A Greek-American Woman’s Resistance to the Nazis and the Greek Junta
by Athena Mihos Psyhogios Henderson with James C. Henderson
(A memoir serialize in chapters)
Each morning during the summer, Colonel Yiorgios Papadopoulos traveled by car from his villa by the sea near the town of Lagonisi, Greece along the coast road to his office in the Parliament building in the heart of Athens. On the morning of August 13, 1968, Alexandros Panagoulis, better known as Alekos, a thirty-six-year-old Greek poet serving his compulsory term in the army who had deserted following the coup d’état set explosives in a drainage pipe under the Sounion Road, then waited for Papadopoulos’ motorcade. Papadopoulos travelled in a motorcade that included army soldiers in jeeps, a radio car, an ambulance, and police on motorcycles. As Papadopoulos’ black Lincoln limousine, nestled in the middle of the motorcade, passed over the drainage pipe shortly before dawn, Alekos triggered the explosives, but only a portion of the charge detonated and a split-second too late, leaving a harmless crater by the side of the road.
Alekos dove into the waters of the Aegean Sea in an attempt to escape and swam toward a motorboat waiting for him, but before he could reach it, the motorboat turned and sped off. On land soldiers scurried about, an officer shouting orders to search the shore. Alekos looked for a place to hide. He spotted a small cave in the rocks, swam to it, and huddled there, curled up like a fetus for an hour or more while soldiers walked over and around him until he was spotted, dragged out, and arrested.
After eighty-three days of incessant torture, during which time Alekos was allowed to sleep only a few hours at a time, he was brought to trial before a special military court. Weak from torture and the hunger strikes he had undertaken to protest his treatment, Alekos asked the court for a postponement on the grounds that he was too weak to follow the proceedings. The court produced a doctor who pronounced him physically fit to stand trial. The court did permit Alekos to have his hands free by removing the handcuffs he’d worn continuously since his arrest.
Alekos took the offensive from the first moment of the trial. When asked his name, Alekos replied that the court represented his torturers and he challenged the moral fitness and the right of the judges to try him. He was immediately sentenced to two years imprisonment for contempt of court.
Alekos had to speak for himself. He was not allowed proper counsel. Alekos was allowed to meet with his lawyer only once before the trial. The trial was the first time Alekos’ lawyer had the opportunity to read the Junta’s indictment against Alekos.
The witnesses for the prosecution were military policemen from the Junta’s already infamous Elliniki Stratiotiki Astinomia or Greek Military Police (ESA) and they were not required to provide sources because to release such information would compromise “national security.” Nonetheless, Alekos demanded to know the sources. As each of his torturers testified, Alekos challenged their statements, telling the court of the torture to which he had been subjected. He accused Lieutenant Petros Babalis of torturing him with falanga—a beating of the soles of the feet with a metal rod or wooden whip—which was a torture of the Gestapo. He accused Major Theophyloyiannakos with beating him, and Lieutenant Evangelos Mallios, an expert in sexual torture, with extinguishing cigarette on his genitals and of inserting a long metal needle into his urethra and heating the exposed end with a cigarette lighter.
A photograph in the newspaper taken of him shortly after his arrest shows him in swimming trunks, medium height, dark-haired, mustached, a cut on his forehead, awkwardly posed as if his guards have let go of his arms just long enough for his picture to be taken. His eyes are angled down and to the side, fateful, resigned. As I read of Alekos deeds, I admired his courage and commitment to fighting the injustice of the Junta, but at that point I did not see myself as part of his story. I never thought that in three years I, an American housewife living with my husband and three children in New Brighton, a middle-class suburb of Saint Paul, Minnesota, would be arrested attempting to free him from prison, come face to face with his torturers, and like him stand trial and be imprisoned.
Before his trial began, Alekos knew the verdict and his sentence had already been decided by the Junta and he knew the tortures he would have to endure if he was imprisoned, so he demanded the death penalty. His every action was designed to embarrass, insult, confront, and confound the court. When he had the chance at the end of his trial to make a last statement, he rose and admitted his guilt, although he denied his confession that his torturers had submitted to the court without his signature. He said he didn’t believe in violence as a means to change, but in his opinion, the Greek people had been given no peaceful options for recourse by the dictatorship. He said, referencing the ancient Greek ideal of the hero as one who slays a tyrant:
I tried to kill the dictator in order to free my country from tyranny. I assume full responsibility for my act. I am aware of the punishment that the law of the Junta provides.
I am ready to pay the price. I ask no clemency. My swan song will be the rattle of the firing squad machine guns. This regime took over by force and it will be overthrown by force because that is the only way to end it. We have failed, but others will follow and they will succeed.
