Asa Kent Jennings was temporarily in charge of
the YMCA in Smyrna while the director was on vacation in August 1922. He had
provided a refuge for Christians seeking safety from the Turks and, in
September, after the director, Jacob, had returned, he tried to find ships to
evacuate the refugees. He had been making occasional visits to the USS Edsall
(commander Captain Powell) and, when seeing people trying to swim from the
quayside to the ships, had ordered the sailors to lower a boat and rescue two
children from drowning.
With each passing day Jennings became more desperate to find a way to evacuate the refugees. One day, acting on impulse, he went to the Edsall, borrowed Powell's launch, and toured the ships in Smyrna harbor, trying to persuade their captains to take refugees on board for evacuation.
First he went to the French steamer, Pierre Lotti. No luck. He then went to a large Italian cargo liner, the Constantinapoli and asked her captain if there were refugees aboard. The answer was no, so he asked the Captain if he would take refugees. Initially he was refused, but eventually negotiated to pay the passage of 2,000 refugees to Mytilini, 5.000 lire for the refugees plus another 1000 lire for the captain.
Jennings spent all day and night preparing for the sailing. He obtained permission from the Turkish authorities and the Italian consul. but when it came to be time to move the people he found two rows of Turkish soldiers standing between the house and the wharf, to prevent any man of military age from leaving. So only women, children, and the elderly were allowed to leave.
Shortly before leaving Smyrna harbor Jennings was informed by Powell that Admiral Pepe had finally obtained permission from Kemal for Greek ships to enter Smyrna harbor. Powell had also given him two cables from Davis, one ordering him to land the refugees in Mytilini under the aegis of the Red Cross, the other authorizing him to act as he saw fit 'in any subsequent emergency'.
On reaching Mytilini Jennings saw that the bulk
of the fleet that had evacuated the Greek army were there.
Using the second of the cables he approached General Frangou, Commandant of the Southern Army and commander of the ships in Mytilini harbor, and asked if these ships might be sent to Smyrna. The General was willing to lend six ships providing that he could have a written guarantee that they would be protected and permitted to return.
As soon as he had handed the 2000 over to the
governor-general, who offered to take as many more as he could feed, Jennings
headed back to Smyrna, making the trip in under three hours. On arrival he
obtained a written statement from Powell and returned with it to Frangou in
Mytilini. In the morning at Mytilini harbor he saw a familiar shape, what looked
like an American battleship. This was the KILKIS, originally the USS
Mississippi, sold to Greece and used during the evacuation of the Greek army
from Asia Minor.
The Captain of the KILKIS was eager to co-operate. They worded a message together to send to the authorities in Athens, the Captain sent it in code by radio. It read: ' In the name of humanity, send twenty ships now idle here to evacuate starving Greek refugees from Smyrna without delay.' It was signed 'Asa Jennings, American citizen.
The reply asked who Asa Jennings was. He replied that he was Chairman of the Relief Committee in Mytilini. The next message stated that the Prime Minister had called a cabinet meeting, and asked what protection Mr. Jennings could offer the Greek ships. Jennings replied that American destroyers would accompany them in and out of Smyrna harbor. Jennings was then asked 'Will American destroyers protect ships if the Turks attempt to seize them'. Jennings could offer no guarantee, but gambled on evasion. He replied . No time to discuss details. Stated guarantee should be satisfactory'.
But the Greek cabinet, at that moment so shaky that it would topple four days later, found Jennings guarantees insufficient. At four o'clock on the afternoon of Saturday 23rd September, with negotiations deadlocked, Jennings told the cabinet that if he did nor receive a favorable reply by six o'clock that evening he would wire openly, without code, so that the message could be picked up by anyone in the vicinity, that the Turkish authorities had given their permission, that the American Navy had guaranteed protection, and that the Greek government would not permit Greek ships to save Greeks and Armenians refugees awaiting a certain death, or worse.
Just before 6 p.m. the reply came. 'All ships in Aegean placed under your command to remove refugees from Smyrna.' Jennings had been made Admiral of the entire Greek fleet.
The Captain of the KILKIS asked his new commander for orders, but Jennings knew nothing about ships. He convened a meeting of the transport captains aboard the KILKIS and discovered that twelve ships could be made ready by midnight. Next, Jennings realized that an Admiral should have a flagship. He chose the PROPONDIS, mainly because her Captain spoke a little English.
At midnight all was ready. Jennings ordered the Greek flag to be run down, an American flag flown in it's stead and a signal flag that meant "follow me" run up aft. He mounted the bridge and ordered full steam ahead.
Halfway to Smyrna the fleet was met by the USS LAWRENCE. It drew alongside and the Captain asked Jennings if he would prefer to travel the rest of the way aboard the American vessel. Jennings looked back, saw the nine ships following, remembered his promise to the Greek government that he would lead, declined with thanks, and remained on the bridge of the PROPONDIS.
On September 24th the first refugees, old men, women and children, were rescued. On September 26th Jennings returned with seventeen ships. A cargo fleet under British charter arrived on the third day. By October 1st one hundred and eighty thousand refugees had been taken from Smyrna to Mytilini, the last ship pulling out six hours before the Turkish deadline.
American and Allied commanders now managed to get the Turks to extend the deadline by another eight days so that British and Greek ships might evacuate nearby ports. More refugees were plucked from the shore at Urla, Chesme and Ayvalik, where they had been waiting for two weeks. This brought the total to over a quarter million.
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