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Chasing Shadows: How Apalachicolians rescued refugees

David Adlerstein
The Apalachicola Times

A former mayor of Apalachicola once had a high-profile role in the resettlement of refugees in Turkey and Syria, during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson.

Born in Portland, Maine in 1889, James Percy Coombs was the grandson of famed lumber entrepreneur James N. Coombs.

This is likely a studio portrait of J. Percy Coombs as a youth. The caption that indicates it was taken around 1870 is likely in error.

Percy Coombs would later grow up here, eventually becoming involved in the export lumber business. He would go on to serve in World War I, as a lieutenant colonel with the Army's 106th Engineer detachment, stationed in Jacksonville, at Camp Wheeler, Georgia, and beginning in Oct. 1918, in France.

In this photo of the 1908 Apalachicola baseball team, Percy Coombs is at far right. From left are Mr. Fanning, Frank Martina, Bob Nedley, Albert Hickey, John Theobald, Chauncey Coombs, Andy Wing, Joe Hickey, Charlie Hobart, and Coombs.

On Sept. 15, 2019, he was discharged from the Army, and it was then that his memorable assignment in Turkey began.

James Percy Coombs's draft card from 1921.

The following is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the Saturday, May 8, 1920 Apalachicola Times.

AN APALACHICOLIAN ON DUTY IN TURKEY

AMERICANS IN THE COUNTRY ARE SAFE

Col. Coombs’ Territory Embraces Practically all of Turkey – He is a Busy Man

Constantinople, April 17. – Through Mustapha Kemal’s Nationalist Government at Angora it was learned today that all the American workers in Asiatic Turkey, with the exception of those at Hadjin, Oufra and Aaitab, which cities the Angora Government has been unable to reach by wire, are safe.

Col. Coombs, director of the American Commission for Belief [sic] in the Near East, is on the way from Constantinople to Adana, from which place he will endeavor to communicate with Hadjin, Oufra and Aintab. – Associated Press report.

The clipping had been sent to the newspaper by his mother, Laura B. Coombs, who was living on 71 Orange Street in Brooklyn, New York. She wrote:

The enclosed clipping is from Sunday’s New York Sun. Perhaps you may wish to publish it in The Times so Percy’s many kind friends in Apalachicola may hear of his work. A recent letter from him tells of his appointment as managing director of Near East Relief. His territory embraces practically all of Turkey in Asia which does not add to my happiness at all. He says it looked rather like war the day the Allies took over the city of Constantinople, but there were only a few casualties which occurred when the British took the Turkish war office, and in retaliation the Turks destroyed several railroad bridges which of course has disrupted all communication with the interior. All wires were cut, so we do not know what is going on in the country. Percy says the Bolsheviki have forced most of South Russia to flee the country, and they (the Relief) are taking care of about a thousand stranded nobles. It is doubtless a splendid work but my constant prayer is that he may come to no harm from the unspeakable Turk.

An article later in the month, in the May 29, 1920 Apalachicola Times read as follows:

DIRECTOR OF NEAR EAST RELIEF

AN APALACHICOLIAN IS SIGNALLY HONORED

They Make Good When Given the Opportunity – A Splendid Work

New York, Day 21. – Lieutenant Colonel J. P. Coombs, of Apalachicola, Fla., has just been appointed Director of the Near East Relief for Turkey and Syria, according to an announcement form Near East Relief headquarters, 1 Davidson Avenue, New York City.

Colonel Coombs was formerly of the 106th Engineers, U. S. Army, commanding that regiment. At Camp Pontanazea, Brest, he served as Camp Engineer, but at the beginning of June 1919 he was detached from his regiment to act as liaison officer in Berlin, Germany, between the American Relief Administration and the German Government. He has been in Constantinople with his family since that time, acting as relief worker for the Near East Relief organization, and assisting Major Davis G. Arnold in directing the work. The return of Major Arnold to the United States has brought about Col. Coombs’ appointment to the officer of Director.

Col. Coombs has been a resident of Apalachicola for the last twenty years having been the President of the American Exchange Bank of that city for five years, and also president of the Coombs Lumber Company. His work in the Near East in helping to relieve the suffering of the Armenians and Syrians has been of the highest order, and it is expected that as Director he will be invaluable to the organization.

The Executive Committee of the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief after Ambassador Henry Morgenthau and William W. Peet returned from Constantinople in 1916. Left Front: Henry Morgenthau, Cleveland H. Dodge, James L. Barton, Samuel T. Dutton. Left Standing: AlexanderJ. Hemphill, Harold A. Hatch, Stanley White, William W. Peet, Edwin M. Bulkley, Charles V. Vickrey.

