The word hero comes in to play often in our society, yet do we really know what it means? Can a sports star for example truly embody the term? When a new footy season kicks off, we look to our “heroes” to lead our respective teams. The media and the public tend to use the term as if it is going out of fashion. With this in mind, I want to introduce one the greatest heroes the world has ever seen. A man who was truly great, and GREAT enough to stand alongside Alexander the Great. This hero saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Greek speakers, yet he wasn’t even a Hellene. He was a humble American who at first glance you may blink and miss. A five-foot two-inch tall man with a slight hunch, was a man who happened to be in Smyrna in 1922 when the disaster of the Asia Minor catastrophe ruined lives forever.
In 1918, the Greek military triumphantly made its way to Smyrna coast, a Greek and Christian majority city in Asia Minor. Not since the city of Philadelphia fell to the powerful Ottomans in 1390 had the Hellenes controlled territory in the region. Relations between Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians (and Jews) with the Ottomans was already tense. Killings, death marches and a tragic end to the history between these peoples and Anatolia was unfolding. Yet it may have and could have been stopped by the Allies of Europe. For the Turkish people had stood, generally, as friends, with their Orthodox Christian brothers for centuries. But the 20th Century brought about terrible destruction and nationalism; the people of all these ethnicities are still trying to come to grips with what happened. In my opinion and heart, I hope for peace and long term friendship when the healing process is one day completed.
Now let me take you back to the hero of this story. Asa Jennings, was a missionary with the YMCA. His whole purpose in life was to help people. To Asa, it didn’t matter what your ethnicity was. You were a human being. This was more than enough in Smyrna.
In late September 1922, when the defeated Greek military had made a heartless exit from Smyrna, the forces of Kemal Ataturk made their entry in to city were Turks were already providing retribution for the Greek occupation. A city that had known peace, even in World War I, was being destroyed. Suburbs were raised and citizens were rounded up. Many were killed, most forced to the harbour where they remained for 2 weeks; hungry, crying…. why did the children need to suffer. “Allied” warships remained neutral in the beautiful harbour of Smyrna. A harbour I once visited, with a heavy heart.
These ships would beat back most who tried to board. A Japanese merchant vessel happened to be sailing past. Disgusted, and with no vested interest, they dumped their entire cargo. They lost plenty of money doing that. They docked and took as many poor refugees as they could and took them to Piraeus. Heroic. May their souls always rest in peace.
The American embassy protected as many people as they could. Hundreds. But there were hundreds of thousands who needed protection. Enter Asa.
With the Christian sections of the city in ruins, with people begging for their lives, he made a dash to see Ataturk. A man known for his own deeds amongst the Turkish people, earning him the title of father of the Turks.
Not willing to take no for an answer from Turkish troops, he forced his way to the lodgings of Ataturk. There may have been a bribe. Kemal was initially intrigued by an American who sought to protect the Greeks and the minorities.Believing that Asa would not be able to rescue the Greeks, he made a deal with him.
The deal was simple, he gave him a few days to take as many refugees as possible to Greece. Asa had no resources! The Turkish military thought he was a fool. On paper, he actually was, for he genuinely had no resources except the love in his heart and the faith he carried.
Immediately he went about his rescue attempts. He established a first aid facility for pregnant women on the docks. Next he made his way to a US naval ship.
Asa began his negotiations with a theoretically neutral US ship. As evening fell, he and the crew spotted a swimmer in distress, a naked woman. The crew were unwilling to rescue the swimmer. Asa not only condemned this cowardly act, he forced them to rescue the swimmer against orders. Asa then ensured a young boy who had been sneakily rescued by other sailors earlier in the day to be united with the woman…. his sister. The two would make their way to the comfort and protection of America.
Next Asa negotiated with an Italian ship to take refugees who could pay a fee. Disgusted that people could profit from human suffering, at least he was able to immediately rescue 2000 more Greeks. He accompanied the ship to Mytilene, the home and the poster island for the current refugee crisis.Recently I myself witnessed the daily agony of the refugees fleeing from war in Asia, it makes me ashamed to be a human being knowing that war and humanitarian disasters never seem to end.
An American destroyer followed the ship in order to take Asa back to Smyrna. At this stage, Asa may not have entirely figured out how he would save the refugees. However, as has been the custom for many a visitor, the harbour of Mytilene proved to be the inspiration that Asa needed….
