Cornelius Van Hemert Engert's extraordinary foreign service career spanned two world wars, from his start in 1912 as a student interpreter in Constantinople until he retired in 1945 as the first resident U.S. Minister to Afghanistan. Engert served six years in Latin America in the 1920s including assignments to Havana, San Salvador, Santiago and Caracas however, the bulk of his career was spent in the Middle East. He was assigned to Tehran (twice), was First Secretary in Peking and Cairo, Consul General in Beirut, and Minister Resident in Addis Ababa (1935-37) when Mussolini's troops invaded Ethiopia. In this excerpt from a forthcoming biography, his granddaughter recounts how Engert, his wife, and several aides took up arms and personally defended the unprotected American legation from rioting mobs. In 1985, Engert died in Washington DC at the age of 97. His papers are housed in the Lauinger Library at Georgetown University. Associate Editor
The Italian preparations were so obvious that nobody who was there could doubt that the invasion was imminent. Only intervention by the great powers could have stopped it. The United States could perhaps have brought enough pressure on Mussolini to force him to abandon his plans, but we werent willing to get involved. I even sent a personal cable to President Roosevelt, shortly before the storm broke. I stressed that the great powers must put united pressure on Mussolini, if war was to be avoided. 1
The question was not whether Italy would invade, but when and newspaper editors worldwide were scrambling to get reporters on-site to cover the very outbreak.
Foreign correspondents thus swept into Addis Ababa in waves during the summer and fall of 1935, many not knowing the first thing about the place. With armloads of books about the region including one called Hell-Hole of Creation they were dispatched to a place some couldnt even find on a map. And not knowing what to expect, they seemed to arrive with just about everything in tow:
rifles and telescopes and ant-proof trunks, medicine chests, gas-masks, pack saddles, and vast wardrobes of costume suitable for every conceivable social or climatic emergency. 2
Gallagher bought a mule train. Laurence Stallings of Fox Movietone took a large red Indian motorcycle and sidecar. 3
Crammed into the Imperial Hotel really more of a frontier lodge than its regal name might imply there were sometimes three or four to a room with several tucked away in converted livestock stalls. This was not an especially sought-after post. But many were brand new reporters on their first overseas assignment. Eager for adventure, they couldnt wait for the war to get started. And though there was certainly competition between reporters, this tended to be good-humored, and a general camaraderie developed amongst them. The Imperial Hotel Steer described it as a long barracks of a place, two-storeys, one bathroom and one billiard table, 4 while Monks said it looked as if it had been transported whole from the gold rush in the Yukon 5 was owned by a Greek man called Bollolakos. This was a source of much amusement to the journalists with their fondness for wordplay. In their free time, they sat around making up songs about the proprietor. And there was quite a lot of free time, it turned out, because Emperor Haile Selassie had refused to allow the journalists to cover the front lines. Though he claimed this was for their safety his armies couldnt distinguish an Italian from any other white in fact, he didnt want world headlines proclaiming the massacre that awaited his troops. He even went so far as to install patrols outside the hotel just to be sure no one sneaked off in search of any real news.
The result was that correspondents were forced to rely on random official statements from the royal palace, which bore little similarity to what was actually happening at the front. What the official palace statements lacked, however, the journalists tended to make up for with their own creative embellishments and before long, reports out of Addis were in large part fiction.
For the State Department, the main problem with this flurry of rubbish reporting was not the resultant inaccuracies in American newspapers but rather that it so completely overwhelmed the only commercial radio station in town that official dispatches from Addis to the Department were brought to a standstill. To bypass the logjam (and the considerable costs, as well), the State Department decided to install its own radio station at the legation, with transmission equipment donated and operated by the U.S. Navy.
