I interviewed Dr. George Kiriakopoulos, author of two books about Crete in World War II, on September 29, 2007 in New Jersey, at a small café near his home. I found him to be warm, forthcoming and with a very good sense of humor. As the reader may know, this distinguished man is the author of Ten Days to Destiny (The Battle for Crete) and The Nazi Occupation of Crete, 1941-1945. Dr. Kiriakopoulos resides with his wife of 51 years, Virginia (Ifegenia), and attends Saint John the Theologian Cathedral in Tenafly, N. J., where he has served as President of the Church Council. They have one daughter, Stephanie. Dr. Kiriakopoulos graduated from Brooklyn College and Columbia University, and worked as a dentist in New Jersey, and for 40 years was a tenured professor at Columbia.
J.M.D.: Doctor, please tell me something about your background, early years, and military experience.
Dr. G. Kiriakopoulos: I was born in 1922 in Connecticut to Konstantinos Kiriakopoulos and the former Triantifila Yerontakis, and we later moved to Brooklyn, New York. My mother was born on Crete, and as a little girl moved to Naxos, then on to Athens. I attempted to join the military in 1943 at the age of 17, but my mother would not sign the consent form. When I presented the consent form to my father for his signature, he also would not sign it, saying: “you’re going in the service, but I have to stay here and live with your mother.” Nevertheless, a few months later, I was drafted into the U.S. Army and became an Army Ranger. I was in the 5th Ranger Battalion and I fought in the European Theater. I started out as a PFC, and had 6 stripes when I came home after the war, a sergeant major.
J.M.D: Were you involved in combat and did you receive any commendations?
Dr. K : I saw a lot of fighting. Some of my best friends died there, and they are the real heroes. Once, a bullet grazed my left arm and I received a purple heart for that. Later I knocked out a pill box with a grenade, and received the Silver Battle Star from General Patton. I was in D-Day on June 6th, and landed at Omaha Beach. We had to climb a high, steep cliff to get off the beach. I took my family back there for the 50th Anniversary. It was a very emotional experience for me. I had seen many of my friends die on that beach. But my wife took the edge off the moment, because when I showed her the beach and the cliff, she turned to me and said: “You climbed that cliff? I can’t get you to go upstairs and get my slippers!”
J.M.D: Did you receive any other awards?
Dr. K.: Yes, the Distinguished Service Cross, 4 Bronze Battle Stars, 1 Silver Battle Star, and a Bronze Medal. One time, I was listed as missing in action for 10 days, after our 12 man Ranger patrol was ambushed and we got separated. When I found my way back to our lines, I was confronted by an officer who accused me of being a spy. [During this period, the Nazis had dropped several groups of German soldiers behind Allied lines wearing American uniforms. Dr. Kiriakopoulos also speaks English well, but with a Greek accent-JMD]. Since we were on patrol, I had no papers with me to prove who I was. While he was interrogating me, I spotted a guy named Charlie Lewnis who I went to Greek School with, who came over and vouched for me. Later, I learned that a telegram saying that I was missing in action arrived at my parents’ home, and devastated my mother and father. Word got around to the Greek Church, and it turned out that my Greek school friend Lewnis, who had vouched for me to the suspicious officer, had written to his mother and told her that he had run into me. She told her daughter, who got the message to my parents that I was not MIA, but that I had safely returned.
J.M.D.: Did you have any other close calls?
Dr. K.: One. My mother had given me a Filakto before I left --a religious relic that is a tiny sliver of wood from Christ’s Cross. It has been handed down through our family for many generations. It was in a hard case, and I kept it in my left breast pocket. I received a hard hit from a small piece of shrapnel, which damaged the case, but I was only scratched. It saved me from a much more serious wound, perhaps even death. When my mother later asked to see the Filakto to make sure I hadn’t lost it, she saw the damage to the case, and then the scratch on my chest, and she knew what had happened.
J. M.D.: Do you still have this relic?
Dr. K: Yes. [At this point, Dr. Kiriakopoulos removed a small plastic packet from his pocket and showed it to me.]
