The Smyrna Catastrophe and the many other acts of the Greek Genocide that took place in the early 1920s were witnessed by foreigners, including US Navy officers, and their diaries document the devastation wrought during those atrocities although precious little was done to help the victims.
A recently published book, called The Greek Genocide in American Naval War Diaries, edited by Robert Shenk and Sam Koktzoglu, outlines the reports made and the protests engaged in by US Navy commanders in the fateful years from 1921 to 1922.
Although technically neutral during the conflict, American vessels were allowed to be in the sea off Smyrna and other areas of Asia Minor after the First World War, and the events unfolding onshore in 1921 and 1922 were recorded by horrified naval officers.
As retired US Navy Admiral James Stavridis says in the foreword to the book, the Americans were in an exceptionally difficult position at the time. “Shouldn’t you do something?” soldiers would wonder. “You’re a representative of America, after all! And these are essentially slow killings of men and then the heartless deportations of women and children, which will end with the death of many of the latter as well.”
Greek genocide witnessed by US Navy
American vessels were moored just outside the harbor of Samsun, Turkey from the spring of 1921 to after September of 1922, when the Smyrna Catastrophe took place; the officers reported as best they could to a disbelieving world, hoping that their writings would have some impact on the devastation they witnessed.
Vessels from the Japanese Navy, in contrast, took on some Greek refugees who were desperately trying to escape the first of Smyrna that dark September day.
Stavridis asks, “Could [the US forces] have done more? Should they have taken bold and independent steps beyond what they did? History will judge them, and this volume of primary source material will help.”
In the spring and summer of 1921, the Nationalist Turks stated that they were afraid that the native Greek population of Asia Minor would aid and abet an invading Greek force along the coast, as well as join with the forces already fighting in the war that was ongoing in the western part of Anatolia.
Using this as a pretext, the Turks rounded up tens of thousands of ethnic Greeks whose ancestors had lived in the area for three thousand years, forcing them to take part in death marches, work details which amounted to death sentences, systematic rapes and sex slavery, along with abductions and forced conversions.
Similar brutal ethnic cleansing, as we know it today, had been waged against the Armenians during World War I with no repercussions levied on the perpetrators, and although aid workers from the American Near East Relief Society and others reported to the US naval commanders and the officers duly reported their observations to their superior, very little was done to help.
In the end, the American admiral in charge in Istanbul, Mark Bristol, actually obstructed any publication of the relief reports on the death of Greek deportees in the area although the original mission of the task force was to help teams of investigators and relief personnel in response to the reports of the atrocities, originally against the Armenians.
The rationale for this appears to be that he ended siding with the Turks, as they provided more commercial prospects for American interests in the area.
By 1921, reports were already filtering in about deportations and other actions being taken against the Greeks of the Pontus area along the Black Sea.
In a message by Captain Joyce of the vessel “Fox,” which was sent to Admiral Bristol on May 24, 1921, he states “there is a definite policy here for the extermination of the Greek inhabitants. Everything indicates that hundreds of Greek villages have been completely devastated.”
Later that week, on May 27th, he added in another message that local Turkish military authorities in Samsun had actually voted for the extermination of the Black Sea Greeks.
By late summer of that year under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, massacres, the burning of scores of entire villages, and death marches of Greeks into the arid interior of the country were commonplace.
Unlike Great Britain, France, and Italy, the Americans had not been invited to take part in the postwar occupation of Constantinople, and they were therefore obliged to be neutral.
The admiral in charge in Istanbul saw himself mainly as a representative for the US’ commercial interests, which the authors of the book posit, boded ill for the Greeks, as he viewed the Turkish Nationalist government as the most favorable to ongoing American commercial interests.
Very rarely did these naval officers, who were reporting about actions taken by the Turks, with whom Bristol was closely associated, succeed in helping the embattled Greeks of Asia Minor.
