Consular officers must sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to ensure the safety and well-being of Americans overseas. One such officer was Dean Dizikes, who orchestrated the evacuation of 450 Americans from Egypt during the Yom Kippur War. On October 6, 1973, Arab coalition forces attacked Israeli-held territory, and Israel swiftly retaliated. American citizens in Arab countries were in danger of being caught in the crossfire, and Dizikes was sent from the U.S. Embassy in Athens to extract American tourists from Alexandria. Surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges he faced in bringing Americans to safety was the behavior of the Americans themselves.
Dizikes recounts his experiences in a 1990 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy, with whom he worked in the consular section of U.S. Embassy Athens at the time of the incident.
“I took a bottle of Johnny Walker, which would probably come in handy for talking to some of the Americans. And it did.”
DIZIKES: We got a message from the Department, I think that indicated that about 450 Americans had been stranded in Egypt, in Cairo, when the war began. These were tourists in various parts of Egypt. They had been brought to Cairo and collected there, and they needed to be evacuated. We were told to send a consular officer and to find a ship to evacuate them. So the administrative section found a Greek ship.
Being October, it turned out to be difficult to find one. You don’t just go down to the harbor in Piraeus and say, “Give me a ship which can carry 500 people.” They had all gone to the Caribbean, as I remember it, by that point. The cruise season was over. So the admin section located a Greek ship that was filled with Greek tourists, primarily, and as I remember it, it was coming to Cyprus or in the vicinity of Cyprus, so I was told to fly to Nicosia.
At this point in the war, I think the cease-fire had gone into effect. [Israeli military commander and later Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon had crossed the [Suez] Canal and cut off the Egyptian 3rd Army. So there was a ceasefire, but the Americans were still stranded there. So we literally chartered this ship out from under the people who were on it….
As I remember it, the Department, typically, said, “First of all, send a consular officer.” In fact, several would have been the right thing to do, but we could only send one. The second thing was that the Department told the admin officer, “Find a ship. We don’t care how much it costs.” So he located this ship and said what he needed it for, and the ship owner said it was going to cost $500,000.
When he notified the Department of this, they said, “That’s too expensive,” after having said, “We don’t care how much it costs. Find a ship.” Then when he told them that it was the only ship available and he thought he could get it for less — I think he got it for $450,000 or something — so we chartered it. This was for about two days….
So I was told then to fly to Nicosia because the ship was going to be diverted from wherever it was cruising and was coming into Limassol Port in Cyprus. So I flew to Nicosia. I remember, too, I took a bottle of Johnny Walker, which [Consul General in Athens] Stu Kennedy told me would probably come in handy for talking to some of the Americans. And it did.
So I got to Nicosia and then went by car to Limassol, and the ship had come in, and the Greek passengers had all been told they were just going to have to find their way back to wherever they way, the ship owner having taken his $450,000. Then we were supposed to leave immediately from Limassol to go down to Alexandria. The Americans were going to be brought up from Cairo to Alexandria on buses or on the train, and they would meet us….
Of course, the Israelis and the Syrians and the Egyptians had all declared a zone of hostility, and that’s where the insurance got complicated, because we were going to be sailing through a war zone….As I remember, too, the Syrians and the Egyptians, once we notified them this was what we were doing, they both said, “Yes, that’s fine.” The Israelis never said it was fine, never said they could guarantee, as I remember. They took note of the fact that we would be going through and said they weren’t responsible beyond that, which I thought was pretty interesting.
Then the problem was getting the Greek crew to agree to go down there, because apparently the ship owner hadn’t calculated that a lot of the crewmen didn’t want to do this. So I spent the next, seemed to me, 12 or 15 hours in the hotel with a couple of the executives, waiting while some so-called sort of senior captains from the company went out to talk the crew into going. And by talking them into it, apparently they threatened them with losing their jobs, never getting another sailing job. They also gave them supposedly another month’s pay as a bonus.
Eventually, enough of the crew agreed to go, but three stewards and one cook went. This is on a 10,000-ton passenger ship. The crew went, the captain, the first officers, and enough engineers and others to run the ship, but three stewards and one cook.
“They had developed a certain amount of resentment and animosity toward the American government and toward the embassy in Athens”
So off we went, and we got into the harbor in Alexandria (pictured) and it was the most god-awful thing I’ve ever seen. The Americans were there, and they were just brought aboard, up a ladder onto the ship, and as they came aboard, I was thinking what I needed to do was collect their passports and start to make up a list, because one of the things the Department and everybody in Washington wanted was a list, obviously, of who these Americans were.
