The bearded face of a soldier gazes from the paneled walls of Evangelo’s, a downtown Santa Fe bar. With a cigarette clamped between his lips, a carbine over his shoulder and a helmet resting on his furrowed brow, his is an iconic image that for many has become the face of World War II.
“Alert Soldier, Saipan—W Eugene Smith, LIFE,” reads the caption on the famous photo:
“Surrounded by the enemy, with bullets whizzing from all directions, this Soldier jerked his head around as one bullet cracked uncomfortably close. He was about 100 feet from the front lines, on the day after the famous breakthrough on Saipan, and had been practically hand-driving Japs out of their pillboxes. More than 2,000 Japs were killed in the drive to the sea.”
Though misidentified in earlier publications as a Marine, the “alert soldier” is Angelo S Klonis, the bar’s namesake who opened the business 45 years ago this week and died on the same day in 1989. W Eugene Smith, one of the most famous American photojournalists of the 20 th century, made Angelo into the face of the Second World War.
“Eugene Smith was famous and Angelo Klonis was just this regular guy who joined the Army in order to get his citizenship, yet he ended up being depicted in this very famous photograph,” says Jere Corlett, friend and family attorney of the Klonises.
Yet the photos—which have appeared on book covers, in magazines and even on a postage stamp—tell only part of the story. Angelo, known as “Papa” by both bar patrons and his three sons, was secretive about his war experiences. Not even his family knew the details of his service.
But new information about this photo, and others, is providing his family and historians with more clues about the hidden parts of Angelo’s life.
The family’s chief researcher, Nikolaos, sits at the end of the bar that his father opened in 1969. He rolls a cigarette, then sparks it up in defiance of decades-old indoor-smoking bans. Nick says he always felt there was more to his father than what he knew.
This middle son now believes his father performed at least 13 secret missions, including one in which he took photographs of a German operation near Norway where the Third Reich was reportedly working on an atomic weapon.
“I could sense from inside me that this man has done a lot. He’s hurting. There is something inside his toughness,” he says, “it was a kindness and love, and this is why I wanted to discover.”
FOLLOWING THE TRAIL
A Greek from the island of Kefalonia, Angelo came to the United States as a stowaway at age 16. After moving in Santa Fe in the 1930s, he worked at the Mayflower Café on the Plaza, where he was known as a hard worker and a handsome, snazzy dresser.
With the US under attack from Japan at Pearl Harbor, the outbreak of war carried a promise of citizenship for immigrant volunteers. Angelo enlisted in the Army in 1942, and after training, took an assignment in the Ranger battalion.
And that’s where his trail is hard to follow for a few years. After serving in the Army, he returned home to Santa Fe in December 1945 with a serious back injury. Angelo’s official discharge papers show that he principally served in Normandy and was then deployed in France, Belgium and Germany.
Angelo, though, did tell Nick that he had once been photographed by a man who worked for LIFE magazine. He event nagged Nick to look for the photo in the local library, but Nick, hampered by limited English skills, could never find it.
It wasn’t until two years after his father’s death that Nick saw the photograph, which was featured on a book cover in the display window of a store at Villa Linda Mall.
“I was walking and my mother was shopping, and my God, I found him. I started having tears in my eyes,” he says. “I found my Dad…I was choked up. Why did he die so early so he could not see his fucking picture?” He telephoned his father’s brother, who slept that night with another copy of the book cradled in his arms.
But the book revealed another mystery. As far as the family knew, Angelo had never been in Saipan, as the photo caption stated. Nick started what he calls “the discoveries.” He visited local photo galleries and began a study of Smith’s life and work.
“The more I found out, the more I could relate to the similarity of personalities of Smith and Papa and the attraction of strong minds to meet each other somewhere for the photo to be taken,” he told Jere Corlett. “In my conversations with my father, he told me that when he was with the war correspondent, he was in that location seven to 12 days and the photographer followed the soldiers of a squad that my father led. He said he never saw the LIFE photographer again and he said they went their separate ways. Papa would never say where the photo was taken, just silence, then ‘in the war.’”
It turns out that the 1991 publication to mark the 50 th anniversary of the war was not the first time the photograph and other shots from W Eugene Smith’s time with Angelo had appeared in print. One had already been in the 1946 PM Picture News and in another Time-Life book in 1951, according to research compiled for the US Postal Service.
A picture of Angelo drinking from a canteen was selected to honor Smith’s photographic legacy in 2002 as part of the Masters of Photography stamp series.
After a postal service representative contacted Nick and his mother Angeliki on behalf of the family, they sought help from Corlett, who could navigate the legalities of granting permission for the use of Angelo’s image. Corlett, also a World War II history buff, (coincidentally Angelo served on D-Day under the command of Major Gen. Charles Corlett, Jere’s uncle from Española) began to search for other records.
By 2002, Corlett writes, it became obvious that Angelo had a secret military life. There were discrepancies about where the Smith photos were taken and who else was in them. Smith died in 1978, and his archives went to the Center for Creative Photography. Evidence in Smith’s records clearly pointed to Angelo’s participation battle of Saipan.
Yet Angelo’s bare military discharge papers indicate he served in North Africa and Europe between 1942 and 1945, with no noted stint in the South Pacific. (The US Army facility that housed military records in St. Louis burned in 1973, purportedly destroying the documents.) Further, they knew Angelo had served on D-Day in Normandy on June 6, 1944. The Saipan fight lasted from mid-June to early July that year.
