(Yours Truly in Greece, Spring 1985 - shortly before the events described below...)

It occurred to me, as I sat down at my keyboard just now to share the story I am about to tell, that I probably should have done so back in June. That month did, after all, mark the 30th anniversary of when it actually happened.

But for some reason I generally don’t think about it when the anniversary rolls around. The subject only seems to come to mind around this time of year. When I’m counting my blessings. Because as such things go, I think I’m pretty safe in saying this one ranks pretty high up there.

In the spring of 1985 I was nearing the end of my service in the U.S. Air Force, wrapping up a nine-month tour of duty as a member of the 2140th Telecommunications Group at Hellenikon Air Base in Athens, Greece. I’d made many friends among both my military colleagues and the Greek civilians who worked on and around the base, and had come to love the country’s scenic places as few places I’ve experienced even to this day. But my time in Greece had overall not been a particularly happy one, for reasons not worth going into just now, and the closer my departure date came the more I found myself looking forward to it.

By June the anticipation was so great I could almost taste it. I was literally living out of a suitcase by that point, counting the days until I was back home with my friends, family and fiancée. But on the morning of June 13 - the day before my scheduled flight back to the States - the company commander called me into his office and gave me the bad news: there had been some sort of foul-up with my paperwork, and as a result I wouldn’t be leaving Greece until early July. In retrospect another two or three weeks shouldn’t have seemed so bad under the circumstances. I was already detached from my unit and was for all intents and purposes on leave. Which meant that I was basically free to spend my remaining time in Greece any way I wanted to. But that didn’t matter at the moment. I was ready to come home, and to be honest the fact that I was not yet able to do so really ticked me off.

The following day - Friday, June 14, 1985 - I walked into the base dining hall for lunch and was met by a couple of buddies who seemed incredibly surprised to see me there - one nearly to the point of tears. I hadn’t yet had the chance to tell them that my departure had been delayed, but their reaction to my continued presence seemed a bit... well, unusual to me. That is, until they explained.

Earlier that morning, just under 30 minutes into the flight, TWA Flight 847 out of Athens headed for Rome had been hijacked by Shi‘ite Muslims identified as members of a group known as Islamic Jihad, a collective of various fundamentalists operating out of Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries and known to be sympathetic to Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. 

The flight included over 100 passengers, 100 of whom were said to be Americans. The 101st, had it not been for that last-minute paperwork snafu, would have been me.

The hijackers forced Flight 847 to land in Beirut, Lebanon, and held the plane there for 17 days, demanding the release of some 700 fellow Shi’ite prisoners being held in Israeli prisons. When those demands were not met, one of the hostages on the plane - Robert Dean Stetham, a diver stationed at a U.S. Naval base located not far from Hellenikon - was brutally tortured and murdered. The photo of his lifeless body, dumped onto the tarmac of Beirut International Airport, appeared in papers and news magazines and on TV screens around the world. 

It was eventually reported that one of the hijackers - Imad Mugniyah, probably the single most wanted man in counter-terrorism circles prior to Sept. 11, 2001 - had walked up and down the aisle of the aircraft looking for U.S. military personnel before finally coming upon Stetham. I still recall the terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach when I first heard that part of the story. It seems so cliché to say “It could have been me” - and yet it quite literally could have been. The thought still sends chills.

History records that the ordeal eventually ended with the escape of the terrorists and the release of the remaining hostages. For an America still shaken by the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis of several years earlier,  and with the hijacking of the Achille Lauro still several months in the future at that point, the hijacking of Flight 847 was a chilling precursor to the decades of hate and violence that eventually led to 9/11 and the recent attacks in Paris.

For me personally, it was a close call that still causes me to lose sleep now and then. And so, yes, every Thanksgiving I say a prayer of gratitude that circumstances kept me off that plane that June day in 1985. But I also mourn a sailor I never knew who was on that plane, and for the family robbed of his presence in their lives. 

I know people who are fond of saying that everything happens for a reason. And most of the time I’d like to think they might be right. But it’s hard sometimes. 

And 30 years after the fact, I’m still wondering what the reason for this could possibly have been...

(Copyright © 2015, by John A. Small)