Witness to History — Summer of 1974 Part 2

On 20 July 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus and Greece was at war. My mother and I were visiting my relatives in Greece.  My uncle took me to the American Embassy to find out what to do in this time of crisis in Greece.  I learned that while I could be evacuated since I was an American citizen by birth, my mother was considered a Greek National, even though she had American Citizenship.  Thus, Greece as her country of birth could retain her over any objections by America.  If Greece made that decision, I would return to the United States, alone, where I had no family.  I was terrified.  I learned a lesson in international law the hard way.  I lived it.

International law differentiates between citizens and nationals.  A citizen can be by birth or naturalization.  A national is someone born in a country, but not necessarily a citizen. The reasons can vary.

My uncle told us a story of a young man who had come to Greece on his honeymoon only to be arrested at customs.  The man had left Greece as a baby and was a naturalized citizen of the United States.  While not a citizen, Greece considered him a national and arrested him for not fulfilling his mandatory military service.  Everyone laughed at the story when he told us.  I no longer thought it funny.

In my mother’s case, she relinquished her Greek citizenship and became an American Citizen.  But, under international law, because she was born in Greece, she was a Greek national.  If Greece decided to exert jurisdiction over her, America could protest through diplomatic channels but could not act. Greece held the trump card over whether my mother could leave Greece. I had no family in the United States, without my mother, what would happen to me?

I sat in my aunt and uncle’s house in Piraeus listening to the American radio station for any evacuation orders.  I was worried sick that the order would come and my mother would have to remain.  The television in the parlor was on but the government controlled stations only showed costumed dancers performing Greek traditional dances or pictures of historic sites with music playing in the back ground.

My aunt would enter the room and glare at the TV saying, ‘until they figure out what to tell us they want us to feel patriotic in our ignorance.’  I sat.  Watched.  Listened.  And grew up a lot.  Learned as much as I could from my family.

In 1974, Greece was ruled by a military junta, in Greek, Xouvta.  The Colonels Regime as it was also called, was a right-wing military dictatorship that came into power with a coup d’état on 21 April 1967.  The Junta imposed martial law, censorship, mass arrests, beatings, torture and exile.

My uncle told me with pain still lining his face how he tried to get permission to take my cousin to Bulgaria for an operation, the anti-communist Junta denied the request.  A small example of what the dictatorship did to repress the Greek populace during their reign.

Months before my mother and I arrived in Greece for our summer vacation.  The students at the Polytechnic University (Πολυτεχνείο) in Athens began a massive demonstration against the Junta on 14 November 1973.

I remember watching the student protest at the Polytechneion on American television. This student protest was preceded by protests by law students at the Law School on 21 February 1973.  I remember watching the Polytechneion protests.  The grainy footage on our black and white television showed the massive gate of the university chained shut.  The students waiving their arms in protest behind it.  The chants in Greek.  My mother didn’t worry about it affecting our summer trip months away.  So removed in American, she had no idea about the real state of affairs in Greece.  Her family unable to tell her for fear telephones were bugged and mail read.

The students of the Polytechneion barricaded themselves in and broadcast from their radio station across Athens.  Thousands of people joined them.  The streets surrounding the university were crowed with supporters, young and old.

A curfew was declared. Then on 16 November, lights across the city were cut off.  More and more tanks and soldiers surrounded the university and in the early morning hours of 17 November 1973, the first tank crashed through the gates of the Polytechnic violently crushing the student protest.

Among the Junta leadership, the most right wing generals, upset with the state of affaires, instigated a counter-coup, bringing Taxiarkhos Dimitrios Ioannides into power.  Wanting to unite Cyprus with Greece, Ioannides attempted a coup against the president of Cyprus on 15 July 1974.  The coup became the pretext for the subsequent Turkish invasion of Cyprus on 20 July 1974.

From the whispered conversations around my aunt and uncle’s table, I learned how we had reached this moment where Cyprus had been invaded, Greece was at war and American might issue an evacuation order of Americans from Greece.  An evacuation that would get me out of Greece, with or without my mother.