The defeated Greek navy with around 25 ships lay at anchor. God was clearly talking to Asa. With an incredible confidence and the fact that Ataturk agreed he could represent the non Turks, he called an extraordinary meeting. The British Consul, the defeated Greek military, navy leaders met with Asa who then breathed hot air and not much more. He soon made his way, by force, on to the Greek ship of Kilkis where he was significantly supported by the Captain, Ioannis Theofanidis.
He brazenly sent a message via the ship to the Greek Government of Athens, calling on them to support his efforts to rescue the wretched refugees. The Government was not entirely disposed to an American ordering them about as they contemplated the defeat and humiliation in Asia Minor.
Then came a masterstroke. He told the government that unless they agreed to the fleet sailing with him by 6 pm he would broadcast to the entire world the cowardly rejection of his pleas.
The government, bullied, and embarrassed gave Asa the command of the entire fleet in the Aegean. THE MOST INCREDIBLE ACT OF THE ERA. How can a Yankee (born in New York) gain control of a Greek fleet? A man with no naval or military expertise. In effect, Asa became a Commodore.
Within in an hour, Ataturk had agreed to the ships under Asa entering the harbour of Smyrna to rescue all refugees except men aged between 18 – 45 years (their tragic fate would come). Athens also gave him a further 25 ships from Piraeus on the condition that each ship that entered Smyrna docks must be escorted by an American warship.
His next hurdle was the attitude of almost every ship Captain. No one wanted to return to a city that had been destroyed. As the “Admiral” of the fleet, Asa reminded each Captain that should they attempt to call in unseaworthy ships, he would have them courtmarshalled and possibly executed. This worked a treat.
By midnight the fleet had set sail and the US was there to help with a frigate to support the operation. By now, the docks were the epitome of misery. If one can imagine what that feels like. One of the wealthiest cities in the world, one that had been tolerant to everyone, was now soaked in misery. The poor refugees were trapped and despondent.
Every possible hurdle that was placed in front of Asa was overcome. Recalcitrant Turkish troops, panic, fear, suffering. Yet he managed an evacuation that few in history could ever imagine. Americans all came to the aid of Asa, they helped in every way, whilst French, Italian, British, Turkish did little.
Within a matter of days, Asa had cleared Smyrna of refugees, those that were not deported to the interior. 350,000 were estimated to be saved. The descendants of these poor souls, all owe their existence to this one HERO. And all the heroes who helped him.
Most of the refugees ended up in Athens, Thessaloniki, nearby islands and Mytilene.
After his heroic deeds, the “Commodore” added another incredible chapter. He became the Greek and the TURKISH representative of the prisoner of war exchange. He also continued for a year to evacuate other refugees from Asia Minor. He was thought of fondly by both Greece and Ataturk for his courage and valour with each country awarding him accordingly.
I spoke with his grandson recently, Mr Roger Jennings, who told me that he has the diaries and records of Asa. He told me that “on the 90th anniversary of the rescue, the United Methodist Church in Cleveland, where my Grandparents are buried, invited me to speak to the congregation about my Grandfather who is buried in their cemetery. MGM produced a short film which I have. The technical adviser to MGM was my Father. The movie is called “Strange Destiny.”My Father told me the Greeks would kneel when my Grandfather walked down the street as though he was carrying the Host, and they wanted to kiss his hand and feet. AKJ was very embarrassed by this attention. He never wanted attention on himself. Well, he got his wish. Almost no one in Greece today ever heard of Asa K. Jennings. That is pretty sad. And no one knows the Greek hero, Theofanides. That is sad too.”
Yet in Volos, there has been a concerted effort to recognise Asa with Roger addressing the people there in February.
Asa passed away in 1933, easily the best known American in Asia Minor. He may have been forgotten by a Greece that has spent years dealing with war and political issues, though his deeds have resulted in the birth of millions.
When I look up hero in the dictionary I see a picture of Asa. From here on in, no one in the Greek world should forget what he did. Technically the most highly decorated person in Modern Greek history, who arguably saved 1.2 million people over the course of a year. He may have been born an American, but he died as a Hellene. Our country has had many great philosophers, leaders, artists, writers, yet this man shall forever stand alongside them.
To a man who truly is a HERO, I, along with all the descendants of the Asia Minor catastrophe salute you.
A new book from Roger Jennings “Waking the Lion” is available through Amazon, and it is a must read, compiled from 2500 documents that Asa provided his family.
Address of Roger Jennings, www.vimeo.com/52745334. Anyone interested in the rescue should watch the video.
Billy Cotsis has ancestry from Mytilene and Asia Minor and is the author of the Many Faces of Hellenic Culture.