Give Another Hoiah: The Chief Will Never Die

By John W. Gearan ’65

On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, the U.S. Marines storm the volcano-ash beaches of Iwo Jima, a tiny island with strategically important airstrips that is entrenched with 22,000 Japanese soldiers vowing to fight to their deaths.

Running amid the invasion mayhem, Peter “Red” Tsapatsaris finds shelter from withering machine-gun crossfire by sliding into an enlarged foxhole. Looking up, he sees a very familiar face, Jimmy Tsaffaras, his best friend from Lowell, Mass. 

Then, something only Hollywood might invent happens. “A short time later, I see our pal ‘The Chief ’ trudging by,’’ recalls Tsapatsaris, now 89. “‘Hey, over here,’ I yell, and Jimmy Scondras jumps in with us. Imagine three Greeks from The Acre in Lowell, 7,000 miles from home, landing in the same foxhole.”

Impossible to imagine, but true. Sgt. Tsaffaras, First Lt. Scondras ’43 and Cpl. Tsapatsaris grew up in The Acre, an immigrant-springboard neighborhood, then also known as Greektown. All graduated from Lowell High. Because he had high cheekbones and the daring of a Native American brave, his pals nicknamed Jimmy Scondras “The Chief.” They called Tsapatsaris “Red” because of his hair. Scondras ’43 signed on with the U.S. Marines Corps Reserves at Holy Cross. Tsaffaras joined the Marines in April 1942, Tsapatsaris, in November 1943.

Now they are together again, in a foxhole, in mortal danger. The reunion lasts only 20 minutes. “Jimmy (Tsaffaras) put together a quick meal for us from a can of scrambled eggs,” recalls Tsapatsaris.

“Then ‘The Chief ’ and I are off to find our units.’’ Lowell, a proud industrial mill city along the Merrimack River less than an hour northwest of Boston, is in the limelight these days. It serves as the backdrop for the Oscar-nominated film The Fighter, a familiar story of an impoverished pug punching his way to a boxing crown. Mark Wahlberg plays “Irish” Micky Ward, who battles back to win a 1991 alphabet-soup championship while overcoming emotional entanglements with his dysfunctional family. The well-done bio-flick is causing a pleasant buzz in Lowell. Everyone seems to know Micky Ward, who still runs a boxing gym there. They are basking in his fame, however ephemeral.

But even along Highland Street, where his name still graces the entrance to a community gymnasium, hardly anyone asked recognizes the name of James P. Scondras.

Though Scondras’ heroic deeds are part of Lowell lore, you have to visit places like The Owl Diner and the Greek American Legion in The Acre to hear older folks speak, with reverence, about “The Chief.”

Scondras grew up during the Depression, living on the edge of The Acre at 287 Dutton Street. His Greek immigrant parents, Peter and Katina, somehow supported their eight children by running a small downtown restaurant, The Busy Bee, on Merrimack Street.

“The Chief ” achieved athletic stardom early on. As a Lowell High sophomore he hit .400 and stole eight
bases in 20 games. As a junior he sparked Lowell to a state basketball championship in the old Tech Tourney. As a senior, Scondras scored eight touchdowns as a starring halfback; as basketball captain, he led the team in scoring; in baseball, he hit .345 while leading the team in triples, homers and
runs batted in.

“Jimmy was terrific at everything he tried,’’ says Stephen Ivos, his first cousin. “He could play every position in baseball, football and basketball. He was a champion diver for the YMCA swim team.” His athletic resume glitters: Captain and catcher for the American Legion team that played in the 1936
National Championship Tournament in Middleton, Ohio; his stellar play for the city football champs, the Blackhawks; and his baseball feats in the Greater Lowell Twilight League and, for Glens Falls, N.Y., in the Northern League.

A natural leader. Handsome, humble and on the quiet side. Yet very social and quite a dancer. Took a part in the senior class play. Always active in his church. “Everybody loved the guy,” says Ivos, fighting back tears after all these years.

After a year at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass., The Chief arrived at Holy Cross ready to make his mark as a Crusader sensation.