Telephone lines worked sporadically.  Most of what we learned was through word of mouth. Few people felt courageous enough to venture far from their families.  My uncle was one.  He rode his motorcycle through Pireaus connecting with friends. Without reliable information, your ability to make decisions is hampered.  You don’t know what is happening two streets over let alone miles away in the government offices in Athens.

My godfather in the United States called as often as he could get through.  He wanted to make sure my mother understand the severity of the situation.  He had a short wave radio and was able to get sporadic radio reports from European broadcasts and became fearful with the news that he received. He started out counseling my mother to leave with me immediately.  With each refusal by my mother, he grew more heated in his arguments.  He worried so much about us and whether we might become trapped in Greece that by the end of the conversation his language grew more and more colorful.  He changed tactic.  When he next called, he asked me. He urged me to get our passports and get to the airport where he would have tickets ready.  My mother snatched the telephone away and told him no and hung up.  My aunt hovered nearby concern etched over her face, unwilling to interfere with my mother’s decision because my mother was her older sister.  But she feared for our safety.  Having lived under the Junta, she understood better the risks my mother was taking.  My father’s side of the family is known for their stubbornness.  I’ve always been proud that I’m like them.  Now I wondered if I didn’t get it from both sides.

Time passed slowly.  The ticking of the clock, static on the radio, the drone of patriotic music from the television, the whispers of huddled neighbors floating through the open windows of hot summer days became the white noise of our existence. My aunt and uncle’s house was small and I slept on the pull-out bed in the parlor, so the minute I awoke, the television was turned on.

I don’t know how many hours, days or minutes passed before the news finally broke that the Junta had fallen.  People celebrated in the streets.  Television went live and we were told a new government was in place. Newspaper headlines announced the end of the Junta tyranny.

I remember playing outside, when the ground shook and a distant rumbling filled the air.  I ran with the other children and adults to the main road.  This road led from the center of Athens into Piraeus.  With other stunned Greek citizens, I watched as tank after tank, anti-aircraft missile launchers, and other massive military machinery moved through city streets.  Cars stopped and drivers stood outside their vehicles and watched with us.  Women held hands to their faces and men huddled in groups talking. My aunt materialized by my side.  She said, ‘what did the Colonels need all of that in the heart of Athens.’  I said to her, ‘isn’t that for the war?’  She shook her head sadly and said, ‘no that was for the students and for us.’

In the next few weeks, Greece had a new government fulfilling its destiny as the nation that created democracy. When I returned to the United States I studied and learned as much as I could about international law and politics eventually majoring in it at University of California Berkeley.  I became a news junkie wanting to know what was happening in the world and especially in Greece.  But I learned fundamentally that politics is like a onion with many deeply hidden layers.

In the summer of 1974, I saw the final days of a military dictatorship, saw the birth of a new government in Greece and learned a lesson about international law.  Mostly I cherished the freedom I once took for granted as an American.

Years later returning to Greece on another visit, my cousins and I were at a night club when they pointed out an older man happily partying at a nearby table with lots of booze, food and friends.  He was well dressed, good-looking, completely at ease. My cousins said he had been one of the torturers under the Colonels Regime.  Astonished I blurted out, ‘why isn’t he in jail?’  One of my cousins retorted, ‘we don’t have enough prisons for all the torturers.’

Later that year one of the television stations in Greece ran a mini-series dealing with the student protest at the Polytechneion.  The series showed actual and dramatized footage of the protests.  I saw the grainy footage from the tank crashing through the gate taken by a foreigner.  Then the dramatized arrests afterwards along with the brutality of torture and rape.  Survivors of that time told their stories.  As I watched I wondered which one of the depicted torturers was the happy-go-lucky man at the night club.

Back in that summer of 1974, a few days after the new government was sworn into office, my mother and I left Greece together.

