Speros A Vasilakopoulos

Jennifer Petz

Kimberlee Maniscalco

Brad Lumb

 

Speros A Vasilakopoulos 

Biography

Speros Vasilakopoulos was born in Greece on March 15, 1894.  He spent much of his childhood in Greece until sometime after 1910 when the Vasilakopoulos family immigrated to the United States.  Due to his time spent in Greece as a child it is likely that Greek was his first language and often spoken in the home.  Speros, along with his mother Drifele and his siblings Peter, George, John, Arthur, and Katheryn all settled into a housing unit on Prescott Street in Salem, Massachusetts.

The family hoped to start a new life in the United States and were only a small part of the growing Greek community on the North Shore.  Speros, now entering his late teens and early adulthood sought to become a member of the workforce in order to help support his family.  He found work as a leatherworker in the area, likely in Peabody as the city had a booming leather industry by the turn of the twentieth century.  Leatherwork was a common job among Greek immigrants on the North Shore.

            In his spare time Speros and his family were active members of the local Greek Orthodox Church in Peabody, Saint Vasilios Greek Orthodox Church on 5 Paleologos Street.  Records from the church’s funding events show that the Vasilakopoulos’ were regular attendees, and it is likely that faith was a prominent piece of Speros’ life.  In the early years of the twentieth century, the Vasilakopoulos’ and their growing Greek-American community saw the growth of St. Vasilios from its humble beginnings to a respected and fully-chartered Church in February of 1906.  By the time of the family’s arrival in Salem, the Church had a community of 2,200 Greek immigrants in Peabody and 800 in Salem.  The church opened a Greek-American School in 1912, where children of immigrants started their education and learned both Greek and English.  While Speros was eighteen by the time of the school’s opening and he did not personally attend, it is possible that his siblings spent time in the school.

            By the outbreak of the Great War in Europe, Speros was twenty years old and at prime draft age.  Though the United States would not enter the war for another three years, it is without a doubt that the influence of the Great War could be felt on the United States Home Front, particularly in its immigrant communities.  Upon the United States’ entry into the war in 1917, Speros was conscripted for the war effort.  According to his draft card from 1918, he never married and left home to register in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  From there he departed for Virginia to start his military training with the US Army.  He became a member of Company M, 113th Infantry, 29th Division, or “The Boys of the Blue and Gray”, and held the rank Private upon the time of his deployment.

            Heading out on June 15th 1918 from Norfolk, Virginia, Speros departed for Europe with his unit aboard the Princess Matoika.  Speros would see combat in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, some of the most intense fighting that American soldiers experienced along the western front.  Unfortunately his service was cut short upon his death in battle on October 11, 1918, a month to the day of the Armistice and end of World War I.  He was twenty-four years old.

            Speros Vasilakopoulos was a Greek-American that experienced the typical immigrant experience of the twentieth century.  He came to America in his teen years, joined the workforce to help support his family, and embraced his immigrant community in Salem and Peabody.  Though his death was tragic and far away from his new home in America, the traces of family and community never left him or the Vasilakopoulos’.  As a testament to family bonds Arthur, Speros’ brother, named his son Spiro in honor of Speros’ legacy.  His family continued to live in Salem for many decades, still residing on Prescott Street.

Secondary Sources – Life of the American Soldier on the Western Front 

Brennan, John J. “My Own True Story of my Experience in the Army .” My Own True Story of my Experience in the Army, October 26, 2006, 1-145. Accessed May 5, 2017. http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.00282/pageturner?ID=pm0001001&page=87&submit.x=5&submit.y=5.

(written 1917-1919)

John Joseph Brennan, “My Own True Story of my Experience in the Army,” September 29 to October 2, 1918  

World War One was an extremely dangerous and violent war, first hand accounts compare bloody battlefields to slaughter houses, “only in a slaughter house they kill the pigs or sheep outright and here some of the boys are just half killed, left there to suffer and die.” (September 29th 1918) Soldiers constantly watched fellow American’s be carried away missing body parts and covered in blood, not only did the war physically destroy soldiers but it also tore them apart mentally. Shellshocked soldiers were often brought down the road on stretchers like injured soldiers would be simply because of how traumatized they were from what they’ve seen. Lack of shelter and sleep also greatly affected the morale of soldiers, men recall making huts out of wooden posts and a sheet of iron over a hole just to get some sleep; even when they found a place to rest they were still pestered by the constant cold weather and the abundance of rats. The sparsity of basic equipment and needs called for drastic measures, the American soldiers found a graveyard with a vault and upon entering the vault the found German Soldiers had opened and raided almost every casket in there, even though they were exposed to a slew of disgusting sights during the war, this form of utter disrespect really angered some of the men. Almost every soldier agreed that, “war really is hell”, these men were constantly exposed to death and the disfigurement of their friends and they became used to more running blood than running water.    

Faulkner, Richard S. “”Up in the Argonne”: The Tragedy of Lieutenant Justus Owens and the 82nd Division in the First World War.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 80, no. 2 (1996): 276-98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40583436.

On October 10th, 1918, as the 82nd Division’s 3rd Battalion, 326th Infantry Regiment began its attack to capture the small Argonne Forest town of Pylone, France, the doughboys of Company L came under heavy and accurate machine gun fire for the Germans overlooking the Decauville railroad. The steep and rutted terrain of Argonne made it extremely difficult for the Americans to advance and caused them to be disorganized. Lieutenant Justus Erwin Owens gathered his soldiers and was taking them to destroy the German guns, but twelve soldiers fell before the machine gun’s fire was even concentrated. Lieutenant Owens was shot in the head and fell. First Sergeant John M. Purify took command over the platoon’s remaining survivors. The article focuses on two trudges, the death of young Owens and the fate of his men in the 82nd division.

