in the neighborhood where we lived we were considered foreigners in a way, even though according to the law in Greece that if your born in Greece, your Greek, just like here in America. Initially when my father started working in Greece, he didnt speak Greek, so he worked on the roads, like on the rocks on the side of the road. Eventually my mother went to work in a restaurant and she collected money and bought a car, and my father became a taxi driver. And this is how I knew my father until he was eventually drafted into the service also. And we moved from the place I was born underneath acropolis then we moved to so-rak, a place where actually the name means artist, strangely enough. And that's where I lived. I went to school there and I went early to school, I was almost 5 years old when I went to school . . . . My father in my childhood mostly worked on cars, sometimes he came at midnight, and sometimes he didnt come home at all. And then the only thing that was very distinct was in 1939, I'm not quite sure in terms of the date, or 1940, before the war, was that we had starvation in Greece. And we basically were rationed and there was nothing at all, and the inflation was where a million Drachme, which was the monetary system in Greece at that time, could not buy you anything. And most of the people carried around suitcases of money to buy a pair of shoes and the only recollection I have is that my father wanted to get me some sandals, he took me to different stores in the city and the owners of the stores didn't want to take money, he says, "Look", then he opened a door, and the whole cellar was filled with nothing but tons of these worthless drachme. A cigarette pack was like 25 million drachme. So that my recollection there was that when I walked to school there were people dead all over the streets, collapsed, the garbage truck came, and they threw the bodies right in. We lost about 60,000 people from that starvation. The only thing that saved us was that my father gave up the car for a gallon of well-water.
Q: So you were drafted into the Greek Army?
Q: What was your rank and your role in the Greek Army?
G.D.: Just assault . . .
Q: What was your worst experience as a part of the Greek Army?
G.D.: The prison camp, after that I ended up in Italy, and I encountered my mother on the train to Italy. It's hard to explain, but there was a little town, and that was the area from the north near the Alps and that's where I went with a permit to the US, I had a Green Paper saying I could get rides to any facility because I was a refuge from a prison camp, and that served me all along. So, I fell asleep waiting for the train, I was very tired waiting for the train because trains were very rare moving South, and even that would eventually be stopped somewhere because most of the bridges were bombed out. I was asleep, and I heard a voice that sounded like my mother and I thought I was dreaming. I looked, and maybe about 50 yards away, my mother was in the window of one of the cars, screaming at my father. I couldn't believe it was them! So I went there gradually, and of course they didn't recognize me because three years changed me quite a bit. I had grown a beard, but also, I was skinny as hell from starvation in the prison camp. And I screamed, "Mother!" And she looked, and after a few minutes she realized it was me . . . During my time in Rome I did not want to do anything but art, even though I could not make a living doing art.
Q: When did you realize this, that you wanted to become an artist?
G.D.: I think I did as a child. I believe the influence was really from an old man that my parents used to leave to baby-sit and he was an artist, a professional who was very good, he painted all the oceans. And when he used to go there, and he used to give us a little piece of paper and a brush, and watercolors. He said, "shut up." We didnt say anything, us three kids, we kept quiet and we all just painted. And I think that probably started my desire, and I was like 5 years old. I admire that old man, he had really a beautiful taste and I love his work. My father wanted me to be an engineer, but no way.
Q: The night that you were captured and put into the prison camp, where were you stationed and what was going on that night?
G.D.: Well there was a big battle with the Germans, and the Germans parachuted in the area and surrounded us and it was not even a fight, because earlier, with the Italians, they didn't really want to fight. I think they were just cowardly or by nature just didn't want to fight. And the war was going on from 6 in the morning or 7, 'till 6 at night. It was easy to fight them, because they had helmets with feathers. That makes them very unique because they would hide behind the rocks. Albania has a very rocky terrain, so we basically would sit and wait till the feather shows and you shoot, by that time he comes up and you got yourself a goose. They had all the equipment, but they had no desire to fight. The Greeks were very inventive, because they would make little holes where the tanks would go, and wait in the hole with a blanket. And stuff the blanket in the gears of the tanks. And that would stop the tank from moving. They jumped in the back, threw a grenade in, and that was it.
Q: How about the night you escaped the camp, do you remember how you got out?
G.D.: Well yes, and this is where it was very peculiar. I escaped really basically, because there were other adults that were organized together. The plan was primarily to have someone in German uniform walk out and take a crew out because every morning a group was taken out to the cities that the Americans bombed and destroyed. We were taken there to collect the bricks, clean up the mess. Eventually, we were brought back to the camp. We were fed very little, drank dirty water. So, the people in the camp gradually started dying, and that became the desire of most people to try and escape. You can only work so many hours, 'till you collapse, eventually. Everyone tried to run over the wire, they got shot. Some tried to make holes, to make tunnels, they didn't make it because they caught them. Eventually, the only thing you can do, is figure out some other system. We figured out something really dumb. It was to get these guys out early in the morning, with the lists, and put them on the truck, and one of us would be the guard in German uniform. So we needed to get a uniform, and the plan was to get somebody to be our victim. And the victim was the guard at night, because they had a stove in the camp, and the guards, after patrolling in the night, would come with a dog inside and sit, drink some schnapps, and be peaceful and just see that everybody is asleep. And I think if you befriended the dog, and befriended the guard, you can go to the bathroom. As you go by him, you could eventually come close enough to strangle him and take his clothes. We prepared the list beforehand, who was going to walk with you. Eventually we were able to get out of the place on the truck. They drove you, and dropped you off in the city. After that, you took off.
Q: How was it adapting to the United States culture?