One such instance actually occurred in Samsun, however, on July 23, 1921 when Admiral Bristol importuned Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal to stop the deportation of noncombatants, including women, children, and the elderly from the city. On that one occasion, his persuasion worked, and strangely, these particular Pontic individuals from Samsun never lost that protected status even long after the official protest of the admiral.
However, the ethnic cleansing continued elsewhere, and even afterward in Samsun itself. Just three days after Kemal ceased the hostilities against this group, the US officers’ diaries note that Osman Agha and his Laz forces began four days of murder, rape, looting, and arson at Marsovan.
Later that year, after winter had come even the Admiral himself reported to his wife back home that women and children in Samsun were being forced to endure what he termed a “White Death.” That is, instead of direct orders to kill, deaths were inflicted by exposure to the winter cold, sometimes after taking Turkish baths, which were exacerbated by starvation.
However, by May of 1922, Admiral Bristol had hardened his heart toward the Greek cause, blocking the US publication of eyewitness reports from Dr. Mark Ward and Forrest Yowell, who had been part of the Near East Relief’s group at Harput, who wrote of “death marches and untold suffering in the interior” of Asia Minor.
Their stories were, however, printed in the British press, and, like all the naval diaries, are now a part of the National Archives in Washington, D.C..
Atrocities noted in naval diaries as early as May 1921
On May 24, 1921, Commander Joyce of the USS Fox noted that a relief worker “told me that in the last two days there had been over ninety applicants for admission to the Greek orphanage and that these were small children who had found their way into Samsun from the destroyed villages, and in some instances were accompanied by a few women.”
“The women are not allowed to remain in the town and instead sleep in the fields outside the city during the night,” reported Commander Joyce. “Miss Anthony said that these children represented a number of villages and that they all stated their villages had been completely destroyed.”
“Practically all Greek property is being seized. This includes residences, tobacco magazines and retail stores,” he had written.
By June 7th, the diary entry written by officers of the ship Overton noted that “numbers of Greeks… have today been told that they have five days to prepare to go with their families into the interior. Each Greek has been told that he must return to the place from which he originally came.”
One of the many massacres carried out by the Turks at Kavak were also attested to by the naval commanders, who wrote of the eyewitness accounts by Italians who saw 2,950 Greek men arrested in Samsun. Forced to march inland, some of the men arrived at Kavak and were subjected to a barrage of gunfire that went on for two hours.
Others that had belonged to the original group arrived, naked, at Kavak, having been stripped of all of their clothes. A “third party was terribly massacred and mutilated by the hordes of Osman Agha, even before their arrival at Kavak, at the foot of Mahmoud Dag,” according to the eyewitness.
In July, further depredations were recorded by the officers of the Overton, which stated that “more than 70 villages in the environs of Bafra, which were not destroyed after the armistice, have now been burnt and only ruins remains; the inhabitants have been exterminated.”
Greek genocide documented by US Navy personnel
In yet another atrocious episode, Osman Agha’s men torched the village of Ada, burning many of its inhabitants alive and shooting those who were able to escape. “More than 3,500 persons succumbed to this death by fire and steel,” according to the records.
While smoke from burning villages rose over the horizon nearly every day and was remarked upon by the officers, none of their dispatches were acted upon by the US government, as they continued to observe a strict neutrality.
Relief workers were afraid of expulsion if truth came out
On May 31, 1922, a long article describing Turkish atrocities in Trebizond was published by the Christian Science Monitor, adding to the piecemeal story coming out of the region and allowing the American public to at last get a glimpse of the horrors that were taking place there. This appears to be one of the first times the American public had been notified about the atrocities that were ongoing in Asia Minor.
The extraordinarily difficult situation is highlighted by the fact that the Near East Relief director in Samsun himself reported what were called “frightful” Turkish atrocities in Trebizond but asked that the report be kept under wraps for fear that the Turkish authorities would simply deport all the NER workers, making the situation even more difficult.
