Another unique experience of the S. S. Rock Springs Victory seagoing cowboy crew of March 1947 was delivering Heifer Project animals to Ethiopia. They were one of only two UNRRA livestock crews to travel through the Suez Canal and the only one to deliver animals to the African continent. The other UNRRA ship, the S. S. Carroll Victory, after unloading their initial live cargo in Greece, was sent down to South Africa to pick up a load of horses and deliver them back to Greece – twice.
Like the S. S. Carroll Victory, the Rock Springs Victory stopped in Greece on their way where they unloaded part of UNRRA’s cargo of horses, mules, and cattle in Piraeus, Athen’s port city. Howard Lord’s first impression in Greece was of the hunger. “It just floored me,” he says. “Then here came a little train all decorated up like Christmas. It was their Independence Day in Greece! And I thought, well, they’re able to celebrate.”
Like all cowboys to Piraeus, they also took in the Greek antiquities around Athens.
The next leg of the journey took them through Suez Canal, into the Red Sea, and on down the coast of eastern Africa to Djibouti, the capital city of what was then French Somaliland and the port for land-locked Ethiopia.
“We saw lots of wrecked ships and old destroyed tanks from World War II in the Suez Canal,” notes cowboy Stanley Wakeman. Among other things.
As they sailed on, it got hotter and hotter, from “Very hot” in Wakeman’s journal on March 28 in the Suez Canal, to “105° in the shade” the next day in the Red Sea, to “VERY VERY HOT – 120º” on April 2 in Djibouti. An exaggeration, perhaps? Lord recalls it being “98 degrees all day – every day [in Djibouti]!”
A whole new world awaited there. Because of the lack of an adequate dock, the Rock Springs Victory had to anchor itself offshore and unload the animals and feed into barges, maybe 30 to 40 feet long and 12 feet wide.
“They’d load the barge full of cattle,” Lord says, “and a young man with a pole would stick it against the bottom of the water and poled that barge into the dock, barely able to move it. Just one single guy with one pole. He’d have to move from side to side. It was really somethin’.”
On shore, the cowboys must have been as much a curiosity to the Africans as the Africans were to them. These cowboys saw sights no other crew had seen.
With no common language, the Americans took raisins with them to barter for souvenirs. That’s how cowboy Bob Heimberger acquired the metal cup the crew used for their Easter Sunday Communion on their return voyage.
For six members of the crew, the voyage was just beginning in Djibouti.
Five had been selected by the Brethren Service Committee for a special assignment to accompany the cattle to Ethiopia, where they were to stay for a year at the request of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to train the Ethiopians how to breed and care for the livestock and teach the use of modern farm machinery and agricultural methods. The sixth, a Methodist missionary, would travel on to his project in the Belgian Congo. The remainder of the cowboy crew headed back with their ship to New York City.
Next post: Monkey business on the Rock Springs Victory