Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Visit to the Port of Massawa


Ethiopia Peace Corps Diary: Visit to the Port of Massawa

Sheikh Siad Island

Preparing for teaching my classes at Haile Selassie Secondary School required a lot of reading. Most of my students did not have textbooks nor did I have a syllabus to follow. Marty Benjamin, my housemate, and I compared notes and discovered that between the two of us we were asked to teach every subject except home economics, physical education, Amharic and morals because our Indian colleagues refused to teach more than one subject area. We were responsible for all the other classes.

Early on in my stay in Gondar I discovered that the only things family and friends could send me that would not be “lost” in the Ethiopian postal system were books. My mother kept me well supplied with books for teaching and recreational reading. In a previous entry “Adventures with Larry and Hebe” I discussed how I enjoyed Alan Morehead’s Blue Nile. Reading another book she sent, Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief, made me feel like a young child who was reading some illicit work under the covers at night with the aid of a flashlight. That was because I was led to believe that it was banned in Ethiopia because of its scathing satirical portrayal of a mythical progressive African leader, Seth.

When I returned home and went to my local Post Office, I was in awe that I could mail a letter or package and not only know that it would arrive, but I did not have to stand there and watch the postmaster cancel the stamps so that I would know the postage would not be stolen. In my diary I relate the frustration I felt when I tried to help one of my favorite students who was stranded in Addis and needed bus fare to get back to Gondar. I sent him money from Gondar three times before he finally received it.

The Peace Corps office in Addis supplied us with a mimeograph machine, a set of encyclopedias and four footlockers of books. We initially kept the machine and the encyclopedias at the Davis house because it was close to the school. However, my diary notes that as a group, on December 7, 1962 we voted to move the items to a safer location because we were all afraid of the Davis’s mean dog, Kasitch. A major breakthrough in providing access to books for us and our students occurred in August 1963. At that time, after six months of planning, the U.S. Information Service in Asmara opened a library/reading room in two of our classrooms in Gondar. On Sept, 15, 1963 I noted in my diary:

At the USIS library I have library card #289. The opening day in early August was quite an event. The only book that was stolen was the Bible in English. The Governor cut the ribbon as all the other local officials looked on. There was a near riot when Ato Assefa (the librarian) started to hand out free magazines. Aba Gebre Meskel got in the middle of the brawl to hand out magazines to his friends. Most of the police officials were there scrapping too. The rooms are equipped with padded chairs and even table lamps. It is really well done.

One out of print book that Mother sent me was Under the Red Sea Sun by Commander Edward Ellsberg. Commander Ellsberg was famous for having raised sunken U S naval vessels. In 1925 he raised sub S-51 off of Block Island, in 1928 S-4 off Cape Cod and in 1939 the Squalas off Portsmouth, NH. He wrote several books highlighting his success. The account in Under the Red Sea Sun took place after the April 1941 surrender of Italian Admiral Bonnetti and the port of Massawa to a combined force of Free French and British Colonial soldiers. Italian forces in Gondar did not surrender until November 1941. Prior to his surrender the Allies tried to convince Admiral Bonnetti that the Port of Massawa was critical to the resupply of the 40,000 Italian dependents living only 100 km away in the City of Asmara. The Admiral instead turned his workers loose on a destructive rampage. They blew holes in 16 ships and two floating dry docks to block access to the harbors.

In addition, they tried to destroy all the shop tools, equipment and cranes to prevent their reuse by the Allies.

Litterina en route to Massawa, 1963

Litterina en route to Massawa, 1963

Prior to his surrender Admiral Bonnetti sought to break his sword over his knee. It, however, only bent and he ended up with a sore knee. Meanwhile the British in Egypt were panicked that the Germans were going to overrun Cairo and they would be without a naval base to service their small fleet of remaining ships. The British called upon the US Navy to send Commander Ellsberg to Massawa to restore the port to some usefulness. Ellsberg arrived in Massawa in March of 1942. Immediately he and his cadre of six American supervisors and legions of workers from Eritrea and a multitude of other countries, including Italian prisoners, set to work salvaging what they could to get the shops running again.

The British found a floating dock in Iran that had not been paid for so they claimed it as a spoil of war and floated it to Massawa. It was maneuvered into place past the rows of sunken Italian ships and thus Massawa was able to start refitting transport and warships in the Red Sea. The British officials who would not leave the comfort of Asmara which sits at 7500 feet above Massawa, set the rules and pay rates for workers. Eritrean workers were paid only 25 cents per day. Ellsberg despaired at their slow pace of scraping and repainting ships. He devised a scheme of incentive pay which circumvented the pay rules set by those sitting up in comfortable Asmara. He wrote:

I had hoped for and expected a better performance than that of the first day – never should I have believed those emaciated Eritreans capable of what they were now doing. If ever I had had any doubts to the value of incentive pay in getting production, they vanished that day in that steaming, stinking dry dock in Massawa.

…No dry dock in the world in war or peace has, I believe, ever equaled the record made that year by that one dock in Massawa in taking full-sized ships. We not only ran the whole Mediterranean fleet of supply ships over that dry dock, doubling their speed at sea, but some of the faster ones we took again after a few months to keep them up to topnotch efficiency. And all of it was done by the worst labor in the world under the worst conditions anywhere in the world. The Eritreans in Massawa did their bit to win the war – it should not be forgotten when someday around some table the United Nations delegates meet to decide the fate of Eritrea.

The work force pushed one ship through the dry dock every 1½ days.

