As soon as Peter Tsapatsaris parachuted into the Pacific off Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, bombs began falling like rain on the island.
The Marine corporal jumped into a foxhole. There, he saw a familiar face -- James Tsaffaras, a childhood friend from Lowell's Acre neighborhood -- already taking cover. The next one to jump into the foxhole was Tsapatsaris' best friend, James Scondras, aka "the Chief," who led the Lowell High School basketball team to a state championship in 1933.
The reunion provided just a brief reprieve, though. By Feb. 25, Tsapatsaris would find himself bleeding from bullet wounds in both legs for six hours before fellow troops rescued him. He would then hear that a mortar shell had killed Scondras.
"Jimmy died at 6:30 p.m.," Tsapatsaris repeatedly said in an interview.
Those are the grim details of the World War II that Tsapatsaris never used to talk about. But pushing 91, he now shares his stories as a lesson.
"War is hell," Tsapatsaris said. "It's an awful thing."
Tsapatsaris' 87-year-old brother, Charles, believes Memorial Day is a perfect time to remind people of that. The holiday, he said, rekindles the fond memories people have about those who served and those who made the ultimate sacrifice. And honoring the brave souls, like his brother -- who lives in Dracut and led its Memorial Day parade as grand marshal -- helps people appreciate the peace they enjoy even more.
"I feel pretty good about it," Tsapatsaris said of his role as grand marshal as he sat on the porch of the Greek American Legion in Lowell, where he participated in its Memorial Day ceremony. "I'm very proud of what I have done for the country."
"He is a true American hero," said his friend, Byron Zakos.
Like most World War II veterans, Tsapatsaris for years would seldom talk about his war experiences.
"It was never about them," Panagiotakos said. "It was about us."
Tsapatsaris who earned two Purple Hearts for his bravery and injuries in World War II, is a humble man. His friend, Harold Moshovetis, vice commander of the local Greek American Legion, calls him a "first-class" Marine.
The Lowell High School graduate enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1943 at the age of 25 and served through the end of the war as a corporal.
His three-year tour of duty would teach him a simple truth about battlefields: "You have to be lucky in order to survive."
Tsapatsaris particularly remembers jumping into a trench in Guam when he saw grenades flying toward him. He would stay there overnight, buried from the neck down in human feces, knowing that Japanese soldiers were scouring the area for enemies to kill.
Another night, he slept on a pile of Japanese soldiers' bodies.
People must know such grisly details to understand the reality of war, Tsapatsaris said.
"That's what war is all about," he said.
Despite his Purple Hearts, Tsapatsaris never bragged about his war experience, said his cousin, George Behrakis.
In fact, his family has had a tough time trying to get stories out of him, said his brother, Charles, who fought in the invasion of the Philippines during the World War II.
Their three other brothers, George, who later served as superintendent of Lowell's public schools, Steven and the late Michael, all served in the Korean War.
To this day, Tsapatsaris, who worked for Courier Corp. for 37 years after the war, talks more about Scondras and how he was "one of the best guys you would want to get to know."
He also often thinks about Tsaffaras, who died two years ago.
Tsapatsaris still has shrapnel from war wounds is still in Tsapatsaris' kneecap. On some days, it hurts almost as much as the reminder of his war memories.
Tsapatsaris said he has always taught his son, who is a doctor at Lahey Clinic in Burlington, and his daughter, who works in the banking industry, to stay out of war. There is nothing good about it, he told them.
And he wants to say the same to the younger generation.
"Not many people can tell stories like the ones I have," Tsapatsaris said.