Click here to see a photo of the second page of this article
“I Saw Hell Aboard the Zamzam”
Miss Isabella Moore, Louisville missionary, is ready to try again.
By Burlyn Pike
Drawing by Edwin Finch
With vivid memories of the Zamzam, which was riddled and sunk by a German raider April 16, still on her mind--Miss Isabella Moore, Baptist missionary of Louisville, is anxious to cross the submarine-infested Atlantic again!
“I’m going back to Africa,” she says. “I hope to sail as soon as possible.”
The miracles on the fatal voyage of the Zamzam have never been told, she insists. The war had cut many American missionaries off from their work overseas, she says, and she and others had waited for months for berths on anything that would float. “We were longing to get to our work.” Finally, word came that a ship would take them. The Egyptian steamer Zamzam would take a group of missionaries and ambulance drivers from New York to Alexandria, via the Cape of Good Hope.
Miss Moore hurried to Hoboken, N. J, to board her. But she could have taken her time. The Zamzam was not ready to sail. Ignoring the announced sailing date, the ship remained in port. And as Miss Moore, patiently waiting, gazed at the “very old, rickety, rust-colored” ship, she wondered if she would ever see Africa.
“They’re waiting for steel,” a seaman told her. She knew steel was a magic word in this warring world and she wondered if the Germans would think lightly of such a cargo slipping across the Atlantic.
[Note: The newspaper page is badly damaged at this point, so only the following fragments could be transcribed. Probably twenty to fifty words are missing from the text.] When she went aboard to inspect h.... ...n’t much to delight a traveler.... ...tant and she might not get an.... ...ally they sailed.
...to go around. When the boat put in.... Someone went ashore where Government offic.... ...supplied the missing jackets. Finally they were... again.
[From this point to the end, the text is complete.]
Zamzam was slow
The Zamzam was slow, and the passengers looked ahead to a long, weary journey. A few days out of Baltimore, they dropped anchor in the harbor of Trinidad, and the passengers went ashore to have dinner at a French hotel. Later, as Miss Moore stepped into the small boat at the dock to go back to the Zamzam, she saw the captain standing just above her.
Under his arm was a large envelope with the words “His Majesty” printed in large letters on it.
To another missionary, she said, “Do you see that?”
“What do you make of it?”
“It looks as though we are carrying British orders,” he said grimly.
Back on board, the passengers stumbled around their cabins in darkness—there was always a strict blackout when they were out of neutral waters.
Off the coast of Brazil no one was allowed ashore. Two newspaper men bound for South Africa came aboard and the Zamzam headed east.
After a few days, Miss Moore was standing on deck, watching the Zamzam’s wake form a wide circle in the Atlantic. Up on the bridge the captain paced nervously up and down. The radio man seemed ill at ease: A ship had been sighted.
“Don’t be unduly alarmed,” the captain reassured them.
Evidently the other ship soon went on its way. The captain relaxed. The Zamzam plodded on. “In four days we’ll be in South Africa,” the captain announced.
The heat was terrific. At night the cabins seemed almost unbearable. Miss Moore talked to an officer. Could she sleep on deck? “Of course,” he answered.
“Isn’t it dangerous?”
“No; you’ll be perfectly safe.”
“Will I need a life-jacket?”
“No, not at all.”
But she got one anyway and with an older woman she went on deck and dropped off to sleep. About 2 o’clock she was awakened by whispering among the crew members. She looked about. There was unusual activity on deck. Maybe they had sighted a ship. But there was no need to worry . they had met ships before.
Then, at 5:30, she was awakened by a terrific crash that sounded like thunder. “I knew a shell had hit us,” she says.
She stumbled toward her cabin but fell to the floor as three shells exploded in succession. She thought of her passport, her Bible, and her clothes. She ran to a lounge door—it was closer that way. The door was locked. She would have to walk around to the other side of the ship. She groped her way, around the deck.
Then, she saw it!
“That old, dark, gray monster was looming up as plain as day. I felt almost that I could reach out and touch it. It seemed so near to us.”
But the monster that was belching flame toward them was a good three and a half miles away, she learned later.
Tearing her eyes away from it she started for a door.
“If I hadn’t fallen into that door when I did, I wouldn’t be here today,” she says. A shell had struck right behind her.
“One of the ambulance boys lifted me up, I think.”
Another shell “even more terrible” exploded.
“Oh, Lord, have mercy on us!” someone moaned.
“Someone on deck shouted, ‘Stay inside until the shelling stops.’ Then the explosions came faster anti faster.
“I heard the moaning of a man. A woman screamed and I heard a child whimper. It was the best picture of hell I have ever seen.
