Brethren Historical Library and Archives

Hidden gems: Sinking of the ZamZam

Brethren Nurses Captured by the Nazis

by Fred Miller, archival intern

The date was March 27, 1941, eight months before the USA entered World War Two. The ZamZam was a rickety Egyptian freighter, sailing from New York bound for Alexandria by way of the Cape of Good Hope. On board were ambitious tobacco buyers, refugees from bomb-torn England, 136 missionaries and family members from 19 different faiths, a couple of dozen irreverent and high-spirited ambulance drivers, at least one noted scientist, and a motley multi-ethnic crew. The ZamZam took a zigzag course, running quietly so as to avoid running into any German commerce raiders.

Three Brethren nurses boarded at Recife, Brazil on April 9, on their way to Nigeria; Alice Engel, Sylvia Oiness, and Ruth Utz. Ruth had already served ten years and adopted a son there and Alice was returning for a second term, but Sylvia was a new recruit.

Alice Engel, August 24, 1936
Photo courtesy of Alice Engel

Alice Engel, August 24, 1936

Sylvia Oiness, April 1941
Photo courtesy of Sylvia Oiness

Sylvia Oiness, April 1941

Ruth Utz, 1930
Photo courtesy of Ruth Utz

Ruth Utz, 1930

Early on April 17, Ruth was sleeping on deck as she liked to do. Out of the darkness of night the German raider Tamesis commenced shelling the ZamZam without warning. Ruth ran back to their cabin to alert the other two, and they scrambled for their life belts and valuables. Meanwhile, panic ensued onboard the ZamZam, accentuated by screams from the injured. Once on deck, Sylvia remembered her Bible and ran back for it. Lifeboats were smashed by the shelling and more were capsized in the water. Most of the passengers and crew successfully evacuated, and the crew of the Tamesis eventually rescued everyone. Miraculously, no lives were lost though some of the wounded were maimed for life. Whilst rescuing those left behind on the sinking ZamZam, the crew of the Tamesis thoughtfully relieved that ship of its heavy load of cargo before sinking it for good with bombs they placed in the holds.

Except for a very few seriously wounded, the prisoners and loot were soon transferred to a German freighter, the Dresden. The female prisoners and children were housed above decks, in passenger quarters. The male prisoners were confined to cramped cargo holds and only allowed on deck occasionally. The captain was concerned that since the prisoners greatly outnumbered his crew, an attempt might be made to seize his ship. Only the most basic necessities were provided in the holds. Food and water supplies were barely adequate. They even had to make their mattresses from canvas sacks stuffed with raw cotton, but the prisoners were eventually allowed access to what luggage had been salvaged from the ZamZam. They organized themselves to build amenities such as a shower, table, altar, escape ladders, washboards, games and dolls, and a rudimentary barbershop. Because of cold and sparse food, flu broke out during the voyage. Exercise and singing of hymns were regular activities which helped the prisoners endure their captivity. Families were allowed to visit each other once a day.

The Dresden took a cautious zigzag route north, trying to avoid British warships, and was nearly caught once. On May 19, they finally made port in St.-Jean-de-Luz in Nazi-occupied France. Prisoners from nations the Nazis were at war with were interred in a camp in France, while those from still neutral nations, such as the USA, were released. Some Americans were shipped across neutral Spain and caught a clipper plane back to New York City. They had to turn back once due to bad weather, but finally arrived on June 9. Alice Engle recounts catching a freighter from Portugal, and being terrified of being sunk by German submarine all the way until they were in sight of the Statue of Liberty.

Personally, I find it disturbing that at least ten black prisoners are mentioned in the Life magazine articles, nine Sudanese crewmen and one British missionary to Liberia, but no mention of what happened to them is made. Perhaps this omission is clear only in hindsight, since the concentration camps were still a successfully kept secret at that time.

This story was extensively covered by Life Magazine because one of their photographers was on the ZamZam and took over 1500 pictures. The Germans confiscated most of them, so they could be censored, but several rolls were smuggled past them in emptied toothpaste tubes. One of the smuggled pictures was used to identify and sink the Tamesis, better known as the Atlantis. Surprisingly, the Nazis returned 800 of the pictures several months later.

Ruth Utz went back to Nigeria as soon as she could, to be with her son, Balang. He eventually served in paliament. She stayed there as long as she could, even after retirement, until her failing health forced her to return to America in 1974.

Alice was too shaken by the event to return to Africa, though she wanted to her entire life. She stayed in Baltimore to care for her ailing mother, and pursued her nursing career there. She mainly worked night shift for surgery patients because she felt that was where she was needed the most.

Sylvia toured the country for several years telling of her experience, but felt that her experience was not welcomed by the Church of the Brethren, so she joined the Church of the Nazarene in 1946 and subsequently went to Swaziland. She served there for 30 years, first as a nurse, then as a hospital administrator and teacher of operating room techniques. She retired to Baltimore to be with family and occasionally visited with Alice.

Alice Engel, 1981
Photo by Micki Smith

Alice Engel, 1981

Sylvia Oiness, 1981
Photo courtesy of Sylvia Oiness

Sylvia Oiness, 1981

Ruth Utz, 1973
Photo courtesy of Ruth Utz

Ruth Utz, 1973