Actualities at Smyrna: Mark O. Prentiss, American Eyewitness, Speaks
RECORDED BY JOHN BAKELESS
AFTER a few days’ tour of investigation among the battlefields of devastated Anatolia, I was back again in Smyrna on September 22. The city, wrecked by the fire, was still filled with homeless people. In the nine days since the fire some 20,000 or 30,000 had been evacuated; but 230,000 remained, and the task of getting them away was baffling.
The chief problem was how to convey the refugees from the city out to the Greek ships, which did not dare to enter what was now a Turkish port and so lay at anchor outside while the refugees were brought to them on lighters. There were plenty of ships, but not half-a-dozen lighters had been left in Smyrna, and the sea from midafternoon till midnight was so choppy that we could not work.
Under these conditions the United States naval authorities placed me in charge of the entire work of evacuation, and the appointment was confirmed by the local relief committee. We made a few calculations. At the rate the work was going, it would take about eighteen months to get all the refugees away, and in far less time than that, exposure, hunger, and disease would have finished every one, even if the Turkish authorities had not insisted on complete evacuation before midnight of the thirtieth.
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 destroyers could spare, we went to work.
I think it is the first instance on record of coöperation between American and Turkish armed forces. They were an odd contrast. The American boys had a keen, wide-awake Yankee interest in everything around them. The Turks were stolidly intent on the work in hand, nothing else. The ‘kidding’ of the American boys meant nothing to them, though they were never unfriendly; and the gobs’ amicable efforts to learn Turkish met with no remarkable degree of success.
The naval officers at first proposed bringing a destroyer into the harbor and laying it alongside the pier, to prevent the massacre that many, at the bottom of their hearts, half expected; but I protested. The presence of a neutral warship could have done no good and might have irritated the Turks. If everything was quiet, the destroyer was needless. If trouble started, an American naval vessel could not interfere. We took the Turks at their word, trusted them, and never had any reason to regret it.
Of course, Smyrna by that time was full of atrocity stories. Half the buildings were in ruins, in the streets were bodies of men killed while cutting hose, killed in private feuds, executed by the Turks, drowned on the waterfront. I do not pretend that the Turks never did any killing in Smyrna. I know better, for an officer and some soldiers had me up in front of a wall for several of the most uncomfortable minutes I ever lived through, and there was a second or two when I did not expect to live very far through them.
It happened in this way. I had come suddenly on a group of Turkish soldiery with loot in their hands. As I had been making photographs wherever I liked, ever since the Turks came in, I very foolishly photographed these men, too. It was an all-but-fatal blunder. Their officer ran at me, seized me by the shoulder, pushed me against a wall, beckoned to some of the men, and stepped back.
It was instantly apparent that an impromptu execution was about to be staged with me as the hero of the occasion. I spoke no Turkish, they no English, and my status as a neutral interested solely in relief was a little difficult to convey in sign language. How were they to know that Kemal and I had parted a few days before on the best of terms?
I did the first thing that came into my head — a foolish bit of bravado, no doubt, but one that served its purpose. Tearing open my blouse, as if to bare my breast to their bullets, I saluted with dramatic impressiveness — and then turned swiftly to the officer and made signs that I wanted to take his picture. In my turn I thrust him up to the wall and made ready to snap him, taking as much time in posing him and getting him ready as I could.
The dazzling idiocy of it was too much for the Turks. This was n’t the proper behavior for an executee at all, and they forgot all about their execution. (Heaven knows I did n’t want to remind them of it.) First the officer was photographed; then he wrote his name and regiment in Turkish, so that I could send him a print. Then I spent a good many minutes posing the entire outfit. I took my time and arranged an impressive array —a month later I learned I had taken all three exposures on one film — yes, I was rattled and I admit it.
Next the officer pulled a muchcrushed package of dates from his blouse and gravely offered some to me. It was the breaking of bread, which in the East constitutes an inviolable bond. I made haste to accept, privately heaving sighs of relief. The men, too, now brought me bits of food. One held out a chunk of bread. As I clumsily endeavored to break off a piece, he jerked a murderous-looking knife from his boot, and for the first time in my life I felt seasick. ‘Heavens,’ I thought, ‘is it beginning again?’ But he merely cut off a bit of the bread and gravely handed it to me.
They showed me their arms, like so many children displaying their toys, and I admired them volubly — in sign language. One man handed me a twofoot knife, and I drew an appreciative forefinger down its edge, wagging my head admiringly as I contemplated its sharpness. ‘For Greek?’ I enquired — ‘No — for E-e-engleesh!’ grunted the proud owner, by way of declaring the feeling of the whole Army.
