On August 19th, 1974, recently appointed Ambassador to Cyprus, Rodger Davies, was shot dead during a Greek Cypriot protest outside the U.S. Embassy. The demonstration brought out over 300 people who were protesting against the U.S.’s failure to prevent the Turkish invasion of the northern part of the island the week before. Davies was seeking shelter in a hallway at the embassy building in Nicosia when a sniper struck him in the chest. When Antoinette Varnava—a Maronite consular employee—rushed to his aid, she too was struck dead, with a bullet to the head.
James Alan Williams, a Political Foreign Service Officer, was at the Embassy in Nicosia as events unraveled. He served in Cyprus from 1973 to 1975 — the height of the tension between Greek and Turkish Cypriots; the coup which ousted democratically elected leader Archbishop Makarios III; and the Turkish invasions — all of which define the sociopolitical landscape of the divided island today. He was interviewed by Ray Ewing beginning in October 2003.
Read about other Foreign Service officers who died in the line of duty.
“Until this point there had been no overt attack against the U.S. compound”
WILLIAMS: Well, the 19th of August, we were in a staff meeting in the morning. It was a weekday. I distinctly remember at the staff meeting that it had been reported that there was going to be a demonstration of some kind. This was something that would routinely be reported if you knew about a demonstration. The police had told the RSO [Regional Security Officer]… Somebody got word there was going to be a demonstration. And that was all that was said. We said oh yes, okay, that’s fine.
Q: A demonstration at the embassy?
WILLIAMS: I don’t recall that it was at the embassy. I think it was a demonstration away from the embassy, but the point was made that these were volatile times, [and if you] get a demonstration together ten blocks away, [it] could come this way.
I think somebody did connect those two dots, but we didn’t spend any time talking about precautions or preparations. We had a plan: the Marines had certainly been briefed, trained and updated in their duties if something should happen. And until this point there had been, as far as I know, no overt attack, even by a rock-throwing kid, against the compound where [in which] we were.
Our cars and our houses, [which] had been evacuated by this point, were intact. [There had] been no looting [or] vandalism. [Perhaps there were] shaken fists and ugly gestures, but nothing else.
We had the fence topped [with] barbed wire; I don’t know if it was concertina or something else. […] In the back where the parking lot was, there was a gate that was a little easier to get through. Essentially, our strongest defense was in the front and on the sides. So again, we’re all working and living in this very tight place. I think, coming back to something to which I alluded earlier, after the second invasion, some of the Greek Cypriots including Militiades Christodoulou, the PIO [Public Information Officer] from Makarios’ [government], and now Glafcos Clerides [Acting President], wound up living in the compound [for awhile]. They were deathly afraid of what might happen to them if the Turks should get them, and they moved in.
They sort of arrived at the gate with an aide or a family member. These weren’t large numbers, but the Ambassador made the decision to let them in [and] put them in [a] ground floor office somewhere which unfortunately had a telephone in it, which they started using. So, we had to restrict their phone privileges [and] establish rules of conduct for them while they were in this anomalous situation on the ground. So we had this population too.
Christodoulou’s [family]—there were a couple of them—maybe 8 or 10 people, I don’t remember. But [it was] not a large number. But still, an element of foreigners you had to be aware of since they weren’t FSNs [Foreign Service Nationals]. They were there as refugees, but you know, whatever… I think they were there when the thing went down on the 19th of August.
John Christofides — an interesting anecdote — had been the Foreign Minister [under] Makarios and again [under] Clerides. [As] I recall, we had met him socially — [a] very charming guy like Clerides—London-trained, a barrister, very distinguished, [a] good family, married to a lovely woman from South Africa [named] Marvel, [who was] also Greek.
He was Foreign Minister and he was scared to death when the Turks came to the island the first time. It was either after the first invasion or the second invasion when he was in his most panicky [mood]. I don’t recall if Christofides called me at the embassy or not. He wanted help. He did not, however, wind up as a refugee in the chancery [like Christodoulou], but he was scared and I think that was a genuine fear—a very understandable one given the history of Greeks and Turks in that part of the world.