The first guy who came aboard, I still remember him, sort of a 40-year-old American executive type, pretty affluent, as I approached him, I said, “I’m from the American Embassy in Athens. Could I collect your passport?”
And he said, “Where are you from?”
I said, “The embassy.”
He said, “Is that the U.S. government?”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “I’ll keep my passport.” And that indicated that these people had, like many Americans, as you probably heard in other contexts, they had, in fact, unreasonable expectations. In the days that they’d been waiting, they had developed a certain amount of resentment and animosity toward the American government and toward the embassy in Athens. Well, it turned out specifically the embassy in Athens.
Eventually, they all came pouring aboard, and the captain decided we had to clear out of the harbor as fast as possible. There was a Soviet ship next to us, unloading torpedoes, and next to that there was a Libyan passenger ship, which looked like a scene out of Gungha Din or Lord Jim or something.
The people were pouring down the gangway and the baggage was just being tossed off the top of the ship down to people who were waiting on the dock 50 feet below. Half the suitcases, of course, were landing in the water, and others were landing on people who were trying to catch them.
I sat there with the Greek crew on the bridge, looking over at this thing, and the captain sort of shook his head, you know, made a couple of real Greek gestures, and said, “We’ve got to get out of here.” So we immediately cast off and started off. The Americans had all poured aboard.
Then we had another 20-some hours before we got back, first to Crete, then to Piraeus. So the idea was, we were going to spend one night aboard this ship. Everybody would have to sleep, and cabins had to be assigned to these people. So the idea was that the purser would assign cabins as these people came aboard. So I had a microphone and announced who I was, that I was from the embassy, and that cabins would be assigned.
About 15 minutes later, the purser came to me and said he was being offered bribes, he was being threatened by people. They all wanted first-class cabins, they all had connections in Washington, and they demanded various things. He said he wasn’t going to do it, that the only way it would work would be for me to assign everybody to their cabin.
Again, on the good advice I had gotten from Stu Kennedy in Athens, I tried to divide them into two groups and informed them that we would quickly assign them their cabins, and then we would sit down in two sessions and I would try to explain to them everything that I understood had happened from the beginning.
“All of these people were having a hard time understanding that this was not a cruise”
So my perception was that with Americans, a lot of their problems are solved if you can tell them what the hell is going on. Like waiting in a line. If they know why they’re waiting in a line, they’ll be more patient about it. But these people, of course, had built up a certain amount of resentment.
So it turned out there were six or eight or ten tourist groups among this group of 450. One was the World Affairs Council from Los Angeles, so these were people who were supposed to be sort of sophisticated, interested in foreign affairs, but also very prominent, affluent, and first-class world travelers, sort of.
All of these people were having a hard time understanding that this now was not a cruise that they were engaged on; it was an evacuation. So as I started assigning them the cabins, I don’t recall precisely, but we realized that out of, say, 450 passengers, 100 of those passengers could get first-class cabins, and then the rest were tourist class. We also had a small number of people, a few Spaniards, as I recall, because Spain was our protecting power. So we made an agreement they could come out. There were one or two Greeks….
The other thing which added to the resentment was that a few days before, or a day or so before, the Common Market had chartered a ship and evacuated EC [European Community, a precursor to the European Union] citizens, and the Americans had all heard about this. I gather some of the Germans and Brits and others had gone off from the Hilton, sort of saying, “Well, good luck. We’re leaving,” and off they’d gone.
Of course, this ship, as I remember it, that evacuation took place from Benghazi, and the EC people went by bus across Egypt to Libya. So even though I found that out later, it would have been nice to have pointed out to the Americans that that wasn’t maybe as wonderful as it sounded. But it was earlier, and there’s no question that the EC was a little quicker. I think that was because they were lucky in some ways. Maybe they had a ship of their own, which we didn’t.
We then started assigning the cabins and people all demanded first-class cabins, and fortunately there was also a Canadian — I remember clearly — diplomatic courier’s wife, who we had agreed also to evacuate because of some bilateral arrangement. She was about eight months pregnant, and she was feeling very ill.
So I used her as an example and said there were two first-class suites, as well, and a couple of people had asked why they didn’t get the suites. I said I was assigning this lady, who was eight months pregnant, to one of the suites and, in fact, sort of challenged any of the people present to question whether they wanted the suite and she could have the tourist class cabin, or did they all agree that perhaps she should get one of the suites.
So I tried quickly to say, “We’ll assign these cabins by sex and age, elderly females getting preference, elderly males second, middle age and . . .” This was interesting, because people then started to identify themselves as elderly or middle aged. [Laughter] Which added a little humor to the thing. Then young single men were last.
