From the brutality of war to the helm of HELMEPA

Wounded in the Battle of Tillyria, Dimitris Mitsatsos went on to become head of the Hellenic Marine Environment Protection Association

From the brutality of war to the helm of HELMEPA

As a captain in the Hellenic Navy, Dimitris Mitsatsos lived through the violence of war and the loss of comrades, his own injuries and loss of limb, and government silence. As an electrical engineer he learnt much about industry. As director general of the Hellenic Marine Environment Protection Association (HELMEPA), he contributed to the creation of an environmental conscience in the shipping industry, he established HELMEPA as a leading international example in mobilizing human resources and spread the message of “safe ships in clean seas,” creating fraternal associations abroad. 

“Because I saw the brutality of war, I saw young lads being killed beside me – the death of comrades is heavy on the conscience of the man who gave the order to fire – because I felt the grief of the mothers who never saw their sons again and never received an official explanation of how they died, I consider it very fortunate that I was given the opportunity to work for peace, to participate in a peaceful social project,” said Mitsatsos. 

He talks about the sweltering August of 1964, when, due to the ongoing intercommunal violence, Greece covertly sent forces to the island to provide naval support to the Greek Cypriots: specifically, two hastily repaired patrol boats, the Arion and the Phaethon, bought secondhand and gifted to Cyprus by businessman Anastasios George Leventis but staffed by Greek officers and sailors. The patrol boats were led by the commander of the Phaethon, the then 27-year-old Lieutenant Mitsatsos. The crew of the Phaethon resisted valiantly during the Battle of Tillyria before being attacked with napalm bombs dropped by Turkish planes, resulting in the deaths of seven crew members and Mitsatsos sustaining heavy injuries. 

What had taken place was not made public, as the Greek presence in the seas of northwestern Cyprus could not be revealed, and Mitsatsos was forced to remain silent. The confidential files were finally opened in 2016 and, after a delay of 52 years, the families of the fallen were honored and the vessel’s commander was given a medal. Finally, two years after information on the events was revealed, the bones of the fallen which had lain in Cyprus were finally returned to their families.

“I was moved to Greece having undergone surgery on my right arm and was isolated in a non-functioning hospital, and without proper healthcare the wound became gangrenous. This is why you see me with one hand today,” he explains. He could not pursue a naval career with one hand. The captain in the naval reserve was then forced to seek a career change. “I was accepted to the National Technical University of Athens when I was 28. I spent five years in lecture halls; I had a young child and studied magnetic fields.” He went on to work in companies producing electrical appliances, as well as energy companies, lignite mines and dockyards. 

His story with HELMEPA began when the “great George Livanos wanted to unite all maritime Greeks, from shipowners to every last sailor, in 1982, in an effort to protect the environment at a time when the shipping industry was accused of polluting the oceans. He wanted to make it internationally clear that maritime Greeks looked beyond profit,” Mitsatsos says. “He needed someone who would not be afraid to join him, and he asked me to organize the administration of the fledgling association. I expressed to him my doubts that a cooperation of shipowners and sailors to save the oceans would succeed, but he was so enthusiastic that it struck a chord deep within me. The organization was supported by shipowners who truly wanted to be part of something new. And we made great strides: training more than 17,000 mariners on ship safety and avoiding maritime pollution. Approximately 400 member vessels. HELMEPA Junior for children. Fraternal associations in Australia, the United States, Uruguay, the Philippines, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Cyprus (the whole island is represented). Thousands of programs and activities.” On November 19, 2020, and after 38 years of daily work with HELMEPA, according to a decision by the association’s board of directors, this cycle in the life of Mitsatsos also came to a close. 

The most powerful moments of those 38 years? “My first contact with George Livanos, the freedom he afforded me to create what we had discussed. Because in Greece we announce many things, before cutting down on our promises, and an avenue is turned into a simple walkway. This is not how things unfolded and I am happy with that.”

