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World War II veteran and Oakland resident Andrew Mousalimas, who served with the OSS - a US Army intelligence unit - and parachuted behind enemy lines into Greece in July 1944 to work with resistance fighters, tries on his Army Airborne baseball cap as he talks about his experiences at home in Oakland, Calif. Monday, April 16, 2012. Mousalimas will speak about those experiences at the USS Hornet museum in Alameda on April 21. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff)

OAKLAND -- They were American soldiers who volunteered for some of the most hazardous duty in World War II, serving behind enemy lines where falling into Nazi hands could mean torture and execution.

But they also were sons of immigrants whose knowledge of European culture and languages made them ideal for the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. intelligence agency that coordinated espionage and other activities behind the lines.

"We heard that there was a unit being formed of Greek-American volunteers," said Andrew Mousalimas, 87. "My parents were from Greece, and my friends and I had grown up in the Greek community in Oakland. We wanted to be part of it. We also wanted to stay together."

Mousalimas will talk Saturday about his experiences -- which include taking part in a commando raid against German troops on an island in the Adriatic Sea -- aboard the USS Hornet aircraft carrier museum in Alameda.

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor just one day after his 17th birthday, Mousalimas said.

On that fateful Sunday he was at Oakland's Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption, where he sang in the choir and gathered with others around a car radio, listening to news of the attack that plunged the United States into World War II.

Less than two years later, Mousalimas was drafted into the U.S. Army and destined to join what became known as the Greek-American Operational Group of the 122nd Infantry Battalion.

His childhood friends Perry and Alex Phillips, of Oakland, also volunteered and were accepted into the unit, Mousalimas said.

"The training was very, very tough," he said. "Marches and hikes went on for miles. They wanted us in the best shape possible and were hard on us."

The attack against the Germans on the island of Solta in Croatia occurred just after dawn on March 18, 1944, he said. The Americans had arrived from the nearby island of Vis during darkness on a gunboat.

Mousalimas can remember the distinctive sound of the German automatic weapons. He immediately fell to the ground for cover when gunfire began.

The legendary Lt. Col. "Mad Jack" Churchill was the leader of a British unit accompanying the Americans. He was known for carrying a longbow, arrows and a Scottish broadsword into battle.

"He said in his British accent, 'Don't worry Yanks, it's a long ways off,' " said Mousalimas, who lives in Oakland. "We got up and continued moving toward the target. The Germans kept firing at us."

Mousalimas helped capture six German soldiers during the engagement. He also saw his first dead enemy soldier.

When he searched the man's uniform, Mousalimas said, he found a photograph of a woman and two children. Memories of the photograph still haunt him, he said.

The German garrison -- made up of about 100 men -- surrendered days later. Mousalimas and his fellow commandos also parachuted into the mountains of Macedonia in August 1944 to help the "Antartes," or Greek resistance fighters, harass the Germans.

Working with partisans was sometimes difficult because of local political allegiances, he said. Many were also worried about German reprisals if they helped the Allies.

"Not one American was betrayed while we were in Greece," Mousalimas said. "I am very proud of that."

After the Nazis were defeated, Mousalimas was sent to Kunming, China, as part of preparing to parachute into Southeast Asia. But then the war ended.

Mousalimas returned to Oakland and eventually opened the former King's X bar on Piedmont Avenue. He retired in 1991 after operating the bar for 23 years. With his wife, Mary, he has four children and seven grandchildren.

About 200 men served in the Greek-American Operational Group. The OSS also created other ethnic units, including Italian-Americans, who served behind the lines.

D-Day and the fighting in Western Europe has overshadowed much of their activities in popular memory, Mousalimas said.

The Greek-Americans also operated in the Balkans, where the British led the Allied effort. That, too, has helped sideline their accomplishments, he said.

In Greece, however, the commandos are applauded for the part they played in defeating Germany. In May 2005, a statue to the men was unveiled in Athens. Mousalimas and other American veterans were on hand for the ceremony.

Mousalimas was still not 21 years old when he was discharged from the Army in October 1945. He had experienced combat and traveled the world. But one thing struck him when he arrived home.

"I couldn't get a drink," he said with a laugh. "I had been all over and they would not serve me in Oakland because I was too young."

Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.

If you go
Andrew Mousalimas will talk about his experiences in World War II at 1 p.m. Saturday aboard the USS Hornet aircraft carrier museum, 707 W. Hornet Ave., Pier 3 in Alameda. Regular museum admission is $6 to $15. For information, go to www.uss-hornet.org or call 510-521-8448.