And thats how it happened that four Navy radio technicians arrived in Addis Ababa on October 14, 1935. Like the journalists before them, they had no idea what to expect of the place, but this was how they found it:
Closer contact with the city of Addis Ababa showed that its attractiveness seen from afar was an illusion. The houses are built of mud over a framework of Eucalyptus poles tied together with homemade grass ropes and most of them are whitewashed. There are no sidewalks and the roads are roughly paved with sharp rocks laid by hand. As there are no street lights, foreigners stumble badly when trying to get around at night although the barefooted natives do not seem to have any difficulty. The surrounding hills and the innumerable Eucalyptus trees, however, are beautiful. This was a treeless country until the government imported literally millions of Eucalyptus sprouts from Australia. 6
During a meeting at the Palace when Australian correspondent Noel Monks mentioned how the trees reminded him of home, Emperor Selassie was quick to show his sensitivity:
Those trees came from Australia 30 years ago, when I was a boy. We have grown up together. 7
We are thrilled over our Legation radio station which has now been functioning perfectly for two days and promises to be a great success. I feel sure that, apart from the independence it gives us in an emergency, it will have paid for itself in about a year by saving us the heavy telegraph tolls both ways. 9
Cornelius Van H. Engert, initially serving as Chargé dAffaires and later as U.S. Minister in Addis Ababa, was amazed at how quickly the naval personnel got the radio station up and running and he went to great lengths to support these young men.
Without the active and never flagging interest and support of Mr. Van Engert, the radiomen would have felt that they were adrift on a raft in the Addis Ababa whirlpool. Prior to their arrival, he hired laborers, carpenters, a cook and other servants, purchased bedding, and had rooms rebuilt for them. Since then, he has continued to be a tower of strength for them in every way. 10
This extended even to more leisurely pursuits, as one radioman noted:
The American Chargé dAffaires is a polo player and under his guidance the sailors expect to learn something of the game. 11
But not right away, of course. After all, there was a war just starting up, and here was Emperor Haile Selassie, elegant, reflective, a lover of neatness, order, tenue, 12 calling all males to bear arms when honestly there werent any arms to be had. And even when a soldier did manage to score a rifle, chances were the ammunition pack he carried wasnt a proper match; such was the range of guns in use, some of which dated back to the Franco-Prussian war. It was, according to Monks, the greatest collection of antiquated rifles I have seen outside a museum. 13
The air force boasted a total of eleven planes, only eight of which could fly, and none of which was equipped for combat or bombing. 14 One was on loan to the Red Cross, so that left just seven. With hardly an air force, and essentially no artillery, Ethiopias only option was to wage a guerilla war. But Great Britain and France saw to it that they couldnt even do that, imposing an arms embargo in July 1935 in an effort to appease Italy. Short on supplies, the Ethiopian soldiers were not the best trained, either.
The Ethiopians have never marched to battle in anything like order, though they both fight and camp under a certain discipline. Their favorite formation in movement is the bee-line, and though they march at great speed their moments of progress from one point to another are those when they are least amenable to military control. 15
Their drillmaster was an African-American, Colonel Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, who could be heard each morning out on a field behind the hotel, barking commands at his barefooted warriors. Latin American arms dealer, stunt parachutist, international bail bondsman and patron of African dictators Julian seemed always at the forefront of international scandal. He was one of the first African-American pilots and his solo flight across the Atlantic just two years after Lindberghs began a series of pioneering achievements in aviation. But after crashing one of the Emperors planes, the genteel provocateur was put in charge of infantry instead. Calling himself the Black Eagle of Harlem, he
bawled at the Abyssinians in French, in German, in Norwegian, in English and in gibberish. In anything but their own language, Amharic. With Julian on the job, no one in the Imperial Hotel got much sleep after 6:30 a.m. Later, when we got to know Julian he is now an arms merchant in New York and before he was banished by the Emperor, he used to come into our room after a drill session, flop into a chair and say in a voice hoarse from shouting: Ill teach those goddam black bastards how to drill if its the last thing I do. He was blacker than most Abyssinians. 16
The Italian soldiers had their own problems, of course mostly trying to avoid baking inside their Fiat tanks as they watched their bottles of chianti simmering away in the African heat. The Italian pilots, who included in their ranks Mussolinis sons Bruno and Vittorio, seemed irritated that their bombing raids werent more dazzling, visually.