As it turned out, Coombs had to fend off scandal, when allied officers appeared to take advantage of monies earmarked for refugee relief.

An article in the Oct. 9, 1920 Apalachicola Times read as follows:

RELIEF MONEY IS SQUANDERED

Near East Director Admits Funds Were Used to Wine and Dine Allied Officers

Constantinople, Sept. 30. – Testifying at the hearing today of six Americans who were arrested on a charge of having defrauded the Near East Relief, Lieutenant Colonel Coombs, director of the organization, admitted that many expensive dinners to high allied officers had been given with money belonging to the Near East Relief. He declared the arrangements were made by (Major) Davis (Arnold), one of the defendants, and that champagne and wine figured in the menus.

One bill for a dinner last July amounted to $250. At this affair there were Russian singers and Turkish dancers. Lieutenant Colonel Coombs denied any knowledge of the trading at Batum last fall of a quantity of four carloads of flour for whiskey. He said that Batum was outside his jurisdiction.

Davis testified that Lieutenant Colonel Coombs visited him in prison and promised him immunity if he would tell all he knew about those higher up who were trying to get him (Coombs). Davis also testified F. W. MacAllam; a member of the executive committee of the Near East Relief, had visited him in prison and given him a message from Charles V. Vickery, general secretary of the organization that he (Vickery) was sorry Davis was in such a position. Mr. Vickery was at that time in Switzerland, the defendant testified.

Coombs’ experiences in Turkey also were not without their perils, as can be seen in a Nov. 13, 1920 article in the Apalachicola Times, which read as follows:

COL. COOMBS IS HELD BY TURKS – FRIENDS UNEASY

SITUATION SAID TO BE GRAVE

Apalachicolians are Worried Over the Fate of Their Friend

New York, Nov. 9. – conditions in Asia Minor and Turkey in Europe are so serious that the Near East Relief will not run the risk of sacrificing American lives by sending further relief workers to the war-torn areas.

This announcement was made here today by a national official of the Near East relief following receipt of cables from Constantinople reporting that J. P. Coombs is being held by Turkish Nationalists at Samsoun.  Coombs is director of the organization’s relief operations in the Samsoun area.

Fear for the safety of other members of Coombs’ detachment was also expressed by the Near East relief.  Besides Melville Chater, a writer, who accompanies Coombs on all his tours of inspection through the war areas, the party consists of five Americans, three of whom are women.  At last advices these were quartered at Samsoun and reported safe for the immediate present.

On the strength of an alarming cable received at the commission headquarters today the passage of six relief workers who were to have sailed for Constantinople on the Panonia tomorrow has been cancelled.  The cable, signed by the general director of Near East relief at Constantinople, read:

“Situation extremely serious.  Send no more personnel.”

The commission’s office here has received no direct advices regarding the plight of Coombs, whose home is at Apalachicola, Fla.  He served with the American forces during the war as lieutenant colonel of the One Hundred and Sixth engineers and after the armistice was liaison officer in Berlin between the German government and the American military authorities.

Other members of the Coombs party at Samsoun are Gertrude E. Knox, of Providence, R. I.; Dr. George T. Pomeroy, of Burbank, Cal.; Marjorie D. Pfeffer and Dr. and Mrs. Robert H. McDowell, of New York.

Fortunately, an article that appeared a month later, in the Saturday, Dec. 11, 1920 Apalachicola Times, reassured readers Coombs was all right. It read as follows

COL. COOMBS IS SAFE

THE DEPARTMENT AT WASHINGTON ANSWERS ENQUIRY

Department Telegraphed Commissioner at Constantinople for a Report

The following communication to Senator Fletcher was forwarded to Mr. J. H. Cook, of Apalachicola:

Department of Washington,

Nov. 27, 1920

The Honorable

Duncan U. Fletcher,

United States Senate.

Sir:

I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 20th inst., enclosing one of the 17th, from the Honorable J. H. Cook, of Apalachicola, Florida, regarding the reported detention by the Turkish Nationalists of Colonel J. P. Coombs.

In reply I am happy to inform you that there appears to be no ground for uneasiness as to the personal safety of Colonel Coombs or his family.  In the absence of any official confirmation of the published report, the Department telegraphed on November 12th to the American High Commissioner at Constantinople, requesting him to ascertain the facts and, if necessary, to secure the release of Colonel Coombs. The High Commissioner answered on the 17th, to the effect that Colonel Coombs, with whom he is in free communication, had at no time been under arrest, but had remained at Samsun voluntarily, having been refused permission by the local authorities to proceed into the interior.

