In our society, we often hear the word hero bandied about, yet do we really know what it means?
When a new footy season kicks off, we look to our ‘heroes’ to lead our respective teams, the media and the public using the term as if it were going out of fashion.
With this in mind, I introduce one the greatest heroes the world has ever known; a man who was truly great enough to stand alongside the likes of Alexander the Great.
He saved hundreds of thousands of Greek speakers, and wasn’t even a Hellene; he was a humble American who at first glance you may have blinked and missed, five-feet, two-inches, with a slight hunch.
His name was Asa K. Jennings, and he just happened to be in Smyrna in 1922 when the Asia Minor catastrophe started to unfold, ruining lives forever.
In 1918, the Greek military triumphantly made its way to the 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 were already tense. Genocide, death marches and a tragic end to the history between these peoples and Anatolia was unfolding, though it could have been stopped by the Allies of Europe. While the Turkish people had stood, generally, as friends, with their Orthodox Christian brothers for centuries, the 20th century brought about terrible destruction and nationalism, so much so that the people of all these ethnicities are still trying to come to grips with what happened.
In early September 1922, when the defeated Greek military had made a heartless exit from Smyrna, the forces of Kemal Ataturk made their entry into the city where 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 razed and citizens were rounded up; many were killed, most forced to the harbour where they remained for two weeks, hungry and crying. ‘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. In a heroic move, they docked and took as many poor refugees as they could, taking them to Piraeus.
The American embassy managed to protect hundreds of people, but weren’t able to keep up with the demand of the hundreds of thousands. That’s where Asa comes into things. A missionary with the YMCA, Asa’s whole purpose in life was to help people. To him, it didn’t matter what your ethnicity was – you were a human being, which proved to be more than enough in Smyrna.
With the Christian sections of the city in ruins and people begging for their lives, Asa made a dash to see the ‘father of the Turks’ Kemal Ataturk.
Not willing to take no for an answer from Turkish troops, he forced his way to his lodgings (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 Asa a few days to take as many refugees as possible to Greece. Without any real resources, the Turkish military thought Asa was a fool. And on paper, he actually was, for he genuinely had no resources except the love in his heart and the faith he carried.
With that, Asa immediately set about his rescue attempts, establishing 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.
Not only did Asa condemn 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 was reunited with the woman, who was 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 would pay a fee. Though he was disgusted by people looking to profit from human suffering, at least he had a means to rescue 2,000 more Greeks. He accompanied the ship to Mytilene, the home and poster island for the current refugee crisis. An American destroyer also followed in order to take Asa back to Smyrna. Meanwhile, the defeated Greek navy with around 25 ships lay at anchor.
From what we know, at this stage Asa hadn’t exactly figured out how he would save the refugees. But what we do know, is that the harbour of Mytilene proved to be the inspiration that Asa needed.
With the permission to represent the non-Turks, Asa next called an extraordinary meeting with the British Consul, defeated Greek military and navy leaders. When not much came of that, he took matters into his own hands, forcing his way onto the Greek ship of Kilkis, where he received the support he needed from 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 giving them orders, 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 6.00 pm he would broadcast to the entire world the cowardly rejection of his pleas.
The government, both bullied and embarrassed, gave Asa command of the entire fleet in the Aegean, proving to be the most incredible act of the era.
Within 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 to enter Smyrna’s dock be escorted by an American warship.
Asa’s next hurdle was the attitude of almost every ship captain; nobody 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 court-martialled 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, one of the wealthiest cities in the world, 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 and managing an evacuation that few in history could ever imagine. All Americans came to his aid, while the French, Italian, British and Turkish did very little.
Within a matter of days, Asa had cleared Smyrna of refugees; 350,000 were estimated to be saved, the descendants of whom owe their existence to this one hero, and all those who helped him.
Most of the refugees ended up in Athens, Thessaloniki, Mytilene and other nearby islands.
After his heroic deeds, the ‘Commodore’ added another incredible chapter, becoming the Greek and Turkish representative of the prisoner of war exchange. Additionally, for the next 12 months he continued to evacuate other refugees from Asia Minor.
In a recent interview with Asa’s grandson, Roger Jennings, he revealed that he still has grandfather’s diaries and records.
“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,” Roger recalls.
“He was very embarrassed by this attention. He never wanted attention on himself. And 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, which is sad too.”
But this is slowly changing. Roger recently ventured to Volos in February, where they are making a concerted effort to recognise Asa’s heroic efforts.
Since Asa’s passing in 1933, a short film has been produced entitled Strange Destiny, by MGM.
While he may have been forgotten by a Greece that has spent years dealing with war and political issues, his deeds have resulted in the birth of millions.
So from here on, not one Hellene should forget what he did.
Greece has had many great philosophers, leaders, artists and writers, and this man shall forever stand alongside them. He may have been born an American, but he died as a Hellene.
To a man who truly is a hero, I, along with all the descendants of the Asia Minor catastrophe, salute you.
Compiled from 2,500 documents that Asa provided his family, Roger Jennings has released a new book entitled Waking the Lion, available through Amazon. If you’re interested in learning more about the rescue, visit www.vimeo.com/52745334
* Billy Cotsis has ancestry from Mytilene and Asia Minor and is the author of the Many Faces of Hellenic Culture.