02 November 2007
The following article appeared in The Bridgeport Telegram, January 22, 1923. (Thanks to Gokalp.)
Prentiss Blames Armenians For Firing City of Smyrna
Greeks and Armenians Destroyed Supplies and Hospital Rather Than Allow Enemy to Use Them — Turks Had Full Control and Planned to Use Smyrna as Headquarters.
The Hitherto Untold Story of the Smyrna Fire Told by Mark O. Prentiss, American Representative of the Near East Relief. Armenians, not Turks, Set the Fire, Evidence of Smyrna Fire Chief Revealed.
(Copyright, 1923, by North American Newspaper Alliance in United States, Canada, Great Britain and South America.)
By MARK O. PRENTISS
Nearly everybody in America, it appears, is convinced that the Turks were responsible for the fire which added the final touches of tragedy to the Smyrna horror. The unanimity and firmness of this conviction surprised me at first, as I believe it would have surprised anybody else, of whatever nationallity or political allegiance, who had recently come from the scene of the disaster. The motive, usually considered of supreme importance in crimes of this sort, does not clearly point to the Turks. They had captured Smyrna. The city, as it stood, was one of the greatest prizes ever taken in Oriental warfare. The Turks had unquestioned title to its foods, its commodities of all sorts, its houses. It was a storehouse of supplies most urgently needed for their peoples and armies, Why destroy it?
It was a matter of common knowledge on the other hand, that the Armenians and Greeks were determined not to let this booty fall into the hands of their hated enemies. There was a generally accepted report in Smyrna, for several days before the fire, that an organized group of Armenian young men had sworn to burn the city if it fell to the Turks. They certainly had motive enough, and if this was their plan ruthlessly carried out, they paid a terrible price. No Armenian man, woman or child who was in the Armenian quarter after the fire started escaped alive. They were either burned or shot down by Turkish soldiers. The Turks committed atrocities enough without crediting them with others, to which they haven't a clear title.
Evidence gathered by Paul Grescovich, Chief of the Smyrna Fire Department, and carefully checked by myself, together with information which came to me from other sources, points to the Armenians as the authors of the fire. The series of events which led up to the final terror on the Smyrna waterfront, as I was enabled to follow them, began in the first days of September, when Rear Admiral Mark L. Bristol, United States High Commissioner at Constantinople, organized the Smyrna Emergency Relief Committee in anticipation of what might happen in the city if it fell, as then seemed inevitable to the Turks.
American Relief in Smyrna.
The U.S.S. destroyer Lawrence, under command of Capt. Wolleson [?] proceeded to Smyrna, carrying this committee of which I was a member. We arrived on the evening of Friday, the eighth of September, in time to see the last of the Greek Army leaving the city. Early in the morning of the ninth, we were ashore and immediately organized a Relief Committee, which consisted of practically all of the American residents there, together with representatives of the Near East Relief and the American Red Cross from Constantinople. Admiral Bristol had sent his Chief of Staff, Captain Hepburn, as his personal representative to serve as chairman of the committee.
While I was there a squad of from 15 to 20 Turkish soldiers, under command of a captain, came to take over the hospital for Turkish military purposes. The refugees were searched, as they came from the grounds, and arms of various sorts sufficient to fill a truck were taken from them. All of them, men, women and children, who had taken refuge both in the hospital building and in the adjoining grounds, were dispersed by six o'clock that afternoon.
The captain in command of the squad had written instructions from the Turkish military commander to take possession of the hospital and prepare it for immediate occupancy. He told us that they would begin moving Turkish patients to the hospital that night. He also mentioned that he had orders to shoot the refugees, without mercy, if they refused to disarm, and that he certainly would have done so but for their unexpected docility in giving up their weapons. He credited their willingness to disarm to the presence of the Americans, Dr. Post, the two nurses and myself. I had previously gone among them and explained with aid of an interpreter that they would be shot if they persisted in holding on to the bombs, knives and revolvers they had concealed about them. The first command of the Turkish captain that they surrender their arms had not produced results, for they were crazy with fear, and it was some time before I could persuade them to trust their conquerors.
Signs of Incendiarism.
On the following morning, Wednesday, the 13th of September, the situation was critical in the extreme. Paul Grescovich, chief of the Smyrna Fire department, told me that he had discovered bundles of discarded clothing, rags and bedding, covered with petroleum, in several of the institutions recently deserted by Armenian refugees.
Grescovich impressed me as an thoroughly reliable witness. I had met and had a long talk with him three days previously on Sunday morning. Fortunately, I needed no interpreter, as he speaks English fluently. He is an engineer, born and educated in Austria, and has been identified with several large engineering enterprises in Turkey. Twelve years ago he became chief of the Smyrna fire department, which he continued to conduct in a very efficient manner, for that part of the world, during the Greek occupancy. He told me that during the first week of September there had been an average of five fires per day with which his crippled fire department had to cope. In his opinion, most of these fires were caused by carelessness, but some undoubtedly were of incendiary origin. The average number of fires in a normal year, he said, would be about one in ten days, and the increase to five a day seemed significant.
As soon as the Turkish military authorities assumed control, Grescovich had applied for additional men and fire fighting equipment. Instead of helping him, the Turkish military governor, learning that there were still 12 Greeks in the fire department ordered their immediate arrest, which left the department with only 37 men. Sunday night, Monday and Monday night and Tuesday, so many fires were reported at such widly separated points, that the fire department was absolutely unable to deal with them. They were extinguished by Turkish soldiers.