The Path to Writing History
J.M.D.: Doctor, you mentioned that you attended Greek School. Were you raised therefore in the Greek culture?
Dr. K.: Yes. My parents spoke only Greek at home, and I was raised in the Orthodox Church. Although my mother was originally from Crete, she grew up on Naxos and in Athens, and I was not raised as a Cretan. But later, when I married my wife Virginia, I became more interested in Crete. Her mother, my mother-in-law Mary Demos, was from Crete, their last name was Varouxakis. It was because of her that I became more aware of the events of the Nazi invasion and occupation of Crete, and discovered that very little had been written about it here in America at that point. That’s when I decided to write the first book, Ten Days to Destiny, and in fact, I dedicated the second book to her.
J. M. D.: How did you go about assembling the information that you needed, and conducting the research?
Dr. K.: Reading, and conducting many, many interviews.
J. M.D.: Was it necessary for you to travel to Crete for this?
Dr. K.: Yes, I spent several weeks there conducting interviews and doing research. Other interviews and research occurred in other countries, including the United States.
J. M.D.: Who are some of the more notable people that you interviewed?
Dr. K.: For one, Manolis Paterakis in Chania in 1978. Also, George Psychoundakis, Manolis Manolikakis, the brother of the hero Nicholas Manolikakis. John Alexander [Alexandrakis], Patrick Fermor, who was a guest at my home. Many, many others, Cretans, British and Germans.
J. M. D.: You have mentioned many people that I consider heroes. How do you explain the large number of heroes, and which ones stand out most in your mind?
Dr. K.: Paterakis stands out, but I met many Cretans, common people who lead simple lives. They objected to the Nazis taking away their freedom, taking away their land, and they fought. With the few exceptions who were turncoats, they were all heroes. I was with the Army Rangers, and there is something more in the Cretan fighters that I never saw in my Rangers, as brave and sacrificing as they were.
J.M.D: Do you think the British Special Operations Executive unit (SOE) could have operated effectively on Crete during the occupation without the Cretans themselves assisting and providing support?
Dr. K.: No. There is no way the British could have accomplished anything. The mountains were controlled by the Cretans.
J.M.D: During World War II as you know, thousands of Greek citizens starved to death on the Greek mainland during the Nazi occupation. In your research for your second book, did you find that the same tragedy occurred on Crete?
Dr. K.: The people of Crete suffered greatly, especially with the Nazi reprisal murders. But I don’t believe that the starvation was as bad on Crete as on the mainland, I think because of the closeness of the mountains to the cities and villages and the ability of the resistance to move and transport goods.
J. M.D.: Doctor, your second book, The Occupation of Crete, 1941-1945, focuses on an American-born Cretan named John Alexander. How did you discover this great story?
Dr. K.: I was told initially about Alexander by Patrick Fermor, Psychoundakis, and Paterakis. I also interviewed Alexander himself. It was a story that needed to be told, a young man from Wheeling, West Virginia who by chance got caught up in the war and became a hero. You know, I wrote the books because the publishers and writers in America had ignored the story, the great historical events of the invasion and occupation.
J. M. D.: Doctor, do you feel people in this country today are well enough informed regarding the epic story of the invasion and occupation of Crete?
Dr. K: No. Those who have read the history know, but more need to learn. Many years ago, I toured and lectured on this subject all over America, but I’m 85 years old now and I can no longer travel and lecture. I hope that others will continue this work.
J.M.D.: Do you have any other books that you are working on?
Dr. K.: I’m working on a book that I hope to title “When Duty Whispers Low”, mostly about my own experiences in World War II.
J. M.D.: Doctor Kiriakopoulos, I want to thank you for allowing me to conduct this interview. It has been an honor and a great pleasure.
Dr. K.: Thank you, it has been a pleasure for me also.
The Books of Dr. George Kiriakopoulos:
Ten Days to Destiny (The Battle for Crete), Franklin Watts Publishing, 1985, 395pp.
The Nazi Occupation of Crete, 1941-1945, Praeger Publishing, 1995, 239 pp.