Thursday 21 September 2017 Last Update: 03:42 PM

Jennings of Smyrna

Published: 06-04-2017


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 sorts.

 

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.

Asa Jennings

Asa Jennings

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 misery?

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 of Smyrna.”

(With thanks to reader M. Mersinoglu.)

Holdwater Reflects

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 armed forces.