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The Real-Life Story of an Army Soldier Turned American Icon
When visiting the Andrew Smith Gallery in downtown Santa Fe last summer, the sound of live Dixieland jazz lured me across the street, inside "Evangelo's," where I came face-to-face with dozens of photographs of a man I felt I knew - the man featured in the famous W. Eugene Smith photograph, the face of World War II. Younger readers will know it, too, as this man's image had been featured within the famous Masters of American Photography stamp set that was published by the United States Postal Service in 2002.
This is the story of a young Greek stowaway who lived the American Dream. It is also the story of a spirited search for documentation of his military activities by scholars in the history of photography who, along with his family, discovered more about his life during World War II than Angelo Spiros Klonis had shared with his own family.
On December 7th, 1941, life in America was forever changed. Angelo was in the town plaza, a gathering place for the community, when he learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Fiercely loyal to his adopted homeland, Angelo tried to join the Marines the next day but was rejected as he was not a U.S. citizen. Angelo fervently wanted to help in some way at this crucial time and he next tried to join the Army. The recruitment officials said they would accept him into service, regardless of his lack of citizenship, on the condition that he pass the physical, which he breezed through.
Angelo Klonis officially entered U. S. military service on August 10, 1942, and was honorably discharged in 1945. Angelo rarely discussed his wartime experiences with his family, which was not uncommon for men of his generation. The children learned that their father went to boot camp in Ft. Bliss, Texas, and at this time was informed that the Germans had killed his family in Greece, which perhaps intensified his desire to serve and excel as a soldier. Angelo revealed little of his wartime activities until later in life, and even then only a few more tales were shared, including mention of a photographer from LIFE magazine who had taken his picture along the way.
It was on this trip that he met Angeliki ("Kiki"), his bride-to-be; within a month they were married. The newlyweds traveled to Santa Fe, arriving in August 1951 to work in the restaurant in which Angelo had retained part-ownership. Their family grew during these years, with three sons born in Santa Fe: Evangelo, in 1952, Nicalaos ("Nick") in 1954 and Demosthenes ("Demo") in 1955. When they lost the lease on their business in 1958, the Klonis' decided to move back to Greece and raise their children among family.
It was during this time in Greece that a small bit of Angelo's war experiences began to surface. Angelo was able to acquire the vacant lot next to the Klonis family home, and set about building a home for his own young family. Curiously, he built a house made primarily out of bamboo, unique for this region of the world. The house featured many handcrafted elements as strong design details throughout. Everyone was obviously curious as to why he chose to build a house with Polynesian elements, but Angelo never revealed why nor how he was become inspired to do so.
"Evangelo's" became the focus of life for the Klonis family, with the sons joining their parents after school and on weekends. Nick, then a young soccer star, remembers a day in 1972 when he told his father that he was to be photographed by someone from a sports magazine. When Angelo heard this, he quickly came out from behind the bar and with great enthusiasm said, "Find the picture the photographer from LIFE magazine took of me in the war!!" He told Nick that he thought it was published, that he had a cigarette in his mouth, but he'd never seen it. Something about Nick's forthcoming photo shoot with a magazine photographer clearly struck a chord with his father.
None of Angelo's family had ever heard anything about his being photographed by someone from LIFE magazine. Nick recalls mentioning it to patrons in the bar, some of whom confirmed that somewhere they had seen a famous photograph of a World War II soldier. He viewed all the covers of LIFE at the Santa Fe Public Library, but found no such photograph featured on the cover (it was never published as a cover image). The family's curiosity never diminished, however, and Nick periodically picked up the trail of the mysterious photograph taken of his father during the war.
A few years later, Nick saw a second published photograph of his father, this time holding a canteen in his hands. This image (which we now know as "uncropped") showed several other soldiers around his father. This time it was featured in a book about WWII battles in Saipan, in the Pacific Theater, which bewildered Nick; his father never mentioned he was in Saipan - Europe, Africa, even Norway, but never Saipan.