James Enyeart, a photographer and expert on Smith’s work, uncovered information that muddied the evidence on Angelo’s service and the photo. Enyeart was the first person to show Nick the full print of the cigarette photo, an uncropped version that pictured other soldiers in the background. However Smith’s diary recorded the portrait was not Angelo, but “TE Underwood from St. Petersburg FL, a man 19 years old.”
Smith biographer James Hughes and Nick exchanged more information. Nick sent the biographer several photos of Angelo in civilian clothes.
Later, the family hired a facial recognition expert who used technology to compare the Smith photos with other photos of Angelo. Everyone concurred, the “alert solider” was Angelo.
In the meantime, they searched for Underwood. The Florida census was a bust. A Pentagon database showed someone recorded only as PFC Underwood had served in Normandy in World War II.
Eventually, Nick contacted Theresa Underwood, then a 73-year-old widow, who still lived in St. Petersburg and whose husband John Ray Underwood had served in the war in Europe. She confirmed that the canteen and cigarette photos were not those of her husband—and shared a photo of him from the time.
Underwood proved to hold several important pieces of the puzzle. She knew more about the secret missions than any of the Klonis family did. She said the unit went to Norway, North Africa, Europe and the South Pacific. Her husband had been a commando, too, she told Nick, and he spoke often of “the Greek man that saved his life in Saipan on a special mission.” The Underwoods had even visited New Mexico in 1979 to try to locate him, but were unsuccessful.
also found photos of Underwood in his father’s boxes, and related that
he’d heard his father speak about special friend who was from
Alabama—which turned out to be Underwood’s home state.
Neither knew or disclosed the other’s last name, but the two shared stories, Corlett writes, of how both Angelo and Underwood “hated flying in planes, how they hated lightning and thunder, how they hated to eat fish, and how the war affected them in the same way.”
Virginia Swanson, a photo-licensing specialist who wrote about Angelo Klonis in 2005 for Digital Journalist, wrote that Underwood loved Greek food and music. Nick also soon developed a theory about why Smith labeled the photo “TE Underwood.”
Men in special service units often used initials and nicknames to identify one other. Angelo’s Greek features, strong accent and strong personality earned him “Crazy Greek,” translated in his language as Trelós Elliniká, or TE for short.
“Hence,” Swanson writes, “we have TE Underwood in the Smith film records, a mixture of the two friend’s names.” Yet the experts also agree that Underwood isn’t in any of Smith’s photographs on file.
Just when Nick thought he had seen them all, a new photograph of Angelo surfaced as the cover of WW II History Magazine early this year. In what appears to be the same moments as the Smith canteen photo, this one is from a higher, wider angle.
The magazine didn’t return a message from SFR about the image.
BREAKING THE SILENCE
many WWII veterans, Angelo did not revel in talking about his war time.
He returned to Greece for nearly a decade after JC Penney ousted the
Mayflower Café from the Plaza around 1958, then came back to Santa Fe
and opened Evangelo’s in 1969. Later, Nick also ran The Mediterranean
(The Med) on Alameda.
Years behind the bar at his father’s side allowed Nick a glimpse into Angelo’s past. As he sat there last week, he recalled being about 24, watching “Wide World of Sports” on a small television mounted in high on the wall in the corner. There’s still a TV in this spot, now a larger flat screen.
As alpine skiers blitzed down the mountain, Nick expressed amazement. Angelo turned to his son and said, “That’s nothing. You should have seen those fucking Germans coming down the hill in Norway on wooden skis with all that shit on their backs.”
As Nick realized he had never mentioned Norway before, Angelo continued: “Your old man saved the world. We never fired a gun. We just took pictures and got the hell out of there.”
Nick didn’t let it sink it at the time, “I said, ‘That fucking ouzo must be kicking in.’” The next day, Nick recalls, Angelo had sobered up, and regretted the revelation.
“He came to me and said, ‘What did I tell you about Norway? I might have to kick your ass’... He wasn’t allowed to tell anybody anything, but some things slipped out.”
There were other clues to Angelo’s secret service. The family found a 10-peso note in the bottom of Angelo’s military box, which had been issued in Manila in the South Pacific during WWII. His time there also may have inspired the decor of Evangelo’s. Noted in a 1976 SFR story for its Polynesian tiki feel (see page 11), some of the bamboo paneling, hanging lanterns, sea-themed wood carvings and other original interior elements remain.
As for the photo, “We didn’t understand the significance of the photo in the world of photos,” Nick told Corlett. “We just put the photo in the bar.”
It’s not uncommon among veterans from the WWII era to have taken details of their wartime experience to the grave. Their families, though, yearn to learn about their history. At the bar, Nick searches for his father’s name on his smartphone. His fingers tap out on the Greek keyboard function, and he translates the headlines out loud in English.
“‘The Soldier Symbol for Free Greeks Also,’ ‘The Unknown Solider,’” he says, “You can go 20 pages deep.”
“If they call that generation ‘the greatest generation,’ I’m proud that my father represents every one of them. Not because my father did so much, because everybody did their part. My father, for different reasons, they chose to become the face.”
With information from and special thanks to photography consultant Mary Virginia Swanson and Klonis family attorney Jere C Corlett.
EVANGELO’S 45TH ANNIVERSARY BASH
W/ MOBY DICK AND DYNAMITE SOL
9 pm, Saturday Feb. 22. $5
200 W San Francisco St.