By WILLIAM T. ELLIS
Scribner's, v. 84, Aug. 1928, pp. 230-235.
An authority on the Near East in war or peace tells the remarkable story of how an
assistant “Y” secretary bluffed the Greek nation into rescuing its people from Smyrna.
To have played the hero, and yet not to have posed the part; to have done a spectacuiar
big thing, and then to have gone on to another unspectacular task—this is to have “acquired
merit,” as our Buddhist friends say. Asa K. Jennings, affectionately dubbed “Commodore”
Jennings by the officers and men of the American navy who were on Mediterranean duty in
1922-23, won this distinction; as did also Miss Cushman, of Konia, who is another story.
If this were a book, instead of a brief magazine article, I would first set up the
background for my amazing bit of biography. There would be the kaleidoscopic romance of
Turkey as a place setting: and of Smyrna in particular: seat of King Tantalus, birthplace
of Homer, plaything of Alexander the Great, one of the Book of the Revelation’s “Seven
Churches of Asia,” burial-place of Polycarp, and known to the Early Church as “the
gateway of the martyrs.” Then the scene-setting would further show the deep racial and
religious antipathies of the peoples of Asia Minor; their revolutionary plots and the
famous Armenian atrocities. Next I would have to reveal the intrigues of the rival
politicians at the Paris Conference, which set the jealous powers to plotting each other’s
discomfiture in the Near East; and how Lloyd George thwarted the audacious Italian project
to make a landing in force at Smyrna, in March, 1919, by swiftly thrusting in a Greek
expedition ahead of them. (Lloyd George’s government later fell because of the
consequences of the coup.) A grisly element would then appear in the atrocities committed
upon the Turks by the Greek forces as they landed (vide the report of the Inter-Allied
commission of investigation), and in tragic sequence there would follow the three years of
war in the Minor between the British-abetted Greeks and the ragamuffin Nationalist Turks,
under Mustapha Kemal Pasha. It needs the delicate pen of a satirist to picture this
topsyturvy situation, wherein the Turkish Nationalistists shouting the Wilson slogans
against two of America’s war allies; and charging the Greeks with atrocities of all
Finally, to put the last touch of background in a paragraph, came the Greek debacle
in Asia Minor in August, 1922, the British having already withdrawn most of their
co-operation. Under pressure from the Turks, the overextended Greek line crumpled,
the never-strong morale completely collapsed, and the army rushed to sea. As they
ran, with the Greek civil population of Asia Minor following them, they looted and
burned and dynamited villages and towns and cities that they left or passed. I
covered the route of that retreat a few months later, and even the eyes of a war
correspondent accustomed to the devastation in France became filled with horror at
this harvest of hate. (In passing, let me testify that, sofar as my own careful
investigations on the spot could show, the Greeks did not burn Smyrna, as they had
threatened to do. Neither did the Turks, nor yet the Armenians; although the big
fire ,which destroyed the better part of the city from lesser fires for which
individuals of all three of these groups were responsible.)
This dreadful anabasis culminated in Smyrna. The Greek army and many lucky civilians
got away on Greek ships which were in waiting for them. But three hundred and fifty
thousand Greeks, mostly women and children, remained in Smyrna, with no ships to
take them off. Here, then, is the stage-setting outlined, with a mob scene at the
front centre, and a large slice of Gehenna crackling as a sort of back drop.
Enter Jennings. There was no cue for him in the script. No
prompter called him. He really was not cast for any part in the play. Also, he had
no histrionic gifts. Nobody would ever have picked him for the hero’s part; he
properly belonged among the “supes.” Jennings was no “old hand” in Smyrna
or the Near East, and no leading citizen. In fact, he was only a rather recent
assistant Young Men’s Christian Association secretary, an ex-Methodist preacher,
who would never get any appointment on account of his size, his good looks, his
“air,” or his oratory. He was only the common or garden variety of Y.M.C.A.
worker. Withal, though, he was Kipling’s sort of American, who
“Turns a keen, untroubled face,
Home to the instant need of things.”
