The black and white photo features a tall man wearing a very short, pleated skirt and fancy shirt; black pom-poms bloom on his unusual shoes. Blowing a trumpet, he unleashes an unlikely call to war.
The photo caption on Vol. 9, No. 25, LIFE magazine cover, dated December 16, 1940, informs its readers the skirt wearer is a “Greek Soldier.” In 1940, LIFE — America’s most popular magazine— boasting a 2.9 million circulation/readership, featured an Evzone, in full foustanella regalia, on their famous weekly cover.
But LIFE readers needed to flip through pre-Christmas ads touting gift suggestions like Schwinn Bicycles, GE toasters, and liquor to arrive at page 15 for a hint of explanation regarding the cover photo. No full articles appear within the issue to explain a foustanella-clad soldier appearing on the cover.
Scant lines from page 15’s blurb explain: “LIFE’S COVER The skirted soldier is a Greek Evzone… five Greek regiments of Evzones specializing in mountain fighting… had last week driven the overwhelming Italian Army out of Greece and up the Albanian coast. This was against all rules, for the Greeks were supposed to lose the war in jig-time… In battle the Evzones wear khaki skirts.”
In late 1940, Mussolini’s mighty, fascist, Italian army was expected to, in a few days, pulverize the Hellenes (as Greeks refer to themselves). After all, earlier in 1940 northern European countries, including France, fell to Hitler’s fascist German armies in single-digit days.
However, at the start of what would become a cold, rainy, muddy winter — Greek civilians, including women, along with the regular Greek army and Evzones fought back and heroically resisted. Six weeks later they had pushed the Italians out of Greece. And, contrary to LIFE’s blurb, clothing warmer than khaki skirts was essential to survive that tough winter in northern Greece. Shoe pom-poms would have quickly decomposed.
The Hellenes’ defeat of the Italians was so successful, that to help out Mussolini, his ally, Hitler had to delay his invasion of Russia in order to attack Greece. In early April, 1941, the fascist German army invaded, finally subduing and occupying the Greeks for three horrific years. The final result of delaying his Russian invasion to help Mussolini subdue the Greeks contributed to Hitler’s Russian defeat, a positive for the Allies in World War II.
In touch with war news from the ‘old country,’ Greek-Americans were deeply distressed about their families in the homeland following Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas’ appropriate refusal to capitulate Greece to Mussolini’s power on October 28, 1940, now celebrated as ‘OXI’ (No!) Day.
But, Greek-Americans became enormously proud of their valiant countrymen and the positive attention shown with LIFE’s striking cover. President Roosevelt, himself, remarked: “The heroic struggle of the Greek people to defend their liberties and their homes against the aggression of Germany after they had so signally defeated the Italian attempt at invasion has stirred the hearts and aroused the sympathy of the whole American people.”
Prior to WWII, little was known and scant positive attention given to Greek-Americans by the majority in the U.S. population. Greeks were “mere… immigrants” (I’m omitting often added, undeserved, insulting adjectives). Our fellow citizens did not realize we were connected to that far-flung European civilization that gifted democracy to the world, started the Olympic Games, and excited the flowering of the human spirit in a way no western civilization ever inspired humanity.
“Non-Greek” Americans may have been aware the fellow wearing the long white apron, carefully arranging produce at the neighborhood grocery store, was Greek, “whatever that means.” And the ‘greenhorn’ (their word), speaking with foreign accent, bagging fragrant, freshly popped corn and producing lusciously delectable chocolates at the neighborhood candy store was Greek.
Even as late as 1940, our pioneer immigrant parents’ progeny, the first generation of Greek-Americans born in the U.S., speaking perfect English, were considered ‘foreign’ by many fellow Americans. Compared to our classmates’ surnames, like Smith and Johnson, our last names were strange sounding: hard to pronounce. Surely, we recognized ourselves being as American as our classmates, but nasty discrimination brought discomfort.
The USA had not yet entered the war in 1940; the horrendous attack on Pearl Harbor was almost a year in the future. But, the feisty Greek rout of Mussolini’s army in the ‘European War’ brought positive changes regarding knowledge of and respect for previously-ignored Americans with Greek roots. Positive recognition by LIFE magazine, 82 years ago, opened many American eyes as to the worthiness of our invincibly courageous, hard-working, accomplished ethnic minority.
Constance M. Constant is the author of Austin Lunch, Greek American Recollections (Cosmos Publishing, 2005) and American Kid, Nazi-Occupied Greece Through a Child’s Eyes (Year of the Book, 2015).