Art Barnett, who celebrated his 100th birthday in December, 2010, is the oldest living survivor of the Zamzam sinking. Art remembers the experience clearly and is quick to share the story, pointing out God's goodness not only in the Zamzam incident but in all the years of Art's remarkable life.
Born in Kenya to missionary parents, Art was on his way to Kenya to be a missionary doctor when the Zamzam was sunk. Besides being trained as a physician, Art had also studied to be a pastor. And he had recently married Peg. In fact, the trip to Africa was to have been their honeymoon.
Art and Peg Barnett were among 203 passengers on the Zamzam, most of whom were missionaries and their families. Like the Barnetts, several were members of the Africa Inland Missions group, headed for East Africa.
That voyage to Africa mission fields was cut short by the sinking of the Zamzam in the South Atlantic on April 17, 1941. Miraculously, in the midst of the shelling and the sinking of the Zamzam, there was no loss of life that day. (One passenger died ten days later.)
After being rescued by the warship which sank the Zamzam, the survivors were held as prisoners aboard a German freighter for a month. They faced critical shortages of food and water, as well as space. The men occupied the cargo holds, and women and children were crowded into the few cabin and lounge spaces. No doubt Art and Peg were a great comfort to others, as they modeled hope and Christ's spirit in the midst of trials.
After that month aboard the crowded freighter, Americans from the Zamzam were liberated in France and returned to the United States.
Like many other survivors, the Barnetts soon found themselves traveling from church to church, telling the amazing story of the Zamzam. Their presentations were powerful and effective. The Zamzam experience seemed to open the door to life-long witnessing for the Lord wherever the Barnetts found themselves.
A few months after the Zamzam incident, the United States entered World War II. Although Art was exempt from military service, he decided to enlist in the air force as a flight surgeon. For the next four years, part of the time he was stationed on U.S. bases along the Gold Coast of Africa. Always a learner, Art even took a three-month crash course in tropical medicine, in order to give the American troops the best of care.
Art marvels at how God led and provided. Art's medical experience in the War, along with his military connections, later provided him with equipment and supplies for missionary work -- supplies that otherwise would have been thrown out.
Finally, after the War, Dr. Barnett and Peggy were able to answer the call to serve as missionaries in East Africa. They spent fifteen years serving in Tanzania, Kenya, and the Belgian Congo.
It was a family effort; Art trained Peg to be his nurse. The Barnetts' children helped to build a hospital. All four children eventually followed their parents' example, becoming doctors or nurses.
Art was often on the leading edge in medicine, as he worked with tuberculosis and diabetes research in Africa. He also worked in leprosy camps, finding new treatments.
When the Barnetts eventually returned to America, they settled in Wheaton, IL, where Art served as a specialist in family practice for the next 27 years. Among other involvements, Art served in hospital administration and nursing home management.
Throughout his long life, filled with so many unusual experiences, Art has given all credit and thanks to God. With passion, Art challenges survivors at reunions: "Keep telling the Zamzam story."
Art's beloved Peggy passed away in June, 2005. Like Art, Peggy shared her strong faith and ready witness. Even as a prisoner on the warship which sank the Zamzam, Peg read from her Bible and conversed with the German sailor standing nearby, assuring him that God loved him.
Art has been able to attend all but one of the Zamzam reunions. (At the time of the 1993 reunion, the Barnetts were in the process of moving to Oregon. Art now lives in Pennsylvania, in a suburb of Phildelphia.)
Knowing Art and Peggy Barnett has been a great blessing to the Zamzam family. Not only were we spared that April day in 1941, but the ongoing bond of friendship among survivors has been another gift of God's graciousness.
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