“Don’t turn on the lights”
“Someone in the cabin said, ‘Don’t turn on the light, they’ll see us.’
“‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘They’ve already seen us. They are shelling us.’
Everybody was hunting for lifeboats. Two had been shot away. “We had had one boat drill before the fateful night,” Miss Moore says. But she points out that they had not been thorough ones. The passengers were told nothing except which boats they were to use. They were given no instructions as to methods of boarding or the proper time for boarding.
With sinking hearts many saw that their boat was gone. They had not been prepared for this. Miss Moore was one of those whose boat had been shot away.
During all the confusion the sailors behaved miserably, she says.
“The Egyptians, in panic, lowered boats, forgetting or ignoring that they should be held at deck level. Many of the crew jumped overboard and swam to their boats but almost all of them ignored the passengers.
“I finally found a boat. Someone dropped me over the side and I caught a rope ladder. With my Bible in my hand I climbed down toward the lifeboat (it seemed very small) even as it was moving away. I didn’t want to into the water. I’m not a very good swimmer, anyway. Finally, I jumped, and we pulled away.”
As she was leaving the Zamzam, Miss Moore saw people floating in the water, only their head and shoulder showing. She watched them drop Mrs. O’Neal overboard and pitch her baby to her. Dr. O’Neal slid down a rope and dangled there.
“Grab him,” someone shouted. Someone grabbed his feet and pulled him into the already overloaded lifeboat .
Women removed their shoes and hurriedly dipped water with them to keep the rapidly-filling boat afloat. Then many of them jumped overboard to lighten the load for others with. children. “They swam as if they had been swimming for hours,” Miss Moore says “Oh, it was a wonderful series of miracles.”
Then came the clear voice of the German captain saying, “Get the boats to them immediately,” and then another officer saying, “Come alongside, please! We re going to take you aboard.”
“I tried to crawl up the ladder of the raider, but I was too weak to manage it. I was pulled to the deck with a. rope, and a German officer—a fine,, clean- cut fellow who spoke excellent English—pulled my life belt off and handed me a blanket.
That morning there was a beautiful rainbow. At 9 o’ clock we were given cocoa with no sugar. Later we got tea, heavy—very heavy—brown bread and beans. -
“Men, women and children were crowded together in ti close-smelling hold of the ship. We were almost too tired and weary to speculate about what would happen to us next. It was a bad night for us.”
Each day the raider’s “guests” were herded onto the deck so they could get some sunlight. All about were German guards with guns and grenades. They watched the Americans, Englishmen, Egyptians and a few of other nationalities closely and did not allow much freedom. All equipment such as guns, etc., was carefully concealed.
The raider lay near the stricken Zamzam for several hours, carefully unloading all the passengers’ baggage. Some lost valuable possessions but on the whole the Germans did a remarkable job of transferring everything, from typewriters to trunks.
Each time a boatload of baggage came aboard Miss Moore Watched anxiously for a black bag which contained a yearbook made by a friend for her. It contained program outlines for the children she was to teach in Africa. At last it came, as did most of her other possessions.
New dangers come
Down in the hold the passengers slept on dirty straw mattresses. The air was foul. Children cried and their parents comforted them. The men talked over the possibilities of their internment in a German camp or their release to go on their way or return to America.
Then came their first danger alarm.
Parents grabbed their children, others grabbed clothing. All rushed toward the door. It was locked.
Miss Moore will never forget, she says, the expressions on the faces of the Zamzam victims as the alarm continued to sound and the door stayed locked. After a few moments they quietly moved back from the door and began sitting down—a few at a time— on the hard benches.
“It was then, if ever, that they almost gave up,” Miss Moore says. “They seemed to be ready for anything that might happen. Whatever it would be, they would be too tired to do much about it. They had been through a great deal. They couldn’t stand much more.”
Reassurance came soon, though, when a seaman called down to say everything was all right. Later, they were told that when the alarm sounded again to “Be prepared, but not unduly alarmed.” That, she speculates, must have meant they had sighted a British ship.
Amid all the suffering and the fear, however, there was humor. Some laughed—a little—when they saw a young lady, clad only in pajamas, carrying a violin. She had lost everything hut pajamas and a violin. Miss Moore saved some stove polish, roach powder, a typewriter and some clothing.
After two and a half days the prisoners were transferred to the German prison ship Dresden. Nineteen young women were then crowded into one compartment. The Germans labeled them “Involuntary guests.” The men were put in another part of the ship. Men and their wives, were separated and the women leaned out of an open window on the deck to look across at their husbands. They couldn’t talk to them, but they felt better if they could only look. Then the Germans closed the window. Finally they agreed that once each day the wives could meet their husbands on deck for a few minutes. But the deck was always crowded—very crowded—so there was no privacy. These men and women continued to have “dates” once each day on the thirty-three miserable days they spent on the ship.
