CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES

World War II

Thomas Geannakakes

World War II Oral History Interview
US Army Air Corps, 389th Bomb Group
Date: November 6, 2017
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Jenna Paterno

Summary

Thomas Geannakakes was born in April 1924 in Newark, New Jersey. His father was a World War I veteran. Geannakakes was only eighteen years old when he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the military. He reported to Fort Dix, New Jersey in June of 1942, for service in World War II. Geannakakes would go on to serve in the Army Air Forces 2nd Air Division’s 389th Bomb Group as a flight engineer on a B-24 Liberator bomber. He was transferred from Fort Dix to Miami Beach, Florida, for basic training. Geannakakes wanted to become an aviation officer candidate; but, upon completion of basic training, he was assigned to Biloxi, Mississippi’s airplane engine school to train as a mechanic. He also studied aerial gunnery at Tyndall Field, Florida.

Thomas Geannakakes

Geannakakes’ Liberator’s crew was assembled in Casper, Wyoming with a total of ten men. There, they trained together with other crews in formation flying, which would be critical to successful bombing missions overseas. Before leaving for the war, Geannakakes made a final visit to his home in New Jersey, after which he was shipped out to England, docking in Southampton, and traveling by truck to the air base in Hethel.

The Hethel Army Air Force Base hosted the 2nd Air Division’s 389th Bomb Group. Geannakakes was at the base a mere two days before he was in the air with his crew.  His duties included checking before a mission to be sure that the mechanical components on the plane were flight-ready, that there was enough fuel, and that the engine functioned properly. He discovered and remedied a variety of technical problems in his plane before and during flights. Once, prior to a flight, Geannakakes discovered a bubble in one of the plane’s tires. He told the pilot not to take off, because it was extremely dangerous. The pilot agreed, and the tire was changed. Geannakakes had witnessed a tire explosion which caused severe damage to another plane and did not want it to happen to his own.

He said some flights would be around six hours in length and could be above 10,000 feet, where the temperature was freezing. During one flight, the bomb bay doors of the plane froze in an open position after the bombs were dropped. Ice had formed on the components that held the doors closed. With a couple of strategic kicks, Geannakakes managed to break the ice and raise the doors. He described some temperatures as dropping to twenty degrees (Fahrenheit) below zero.

Geannakakes and his crew received special equipment to wear during these frozen flights, including what he described as an “electric suit,” which could be plugged into a socket to warm the wearer.  At such high altitude, breathing also become difficult. Above 10,000 feet, the crew was required to wear oxygen masks. They also had throat microphones for clearer communication. Food and drink were prohibited on board, because it would quickly become frozen. Geannakakes said that the cold temperature did not bother him, because he became used to it.

Thomas Geannakakes

Geannakakes served on a total of 28 bombing missions, some of which he described as incredibly successful due to the skill of the bombardier. During combat missions, Geannakakes was stationed on the upper turret seat of the plane. On non-combat missions, he sat near the pilot. Geannakakes occasionally sat in the seats of gunners. During combat missions, his team encountered a lot of flak. During these missions, heavy “flak” (shrapnel) was inevitable. The German anti-aircraft ammunition could do severe damage to aircraft. He noted that on one occasion, his plane was hit, and the flak penetrated a crew member’s seat.  Fortunately, the crewman was in another section of the plane at the time. After that incident, everyone sat on their “flak jackets” which were essentially armored vests, that protected them from potentially dangerous fragments. Geannakakes also always carried a parachute with him in case of emergency.

Geannakakes’ missions ranged from France to Czechoslovakia. On one April 1945 mission, a Colonel John R. Herboth decided to fly in the lead plane, a spot generally held by Geannakakes’ crew. Geannakakes did not know why the Colonel wanted to take the lead plane, but it became a violent mission. The team encountered ME-109 fighter planes, and one of them flew into the cockpit of the Colonel’s plane. The debris from the plane hit two neighboring planes, and all went down. Geannakakes and his team then took the lead in the bombing mission and successfully destroyed their target. He believed if Colonel Herboth, who was listed as “missing in action” did not take the lead plane that day, he and his team would have been destroyed. 

Thomas Geannakakes (standing on left) with his crew.

During his service, Geannakakes had the opportunity to meet some famous figures. General Patton was quickly moving through Germany and was running out of supplies. Colonel James Stewart and General Doolittle requested Geannakakes to be their flight engineer when loading the supplies onto the planes, to ensure the weight was evenly distributed on the plane. Geannakakes said he was absolutely honored to be their flight engineer.

On November 8, 1945, Geannakakes was honorably discharged. He returned home to his family in New Jersey, where he was greeted with a nice dinner, and then returned to his normal schedule around the house. Geannakakes used GI benefits for courses in engineering, though he never finished a formal degree. In the post-war period, he joined veterans’ groups including the American Legion and the VFW. His B-24’s crew also remained in contact with one another and had a reunion during the anniversary of the end of the war in 1976 in Ohio, then two more reunions after that.

Geannakakes was the last survivor of his crew. He said his wife is the one who keeps him going. Geannakakes was awarded numerous medals, including the AAF Air Crew Members Badge; Pistol Marksmanship; Good Conduct Medal; European, African, Middle East Service Medal with Four Bronze Stars, Air Medal with Two Oak Leaf Clusters; Victory Campaign Medal; WWII Medal, and the Presidential Unit Citation.

Thomas Geannakakes passed away in Naples, Florida in August of 2019.

Researchers

Researchers interested in viewing our collections should contact Mr. Joseph Bilby, Assistant Curator, at (732) 974-5966.