“OXI Day” will soon be upon us once again. A national holiday in Greece, it commemorates Greek Premier/Dictator Metaxas’ categorical refusal to be occupied by the Italians massed on the Greek-Albanian border. In truth, rather than the “Heroic OXI,” he refused the Italian ambassador’s ridiculous request in a diplomatic French: “Alors, c’est la guerre.”

“So, it is war.” But OXI is what everyone remembers, rather than the actual truth. No matter, the struggle of the Greeks, and their fantastic defeat of the Italian invaders was indeed awe-inspiring. When the Germans needed to invade Greece to extricate the Italians from their mess, this certainly delayed their invasion of Russia by crucial months, allowing for the Russians’ greatest commander, General Winter, to work his magic on the Germans, as with so many invaders before. It is just that we honor OXI Day.

It is in the same spirit though, that we need to remember that Greek Merchant Mariners said their OXI to the Axis Powers from the day the moment the Second World War began, in September 1939. The Greek merchant fleet was the ninth-largest in the world in 1939, and its ships were a vital part of the Atlantic trade. Without supplies, the war would be lost, and the Greek merchant mariners put their lives on the line from day one. By the end of the first year, six Greek ships were sunk, and 37 Greeks perished beneath the waves of the Atlantic. The next year, 1940, dozens of more ships were lost, and 100 men, all before October 28. We must add the martyred sailors of the Greek Navy Destroyer Elli, sunk on August 15, 1940, in a cowardly fashion by an “unknown” submarine.

Before Greece was an actual belligerent, Greek merchant mariners had said their “OXI,” and over 2.000 had paid for it with their lives. By the time the war ended 60 percent of the Greek fleet had been lost, and over 2.000 Greek mariners had lost their lives, a percentage killed higher than battle casualties in the Greek-Italian War and the German invasion of Greece, which took place in April 1941. One of those men killed at sea included my paternal grandfather, Alexandros.

Steam merchant Halcyon

Steam merchant Halcyon, sunk by U-109 on February 6, 1942

The Greeks and the fleet recovered, thanks in no small part to the “Miracle” of the Liberty Ships, surplus US shipping built for wartime freight subsequently sold to US citizens and Allies at cut-price rates. Both of my grandfather’s sons, my late father and uncle worked on Liberty Ships after their military service in the Greek Civil War, helping the Greeks to recover from the devastating price of their collective “OXI.”

It is just to honor OXI Day. Let us not forget the totality of OXI and the fact that it was said first and earlier by Greeks at sea. A maritime nation such as Greeks should not forget her sons who fought and died at sea. Nor should the various organizations who sponsor events related to OXI Day.