In 1938, Mamie Gillespie, a vivacious young woman and only daughter of two Viriginian parents, brought up to know and love Jesus, met a very persuasive, muscle-bound, and jolly young man who had recently come to know Jesus Christ through the ministry of a tent evangelist named Dan Graham. The man, Ted Fix, nine years her senior, went to visit her one day and said, “Mamie, I am going to marry you.” Just like that, and after the shock wore off and her parents were consulted, she did indeed marry him.
In that same year, the two of them were accepted by the African Inland Mission to go to what was then Tanganyika, Africa, (1) to open up a pioneer ministry, contingent upon Ted’s finishing seminary. (2)
In 1939, while in seminary in Dallas, Texas, their first child was born, a girl whom they named Mary Leonora. During the seminary years they continued to prepare themselves to serve the Lord overseas on the African continent. As war clouds were forming in Europe and Africa, they were even more eager to get started and on the way. They visited churches, made friends, all the while God was supplying the needs for them to take with them to Africa---five years’ worth of all kinds of supplies, including toilet paper!!, and was calling out people to pray for them. (3).
In the spring of 1941, March 20, to be exact, they, along with some 140 other missionaries of 21 denominations, (4) including a group of Catholic priests, 25 ambulance drivers, with their ambulances, going to Africa to participate in the war effort, 7 tobacco growers from North Carolina going to Rhodesia to open up the market there, a couple of Greek nurses on their way back to their homeland, some Canadian and English wives and girlfriends going to Africa to join up with their husbands/boyfriends, and various and sundry other passengers, went to New York City to sail (5) on what was billed as a NEUTRAL vessel, (6) an Egyptian cruise ship named the Zamzam. Upon seeing the Zamzam, all hopes of a really “nice” cruise were abolished, because she was dirty, ugly, and looked well-worn. Her extended crew was made up of a number of very young Sudanese boys who had never sailed before. But hopes were high among everyone traveling, because at least for the missionaries, God had called them, prepared them, and they were eager to get to their fields of service. I must remind you that at this time England was already at war with Germany, and several countries in Europe had already fallen to Hitler’s armies.
The Zamzam’s route was to be from New York, to Baltimore to Trinidade, then Recife, Pernambuco, in Brazil, landing everyone in Capetown, South Africa. From there she would proceed up the eastern side of Africa. (7)
In Baltimore, Curtis Morrill, one of the missionary men, after having counted the life jackets on board the Zamzam, went to the Baltimore Harbor Police complaining that there were not enough life jackets for all the passengers. They assured him that the vessel "would not clear the harbor without them." And it didn’t. When it left Baltimore it was duly fitted with life jackets for all, which turned out to be a God-sent provision.
William Gray Smith, the Scottish captain of the Zamzam turned to his chief engineer, a fellow Scot, John Burns and said, "Mark my words, John, it’s bad luck to sail with so many sky pilots and Bible-punchers aboard," a comment which proved to be prophetic.
Sailing out from Baltimore, the weather turned warm, and the Zamzam had a layover in Trinidad where passengers could go on land. It was there that my father bought a whole tropical outfit, including a helmet and Bermuda shorts, which he was wearing in the Life photo of his making the doll for me. But leaving Port of Spain that night for the first time, the Zamzam was blacked out. Now this was NOT good news for the passengers, particularly the missionaries on board whose mission boards had been assured that this was a neutral ship.
On arriving in Pernambuco, two very important passengers boarded, (8) David Scherman, a young 25 year old secular Jew, and Charles Murphy, a veteran newspaper man and editor of Fortune magazine. They were being sent to Cape Town to cover the Cape Town to Cairo railway and the war in North Africa. David Scherman would later say that he and Charles were being followed and watched the whole time they were in Recife, and one day when they left their hotel room unlocked, they found that all of their papers, which they had carefully placed had been rifled, and just as carefully replaced, in the wrong way. There seemed to be a sinister feeling attached to the Zamzam as no one wanted to even acknowledge her presence or tell anything about her time of arrival, or other whereabouts.