“I could actually hear the bamboo ripping as the bullets came through”
In any case, [it was the] morning of August 19th, . A sunny day, cloudless skies, as it almost always is in Cyprus, and I think it was around 9:30 or 10:00, I don’t remember. [You could hear a rumble], a large number of people. I [had] only heard that once before in my life, and that was when Ann and I were in Adana, Turkey, and the consulate was stoned by a mob. I think I mentioned that in an earlier session, 1966 that was. You never forget that once you hear it. And I heard it, and everybody else heard it. We thought the demonstration had been approved by the police or whomever some ways away.
[It was] a large crowd. It wasn’t a mob yet. I think the focus of the discussion was criticism of the Americans for what had happened to them, what had been done to them, what they had suffered. And somehow, and I don’t know how because I wasn’t there, the crowd started moving toward the embassy.
At this point, I think it gained a lot of hangers-on and other elements [which] might not have been in the original demonstration at all. By the time it reached the embassy, which was in about 10 minutes, they were throwing rocks and other things at the chancery. So, we immediately had the Marines and everybody else shove the wooden shutters so the glass would be protected, close the gate, get the teargas canisters ready and prepare to stave off what we thought was going to be an unfettered demonstration, but that was about all.[…]
The Ambassador’s office was shuttered and he and his secretaries came into the central hallway. The rest of us were in the central hallway on the second floor. The FSNs were there. It was very crowded. The air conditioning held up for us, so it wasn’t too hot, but it was a little sticky. [Our] offices which had been on either side of that hallway, particularly [those which] were facing the front, were sort of exposed to the brunt of the mob’s wrath, we thought.
At some point, shooting started. I remember hearing pops or whatever, but did not think anything of it because I didn’t know what it was, and I’d never heard shots fired in anger. I don’t know how many shots were fired. Several pierced the water tanks on the roof because they were leaking. Again, there was no central direction, put your hands down and put your hands behind your head and hunker down. We were milling around.
Q: Could you tell where the shots were being fired from?
WILLIAMS: I could not. It was in the context of a lot of roar. You could hear the rocks [hitting the embassy]. Occasionally a shutter would crack and you’d hear glass break. We had no reason to think that we were going to be hurt, because we were in the central corridor, the shutters were shut, the windows were shut, the doors were shut, and we were in the safe area that had been declared as such. So at some point, I think before the popping started, I decided to go up on the roof of the ambassador’s residence, the patio with bamboo screening on the inside of the metal gratings outside.
Mike and I, the two cowboys, went up to there to see what was going on. […] The first thing I saw, looking over the balcony toward the mob, was it did not fill the whole area. At that time there was the street and a parking lot where various cars including mine were, and beyond that was an embassy guest house where we had lived for about six months when we first got to Cyprus. But the mob filled maybe half that area. I can’t say how many.
Several hundred [or] maybe more. I don’t recall it was that huge. But I do recall seeing my car in flames. They torched the cars, and then I saw the gas tank explode and the back end raise and come down. I’d never seen that before. I actually thought it was kind of neat, even though at the time I didn’t know how I was going to get around without a car. Once again, I’m looking at a mob now that is throwing rocks, attacking the embassy, torching the cars. And there was some popping.
I still did not make the connection. Somebody must have been watching over me that day. It was also on American TV by the way, my mother was watching that.[…]
I went to the backside of the balcony. There was another in the back area looking down on the parking lot behind the embassy. For some reason, there was no mob there, but the Marines had thrown out tear gas, I guess as a precautionary measure.
Maybe that’s why there was nobody there. But I do remember looking over that area and smelling this funny thing and then taking a very deep breath to see what it was. It was C2 or whatever agent they were using. [I have] never been tear gassed before, or since, but I went down on my hands and knees and was just totally disabled. It was very effective teargas.[…]
So at this point I’m crawling on my hands and knees, trying to get back to the staircase that goes down to a landing where there’s a sink. I knew I could wash out my eyes and clear my mouth and just get control of myself. And as I was crawling back, whoever had the heavy artillery—the large caliber weapon down there—opened up on the patio.