I will always remember the events that made me a witness to history in Greece.

I have visited Greece many times since 1974, and this visit was not the last during a newsworthy point in Greece nor the last time I would witness history.

But it was the first.


Oxi Day

On 28 October 1940 at 2:50 am, the Italian ambassador in Athens, Emanuel Grazzi took Benito Mussolini’s message to the Greek leader General Ioannis Metaxas.  Metaxas was awoken and confronted with a written ultimatum for Italian troops to enter Greece.

Metaxas responded ‘this means war’ (in French “Alors, c’est la guerre”, French was the diplomatic language of the time).  For Greeks, this day is commemorated as OXI day.  ‘Oxi’ (pronounced “ō-hē”) is the Greek word for ‘no’.  The day is a public holiday in Greece and celebrated by Greek communities world wide.

Jealous of Hilter’s conquests, Mussolini’s impetus for the invasion was to accomplish his own military success.  Mussolini boasted prior to the invasion that he would crush Greece.

Greco-Italian War 28 October 1940 to 23 April 1941:

At 5:30 am on 28 October 1940, the Italians crossed the border from Albanian into Greece. Greece was at war with the Fascist government of Italy under Mussolini.  Shortly after, Metaxas addressed the Greek people:

“The time has come for Greece to fight for her independence. Greeks, now we must prove ourselves worthy of our forefathers and the freedom they bestowed upon us. Greeks, now fight for your Fatherland, for your wives, for your children and the sacred traditions. The struggle now is for everything!”


28 October – 13 November 1940

The first Italian offensive of the war against Greece was fought in the Pindus Mountain range in Epiros and Macedonia.  The Italians wanted to capture the strategic mountain passes of the Pindus Mountains.

The Pindus Mountain range extends 93 miles across Greece, 100 miles south of Albania. The range consists of high, steep peaks, with many deep canyons and a landscape of limestone where erosion created sinkholes, fissures, ravines, underground streams and caverns.  The maximum elevation is 8,650 feet at Mount Smolikas.  The mountain range is called the Spine of Greece since it extends down to the north of the Peloponnese.

The Italian forces moved from southern Albania into Greece with it’s 3rd Alpine Division Julia.  Julia was a light infantry division which specialized in mountain combat and consisted of highly decorated and elite mountain corps. Julia was considered to be one of the best in Italy. The Italians were better armed with weapons and machinery.

The Greek force in the area was the Pindus detachment under Colonel Konstantinos Davakis containing a force of 2,000 men.  Davakis divided his troops into three sectors.  Davakis was a Spartan.  His division was the first Greek unit to encounter the Italians.

Under heavy rain at 5:30 am, the Italian forces attacked the three sectors. The Greeks fought courageously and against greater forces. The Julia division succeeded in pushing through Davakis’ central sector.  The Italians moved to the Greek town of Metsovon and their objective was to cut the Greek forces in two, those in Epirus from those in Macedonia. 

The Greeks were mobilized into small coordinated units which proved to be a strong resistance and within a few days the Julia division was surrounded.  On 8 November, General Mario Girotti of Julia admitted defeat.  The rain, snow and wind along with the steep mountain slopes aided the Greek troops in defending Greece.  The Greeks pushed the Italians back to the border in a complete victory, even advancing deep into Albania.  The Italian loses were 5,000 dead.

Not only weather and terrain aided the Greek forces, but also the local civilian population.  The local women provided crucial assistance to the Greek victory.  Women, old and young, carried guns, food, clothing and supplies on their backs to the troops over the mountain trails.

Davakis was wounded 2 November 1940 but survived.  He was arrested in December 1942 by the Italian occupation authorities under suspicion of working in the Greek Resistance and was shipped to a POW camp in Italy.  However the ship carrying him was torpedoed and sank.  His body was recovered by local Greeks and buried.  After WWll ended, he was transferred to Athens for reburial.