The conditions on the Zamzam were not good. To quote one of the missionary men, Rev. Jim McKnight in a letter mailed from Recife:
"It is not exactly a deluxe trip…When we boarded in Jersey, our boat was pretty dirty, but by dint of a continual scrubbing, she is beginning to look better.
In harbor it was bitterly cold. Ice was frozen on the deck, cabins were without heat, water pipes had been frozen and water was shut off, the wind was high and biting cold. We were on board 36 hours before we sailed. We ate with our overcoats on and slept with all means of providing warmth we could get. That was nothing as compared to the Sudanese boys who had to clear the snow off the deck. But a change was to come….Five days out of Baltimore we passed Puerto Rico and were having real hot, tropical weather….Adding to the difficulty of adjusting to heat is the fact that from Trinidad we had observed a complete blackout. No lights are allowed to show, not even the opening of a door or the flicker of a match or glow of a cigarette. In the lounge the wiring is on an automatic switch that cuts the circuit whenever anyone opens the door….It is practically impossible to read there and it is even disconcerting to carry on a conversation…Ventilation in cabins is another problem. The cabin boy closes all portholes at 5 and screws them down tight.
After we left Baltimore the lifeboats were swung out over the sea and there they hang in constant readiness. Each day one of the lifeboat crews has a drill…Radios are taboo as it is said that a receiving set can give away our position. So we are in a great dearth of news. Snatches are reported at the captain’s table…But we understand that since this is a neutral boat and carrying a good number of American it is fairly safe.
But as time would tell, it was not safe, at least not from man's point of view. What man considers "safe" at times, is very different from what God considers "safe."
On April 8, 1941, as the Zamzam left Recife, a huge, brilliant rainbow appeared in the sky, which to the missionaries was a sign that God Himself was watching over them and their ship.
There is much to be told about life on the Zamzam and the interaction among the various groups on board….David Scherman in his manuscript about the story talks about the "endless hymn-singing by the missionaries and the nightly trips to the bar to get drunk" by the ambulance drivers.
But that is not the main part of my story today. On April 17, 1941, four days off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, at 6 a.m. there was a high pitched scream followed by two earsplitting roars and the shatter of glass. At this point, everyone was awake trying to make sense of what was happening. My mother, jerked awake by the noise and the visceral pounding of the ship said to my father, "Ted, what’s happening?" To which he replied, "Mamie, I think we are being shelled." As other shells began to hit the ship, my mother said that she gripped the bunk bed in one hand and me in the other and said out loud, "Lord, I am afraid." She would tell for years after that, that she heard the voice of God saying to her, "Do not be afraid, I am with you." Her question to people would be, "Did I ever tell you about the time I heard the voice of God?"
It was this particular morning also that instead of awaking at 6 a.m. sharp for my morning bottle of milk, I awakened at 5:30 a.m. My mother, thinking that this was unusual, tried to calm me, but I would not be calmed. So my father went to the galley to heat my bottle, bringing it back up to me. At 6 a.m., one of the first 5.9" shells hit the middle of the galley, where my father would have been, had I awakened at the usual time. Praise our holy God for His wonderful care, love and protection!
The Egyptian crew panicked and began to fill the still worthy lifeboats, while the women and children were trying to get on the lifejackets and find a safe place. Several lifeboats had been hit and could not be used at all. The shelling probably did not last more than 5-10 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. Since the very first shell fired had hit the wireless radio, making it useless, Captain Smith was frantically trying to get word through Morse code to the captain of the German raider, the Tamesis, (9) that there were women and children on board. He was able to do this, using his ordinary pocket flashlight and Eveready batteries. (Eveready got a lot of mileage out of that fact later on!) Finally the captain of the Tamesis, which we later learned was the famous Atlantis noted for having sunk 16 naval vessels during the war and capturing 6 others, received the word and stopped the firing. He later said that if the Zamzam had been able to get out an SOS through the wireless, he would have sunk her without a trace. (10)
But the Zamzam was badly damaged and was listing dangerously, taking on water in the engine room, and in various other places. The many stories of how people got into the lifeboats in themselves would fill a book, but for our part, my mother said that she had to go down in a lifeboat before me, and someone else had to bring me down. She was so afraid to leave me, but had to trust God to take care of me. (11), (12), (13).