“Billboard paste”—a slimy porridge-was the regular fare for breakfast. Always it was the same. After a while the “involuntary guests” rebelled. “No more paste for breakfast,” they said. “Fine,” said the captain, “it’s all gone anyway.”
Bean soup, macaroni soup, tea and the everlastingly heavy brown bread made up their daily menu after that. For breakfast they got “oatmeal.” It was milky-looking water.
The children suffered most from the bad food. Many were pale and wan by the time they reached France. Parents whipped their children several times a day to make them eat the foul food. The smaller children were allowed a little milk. A few cookies were given them later when they began to cry more than usual.
The German captain was a good propagandist. He made many promises but “he never kept a singe one,” Miss Moore says. They begged him to let then send messages to their families. They soon gave up. It was out of the question.
As the ship cruised around the Atlantic they made the best of their stay. They sewed, read and talked. “I enjoyed helping the parents with their children” Miss Moore says. The captain made many promises about heading for different ports but the prisoners finally learned they were going nowhere in particular. For in nine days the raider returned and they guessed that they had been waiting for it all the time. The raider was refueled.
Where they sailed during the next twenty-four days Miss Moore isn’t sure. The men had requested the captain not to go through the English blockade. He promised, but “again he broke his word.” As they approached waters policed by the British, the captain ordered them to sleep n their clothes. Miss Moore had been sleeping in hers all the time.
On May 20 two minesweepers and a destroyer came alongside the Dresden and escorted her through the blockade. But the most significant thing about this event was that they were given cheese sandwiches.
“I don’t believe cheese ever did taste so good,” Miss Moore laughs.
The British missionaries were hoping against hope that they would be allowed to go on to Africa. Miss Moore was afraid they wouldn’t. As they neared the French coast, the truth gradually leaked out to them. All the British would be interned in German concentration camps. A missionary whose husband was in Africa clutched her child to her and cried when she learned this... There was no telling how long the war would last.
Miss Moore wanted to take the woman’s 21-month- old baby with her and try to get to her father in Africa. A concentration camp was no place for a baby. But the Germans wouldn’t allow it.
Only Americans left the boat when it docked at 10 o’clock one morning at Biarritz, France.
“My knees trembled as we walked down the gangplank onto French soil. We saw few people. We went directly to a hotel. We still got no better food, however. The Germans guarded us for two days and nights after we landed.
“We had some sort of raw meat which we hadn’t had before. Some of us didn’t eat it. They told me that cats were selling in France then for 30 francs.”
After the American consulate had secured passports for those who had lost them, the Americans were herded into busses for Spain.
The ambulance drivers were held along with the British. As their names were called, they filed slowly back into the hotel, serving as a jail.
“We had learned to like the ambulance boys,” Miss Moore says. “They had criticized us at first but on the trip many had become Christians.”
As the Americans changed from bus to train, and made their way across France to San Sebastian, the faces of the people caught their eyes.
“No French people smiled. They looked starved and thin. The women wept and begged us to send flour and milk back to them so their children could have enough to eat.
“There is no war in Spain but people are starving there. We didn’t enjoy our first real meal there—a six- course dinner. All around us were need and starvation.
“We didn’t feel that we were in a really neutral country until we crossed into Portugal. There the people were very kind. They gave us a supper I will never forget.”
In crowded Lisbon there were thousands of people who loved America and the freedom it offered almost more than Americans themselves do. “I learned to love America more while I was there. The Germans were in Lisbon, lots of them. They listened to us in the eating places. They weren’t in uniform but we could recognize them.
“We still wanted to go to Africa but we couldn’t.”
Twenty-six Americans finally sailed for New York on a Portuguese boat.
“When I look back on the whole trip,” Miss Moore says, “I suppose that the Germans were about as nice as they could have been under the circumstances, but it was possible for them to have been much kinder.”
Miss Moore still wants to go back to Africa. She was there from 1937 to 1940 and is eager to get back to the children in Nigeria, West Africa. She says it will take years to get her work back to normal and she would sleep on deck to get passage to Africa. Her name is already on the sailing list.
Miss Moore attended Bethel Women’s College and Georgetown College, Kentucky. She came to Louisville from Shelby County as a young girl and worked for bedding, wallpaper and sporting goods companies before entering Spencerian Commercial School. She worked her way through college with this business training and the nurse’s training she received during the summer.