One of the most serious situations that confronted the committee was the possibility of fire. This situation developed into one of extreme anxiety when we learned that the entire city police department, together with nearly all of the Greeks who were members of the fire department, had deserted their posts and fled the city in fear of the approaching Turkish army.
I made it my business to make a general survey of the situation, and I found that the fire fighting forces consisted of approximately sixty men with two small station houses. I found two reasonably good fire engines and about half a dozen hand machines that were used along the waterfront by dropping an intake hose over the sea wall into the water. There were only a few buildings in this city over three stories high, the great majority being two. The water pressure was strong enough to force a stream of water over almost any building in the city and there appeared to be plenty of hydrants.
The following Tuesday morning, Mr. Jaquith, of the Near East Relief, Major Davis of the Red Cross and I took a trip by automobile to the outskirts of the city. The Turks, by this time, were in full occupation. We saw three widely separated fires totally consume isolated buildings. One of these was a small shop, and in the burning doorway were the bodies of two women. Obviously, looting, murder, and arson had been committed here by Turkish soldiers.
Hospital Not Burned By Turks.
A report has been widely circulated in this country to the effect that the Armenian hospital, where some fifteen hundred refugees had gathered, was burned by Turkish soldiers who slaughtered many of the helpless occupants. The truth of the matter is that on Tuesday, early in the afternoon, in response to an emergency appeal [?] had gone to the hospital, accompanied by Dr. Post and two nurses, all of us members of the Near East Relief Staff.
I discussed with Grescovich the danger at the plant of the Standard Oil company. Although these tanks were located at least a couple of miles from the city, it was obvious that fire and explosions there would do terrific damage, and in spite of the depleted personnel of the department and the isolation of the plant, which was beyond municipal jurisdiction, he set and maintained two men to act as guards there.
During Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, the Turkish soldiers shot down many Armenians who, they claimed, were caught throwing petroleum and starting fires in the Armenian quarters and also around the warehouses and station of the Cassaba railroad. It was on Wednesday morning that Grescovich himself found evidence of incendiarism. He told me that early that morning he had seen two Armenian priests escorting several thousand men, women and children from the Armenian schools and Dominican churches where they had taken refuge down to the quays. When he presently went into these institutions he found petroleum-soaked refuse ready for the torch.
The chief told me, and there is no doubt that he was sure of it, that his own firemen, as well as Turkish guards, had shot down many Armenian young men disguised either as women or as Turkish irregular soldiers who were caught setting fires during Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Turkish soldiers, armed with rifles and machine guns, were guarding every street in the Armenian quarter and every man, woman and child who was in this section of the city as late as mid-afternoon on Wednesday, was either burned alive or shot down while attempting to escape.
At 11:30 Wednesday morning, at least half a dozen fires were reported almost simultaneously around the freight terminal warehouses and the passenger station of the Aldine railroad.
It is noteworthy these fires broke out in buildings which it was greatly to the advantage of the Turks to preserve, and equally to the advantage of the enemies to destroy.
At 12:00 o'clock five fires were reported around the Armenian hospital, then occupied by the Turks. At about the same time, two fires were reported at the Armenian club, and a few minutes later several fires started simultaneously around the Cassabe Railroad station.
Shortly after noon Grescovich, convinced that the city was doomed, again went to the military authorities to ask for help, and again it was not forthcoming. It was not until six o'clock in the evening that he was given a company of 100 soldiers to serve under his direction and it was eight o'clock at night before the soldiers began the destruction of buildings by bombs, in order to check the spread of the fire.
Gale Fans Flames.
Early in the afternoon, I was at the headquarters of Kaizim Pasha, Turkish Military Governor of the district, and so from his window I could see several fires in various parts of the city. I called his attention to this, but he assured me they were of no consequence. He said he had been worried about the possibility of conflagration, and that his soldiers received instructions to prevent it. When I left him I made an appointment to return at five o'clock that afternoon, but the fire had spread so rapidly, the people who had been driven from their homes down to the quay in such numbers, and the panic was so great, that I found it impossible to reach his headquarters to keep the appointment.
During the afternoon, the wind began to rise and blow from the southeast, which I was told was most unusual at that season of the year, and by night a perfect gale was blowing. People who have lived in Smyrna many years all told me they had never known a wind of such violence during the summer months. Dense smok and sparks were blown across the decks of the U.S. destroyer Litchfield, which after midnight was anchored 700 [?] yards off shore.
It was not until three days later that I saw Grescovich again. He told me he had no sleep for five days and nights and he looked the part. Not only was he physically exhausted, but his emotions had been so wrought upon by the sights he had seen, that he begged to be excused from talking over details. Realizing, however, that this was the time to get at the truth, I pressed him for information, and we went over in chronological order the history of the fire. On that, and on several succeeding days, we explored the greater part of the burned area of the city, and I made notes of the most important things he told me. Later, when Lloyd's men came to ascertain the extent of the damage, he refused to make any statement at all.
"Why Should We Burn City?"
During several weeks after the fire I had an opportunity to talk with many Turkish commanders, and they were all of one mind in levelling either bitter of philosophical accusations at their enemies for destroying the city. They were contemptuous of the suggestion made in a few quarters that they had any responsibility for the burning.
"Why should we burn the city?"
And isn't that the million-dollar question. Unfortunately, where anti-Turkish propaganda is concerned, simple logic never enters into the picture. Similarly, why should there have been a "genocide" against Armenians, a people known as the "Loyal Nation" for centuries? Pan-Turkism? Hatred of Christians? None of it makes logical sense.
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