Here were folk to be fed and doctored and counselled, and, if possible, delivered.
It was Jennings who was one of the moving spirits among the resident Americans to
form an American Relief Committee. (When our querulous “intelligentsia” stop
their quibblings long enough for a clear voice to be heard, some informed American
cosmopolite may arise to tell the tale, unmatched in all the sagas of time, of how
Americans have ever been the world’s big brothers; the helpers, the rescuers,
the almoners, the friends in need. There is a great book in the theme of the
American imperialism of altruism.)
One of Jennings’s little stunts, to particularize, was to open an emergency
maternity hospital for the refugee mothers. No, there is nothing about managing
maternity hospitals taught in the Y. M. C. A. manual of instructions; neither are
obstetrics a course at Annapolis—yet the young executive officer of one of the
United States destroyers in the harbor acted as midwife for many emergency cases
in Jennings’s hospital. “It’s a way they have in the navy.”
All of the Americans in Smyrna during those dread days were working to the limit;
only one—a casual visitor from Constantinople, who was so useless and in the way
that the local folk got permission from Admiral Bristol at Constantinople to speed
his departure —ever claimed to have done wonders; and that man wrote a magazine
article about his exploits which almost made the American missionaries at Smyrna
lose their religion, and the navy lose its morale, when they read the astounding “fake”—which
consisted largely of telling as his own experiences the story of Jennings. Later, a
proved propagandist of the Greek Government wrote a book indicting all Americans —
the navy and the State Department in particular—for their “betrayal” of
humanity at Smyrna; but by the time it appeared the average American was beginning
to grow sophisticated and sceptical concerning propaganda about the Near East.
Individual stories of those days are legion.Theorctically neutral, the American
naval force stretched and broke many a regulation in order to rescue refugees. There
was not a war-ship that did not have its complement of Greek and Armenian Christians
aboard. One night a head was seen swimming from shore. The ship’s lights were
switched off, so that the Turkish sentries might not find the escaping refugee an
easy mark. From the rail where Jennings and sailors watched, the swimmer was seen to
be in distress, as the figure drew near the destroyer. There was no order to lower a
boat; there could not be, as it would have had to be entered in the log, evidence of
a breach of neutrality. “Why don’t you man a boat?” demanded Jennings of the
men. “We can’t do it without orders,” replied the disciplined sailors, eager
for action. “Well, I’ll order it: push off that boat!”
The rescued figure, well-nigh exhausted, proved to be an almost naked young woman.
Sailors’ clothes and blankets quickly covered her; but there was nobody aboard who
could understand her dialect. “Perhaps that boy up in the bow, whom we pulled
overside to-day, can talk with her.” The two were brought together—and proved to
be brother and sister! They are now in America.
After the Greek army had gone, the Turks assumed full control of Smyrna; and soon
decreed that unless the Greek refugees were out of the city by the end of September,
they would be sent back into the interior. Jennings, one day, noticed that an
Italian liner in the harbor, taking off its nationals had plenty of empty deck
space. So he negotiated with the commander to add refugees who could pay the passage
money (Certain foreign ships, neither British nor American, reaped a golden harvest
by exorbitant rates charged refugees.) Two thousand Greeks were crowded on the decks
of the Italian ship as they sailed for the port of Mitylene, only five or six hours
distant. Jennings went along, to oversee the debarkation, and an American destroyer
was to follow to bear him back to Smyrna the next day.
As the refugee-crowded ship drew into the lovely island harbor of Mitylene, a cry of
execration rose from tle throats of the deck passengers. Behold, riding high at
anchor, twenty-five empty Greek passenger-ships—while only five hours away, on the
Srnyrna Bund, were three hundred and fifty thousand Greek victims of Greek
imperialism, praying for deliverance. Back there was need; here was succor—idle.
