Sometimes, History Books Offer a Surprise

By Rebecca Rule
Nashua Telegraph

Ships of Mercy: The True Story of the Rescue of the Greeks, Smyrna, September 1922 by Christos Papoutsy; Peter E. Randall Publishers; cloth; 254 pages, with extensive index and illustrations; $30.

Just when you think you know a little something about history, along comes a book full of surprises.

Truth be told, I knew nothing about the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Greek refugees from the quay at Smyrna in 1922. For the Greek community, this event, I'm told by Christos Papoutsy, is as significant as Hiroshima or Pearl Harbor, a war tragedy of earthshaking proportions.

Papoutsy, of Rye Beach, spent 10 years researching the Smyrna Catastrophe, in which many died before many were saved through evacuation. His book, Ships of Mercy, tells the story of how these refugees came to be in Smyrna, what happened to them there and how some of them, in the end, escaped.

Here's the background in a nutshell: After World War I, many peace settlements were implemented as territory was divided. In these settlements, as in the war, there were winners and losers.

Among the Allied countries gaining territory was Greece which sought to have her ancestral lands of eastern Thrace, Smyrna, and other sections of Asia Minor restored. The Italians, miffed at not receiving certain lands that they desired, decided to seize them by force. They landed soldiers on the Adalia coast and began heading north toward Smyrna. Because the Greeks had the closest Allied garrison (in [the Greek province of] Macedonia), the Allied powers asked them to head off the Italian maneuver. The Greeks complied, and quickly occupied Smyrna.

This angered the Turks, who launched a revolution, kicking out the Sultan who had cooperated with the Allies, and precipitating the Greco-Turkish conflict of 1920-22.

Enraged at their empire being chopped up, Turkish rebels called for a "Turkey for the Turks" and pledged to fight to retain their lands. Their battle cry also brooked no tolerance for non-Turks or Christians, and turned a fight over territory into a far bloodier conflict over race and religion.

Driven from their homes and lands by the Turks, Greeks and others fled toward the sea--"flight was their only hope"--and ended up crowded on the quay at Smyrna.

For nearly thirty days, they baked under the hot sun and suffered perishing thirst, hunger, and brutality. For nearly thirty days they prayed for rescue.

Papoutsy documents that rescue in Ships of Mercy. He and his wife traveled the world--Italy, Greece, Turkey, France--and combed the libraries in search of the truth about Smyrna.

They discovered documents--ships' records, letters among key players, military orders--that shed light on the nature and sequence of events. They had documents translated into English. They unearthed photographs of the refugees, the ships, and Smyrna before and after the catastrophe--a fire burned much of the city.

They discovered an unsung hero, Asa Jennings, an American who facilitated the evacuation, saving thousands of lives. His firsthand account of events brings color and immediacy to the story. Here's a sample:

I remember the exciting time I had on the morning of September 13, when I was on my way to the office. I was coming through the Armenian quarter, and as ill luck would have it, fell in with a mob. There was firing on both sides, for of course, Turkish soldiers were everywhere.

I had long since taken the precautionary measure of arming myself with an American flag, for that little bit of bunting was of more potential defense than any Colt automatic. Finding myself in this pleasant little party, I pulled out my flag, pinned it on, and made for the nearest wall.

I finally reached it and then walked sideways for quite a distance, for I had always been told that if you must be shot by all means avoid being shot in the back.

Jennings got his family out of the trouble zone on an American ship, then returned to Smyrna to try to help the refugees. And he did! It wasn't easy, but he did.

Papoutsy's mission was to set the record straight on the Smyrna Catastrophe. It needed to be set straight.

Sometimes myths arise and are counted as history. The widely held belief that the Greeks at Smyrna were rescued by the Japanese always struck Papoutsy, who has family connections in the region, as illogical. "What were the Japanese doing in the harbor at Smyrna?"

Other stories--that British and American ships had denied refugees safety and that sailors had pushed swimmers away or poured scalding water on them--also struck him as fishy.

What really happened? In some of the stories, the United States and the Allies were said to have caused the whole mess and did nothing to help. Papoutsy didn't buy it.

In fact, according to Ships of Mercy (and with the amount of documentation the book provides, it certainly seems like fact), America didn/t start the fire, as Billy Joel might say. And in fact, we tried to help, and did. Yes, it was tricky, with complex political mazes to maneuver, but we helped big-time. That's Papoutsy's well-researched message.

He wrote the book in part out of national pride.

" I'm Greek," he told me, "I'm an American. I'm proud to be an American." This book and its message are "not Republican, not Democrat, not red or blue--just American."

Just as Papoutsy traveled the world to write his book, he's traveling the world talking about it. A Greek edition will be released soon.

Locally, you can find him at the Rye Public Library at 7 p.m. Oct. 2. For more information, visit

Rebecca Rule, a writer who lives in Northwood, writes this column weekly except the last Sunday of the month. Her e-mail address is

(Posting date 2008)

Published in the
Nashua Telegraph on 7 September 2008. HCSencourages readers to view other articles and releases in our permanent, extensive archives at the URL

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