I noted with regret that [my bombs] did not create any sensational effects. Perhaps I was disappointed because I had expected the huge explosions and flames I had seen in American war movies. Unfortunately, the mud and grass Ethiopian houses were just not designed to provide a satisfactory target to a bomber. 17
A slaughter was imminent. Those in Addis may have deluded themselves temporarily (certainly public sympathy in the U.S., Britain, and most of Europe was with the Abyssinians) but eyewitnesses to the battles knew instantly what Emperor Haile Selassie confided to a reporter in April, 1936: It is beyond our power to hold them back . 18 In a matter of weeks he and the royal entourage 30 aides and family members, 10 tons of personal baggage, dozens of cases of liquor, one hundred steel-bound boxes of gold bars and silver Maria Theresa thalers 19 would board a train for Djibouti in the middle of the night, then set sail for Haifa and on to London where Selassie would spend the next five years in exile.
This opportunity did not present itself until April 30, 1936, when the Emperor who had arrived clandestinely in the early hours of the morning sent for me at 6 p.m. This summons was all the more unexpected as only very few people knew of the Emperors presence because of the danger that Italian planes might take advantage of the fact and bomb Addis Ababa.
I was received in private audience in one of the small throne rooms of the Old Ghibby at 6:30 p.m. My conversation with the Emperor lasted about twenty minutes and was reported in my telegram No. 259 of May 1, 10 p.m. I need only add here that our interview was in French and, contrary to the Emperors usual practice, took place without the aid of an interpreter. 20
Emerging from that visit, as newspapermen eagerly anticipated word from the front lines, Engert stated simply that the Emperors hair had grown longer. It was not his function to be more profound, wrote Steer. 21
Nor his wifes, apparently. In a letter to a friend, Mrs. Engert explained that
she was busy at the time planning new chintz for her parlor and a new kitchen stove. Life is simple and very pleasant, she wrote. We have a large piece of property and it is far more like a farm than a legation. It is a marvelous place for the children. 22
Well, yes and no. Within weeks the family would be forced to evacuate their bucolic paradise under heavy gunfire. But for now at least, the Ministers wife wasnt about to let a war interfere with her home decorating plans.
On the night of May 1, 1936, the Emperor abandoned his country in such haste that even his American advisor, John Spencer, had not been informed. Spencer awoke to find the following:
The morning of May 2 was a lovely, bright springlike day with, as usual, not a breath of wind stirring under a startlingly blue sky. One glance down the broad Station Road, however, caused me for an instant to think it had snowed. The entire asphalted pavement down to the station itself was an unbroken stretch of white. I soon discovered that the incredible appearance of the avenue was caused by the feathers of hundreds of pillows and mattresses that had been disemboweled onto the street by looters who had gone methodically from house to house; what they could not carry away, they scattered onto the road Armed bands were roaming around firing at random. The chief of police, whom I knew, came up to me in a frenzy declaring that a revolution had broken out after the departure of the Emperor and that even the police were killing each other. As though to emphasize his remarks, a machine-gun chattered near by. The British consul, Hope-Gill, came up at that point, pleading with the chief of police to take matters in hand and exert some authority. The poor man was too excited even to hear him.
It occurred to me that it would be foolish to wait for the looters to come to my house and so I drove over to the American legation compound, not far from the large market. En route, I saw men attacking each other for the loot they were carrying. The American minister, Van H. Engert, gave me a most cordial welcome and graciously put me up in the one guest room in the residence. I sent back the car for all the food and guns, ammunition, and supplies at my house and placed them at the disposal of the legation, by this time already short of all of these. Along with my personal effects, I brought the files of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The minister generously allowed me to bring in my servants. When they arrived with their families the total was 18 additional refugees.
