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Haverhill WWII veteran shares memories of a long escape

World War II veteran John Katsaros spoke to students at UMass Lowell about his escape from occupied France.

Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe

World War II veteran John Katsaros spoke to students at UMass Lowell about his escape from occupied France.

John Katsaros’s adventures in World War II seem like something straight out of a Hollywood movie.

For now, his story is told in a book he wrote four years ago called “Code Burgundy — The Long Escape.” It is the basis for talks he now gives regularly at schools, colleges, and community organizations.

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“I don’t do this for myself,” Katsaros said, after speaking to the Student Veterans’ Organization at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “I want people to know what the Eighth Air Force did, how we helped to win the war.”

This is his tale: A 20-year-old Army sergeant from Haverhill, trained as a machine gunner, is assigned to a heavy bomber group at an air base in England. It is 1944.

On a rainy, foggy day in March, the 10-member crew is sent on a dangerous mission: Bomb an aircraft factory in Frankfurt.

As the B-17 flies over France, German fighter planes attack. Katsaros is shot multiple times in his right arm. Still, he helps crewmates bail before he pulls the string on his own parachute.

He breaks both ankles and six ribs as he lands on a French farm. The Gestapo captures him, and drags him to a house for interrogation. Then the French Underground arrives, stealing him to safety. He is given the code name “Burgundy,” after the wine.

During the next three months, Katsaros embarks on a daring plan. He assumes several disguises and cuts a path to freedom on foot through the Pyrenees mountains.

“Since 1944, I have thought about it,” said Katsaros, now 89, who still lives in his native Haverhill. “Every day.”

As memories of World War II fade, the peersonal accounts of Katsaros and others provide invaluable insight into the defining war of the 20th century.

During his presentation, John Katsaros points out photos and descriptions of his experiences during World War II.

Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe

During his presentation, John Katsaros points out photos and descriptions of his experiences during World War II.

“There is nothing like hearing about history from a person who has lived it,” said Arthur Barlas, a history professor at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill. “The sad part is, World War II veterans are dying off.”

Katsaros recently spoke to 50 students enrolled in Barlas’s World War II history class. Holocaust survivors, Americans of Japanese descent, and others linked to the war also have addressed his students.

“I try to keep it real,” Barlas said. “We don’t romanticize that war or any war. . . . He has a remarkable story.”

Katsaros, a son of Greek immigrants, enlisted in the Navy two days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. But he did not pass an eye exam, and the Navy rejected him. A year later, he enlisted in the Army, attending combat crew training in Texas.

“That’s me, up in the corner, right there,” Katsaros said, pointing to himself, in a black-and-white photo of his crew. “We’re in our bomber jackets.”

When Katsaros returned home, he attended Boston University on GI Bill benefits. Armed with a business degree, he had a long career in banking and real estate. He and his wife of 58 years, Mary, had two daughters.

His family never knew of his war experiences, because he had to sign a secrecy document with the government, Katsaros said.

After the document expired, he wrote his book. In 2010, France named him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, for what was cited as “your personal, precious contribution to the United States’ role in the liberation of our country during World War II,” according to a letter from the French consulate in Boston that is included in Katsaros’s book.

His service awes younger veterans.

“I think we hold veterans of World War II in high regard because of the conditions they lived through,” said Brian Carballo, 35, a former Army Ranger who served in the Middle East and is now enrolled at UMass. “We have weapons now that they didn’t. They didn’t even have insulated boots. It was a different war.”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMc-Cabe.
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