Westerners in the Middle East have often been involved in evacuations during turbulent times. In World War I, since Turkey was fighting with the Central Powers, British and French citizens were interned, and, after 1917, Americans. In 1940 the same situation arose in Lebanon and Syria after the fall of France, when the Vichy government took control. Car headlights were painted a translucent blue, part of blackout regulations.
As Americans, we were not affected by the Axis sympathies of the military government, but in 1941 the tide of war in the desert flowed toward Egypt, and Germany invaded Yugoslavia and Greece, landing planes on Syrian airfields to reach Iraq, where a coup had overthrown a pro-British government. Everyone talked about German paratroops dropping on those airfields and our suitcases were packed for weeks. On May 19 we were told to leave the next day by taxi for Jerusalem. On the 20th, Germany’s one paratroop division dropped on Crete. I now believe British intelligence knew it was about to go into action somewhere and informed the American legation in Beirut, so that the events of May 20 were not a coincidence.
Five of us crammed into our taxi: my mother, father, sister Elisabeth (14), myself (10), and brother David (8). Inland from Haifa, the Plain of Esdraelon baked in the sun; the crowded taxi was very uncomfortable. We changed cars in Haifa, and then again, because of engine trouble, in Nablus, an all-day trip, dark when we arrived in Jerusalem.
My brother and I went to the British Community School as boarders. I remember nothing about the classes. One night we all huddled in the hallways when an enemy plane droned over the city. On June 9 the headmaster told the school that “our troops” had invaded Syria and Lebanon. We explored the old city on foot, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Dome of the Rock, the Mount of Olives, Bethlehem’s ornately decorated grotto. On the Dead Sea, we swam like corks. Getting dressed afterward my brother and I showed signs of chicken pox, and shared a happy convalescence with no schoolwork.
On June 27 we went to Cairo by train, a hot, dirty trip, because the open windows let in dust and soot as well as a breeze. We stayed at the American Girls’ School, which was closed for the summer. When bombers came over at night we crawled under our beds, listening to sirens and anti-aircraft guns. We rode camels at Giza, climbed the Great Pyramid, went to Saqqara to see the step pyramid, to Ma’adi by a sleek train for a very suburban lemonade party, and often to the zoo. Tutankhamen’s treasures were underground; the museum was closed.
To learn our travel arrangements, my father was summoned to a building in Cairo where a man unlocked the door of a small room with a finger to his lips, locked it behind them, sat down behind a desk, unlocked a drawer, took out a piece of paper, held it up so my father could read it, then locked it back in the drawer and let my father out. Not a word was said! July 29 we left by train for Suez, passing another train going to Cairo loaded with ANZAC troops. The train ran onto the dock and it was comforting to see the Aquitania, painted gray, in the roadstead. Our luggage was labeled “HMS Transport,” but we had crossed the Atlantic in 1937 on her, and the four stacks made it seem a homecoming.
All down the Red Sea we were blacked out at night. With the portholes closed, one little electric fan did not cool us off at all. The Arabian Sea was better: brilliant blue water, flying fish, cooler breezes. We had the run of the upper deck and lounges; there were very few passengers. When the ship’s siren signaled lifeboat drill, we gathered at our station wearing lifejackets, listening to the hull swish through the water and the engines rumble. Below decks were 1,500 Italian prisoners-of-war being shipped to India, and every day groups were aired on deck. One of the guards gave me some insignia including a tiny commando clasp knife I still have. At Colombo the prisoners were taken off. We had two days in port, took a car up to the temple at Kandy and saw elephants carrying loads along the road in the jungle.
From Ceylon we sailed to Sydney, arriving on August 23. The weather was much colder, especially when the ship swung south of Tasmania to evade a submarine in the Bass Strait. We kids spent hours in the lounge playing Monopoly and Battleship, bundled up because of the sudden change to winter. Our steward said that the troops smashed all the china and glass on every trip.
Our home was a small hotel in Bondi Beach. The water was too cold for swimming. Some residents spent their time playing the slot machines in the hotel. Three lemons, three cherries still have a certain magic. We visited the harbor bridge and the zoo, where we saw the sister of the MGM lion; fed kangaroos and saw koalas in a wild animal park; took the train to Botany Bay to watch an aborigine throw a boomerang; and went to Sydney for movies, Fantasia the one I remember.
We sailed September 18 on the Matson Line’s Monterey with New Zealand airmen on their way to England and American tourists. We watched “horse races” in the lounge and one day a Joe Louis fight was broadcast. Our first stop was Auckland, where we left the boat for a day to drive up into the New Zealand hills: lots of sheep and very green after the dry Lebanese hills. The ship stopped at Suva in the Fiji Islands, Pago Pago on Samoa, Honolulu on October 1, and reached Los Angeles October 6.
From Los Angeles we took the train east, first the Santa Fe’s Grand Canyon Limited, which detoured from Flagstaff pulled by two huge steam locomotives. On October 14 we arrived in Templeton, Mass., to visit relatives so that my mother could search for a home in the Boston area. Templeton was my first New England autumn. There were goldenrod and asters, ripe apples falling from the trees, and long grass wet with dew in the early morning mist. We moved to 10 Riverdale Road in Wellesley Farms on October 28. My brother and I went to Annie F. Warren elementary school, a short walk down Glen Road. As fall got colder, ice on little pools fascinated me, and on Sunday, December 7, I was listening to “The Shadow” when an interruption brought the news of Pearl Harbor.