2 − 8 November 1940:

The Greeks while outmanned in both numbers and equipment, created a defensive line along the Elaia-Kalamas river in Northern Greece 19 miles south of the Greek-Albanian border. The Greeks had no tanks and their arms and equipment were from WWI.

The Greek 8th Infantry division in the area were commanded by Major General Charalambos Katsimitros. Katsimitros understood that the mountainous and marshy terrain negated the Italian superiority in men and armour. Opposing instructions from the Greek General Staff, Katsimitros chose to set his troops in a defensive line along the Elaia-Kalamas river.  The Greek Plan was to initiate a slow retreat towards this line. This decision contained the Italian invaders and provided the necessary time for Greek enforcements to arrive. The Italian light tankettes and medium tanks could not navigate the terrain. Even though the Italians had superior numbers and equipment, the Greek defensive line remained unbroken.

The Greek army counterattacked and repelled the Italians back by mid-December and into Albania.  Katsimitros led his division into Albania. The Greek army eventually occupied a quarter of Albania moving 18 to 49 miles deep into Albanian territory, holding down 530,000 Italian troops.

In March of 1941, trying to expel the Greeks from Albania, Mussolini personally supervised a counterattack.  It failed.

The Greeks fought for six months against the Italians and repelled the Italian advance into Greece.

Winston Churchill said,

“Our allies the Greeks has seen off the Italian army. Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but we will say that heroes fight like Greeks.”

Witness to History – Summer of 1974 Part 1

I was visiting Greece with my mom in the summer of 1974.  On 20 July, we returned to my aunt’s house in Piraeus from a lovely weekend on a nearby island.  Just before the ferry boat docked a lone naval officer in full uniform and carrying an attache case jumped over the ramp of the ferry onto the land.  Gasps were heard all around me but soon we were caught up in the hustle and bustle of disembarking from the ferry.  My cousin and I noticed that unlike other days the usual navy ships were missing and the many sailors coming off boats for shore leave or returning to the ships were absent.

We arrived by taxi several blocks from my aunt and uncle’s house and walked through their working class Piraeus neighborhood.  Children played soccer in the streets and in a nearby playground.   Then we heard screaming from a neighborhood store.  People rushed over, then several ran out and down the street.  Parents yelling for the children to come in. The streets and playground deserted. My aunt stopped a woman running by, her face white and tears flowing down it.

Turkey had invaded Cyprus and Greece was at war.

We rushed to my aunt’s house and a neighbor was crying on her porch comforted by other woman.  Her son was in the army and she feared for his life.  My aunt got us in the house and then she took her wallet and some grocery bags and left. Within twenty minutes she had scoured all the local markets for staples. Flour, olive oil, sugar, eggs, bread, potatoes, canned vegetables and water.  She knew what happened in war having survived the Occupation.  My aunt emptied out her bags and left again, this time going further out into the surrounding neighborhoods.  She came back with more supplies.

Television was government controlled.  We left it on with static until the government decided to let the populace know what we were learning from radio stations in Europe.

My uncle came home and told us what news he had learned. He spoke to my mom and I saw her hand over her passport and mine.  Then my uncle came to me and said he was taking me to the American Embassy.  My aunt and uncle didn’t have a car back then, so we were on my uncle’s motorcycle riding through Piraeus and then through streets in Athens.

The American Embassy in those days was atop a grassy hill overlooking one of the wide thoroughfares in Athens.  It looked so majestic and so American.  Grass was unheard of in rocky Greece.  Today as my uncle and I rode up, it was surrounded by uniformed Greek soldiers.  While an embassy is sovereign territory it depends on the host country to protect it.

The soldier told my uncle that only Americans were allowed through their lines. I remember the long walk up the hill as my uncle grew smaller and smaller behind me.  I didn’t know how he must have felt to allow his niece out of his protection.  I only know how frightened I was leaving him. I reached the entrance and walked in.  There was a marine standing guard, an American flag and the seal of America with an eagle in tile in the floor.  I didn’t know which one to kiss first.

