What can a 107-year-old photo of a man wearing two medals for his service in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 tell us? What did we learn about those two resounding victories for the modern Greek nation growing up? Certainly, we heard little about it in history class. Few of us know anything about the greatest generation of modern Greek pioneers. These are the heroes that won two wars and doubled the size of modern Greece. The ones that liberated and unified Thessaloniki, Epirus, Macedonia, Thrace, Kavala and the Aegean Islands, including Chios, Mytilene, Crete and many other cities and regions of the Greek nation. The brave ‘palikaria’ that helped establish the oldest Churches and permanent Greek communities in the United States.
In this column series, we will explore this forgotten history through carefully chosen photographs I newly discovered while researching these Greek-American heroes.
I seek to honor them by telling their stories – not always by name, since much of that is lost – of their patriotism for Greece, their love of America, their experience in war, and their journeys back and forth across the Atlantic. These are our ancestors, the men who created the communities of which we are so proud. The unsung heroes of the Greek-American diaspora.
This photograph represents just one man among the tens of thousands who left the United States to fight for the Greek Kingdom. His name is unknown, but his photo tells a rich story. He looks fit, is still in his prime, and he’s sporting a handlebar mustache, a distinctive accessory of his era. He is a proud Balkan War combat veteran; he saw action in many notable battles of the two wars, having earned both the first and second medal with no less than 8 battle clasps between the two. He was a soldier that served and fought side by side with many of the other Greek-Americans, in fact one in three soldiers in the Hellenic Army was an Americanized Greek. We also know that he posed for that picture sometime either in the later part of 1914 or early 1915, the medals were in fact struck and issued after February of 1914 by royal decree. Many photos still exist of men in a similar pose, wearing their medals with a hint of a smile and an air of triumph in their eyes. Also of interest is the fact that he could afford to have the photo taken. In a world where two wars had just taken place, and agriculture ruled, he had expendable cash to indulge in the luxury of a studio photo.
Clearly this photo sets the stage for insights into a part of Greek history of which most of us have never heard. And it’s just the beginning of the story! In future columns we will explore many facets of what I discovered during the many years of research and writing my book on this topic. I look forward to sharing those numerous stories with you: from far off Hawaii to Maine, from Americanized Greek reservists to the various Philhellenes, including a retired US Army National Guard General, and many others. Next time we’ll jump back to a photo before the wars, just as the men were ready to leave for Greece. May the memory of those heroes be eternal.
Peter S. Giakoumis is the author of The Forgotten Heroes of the Balkan Wars: Greek-Americans and Philhellenes 1912-1913.
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