Shortly thereafter, 3 American missionaries arrived, followed in the afternoon by a group of 37 Greeks, 13 of them children, who had fled by climbing over the stone walls separating adjacent properties to avoid the streets, where they would have been killed Still later, various American journalists showed up: Ben Ames, Hilaire du Berrier, and Harrison, the Reuters correspondent. They recounted a veritable orgy of looting in the city, guards walking about in top hats, and champagne selling for ten Ethiopian cents the bottle. 23
How people escaped as they did from the indiscriminate shooting is beyond belief. During the first two days, men pulled the triggers of their rifles irrespective of where the latter were pointing whenever a vehicle passed them. 24
As firing on the American legation continued, and supplies of food and ammunition dwindled, British Minister Sir Sidney Barton graciously offered to evacuate the women and children and take them to the relative safety of the British compound, then patrolled by a company of Sikh guards under Major W. Forster Charter.
Just as it was getting dark, three open trucks arrived at the U.S. Legation bearing British Consul Hope-Gill, three officers and 15 Sikhs. Among the evacuees, Engerts two children, Roderick and Sheila, aged 10 and 7, and their English governess, Yvonne Hughes, were loaded onto the floor of one of the trucks, as a turbaned guard patrolled from each of the four corners. Jostling along deeply rutted roads for the seven miles to the British Legation, they caught glimpses of flaming buildings, including the main Post Office. By now the children were practically catatonic, though this was more from having to share their cramped floor space with another passenger a cheetah that belonged to one of the war correspondents.
Arriving at the British Legation, they found not just some stragglers outpost but a fully operating refugee camp. In all, nearly 1,800 people took refuge here essentially the entire white population of Addis, along with Hindus, Moslems, and some 250 Ethiopians. Given the numbers involved and the tremendous time and resource constraints it is amazing what the British were able to concoct. Tents were supplemented with corrugated iron sheets from the grounds of the Belgian Legation, verandas became open-air dormitories, and the consulate prison cell was turned into a storage area.
People made do the best they could under these odd circumstances and some even thrived. George Steer, correspondent for The Times and the New York Times, found the British Legation encampment, with its backdrop of street rioting and gunfire, an ideal setting for his marriage to fellow journalist Margarita Herrero of the Paris newspaper, Le Journal. They spent their honeymoon behind the barbed-wire defences of the legation, awaiting, with some trepidation, the arrival of the Italians. 25 And little seven-year-old Sheila Engert barely had time to settle in before she was asked to be an attendant at the outdoor ceremony. Clearly the impromptu arrangements disturbed her courtly young sensibilities for what she remembered most years later was that the bride wore muddy boots! The groom half-staggered from the celebrations and took up once again with the business of defending the Legation:
I do not remember much about that afternoon because, as I suppose, I was in a rather fuddled condition After all I had just been married, a white carnation was in my buttonhole, and my sense of responsibility was clouded by the usual liquid consequences of the event When I grew tired of standing, I shot from a chair. But, as I say, I do not remember much, and I do not know if I sat shooting at anything in particular. 26
And right in the midst of everything, a taxicab packed to overflowing with luxury furnishings arrived at the British Legation gate, at which point the driver and other looters leapt out and attempted to re-sell their stolen goods back to the original owners!