Embassy personnel, a young man, sat me down in an office and spoke to me.  He checked my and my mother’s passports.  Took down our information where we were staying, phone numbers and addresses.  He calmly gave me the radio frequency of the American station in Athens on a slip of paper.  He told me to listen to it continuously because if Americans had to be evacuated that station would provide instructions.

Then he said, “we guarantee your safe passage out of Greece.  But your mother is a Greek national under international law and we can only evacuate her if Greece allows her to leave.”

My father had died when I was five.  I have no brothers or sisters, no aunts or uncles in the United States.  Where was I going to go without my mom.  I cried all the way back down the hill and into my uncle’s arms.

Crete – A Weekend With Myths, Legends, and History

I had the honour of guest blogging at Novel Adventurers.  Here is an excerpt.


The wonderful thing about visiting my family in Greece is that when I need to escape for a weekend getaway, I have hundreds of islands to select. I’d always wanted to see the Palace at Knossos, so Crete it was.

I flew in and grabbed a cab to my beachfront hotel. I spent the day swimming and as the day drew to a close and I walked along the shore listening to the gentle sound of waves lapping against the sandy beach, a single white flip-flop was tossed among the waves. I reached it and kicked it onto the beach, continued my walk, and eventually headed back to my hotel.

And if you want to read the rest…click the link.

Crete—A Weekend With Myths, Legends, and History


And if you want to read The White Flip Flop, the story this trip generated, click here to purchase a copy of 

Fish Nets: The Second Guppy Anthology


The Occupation

Η Κατοχή  The Occupation

The Occupation, or Η Κατοχή  (pronounced ‘ka-to-hi’) in Greece began in April 1941 when the Nazis invaded. During the first months of the Occupation, all fuel and means of transportation was confiscated.  Thus no food or supplies could be transported.

Strategic industries were seized. Commodities like olive oil, cotton, leather and tobacco were transferred out of Greece.  Markets were sealed under the sign of the swastika.  All fuel tanks were emptied.  Poultry herds and pigeons were killed by the Nazis.  Farmers were forbidden to harvest their fields on pain of death.  Meat, cattle, sheep, dairy herds were confiscated by the Germans.  Cars, buses and trucks were seized. Shops cleaned out and goods shipped back to Germany.  Rare materials, metal, leather were also taken back to Germany.  Hospital and drugstores were emptied of supplies.

Extraordinary levies were placed upon the country of Greece to sustain the occupying troops.  The Greek levy was determined to 113.7% of the national income of Greece. A full naval blockade was put into place by the Germans which prevented all imports into Greece even food.

Farmers had to pay taxes and sell at enforced low prices, food price controls and rationing were tightened. Fishing was also prohibited.  In Greece, the Nazis policy under the Occupation was that of plundering the country to the detriment of its native population.

In the Winter of 1941 −1942 acute food shortages existed precipitating a famine.  Estimates are that 300,000 died in Athens and the surrounding area. German records show a rate of 300 deaths per day in December 1941, the Red Cross estimates 400 a day, with some days at a rate of 1,000 per day.

Raisins, olives, wild greens and rationed bread were the only available staples to eat.  The hills in Greece were stripped bare. Dead bodies were left on the streets of Athens.  Emaciated bodies were a common sight.

Newspapers ran advice columns to aid readers on how to survive. The columns offered such advice as chewing food slowly for longer periods of time in order to fool the stomach and advising people to collect the crumbs from the table in a jar.

In modern Greek memory the word, occupation, means famine, deprivation, and starvation.

My mother lived in Greece during The Occupation.  She cooked and ate dandelion greens (what in America we consider to be weeds) as long as I remember. She never threw out food and grew vegetables in our back yard.

My Greeks who survived The Occupation relate stories of children who reached adulthood without ever tasting meat and who never become accustomed to real food.