What the refugees thought, and said, about the failure of the Greek Government merit
to send these ships to the rescue may best be imagined by one who knows the Orient.
Jennings lost no time in verbal fireworks. Ashore, he called together a conference of
leading men—the Greek military and naval commanders, prominent citizens, the British
consul, and others in positions of responsibility. This was rather a cheeky procedure,
but, as events showed, Jennings is not the man to wait for the unwinding of red tape. As
forcefully as a red-blooded man could do, he laid before the conference the appalling
plight of the refugees—with the approaching dead-line of deportation back into the
interior, where they would have to reckon with all the deeds of the Greek occupation and
flight. Thereupon the assembled Greeks gave themselves to talk. Jenningss waited and
waited, listened and listened.
Then, convinced that the only outcome would be futile talk, he slipped out, and went
aboard the flag-ship in the harbor, the old U.S.S. Mississippi, converted into the Greek
Kilkis. He asked permission to send a message in code to the Athens Government. The sheer
audacity of a private citizen’s thus addressing the government carried his point;
besides, the Greeks throughout seem to have assumed that “the American,” as they
called him, must have been some sort of plenipotentiary. Nobody would dare to act so
high-handedly without the authority of the great American nation behind him. The nature of
Jennings’s message to Athens made that clear. For it was nothing less than an ultimatum
that this Yankee sent—declaring that unless the government, before six o’clock that
day, ordered the twenty-five idle ships in Mitylene harbor to proceed to Smyrna for the
rescue of the refugees, he would broadcast the facts in open speech to all the world!
Quickly came back the answer, which, paraphrased, was that of Davy Crockett’s coon:
“Don’t shoot; we’ll come down.”
Five conditions were laid down by the government reply. First, the American must assume
financial responsibility for the ships. That was easy: out ot his salary of something like
twenty-five hundred dollars a year, Jennings could readily accept personal responsibility
for a few million dollars’ worth of shipping.
Second, the American himself must assume the command of the fleet, and ride on the bridge
of the first ship entering Smyrna—so that possible mines or bombardments would have a
personal significance to him. Sure; where else would a Yankee be than in the front of an
adventure? That trip on the bridge made Jennings a brevet “commodore,”
Third, the American must secure the permission of the Turkish Government for the Greek
ships to enter and leave the Smyrna harbor. Not so easy. By way of the American destroyer
that had come for him, Jennings wireiessed the ranking naval officer in Smyrna to see the
governor and get the permission demanded. Within an hour word came back that the Turks
agreed to let the ships enter, but were non-committal about letting them leave. A wartime
Y.M.C.A. conscience was equal to construing this as the necessary permission.
Fourth, an American war-ship must meet the Greek passenger flotilla as it entered Smyrna
harbor and escort it to dock. Clearly outside the functions of a neutral navy! Still,
Jennings knew his compatriots in blue, and he could make sure that there would be a
destroyer quite accidentally in the channel offing the next morning that the Greek ships
could follow. So, watching his words, that condition could be met.
Fifth, the American must take active charge of the evacuation and of the direction of the
ships engaged in it. Naturally; what was the management of the embarkation of three
hundred and fifty thousand panicky Greeks, mostly women and children, to an assistant
secretary of the Y.M.C.A.?
If these conditions were met, proceeded the Athens despatch, “the American” could have
not only the twenty-five ships at Mitylene, but also twenty-five other ships from Pircus.
“Done,” replied “the American.” To the admiral of the Greek navy the despatch was
shown. Jennings was prepared to take over at once the Greek merchant fleet for immediate
departure for Smyrna.
Straightway difficulties arose. When summoned to the Greek admiral’s ship for
instructions, all the captains of the Greek merchantmen began to make excuse—Smyrna
and hell were synonymous words in Greek minds during those days. Not a single ship
was reported seaworthy. Every one had some sufficient reason for being unable to
sail. Then up spoke the Greek admiral —he had not been associating with “the
American” for a whole day to no effect. Courage is as contagious as measles. So he
forthwith reminded the merchant captains that it was a time of war, and that he was
in supreme command in those Greek waters. He would send naval engineers aboard their
ships, and in case of any one found fit to proceed to sea, although reported
disabled, there would be a court martial of the captain that night, and a possible
execution in the morning.
