May 26 2010 12:00 AM

World War II vet and retired MSU professor receives Silver Star — 65 years later

Surviving a deadly bombing run over Germany during World War II and saving the lives of his fellow soldiers was reward enough for Louis Stamatakos, a retired professor of educational administration at Michigan State University who served as a B-17 tail-gunner with the 8th Air Force for 31 missions.

However, his fellow soldiers and his three sons felt otherwise.

On Feb. 17, Stamatakos was awarded the Silver Star — the third-highest honor given for valor in the face of an enemy — by Sen. Carl Levin , D-Mich., at the Capitol.

“The presentation was a very solemn one, but very touching," said Stamatakos, 84, who lives in Okemos with Bess, 79, his wife of 58 years.

"It brought tears to my eyes. You can’t help but think of all the guys who didn’t make it. It was overwhelming. It really was. I don’t know how to describe it.”

On Feb. 25, 1945, during a bombing run over Kassel, Germany, two bombs that were about to drop became stuck, and one of them was live. Stamatakos described it as “pandemonium.”

“‘Get the Greek! Get the Greek! He went to armament school!’ they shouted. I didn’t know anything about bombs,” recalled Stamatakos. “I crawled forward and saw the guy in the bomb bay, wind screaming throughout the plane. One bomb was hanging on a shackle, the nose swung down but the tail stayed in place. My God, it was a sickening sight.”

Stamatakos grabbed a nearby fire ax and straddled the bomb at 28,000 feet, swinging away at the shackle with all his might.

“We opened the bomb bay doors. I had to walk on a catwalk, one foot in front of the other, grab hold of a strap hanging from the ceiling, swing my right leg out the side of the plane, so I could pin my foot in one of the rims of the plane to give me stability so I wouldn’t slide off,” he said.

“I walked around with a bottled filled with oxygen. At that altitude, you’d be dead within two minutes without it. I took a leap, a prayer in my mind, and beat the hell out of the shackle with the ax.

"Guys were staring at me, paralyzed in fear.”

Stamatakos’ persistence paid off and the bomb dropped, landing on its target, which was a castle in the middle of an island. Before anyone could celebrate, Stamatakos next had to dislodge the second bomb, which — again — he also did with the ax.

Thankfully, this one wasn’t live.

“Once I got settled, I started to shake like crazy. I couldn’t stop, the adrenaline was pumping. I was facing death all that time and it all comes to reality once you survive,” he said.

“Everyone got out of the plane and kissed the ground. I removed the guns and took them to the gun room.”

Unbeknown to him, his fellow soldiers recommended him for the Silver Star, but the recommendation got lost in the shuffle of the military’s bureaucracy.

In 1992, radio operator Saul Minkoff, of Port Orange, Fla., asked Stamatakos at a reunion if he ever got the Silver Star.

“We did some serious talking and some serious drinking. While we were reminiscing, I was amazed at how clear our memories were on certain events,” recalled Stamtakos.

“‘Say, Greek, ever get the Silver Star?’ he asked. ‘For what?’”

Minkoff told him. Stamatakos replied, “Forget it. It’s 50 years later, we’re home, we’re alive, and that’s all that counts.”

After Stamatakos wrote his memoirs about World War II, his sons Philip, Timothy, and Ted campaigned to get him the Silver Star — once again, unbeknown to him. On Christmas Eve 2009, Stamatakos received a letter from the U.S. Army.

“I looked at it. ‘The Army? What the hell do they want?’ I’m 84,” he said. “It was an official notification that I was awarded the Silver Star.

"You can’t imagine how I felt. I was in a state of shock, a state of awe, I couldn’t cope with it. How could this happen? I called Tim, (who) burst out laughing. The secret was out. We talked for awhile. I was beside myself.”

When asked why he pulled such a brave yet foolhardy stunt, Stamatakos has no easy answer.

“The only answer one can give is: because you had to. I think that characterizes that generation; they had what they had to do, they sacrificed during the Great Depression, (during World War II) … but they did it without crying and whining and looking to the government for a handout.”