In 1998, Marcia Tiede, Curatorial Associate and Cataloger from the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona in Tucson, visited Santa Fe and stopped for lunch at the Mediterranean Café. The CCP (www.creativephotography.org) holds the archive of photojournalist W. Eugene Smith with which Marcia was very familiar. Upon seeing the framed cover of the book featuring the Smith photograph, she asked the waitress why this was so prominently displayed and was told that the man featured in the photograph was the patriarch of the family that owned the restaurant. Within the same year, a project was to begin that would feature the Smith photograph; it was extremely fortuitous that a staff member at the CCP now knew where the soldier's family resided.
In 1998, Peter C. Bunnell, McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art at Princeton University, was commissioned by the United States Postal Service to determine a set of 20 individual images that best depicted Masters of American Photography. This page of stamps was the final offering in the USPS' "Classic Collection," and after four years of research and production was released with fanfare in June 2002; sixty million stamps were sold.
A business in Washington, D.C., called Photo Assist was contracted by the USPS Stamp Development Office to find the man featured in the Smith photograph in order to secure a model release. They contacted the CCP seeking permission, knowing Smith's archive was housed there, and Ms. Tiede was able to tell them to contact The Mediterranean Café in Santa Fe and speak with the family of the soldier prominently depicted in the Smith photograph. The Klonis family shared with me a copy of a letter from Photo Assist to the USPS stating, "per Marcia Tiede, Curatorial Associate and Cataloguer at the CCP Library, the soldier's name is Evangelo Klonis."
[NOTE: This letter, and other documents related to the publication of the Masters of American Photography, was obtained by the Klonis family though their attorney, Mr. Jere Corlett, who filed for its release under the Freedom of Information Act through which they filed for access to documents in March of 2005.]
The family excitedly awaited the publication of the American Photography series. On June 13, 2002, the USPS held a celebration for the release of the stamp set at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, where the family was represented by Angelo's son Demos. Upon receipt of the promised poster promoting the stamp series, Nick proudly installed it in Evangelo's, a companion to the cover of LIFE. Comments and queries from patrons increased, many asking about the location and circumstances surrounding the photograph.
Nick became increasingly curious about his father's whereabouts during the war and began to research the authenticity of the caption. It was known at this point that Angelo was in Normandy during the early summer of 1944 (on Omaha Beach on D-Day) and Smith was in the South Pacific at about the same time. Nick contacted the Army to have his father's military records released, only to learn that in 1973 a fire had destroyed all related documents at the Army facility in St. Louis where they were purported to be held. Having reached a dead end for confirmation by the military that Angelo was in Saipan at this crucial time, Nick resumed his search elsewhere.
In the summer of 2004, Zig Jackson, a noted photographer whose work is represented by the Andrew Smith Gallery, happened across the street into Evangelo's and was immediately fascinated by the Smith photographs on the walls. He began talking with Nick about the images. Nick explained that he needed help identifying his father's whereabouts at the time Smith took the photograph. Jackson suggested that Nick contact James L. Enyeart, a respected author/curator and scholar of the history of photography. Enyeart lived in Northern New Mexico, had been a very close friend of Smith's (who passed away in 1971) and served for years as Director of the Center for Creative Photography where many of Smith's negatives and archive items are housed. Jackson thought Enyeart would be able to help Nick in his search for the facts about his father and the Smith photograph.
Nick contacted Jim Enyeart, who was very interested in the story of the Smith photograph. Soon afterwards, he and his wife Roxanne Malone had a wonderful time sharing stories with Nick and his mother Kiki. Enyeart reviewed the materials proudly displayed at Evangelo's, including family photographs, documentation of the quest for military records, and letters from the USPS Masters project among other items.
Having spent a great deal of time with Smith during his career, including the process of installing his archive at the Center for Creative Photography (he was with Smith when he died), Enyeart was the perfect person to continue this research. Soon afterwards, he commenced extensive discussions with the Klonis family and traveled to the Smith Archives at the CCP in the fall of 2004.