We spent the rest of the afternoon together, and parted the best of friends. I never saw them again, but I took care to send the officer his photograph. It seemed only good manners — and, besides, I liked him. I treasure my own copy of his portrait. It has a poignant personal interest.
I saw one Greek prisoner shot, with my own eyes. He was being led along by his guards when he suddenly broke away, fell flat in the street, clutched the wheel of a motor-truck, and lay there screaming. His guard first prodded him with the rifle-butt, then struck him, in an effort to make the man get up and go on. No use. The Greek was simply crazy with fright, and the Turkish soldier shot him where he lay screaming. Yet once I saw Kiazim Pasha shout from the window of his headquarters and have two soldiers brought before him. He had glanced out and seen them beating a prisoner.
I feel sure there were both looting and killing in the bazaars on the streets down which the occupying army marched. The pillaged shops, with bodies here and there among them, were the best evidence of what had happened. There was too much of it to hold the chettés and the irregular armed bands who accompanied the Turkish army alone responsible. What had happened was clear enough. Soldiers had gone into the little shops, — you could have put the contents of any one on a wagon, — where they helped themselves to anything that caught their fancy; and any specially rebellious Greek or Armenian proprietor who protested was knocked over the head, shot, or bayoneted.
Some of the looting I saw myself. One soldier passed me in full uniform, carrying a chandelier adorned with innumerable prisms. What he wanted with it or how he expected to carry it along on the next march, I don’t know, but it was unquestionably loot. I saw another man with three dozen canes and umbrellas, and I took a photograph of a line of automobiles and camels, which Turkish officers had loaded with silks and calicoes and other goods. I also saw a Greek priest carrying a sewing-machine; but as he was a refugee, it may have been his own property. Thousands of soldiers and civilians were carrying everything you can imagine—sometimes loot — sometimes salvage—sometimes ‘just picked up.’
It is impossible to understand the psychology of atrocity stories without being through an experience like ours. The reputation that the Turks have
— rightly or wrongly — acquired was known. It was also known that they had marched for three hundred miles through wantonly devastated territory
— their territory. Atrocities seemed the natural thing to expect. Then there was the fire, and with Greek looting, Turkish looting, private murders, men shot while cutting hose, death from fire, drowning, and military executions, bodies began to be pretty thick in the streets.
It was too much for a good many men — and not weaklings by any means. They were like children, who fail to distinguish between what they imagine or expect and what they really see. It is possible for an idea to be so vividly present to the mind that it passes for fact on that ground alone. I was with a naval officer and some of his men in our consulate when a local Y.M.C.A. worker burst in the door. He was in the last stages of collapse, shaking all over and clawing convulsively at his hair — quite incoherent. We tried to quiet him.
‘My God, my God, my God!’ half a prayer and half an exclamation, was all we could get out of him. We forced him into a chair. When he was calm enough, we questioned him.
‘What ‘s the matter?’
‘0 my God, my God!’
‘Never mind that. What’s the matter? ‘
‘ Oh, they ‘re killing them — killing everybody — the Y.M.C.A. Send your men, send your sailors, quick!’
‘Who’s doing this?’
‘The Turks, the Turks. They ‘ve stormed the“ Y” and got them, and —’
‘Did you see it?’
‘Yes, with my own eyes. They’re killing them. Hurry, hurry!’
The naval officer quietly moved three fingers on his desk, and three sailors hurried out. I went with them. I had left my kodak and binoculars there an hour before and I wanted them. We ran as fast as we could to the Y.M.C.A., but when we got there we found nothing more dreadful than a few placid Turkish soldiers standing guard over a garage next door, of which they had just taken possession. Not a soul had been hurt or even threatened. Neither was there the least sign that a struggle had taken place. The usual calm tense quiet reigned.
The same man burst in later with a story that Turkish soldiers had stripped and were violating six Armenian girls; yet when we went to the place he named we found nothing of the sort — and we went instantly. In each case the man vowed he had seen these events with his own eyes; and he was a perfectly honest, decent chap, but quite out of his head with strain and excitement.
I think I must have investigated a hundred such stories, without finding one of them true. A nurse, declaring she had seen the horrible wound, took me to help a woman whose breast was said to have been cut off. I found she had a gash in one arm — nothing more.
Such hysteria in a sound and normal American of about thirty helps to explain the frenzy of fear among the Greek and Armenian refugees. Their terror took the most grotesque and unexpected forms. The American sailors ran a positive risk from the Greeks, who would seize them like drowning men, merely because the sailors wore a uniform that might represent safety. One nearly had his back broken from being pressed down across the mudguard of a motor beneath an avalanche of terrified Greeks and Armenians, all clamoring to be saved; and the bribes that those simple sailor lads were offered, and contemptuously turned aside, pass belief. One Greek merchant offered $50,000 in American currency, to be paid on the spot, if he was placed on board a destroyer; and there is no doubt that he would gladly have fulfilled his share of the bargain if he had had a chance.
