Video | The Giftos brothers in WWII
PITTSFIELD — Peter C. Giftos was 14 when World War II began.
He had four older brothers, and like many of their peers at the time, they soon all enlisted and deployed with the U.S. military to do what they felt was their duty to avenge the naval men and civilians lost in the attack on Pearl Harbor and defend their nation.
"Back in 1941, after Pearl Harbor was bombed, the patriotism was running so high, no one ever gave it any thought [not to enlist]," Giftos said. "We never realized how horrible war is, that war truly is hell. But every red-blooded American wanted to get back at the Japanese, Hitler and Mussolini. They were the devil to many people."
With Veterans Day nearing, Giftos sat down with The Berkshire Eagle last week and shared the family story of five brothers in arms.
The Giftos brothers were all born as first-generation Americans to their Greek immigrant parents, Charles C. and Helen Giftos. There's a 10-year span between the oldest, S. Charles or "Charlie," and the youngest, Peter or "Pete." The other brothers, in order of descending age included Arthur, William, and John — better known as Art, Bill and Jack, respectively.
Peter recalled how appreciative his father was to become a U.S. citizen and to be able to raise his family in a democracy.
"My father used to say, 'Don't you ever let me hear you say anything bad about this country,' " he said. "He was proud of America."
Their father's values flowed through their hearts and souls, as the young men grew up on Robbins Avenue and graduated from Pittsfield High School. Some went on to attend colleges at prestigious places like Williams College and Amherst College, and develop career interests.
But with wartime, everything changed.
With no television back then, the radio became the only way the Giftos family could keep track of their four boys; two in the Army and two in the Navy. Peter, too young to enlist then, remembers the broadcasts vividly.
"The radio was on all the time. My mother was so worried," he said. "Two of our boys were involved in incidents announced on the radio where we thought they were dead."
He remembered how his mother each day would warily watch for a boy on a bicycle, whose role it was to deliver to families telegrams about the fate of their loved ones, predominantly all young men at that time.
But the dreaded telegrams never arrived to the Giftos family door.
After one particularly tragic incident as German troops invaded France, Charlie, an Army lieutenant, was listed as missing in action. Eventually Charlie emerged and was able to rejoin his fellow troops and help others in the process, which earned him a Bronze Star.
Another time Art, who also served in the Army, was stationed at a small island in the Pacific assigned to guard munitions being stockpiled there. Once discovered, it became a target and was bombed by Japanese troops. The Giftos family in Pittsfield heard about it in another radio broadcast airing in their living room.
But they would later learn Art happened to have taken a 24-hour pass that day to visit another island and missed the attack.
"Someone was watching out for these boys, I tell you," Giftos said. He said they were lucky in that no one was injured in battle.
But much like other veterans who had seen combat action, the Giftos brothers did not return entirely unscathed.
Peter described how his brother, John, developed "a nervous condition," and hardly talked about the war.
While on duty as a Navy medic with the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga, it was crippled severely by torpedoes and Kamikaze planes with hundreds of crew members instantly lost.
"All he would remember was that he saw pieces of his friends everywhere," Giftos said. John was honored for helping many men survive, but later in life he would have nightmares, his brother remembered.
Peter himself was 17 when he applied to the Army, but he wasn't drafted until age 18. He left as his older brothers were beginning to return home.
Today, Giftos jokes that despite having four siblings in combat zones, he was "the only one to get hurt."
He took quite a few punches, but it was not in fighting for his country but rather fighting for the rights of others.
As he recalls, he had boarded a bus on his way to Fort Knox when a smaller African American woman boarded with bags of groceries in each arm. Before she could make her way to the back, the driver lurched onward, causing the woman to lose her balance and her bags.
"I was the only one to help her pick up her things," he said. "Then as soon as I gave her my seat the bus driver stopped."
Against the young recruit's pleas, the driver told the woman to leave. The incensed Giftos couldn't contain his ire.
"I threw the bus driver," he said. "Next thing I knew, there were six fellas on my back."
Giftos was arrested, brought to base and endured a hearing. "They called me a stupid Yankee," he said.
Back in Pittsfield, Giftos said some of his best friends were of other races and ethnicities. "What happened on the bus, I didn't like that."
Reflecting on his own life and other wars, Giftos said, "Many people just don't appreciate how lucky [they] are to be in America."
He acknowledged how the Vietnam War "soured a lot of people in our country" about the military, but he said it's unfair the way people treated the troops who were sent over there.
"A lot of those boys suffered too, but worked hard, and my hat goes off to [them]," he said.
He said he and his brothers were lucky to come home and go into business together in wholesale candy, coffee and tobacco sales. "We had our times and we had our differences, but overall, we survived," Giftos said.
Because of his family's experiences, Peter said he regularly takes the time to meet other veterans and veterans' families to hear about their experiences. He said he has friends from the Vietnam and Korean wars, a younger relative who just got back from Afghanistan and another grandson who's currently training in the Army Rangers program.
"I'm very proud of these boys. All kinds of war is hell," he said, noting that the frostbite and trauma veterans endured in Korea during the so-called Forgotten War should not be dismissed in vain.
"They had quite a time too," he said.