My mother still remembers the taste of the bread made from flour sent from America at the end of The Occupation.  She says bread never tasted so wonderful.  When she came to American her greatest disappointment was that she could never find the flour that made bread taste so good.

I visited the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Missouri.  President Truman signed the European Recovery Program, commonly known as the Marshall Plan which over four years distributed food and money to assist European countries devastated in WWII.  The people of Greece dedicated a statue of President Truman in Athens and sent him a helmet from the time of Pericles in gratitude.  In an exhibit at the presidential library, I saw a photograph of flour sacks from American being unloaded in Greece and on display was one of the flour sacks sent to Greece.  I called my mother that night to tell her I had found the flour she’d been looking for.

The Battle of Salamis

There are very few places in Greece without a view of the sea and the sea helped define the Greeks. The land mass of Greece is surrounded on three sides by water, and the two major land masses, Attica and Peloponnesus, also have water between them. The Greek terrain is rocky and mountainous, with limited trees. In fact the joke is that Greece is more suitable for goats than people. Yet, the Greeks have not only survived there and flourished but became the linch-pin for Western Civilization.

With their backs to this rocky and mountainous land, the Greeks faced outward to the sea. The deep blue of the sea fired their imagination and supported their economy. They built trade routes and founded colonies and won a sea victory defeating the Persians and thus saving the future of Western Civilization.

The legend of the 300 hundred Spartans lead by King Leonidas holding off the Persian army of Xerxes at Thermopylae is well known. What is less widely known is the Battle of Salamis, which came shortly thereafter, probably because Hollywood hasn’t made a movie yet. Even as an American-born Greek, traveling to Greece and passing the island of Salamis on the way to my parent’s villages in the Peloponnesus, my uncles, aunts and even cousins would point out that here the Greeks defeated the Persians in the greatest sea battle.

After fighting at Marathon and being aware of the Persian threat to Greece, the Athenian politician, Themistocles persuaded the Athenians to build a fleet of 200 triremes.

Triremes are galley ships with three rows of oars on each side. The triremes were fast and agile. In fact a full-sized replica, Olympias, with an unskilled volunteer crew was able reach a speed of 9 knots and execute 180 degree turns in one minute with an arc no wider than two and a half ship-lengths proving that ancient accounts of the capabilities of these ships was not exaggerated. The Greek ships were outfitted with rams on the bow, resembling an armored beak on the front of a ship used to puncture the hull of an enemy ship.

During the Persian invasion, now general, Themistocles set up a subterfuge to lure the Persian fleet into the Strait of Salamis. The Greek fleet of triremes occupied the strait between the mainland of Greece and the island of Salamis. The Persian ships entered to find a line of Greek ships. Seeming to flee at the advance of the Persian ships, the Greek ships moved back to better position themselves. The Persians sailed further into the strait in pursuit. One of the Greek ships then moved forward and rammed a Persian ship beginning the naval battle. The rest of the Greek ships then sailed towards the Persian fleet and engaged them. The Greek ships formed a wedge and split the Persian line of ships in two. An exact number of Persian ships destroyed is not available but historians believe 300 is a good estimate.

The significance of the battle is that it marked the turning point in the war between the Greeks and Persians. From this point on Greece remained free from invasion by the Persians. Athens flourished and developed philosophy, science, democracy and laid the foundations of Western Civilization. The legacy of Ancient Greece and the Golden Age of Athens became reality by the decisive victory of the Greek fleet at the Battle of Salamis.

And what about those Spartans? Their holding off Xerxes allowed Athens to be evacuated and the fleet under Athenian general Themistocles to assemble at Salamis. Their heroic sacrifice bought the Greeks time and saved Western civilization.

Funny thing is, I wasn’t born in Greece, but I cannot live without being close to the sea. I live in Northern California, in the Bay Area, where from any hilltop in my city, I can look across the Bay, through the Golden Gate and the Pacific beyond. I could never live in a land locked area. In fact I feel claustrophobic if I cannot see open sea. Greek blood does flow through my veins after all.