Life on the S. S. Virginian: From the letters of O. R. Hersch, Part I

For a recent presentation for the Manassas (VA) Church of the Brethren, I reviewed the letters of one of their former members, 49-year-old seagoing cowboy supervisor O. R. Hersch. I’ll share some of his observations written to his family with you. Sometimes he signed his seagoing cowboy documents as Orville Robert, sometimes as Robert O., and sometimes as O. R. I’ll call him Orville. He served on the second UNRRA ship to leave the United States, the S. S. Virginian, which left from Baltimore for Greece June 26, 1945.

O. R. Hersch aboard the S. S. Virginian, July 1945. O. R. Hersch album, courtesy of Heifer International.

O. R. Hersch aboard the S. S. Virginian, July 1945. From the O. R. Hersch album, courtesy of Heifer International.

Uncertainties of a fledgling program

While waiting to leave Baltimore, Orville wrote a letter to his son Harold giving instructions for the farm work at home and says, “. . .as the moments pass, there are almost too many things to write and new emotions stir one’s breast. I feel that this venture is going to be a big one –bigger than we think. . . . In a sense I feel that [I] am out of the picture for some time and perhaps my feelings might prompt words I should not say.” He had had conversations with cowboys of the S. S. Mexican loading at the same time and writes, “on it’s last trip out [it] went as far as Calcutta, India. One can never tell for certain just ‘where do we go from here.’ I talked with our Capt. of the ship (Coughlin) this morning and he said his ship orders were to see to it that we were assured of passage back.” This program was so new, that the cowboys, and I’m sure their families, didn’t know what to expect.

Care of the livestock

Horses aboard the S. S. Virginian. Courtesy of Earl Holderman.

Horses aboard the S. S. Virginian. Photo courtesy of Earl Holderman.

The Virginian carried 375 horses and 347 cattle. Orville described the work of the cowboys. “Right after breakfast [the horses] are to have all the water they can drink – there is a bucket in front of each horse and the bucket is filled with a hose of running water. After the water they are fed about 2 qt. of oats or oats and bran or bran alone if they need a more laxative kind of feed.” Orville noted elsewhere that for the cattle it was two pounds of 16% dairy feed once a day.  All of the animals were given as much water and hay as they could consume twice a day and salt once a day.

Newspaper clipping from O. R. Hersch album. Courtesy of Heifer International.

Newspaper clipping from O. R. Hersch album. Courtesy of Heifer International.


Mucking out the stalls was another daily task. Orville wrote that after feeding the horses, “the manure is cleaned from behind them and the alley way or walk way is swept clean. The manure is thrown out thru a little hole. The urine goes down thru the floor the horses stand on and runs off thru holes in the ship & out into the sea or ocean. We do not bed the horses much because they are made to stand up all the time – all the way over. [This was due to their sensitive digestive systems. Horses knees lock, and they can sleep standing up.] The cattle may lay down when they wish to. All the horses & cattle will be kept tied – else in a storm at sea when the ship rolls the cattle would all push to one corner & so be hurt.”

Not all animals survived. Orville noted eleven days into the trip, “So far we have lost about 12 horses and 6 heifers and a bull. The cattle all (except one) died of pneumonia. The horses which we opened [autopsied] were also pneumonia victims – or they call it shipping fever.” UNRRA reported an overall loss of 3.8% for the horses, cattle, and mules they shipped. The losses ranged from zero per cent to 35.2%, the latter on the trip of the S. S. Beloit Victory that hit severe winter weather en route to Poland in February of 1947. A sad outcome for recipients waiting on the arrival of their animals.

To be continued with Part II December 9.

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