During a long and varied adventure, Helias Doundoulakis, the Ohio son of Greek immigrants, was a World War II-era operative with the Greek resistance, a U.S. soldier and an OSS spy thwarting Nazis on the Mediterranean waterfront.
The Grumman Aerospace Corp. inventor also designed systems allowing scientists to map the surface of Mars and was a Freeport family man who also late in life loved watching sunsets on summer evenings from his canal-side rear deck. Doundoulakis, 92, died Feb. 29 at home.
“He really was one of the most remarkable men I’ve met through the OSS Society,” said Steven Statharos, a member of that organization which in November granted Doundoulakis and an older brother, posthumously, its Distinguished Service Award. The OSS Society honors veterans of the Office of Strategic Services, the shadowy precursor to today’s Central Intelligence Agency. The ceremony was attended by current and former intelligence leaders, including CIA director John Brennan.
Born in Canton, Ohio, to Greek immigrant parents, Doundoulakis spent his childhood in Crete. He was just 17 when Nazi troops invaded the island on May 20, 1941.
He and his brother, George, joined the Cretan resistance movement, which harassed the Nazis from mountain hideouts.
Betrayed to the Gestapo, the brothers escaped to Egypt aboard a torpedo boat provided by Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, Britain’s commander of guerrilla operations in Greece.
Cairo was then a center of American spy activity in the Mediterranean. Both brothers enlisted in the U.S. Army there in 1943, trained for six months in espionage’s dark arts, then slipped back into Greece.
From there, Doundoulakis watched the Nazi-occupied waterfront, notifying Cairo of troop movements using a radio he had smuggled in a can of olive oil.
He was in Thessaloniki when he learned that thousands of Nazi soldiers were preparing to depart the city by train. After notifying Allied commanders, he watched as American B-25 aircraft targeted the train station with deadly accuracy, killing some 2,500 Nazi fighters — a greater death toll than the American loss at Pearl Harbor.
Doundoulakis would later recall his espionage coup as both a personal triumph and a cause for deep anguish. He knew the German dead included men like himself swept unwillingly into war — some with whom he had exchanged pleasantries during his spy work.
“When I sent telegrams regarding troopships or convoys, I would not see their destruction and so it was not personal,” Doundoulakis wrote in his book “Trained To Be An OSS Spy,” published in September 2014 by Xlibris.
“Yet there are times I regret sending the telegram for our planes to bomb the Salonica train station. . .”
“But I cannot help but think how those German soldiers, readying to depart from Greece, might have killed many more thousands of our American soldiers. . .”
An American wristwatch almost blew his cover. He was in a waterfront tavern when German soldiers he was tailing grew suspicious that a Greek man would be wearing an American’s timepiece. He fought panic as the Nazis approached.
“From 15 in that spy training school, seven got caught, and all died with no fingers,” he recalled to Smithsonian magazine. “I told myself, ‘Try not to tremble, you’ve got to find a story right away.’”
He coolly told his interlocutors he bought the watch from a German soldier, who had taken it as a souvenir from a dead GI. The danger passed.
After his honorable discharge as a corporal in 1946, he moved to Brooklyn’s Borough Park. He married neighbor Rita Gianoplus in 1952, a year after receiving his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from City College. He completed a master’s degree in the subject from Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in 1960.
His brother, by then a physicist directing research at General Bronze Corp. in Garden City, hired Doundoulakis to help design what would become the world’s largest single-aperture radio telescope — the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Doundoulakis is credited with perfecting a cable suspension system that allowed the telescope to be built with a 1,000-foot-wide collector, and to potentially track the ionization trails of nuclear missiles. Doundoulakis was awarded U.S. Patent US3273156 A. William J. Casey, who became CIA director five years later, is listed as one of the patent’s assignees.
Doundoulakis is also credited with working on several projects at Grumman, including the Apollo space missions, and with design work on the foundation of the Met Life building in Manhattan.
In addition to his wife, of Freeport, he is survived by sons Thomas, of Franklin, Tennessee,; Plato, of Groton, Connecticut; James, of Greenwich, Connecticut; Stephen, of Glenview, Illinois; and 10 grandchildren. His brother, who lived in North Bellmore, died in 2007 at age 85.
Doundoulakis was interred at Greenfield Cemetery in Uniondale.