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Woman gets headstone for uncle killed in World War II

The body of Seaman Third Class Peter Yianopoulos, killed in a 1945 kamikaze attack on his ship, was never found

Karen Yianopoulos stood where a headstone will be placed for her uncle at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Jay Premack for The Boston Globe

Karen Yianopoulos stood where a headstone will be placed for her uncle at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

WASHINGTON — When Karen Yianopoulos’s father, Chrysostomos, visited the nation’s capital from Lowell last year, she took him to the National World War II Memorial. But when they located the service record of his older brother Peter in one of the computer kiosks, she began to regret it.

“He started sobbing and couldn’t stop,” she recalled. “I never saw him cry like that. I said, ‘Oh, Lord, should I have brought him here?’ ’’

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Seaman Third Class Peter Yianopoulos, barely 20 years old, was killed along with 53 others after a kamikaze pilot struck the USS Dickerson on April 2, 1945. The body of the Lowell native, who earned four battle stars, was never recovered.

His niece was determined to do something to help her father and his three other surviving siblings heal. So now Peter Yianopoulos, who took part in four island campaigns in the South Pacific after attending Lowell’s historic Varnum School, soon will get an extremely rare honor among the rows of graves at Arlington National Cemetery: a headstone without a burial.

Less than 1 percent of the 400,000 headstones at the iconic military cemetery mark a member of the military whose body was never retrieved.

Peter’s honor is due to Karen, a Washington-based television news producer who grew up in Lowell and graduated from Northeastern University. She wrote several letters and placed multiple phone calls to the Department of Veterans Affairs and the cemetery before officials agreed to the headstone.

The Boston Globe

Seaman Third Class Peter Yianopoulos, 20, was killed along with 53 others after a kamikaze pilot struck the USS Dickerson on April 2, 1945.

“My family has never had any closure on this,’’ she said.

‘My family has never had any closure on this.’

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Peter was one of four sons and two daughters born to Greek immigrants in Lowell’s Christian Hill section. He followed in the footsteps of his eldest brother, George, an Army medic who had served in China. But Peter joined the Navy, apparently, according to family stories, after fudging his birth date so he would appear old enough.

“I heard so many stories all my life about him,” Karen said, including how he apparently sent home his military pay even though he did not need to.

“He could have had more money for himself,” she said. “He chose not to.”

In early 1945, her uncle was a member of the crew aboard the Dickerson when it was ordered to bombard Japanese positions on the island of Okinawa, which proved to be the last and biggest island battle in the Pacific theater.

Disaster struck the ship on the night of April 2.

“I saw the [Japanese] plane hit the top of number one stack,” one of the ship’s officers wrote in a report. “At that point I was thrown to the deck by a loud blast. Upon recovering my senses only a few seconds later, I found the situation to be grave. The plane had swept the galley deck. . . . The well deck and bridge structure below me were a mass of flames.”

A few moments later, according to an official Navy history, another Japanese plane dropped a bomb and “the explosion tore a hole in the deck almost the complete width of the ship.”

The crew abandoned ship, and the destroyer was towed away and sunk by a salvage crew.

The last time Chrysostomos saw his older brother was before he boarded a bus in Lowell bound for the war.

Jay Premack for The Boston Globe

Karen Yianopoulos wrote several letters to the Department of Veterans Affairs before officials agreed to the headstone. “My family has never had any closure on this,’’ she said.

Chrysostomos said he always regretted not hugging Peter goodbye.

“I was 6 or so. My brother [Christie] was 4. He doesn’t remember,” Chrysostomos, now 77, said in a telephone interview. “We were playing in the dirt and as he was leaving he wanted us to give him a hug, but I was afraid to dirty his uniform.’’

Talking about Peter’s farewell remains difficult all these years later.

“We thought he would be back soon,” he said.

What Chrysostomos remembers most clearly is when the news arrived that Peter was not coming home.

He was the only one of the siblings present.

“This elderly fellow was shaking as he handed the telegram to my mother,” Chrysostomos recalled. “Of course, when she received it, she was so hysterical. She was an opera singer so it carried through the neighborhood.”

He said he had not expected to be so overcome when he recently visited the World War II Memorial on the National Mall with his daughter.

But, he said, trying to steady his voice, his brother “was so young and never came back.”

In the coming weeks, in a corner of Arlington National Cemetery under the shade of a sturdy ginkgo tree, Chrysostomos, his younger brother, Christie, and their sisters, Mary and Esther, plan to attend a ceremony unveiling the only memorial to their brother Peter, and bid him farewell.

“I am so pleased and look forward to coming down,” Chrysostomos said. “The family will love to have that.”

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender
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