Thanasis Zafiriou, the only survivor from a Greek military transport plane shot down by friendly fire in Cyprus in July 1974, has died, it was reported on Friday.
Zafiriou, 62, was being treated for serious health problems at a military hospital in Thessaloniki. He died on Thursday.
The aircraft was part of operation Niki, victory in Greek, a secret operation to lend assistance to Cypriot forces battling invading Turkish troops on July 22.
Thirteen – out of 15 – aircraft reached Cyprus, setting off from Crete in what many described as a suicide mission.
They were carrying the Commando Battalion ‘A’ whose men helped keep the Nicosia airport in Greek Cypriot hands before it was taken over by the United Nations.
But several of the planes, mistaken for a Turkish airborne assault, took fire from National Guard anti-aircraft batteries positioned around the airport.
Zafiriou’s plane was on fire, the pilots were dead, and munitions were burning next to him.
“The crates with the hand-grenades next to me were on fire and I felt I was burning,” he said later. “I looked for a parachute but I couldn’t find one anywhere. I opened the door and I jumped.”
The aircraft crashed in a ball of fire a few seconds later, killing anyone who may have been alive – 32 troops and crew.
Zafiriou, who was 20 at the time, said his parents held a funeral service. His father had a heart attack and died a few months later.
The commando was found alive but heavily wounded 24 hours later in a field next to the airport.
He said he could not remember being found.
“I remember clearly falling to the ground like lead. I was unconscious for seven months and I only remember little of my stay in hospital,” he said.
He recovered but he was left with disabilities and also suffered from other health problems.
Zafiriou’s plane was later buried, along with the remains of commandos still inside, under a mound at Makedonitissa cemetery with a monument to those fallen in 1974 on it.
Only recently it was exhumed to identify the remains of around 19 soldiers who were missing and hand them over to their families.
In addition to Zafirious’ plane, two others took heavy damage – also from friendly fire – and were unable to fly back to Greece. They were torched to erase any trace of Greek involvement since it was not officially at war with its NATO ally Turkey.