A single tear trickles down the right cheek of Vietnam veteran Steve Kyritsis as he searches for words to describe his motivation for producing his latest book.
The President of Victoria’s RSL Hellenic Sub-Branch and volunteer guide at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, Kyritsis has spent the last three years researching the untold stories of servicemen and women of Greek descent who served Australia in the two world wars of the 20th Century. The results are to be published next week in a new book – Greek Australians in the Australian forces WWII and WWII.
“These fellas have lived in the darkness for so long. Very little has been said about them. It’s about time that at least their names should be brought out into the open and acknowledged,” says Steve quietly, pausing between the phrases, his voice breaking with emotion.
Through painstaking research in the National Archives, Steve’s new book sets out to reveal every Greek who enlisted with the Australian military as far back as the second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). His research has uncovered five individuals who took part in the Boer War, 80 who served in WWI – including 11 who fought at Gallipoli, and nearly 2500 Greek Australians who served in WWII.
“When I started researching Greeks in the first AIF I didn’t know what I’d find. They came to a new country to work, to raise a family, and ultimately they served Australia in time of war.”
Steve Kyritsis was born on the island of Nissiros in 1947 and came to Australia at 12 years of age. He was naturalised in 1963. Two years later conscription started for the Vietnam War.
“Luckily or unluckily, whichever way you see it, I was called up for national service,” says Steve, who became an infantryman with the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment.
He arrived in Vietnam as a 21 year-old in December 1967, just in time to witness the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam’s massive strike against civilian and military command centres throughout South Vietnam.
Like many Australian units at the time, his platoon found themselves fighting a brutal guerrilla war in towns rather than jungle.
Based at Nui Dat, 3 RAR was sent to defend Baria, capital of the Phuoc Tuy province and then Long Dien. Along the way he lost close mates and took part in the engagements at Coral and Balmoral, where 25 fellow diggers were killed.
In June 1968 he arrived home. Two years of national service were over, but a new battle had begun. Like most Vietnam veterans, when the conversation turns to how they were received on their return, the pain of being ostracised by one’s own country is still rawly felt.
“I don’t want to go back to that again,” says Steve, when asked to share his thoughts on an appalling chapter in the story of Australia’s relationship to its military.
“It’s changed a lot now,” he says, adding that it was only in 2000 that he felt able to join the Anzac Day march in Melbourne, such were his feelings of isolation.
“We as conscripts had no say in going or not going. We served our country and it was wrong of the people to abuse us when we got back home.”
Civilian life in the late 1960s brought Steve back to familiar paths for a young man in Melbourne’s Greek community. Married in 1971, he and his wife Mary began a milk bar in North Carlton before investing in several cafe businesses.
“It took more than thirty years to open up to my past and to talk about it with the mates I served with,” admitted Steve in his first book, that in many ways marked his own rehabilitation. With the stories of over 100 servicemen who fought there, Greek Australians in the Vietnam War was published in 2009.
Three years later, his new book details the wartime exploits of nearly three thousand Greek Australians in both world wars, men like Victorian Nicholas Rodakis who fought on the Western Front.
Born in Athens in 1880, Rodakis enlisted in the First AIF in February 1916. In the last year of the war he was attached to a United States army unit, and in September 1918, Rodakis’ platoon was cut off behind enemy lines. As they fought to survive, Rodskis rescued an American officer in no-man’s-land before capturing a German machine gun. He then defended his position for hours, before returning to the Allied lines under cover of darkness, picking up wounded as he went.
For his actions, Rodakis was awarded the United States Distinguished Service Cross – the American equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Rodakis was fortunate. He survived the war and returned to his wife in Warrnambool, Victoria in 1919.
Another of the lives that Kyritsis honours is a Greek Digger that didn’t make it back.
Peter Rados, who served with the 3rd Battalion 1st Infantry Brigade at Gallipoli was born in Athens in 1891. A cook by profession he enlisted in Sydney in late 1914, age 23. On 19 May 1915, less than four weeks after the first landings, he was killed at Anzac Cove.
Four years later, Peter Rados’ family had still received no news of his fate. A letter sent to the Red Cross in Sydney in September 1918 from Peter’s brother Nick living in the United States, asked for news of ‘Pantelis Pannagiotis’ as Peter was known to his family.
As a result, two months later the family finally received a reply from the military authorities confirming that Peter had been killed in action.
The reason for the late confirmation of the tragic news was an administrative error, easily made in relation to recent migrants serving with the Australian military. On enlisting, Peter Rados had put the address for next-of-kin as the family’s home in Athens. The original letter of condolence sent by the army had been returned marked ‘not known’. The Rados family would only learn of Peter’s last resting place – the 3rd Battalion Parade Ground Cemetery at Gallipoli and receive his personal effects, in 1920.
One of the most poignant stories of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for Australia is that of the Manusu family in WWII. Francis Manusu was born in Eurobodalla NSW in 1880, the son of Michael Manusu, only the third Greek naturalised in NSW and the sixth in Australia. Frank was one of a handful of Australians of Greek descent who served in the second Anglo-Boer War.
On his return from South Africa, Frank joined the police force and raised five sons and two daughters with his wife Betsy in the small country town of Bowraville, New South Wales. Eking out a living in the Depression years on a modest farmstead, the elder boys worked to support the family growing fruit and vegetables.
At the beginning of World War II, the desire to protect their mother country, along with the prospect of regular pay, saw Frank’s sons, Percy, Pericles (Perry) and the youngest – Guy sign up for the 2/1st Battalion AIF. In September 1942 they arrived in Port Moresby to reinforce the battered remains of the battalions that had been fighting along the Kokoda Track.
At Eora Creek in October, the Manusu boys found themselves in the largest battle along the track’s Owen Stanley section. Pinned down by Japanese forces on higher ground, Guy (23) was killed by an enemy grenade on October 23, and within days his brother Perry (28) was hit by machine gun fire and died of his wounds. Percy was sent home to a non-combatant role to prevent the loss of a third Manusu, an act that his father reportedly wrote to the Battalion to thank them for.
Kyritsis relates these profound stories of duty and immense sacrifice with immense reverence, honouring generations of Greek migrants who fought and died for their adopted country.
“I’m writing this book so that every single one is acknowledged,” says Steve, whose only regret is that he didn’t start sooner.
“I should have done it 20 years ago when there were still First World War veterans still with us.”
In honouring the servicemen and women whose actions in war define the Greek Australian story so poignantly, Steve Kyritsis has created an enduring tribute to the courage and sense of duty of those who served their adopted homeland.
“The relationship between Australia and Greece will forever be strong,” says Steve.
“We are brothers in arms and we’ve always been that way.”
Greek Australians in the Australian forces WWII and WWII by Steve Kyritsis and published by High Horse Publications, is to be launched at Parliament House, Melbourne on May 18 and will be available from the RSL Hellenic Sub Branch, Victoria and The Shrine of Remembrance.