Meanwhile, back at the American Legation, the situation was becoming increasingly dangerous. Mrs. Engert had refused to evacuate with the other women, insisting instead on remaining with her husband. She later made light of how she had sat knitting, with a loaded revolver in her overcoat pocket. 27
The next morning when I went with her to the rear of the compound to collect eggs to expand our limited food supplies, we were fired upon at close range. We barricaded the entire residence, and somehow I managed to cut a trap door into the floor of the dining room to provide access to the remaining food stores in the basement. I cut loopholes in the drawn shutters over the windows and provided the legation guards and my own servants with arm bands to distinguish them from possible infiltrators. Thus, we mounted guard. 28
There were four persistent shooters, whom we named George, Edward, Mabel and Bertha she was the loudest. Whenever anyone showed himself or a light was lit, they would fire. 29
A brave man was spectacled U.S. Minister Cornelius Van H. Engert, who with his wife, four naval radio operators and half a dozen others decided to hold out at the U.S. Legation as long as possible. Among us, he radioed Washington, we have nine rifles, two shotguns, ten revolvers and a fair amount of ammunition. 30
On May 4, Engert again radioed the Department:
First definite attempt to gain access to the legation was made by a band of marauders this morning they suddenly attacked our two widely separated back gates with heavy rifle fire from behind trees and fences
White flags now flying on most houses Several buildings are still ablaze in town and the insensate random firing continues unabated.
We now have one sub-machine gun which was brought by a policeman who fled to our compound for protection because he used to sell Cramp Abyssinian curios. 31
As the attacks on the legation intensified, two Ethiopian women were shot:
Situation is getting worse, radioed Minister Engert. Two native women in our servants quarters have been seriously wounded With the assistance of a few Sikhs and one Lewis gun we could hold this legation, if Italians arrive within a few days. 32
The following morning, May 5, the British sent over four trucks loaded with Sikh guards, darkly menacing with their old-fashioned Lewis machine guns, to evacuate us to the British legation. Mr. Engert promised 100 Maria Theresa thalers each to the servants who would agree to remain and guard the legation until the staff could return. We pushed off into the city where the looting was continuing into its third day. 33
As Engerts wife, Sara, recalled:
I did not want to leave when the British Minister came for us. But our ammunition and supplies were inadequate, and we had to go. I had just thirty minutes to decide what to take with me from my home which I might never see again, and in the excitement I made some pretty odd decisions. I took, for instance, the needles with which I was knitting a skirt for my little girl. But I left my grandmothers silver spoons on the dining room table. 34
In his memoirs, Nobel laureate Cordell Hull, Americas longest serving Secretary of State, reflected back on those nerve-wracking hours in Addis:
At the moment of the collapse of Ethiopian resistance, our Legation in Addis Ababa underwent a three-day siege by bandit groups from the time Emperor Haile Selassie fled from the capital on May 2, 1936, until the Italian troops arrived on May 5. Minister Engert and his staff conducted themselves admirably and bravely under fire. Finally, on the morning of May 5, the personnel in the Legation, including citizens of other countries who had taken refuge there, were evacuated, with British military help, to the British Legation which was defended by a company of Sikh troops.
The evacuation was arranged partly through one of the most round-about systems of communication in our diplomatic history. The American Legation was only a short distance from the British legation, but between them swarmed lawless bands of armed Ethiopians, and at times direct communication was impossible. Both Legations had their own radios, but these were attuned to communicate with their respective capitals and not with each other. Consequently, Engert radioed his message to me. I had it telephoned to the American Embassy in London, which communicated it to the British Foreign Office, which, in turn, radioed it to their Legation in Addis Ababa all within the space of a few hours. 35
Newspapers referred to Engert as Americas fighting envoy, and hero of the day. One wrote that A glorious chapter of courage was written into the history of the American Foreign Diplomatic Service to-day by a Dutchman who adopted America as the land of his choice.
