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A Captain Remembers September 1922

Αssociated press

People crowded into boats to escape from the Catastrophe of Smyrna 1922. (Photo: Museum of Asia Minor Hellenism "Filio Hademenou" in Nea Filadelfeia, Eurokinissi/Tatiana Bollari)

I am telling my family of an event which I experienced as the captain of the Japanese freighter, Tokei Maru in the harbor of Smyrna, Turkey on September 14-15, 1922. My name is Lou Sato and was 35 years old at the time. It is an event that I will never forget as long as I live.

The Tokei Maru was owned by the Nippon Yusen Kaisha shipping line based in Yokahama, Japan. Our company-owned a large number of merchant ships that traveled to Europe, the United States, and Australia. We were the largest shipping company in Japan and competed for cargoes against major British, French, Italian, and American companies in northern European waters, Mediterranean, and Black Seas.

Our journey started in Yokohama, stopping in Hong Kong, Singapore, Aden, Suez Canal, Smyrna, Marseilles, London, and Liverpool loading and unloading cargoes in these ports. We followed the same route back to Yokohama.

We were somewhere between Marseilles and Smyrna when our radio operator picked up a wireless message to go to Smyrna urgently. Something major was happening there. When I received this message, I immediately wired our Smyrna agent to seek confirmation of it. "Come quickly, the city is thronged with thousands of refugees waiting to be rescued," was the reply from our agent.

I sent another message asking for further details of what was happening in Smyrna. Our agent didn't give me any details but said: "just get here as quickly as possible." I was somewhat puzzled why he didn't report the actual situation. Sometime later, I learned that he was a Greek named Stefanos and was afraid to tell us the real story fearing that the Turks might arrest him.

We were some 24 hours away from Smyrna and instructed our crew to make haste to that port. The crew responded magnificently to my call. The sea was calm with a beautiful blue sky. I could not conceive in my mind the awful scenes that we were to face as we entered the harbor of Smyrna.

I could see lots of smoke in the distance as we were approaching Smyrna. The flames were black with some red in it as it reached the sky. One of my crew said that it reminded him of Dante's Inferno. The fire was like hell on earth. I could not believe that this beautiful city where I stopped on previous occasions was being reduced to ashes.

We arrived at 2 PM on September 14 and was horrified seeing all these unfortunate souls thronged along the quay waiting to be rescued. These poor souls had a raging inferno at their backs. I saw French and Italian warships in the harbor rescuing their own nationals whereas the Americans and British did their best to take refugees. I was highly critical of the actions of the French and Italians whereas I gave kudos to the American and British actions.

Our ship finally berthed along the quay. I went to see our agent and told him about my plan of action. Stefanos was horrified that I would be ditching our expensive cargo into the sea." Are you mad?" he said. "I am not mad, it is about helping innocent people who are potentially facing death, “I said. I wasn't concerned about my expensive cargo. I was more interested in doing a humanitarian act saving some of these lives. After my encounter with Stefanos, I visited a Turkish officer, named Colonel Ahmet Bey, to see what I could do for these wretched individuals.

He received me at his military headquarters showing a friendly disposition and speaking politely to me. When I raised the issue of refugees, he went into a rage shouting loudly that these infidels were traitors and would not be released at all. I appealed him in the name of humanity that these individuals be released into my care." I would take full responsibility for their welfare and evacuation," I retorted.

Colonel Ahmet's response was an emphatic, "NO!" I tried to appeal to his good nature. He remained unfazed by my plea. I again pleaded with him to release the refugees and this time, he insulted our Japanese flag. Insulting our flag was unforgivable. I immediately demanded a formal apology from Colonel Ahmet and told him that failing this, I would summon the intervention of our Japanese High Commissioner, Count Uchida in Constantinople.

He didn't want a diplomatic incident and conferred with his superiors regarding the release of the refugees into my care. The Turk needed allies and wanted to be seen as not completely heartless in their negotiations with their recent enemies. They never offered a formal apology to Japan but were simply happy to see these refugees leave Turkey.

We took 825 refugees including Stefanos from Smyrna to Piraeus, Greece. Yes! I ditched our cargo into the harbor thinking that saving innocent lives was worth more than our expensive merchandise. My crew displayed great humanity tending to the needs of these people. I remember many of them telling us how happy they were to have been rescued by the Japanese. Some of the refugees thought our act of saving them was heroic.

We arrived in Piraeus and the harbor was full of ships with refugees who hadn't been processed by the Greek authorities. Some of the Athenian newspapers reported of our rescue story and stay in Piraeus. We stayed four days before embarking on the return journey to Yokohama.

I took the opportunity to catch the train for Athens. On my arrival, I walked around the city, seeing tents at the bottom of the Acropolis to accommodate the refugees. The city faced a population explosion, a manmade crisis unparalleled in human history. The refugees brought very few personal possessions with them. It was sad seeing young children crying and hungry.

The events of September 1922 in the harbor of Smyrna will never be erased from my memory.