The Turkish authorities had given us permission to evacuate all except men of military age, and some of the latter resorted to the most naïve disguises. Big strapping fellows with several days’ growth of beard relied on women’s garments to save them; and I even saw one patriarch, far beyond the age-limit anyhow, who had donned feminine apparel for safety’s sake, in placid indifference to a huge gray beard that flowed down nearly to his waist.
I saw one man of military age, thus disguised, detected by a Turkish officer, who sat his horse, watching the refugees streaming through the gate and on to the pier where the steamers lay to receive them. As they passed, the officer leaned forward suddenly near where I was busy getting the people in, and snatched at the headdress of what appeared to be a Greek woman. Then he began to tear at the upper part of her clothing.
‘Well,’ I thought, ‘now I shall see a first-class atrocity. ‘
But as the headdress came off, we saw what the trouble was. The man was hauled back by the Turkish soldiers and unmercifully thrashed by the officer, who wielded his riding-crop until the Greek could scarcely hold himself erect. Yet he stood there, motionless, unresisting, scarcely flinching, while the blows rained on him. He was a disguised Greek officer and took his punishment as a brave man and officer should.
All these men of military age were marched off into the interior, where, the Turkish staff officers told me, they were to be used as laborers in repairing roads and rebuilding all that had been destroyed during the campaign. Ultimately they were to be exchanged. The story went around that the Turks were marching these prisoners out to the outskirts of the city, forcing them to dig long trenches, and then mowing them down by machine-gun fire in the graves they had dug for themselves; but though I diligently explored the vicinity of Smyrna, I could never find a trace of such a thing, and there were so many of these men that such wholesale butchery could not have been concealed. I never saw them, however, after they were taken into the interior; and permission to go inland and see what was happening was refused.
While we were shepherding our terrified charges to the pier, I repeatedly saw small squads of Turkish soldiers moving about and attentively scanning each little knot of shrinking refugees. At intervals they would pause, and a wail would go up from the Greeks. A prisoner would be taken and marched away. It was heartbreaking to see a man torn from his family whose cries and pleading were in vain. There never was any undue violence in these arrests, but it all seemed very mysterious. Not until I was on my way back to Constantinople, did I learn from the son of a great Turkish Pasha what it all meant.
Three years before, when the Turks had been retreating while the victorious Greeks were advancing from Smyrna, each unit of the Turkish army had had a staff photographer attached to it; and as the Turks were forced back and back and back, these men one by one dropped off, donned civilian clothes, and went into business as village photographers. When the Greek troops came into the village, these apparently innocent photographers were allowed to ply their trade.
The proud Greeks, officials and civilians alike, had their pictures taken for the folks back home. But the meek photographer kept a copy, on the back of which he wrote the story of his Greek’s behavior.
Gradually an enormous collection of photographs of Greeks guilty of atrocities was built up in the files of the Intelligence Department at Angora; and when, in due course of time, the Turks were victors, Greek offenders — or those whom the Turks regarded as such — could be identified and confronted with their deeds and the evidence against them.
The Turkish Intelligence service was, I suppose, responsible for the most appalling of all the terrible individual sights that I beheld in the Near East. One day, while we were hard at work getting a big crowd of refugees through the gate and on the pier, a Greek was taken out of the crowd and placed under arrest. He was placed close beside me, but such arrests were not unusual, and I paid no especial heed to this one until I felt a sudden warmth on my side, looked down, and found that my clothes were damp with blood.
I started back and saw that the prisoner had deliberately drawn taut the loose flesh of his throat, and was hacking away at himself with a small knife. To get the full horror of the thing you must realize that within plain sight some thirty thousand refugees, a hundred Turkish soldiers, and their officers stood apathetically by and watched him. Even his guard just stood there and looked on. It was the incredible apathy, the utter callousness of the East. He wished to kill himself? Very well — let him.
Again we Americans were helpless. Our interference would have jeopardized every one of the helpless Greeks. We all knew that our only hope was to concentrate on getting the refugees away and not exasperating the Turks. Once more we had to think, — and think hard,— ‘The greatest good of the greatest number,’ and hold ourselves in check.
He cut at himself again and still no one moved. Again and again — and yet no sign of sympathy or any feeling. As the prisoner stood there, growing weaker, his eyes caught mine, and he looked across at me, smiling. It was unthinkable. Illogically my first impulse was one of anger.
