WWII Purple Heart recipient gets Heritage Days honor

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BATH — One of the floats passing through downtown Bath during the Heritage Days Parade on July 4, paid tribute to two military men a generation apart: John Cakouros, a veteran of World War II and Purple Heart recipient, and his grandnephew, Sgt. Michael Kinney, a computer specialist who serves in the National Guard and will go to Iraq in the fall.

Cakouros on Tuesday called the experience “wonderful,” pleased that he saw many friends and former students along the parade route as they applauded him. “I was very impressed,” he said. “I liked it a lot.”

Cakouros, now 84 and living in Brunswick, grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was 18 when he went into the army in 1943, being trained in desert maneuvers in Arizona for what he recalled as six miserable months.

“Then we went to Fort Dix (in New Jersey), and then we went to go overseas, and that was great,” Cakouros said.

Still, the trip over on the Queen Mary wasn’t all that fun. “God, did I get seasick,” he said.

By then it was 1944, and Cakouros was stationed in northern England. Following the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day – June 6, 1944 – he and his fellow troops went into battle in Saint-Lo, France, to liberate it from the Germans.

“We broke through there and we started across France,” Cakouros said. “(Gen. George) Patton was flying across, but he didn’t go into the towns. Because they wouldn’t have lasted in the towns; they had these narrow streets, and the Germans had something better than the bazooka, and they’d catch them in the narrow streets and they’d blast them. So they used to go around the towns, and leave it for the infantry – for us.”

Cakouros said his assignment “wasn’t so bad. You learn.”

Not many of his men were lost in the beginning, but “when we got to the Meuse River, that was hell.”

Cakouros said “losing your friends is what hurts. And you get this guilt complex (about being a survivor) that lasts forever.”

He came close to joining those lost friends, though. While on patrol in Alsace-Lorraine on Sept. 18, 1944, Cakouros and his men were subject to a rain of German mortar fire in an open field. Blasted by a mortar shell at 5:53 p.m. – that’s when his watch, which he still has, stopped – Cakouros was wounded in his left shoulder and left leg and remained in place until dark before crawling away. There was another soldier with him who could walk – a replacement from Chicago with five children – who went to find help for Cakouros.

“I was in the woods and they were shelling me,” he said. “It was awful.”

The key thought going through Cakouros’ mind in those desperate moments: “I didn’t want my mother to cry. That’s all.”

Cakouros crawled to a pool of water as German soldiers patrolled the area, and he grabbed a grenade and was about to pull the pin. Just then, though, one of the German soldiers stepped on his hand while passing through the water, not noticing the young American. Cakouros had inadvertently been prevented from blasting the Germans, and perhaps himself, into oblivion.

He found a large uprooted tree with a big enough hole underneath for him to hide in the mud until he was retrieved by his fellow soldiers.

Cakouros spent the next 11 months recuperating, first at three hospitals in England, then in Utica, N.Y., and then a convalescent hospital at Camp Edwards in Cape Cod. He was discharged on Aug. 14, 1945, the same day that Japan surrendered, ending World War II.

Following the war Cakouros tried a number of jobs, including tending bar and working for United Parcel Service. He started college at George Washington University in 1954; that same year he married Jeanette, his wife of 55 years and counting, and they had three children before adopting two more.

Cakouros taught English at Bath Junior High School from 1958 to 1981, and then spent 11 years working at the Bath post office. Cakouros served as a substitute teacher in communities such as Freeport, Brunswick and Dresden, from 1992 until he had a stroke in 2005.

When Cakouros, at 72, returned to the scene of his injury with his wife, it was a bittersweet experience: exciting to be back, but saddening as some difficult memories returned.

“I realized how lucky I am,” he said. “I left a lot of guys over there. I mean this, this is family. Let me tell you something: you talk about being close; you go out in the desert, and you go on maneuvers, and a guy has lost his spoon, you give him your spoon. You eat off the same spoon; you’re that close.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.

m-bathheritagedays1-071009.jpgWorld War II veteran John Cakouros, at the Heritage Days Parade with his wife of 55 years, Jeanette, is introduced to Ali Green by her dad, Alfred Green, left, who was coached in cross country by Cakouros in 1975. (Keith Spiro photo)

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m-bathheritagedays2-071009.jpgWorld War II veteran John Cakouros waves to people lining the parade route on July 4 during Bath Heritage Days, where he rode in a Jeep driven by his son, Craig Cakouros. John Cakouros’s grandnephew, Sgt. Michael Kinney, sits in back. (Keith Spiro photo)

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.