That bluff was as effective as Jennings’s wireless to Athens. For that night at
midnight all of the Greek ships were reported with steam up and ready to sail. So,
with “Commodore Jennings” on the bridge of the foremost boat, the flotilla of
mercy set sail for Smyrna. At dawn, as prophesied by Jennings, an American destroyer
was found loafing about the entrance to the channel; and how could it object if “Commodore”
Jennings and his fleet followed its course through the minefield to the inner harbor
of Smyrna, where the once-beautiful Bund was heaped high with a human cargo of
After all, the work had only begun. How was this immense flock of frightened sheep
to be shepherded onto the waiting ships, that it might be carried to Greek ports of
safety? Problems of official relationship, of human inefficiency, of personal panic,
of family unity, of luggage, of organization and of procedure, as well as of sheer
physical effort in directing the embarkation, thronged upon Jennings and his fellow
Americans, civilian and naval. Nevertheless, they mastered every problem.
No Homer was present to put the epic into deathless verse. It will never be told how
the American navy, officers and men, did stevedoring work in getting that motley
mass of misery separated and assorted and aboard the Greek boats. Not even a little
chantey survives to tell of the children carried in the arms of American sailors.
There was no help available ashore except American—the Greek merchant sailors
dared not set foot on the Bund: the British were too closely identified with the
ill-fated Greek military adventure to be free to circulate on shore. Only Americans—naval
men, missionaries, teachers, and relief-workers—were at call for this huge task of
evacuation at which Jennings had accepted the responsibility. They must ever share
with him the glory of one of the most singular feats of human service in history.
As pledged by this landlubber “commodore,” in his message to Athens, all of the
ships were returned safely to Greek harbors, after the three hundred and fifty
thousand refugees had tranported aboard ship without the loss of a single life. It
was efficiency walking hand in hand with audacity and altruism.
Logically, Jennings should have gone to Greece to bask in the sunshine of Greek
gratitude. He did become a member of the prisoner-of-war exchange commission. There
he seemed not to hate the Turks hard enough to please the Greeks, and he was once
roundly rated in the Greek Parliament. Such is gratitude. Now he is back in Smyrna,
in charge of a new Turkish-American social-service work for young people. He might
be on the lecture platlorm in America—that deadfall for more than one great doer—but
instead he is quietly carrying on by helping to meet human needs; still “Jennings
(With thanks to reader M. Mersinoglu.)
Was that not a wonderful article? Three cheers for the author,
William T. Ellis, for the rare objective telling of a Turk-related tale, absent of bias.
Would it have been asking too much to ask most American writers of that period (or sadly,
this period) to carry themselves along the same intelligent and humanistic lines?
Parts that struck my fancy:
1) "Harvest of hate," describing
the wanton atrocities performed by the retreating Greeks. Exactly the same motivations
that drove the maddened Armenians in eastern Anatolia, as they retreated while the Turks were on the
March. I'll have to remember to steal this wonderful phrase.
2) It is interesting the author blamed no one, and every one, for the fires.
3) I like the description of Jennings, as "Kipling’s sort of American."
Indeed, Asa Jennings, in this episode of his life at least, embodied the best of what
characterizes an American, the kind of giving heroics that were the stuff of Hollywood
legend, the man of action who thinks of others before himself. (Naturally, that quality is
not only limited to American men, but women as well.) Probably this kind of American was
more easily found in those days of old than current times, but this is the kind of
American spirit, romanticized though it may mostly be, that makes me feel proud. At any
rate, it was good to run into a selfless and genuine example.
