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For young immigrant, World War II led to new life in America

Harry and Maria Koukos have a unique love story that started with World War II and now continues in South Portland.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Harry Koukos sat, smiling, on the outside deck of his apartment with his wife, Maria, at his side and their sons laughing and joking with them.

"Seventy-one years, honey," Maria said. 

Their wedding anniversary is a few weeks away. That wedding and their lives together were made possible by the war.

Harry was 14 years old when he left Albania and Greece to come to America. He did not speak any English. Just four years later, in 1942, even though he was not a U.S. citizen, Harry joined the Army. 

"I wasn't a citizen then, and I could have refused to serve, but I didn't want to refuse. I wanted to go," he said, on the warm November day. 

Eighteen-year-old Harry became a soldier as a rifleman and machine gunner in the 45th Infantry Division. They were sent overseas to Italy, a difficult and brutal part of the war, made even harder for the division when it charged ashore on the beach at Anzio. 

"Anzio, in the beginning, it wasn't too bad," Harry said but added that they did not come ashore with enough soldiers and equipment to secure victory quickly. 

The fighting went on for many weeks as the Germans put up fierce resistance. 

"My platoon was 41 men, and at the end of a couple days, of 41 men, there were 13 left," he said.

Asked if he was scared during the fighting, Harry said it got scary when enemy shells would land close to his foxhole.

"And believe it or not, I was thinking how my father was going to act."

But Harry made it through Anzio and Italy ... then to France, where he wasn't so lucky. As his unit was advancing, a Geman bullet found Harry. It hit his knee and forearm, he said, and then his chest.

But by chance, Harry had bandoliers of ammunition strapped across his chest.

"And fortunately, when the bullet hit my chest, it hit the bandolier and ricocheted off," he said.

He remembers getting up and running about 50 yards, then collapsing from dizziness and loss of blood.

Sent to a hospital in Naples, Harry never returned to combat but was transferred to an engineer unit where he finished the war. 

His rank after 2 1/2 years in the Army? 

"PFC," he laughed, knowing there hadn't been many promotions. 

But Harry Koukos got something better than stripes. For his service to his adopted country, Harry was made a U.S. citizen. Maria, meanwhile, had a very different war.

She was just 11 years old, in her small village in Greece, when the war came close to home.

"The Germans, the Italians, the bombs. We're running, we're hiding in the mountains. I remember all that, really scared," she said.

In 1950, Maria came to the U.S. with her brother, who was badly wounded in the Greek civil war that devolved out of World War II. They were invited to visit other Greeks in Westbrook. By then, Harry had moved to the Portland area for work, and they met. 

"When I saw him, I really liked him," she laughed, patting his knee. "He was nice looking. I was 19."

They married, opened a small store in South Portland called the Market Basket, and raised a family of six children. 

"November 26 will be 71 years," Maria said. "Day and night, we work together. We have family, six kids, three girls, three sons, son-in-laws, grandkids."

A life of hard work, they said, but now, in their 90s, with a comfortable home close to family, Maria said they have earned a piece of the American dream.

   

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