It was clearly documented that Smith had made the photographs in Saipan, not Normandy, so the challenge was to show that Angelo Klonis had somehow served in both World War II theatres. However, evidence that Angelo was serving in the Pacific Theater had yet to surface. Enyeart was increasingly curious about just what this soldier was involved with on behalf of the U. S. Army. What missions had he been on? Why were there no records? Circumstances have prohibited Enyeart from continuing to research and write the book, but he noted recently that Nick's continued research on his father "appears to have born great benefit in the identity of the photographs."
Spurred by Enyeart's scholarship and genuine interest in the project, in late 2004 the family searched for more clues to his military whereabouts. Among Angelo's Army memorabilia, Kiki found a monetary note from the Japanese government that was typically issued to soldiers in the Pacific Theater. The family had never before seen this currency, located at the bottom of a metal box. This was their first indication that Angelo may in fact have been in Saipan!
In early 2005, Enyeart made a second trip to the Center for Creative Photography to review and document the Smith contact sheets and notes from the film rolls featuring Angelo Klonis, particularly the full-frame image showing many people in the frame. Nick recalled this as the photograph from the book title he had seen years prior, featuring his father holding a cigarette in his mouth, standing with a group of men; he had not viewed this full-frame image since the chance viewing of the earlier book publication.
Enyeart observed that Smith's film notes stated, "I believe that the images 6-8 on Roll 10 on July 8, final days of Saipan Invasion, were 4th Division Marine PFC T. E. Underwood (24th Bat.) of St. Petersburg, Florida. A portrait of a weary warrior who has been through one of the toughest days of his life. And still at the moment the picture was taken under fire." Upon learning this, Nick strongly replied that it is his father in the image, not someone named Underwood!
Nick notes that the man featured in the Smith photos is obviously a swarthy, dark-skinned, dusky-looking Greek, not an Anglo. It is highly unlikely that he would have been an "Underwood" in the WWII generation of 55 years ago in America, when there was not as much intermarriage as there is today. "Remember," Jere Corlett says, "the armed forces were still segregated then."
In February of this year, Marcia Gonzales, Nick's longtime friend from Santa Fe who is now serving as Army Chief Warrant Officer Three, based in Washington, D.C., contributed research to this project, having the ability to research each Underwood who was in any branch of the military in any war. She identified only one, a T. E. Underwood, who had served in Vietnam. Nick obtained the phone number from the St. Petersburg, Florida, telephone directory and on March 31, 2005 called, asking the woman who answered if her husband ever served in the U.S. Army. She replied, "Yes, a WWII Vet." He learned Mr. Underwood had served in Europe and the Pacific, and that he passed away in 1998. Nick explained his curiosity, and asked if she minded if he sent her a photograph of his father in case she could identify him. Upon review of the photo, she regretfully informed him that this was not her husband and she did not know this man. Nick astutely asked if she would send him a photograph of her husband, to see if he is one of the men who appears with his father in the Smith photographs. Nick examined the photographs Mrs. Underwood sent of her husband during his military service, and compared them with the photographs of his father and with the other men featured in family snapshots from his father's war years. He enlarged the photos to review them carefully, and there it was - her husband was featured in the Klonis family snapshots!
Nick said he needed more time to look through his father's memorabilia in hopes of finding more photographs of her husband, calling her back with the news that "I think I have at least five photographs of your husband taken with my father!" Nick sent a selection to her to confirm, and she telephoned him right away to say, "Nick, the man with your father IS my husband!"
Her husband was not "T. E. Underwood" however; she said her husband often talked about how he would change his first initials because he hated to say his name was J. R., as he was teasingly called "Junior." Nick thought about this comment and replied that his dad said his Army buddies used to call him "Crazy Greek," which translated as "TRELOS ELLINAS" - "T. E." for short, and going forward T.E. was used as his nickname. Hence, we have T. E. Underwood noted in the Smith film records - a mixture of the two friend's names. (Mrs. Underwood told him that her husband had emphasized that on special missions they were instructed never to give their real names, hence the initials.)