Meanwhile, the atrocities that were part of the Greek genocide of Asia Minor continued unabated. On Jun 18, 1922 the Fox’s Lieutenant Commander Webb Trammell reported in the records of the ship an extremely disturbing incident which had occurred in the village of Livadia outside Trebizond. The story was told to him by a Mr. J.H. Crutcher of Near East Relief.
As he related, four months previous to that time, the village had consisted of 180 Greek families. Turkish officials suddenly appeared in Livadia and looted all of the furnishings and other belongings from the houses. The inhabitants were then forced to march to a village called Jivislik.
Most of the Livadian men and boys over the age of eleven were then summarily deported and never seen again. Additionally, a total of seventeen men had been selected out and beheaded, according to eyewitnesses. After their heads had been cut off, Turkish soldiers ran bayonets from ear to ear and paraded the grisly remains before their superiors.
Four girls from the village were also raped and then killed, and additional young children were executed on the spot. As the eyewitness said, “the women left in the village have absolutely nothing left to eat. What food they had, and the seeds for planting, have been taken away by the soldiers….some of the families are actually starving and they are eating grass.”
By late spring of 1922, the vast majority of all the Greeks of Pontus, whose ancestors had lived there since time immemorial, had either been killed or deported—fully 150,000 of the normal peacetime population of 485,000 are known to have died and many more tens of thousands had been deported either to Syria or further inland.
This figure is in addition to the approximately one hundred thousand who had perished in earlier ethnic cleansing that had occurred during the war years of 1914 to 1918.
The Catastrophe of Smyrna
The Fire of Smyrna was a cataclysmic event of such enormous importance for modern Greek history that it shaped generation upon generation after 1922, adding to Greece’s long history yet another unforgettable—and unutterably tragic—milestone.
The Great Fire, which took place after Greek army forces had gone down to a final defeat in Asia Minor, destroyed much of the city, causing the majority of Greeks left in Asia Minor to flee their homes and seek shelter primarily in Greece but also in other countries.
Eyewitness reports, including Americans who were on the scene, saw Turkish troops setting fire to the city on September 13, 1922; the conflagration lasted for approximately nine full days until September 22nd. The fire’s results were catastrophic with the entire Greek and Armenian quarters of the city being completely wiped off the map.
Churches, ornate villas, and mansions of great architectural importance, as well as schools and entire market areas, were gone forever without a trace.
Official data about the number of the victims of the Smyrna fires and genocide does not exist. Experts believe that the number of victims lands somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 while the number of refugees who were forced to leave the city and its surrounding countryside was between 25,000 and 100,000.
The Greek neighborhoods, which had the most beautiful homes, churches, and other buildings—the entire forty hectares of what was once the most elegant part of the city, and then became a hellish inferno—has no buildings whatsoever on it even to this today.
In those fateful late September days of 1922, destroyers from the American Navy, with the help of sailors from Britain, began evacuating almost 200,000 of the remaining women, children, and elderly from Smyrna. Their efforts were made possible by the incredible work of American missionary Asa Jennings, who was responsible for organizing a total of twenty Greek transport ships to work in this gargantuan effort.
American destroyer captain Halsey Powell risked his career by going against orders and convincing Turkish authorities to allow these ships into the harbor.
The transports then carried survivors to the Greek islands for days upon end. By September 30th, a total of 200,000 Greeks had been evacuated.
By July of 1923, the Peace Treaty of Lausanne and its attendant population exchange were agreed upon; by September of that year, US warships left Turkish waters permanently; most American relief workers also left at that time.
In 1924, the few remaining Greeks still left in Asia Minor were exchanged for ethnic Turks who were living in Greece. The Greeks who were living in Constantinople at the time were allowed to stay, but tens of thousands made the choice to leave, abandoning Asia Minor, the land of their ancestors, forever.
As little as the Americans did, they helped some Greeks stay alive although much of that was due to the heroic efforts of the missionary Jennings rather than the naval officers who were stationed on ships along the coast of Asia Minor.
Their naval diaries serve as a testament to the horrors of the Greek genocide and perhaps provide a blueprint for what must not be done while atrocities are committed against a helpless people.