If Sam Caras was anything, he was a believer. In their quiet Grant Creek home, on a crisp, sparkling spring day, Sam Caras' daughter and son-in-law remember the man they describe as happy, jovial, and talkative.
His daughter, Ethel describes him as a man "determined to do whatever he could for whatever good cause."
Ethel and her husband Gerald Diettert celebrate her father's life with pride.
"Why are you writing about my father," she asks, as she leans forward, eyes bright and curious.
And I tell her what I can. I am there to learn about our shared heritage, about a man who grew up in the Peloponnese in Greece, fought in wars and settled in Missoula, Montana. A man much like my grandfather.
What I don't tell her, is that maybe in her father's life, I can better understand what it was to be one of them, the Greek immigrants who settled the Garden City, who walked in a new world with bright hope, but never really left the Old World behind.
Gerald Diettert is an expert in all things Sam Caras.
He wrote a book detailing Sam and his brother Jim's immigration to Missoula, their business and their families. That book, internet research into military records, and time spent with the Dietterts are the basis for this article.
Sam Caras was born in Agridi, Greece in 1888. He joined his older brother, Jim, in Missoula. The Dietterts recall that Sam left Ellis Island with little more than $50 in his pocket and a note pinned to his coat that said roughly, "Sam Caras c/o Jim Caras, Missoula, Montana."
During the years ahead, he settled in Missoula, opened a family business with his brother and survived three wars, two in Balkans and World War I. Those who knew him called him the "Soldier Florist," according to an article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle from March 18, 1931.
When the Balkan Wars, 1912-1913, began, Sam was in Missoula. But he quickly returned to Greece to fight in a cause he believed in.
Those two short Balkan Wars were fought for the possession of the European territories of the Ottoman Empire. The first conflict began in October of 1912. In that, Greece and Montenegro joined the original allies. That move was followed by the speedy expulsion of the Turks from all of European Turkey, except the Constantinople area.
But the settlement terms did not agree with the Serbians. They demanded a larger share of Macedonia from the Bulgarians. In June of 1913, Bulgaria attacked Serbia and, in turn, was attacked by Romania, Greece and Turkey. By the time it ended with the Treaty of Bucharst, August of 1913, Bulgaria lost territory to all her enemies. The Balkans laid the way for World War I by satisfying some of Serbia's desires, alarming Austria-Hungary and leaving Bulgaria and Turkey dissatisfied.
Sam rapidly moved through the ranks of the Greek Army. By the time he returned to Montana, Sam had been promoted to Lieutenant. With the Balkan Wars behind him, it was time to work on the family business that had started with a small fruit stand by the Missoula downtown railroad depot.
Diettert writes: "Late in 1917, Sam decided it would be a great adventure to fight the Huns but was again discouraged when a friend told him he could not join the Army because he was not a citizen."
In his diary, Sam writes, "I wanted to volunteer. I wasn't a citizen, they couldn't take me. But if I lived in this country, I had to do my duty by it."
But then came a welcome surprise.
In January of 1918, Sam learned not only would the Army take him, they would grant him citizenship if he enlisted. It was the perfect answer.
By March 18, he was enlisted. Records indicate he was assigned to Headquarters Company of the 364th Infantry Regiment, Ninety-First or "Wild West Division" at Camp Lewis.
This photo shows his enlistment papers:
On September 26th, Sam would get his first taste of battle.
His regiment reported to the Forest de Hesse to take over the French trenches.
Sam's company reached the trenches at one in the morning on September 26th. At around 2:30 AM, "There came a single dull boom that sounded like a close blast of dynamite".
In his personal diary, Sam described the barrage as "a thousand faint rolling echoes of that first far-sounding boom that we had heard. The horizon became fearfully lit with faint, flickering flushes of pale, ghostly light, and that was like the far-distant play of headlights on a summer night. The murmur of sound grew to a high rumbling growl, emphasizing every few seconds by a deep thunderous roar."
The described barrage did not end until 5:30 in the morning.
Then the troops were ordered to "get out" and "go over".
They moved up over the hill that had protected them from German fire during the night, and with a limited visibility of around ten yards because of morning fog, they pressed forward through heavy German fire.
Sam recounts, "A shell exploded not more than ten yards away. I closed my eyes and when I opened them again there were in front of me six bodies - three entirely unrecognizable and the other not so badly smashed, and part of another man."
Sam was "shaking like a leaf. I was stunned. I couldn't move for the life of me. This was the worst sight I had ever seen. I don't know how long I stayed there, gazing away like an idiot, when our lieutenant came over and patted me on the back and said, "Caras, isn't this an awful sight? Let's get away from here. I can't stand it."
Sam continued to fight bravely for his new country over several months.
On November 9th, his regiment marched to Audenarde, ready to relieve French forces.
By six in the evening, the regiment was in the front lines, ready to attack at 6AM the following morning, November 11th.
But at midnight they received orders to delay the attack until 10Am, then told that there would be "no offensive this morning".
Soon the news of the armistice arrived.
In the days after the news, American soldiers celebrated in the streets with their French and Belgian counterparts. They watched groups of cheerful refugees begin their journeys home and saw American and Belgian flags mounted on nearly every window.
The war was over.
Soon the soldiers would go home.
Sam Caras would return to Missoula, Montana, his adopted home where he would work with his brother, Jim, in the Garden City Floral Company. He supported Greek organizations, like AHEPA, raised his daughters and made his mark in Missoula with a thriving business that, to this day, bears the Caras name.
Sam Caras died on November 23, 1978. He was 90 years old. His obituary noted he was a member of the Mason's Harmony Lodge 13, Scottish Rite Bodies, White Shrine, Bagdad Temple of Shriners, Order of Eastern Star (Emanuel Chapter), the first president of the Hawthorne PTA, and past president of the Orchard Homes Country Life Club and Montana Florists Association.
But the Greeks just remember him as someone who made them proud.
We've sat for over an hour now, Ethel and Gerald Diettert and I.
She's getting tired. I can tell.
But her eyes still sparkle.
We talk about Greeks for a few minutes. I tell her where my grandfather is from, how he ended up fighting in the Greek Army against the Germans and then against his own countrymen in the Greek Civil War.
We talk about how both Sam and my grandfather came to the US with a few "dollars in their pocket", how they worked railroads and struggled with English, and finally made a niche for themselves in a little town in Montana.
New Americans, tested in the fires of war. Always proud.
"Incoming Americans", by Gerald Diettert
Personal interview of Gerald and Ethel Diettert, May 8, 2013, Missoula, Montana
Spokane Daily Chronicle, March 18, 1931
National Archives, Caras' service record
History of Missoula's Early Greek Community, Missoulian, 1914