There was also the request by Turkey’s richest individual, Rahmi Koc, for advice on creating a fraternal association in his own country. “Are you aware of who you are talking to?” I asked him. “I know your story,” he replied and asked me to point out everything that must be achieved for TURMEPA to have the success of HELMEPA. And it was done. In my first speech, to a packed room at the Istanbul Rotary Club, I described how the sea between our countries could become a highway of peace, cooperation and the exchange of ideas. We then created a fraternal organization in Great Britain, and after that Cyprus.” Mitsatsos fondly remembers the cooperation of the two Junior organizations in Greece and Turkey working together to clean the coastlines of the Greek island of Chios and the nearby Turkish resort town of Cesme. “Children can work together magnificently without speaking the same language. If only this could happen to wider society in our two countries.”

‘Like swimming upstream’

August 1964: Mitsatsos is lying down, covered in blood, in the hospital of an American mineral company in Pentageia near the site of the battle. “‘Do something! I am in tremendous pain!’ I tell the nurse. ‘He is the captain of the ship,’ the nurse says to the American doctor. ‘What should I do?’ The doctor takes a look at me and says, ‘Let him die in peace.’” But he was treated by surgeon Andreas Dimitriadis, who for six hours struggled to save his right arm, his muscles having been pulverized and his bones shattered. Dimitriadis succeeded. “I arrived in Greece with two arms.” Not for long, something that changed his life forever. 

Standing upright, peaceful, he has the aura of a strong man with exceptionally solid principles, to the extent that his loss of limb does not make itself apparent at a first glance. “After the loss of my right arm I used the strength I felt I had on the Phaethon to replenish what I had felt I had lost, to build a new image, and be an example to others.” He is evidence that no disability can stand in the way of human will. He talks about the importance of staying dedicated to a cause, the importance of truth. “There are many exaggerations being told, many lies. I believe we need to be honest, or the world will take us away from reality. Of course, stating the truth is like swimming upstream, but at some point, you will find vindication. This is what I did, and I have no regrets.”

Mitsatsos’ 38-year-old daily struggle (“I found myself with HELMEPA”) under the presidentship of inspired members of the shipping community has received widespread recognition – from the Athens Academy, Lloyd’s List (“Man of the Sea”), the United Nations, the International Maritime Organization, the Turkish Observatory and others – and the earnest admiration of shipowners, captains, officers, sailors, teachers, co-workers, heads of Greek and international organizations, and Greek and foreign authorities. 

His pride is HELMEPA Junior. More than 500,000 youngsters have learned the consequences of maritime pollution at the exhibitions hosted by the association. “It was quite touching to find that many of the enthusiastic parents of HELMEPA Junior members had themselves been members when they were children. More than 700 teams run approximately 3,500 activities a year, publish a newspaper, organize daily events, keep citizens informed with presentations and material they put together themselves, they recycle, they put on plays, they communicate with local municipal authorities on environmental violations. At the same time, a constantly updated exhibition has traveled, with funds from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, to dozens of Greek cities.” By his side is his second wife and close collaborator of 32 years, Christiana Prekezes, executive coordinator of all HELMEPA programs. “We met at HELMEPA,” she says. 

The United States

“The relationship of trust we built with the leadership of the US Coast Guard was very important, as it very much appreciated the environmentally friendly conduct of our member ships. When the bomb on TWA Flight 840 was detonated (in 1986) and (US President Ronald) Reagan stopped travel to Greece, the US Coast Guard contributed toward disentangling Greece from the terrorist attack. This relationship – members of the US Coast Guard often visited our seminars in Piraeus, to explain a new shipping regulation for example – would significantly contribute to the creation of a positive atmosphere with other associations on the interests of shipping,” he says. That HELMEPA is an association of the people of the sea became widely apparent when, “following my suggestion, the general-secretary of the Greek Seamen’s Federation was elected as the president of the HELMEPA board; so as sailors can say, ‘I am here too.’”

The meeting

Due to the ongoing pandemic, our meeting took place in Mitsatsos’ home, along with coffee and cookies. We sat at an appropriate distance wearing masks – we only took them off to take a photo. “I am glad when seafarers care about the environment. They tell me, ‘We used to just threw old mop heads into the sea – whether they were used to mop up oil or just mop the vessel – and now we look to clean them.’ This is a great achievement.” He tells us of his dream to command a submarine, his admission to the Hellenic Navy Academy at 15 – with his family hailing from Psara, enlistment in the Hellenic Navy was a family tradition – and undergoing specialist training in the United States. “I never became a submarine commander – my mother was terrified I would drown – but I did get a chance to launch one, the Katsonis,” he laughs. 

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