2543) -Armenians, Not Turks Set Smyrna Ablaze- Relief Worker Declares: San Antonio Express, 1923-01-22

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San Antonio Express
January 22, 1923


American Who Reached City Before Occupation Says Victors Not Responsible for Destruction

Photo caption:
Mark O. Prestiss
The hitherto untold story of the Smyrna fire told by Mark O. Prentiss, American representative of the Near East Relief.

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 nationality 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 toward 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 store house 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, 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 Groenovish, 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.

An American Relief Unit in Smyrna.

The U.S.S. Destroyer Lawrence, under command of Capt. Wollesoe proceeded to Smyrna, carrying this committee, of which I was a member. We arrived in the evening of Friday, the 8th of September, in time to see the last of the Greek army leaving the city. Early in the morning of the 9th we went ashore, and immediately organized a relief committee, which consisted of practically all of the Armenian 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, Capt. Hepburn, as his personal representative to serve as chairman of this committee.

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 60 men with two small station houses. I found two reasonably good fire engines and about half a dozen hand machines that were used along with the waterfront by dropping in in-take hose over the sea-wall into the water. There were only a few buildings in the 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, Maj. David of the Red Cross, and I took a trip by automobile in 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 the Turks

A report has been widely circulated in this country to the effect that the Armenian Hospital, where some 1,500 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, I had gone to the hospital, accompanied by Dr. Post and two nurses, all of us members of the Near East Relief staff.

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 6 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 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 the 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 Incendarism.

On the following morning, Wednesday, the thirteenth of September, the situation was critical in the extreme. Paul Grescovish, 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 institution recently deserted by Armenian refugees.

Grescovish impressed me as a 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 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 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, Grescovish had applied for additional men and fire fighting equipment. Instead of helping him, the Turkish military governor, learned that there was still twelve Greeks in the fire department, ordered their immediate arrest, which left the department with only thirty-seven men. Sunday night, Monday and Monday night and Tuesday, so many fires were reported at such widely points, that the fire department was absolutely unable to deal with them. They were extinguished by Turkish soldiers.

I discussed with Grescovish the danger of fire 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 stations of the Cassabe Railroad. It was on Wednesday morning that Grescovish himself found evidence of inciendarism. 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 in to 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 fireman, 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 11:20 Wednesday morning, at least half a dozen fires were reported almost simultaneously around the freight terminal ware houses and the passenger station of the Aldine Railroad.

It is noteworthy that these fires broke out in buildings which were 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.

Shortly after noon Grescovish, 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 destruction of buildings by bombs, in order to check the spread of the fire.

A Southeast Café Fans the Flames.

Early in the afternoon, I was at the headquarter of Kaizim Pasha, Turkish Military Governor of the district, and from his window I could see smoke from 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 had received instruction 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 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 southwest, which I was told was most unusual at that season of the year, and by night a perfect gale was blowing. People who lived in Smyrna many years all told me they had never known a wind of such violence, during the summer months. Dense smoke and sparks blown across the decks of the U.S. Destroyer Litchfield, which after mid-night was anchored 760 yards off shore.

It was not until three days later that I saw Grescovish again. He told me he had 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 the truth, I pressed him for information, and he 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 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.

During several weeks after the fire I had an opportunity to talk with many Turkish commanders, and they were all of the mind in leveling either bitter or 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?” they would ask. “Smyrna, with all its wealth and treasure, was ours. The fleeing Greek army had abandoned huge quantities of military stores and food supplies that were desperately needed by our armies and civilians. These have been destroyed, together with the ware houses and stations where many of the fires broke out. Besides, the fleeing Greeks and Armenians, many of them wealthy as you know, had abandoned everything in their homes and their stores. We were in absolute and undisputed possession. Do you think we are such fools as to have destroyed everything?”

My attention has been called to many statements published broadcast in this country to the fact that Turks were seen pouring petroleum around the American Consulate. I was in the vicinity of the Consulate most of the time and I saw no petroleum.

It is a fact worthy of the attention of the honest historian that very few people in Smyrna at the time of the fire, or during the succeeding weeks believed that the Turks were responsible for it. That the Turks were grossly and criminally negligent in the matter of ordinary precautions against an outbreak of fire, we all realized, and that they were tragically inefficient in fighting the fire was obvious to us all, but I have been unable to find evidence that either Turkish soldiers or Turkish civilians deliberately fired the city or wished for its destruction. The evidence all points in another direction.

Kindly contributed by Mustafa Balkaya


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