After all of the passengers were rescued from the sea, Captain Rogge, of the raider, sent over boats to bring back what they wanted of belongings, food and other supplies from the Zamzam, and at the same time planted three time bombs which would sink her completely. He called all the passengers to the deck so that they could see the sinking and he allowed David Scherman to take these pictures. (16-19) As the missionaries stood watching the ship go down, they were all thinking of how long it had taken them to get the supplies they would all need for the time on the field, even cars, and how little it meant to them now that their very lives had been saved. Material things are important to us until our very lives are threatened, and then they take a much less important place in our lives. My mother confessed that she felt desolate in that even their wedding gifts went to the bottom of the sea, but she was later to find out that she was blessed in that some of their luggage with our clothing had been brought back to the Zamzam. I learned at this last reunion from Dr. Arthur Barnett, who with his newly wed wife was spending his honeymoon going to Africa, that his wife had spoken to one of the crew on the raider about his need for Jesus, and actually gave him the gospel. He said, "You sound just like our captain; he gathers us together every Sunday and says the same things you are saying."
One story that has always touched my heart is of Mrs. Lillian Danielson, (20) who with her six children, ranging in ages from 11 years to 18 months, was going to meet her missionary husband in Africa. A couple of days before the shelling, she had realized that she didn’t have enough life jackets for all of her children, so she went to the purser and asked him for a couple more. He supplied them, but they were torn and dirty. She had spent time sewing them up and getting them in wearable condition just the day before the shelling! She and her children boarded a lifeboat, which when they all got in, simply went out under them, it having obviously been hit with the shells. She told her children all to keep their mouths closed, and that whatever happened Jesus loved them as much as Mommy and Daddy did. Then she lined them up all behind her in order of age, with she herself holding the youngest and the eldest bringing up the rear, and set out with them like a mother duck with her ducklings following her. According to my mother, it was Mrs. Danielson who began singing to her children, the little chorus that you may have heard, Safe am I, Safe am I, In the hollow of His hand, Sheltered O’er, Sheltered O’er, in His love forevermore. No ill can harm me, no foe alarm me, For He keeps both day and night, Safe am I, Safe am I in the hollow of His hand.
( I actually sang this during the message.) As she began to sing, all the other missionaries in their lifeboats or in the water began taking up the melody as well until all were singing as they moved toward the raider. At that very time, another brilliant rainbow came up in the sky. This was just another sign that our God was in control and would care for all of His children EVEN through this trial of water. (21) In the inset of this picture you can see the six children as adults, with the one, Eleanor, who has been the spearhead for the reunions of the survivors.
When the Zamzam did not make it to Cape Town and was not heard from, of course the newspapers in America were plastered with the headlines of the people missing. (22) (23) (24). It would be over a month later that my grandparents and other relatives in the states would know that my mother, father and I were safe, along with all of the other passengers. (25)
Of course the raider was not prepared for an influx of over 200 unplanned for passengers, among them 5 pregnant women and 35 children! He was distraught to say the least that he had shelled this supposedly neutral ship. It was later learned that the Zamzam in fact was sailing under British admiralty orders, very specific ones at that, and was sailing in blackout, which no neutral ship would be doing. There is much speculation that this was a planned shelling in order to draw the United States into the war, in a similar way as the Lusitania was used in World War I. One thing for sure is that this shelling became an international event and a public embarrassment to Germany.
Within days, the raider met up with a prison ship, the Dresden, to which all of the passengers were transferred. This time the transfer was disciplined and orderly, in spite of the fact that the Egyptian crewmembers still were trying to get ahead of the others. The Dresden also was certainly not equipped to take on so many people at once and conditions on the ship were dismal to say the least. (26) The basic food was what was christened as "glop," a watery soup with a few floaties in it and black bread. The ambulance drivers were appointed to keep the lines orderly as people went with their issue of one metal bowl and spoon to get their food. The men were sent down to the lower hold of the ship and given cotton batting and muslin (27) to make their own mattresses. When all of the men were lying on the floor, there was literally no place to step.