I could actually hear the bamboo ripping as the bullets came through it. It was a huge roar. He must have sprayed the building, because it seemed like a train. It got louder and louder as it came right toward me and it went past me. I’m down on my hands and knees, the bullets are passing harmlessly overhead and ripping through that bamboo. Again, I haven’t been hurt, but at this point I’m in the fetal position on the staircase trying to keep myself from getting hurt.[…]
I get down to the landing, get my eyes clear so I can see and I can breathe, and I’m able to get back up, go back up to the patio to see where Mike is. There were also some Marines over there with teargas canisters. In fact, they may have been the ones that threw the teargas canister down, but I don’t know that, the one that got me. But they did have teargas canisters to use for mob control. And Mike had asked while I was looking at my car or whatever if he could help. And the Marines said sure and handed him a canister of this stuff. I never used one but it apparently has a rip-off thing like a beer can.[…]
Something like [a grenade], but it rips off and the stuff comes out very quickly, and Mike was a strong guy but he was having trouble pulling off the release tab. So he put the canister between his legs and pulled it off at which point the full force of that agent virtually scalded his crotch, his front and his face. It was like a white brush had been painted over him. And he was in agony.
He was also blinded. He was on his hands and knees, and the Marines […] were so astounded they were laughing uproariously at this poor creature because nobody had ever done something that dumb before, even at Camp LeJeune, and they’d never seen that before. Neither had I. So I get up, my eyes are restored, I can breathe, I see Mike screaming and yelling, hopping around and clutching his groin in great pain, I take him by the scruff of the neck, down the steps to the basin, wash his face out, get him so he can now take care of himself, and get him taken care of.
Q: Do you think the shots were fired at the patio at the top of the residence because they had seen the Marines up there doing the teargas?
WILLIAMS: It’s the same time the shots were fired at the Ambassador’s office. I think there were two shooters. There would have had to be because the ones that came in from the side [his office], were way over there, and this shot was up here. And I always thought, and my memory’s a little hazy on some of this, but the rounds that came into the office of Ambassador Davies were concentrated in the area of his office where his desk was.
The rounds that came into the other side of the building where the residence was were concentrated on the patio, and I think some at the window of his bedroom. I think that’s right, though I’m not sure of it. So whether or not they fired at the patio because they saw a Marine or because they thought the ambassador was up there or because they saw me or whatever, I really don’t know. But there were a lot of bullets that came up there. I always thought it was an effort to get the Ambassador because of the way the bullets had come in. By sheer dumb luck they did get him.
It was a blind bullet came in through the shutter, the glass and the partition in his office and came down into the corridor where he was standing and they shot him through the heart.
He was [in the central hall], and he was dead before he hit the ground. Another bullet came in and ripped off the top of the skull of Toni Varnava, a Maronite local in the Administration section, and she was dead instantly. A steel jacket of one of the bullets that came in landed up in the thigh of Jay Graham, the economic officer. Those were the only causalities from the rounds. One of the older locals may have had a heart attack. Everybody else was intact but scared to death.[…]
[Varnava] had [gone to Ambassador Davies’ aid]. She had been very close to him and she saw him fall. I was not down there, but those who were say she saw him fall and bent down to catch him and as she did her head was ripped open by the bullet, so they both fell.