At 4 p.m. on May 5th the Italians, under Marshal Badoglio, reached Addis Ababa. Trucks and tanks roared in throughout the night and by morning 25,000 Italian troops had entered the capital:
There was nothing spectacular about it no shouting, no excitement, no cheering crowds, not the slightest ceremony. Yet it was one of the great moments of modern history, and it lacked no genuine element of drama and color. The setting was an imperial capital in ruins buildings still burning, the stinking dead still lying about the streets, gutted houses and stores gaping blackly and emptily at us as we drove by.36
Shortly after the evacuation of the American Legation, President Franklin D. Roosevelt cabled Engert with his congratulations and appreciation:
I want you to know with what interest I followed your reports regarding the recent situation at Addis Ababa and to express my sincere admiration for the splendid manner in which you conducted yourself during that trying period. I cannot speak too highly of your courage and devotion to duty, worthy of the finest traditions of the American Foreign Service. I also wish to add my appreciation and commendation for the excellent cooperation and assistance rendered under the most difficult circumstances by Mr. Cramp and Mr. Hunter, as well as by the non-American employees of the Legation. For the bravery and devotion of Mrs. Engert, I have only the greatest admiration.37
Engert replied with the following:
I am deeply appreciative of your kind references to Mrs. Engert and myself in your telegram of yesterday and I have been requested by my staff to thank you on their behalf for your generous words of praise . But I cannot emphasize too much the fact that all our efforts would have been in vain if our native guards and servants had not remained so loyal to us. Their devotion to the Legation and to us personally was touching and exemplary and two of their women received dangerous bullet wounds. I shall in the near future take the liberty of recommending that a certain number of them be accorded small gratifications for their fidelity without which our position in the Legation would at once have become untenable.38
Soon afterward, Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts recommended that Mrs. Engert receive the Medal of Honor. I think, Mrs. Rogers said, Congress should make some recognition of the courage and heroism of Mrs. Engert, which are duplicated by the wives of our Foreign Service throughout the world.39
The U.S. was never prepared to recognize Italys Ethiopian Empire and within a year the decision was made to close the U.S. Legation in Addis Ababa.
Marshal Graziani, the viceroy of Ethiopia, was insisting on exaggerated forms of courtesy toward himself and the Italian flag from foreigners as well as Ethiopians reminiscent of the difficulties Americans had had in Germany over their refusal to give the Nazi salute and clashes were still occurring between Ethiopians and Italians. I telegraphed our Minister Van H. Engert on February 23, 1937, that such a situation was likely to involve us in embarrassing if not dangerous incidents which are not of any vital concern to this country, and requested his views as to his own immediate departure and the closing of the Legation as soon as possible. As the Legation was closed, I stated at a press conference that our action did not mean recognition of Italian Ethiopia.40
Coming up the palace driveway, one passed by two rows of the Emperors caged lions, snarling, smelly, and roaring much of the night. Selassie had promised Engerts children they could have the next lion cub born at the Palace, but the Italian occupation apparently invalidated the claim. As a newspaper headline observed, SELASSIES FLIGHT ROBS AMERICAN CHILDREN OF LION:
The day Haile Selassie fled from Addis Ababa must have been a sad one to the children of Cornelius Van H. Engert, the American minister. For the Ethiopian emperor had promised to give Roderick Engert, 10 years old, and Sheila, 6, the next lion cub born at the palace. Mrs. Engert, who helped her husband defend the legation from rioting natives this week after placing the children in the well-fortified British compound, told of Selassies promise in a letter received by an old friend here yesterday.41
In spite of the harrowing times there (or perhaps a bit because of them), Engert and his wife always had deeply fond memories of Addis Ababa. Unlike the naval radio operators, Engert considered Addis a very beautiful city, and was glad when he finally had the opportunity to visit again, years later. As he wrote to Sara in 1948:
Addis hasnt really changed very much fortunately and is just as picturesque as ever, and so are the people (men and women) who are dressed exactly as we knew them The Emperor was most gracious and kind. I first saw him the day after my arrival when he asked me to come to a huge reception to celebrate the 18th Anniversary of his coronation! (By an amazing coincidence I got there just in time for it, as I had quite forgotten the date.) A few days later he received me in private audience. On both occasions he said I shall never forget that you came to see me in England. It was an act of real friendship. I still think he is one of the outstanding personalities of our age.42
 Engert, as quoted in John J. Harter, Diplomacy and War in the 20th Century, Foreign Service Journal, January, 1981, p. 56.