Nick asked Mrs. Underwood if her husband talked to their family about his war years, explaining that his own father hadn't shared much and never discussed serving in the Pacific Theater. She graciously agreed to be interviewed for an affidavit and confirmed that she had learned from her husband that he and Angelo Klonis were on 13 secret missions together during their wartime service, including Saipan.
Enyeart reviewed all the materials relating to the Underwoods and concluded the puzzle has been solved and no questions remained. Between Mrs. Underwood's statement and the comparison of the Underwood and Klonis family photographs featuring the other soldiers, along with review of the Smith negatives, Enyeart concluded that Nick's father was in Saipan on a secret mission and is unquestionably featured in the famous photograph known throughout the world. Enyeart has since identified a second soldier in the Smith photographs who also appears in Klonis' family snapshots, further substantiating that Klonis was in Saipan at the time W. Eugene Smith was photographing under contract for LIFE magazine.
[NOTE: Jere C. Corlett notes that "Enyeart was able to make the identifications of the unnamed soldiers in the different photos by viewing and comparing the individuals in an uncropped version of the Smith cigarette photo which is available only at the Center (CCP) in Tucson. The uncropped photo shows two more soldiers that are not seen in all of the cropped versions which are published all around the world. Underwood has never been identified in any of the Smith photos by anyone who has viewed them and compared them with other photos. The only reference to Underwood was by [W. Eugene] Smith himself in 1944, which we have now proven to be a wrong identification. But the irony is that Smith's mistake has led us to Underwood's widow 56 years later, and the widow has given us conclusive proof that Underwood was not in any of the Smith photos."]
Nick informed the editors and archivists at the Center for Creative Photography and at LIFE magazine of Enyeart's conclusions. He again wished for the staff at LIFE to have confirmation from a respected member of the photography industry. Peter Howe, former Director of Photography for LIFE and Executive Editor of this e-magazine, was recently in Santa Fe to serve as a Portfolio Reviewer for Review Santa Fe (www.sfcp.org). I participated as a Reviewer at the event as well, and took Howe on a pilgrimage to meet Nick at Evangelo's and see the evidence for himself. Howe enjoyed the visit and concurred on the positive identification of Angelo and the other soldiers, and has agreed to talk to his colleagues and further confirm that the subject in the Smith photograph is Mr. Angelo Klonis.
Since the time of Mrs. Underwood's April 15, 2005 affidavit, Nick has found another clue - a photograph of a different soldier that appears in the Smith contact sheet, as well as in the Klonis family album. It has furthered his interest in continuing to research the stories of his father's fellow soldiers featured in Smith's photographs, in hopes of bringing their stories to light.
Angelo Klonis made immeasurable efforts to help the U.S. in the war effort; he died in 1989 never having viewed the photograph of himself that has become one of the most famous images of WWII. Here's hoping the Klonis family's efforts to learn of Angelo's legacy will inspire others to learn about their parent's war years.
Dirck Halstead, Founder and Editor of The Digital Journalist, was the keynote speaker at the recent "Creative Edge 2005" conference sponsored by the Santa Fe Center for Photography (www.sfcp.org). I told Dirck about the story of the Klonis family, encouraging him to do a story for this magazine. I took him to Evangelo's to meet Nick, and he returned a few days later to photograph Nick and his mother at the bar. After learning of James L. Enyeart's interest in this wonderful story, Dirck asked him if he'd be interested in writing a piece on the Klonis photograph for The Digital Journalist. Jim expressed his regrets due to time commitments and encouraged Dirck to invite this author to generate this story for his e-zine. I am grateful to Dirck for bringing this story to the public, to Jim for his confidence in my abilities, and most to all to the Klonis family who have treated me like a family member from the moment I met them.
© Mary Virginia Swanson
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