G.D.: I arrived in New York, and through a church I came to Fitchburg. I met a lady who was a nurse, who was an older person. She became, in a way, my mother in this country. She got me a job at the hospital, washing windows, a janitor job. And even though I had a degree, I had to accept anything and I think I got paid about $10 a week. They provided my meals and a place to stay. I stayed with two guys, both alcoholics. Then, I heard someone; I didnt know who was coming in to check on me. He came with his lantern at night, opened the door, and checked on me. I dont know if it was just a normal guard checking on everybody, or if it was a guy checking on new immigrants, to see if I was doing something else. But my job was just to clean up every time we got rid of a patient.
Q: Were you drafted into the Korean War as well?
G.D.: I was drafted, but I didnt know the difference. I got a little postcard. Now I was 25 years old, at that time. They were drafting boys up to 26 years old. I didnt know any of that. I probably, by that time, was there long enough to learn how to go to the bathroom, because even that was different in this country. I would bump my head on the doors because they opened in the wrong direction in this country. There were many strange, unpleasant occurrences, but now are laughable when I look back. So when I got this card, I didnt know what it was. It said you have to go into the service. When I went to the recruiting office, there were three lines there. There was the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force. The shortest line was the Air Force, and I liked the uniform. In Greece, they decide where you go, not you. According to your abilities in the tests that they give you, if they want you there, they take you there. I didnt know what it was so I thought it was for 18 months and it ended up for years. So that was another new experience. So I signed in, they told me to report to the train station on a certain day, and that was it, suddenly I was on the train and ended in "Samson" Air Force base in New York. And that was my beginning of suffering in a way, now funny when I think of it. Because I never could understand what my drill sergeant was ordering me to do. So the only way I could imitate was to watch the next guy in line, when he was about to turn, I would turn. So I wouldn't get caught. Because every time I was caught I would have to end up washing dishes. The guys in line found out what I was doing so they pretended to turn one way then they would turn another and I would be facing the opposite direction trying to follow them. It was very tough.
Q: So the US and the U.S.S.R. were allies in World War II, did you find it strange that all of a sudden they were fighting against each other in the Korean War?
G.D.: Not really because to me, all along, my father had taught me to despise Communism. My family was brought up with a tremendous amount of fear in Communism. So much so that whenever I see the Red Star, I am immediately affected by it, it is hard to explain. Sometimes you have to make friends with your own enemy in order to survive from the other enemy, which I feel is what happened between the Americans and the Russians at that time. They needed each other desperately in order to destroy the Nazi Regime. You can see that eventually the plan was to destroy them and watch them go broke.
Q: What was your role in the war in Korea?
G.D.: I belonged to the Air Transport Service; I transported wounded and ill troops. Very shortly after, I was transferred to Germany, where we had weekly trips to Madrid, Rome, Morocco, and Greece, and sometimes to Turkey to pick up the troops needing assistance. We went around in a small plane, a C-47 and picked up patients, and bring them to our base in Germany, and then ambulances would come from Brisbane and pick up the patients. That was our job.
Q: How were you affected by the war in Korea considering you were halfway around the world from where it was taking place?
G.D.: I didn't actually see the war in Korea: that was the problem. I'll tell you, all wars are the dumbest things done. I don't think that if people went beyond seeing films and went somewhere to experience, to view the real thing, that they would not want it. They just would not. To kill another human remains with you the rest of your life, it'll haunt you forever. That is why it is'nt hard to understand why so many of the Vietnam Veterans have broken down, and aren't at peace with themselves. They have nobody to share their stories with because nobody wants to hear them. The Korean War was like a silent war in the sense that it was a United Nations War with all kinds of nationalities there. The importance of the Second World War was so powerful; that anything after that as nothing in comparison in terms of either the victims, or what happened was people grew sick and tired of continued war. The smell of death, the amount of blood you see, you'll never forget it.
Q: Were you aware of Operation Big Switch while you were in Korea?
G.D.: Well, yes, I was aware of it, but you have to remember that my English was so limited at the time that I had a hard time understanding what was going on. I didn't even know what form of government the country had either. I wasn't prepared for America.
Q: How do you feel about the Korean War being considered the forgotten war?
G.D.: Well, I think that people who die and sacrifice for their family, I think they should have memorials for them, that is the least that they can do. They did give the GI Bill, I went to school with it, I grew a reputation from the war, which helped me out. At the time, they were very helpful to the veterans who were ill or wounded from Korea. They didn't do that for Vietnam Veterans. They are beginning to do better now, again. Not to give memorials for the families, so they can at least look at the names and think of them, and for the kids, they can at least say, "Wow, my father did something."
Q: Can you talk about your design for the memorial in that how it reflects your experiences?
G.D.: Yes, well for me, America became, how can I say it, what I was missing in Europe to begin with. A freedom of expression, a freedom to achieve whatever you want, no restrictions. I think that if I stayed in Greece, I would be doing what my father did, be a taxi driver, possibly, and nothing else. And then I wouldnt have made it as an artist; I would have begun to do something else. Here, I did do a lot on my own, I worked a number of jobs, supported a family, to me, it is a country that truly in a good sense, is free, freedom.
Q: Out of all three wars that you fought in, which do you think had the biggest impact on you?
G.D.: I would say, probably two of them, Vietnam and the European War. The European war because it basically destroyed my family in many ways, the world split, we lost everything, we tried to rebuild, my mother rebuilt with my second father because my first father went back to Greece, I ended up here, my brother ended up in Siberia in a prison came for 35 years, I saw him when he was 18, and I saw him again one more time, but many years later. Vietnam primarily because the country is very beautiful, and it was the first war where I saw the stupidity of the country for not backing out. I believe that if you make a mistake and you start a war, until you correct that, you can't split the nation, you must unite everyone for the cause. That makes the soldiers feel abandoned, that they dont give a damn about them. But also, the morale, the fighting spirit isn't there, the soldiers are being massacred every day, and yet they dont feel that the people care.