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Greek CommunityLate WWII Hero John Rigapoulos Through the Eyes of His Niece Catherine

Late WWII Hero John Rigapoulos Through the Eyes of His Niece Catherine

Hellenic News of America
Hellenic News of America
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By Catherine Tsounis

“For the love of country, they accepted death, and thus renounced all debts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.” – James A. Garfield

One such hero is the late WWII Private John Rigapoulos (Rigopoulos), who lost his life fighting for freedom at the Nijmegen Bridge, Netherlands, in 1944. Catherine Metropoulos, his niece, in an interview, explained an amazing story of self-sacrifice by the son of Greek immigrants from Massachusetts.

The late soldier’s life is a living memory in the life of his niece Catherine. Her family told her stories of this handsome 21-year-old who lost his life too soon. Catherine, in an amazing interview, related his military life and her unique search of her late uncle’s military life in the USA and Netherlands.

Pathfinder Team and aircrew, Plane 18, 3rd Battalion, 508 PIR, John Rigapoulos ( 2nd row, 4th from left). Photo from Catherine Metropoulos.

“John Rigapoulos was born on December 20, 1921, in Aldenville, Massachusetts. He was the 3rd child born to Andrew and Demetra Rigas (Rigopoulos). In 1943, the Rigas family moved to New Jersey. John Rigapoulos enlisted, entered the service on October 28, 1942, in Springfield, Massachusetts. The military misspelled his last name, giving it the letter “a” instead of an “o”. John Rigapoulos, however, bravely volunteered as a Pathfinder, and on June 6, 1944, found himself jumping into enemy lines on D-Day.”

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During World War II, the pathfinders were a group of volunteers selected within the Airborne units who were specially trained to operate navigation aids to guide the main airborne body to the drop zones. The pathfinders parachuted into Normandy a full hour ahead of the main airborne assault and six hours before the amphibious troops hit the beaches. Once on the ground, their mission was to seize the drop zones and signal to bring Allied aircraft into the target areas.

“On September 17, 1944, the 82nd Airborne parachuted into Holland near the German border tasked with securing the Nijmegen and Grave bridges, part of the campaign called ‘Operation Market Garden.’ The Grave bridge was easily secured by the paratroopers, but the Nijmegen bridge was not,” Catherine explained. Operation Market Garden, the Allied pursuit of Nazi Germany’s forces across France, and a strategic airborne attempt to advance into Germany during World War II, took place from September 17 to 27, 1944.

“On the afternoon of September 20 and without much cover, the brave men of the 504 were ordered to cross the River Waal in an attempt to secure the Nijmegen bridge from the north. Under incredible odds and with only flimsy, collapsible canvas boats provided by the British without oars, they managed to cross the river’s strong current under heavy gunfire from the enemy. In the first wave, 26 boats departed, with only 11 of them returning to ferry across more paratroopers.

John Rigapoulos dog tag. Photo from Catherine Metropoulos.

My uncle John Rigapoulos made it safely across on the first wave. His thumb was shot off during battle, but he continued fighting, working his way to the Nijmegen bridge along with Lt. Lariviere (Rivers), Bill Hanagan, and others. They stopped at the railroad bridge where Pfc. John Rigapoulos took Lt River’s field glasses to scope out the enemy A German sniper riveted him with bullets, killing him. The Waal River crossing inspired the 1977 movie “A Bridge Too Far.”

Catherine explained, “The Dutch have never forgotten the brave men of the 82nd Airborne 504. In their honor, a plaque with the names of the 48 who died that day was placed near the river where they landed. Every September 20 since the war, Operation Market Garden is commemorated by the nearby De Oversteek school children, the mayor of Nijmegen, dignitaries, veterans, and many who all come to pay tribute to the memory of our fallen soldiers. In 2013, a bridge was built on the exact spot where the crossing took place. May their memories be eternal!” Mrs. Metropoulos participated in such a procession, drinking a toast of ouzo to his memory. She authored a book on her experience and her uncle, donating it to Primary School De Oversteek. She received a posthumous Dutch Medal of Honor award for John Rigopoulos at a ceremony on 9-20-2019 in Nijmegen, Netherlands.

Catherine Metropoulos believes “the heroism and bravery of the WWII generation are unbelievable. My uncle John volunteered for a suicide mission. What 21-year-old does that? The young men were all around 18-21.”

The Rigapoulos family receiving the posthumous medals of the late John Rigapoulos, St. George Greek Orthodox Church, Clifton, N.J. Photo from Catherine Metropoulos.

John Rigapoulos’ death changed his family’s life forever. “When I was a young girl, my mother would speak often and quite proudly of her brother John,” said Catherine “ She told me how her big brother had promised her nylon stockings and a ride in his military jeep when he returned home from the war. She would tell me stories about how he was a parachute jumper and how he had been shot and killed while jumping out of an airplane during WWII. Over the years she purchased many books about the war





All information and photos from Catherine Metropoulos.

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