In order to be of further service to Colonel Coombs, the High Commissioner has sent to Samsun to assist him a Turkish-speaking relief worker of several years’ experience in the country.

Trusting that this information will relieve the natural anxiety of Colonel Coombs’ friends.

I have the honor to be, Sir,

Your obedient servant,

BAINBRIDGE COLBY

Bainbridge Colby

Colby was at the time President Wilson’s secretary of state. A Republican until he helped co-found the National Progressive Party in 1912, Colby served in Wilson’s cabinet from February 1920 until 1921, at a time when President Woodrow Wilson was medically handicapped and largely out of touch. Colby is best known for promoting a Good Neighbor policy for Latin America, and for denouncing the communist regime in Russia. As secretary of state, Colby would issue the proclamation announcing that the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, had been ratified as part of the U.S. Constitution.

The years that Coombs and his wife Edith Grady Coombs spent in Turkey were productive ones, as they were instrumental in directing an organization that was created in 1915 as the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (ACASR) after Henry Morgenthau, American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, sent a plea to help Armenians, Greeks and other minorities in the Near East who were forced from their homes following violent upheavals in the Ottoman Empire at the outbreak of World War I.

In a Jan. 7, 1921 newsletter touting the work of Near east Relief, Edith Coombs Christmas work in the Psamatia Refugee Camp is described.

“Life to them is but an existence, the work of collecting enough food to live. The rooms are occupied by many families…Here one sees a little family crouching over a tiny charcoal fire in a gasoline tin, the mother trying to boil a pan of water to cook potatoes or vegetables for the family dinner, and the children huddling near to keep warm.

Think then what two huge bags of Christmas stockings, yards of flannelette for the babies, and cans of sweetened condensed milk and cocoa, meant to these people as a Christmas treat! Mrs. Coombs filled a stocking for each of the one hundred and nineteen children of this camp – packing the stockings with fruit, toys, and candy. Flannelette was given to the mothers with babies, each child received a can of sweetened condensed milk and a stocking, and Mrs. Coombs distributed the cans of cocoa among the family groups within the building, Little Miriam Coombs donated many of her own toys for the stockings and in fact wished to send every toy in her play room.”

After describing how the children lined up for their Christmas treats, the article goes on to say that the boys “were given bulging stockings containing horns, mouth organs, marbles, toy animals, fruit, and probably the greatest treat of all – a little candy.

“The old courtyard was soon filled with happy little girls tightly hugging American dolls, and boys playing with their new toys. It was perhaps the happiest time in the old church since the war, and for the first time mouth organs and toy horns were heard in the old buildings. Four little sweaters with brightly colored stripes, sent to Mrs. Coombs by friends in America, were given to four babies who had very scanty apparel. Mrs. Coombs snapped the photograph of one mother, dressed in the native bloomer trousers and a waist of many patches, proudly holding up her baby with the little American sweater.

In Turkey, the churches have become the homes of thousands of people, and we carry the Christmas trees to the children living in them. Mrs. Coombs’ party was a great event for the children and the mothers of the Psamatia refugee camp.”

Between 1915 and 1930, Near East Relief raised $110 million to help refugees from the Ottoman Empire, the equivalent to $1.25 billion today. Nearly 1,000 men and women served overseas from 1915 to 1930; thousands more volunteered throughout the country. Near East Relief efforts led to the building of scores of orphanages, vocational schools and food distributions centers and saved the lives of over a million Armenian, Greek and Syrian refugees, including 132,000 orphans.

Among the honors Percy Coombs received was the Order of the Shefaket IV by the sultan of Turkey for his work with refugees.

He and his family returned to Apalachicola in 1925, and he served as lieutenant colonel for the Franklin Guards. The National Guard Armory was named in his honor. He was a long-time member of the American Legion Post, including serving as district commander, and was a Mason.

He worked for Florida Power and it was on a business trip to St. Petersburg, in 1943, that he fell ill and died at the age of 53. He is buried in Chestnut Cemetery.

Remember the little girl who was willing to give all her toys away to the refugees?

Her name was Marianne Coombs Cunningham, and she passed away in 2016 at the age of 98 in Tallahassee.

Marianne Coombs Cunningham

In her obituary, it was noted that “In lieu of flowers, a donation to The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, the Lupus Foundation, The Southern Poverty Law Center or to The Near East Relief Program would be deeply appreciated.”