After some pressure on the captain through a committee formed to speak for the Zamzam survivors, the men were allowed to visit with their wives and children for two hours a day in a very narrow passageway. (28) There was one liter of water per day given to each person for drinking, washing and any clothes washing as well. Mother said that she would save drinking water, then several passengers would save their water from their personal washing and put it together to wash their clothes.
The men held daily prayer meetings (29), covering all the needs of individuals, families, and the war issues so pressing on them and the world.
My father was a very ingenuous and resourceful person, as you can see from some of these pictures. (30) (31) Here he is using some of the materials given for a mattress to make a doll for me. The doll was christened "Old Joe" and is with me to this day. (32) (33) He had been taking to Africa a barbering set, so he set up shop on the ship. He had never ever cut hair before, but everyone agreed that they would all tell each other how nice they looked, because it was only a tiny piece of mirror that was available for looking into! (34) Here he is shown preaching at one of the services among the missionaries.
Dysentery broke out and everyone was losing weight at an alarming speed. My mother, being four months pregnant, was barely able to keep her strength up. She said that on several occasions, a German sailor would, at great risk, bring her a piece of fruit for me, an orange or apple, for which she was always very grateful.
The saga of the Dresden finally making it to occupied France is another story to fill a book. After six long weeks of ill treatment and little food, and the Dresden actually running the British blockade, a very dangerous undertaking, without incident, all on board made it to St. Jean-de-Luz, where they were taken off the ship. (36) It was only at this point that the world would finally know what happened to the Zamzam and that ALL of the passengers were safe. (37) Only one life was lost, and that was of an older tobacco grower, who had gone out of his cabin during the shelling and a piece of shrapnel had entered the frontal lobe of his brain. He was able to get to the lifeboat on his own and in fact was operated on by the neurosurgeon on the Tamesis, but he died later of an infection. There were several other injuries, but few among the missionaries, and everyone else healed up.
Life in occupied France was not easy either, but at least there was a little more food and warmer clothes. (38) (39) In Biarritz, France, my father bought French berets for all of us, but this is the only one that has survived. (40) (41) This is a picture of my mother holding me as we were leaving Spain to go to Lisbon, Portugal, to board the Portuguese vessel, the Serpa Pinto to return to the United States. It was a glad time, but sad as well, because (44) while the Americans were boarding the ship to return home, the English and Canadians were still on the prison ship being taken to concentration camps for the duration of the war. There were many tears at this parting because in some cases husbands and wives were separated, and children from parents. I am very happy to report to you, though, that upon arriving in Lisbon, Portugal, a still neutral country, the trains coming from Spain were met, at railway side, with a huge table laden with all kinds of delicious food and drink. It was such a sight for sore eyes and a delight to too-long hungry stomachs! The Portuguese were thrilled to host the survivors and treated us all like royalty. A few days there and my mother and I began to feel much better and gain back some of the weight we had lost, which was true of all the rest of the people as well.
Leaving Europe was (46) for my parents a time of rejoicing, knowing they would soon---after another 14-16 days, be home again. (47) After the initial warning not to say anything to anyone upon arrival, which came from the mission, then the missionaries were being asked to share their stories in states all over the U.S. My father (48-50) shared their story in many different churches, on the radio, and in camps and retreats. My mother stayed home with me recuperating for the birth of my sister later the same year.
The hand of God was on their lives and the lives of all on board. While the agnostics and unbelievers among us did not recognize the goodness of God, they could not help but admire the loyalty, the contentment, and the peaceful spirit of the missionaries. At the second reunion of the survivors which I attended, (51), some of us who were children on board had a group picture. Almost everyone in this picture is in or has retired from some kind of Christian ministry……….the wonderful grace, mercy and faithfulness of our God has followed us and blessed us even unto today.
It is not so important how we begin in the Christian life, but it is of utmost importance how we finish.
The safest place in the world is the center of God's will.
Return to the The Zamzam Story home page