“He’s a player’s player and this year has only scratched the surface of his ability,’’ crowed The Tomahawk student newspaper in January 1941 about the three-sport standout. In his second year on The Hill,  Scondras impressed as a hard-nosed two-way halfback in football. As a starting guard, he helped re-launch the Holy Cross basketball program under Coach Ed “Moose” Krause, sparking the Crusaders’ upset over hosting Amherst College before 1,800 fans on Lincoln’s Birthday, 1941.

That baseball season, under the immortal Coach Jack Barry ’10, Scondras hit cleanup. At packed Fitton Field before a homecoming crowd, Holy Cross trounced Boston College, 11-2, in the final game of the 1941 season. Wrote Roy Mumpton of the Worcester Telegram, “The old grads cheered loudly as Jim ‘Chief ’ Scondras shattered a 1-1 tie with a tremendous three-run triple in the third inning … and their din crescendoed as the Lowell sophomore followed this decisive hit with three straight singles and hoisted his batting average to an almost unbelievable .471.”

In his third and fourth years, Scondras excelled as a versatile two-way halfback whose teams nearly stunned Boston College (14-13 last-minute loss) in 1941 and then shocked the Eagles in a historic 55-12 upset before 40,000 fans at Fenway Park. In basketball, he sparked a thrilling 47-45 victory over Brown University, scoring eight points to energize Holy Cross’ fourth-period comeback. His hitting keyed baseball victories over Harvard, Yale and Boston College in a war-shortened 1942 season.

But World War II had to be fought.  In the spring of 1943, fourth-year student Scondras became one of the first in his class to sign on with the Marine Reserves, joining a team called the Third Division.

When Scondras left that foxhole on the beaches of Iwo Jima, he knew all too well the grave danger of his task. Seven months before, in Guam, on D-Day (July 21, 1944), Scondras had already been cited for acts of heroism after crawling to the top of a rocky ridge and lobbing a hand grenade into a Japanese machine nest, silencing it.

As a forward observer with his artillery unit, Scondras would have to scout out the enemy, concealed in caves and tunnels, and direct incoming firepower. According to a citation accompanying his Silver Star Medal, “On Feb. 22, 1945. First Lt. Scondras boldly pressed forward against the withering barrage to the top of a steep jagged cliff where he could better observe the enemy. From this exposed position, he directed artillery and naval gunfire to silence Japanese attacks and allow the infantry to capture the airstrip.”

The next day, the Marines erected the American flag atop Mount Suribachi, an emblematic act  memorialized by a now famous photo and a bronze sculpture at Arlington National Cemetery.

Two days later, First Lt. Scondras was struck by mortar fire and killed. “His radioman was badly wounded by the same shell that killed Jimmy,’’ says Red Tsapatsaris. “The radioman and I were in beds next to each other on a hospital ship. He told me about Jimmy’s terrible death. We couldn’t stop crying.”

First Lt. Scondras was buried on Iwo Jima near the base of Mount Suribachi, his grave among others marked by a simple white cross.  On March 29, 1949, Scondras’ body was brought home for interment in
Lowell’s Woodland Cemetery along with that of his brother David P. Scondras, an Army infantryman who
died in action in France in November 1944. Their gold-star mother and father stood at Lot 154 with family and friends for the burial ceremony. The Chief ’s Marine buddies from the foxhole, Jimmy Tsaffaras and Red Tsapatsaris, were there, too, wearing their medals received for their courage and wounds
suffered on Iwo Jima. They all grieved the deaths of the Scondras brothers and their first cousin, Costas Ivos, buried in an adjacent plot, and remembered the 36 other sons of Lowell killed during World War II.

Tsapatsaris, one of six children, retired after a long career as a proofreader for book publisher Courier Corporation. Tsaffaras, one of nine children, died at age 89 in 2009, after a distinguished career as a Lowell police officer. A new gymnasium was dedicated in Scondras’ name in 1965. Every Thanksgiving,
the Scondras MVP trophy is presented at the Lowell-Lawrence football game. In 1986, Scondras was enshrined in the Lowell High Hall of Fame. And, in 1990, The Chief gained entry to the Holy Cross Varsity Club’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

“‘The Chief ’ will never die,” says Tsapatsaris. “He will always be Lowell’s shining star.”

John W. Gearan ’65 was an award winning reporter and columnist for the Worcester Telegram and  Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Rhode Island.