Dr. Martin M. Kaplan: Heifer International’s second seagoing cowboy delivers bulls to Greece, Part I

It was an eventful crossing of the Atlantic for seagoing cowboy and veterinarian Dr. Martin M. Kaplan. His “unusual mission” started the day World War II ended in Europe in May 1945.

With his veterinary degree and master’s degree in public health, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) hired Dr. Kaplan to accompany six pedigreed bulls to Greece. The bulls were a gift of the Heifer Project to service an insemination program of the Near East Foundation. Greece had lost 40% of its cattle during the war. The insemination program would help the Greek dairy industry recover.

After a long train ride from UNRRA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Kaplan arrived in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, the morning of Thursday, May 10, to meet his ship. However, when UNRRA contracted the Swedish vessel M/S Boolongena, the war was still on. “The neutral Swedes did not want to break rules by having a paying passenger on one of their freighters going into a war zone,” Kaplan says. So with his master’s in public health, UNRRA was able to sign Kaplan on as the ship’s doctor.

M/S Boolongena, 1952. Source: City of Vancouver Archives. Photographer: Walter Edwin Frost.

Kaplan soon met “the six crosses I would bear” and the man who had purchased them for the Brethren Service Committee, Benjamin Bushong. Bushong was to have tended the bulls until sailing, but an urgent development with the 50 heifers being gathered for Heifer Project’s next shipment to Puerto Rico pulled him away.

In Kaplan’s entertaining report to UNRRA, he says, “[The bulls] were in an isolated railroad car, 1½ miles away from the ship. All the feed and water were gone, ½ bale of hay remained, 2 bulls were completely unbroken, and darkness was approaching….After throwing this lapful at me, Bushong bid me a cheery good-bye, and assured me that I would have little trouble.”

Kaplan had the railroad car moved closer to the ship and procured feed and hay after which he endured “rain and snow for three days, a growing compost pile that assumed formidable proportions by the fourth day in the middle of the car, [and] six suspicious bulls.”

The Heifer Project’s six Brown Swiss pedigreed bulls after arrival in Greece, May 1945. Photo credit: UNRRA Photograph.

In the meantime, stalls were built under the forecastle deck, the location at the front of the ship that normally housed sailors’ living quarters. This meant having to get the bulls through a 2½-feet-wide doorway, “but it was the best location available,” Kaplan says.

Departure was set for Monday, May 14. At 6:00 a.m., two hours before loading time, Kaplan says, “I fed the animals heavily to dull the edge of their tempers for the forthcoming excitement (my drugs hadn’t as yet arrived). There was little difficulty in moving the animals individually from the railroad car directly into a horse-box, thence by means of a crane onto the deck. The delicate procedure was to lead them through a narrow doorway, up a 20 feet long wooden ramp, over obstacles reminiscent of a steeple chase, into their individual stalls.” This task fell to Kaplan when the longshoremen, normally the only ones allowed to touch the cargo during loading, “formally invited” Kaplan “to lead the bulls to their stalls. . . . I led four of them and was chased by two,” Kaplan says, “but they all ended up in their respective places with a net result of one slightly squashed finger.”

[to be continued in April 12 post]

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