“One of the picture scoops of World War II,” Time magazine called it.
The photos showed the sinking of Zamzam, an Egyptian vessel which departed New York in March 1941 bound for Alexandria, Egypt with approximately 200 passengers, mostly Protestant missionaries, plus two dozen volunteer ambulance drivers from the British-American Ambulance Corps bound for the British Army in the Middle East.
On April 17, 1941, the Zamzam was attacked by Atlantis, a German raider. Most of the passengers survived and were picked up by Atlantis. Among the survivors were Life magazine photographer David Scherman and Charles J. V. Murphy, an editor of Life’s sister publication, Fortune, who were on the way to South Africa to cover the war. Scherman had snapped away at the Zamzan’s fate – passengers abandoning ship, pictures of Atlantis, pictures of the sinking Zamzam — even as he was being captured. He even managed to take pictures aboard the prison ship.
He hid rolls of film in a tube of toothpaste and shaving cream and got a missionary doctor to sew the films in packages of gauze bandages which were then resealed. Before being repatriated, Scherman had to surrender his films to the Nazis “for examination.” He willingly gave up 104 rolls to the Germans but kept the four rolls that he knew to include the pictures of the sinking and some of the life aboard the German ship.
After his release, Scherman sent his photos to Life and the magazine published the story of the Zamzam’s sinking, accompanied by Murphy’s words in June 1941.
For a brief moment, the attention of the whole world was transfixed: America was not yet in the Second World War, and Zamzam, a neutral passenger ship carrying primarily American citizens, could have been just the spark to sway the public opinion in favor of war, just as the Lusitania did in World War I. The German propaganda ministry, realizing the danger quickly released a statement claiming that all passengers and crew had been rescued by the German warship Atlantis, captained by a devout Lutheran, and that Zamzam’s cargo of oil was contraband, and therefore legally attackable.
Those were divisive and perilous days. In “Those Angry Days,” historian Lynn Olson recalled an anti-war country in which shops and bars near army bases banned soldiers, and generals wore civilian clothes to testify to the Congress. An effigy of a senator calling for young men to receive compulsory military training was hanged from an oak outside the Senate, before being dragged around Capitol Hill behind a car, by a mob of angry ladies: members of an isolationist mothers’ movement. Often clad in mourning black, they encircled Capitol Hill to scream and spat at politicians for plotting to kill their sons. Meanwhile, inside the building, senators denounced one another as war profiteers and even a fistfight broke out. Robert Taft, an isolationist senator and the son of a former president, declared that President Roosevelt’s policies were a “good deal” more dangerous than Nazism.
In such atmosphere, Life magazine was almost circumspect. “American people who have learned a lot since the Lusitania went down, showed few evidences of either surprise or hysteria, accepting the news rather with a hardening of spirit, a grim determination,” Life magazine wrote under the headline, “Germans sinks an American ship and dares the U.S. to make an incident of it.”
Yet, by the time the German censors finally returned Scherman’s rolls of film, and Life magazine published a coda to the Zamzam affair, on December 15, 1941, the things had dramatically changed. Eight days earlier, the Japanese had attacked the Pearl Harbor and America was well on her way to war.
As for Scherman’s photos, those enabled the British, who would soon have the picture of the Atlantis posted aboard all their ships, to identify and then sink the raider, which was a nondescript merchantman refitted as an armed cruiser. David Scherman would went on to be an editor at LIFE for two decades, the only staff photographer ever to achieve such a switch.
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