‘Confound you,’ I thought; ‘why do you make this a personal matter? What are you dragging me into it for? Why so damned friendly to me ? ‘
But his courage was not to be resisted. I shook my hands together and smiled back at the dying man. It was all I could do.
He collapsed horribly in the dust, but only for a moment. He pulled himself into a sitting position and saluted me again, in perfect military form and with great poise though he was seated. And again that smile — a farewell that made me feel so friendly that it hurt. Then he fell back. How he did it, I do not know. I have seen death in many forms, but this man took longer to bleed to death than I thought possible.
Even this was not the end, for a moment later he got to his hands and knees, began to crawl, and got up momentum enough to carry him to the edge of the dock and into the sea. The body floated out a little way from land; but even in death he was not to be at peace. Some officers, evidently from headquarters, drove up. There were sharp orders and inquiries. Then a soldier swam out for the body. It was stripped, examined, then clothes and all were loaded on a carriage and driven off. Perhaps I saw the end of a detected Greek spy, but I do not know — I only recognize his iron determination.
Incidents like that explain the panic terror of the people we were trying to save. When, in their eagerness to get on board, they all began to rush at once to the narrow iron gate leading down to the pier, it was dangerous for them and for us. There was no holding them. Once, with some American sailors, I was struggling vainly to check one of these stampedes, when a well-bred voice behind me murmured quietly,
‘ Can I be of any assistance?’
A dapper little Turkish officer stood there, armed only with a light swagger stick. He stepped in behind the row of sailors, brought his stick ‘on guard’ as if it had been a rapier, and began to lunge between the sailors, yelling with every lunge. Such was the fear inspired by the Turkish uniform, or by what he said, that within two minutes the people, whom all of us were powerless to handle, had fallen back twenty feet before a single Turk. When the situation was saved, he smiled, accepted my thanks, and walked quietly away.
Eventually I found a way of handling the terrorized mob who struggled toward the ships. I had been provided with an ordinary white tropical helmet before going to Smyrna, and this happened to be the only one in the city, where by that time there were very few neutral civilians. I happened to have, too, a commonplace New York police whistle — also the only one of its kind. The two, being unique and in combination, achieved a kind of reputation; and when the rushes became unmanageable, I had but to climb upon a pile of timber, bringing the magic helmet plainly into view, blow lustily upon the equally magic whistle, and by some miracle the stampede would ease away.
I realized the value of the helmet one night soon after the Turks came in, when I went after dark to bring back some valuables from the hospital. I could not reply intelligibly to the challenges of the Turkish sentries, whose bayonets, I felt, bristled everywhere in the darkness; but by keeping the light from an electric torch turned full on the helmet, I got along perfectly, and was passed from post to post without difficulty— until the battery suddenly and permanently gave out. Then, indeed, we were in trouble, and the sheer luck that comes, sometimes, when you need it worst, was all that got us through.
Not one refugee who would come was left behind, and all were out by the time-limit the Turks had set us — midnight of September 30. In eight days we had evacuated 230,000 refugees by actual count and we estimated that some 50,000 escaped before we began counting. The most infuriating part of it all was the bill that the Aidin Railway Company — a line owned and operated by the English — sent in for the use of their pier. I still have a copy of one statement of charges, ‘to pier dues for immigrants,’ at 25 piastres apiece, total, 50,000 Turkish pounds; and the only excuse was that this quarter of a million of poor terrified distressed people walked across the railroad tracks to safety.
Getting 230,000 frightened Greeks aboard would have been almost impossible had it not been for the 300 Turkish soldiers assigned by Kiazim Pasha to assist, and also for my Turkish liaison officer, Captain Haaki Bey, who was constantly at my side and indispensable.
In it all the horrible, the terrible, the humorous, and the touching were strangely intermingled. One incident is typical of the brighter side.
I was busy one day getting the crowd through the gate and onto the pier, when a woman with several children became separated from one without noticing that she had lost him, the little chap of three or four years being pushed, kicked, and in danger of being crushed to death as many—yes, many of all ages—had been in that place, so dense was the terrified mass fighting their way toward safety on board the vessels. A Turkish soldier saw him, dropped his rifle, pushed his way through the crowd, protecting the child with his own body, until he had saved him and restored him to his mother.
When the soldier came back, I smiled and patted him on the back to express approval. My linguistic shortcomings made it impossible to be more explicit, but the Turk had no need of English words. He went through an extraordinary pantomime that made mere speech quite needless. He held his hand at the height of a little child’s head and opened two fingers, pointing first to himself and then back toward the country lying to the east then, his hand on his heart, he shook his head. His meaning was perfectly clear: he had—or, perhaps, once had had — two children of about the age of the child he had saved.
Such is the terrible Turk — such, at least, is one side of him that I saw.