Paul J. Ioannidis’ storied life is chronicled in the book, Destiny Prevails: My Life with Aristotle, Alexander, Christina Onassis, and her daughter, Athina. It’s part autobiography, part Aristotle Onassis biography.
In an exclusive interview, Ioannidis spoke about his life as a pilot and a close associate of the Onassis Family, and his book, first published in Greek by Livanis Publications in 2007; and published in English initially by Livanis Publications, and subsequently, by Significance Press in April 2015.
Meet Paul J. Ioannidis
Ioannidis was born in Berlin in 1924, where his father was pursuing his graduate studies. The German birth certificate and his ability to speak German would ultimately save his life – on more than one occasion – during his tour of duty in WWII. He joined the resistance group ELAS/EAM in January 1943, and later Force 133, a part of the British Special Operation Executive (SOE), in 1943. Destiny Prevails opens with details of Ioannidis’ role in the missions, including narrow escapes in occupied Greece and on his way to Cairo via Turkey in June 1944. His experiences during WWII, and his reflections on those historic times – including some relatively unknown facts – are also detailed.
One fateful day in June 1944, his destiny was revealed when an older woman “read” his future in the sediment of his coffee cup.
“She predicted that I’d become a pilot. Such a thought had never crossed my mind. I was in love with the sea ever since I could remember. I wanted to attend the Naval Academy, and become an officer in the Navy. The idea of the sea remained fixed in my mind. I would not hear of anything else. I told her so, but she was adamant and finally, she was annoyed, shouting to me in a quiet authoritative way: ‘Even if you are not …you will become one!’ And so it was! All the choices I made and all roads I took in my life led to my inevitable destiny to become a pilot. It was a fascinating life, full of adventure, creativity and satisfaction,” he explained.
Though his experiences in WWII are worthy of a stand-alone book, the humble man refers to his contribution to the events as “a small dot in the heroic pages written by all the anonymous fighters who struggled for the liberation of our country from the Nazi occupation.” He received several awards for his service, including the King’s Medal for Courage (KMC) of the British Empire, bestowed by King George IV; and a Certificate of Commendation by Field Marshall Lord Alexander. Incidentally, he returned both honors in 1956, in protest, on the day that the British executed two Cypriot Freedom Fighters in Nicosia.
Ioannidis also describes how he got into civil aviation, and then meeting Aristotle Onassis in 1956, “A man who would change my life,” and how he came to join Olympic Airways.
The Real “Aristo”
Aristotle Onassis, Ioannidis said, was “a legendary figure that contributed immensely to the restructuring of the Greek economy after the war; a man who developed shipping and aviation and aided in turning tourism into Greece’s ‘heavy industry’, secured a valuable influx of foreign exchange that boosted the nation’s economy and put Greece back into the picture.” If only he were alive today. Ioannidis takes great pride in his work with Onassis and what they were able to achieve. Turns out the enigmatic, larger-than-life Onassis, was largely misunderstood.
A favorite memory of Onassis
“I would like to mention a very characteristic case displaying his courage which took place in my presence.
On July 22, 1970 an Olympic Airways B727 with 80 passengers en route from Beirut to Athens was hijacked. When the airplane flew over the island of Rhodes a man entered the cockpit armed to the teeth and stated that he was a Palestinian and was taking over the plane along with four of his comrades, which included the infamous, Leila Khaled. .A little while later, a second hijacker entered the cockpit. Their goal was to secure the release of seven of their comrades who were held in Greek jails. This was the fourth hijacking on board an Olympic Airways flight.
The airplane landed and parked in a spot that was far from the airport terminals. One of the hijackers walked down the airplane staircase holding a machine gun. The other four remained inside the airplane with the exception of Khaled, who went up and down the aisle several times.
Aristotle Onassis also happened to be in Athens during that time. As soon as he heard about the hijacking, he came to the airport. The authorities communicated with the hijackers over a frequency belonging to the Civic Aviation authorities. The hijackers demanded that the airplane be refueled and said they would give up the 80 passengers they were holding as hostages in exchange for their imprisoned comrades. The negotiation lasted several hours. Meanwhile, the airplane was refueled and the passengers started being released gradually with women, children, and the elderly going first.
At some point during the negotiations, the conversation went like this:
Onassis: I am going to speak with them.
Me: I don’t think that it would be advisable at this point. But if you go, I will accompany you.
Onassis: No, you are going to stay here.
We tried to change his mind, but he was adamant. He wanted to propose to the hijackers that they release all the passengers and take him instead, with the promise that the authorities would surely allow them to take off. By doing so he was risking his own life in effort to achieve the release of all passengers. He headed over to the airplane with his hands outside of his pockets. As he approached the hijackers, Khaled came out too. They spoke for quite some time, and then Onassis returned. He was astonished and disappointed that they refused his offer.
The negotiations continued until the evening, with talks being mediated by a representative of the International Red Cross. The hijackers finally allowed the remaining passengers to disembark. Afterwards, the plane took off for Beirut with the five hijackers and the Red Cross representative on board. Onassis wondered why the hijackers had opted to take the representative instead of him.
Much later we learned that the Greek Minister of Interior, in charge of the matter, agreed to allow the International Red Cross Middle East representative Andrée Rochat to mediate. Finally, an agreement was reached providing to free, one month later, their seven fellow hijackers imprisoned in Greece.”
Still dedicated to Onassis, the foundations
Aristotle Onassis had high expectations from his executives, and appreciated their trust and loyalty. Ioannidis’ personal commitment to excellence, and his great respect for and dedication to Onassis, did take considerable time away from his family. However, he truly enjoyed his work and found it immensely satisfying. Now 91, Ioannidis still carries that spirit and enthusiasm today, as he continues his work – now into his 58th year — with the Onassis Group, and the Onassis Foundations.
Review of Destiny Prevails: My Life with Aristotle, Alexander, Christina Onassis, and her daughter, Athina
Ioannidis said he wrote the book to basically set the record straight on the Onassis Family and the history of Olympic Airways. He also wished to reveal unknown aspects of Aristotle Onassis’ will and the problems that arose in the establishment of the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation and the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation. He reveals his role as not only a business associate to the father, but as a confidante to the children. He provides behind-the-scenes insight into the events leading up to the untimely deaths of both Alexander and Christina. He delivers an insider’s view into the life of “The Greek Tycoon”, including Onassis’ relationships with Maria Callas and Jackie Kennedy. Additionally, he wanted to address the controversy, and unreasonable demands made by Thierry Roussel, father of Athina Onassis, the only living Onassis heir. He tells this fascinating story in a way only a close confidante could, and with great respect to the family.
“At my age, I don’t think it will be wise to make plans for the future. But as long as God gives me strength to stand on my feet, I will continue my activities as heretofore, being faithful to the wish of Aristotle Onassis as provided for in his will.”
Indeed, destiny prevails.
By: Paul J. Ioannidis
Publisher: Significance Press