The Diaspora Potrezebe - Newsletter of the Alumni Association of the American Community
School at Beirut, Lebanon.
East from Beirut to Boston -- A Wartime Travelogue
Editor's Note: This is a reprint of an article that appeared in the September 1995 issue of the Pot, because the first printing was incomplete. Our apologies to the author.
by Elisabeth West FitzHugh '43
ACS closed early in 1941, courtesy of a European -- not yet a world -- war. I spent my fifteenth birthday in Suez harbor at the north end of the Red Sea, where burnt-out bombed ships were scattered. With only a few days' notice a group of us left Beirut in May 1941 when the Free French were about to march into Vichy-controlled Lebanon, the Germans were infiltrating Iraq and Rommel's army was approaching Cairo. We ended up traveling two-thirds of the way around the world.
We first spent a month in Ramallah, just outside Jerusalem. We did some of the tourist things, floating in the Dead Sea, inspecting the walls of Jericho. Some children in the party became boarders at a Jerusalem school and wild stories came to light later of typical American kids dumped unexpectedly into a very British school. We then spent another month in Cairo waiting for ship transport south since civilians were forbidden to travel in the Mediterranean. We climbed to the top of one of the Giza pyramids and I remember traveling by streetcar through the hot city streets. We saw "Gone with the Wind" in the Cairo Opera House, and my first view of those immortal scenes between Scarlett and Rhett will forever be associated in my mind with a scorching Egyptian July.
The ship we boarded at Suez, headed for Sydney, Australia, was the former Cunard liner Aquitania, a veteran of many Atlantic crossings, now a troopship battered by months of transporting Australian and New Zealand troops to the desert war in North Africa. In addition to our group of refugees, the passengers included some Australian airmen being invalided home, and several hundred Italian prisoners-of-war below decks, destined for prison camp in Ceylon. My father came out on the lighter with us to the ship, to say goodbye, then to return to his teaching job at AUB. As a parent years later I can imagine my parents' feelings as we set out -- my mother, two younger brothers and I -- through the Red Sea and across the Indian Ocean. There were known to be U-boats in the area, but the Aquitania was too fast for any convoy so we traveled alone. My youngest brother recalls that we were each assigned a certain item to grab if we were torpedoed. One family traveled to Australia on the Queen Elizabeth, also a troop ship, and were her first civilian passengers because the ship had gone directly into wartime use. By the time we reached Ceylon, my father was back in Beirut and his first news of us was a newspaper report of the arrival of a group of Italian prisoners in Ceylon.
There were thirty or forty of us -- families or parts of families -- and a few teen-agers traveling independently, headed for school or college in the U.S. We spent a month in Sydney, at a hotel on Bondi Beach, a well known resort area where accommodation was available at bargain rates in what was then early Spring. We saw koala bears and kangaroos. We visited the Sydney zoo in the company of the American ambassador and had our picture in the local paper. Headed north toward an American winter, we bought warm clothes; I acquired a beautiful blue Australian wool bathrobe which lasted for many years. It was a big event to go to the movies and see Deanna Durbin and Leopold Stokowski in "100 Men and a Girl."
Our group eventually got passage to the United States on the Monterey, a Matson line cruise ship. We stopped briefly at Fiji and Pago Pago, and I still have a bag of tapa cloth -- made of bark -- from one of the islands. In New Zealand we drove up into the mountains and I recall spectacular scenery of tree- covered mountains so different from the dry Middle East. In Honolulu we were entertained at the beach by friends, watched hula dancing and admired the sands of Waikiki.
Finally I remember the oil derricks thick in the ocean off Los Angeles; as we headed slowly in to port we were entertained by a showing of the "Philadelphia Story." Because the movie was cut off so we could go through Customs and Immigration, it was several years before I found out what happened to Katherine Hepburn in the end.
We took the train across the country, stopping at the south rim of the Grand Canyon, accessible then by train. We disembarked from the train in Newark where relatives greeted us, and then went on to the Boston area where life became serious once again with finding a place to live and starting off in strange schools. I've often thought how different our lives might have been if we'd been traveling a few months later. It was two months before Pearl Harbor.
ACSers on this trip were two other Wests, Allen '48 and David '51; Crawfords: John '47, Molly '48 and Alice '54; Ray Close '47; Ritshers: Ann* '41 and Marjo* '43; Alison Smith* '41; Helene Holenkoff '42; and on the Queen Elizabeth, three Kerrs: Dorothy '47, Malcolm* '49 and Douglas '54.