The year was 1922: World War I had just come to a close, the Ottoman Empire was in decline, and Asa Jennings, a YMCA worker from upstate New York, had just arrived in the quiet coastal city of Smyrna to teach sports to boys. Several hundred miles to the east in Turkey’s interior, tensions between Greeks and Turks had boiled over into deadly violence.
Turkish soldiers proceeded to burn the city and rape and kill countless Christian refugees. Unwilling to leave with the other American civilians and determined to get Armenians and Greeks out of the doomed city, Jennings worked tirelessly to feed and transport the thousands of people gathered at the city’s Quay. With the help of naval officer Halsey Powell, and a handful of others, Jennings commandeered a fleet of unoccupied Greek ships and was able to evacuate a quarter million innocent people.
Lou Ureneck, a former Nieman fellow and editor-in-residence at Harvard University, is a professor of journalism at Boston University, writes about these events in The Great Fire: One American's Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century's First Genocide.
Originally aired June 2015.