“April 30, 1946 approaching Patras. Almost 7 o’clock in the morning. I’m just getting up. Still sleepy. BOOM!” So begins radioman Will Keller’s account of the S. S. Park Victory accident off the coast of Greece. He continues:
“The ship gives a terrible lurch. ‘S____! We’ve been torpedoed. The war’s been over almost a year and we’ve been torpedoed,’ so I thought. Then I came to…we had struck a mine…15-20 miles outside Patras.
“We were in a ‘tethered’ mine field. The black gang had heard the mine scrape under the engine room. They raced for the ladders. Someone slammed shut the watertight door to the Shaft Alley. Mine explodes under the Shaft Alley. Alarms, alarms, alarms! Broken glass. All electrical power lost. No lights. Emergency generator starts then shuts down. Battery-powered emergency lights are on. Look out porthole. Ship slewing trailing oil. Down by stern but not sinking.
“Radio’s dead. Turn on battery backup. Radio’s still dead. Open receiver drawer and find all tubes had jumped out of sockets. Jammed tubes back into sockets, push receiver back into drawer, turn on, and…it’s working! Examine transmitter carefully. Everything looks OK. But, it won’t work.
“Go out on bridge wing to take a look at antenna wires normally strung high between the masts. Now they’re lying on the deck and across the animals’ stalls.
“Bosun climbing ladder to the Bridge. I yell to him and point to antenna wires. He nods and directs two seamen to climb masts and raise wires off the deck. Cowboy livestock handlers gathering on main deck putting on life jackets. Now’s the time for quick whizz. Back on wing bridge and note antenna is off the deck. Seamen climbing down mast.
“Back to radio room. Turn on receiver. Turn on transmitter. Wonderful! Wait for dead internal on 500 Kcs, then ask Malta if they can read. OK! Malta says sounds OK. I tell him, casually, that we’ve struck a mine and that I’ll ‘CUL’ (see you later). The Mediterranean radio chatter dies down. A North African station, with French call letter whispers, ‘Anybody killed?’ I respond, ‘Don’t know.’
“Turn off radio equipment. Go to bridge and tell Captain and First Mate that I have radio working. They nod. ‘Thanks, Sparks. Standby.’ They continue to discuss with Engineers whether we can or should run the engine slowly and creep into Patras under our own power.
“I go back to the Radio Room.
“Fishermen in small boats come near Park Victory. Point to other tethered mines in the water nearby. Dumb thing to do is look over side to see mine 15-20 feet from side of ship. I looked.
“We are slowly drifting, trailing oil.
“I go back to the Radio Room…. Patras advised that an ‘Army’ tug was on the way.
“Sent off message to New York offices of Seas Shipping advising them of events.
“Towed in to Patras and docked. Unloaded donkeys. Donkeys reluctant to be driven off dock; seemed to prefer immediate relationships with opposite sex. Dock workers pound on them to clear the area so that more donkeys can be unloaded. This scene was repeated and repeated until all the donkeys had been unloaded and relationships satisfied. Townspeople, dockworkers and crew members fascinated onlookers.
“May 1-8, 1946 With Park Victory wounded the cowboys are no longer needed. Cowboy livestock caretakers, Foreman, and two Vets leave ship for Athens. Captain Fairbairn replaced by W. F. O’Toole.
“Helmeted diver goes under ship and explores damage caused by mine. He reports it looks OK to proceed to Taranto, Italy, for temporary repairs.”
By May 26, the Park Victory was on her way home to the Baltimore shipyards for full repair. Fortunately, no lives were lost in this accident.
The vessel made three more livestock trips that year before UNRRA disbanded. To Poland in August, to Germany with livestock for Czechoslovakia in October, and to Greece in December. Another accident while carrying coal to Finland the end of 1947 was to be her demise, however; but her memory lives on in Finland, where I’ll be going in July. More on that in a later post.
Well, it seems I have an archives of my own that I’ve built over about 15 years’ time. I’ve built it from interviews and contacts with a few hundred seagoing cowboys, along with gleanings from Heifer International archives, Brethren Historical Library and Archives, UNRRA archives at the U.N., and others. It hasn’t really been difficult, just time-consuming, but a very satisfying journey. My collection will go to the Brethren Historical Library and Archives when I am finished with it.
I am amazed that all of this material is still in the archives. How difficult has it been to retrieve these stories?