The windows were appropriately shuttered. So, the bullets did not have to go through significant physical barriers to get to the Americans in the central corridor. I have no way of knowing whether the shooter or shooters knew that we would be huddled in that corridor as a safe place, but the wooden shutter over the window, the single pane of glass and the partition on the door of the wall of the office were not very thick. […]
It was a blind shot that got the Ambassador, no question about that. Toni was an incidental casualty, God rest her soul, and Jay Graham was also unlucky with that minor wound in his thigh.[…]
[The shooters] were on the periphery of the crowd in both cases. One of them was wearing the uniform of a Greek Cypriot policeman as I recall, although the weapon he used was not in the standard arms of the Greek Cypriot police. They were in the crowd on the periphery, but not in adjacent buildings. There was some more shooting of handguns I guess. I think though, soon after the heavy stuff came in and killed the ambassador, they couldn’t know at that time they killed the Ambassador, and hit the side where Mike and I and the Marines were, soon thereafter as I recall, maybe 20 or 30 minutes, time was really very strange as experienced in that day, the crowd started to disperse.
Either its anger had been spent or the Greek Cypriot police had started to come in sufficient numbers to control it. Because what the Greek Cypriot authorities had approved as a demonstration had quickly gotten way out of hand and had to be stopped. I don’t know who was calling, our phones were still intact, I don’t know who called whom. I certainly was not calling anybody because I could still barely see, Mike wasn’t.
“His face was contorted in anguish”
Somehow, Clerides was alerted about the attack on the embassy, and [he] and Christodoulou came. There was teargas in the front as well. It must have been all around the periphery because I remember Clerides came up those stairs wearing a gas mask as did Christodoulou. And he saw Rodger lying on the floor and I remember he ripped the gas mask off and his face was contorted in anguish. It was just unbelievable how grief stricken and surprised he was to see that.
Because even though their association had been fairly brief since Rodger had arrived as Ambassador, I think there was a lot of respect there. I don’t think anybody thought that the tragic events of that summer were going to lead to the assassination, or the murder, of Ambassador Davies. So Clerides I think knelt down beside Rodger very briefly to assure himself that he was dead, and then because we were still in a very chaotic situation where even his security could not be guaranteed, he and his staff left to go back to the office. […]
Christodoulou and I were talking about it that night [and] I told him we needed to have a lot more police security than we’d gotten. At this stage, the Clerides government was supposed to give us everything we asked for, so I said “give us everything.” Give us [a] fixed post, give us snipers on the roof against the mob, give us everything. I don’t know what I specifically asked for. But it was yes sir, yes sir three bags full; they did give us tremendous presence around the chancery. There were no more demonstrations, certainly no more mobs against the embassy. And I don’t really remember how long that protection lasted.
It took a long while for the teargas to disperse. Mike of course reeked of it because it was in his pores. He really had second degree burns that got better as you came up from the crotch toward the face. Fortunately it didn’t start in his face or he would have been blinded. And having staff meetings with him in close quarters was no pleasant experience because he couldn’t help it. Even after showering he still stank of C2.[…]
We came down [from the second floor] fairly soon after we heard the Ambassador had been shot; we [had] heard yells either on the radio from the Marines or something that the ambassador had been hit. So we went down, and there was this tremendous milling about and yells and screams, and teargas everywhere. And lying on the floor where he’d fallen was Rodger and next to him was Toni.
Jay Graham was standing with a trickle of blood coming down his thigh and looking very shocked as many people were: shell-shocked — literally — as to what had happened. I remember I knelt down to Rodger and I just said, “Oh, Mr. Ambassador,” and I couldn’t say anything else because he was clearly gone. I think it had gone right through his heart so there was no question about saving him.[…]
Q: Ambassador Davies did not have any family of his own at post?
WILLIAMS: He did. Dana is the daughter and John is her younger brother, and they had briefly come to post with Rodger and Ms. T, the family cat. Rodger’s wife had died tragically after a long struggle with brain cancer just that year.
And so one of the reasons he wanted to go [to] Cyprus was to get away from Washington and the intense environment he’d been working and living in there, and also get away from, I think, some of the memories of Sally and what she’d gone through in the last years of her life.
Nicosia was going to be a way for the family to replenish itself, just relax and recover a bit. And tragically it did not work out that way. So John and Dana had been in the convoy that went south to Akrotiri [British Airbase in Cyprus] in late July and were in Beirut, and had to be told what had happened to their father on August 19th.