The Greek Soldier Who Became an American Icon in WWII

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 World War II. Yet he died about 45 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.

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 alien 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 would soon follow.

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 14 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 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 o Greece.

Young Klonis in civilian clothes

The girl so became angry at him after his refusal that she threatened to turn him in to the immigration service. The young Greek hotdog seller then felt he had no choice but to leave the area, and he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico with an other 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, 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 over, 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, he asked to be sent to fight in Europe, as if to somehow take revenge for 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 standout marine. He received many medals for his service, and even a congratulatory letter from President Harry S. Truman himself.

After his honorary 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 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 Evangelo’s godfather.

In 1971, Klonis bought a bar and named it “Evangelo’s.” Again, Klonis designed the interior with a Polynesian-inspired “South Seas” decor, 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 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 Few Public Library and scanned all the covers of LIFE that they had, 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.

The iconic book cover with Klonis’ image

But 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.

And yes, he had indeed fought in the Pacific as he had wished to do in 1942, because 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 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.”

Angelo Klonis, right, with fellow soldiers