Alekos was sentenced to six years imprisonment for trying to assassinate Prime Minister Papadopoulos and sentenced to death for deserting the army. Alekos listened as his sentence was handed down, then said: “I am ready to die.”
World opinion, however, would not allow Alekos Panagoulis to die. People all over the globe protested his death sentence with demonstrations and hunger strikes. The heads of state of numerous European countries, the Vatican, the United Nations, and even President Lyndon B. Johnson, bowed to the public pressure and appealed to the Junta to spare Alekos’ life. Alekos was put through several mock executions, but his death sentence was not carried out. The Junta obviously reasoned, to kill Alekos, would have made a martyr of him. He had already become the symbol of resistance to the Junta for the Greek people.
On the day after Alekos’ assassination attempt, the Junta issued a press statement calling Alekos “the instrument of fascist and of reactionary forces who wanted to murder the leader of the revolution, the Prime Minister of the government, that is, the man who is leading the new forces which are founding democracy.”
Papadopoulos, believing he was blessed by God to have escaped Alekos’ assassination attempt, ordered doxologies to be performed in the churches of Greece to thank God for his miraculous rescue, saying, “My life will be safe as long as God, who is a philhellene, connects me with the interests of Greece.”
Papadopoulos further claimed to have been saved because the Virgin Mary’s “name day” was August 15, just two days after the failed attempt on his life. Papadopoulos ordered an erimoklisi, a grass enclosed shrine of the Virgin Mary, erected on the site beside the Sounion road where he nearly lost his life.
In fairness to Alekos, although he confessed to trying to assassinate Papadopoulos, he confided to me in a telephone call years later, after he had been released from prison and I was back in the United States, that he had never intended to kill Papadopoulos but only wanted to make some noise against the Junta, to draw the world’s attention to the resistance that existed against the Junta. Alekos certainly did make a lot of noise.
My involvement in the attempt to free Alekos from prison began when Alekos’ younger brother, Stathis Panagoulis, by then a leader in the Greek resistance against the Junta, came to the United States in 1969 to tell audiences of Alekos, to inform of his predicament, and to gain support for the Greek resistance. He spoke at the University of Minnesota. Some of my friends and I went to hear him.
Three days after the Junta seized power on April 21, 1967 several friends of mine—all people who wanted to see a reversal of the coup—met at Evangelos and Karen Kalambokidis’ house to organize against the Junta. John Buttrick, the best man at Andreas Papandreou’s wedding and a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota, was present. Before Andrea Papandreou ran for prime minister of Greece in 1967, he taught economics at the University of Minnesota from 1947-1955. He met his wife, Margaret Chant, a journalism student from Elmhurst, Illinois, when she took in one of his classes. They were married in Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1951 and their first son, Yiorgios, later to be prime minister of Greece from 2009-2011, was born a year later in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The main purpose of MDFG, because the American government and the media were ignoring the coup or normalizing it, was to inform the American people of what was happening in Greece and of the American government’s involvement in the Junta, whom their tax dollars were supporting. We began our efforts by explaining to thousands of people on a mailing list the events that led to the coup and asking them to send a telegram or to write their congressman or congresswoman protesting the United States’ involvement in the coup. We collected signatures on petitions, handed out literature, demonstrated, and gave speeches to draw attention to our cause. To raise money for our activities, we held bake sales of Greek pastry and sponsored dinners featuring speakers. Democratic Congressman from Minnesota Donald Fraser supported our group and gave speeches in opposition to the Junta and America’s support for it.
A few members of our group were Greeks, but most were non-Greeks. The majority of Greek-Americans in Minneapolis-St. Paul were against our group and for the Junta. They gladly accepted the success of the Junta without fully understanding it or questioning its right to govern. Many of them didn’t believe the stories of atrocities being committed by the Junta. If they did acknowledge political prisoners were being tortured, they considered them communists and thought torture was the right way to handle them. They believed the Junta was doing great things for Greece. One Greek-American man told me that we should have a strongman like Papadopoulos in the United States to “straighten things out.”
After Stathis Panagoulis spoke at the University of Minnesota about Alekos, he met with our group, MDFG, at one of our member’s homes. Hearing that I intended one day soon to move back to Greece, Stathis pulled be aside to talk to me further. Beyond informing people of Alekos’s situation and seeking support for the resistance, Stathis was looking for someone to help him free Alekos. From America, I could raise awareness and money for the resistance, but if I were to go back to Greece, I could become a member of the resistance. Hearing what Stathis had to say about Alekos, I was ready to assist him and the resistance if I could. We made arrangements to contact each other should I ever make it back to Greece
But making it back to Greece had not been easy for me. Since my family made the decision to leave Greece for America at the close of the Second World War, I had been trying to get back, but with little success.