The Zamzam Story - Introduction

It was a cold night in March, 1941, when the passenger ship Zamzam slowly pulled away from her berth at Hoboken, New Jersey, and glided past the lighted Statue of Liberty. As she headed toward the open sea, many of her 201 passengers gathered on deck and spontaneously began singing Christian hymns. With hymn after hymn filling the crisp night air, the Zamzam began her final voyage.

Although World War II had begun, the war did not yet include the United States. The 142 Americans on the Zamzam felt no great danger. For one thing, the Zamzam had been promoted as a neutral ship, owned by Egypt. Furthermore, her unusual route suggested safety. To avoid war zones, the Zamzam would be traveling south by way of Trinidad Island; then make a stop at Brazil's coastal port of Recife; next follow a diagonal course across the South Atlantic to Capetown on the southern tip of Africa; then steam up Africa's east coast to Mombasa, Kenya; and finally head back to home port in Alexandria, Egypt.

The Zamzam's passenger list was rather unusual, too. The largest category was comprised of 144 missionaries, representing 20 Protestant denominations and also including 17 Catholic priests and teaching brothers. Another distinct group was the 24 members of the British-American Ambulance Corp, en route to North Africa for humanitarian purposes and bringing with them ambulances and other equipment. A third group was the six tobacconists from Wilson, North Carolina, headed for Southern Rhodesia.  The remaining passengers were various businessmen or eager family members traveling to be reunited with loved ones in Africa.  Among the varied other passengers were David E. Scherman, photographer for Life magazine, and Charles J. V. Murphy, editor of Fortune magazine. En route to Africa on assignment, they had boarded the Zamzam at Recife, Brazil.

Not to be overlooked in this unusual mix of passengers is the fact that it included 33 children, some only babes and toddlers. Five of the women were pregnant. Indeed, the Zamzam's passengers were not the ordinary.  As for her crew, they were mostly Egyptian, headed by British officers.

With an air of eagerness and confidence, the Zamzam's crew and passengers had sailed south from the New York area that night of March 20, 1941.  A few days later, however, innocence was shattered and hope was diminished as portholes and glass surfaces to the outside of the ship were painted black. In addition, no light in any form was to be allowed on deck, not even to light a cigarette. The Zamzam was now traveling in strictest black-out.

No amount of protests by the passengers could undo this new and frightening reality.  Maybe the Zamzam was not such a safe, neutral ship, after all.  For some, talk turned to practical measures of readiness in case the Zamzam was attacked. Even children made plans.  The older boys, for example, figured out how they would rescue the chocolate candy bars in the commissary. Generally, it can be said that traveling in black-out deepened a sense of trust in God, knowing He has promised to be with His children even in the deep waters and dark moments of life.
 

And so, in total darkness, as if hiding from an enemy, the Zamzam left Recife, Brazil, on April 9, 1941, and began the long south-easterly voyage across the South Atlantic Ocean. Little did the Zamzam officers know that the Germans had been watching, lurking in the waters nearby, waiting for the right moment to attack.

That moment arrived at dawn on April 17 when the notorious German raider Atlantis, using the name Tamesis, attacked the Zamzam.

For the next part of the story, read "April 17th".
 

 
The Atlantis
Photo taken by Life magazine.
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