Sydney school teacher and historian Vasilis Vasilas’ efforts to gather personal narratives of Greek war veterans have culminated into a book, Between the Shots and the Silence: Hellenes at War (World War II and Korean War), which was published in October.
The book focuses on veterans’ war stories from the Greek-Italian War (1940-41), the Greek armed forces in North Africa, Italy and Greece (1941-44) and the Greek Expeditionary Force in the Korean War (1950-58). There is also a chapter on Greeks − whether Greek nationals or Australians of Greek parentage − within the Australian armed forces during the Second World War. Included in the North Africa and Italy of World War II chapter are three stories from three Greek Cypriot veterans in the British Army at the time. Sixty-four veterans participated in this project, making it an important historical document.
Although Vasilis had been working on this personal narrative project in the mid-2000s, this collection of personal narratives and photographs has been published some 10 years later. Vasilis explains its delay and imminent publication.
“The project was ready to publish 10 years ago but the ‘poor’ timing and other factors forced me [to] shelve it. Since then, I began working on Greek, Estonian and Ukrainian projects and years went by. All this recent, sudden interest in this project reminds me of the case of Bob Dylan’s ‘Lost Basement Tapes’ and how they resurfaced after many, many years,” he laughs.
The significance of personal narratives and their contribution to the writing of history is evident throughout the book, as veterans’ experiences are part of the historical event.
“Every year, we commemorate and celebrate the epoch of 1940, and Greece’s defiant ‘No’ against the Italian invasion, but it’s interesting to read about what the soldiers actually experienced on the front. The veterans recounted, for instance, their taking of Klissoura Pass or liberation of Tepelene, but they also talk about the awful winter conditions of fighting on the snow-capped mountains of Albania. Away from all the victory celebrations, there was the hardship and survival of everyday life on the front. The veterans also talk about their fears and insecurities.”
For Vasilis, the project was a great learning experience, as so many of the personal narratives added perspective to the actual historical events. “There are many history books which relate the events of the December Uprising in Athens (1944) between the Greeks, with Allied support, and ELAS. Most of the Greeks from Egypt, who were in the Greek Army and in Athens at the time, had no idea of the intricacies of Greece’s politics, as they were born and grew up overseas, yet they found themselves quashing this uprising. Giorgos Cardassilaris and Konstantinos Trikas, for example, were wounded during the conflict and this disillusioned them terribly because, as they pointed out, they enlisted or were conscripted to fight the Germans and Italians, yet it was Greeks who fired upon them and wounded them. They just could not believe this,” he explains.
Delving into feelings and thoughts, the whole process of recounting war experiences was extremely difficult and painful for some veterans. Vasilis was very fortunate to have spoken to the three ‘Greeks’ of the Australian 2nd/ 4th Machine Gun Battalion − Jack Kyros, Des Colevas and Peter Dimopoulos − who were captured by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore (1942) and endured indescribable experiences as prisoners of war.
“Speaking to Peter (Dimopoulos), he recounted working endless hours on the Burma-Singapore Railway and he was lucky enough to be asked to be an interpreter at the Allied POW Hospital. When I asked him what his daily routine was, he avoided the question so I asked the question again. Peter explained he spent a lot of time burying his ill comrades, who had passed away. Understandably, it was extremely difficult for Peter to express this.
“Jack (Kyros) was very ill in Changi Prison and he lived in the undercroft of the barracks. To give him some protein, his mate Ron Lim boiled a puppy (from a dog at the prison) to give Jack some meat. Jack was so ill he could not eat anything … he was lucky to survive the war.
“There are other incredible stories too. For instance, Nikos Doulgeris was in the Greek Merchant Navy during the war and his ship, Mary Livanou, had been seconded to the Australian war effort. Off the coast of east Africa, the Mary Livanou is torpedoed and Nikos miraculously survives its sinking. Here was Niko floating alone in the Straits of Mozambique, until a life boat managed to find him,” Vasilis continues.
Complementing the personal narratives are hundreds of photographs, as they provide further insight into the experience of war. The photographs capture life on the front, as well as the armed servicemen while on leave. Many photographs will be published for the first time.
“It is incredible what photographic material some of the war veterans had. For example, Stelios Joannides worked as a photographer in the Greek Air Force during the war, so he had many rare photographs ranging from Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou inspecting the Air Force to the burial of the dead during the December Uprising in Athens (1944). As a historian, you dream of coming across people like Stelios and his material, this is gold.
“And Dimitrios Amentas had photographs from north Africa; as the Allies pushed back the Germans, they came across the abandoned German bases, so there are fantastic photographs from Sidi Haneish.
“As a collection, I believe the photographs from the Greek Expeditionary Force in the Korean War provide a good overview of the Greek presence there. There are photographs on the front line and everyday life, but also interesting photographs of the troops celebrating Easter, at the burial of a fallen comrade at the Allied cemetery in Pusan and even a photograph of a Korean boy being baptised Greek Orthodox,” explains Vasilis.
Advocating the significance of oral history, Vasilis believes these personal narratives also provide an alternative view of the experience of war, as they capture its human face.
“By personalising the experience of war through these personal narratives, I believe we gain a stronger empathy with the veterans’ experiences of bravery, fear, camaraderie etc. These are their stories − with all the sorrow and humour.”
Between the Shots and the Silence: Hellenes at War (Second World War and Korean War) is now available for purchase.