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Iakovos Tsounis, shipowner, WW II veteran, benefactor, dies at 96

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Iakovos Tsounis, a shipowner and well-known donor to Greece’s armed forces, who was also the youngest veteran of World War II’s Albanian front, died Saturday. He was 96.

“A day of mourning for the armed forces…gratitude and respect for his contribution,” said Defense minister Nikolaos Panagiotopoulos.

“We will all miss him…a unique Greek!” tweeted the head of the armed forces Gen. Konstantinos Floros.

Tsounis was born in June 1924 in Patras, western Greece, the 13th child of a forester. When Italy invaded Greece on Oct. 28, 1940, the 16-year-old convinced a colonel billeted in his family’s home to enlist him, even though he was underage. This he did without the knowledge of his father, who, upon finding out, wrote to his son, already in the front: “come back victorious or dead.”

With Germany bailing Italy out, young Iakovos did not come back victorious in the Spring of 1941, but he was nearly dead. Weighing less than 30 kg, he was given the last rites. He survived and enlisted a second time, legally, after the war to fight the communist insurgents in Greece’s civil war.

After leaving the Army in 1949, he obtained a license as an assistant customs broker, filling customs clearance applications in the port of Piraeus for a small fee. Eventually, he got into dismantling ships and selling their parts to the steel industry, while also supplying ships with provisions. One of his clients, Aristotle Onassis, whom he met by chance on the island of Skorpios while supplying provisions for the shipping magnate’s yacht, Christina, convinced him his future lay in shipping.

Starting small in 1960, with a small commercial vessel of 1,000 tons for domestic routes, in less than 10 years he had a fleet of 13 ships, including a 35,000-ton tanker. At the same time, he expanded into the real estate business in Los Angeles, London, Spain and elsewhere.

By 2008, Tsounis, who had already started his chritable activity in the 1960s, had sold his ships. Unfortunately, he had invested his fortune, tens of millions of dollars, in Citigroup stock whose value plunged that year because of the financial crisis. “I thought of my father’s first piece of advice: ‘Do not forget where you come from,’ so I remained calm,” he told Kathimerini in an interview published last month.

Tsounis had donated large sums to hospitals, churches and museums, among other institutions. But by far his largest contribution has been to Greece’s armed forces, for whom, as a patriot, he always felt deeply. Over several decades, he had donated about €23 million, including €7 million in the past two years. Now, he will leave his real estate holdings to the armed forces.

On February 24 this year, Tsounis was awarded with the Grand Cross of the Order of Honor by President Katerina Sakellaropoulou.

Tsounis is survived by a son and daughter. No information on other survivors was immediately available.