4) A lovely line: "Later, a proved propagandist of the Greek Government wrote a book
indicting all Americans — the navy and the State Department in particular—for their
“betrayal” of humanity at Smyrna; but by the time it appeared the average American was
beginning to grow sophisticated and sceptical concerning propaganda about the Near
East." This is why Armeinian propaganda had died down for some forty years, until the
business re-activated in 1965, with their "fiftieth anniversary of the
genocide." Americans had learned what liars the Armeians and Greeks had been, but
memories have a way of growing short. Today, Americans are more bamboozled than ever.
5) Just like the Armenian revolutionary leaders who cared nothing for their own people,
deliberately hoping their own Armenians would get massacred, isn't this story a sad
example of how the Greeks really didn't give a hoot about the plight of their own. I could
feel for the Greeks on the Italian ship, as they noticed the empty ships in the Greek
harbor; it's painful to imagine the "cry of execration [that] rose from tle throats
of the deck passengers."
6) Similarly, isn't it like the Greeks to forget their gratitude just because Jennings
"seemed not to hate the Turks hard enough." (Marjorie Housepian was also not the
most forgiving of the later Jennings in her propagandistic "Smyrna 1922,"
because Jennings wrote articles not as critical of the Turks as she would have preferred;
she also directed ire toward the author of this piece, William Ellis, whom she chastized
as being "zealous." It would take doing to consequently classify Jennings as a
"pro-Turk" [this article tells us where his heart stood: he was
"pro-human"], but no doubt Jennings must not have entirely escaped this smear
treatment.) Getting back to Greek ingratitude, is this not yet another characteristic
shared with Armenians; we need to refer to the words of Sir Mark Sykes: "The pride of race brings
about many singularities and prompts the Armenians to prey on missionaries, Jesuits,
consuls and European traveler with rapacity and ingratitude. The poor Armenians will
demand assistance in a loud tone, yet will seldom give thanks for a donation."
7) How very astute and fair of the author to have referred to those 350,000 in the quays
as "Greek victims of Greek imperialism." The general propaganda revels in
referring to those people as victims of the mean old Turks. But, really, would those
Ottoman-Greeks have found themselves in this predicament if the Greek leaders had not been
belligerent? Similarly, would Ottoman-Armenians have been "deported" if
Armenians leaders did not similarly declare war? It's almost always a case of Armenian and
Greek action that brings about the Turkish reaction. When the Turkish
reaction is too painful, these Armenians and Greeks are rarely "man" enough to
accept the responsibility for their own actions. It's much easier to point fingers at the
Terrible Turk. They have been getting away with this tactic then, and they are getting
away with it no less now.
8) To complement the tale above, the reader is advised to tune into Mark Prentiss' "Actualities at Smyrna." Not to take
away from Jennings' heroics, but the object of this telling was to glamorize the plucky
ex-minister, and there may have been others to share the credit. Mark Prentiss tells us
the number of refugees left on the quays was a more reasonable 230,000, and not the
350,000 reported above. In addition, Ellis was correct in stating the Greek and British
sailors did not participate in the logistics, and it was the Americans who took on the
task... but he failed to mention one other, very important participant.
Prentiss writes he was given the authority to be in charge of the evacuation, and once the
Greek ships sailed in, they were afraid to come too close. It would have taken forever to
get the Greeks aboard if the ships did not actually dock, so Prentiss pulled some heroics
of his own:
We appealed to the Turkish captain of the port for permission to bring the ships into
harbor and lay them alongside the railroad pier in the northern part of the city. They
were Greek ships, mind you, and feeling against the Greeks was bitter, yet the Turkish
officer gave consent at once. His only stipulation was that the ships must not fly the
Greek flag in the harbor, and that no Greeks or British must come on shore. The Turks even
assigned three hundred of their soldiers to help; and with these and as many sailors as
the two [American] destroyers could spare, we went to work.
I think it is the first instance on record of cooperation between American and Turkish
TAT's first Izmir page may be accessed here.
Who Set the Fire in Izmir ("Smyrna")?