So quickly — when I say “quickly,” this probably took a couple of hours — they all came by me, literally, and got their key to their cabin, and I told them I was responsible. If they didn’t like their cabin, they could complain that I had given them a bad cabin, but it seemed to me that that should be the least of their concerns, since we were now leaving Egypt, and that’s what they had all wanted to do.
I also had to explain to them that we were going to charge them for this, and we had this IOU set up, and it was about $100, as I remember it. Some people complained about that. On the other hand, a lot of people rightly recognized.
Then jumping ahead, we assigned the cabins and I told them we’d have these two sessions. That’s where I sat down with them and said, “Let me just tell you from the beginning everything I know. Maybe you’ll then see all I’m telling you is what we’ve done. I’m not apologizing for anything.” But [I told them about] getting the ship and the insurance and getting the ship down there and throwing off the 400 Greeks who had been on the ship.
Then I opened it up to questions. Typically, some people said, “Well, I’m glad you’ve told us this. We understand. It’s a lot more complicated than we thought, and thank God we’re out of that place.” Other people, of course, wanted to know, “Why the hell didn’t the Sixth Fleet come down and get us? What are paying for if you can’t send the Sixth Fleet?”
I told them number one, given the situation — our relations with the Egyptians and our role, at the same time (which I didn’t realize, we were madly resupplying the Israelis, of course). The Egyptians knew all of that. I doubted that they were going to let the Sixth Fleet sail into Alexandria and I doubted that the Sixth Fleet wanted to sail into Alexandria, number one.
Number two, I told them that…given they were going to have to sail back across the Southern Mediterranean toward Crete, did they want to sail on a destroyer and sleep in between decks and sort of on hammocks, or did they want to sleep in a regular passenger ship?
[Then] they asked why they hadn’t been evacuated by air. I think the answer to that was that we couldn’t get clearance to do it, and if they thought that we were in a position to fly into Egypt without permission, then I thought they were pretty naive.
So that went on for a while. But in general, I thought that went pretty well. Then I did the same thing with the second group, and people asked what was going to happen when we got to Athens. We tried to anticipate all that.
The owner and the crew of the ship were very good, because they provided an enormous amount of booze. And the weather was gorgeous! By the afternoon, we were then out in the middle of the Mediterranean with not a whitecap in sight, and all of these people sitting out on the back, drinking. It turned into a pretty — then, of course, the stories about what had happened in Egypt. They had seen missiles fired. In fact, most of them got to Cairo after the cease-fire had been declared, and I suspect that by today some of the stories must be really hair-raising. I mean, God knows what they’d seen….
“‘Why didn’t I get a first-class cabin? I’m really resentful of this. I’m going to write to my Congressman!’”
In any case, then we got back into Greek waters and got back to Athens real early in the morning. The other thing that struck me is at that point I just about lost my voice, because I spent most of my time going around talking to people, trying to reassure them. Then I ended up having my picture taken. We’d sit around by the swimming pool and people would come up and have their picture taken with me, because this was going to be a great adventure to tell friends about.
The other thing that was fascinated was human nature. I mean, you see two men, say, a 40-year-old executive, like the one I described, and another 40-year-old executive, one of whom, for no apparent reason, same sort of economic level, same education, same age, and the one fellow is bitching because he doesn’t have a first-class cabin….
We had three stewards and one cook to serve 450 people. I informed people that they were going to have to volunteer to help if we expected to get any food served and anything orderly done. People would have to chip in and help. Amazingly — or maybe not amazingly — a large number of people were willing to volunteer. There were some stewardesses on board, five or six stewardesses, who were terrific about that, and they sort of took charge of that and the people worked for them.
But what I encountered was the situation where you’d get the one guy saying, “Why didn’t I get a first-class cabin? I’m really resentful of this. I’m going to write to my Congressman!” and the other guy saying, “You want me to go down and wash dishes and help serve the next round?” That’s what you can never explain, how people react in a situation like that….
We got to Athens at about 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning…I remember clearly the Spanish consul general was there.
When I looked down from the ship, as we got in there and saw the people getting off and their luggage getting off, Stu Kennedy and American officers from the American Embassy were carrying luggage for these people, and the Spanish consul sort of shaking hands with them and then driving off, saying, “Welcome to Greece,” and that was the end of the Spanish role in this.
I think that sums up a lot what we try to do and what we see as our role and what a lot of other countries do….So it was just an amazing experience.