Preston & Bernice Anderson are my paternal grandparents. This is the story, in Bernice’s words of their trip to the “Holy Land” when they unexpectedly found themselves detained because of the October 1973 War (or Yom Kippur War) between Egypt and Israel. You can read more about this war here.
September 29, 1973
We started out on Saturday morning, drove to the airport in Columbus, boarded a plane for Detroit and there we waited for 12 hours for our overseas plain to begin our thirteen day tour retracing the steps of St. Paul on his missionary journeys. The trip was to take us to six countries including the Holy Land. In our group were the tour hosts Rev. and Mrs. Ira Wellman, Kanauga, OH, Mrs. Jesse Brown Letart, WV, Mrs. Mildred Bumgardner, Chillicothe, OH, Mrs. Ethel Grueser, Pomeroy, OH, Mrs. Laura Cracraft, Columbus, OH and us, Mr. and Mrs. Preston R. Anderson, Point Pleasant, WV.
In Detroit we joined with other groups, in all about 250 persons who were eager to make this trip. We arrived in Athens, Greece about 5:00 PM (their time, which is 6 hours advanced of ours). Upon arrival, we were given a quick look at Athens and taken to a hotel for the night. Next morning, we went by bus to view the sights of Athens and Corinth. That evening (Monday), we boarded the cruise ship, Romantica, for the remainder of our trip.
On Tuesday, we visited the Biblical Pergamos where St. Luke received his hospital training, went on by bus to Biblical Smyrna, which is today’s Izmir, and went on to the fabulous ruins of ancient Ephesus. The following day we visited the Isle of Patmos, where John was exiled and wrote the Revelations. The following day was to be our one day of cruising the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. On the next day we returned to Turkey by way of Mersin to Tarsus and Antioch. We re-boarded the ship at Iskenderun, Turkey and set sail for Beirut, Lebanon where we were to board buses the next morning for Damascus, Syria. I awakened about 2:30 AM because the ship was moving so slowly and seemed to be docking. I couldn’t believe we had made it to Beirut so soon, but it did not occur to me that anything was amiss until I heard the announcement that no pictures were to be taken in this harbor; neither cameras nor binoculars on deck. I still had no idea we were not in Beirut as the Wholesale Tours director did not bother to inform us. At breakfast, we learned that our ship had been forced into harbor by Syrian gunboats and we were being detained. No one knew why or for how long. At least, no one was telling us. Our information was coming from passengers who had observed the goings on. Out on deck, Syrians with sub-machine guns were all over the place.
We learned that our sister ship, the Fiesta, had been able to escape the Syrians and proceeded on. Rumors were flying thick and fast. A Russian ship was moored near us. People were relayed from both our ship and the Russian one by means of dub boat. The ship horns kept signaling, tot we did not know their language.
Finally, at 3:40 PM, the announcement was made that the Syrian government sys the formalities have been completed and we will depart shortly. However, in an aside, he said, “That is Syrian time.” A little later, we observed a small boat alongside and one of our crewmen walked to the foot of the steps, talked with them and returned. About 5:00 PM, we heard something which sounded like a shot and seemed to come from within the harbor, but that is all.
At 6:30 PM, the Wholesale Tours director made the announcement: “The day to day tensions have increased in this area today and the Syrian government requests that for our well-being, we remain in the port of Tartus, Syria, at least overnight.” This was the first knowledge that was really given to us. Later it was announced that all ships within 100 miles had been taken to safe harbors. The Fiesta is at Beirut. There seems to be no communication with the outside.
About 9:00 PM, a young man ran excitedly up the stairs saying something about “the war.” We asked, “What war?” He had been listening to a radio report which told of heavy fighting between Israel and Egypt. Most of our later information came form the radios of passengers. Everyone was quite calm and we shared a wonderful worship service on the sundeck before going to bed.
During the night, I kept hearing loud explosions, which literally shook the ship. I got out of bed and went to the hall where I talked with two men who were curious as I, but we were unable to find out what was going on. The next morning, they told us we should have known not to be frightened as it is the custom for harbor boats to drop hand grenades to “protect” their guests from infiltration by frogmen. If they had bothered to warn us, ahead of time, we could have rested more easily.
On Sunday morning, the situation remained about the same with no official mention of our situation. We shared with the Lutheran group aboard in a thrilling church service and also shared part of a Baptist service.
Radio reports were to the effect that fighting is worse that 1967 and no end in sight and we begin to wonder what we may be in for. Later reports said Kissinger had called a special UN Meeting to discuss a Greek ship which is being held by Syrians with an undetermined number of Americans aboard. Now we know our friends will be praying for our safety. About 7:30 the tour guide told us of a Syrian broadcast in English, which is (he said) exaggerating the fighting and that a message from Cyprus said 150 ships are in Mediterranean ports. According to the radio, Syria reported they released us at noon today. Why are we here? We were told that we must show no lights on ship tonight so all port holes are closed. Finally, about 7:30 PM, the Captain came in and said, “We will leave at six or seven o’clock in the morning.”
On Monday morning, I awakened to the sound of gunfire, made my way above only to hear, “No one allowed on deck due to anti-aircraft firing. Other passengers said they were on deck when planes flew over and were fired upon from the ground and from harbor boats. All at once at breakfast came a Greek announcement. The waiters got excited and we were moving. Within fifteen minutes, we cleared the harbor and headed out to sea. They said they could not tell us where until we were in international waters. Later we were told that we were due to arrive at the port of Famagusta, Cyprus about 4:00 PM. Our hopes were that we would be flown home from there, but this was not to be.
We had been refused fresh water from the Syrians because they wanted us to pull into the dock so they could charge a larger harbor fee. The report came that Israeli planes had bombed the Tartus radar station early this morning at the time of the anti-aircraft firing and sent the message: “Let our people go or we will be back.” Go, we did after being held for 54 hours as “guests” of the Syrian government.
At Cyprus, we were told that we must go back to Athens to take a plane home. We were very unhappy about that as that meant two more days at sea and we had had enough o the beautiful Mediterranean. We could send no messages as there was only one telephone line to the United States and a minimum wait of 1½ hours. Finally, after much deception and failure to inform us of the true situation, the Tours representative called a meeting of all tour hosts and tried to resolve the situation. The said Cyprus had no hotel space and would only permit the ship to dock to take on water and supplies. The moved another ship to make room for us to do that. Israel refused to permit anyone to enter, so we must make the best of the situation and sail with Romantica back to Athens where we boarded a plane for home.
The whole experience was quite wonderful in its way and served to strengthen our faith in God for it was His protecting arms which brought us safely through. We had asked Him to show us things which would make us better Christians, little realizing just what it might be.
Andy, who sometimes fancies himself a humorist, says the worst thing of all was having to sleep in Greece. (That’s a pun!)