Chapter XII: Athens
From Spalato Unit B was sent to Athens, the port being Piraeus. We were to demonstrate the efficiency of the chasers to the Greek government with the idea of making a sale. A few days later we were joined by three others, bringing orders for the six chasers to assist the American Red Cross commission at Athens in distributing food and clothing to the starving inhabitants of the neighboring islands. Lieutenant Ott was the senior officer of this division and cooperated with the Red Cross in transporting supplies and personnel to Kavalla, Salonica, and the Aegean Islands.
During our stay in Piraeus, the young King of Greece made us a visit, and a pleasant fellow he is as far as we could judge. The embassies invited us to all their functions, and we drank tea with the highest social folks in Athens. We talked English whenever we could, and spoke French very slowly, very indistinctly, very softly, and speaking personally, very ungrammatically and incorrectly.
Our sojourn was made most pleasant by the arrival of mail, but no paymaster. December 23d we were in port, and intercepted a wireless from the rest of the detachment, to Malta, ordering four thousand pounds of turkey for Christmas dinner. We, however, passed the day the same as any other with crackers, canned "bill," and potatoes. How we cussed our luck can be imagined.
While at Athens we enjoyed the visiting around in the cafés as much as our limited knowledge of the language allowed. We were always certain to find company at any hour in these Grecian gossiping places. Here we saw more culture and refinement than in any other city. To us Americans, however, it seemed, when we thought about it or discussed the city among ourselves, that there was very much more talk than task among our friends.They have a clean, beautifully laid-out city, almost prehistoric ruins, and most pleasant manners, but their business methods were distinctly Oriental. Perhaps they seemed lazy because of the climate; anyhow, the only real big business we saw was the trade in tobacco. We ran across some of the tobacco buyers for American firms, and they surely did have an interesting lot of things to tell us, but, best of all, they could tell us in English. What we here in America call Turkish tobacco is handled by these buyers in Greece. We gathered that there is a strong monarchist or royalist sentiment among these café-visiting Greeks, but judging from personal observation, the grand old man of Greece, Venizelos, seems to be strongly entrenched politically, and republican sentiment growing very fast.
After Athens, we went to Constantinople to receive the pay long due us and to turn over bills incurred in Greece into more competent hands than our own.
On the first of January the main detachment of chasers started on a voyage from Malta along the coast of Italy, making a trip to Rome and the French coast. They reported a splendid time, an audience with the Pope, and receptions galore. Our half dozen boats loafed about towards the East, and although there were receptions enough they were not so grand as the European crowd attended. We were satisfied though as the views we had were of the more unusual, and the places we visited were of the most out of the way, and consequently most interesting. While at the island of Kios one of the crew bought or stole or had given him a small donkey, which the crew claimed as mascot, and which was kept on deck as it was the only place for it. He afforded much amusement to us all when anyone passed behind him. The men usually managed to inveigle strangers into this position, and when the donkey tried to make a field goal it was fun for all but the unsuspecting stranger.
We sent some of the boats with Red Cross officials to Italy. There was not a great deal of use made of us, however, in this Red Cross assignment. It was extremely pleasant for us officers to meet some of the fine officers of this organization, both men and women, as we had not seen any Americans for nearly a year. It was after war had stopped, and these folks had time to visit a little. About the middle of February we reached Constantinople in our pilgrimages through these Eastern waters. In running through the Dardanelles we saw many wrecks of the British ships that had remained where they had been sunk or stranded in 1915, when the English attempted to force their way through to Constantinople. We anchored off the Sultan's palace, and our experience there with the Turks was anything but agreeable. One night we counted ten shootings from a rifle or revolver in an hour in the Stamboul quarter. It was not dangerous to go up to the bazaar in the daytime, but at night, unless well-armed, it was foolhardy. It was not that the American uniform instigated attack, but rather general conditions of anarchy. In Pera and Galata law and order were usually observed, and foreigners were not molested any more than were the natives. But it is not conducive to peace and comfort to feel that there is a possibility of one stopping a bullet which either was or was not intended.
What pay was received soon flew away here, but American yachts and destroyers were in the harbor, and hence the base of supplies nearer than it had been for a long time. Saint Sophia and other points of interest were inspected and criticized. The French-speaking guide, in the pursuit of his business, called attention to the likeness of Christ in the dome of the church by stating he was "one of the big prophets of the Greek church." This guide surely was a good Mohammedan. Silks and laces in the bazaar bothered Reserve ensign purchasers. It was nerve-racking to make sure you were not being cheated in buying an article at one tenth the original asking price. Besides, neither at Annapolis, the Cloyne school, nor at mess on board the big ships with the four stripers was any instruction given as to silks and laces and embroideries. A pair of field glasses was easy, but the silk and lace thingumajigs bothered considerably.
Fifteen months' life on a 110-foot chaser never caused the least nervous twinge, but the big ship coming home through the mine fields made one look out carefully and breathe more regularly as each night was passed that carried one nearer the swept areas and the most cherished statue in the world.