Due to xenophobia in the first year of the war, 1,400 trained men were discharged because they were considered enemy aliens, but they were not replaced with trained men. They were also short on military weapons and equipment. Even the weather seemed to be against this division as well. The heavy snow made training difficult. Prior to moving to Meuse Argonne, The 82nd Division left St. Mihiel in September with 88 deaths, 13 missing people, 10 prisoners of war, and 927 wounded. An infantry officer stated that he did not even see his first dead German until weeks later in Argonne. They already were not off to a good start.  In the first three days alone in Argonne, the 327th Infantry Regiment suffered the loss of 118 killed, 700 wounded and 96 captured. 23 days later, the Meuse-Argonne offensive had cost the division 902 soldiers killed in action, 4,897 wounded and 185 taken prisoner. Poor training, difficult terrain, and the lack of developed war fighting resulted in German defenders under the weight of American bodies in Argonne.

Keene, Jennifer D. “Americans as Warriors: “Doughboys” in Battle during the First World War.” OAH Magazine of History 17, no. 1 (2002): 15-18. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25163558.

Keene’s article catalogs the experience of young American soldiers on the front lines of the Great War’s battlefields.  She highlights their lives within the trenches of some of the US’s most important battles during the war, including Cantigny, Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, Soissons, St. Mihiel, and in most detail the Meuse-Argonne.  Keene’s insight into the average American soldier, or “doughboy” as they were affectionately referred to by their seasoned Allied veterans, shows how most American men dreamed of glory and adventure prior to their deployment.  Dreams were soon shattered as they came into contact with combat and the realities of the First World War.  They were alarmingly unprepared for the harshness of such new and brutal warfare, but their tenacity and adaptability quickly shown through.  Some Frenchmen even conceded that “Americans fought like lions.”

Nonetheless the realities of the trenches were still an everyday struggle for many American soldiers.  Dealing with the decaying bodies, rats, mud, and other pleasantries were a daily task.  Racism was another ugly part of the American experience, mostly for African American soldiers that fought along their white countrymen in segregated units.  PTSD was a common side effect of the fighting, and attempted desertions got bad enough that MP would follow advancing lines to pick up stragglers too afraid to press on.  Perhaps the most deadly killer was not even combat, but exposure to the Spanish Influenza, which killed as many US soldiers if not more than any guns or explosives did.  

Images and Primary Sources 

Image 1: Speros’ Draft Card, circa 1918.  Read as follows:

Name:
Speros Vasilakopulos
Race:
Caucasian (White)
Marital Status:
Single
Birth Date:
15 Mar 1894
Birth Place:
Greece
Street address:
886 Broad St
Residence Place:
Bridgeport, Fairfield, Connecticut, USA
Physical Build:
Slender
Height:
Medium
Hair Color:
Black
Eye Color:
Black

Image 2: US Army Transport List on the Princess Matoika

Name:
Speros Vasilakopulos
Departure Date:
15 Jun 1918
Departure Place:
Norfolk, Virginia
Residence Place:
Salem, Massachusetts
Address:
7 Prescott St
Next of Kin:
Mrs Drifele Vasilakopulos
Relationship:
Mother
Ship:
Princess Matoika
Rank:
Private
Service Number:
367463
Notes:
Company”M”113th Infantry

Image 3: Official Battle March Song of the Company “M”, 113th Infantry, 29th Division.  Published April 23, 1918.

Lyrics can be found here.

Bibliography 

Ancestry.com. American Soldiers of World War I [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2003.

Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

Applications for Headstones for U.S. Military Veterans, 1925-1941. Microfilm publication M1916, 134 rolls. ARC ID: 596118. Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, Record Group 92. National Archives at Washington, D.C.

Brennan, John J. “My Own True Story of my Experience in the Army .” My Own True Story of my Experience in the Army, October 26, 2006, 1-145. Accessed May 5, 2017. http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.00282/pageturner?ID=pm0001001&page=87&submit.x=5&submit.y=5.  (Written 1917-1919)

Demotses, Reverend Andrew . “Saint Vasilios Greek Orthodox Church.” Saint Vasilios Greek Orthodox Church – Peabody, MA. 2017. Accessed May 07, 2017. http://stvasilios.org/our_parish/our_beginning/.

Faulkner, Richard S. “”Up in the Argonne”: The Tragedy of Lieutenant Justus Owens and the 82nd Division in the First World War.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 80, no. 2 (1996): 276-98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40583436.

Felsenheld, J. D, and John Rohacek. The boys of the blue and gray the 29th Division march song. [, monographic. J. D. Felsenheld,, Camp Sherman, Ohio:, 1918] Notated Music. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2013563135/. (Accessed May 05, 2017.)

Keene, Jennifer D. “Americans as Warriors: “Doughboys” in Battle during the First World War.” OAH Magazine of History 17, no. 1 (2002): 15-18. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25163558.

The National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland; Lists of Outgoing Passengers, compiled 1917-1938; NAI Number: 6234477; Record Group Title: Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985; Record Group Number: 92; Roll or Box Number: 539

“Peabody History – Leather Industry.” Peabody Historical Society . 2017. Accessed May 07, 2017. http://www.peabodyhistorical.org/history/.

Proistamenos, Christopher P., Rev. Orthodox Life. Peabody, MA: Saint Vasilios Greek Orthodox Church, 2013. http://www.stvasilios.org/assets/files/Orthodox_Life/2013/Monthly%20bulletin%20May%202013.pdf

Registration State: Connecticut; Registration County: Fairfield; Roll: 1561877; Draft Board: 1

“Vasilakopoulos Square.” Vasilakopoulos Square | City of Salem MA. 2017. Accessed May 07, 2017. http://www.salem.com/veterans-services/pages/vasilakopoulos-square.

 

 

 

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