An American minister organized a last-minute sea rescue of 250,000
people from the Ottoman city of Smyrna at the height of the Armenian

US Navy Memorial

The final chapter of the genocide that swept Turkey at the beginning
of the 20th century was written in Smyrna, one of the richest and
most cosmopolitan cities of the Ottoman Empire.

It was there, in Smyrna, where a small-town minister from upstate New
York put together one of the most astonishing rescues in history. He
saved the lives of tens of thousands of Christian women and children.

His name was Asa Kent Jennings, and he is worth remembering now at the
centennial of the Armenian genocide. His memory is also timely now that
the problem of Christian persecution has arisen again in the Mideast
and refugees are flooding out of Africa seeking safety in Europe.

Jennings was an unlikely hero. Barely over 5 feet tall with a crooked
back that was an artifact of a bout with tuberculosis, Jennings had
only recently arrived as an employee of the YMCA, which had a chapter
in the city.

Asa Kent Jennings organized a huge last-minute rescue mission from

Roger Jennings

The time was September 1922, and the Turkish nationalist army had
entered the city and soon set to slaughtering its Christian residents
-- both Armenians and Greeks. Tens of thousands of refugees who had
fled the country's interior ahead of the Turkish army were packed in
the city's streets and churchyards and along its waterfront.

On September 13, the Armenian section of the city was afire -- probably
to dispose of the corpses that lay in the streets -- and soon the fire
spread to the rest of Smyrna. The city was a hell of heat and Turkish
brutality for the helpless people gathered there. Nearly all of the
refugees were pushed to a narrow band of pavement of the city's Quay
between the fire and the sea.

Ironically, warships from Britain, the United States, France and
Italy were in Smyrna's harbor at the time of slaughter and fire and
at first chose not to get involved. Eventually, the British saved a
few thousands as the fire pushed the refugees into the sea, but when
the fire died down, the rescue effort ended. About 80 percent of the
city had been destroyed.

Hundreds of thousands of pitiful people were left to die on the city's
waterfront. Soon, hunger, thirst and disease began to take their tolls.

The situation seemed hopeless. There were no ships available or willing
them to transport the people from Smyrna, and the Turkish army began
marching them into the interior, where they would be killed or often
marched until exhaustion took their lives.

Then, incredibly, Jennings, who had set up a First-Aid station for
pregnant women in an abandoned house on the waterfront, went into
action. He later said that he had felt the hand of God on his shoulder.

The next several days would make history. Using a bribe, a lie and
ultimately an empty threat, Jennings was able to assemble a fleet of
ships and to enlist the help of the US Navy in a rescue plan. With the
assistance of a brave young naval officer, who was skirting his orders,
the Jennings evacuation removed a quarter-million refugees from Smyrna
to the Greek islands and the cities of Piraeus and Salonika in only
seven days. It was just in time to meet a Turkish deadline for their
removal from the city or face deportations.

Strangely, Jennings' story is mostly unknown to Americans, and he
stands as one of the humanitarian heroes of the 20th century.

Jennings, who died in 1933, remains a testament to the power of
compassion in action. He had a courageous willingness to come to the
aid of people in distress -- people who are the victims of religious
intolerance and war -- qualities that would be welcome today.

Asa Jennings' story is told in the new book, The Great Fire: One
American's Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century's First
Genocide, published by HarperCollins.