By Ken Stone
He was 96. A cause of death was not immediately given, but he reportedly had suffered from heart failure.
Tom Cleaver, a friend of 30 years, said Pisanos died Monday and lived in Rancho Bernardo.
“I remember when I saw him last year,” Cleaver said in an online tribute. “He looked so good, I joked with him about how he must be keeping a portrait in the attic.”
He said Walter Cronkite, at the time a UPI reporter, described Pisanos as “the single most interesting individual it was my privilege to meet during the entire Second World War.”
- Video: Steve Pisanos story by the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
- Video: Steve Pisanos Eagle Squadron Oral History
- Autobiography: “The Flying Greek: An Immigrant Fighter Ace’s WWII Odyssey with the RAF, USAAF, and French Resistance”
Cleaver added: “With Steve’s passing, there are no more Eagle Squadron pilots, and he was the last living ace of the 4th Fighter Group, the most successful American fighter unit ever.”
Brian Bateman of San Diego said his friend, mentor and hero had been in failing health over the past few months.
“Right after this visit, he was then diagnosed with heart failure recently, according to his son Jeff,” Bateman wrote on Facebook. “His passing came as a shock, though it seemed rather quick and I hear it was peaceful.”
Bateman said Pisanos was larger than life and “a humble giant among men.” His many war stories included his crash landing behind enemy lines.
“I never got tired of listening to him tell this story in front of the large crowds that would gather to hear him speak,” he said. “His accent only made it an even better story. He was a marvelous human being and one of the Greatest Generation, and I am proud to have known such a man.”
On May 3, 1943, Greek-born Pisanos was naturalized as an American citizen in London, becoming the first individual in U.S. history to be naturalized outside the continental United States.
Newsmen Edward R. Murrow and Cronkite attended his citizenship ceremony, the first ever to be held off American soil. He remained lifelong friends with them both.
Pisanos spent his retirement years in San Diego and was a regular guest at — and contributor to — the Air & Space Museum, the Balboa Park center said.
In 2006, he was inducted to the International Air & Space Hall of Fame. In 2010, Pisanos was awarded the French Legion of Honor, the French Republic’s highest decoration, in a ceremony at the Air & Space Museum.
The award, presented by the consul general of France in Los Angeles, recognized Pisanos’ achievements in World War II as a fighter pilot and in support of the French Resistance.
“Steve Pisanos was a true hero who had a deep love of America and what it stood for – opportunity for everyone and achieving the greater good,” said Jim Kidrick, president and CEO of the Air & Space Museum.
“He is a prime example of America’s Greatest Generation – willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to fly and fight for his adopted country. … Steve will always hold a special place in the hearts of everyone at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. I truly love him!”
A celebration of life is set for 2 p.m. Thursday, June 30, at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
A Greek veterans group said hymns will be said at 7 p.m. June 29 at Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Encinitas, with a funeral at 10 a.m. June 30, also at the church. Burial will follow at 12:30 p.m. at Miramar National Cemetery.
Born Nov. 10, 1919, in the Athens suburb of Kolonos, Spiros Nicholas “Steve” Pisanos, the son of a subway motorman, arrived in America in April 1938 as a crew member on a Greek merchant ship.
Arriving in Baltimore and unable to speak English, Pisanos found his way to New York City, where he worked in bakeries and restaurants.
As he earned money, he began flying lessons at Floyd Bennett Field. In August 1940, he settled in Plainfield, New Jersey, and continued flying lessons at Westfield Airport. He earned a private pilot’s license and, though still a Greek national, in October 1941 he joined the British Royal Air Force sponsored by the Clayton Knight Committee in New York City.
Pisanos began his military flight training at Polaris Flight Academy in Glendale. Upon graduation, Pilot Officer Pisanos was transferred to England where he completed RAF Officers Training School at Cosford, England, and OTU (Operational Training Unit) at Old Sarum Aerodrome in Salisbury.
Pisanos was posted to the 268 Fighter Squadron at Snailwell Aerodrome in Newmarket flying P-51A’s. He later transferred to the 71 Eagle Squadron, one of three Eagle squadrons in the RAF, comprised of just 244 American volunteers flying Spitfires at Debden RAF Aerodrome.
When the USAAF 4th Fighter Group absorbed the American members of the Eagle Squadrons in September and October 1942, Pisanos was commissioned a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces.
Flying his first mission in his P-47 “Miss Plainfield” out of Debden Aerodrome with the 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group, Lt. Pisanos, “The Flying Greek,” scored his first shootdown on May 21, 1943, when he targeted a German FW-190 over Ghent, Belgium.
By Jan. 1, 1944, he had become an ace with five confirmed downings. On March 5, 1944, he obtained his 10th shootdown and while returning from that B-17 escort mission to Limoges and Bordeaux, France, Pisanos experienced engine failure in his P-51B and crash-landed south of Le Havre.
For six months he evaded the Germans and fought with the French Resistance and the American OSS, sabotaging the German war machine in occupied France.
Lt. Pisanos returned to England on Sept. 2, 1944, following the liberation of Paris. Because of his exposure and knowledge of the French Resistance operations, Pisanos was prohibited from flying additional combat missions because the Air Force could not risk him being captured.
Upon returning to the United States, Capt. Pisanos was assigned to the Flight Test Division at Wright Field, Ohio. He attended the USAF Test Pilot School and served as a test pilot at Wright Field and Muroc Lake, California, testing the YP-80 jet aircraft, America’s first operational jet.
During his Air Force career, Pisanos graduated from the University of Maryland, attended the Air Command and Staff College and the Air War College. Pisanos also served tours of duty in Vietnam (1967-68) and with NORAD before retiring from the USAF with the rank of colonel in in December 1973.
In all, Pisanos served America for more than 30 years and also was the recipient of numerous U.S., British and Republic of Vietnam awards and decorations, including three Legions of Merit, five U.S. Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the Purple Heart.
Pisanos and his wife of 66 years, Sophie, had two children — son Jeff and daughter Diane. Steve is survived by Jeff, Diane, his grandchildren Brandon Pisanos and Nicola (Pisanos) Wells, and great-grandchildren Baron and MacKenzie Wells.
In lieu of flowers, donations were suggested to Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, 3459 Manchester Ave., Cardiff, CA 92007, or the San Diego Air & Space Museum, 2001 Pan American Plaza, San Diego.
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