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This Week in AG History -- July 19, 1941

Their ship shelled and later sunk by a German warship, missionaries Paul and Evelyn Derr and Claude and Ruth Keck, were held captive for weeks, but stood firm in their faith.
One of the gripping stories from World War II is the sinking of the ZamZam and the rescue of its inhabitants. Paul K. Derr gave an eyewitness account of the ZamZam voyage in 1941.

After completing a furlough, Assemblies of God missionaries Paul (1895-1986) and Evelyn Derr (1897-1994) boarded the Egyptian ship ZamZam to return to the former British Tanganika Territory. Traveling with them were their daughter, Ruth, and her husband, Claude Keck. A total of 136 missionaries and family members from 19 different faiths, as well as many others of all walks of life were on board the ship. It was carrying civilian passengers and was neutral in the war.

No one expected the ship to sink in the Atlantic Ocean!

On March 27, 1941, eight months before the U.S. entered World War II, the ship left New York bound for Alexandria, Egypt, stopping at Trinidad and Brazil and then heading toward the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

Early on the morning of April 17, amid the darkness of night, the German raider Atlantis (disguised as the freighter, Tamesis) misidentified the ZamZam as a British troopship and began shelling the ship without warning, striking it multiple times. The boat began sinking. Almost immediately, the panic-stricken passengers scrambled to lifeboats, although several of the lifeboats had been damaged by the gunfire.

The passengers and crew successfully evacuated, and the crew of the Atlantis eventually rescued everyone, and only a few were injured. Afterward the Germans sank what remained of the ZamZam with explosives.

Except for three men very critically injured, the ZamZamers were transferred from the raider to a small German freighter on April 18, the day after the sinking. The name of the freighter was Dresden, but for the ZamZamers it came to be known as “the prison ship.” They remained on that ship for almost six weeks, not knowing their fate.

The U.S. was not yet in World War II, so the Germans released the Derrs and other Americans to neutral Portugal. The Derrs were able to board an American ship called Exeter and then returned to the U.S. for the duration of the war.

Derr, in recalling the trauma, wrote, “We look back and see that our faith in God has been strengthened and our trust has become more sure in the Lord who cares for His own.”

After the war, Paul and Evelyn Derr returned to the land of their calling, serving as missionaries for three more years in Tanganyika Territory. They also served a term in Jamaica before retiring from missionary service.

This story of the sinking of the ZamZam was extensively covered by LIFE Magazine because one of their photojournalists was on the ship and took over 1,500 pictures, although most of these pictures were confiscated by the Germans. Now, almost 80 years later, this dramatic story is still captivating.

Read “Our Experience on the Zam Zam” on pages 1 and 11 of the July 19, 1941, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.

Also featured in this issue:

• “God’s Plan For Setting the World Aflame,” by Sarah Foulkes Moore

• “Judgment and Revival,” by Stanley H. Frodsham

• “The Place of Refuge is the Place of Light,” by J. Narver Gortner

And many more!

Click here to read this issue now.

Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.

Glenn W. Gohr

Glenn W. Gohr is the reference archivist at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center in Springfield, Missouri.