In his book, Ellsberg describes the work involved raising several of the scuttled ships, the harbor’s two dry docks and the cranes that had been toppled over. One of the ships that was raised contained an unexploded mine which had to be removed from the hull. In November 1942 Field Marshal Montgomery smashed Field Marshal Rommel at El Alamein and the threat to Egypt ended. At that point the British lost interest in Massawa and Commander Ellsberg was ordered to report to General Eisenhower in North Africa. His book ends there.

Our visit to Massawa occurred in January 1963. At that time during our Ethiopian Christmas break the Peace Corps ordered all of us to fly to Asmara for a conference. Several of us from Gondar looked up two American soldiers stationed at Kagnew whom we had helped out when their vehicles broke down near Gondar. They reciprocated by treating us to hamburgers and malts at the Kagnew snack bar and rounding up some scuba gear and sleeping bags for us to use in Massawa. Kagnew was a large American communications base situated where it was because, at 7500 feet, messages could be sent all around the world. During the Korean War it was responsible for one half of all communications. Within Ethiopia there were nationalists who objected to the large US military presence in the north of their country. In my diary I noted one day that some of my students came to me with a rumor they heard that the Americans from Kagnew were digging a secret tunnel from Asmara to Gondar.

Aside from a minor dental problem I never had to use the Kagnew medical facilities. However, I was grateful that they existed because during our two year stay in Gondar, four members of our Peace Corps group had to be flown from Gondar to the hospital at Kagnew. The only other reference to the Kagnew base in my six Gondar diaries was on June 20, 1964. At that time I and fifty other Peace Corps teachers were brought to the American Embassy for a briefing by Ambassador Korry on American involvement in the Empire of Ethiopia. Korry presented a detailed listing of all the different civilian and military programs funded and staffed by the United States. After he completed his lecture and had exhausted all our questions he just casually mentioned as a footnote that HIM had his bread for the Jubilee Palace flown in daily from Kagnew.

Italian soldier's postcard from Ethiopia, 1935

Italian soldier’s postcard from Ethiopia, 1935

At the conclusion of the weeklong conference several of us decided to go to Massawa. If you walked to the eastern edge of Asmara you could literally look down 100 km towards Massawa. On January 15, 1963 I wrote:

Got up just in time to catch the 7:00 Litterina (one car sleek streetcar like train) to Massawa. It was built by Fiat in 1935 and is run by two diesel motors. On board were five armed guards. The trip took four hours to cover the 110 km to Massawa. The journey passed through 27 tunnels. Alongside the railroad were the pylons and dangling cables of the Italian cableway system built in 1938 to haul 30 tons of freight per hour from Massawa to Asmara. Originally there were 13 stations on the cableway, each with a diesel engine. After the British secured Massawa they hauled the diesel engines off to Kenya and made off with other components of the port. The Japanese are now in the process of salvaging the cables. For much of the trip we passed through clouds.

The hillsides were in some places terraced and many Italian houses and farms along the way are now in ruins. Ten Peace Corps volunteers were waiting in Massawa to catch a freighter to the Port of Assab from which they will catch a bus into Dessie. A Swedish ship arrived in port today which they will sail on tomorrow. The trip will cost them only $30 Eth. each. At the Chow Hotel (run by the army for Kagnew) we hired local fishermen to row us across the coral beds to Sheik Said Island. Snorkeling off the island only a short distance from the shore we witnessed an unbelievable underwater world. Never seen anything like it before. It was magnificent.

On the 17th we caught the 6:00 am Litterina for Asmara. During the wait for the train at the station I watched the sunrise over the Red Sea. I was anxious to get back to Asmara because I had to gather our supplies to take back to Gondar, including several bags of chemical fertilizer to use on the school gardens. The Peace Corps was supplying the jeep for our use in Gondar. I wrote:

…Then I set out in search of the road to Gondar. There are no maps so I frequently had to ask directions. When I finally found the road I stopped at a new French textile factory where HIM was scheduled to appear. The road was lined for a mile with police. Inside the factory compound hundreds of employees chanted, sang and waved flags for over an hour. The French ambassador wearing a frock coat and his wife were there. HIM arrived in his Rolls Royce, proceeded by several trucks of soldiers, about ten cars, half a dozen motor cycles and five jeeps full of body guards with machine guns. In his Rolls with him were his two tiny dogs, the ones who made so much noise at the palace when we met HIM in September.

On the way back from the textile factory I had the Jeep commandeered by six Eritrean policemen who needed a ride downtown. They seem to be everywhere and are well trained and well disciplined. Their hats are extremely distinctive being like safari hats with the Lion of Judah medallion on the upturned brim. Getting back to Asmara I went to the Ministry of Telecommunications where I had reserved the phone line for a call home at 4:00 pm. I was very disappointed to be told that HIM had the line reserved for a call to London and I was not able to use the phone.

Our return drive began the next day at 4:15 am. The early start meant that we would not be driving after dark in the areas known for shiftas. Before night fell we were safely at home in Gondar. Eritrea is now an independent nation having won its struggle for independence from Ethiopia. It is good to know that after the destruction of its war with Ethiopia, Eritrea was able to restore the unique and charming litterina service from Asmara to Massawa.

Rereading my diary and Under the Red Sea Sun I am struck by the similarities of our western nations’ reaction to Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and to Mussolini’s attempt to colonize Ethiopia. At the start of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, America and the European powers applied a mild League of Nations sanction regimen against Italy which didn’t include oil. The massive amount of war material and 400,000 people Mussolini moved into Ethiopia would seem to have never have been possible if Britain and France who controlled Suez had denied Mussolini the use of the canal.

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