“Operation Stupendous” – a seagoing cowboy’s voyage to Korea

This post is based on Rev. Hugh D. Nelson’s delightful account of his trip to Korea with a load of Heifer Project animals in August 1954, published in Bill Beck and Mel West’s 1994 book Cowboy Memories.

After loading milk goats, sheep, heifers, and a few bulls in San Francisco, the S. S. Pacific Bear went to “a secluded spot” in the Bay to take on 174 tons of dynamite. (Another source says ten tons – but dynamite is dynamite!) “We had the makings of an interesting voyage!” Nelson says. And that, it would become.

A sister ship to the S. S. Pacific Bear that also transported Heifer Project animals gets a fresh coat of paint in San Francisco. (I have no photos from Nelson’s trip.) Photo courtesy of Joann Quinley.

Nelson shared the work with dairymen Ed Taylor and Newt Goodridge who took care of the milking while Nelson saw to the watering and feeding of the animals. “I learned that all the hay an animal eats does not produce milk, and it was my duty to help shovel manure over the side,” he says. “We fertilized a long swath of sea from San Francisco to Pusan – much to the disgust of the gooney birds who followed us expectantly all the way across.”

On nearing their destination, Nelson went up to a favorite viewing spot on the flying bridge. “The hills of South Korea were in view,” he says. “Pusan, the last point of retreat for the fugitives from the North, lay like an ugly scar down the face of the emaciated green slope. Even from a distance it was obvious that the plague of war had touched her – not with violence or explosives, but with a more subtle blow, the degenerating streams of displaced people – refugees coming south, alien youth in uniform going north.”

Arguments among the various military commands about jurisdiction over the unloading and distribution of the animals held up the process. Meanwhile, the animals suffered in the sweltering heat in their stalls. “Tempers mounted on the bridge and the stench arose aft of it,” Nelson said. “Finally the clearances came and the unloading commenced. The animals were driven into a great crate, seven sheep or goats at a time and the whole lot hoisted over the barns and lowered far down the side into native barges. Korean stevedores waited below to open the door, free the animals, and give a signal to the winch operator to remove the crate.”

Crates similar to those used on the S. S. Pacific Bear. Photo courtesy of Joann Quinley.

The process moved smoothly until it came time to unload the larger animals. “The small-statured Koreans retreated from the field,” Nelson says. “The winch became silent, the unloading came to a standstill. There was no one to handle the animals in the barges. The only stock handlers in the area were Ed and Newt, and they were needed on deck to load the crates.” Nelson’s hour had come!

“With trembling knees I crept down the rope ladder into the first barge, I who scarcely had known a cow’s fore from aft when we set sail from San Francisco. Almost at once the first load was upon me. The great box settled into the straw on the floor of the barge burdened by the weight of two huge bulls. The animals breathed heavily, their dignity disturbed by the treatment they had received. My hands shook and nervous fingers tugged at the knot of the halter. And then the first liberated animal broke from his prison.

“I experienced all of the excitement of the bull ring as we made two hurried, awkward revolutions. Fortunately the confused animal didn’t even know I existed – he was only hunting a haven. He came to rest in a coal-dust darkened corner, and my shaking hands passed the rope under a rib of the barge skeleton and improvised a hasty knot.

“As I went back to retrieve my hat I heard the cheers of the Korean stevedores who had come back to watch the fun. They saluted the blonde cowhand who seemed to know how to master the great beasts. I staggered over to take on the second bull, fear bolstered with a degree of pride.”

As if that wasn’t excitement enough to cap off Nelson’s trip, he about missed his ship home. He was to stay briefly in Korea to evaluate the effectiveness of the program and make recommendations for Heifer Project and then reunite with the Pacific Bear at its next stop in Inchon. He soon found, however, that his documents were insufficient – he lacked army approval to be there. A sympathetic military officer helped him through the red tape, eating up valuable time. Then, with the U. S. Army’s help, he was able to complete his mission. On trying to locate the Pacific Bear when he was ready to leave, however, he learned it had left shore from Inchon an hour earlier! “My only available transportation out of Korea had vanished,” he says.

Calls for a patrol boat to take him out to the ship went unanswered. The radio operator shifted tactics. “Operation Stupendous,” he called. “Operation Stupendous, report to landing pier. Acknowledge.” The radioman finally smiled and said, “Got ’em. They’re coming in.”

“As I stumbled up the slanting steps of the gang plank,” Nelson says, “the loud greetings of that wonderful, profane and salty crew were as dear as the welcome of a mother to her small son.”

On the voyage home, Nelson reflected on his experience. “Through my mind surged the indelible pictures of an heroic but tragically needy people,” he says. “Wherever one [of Heifer Project’s animals] had come into a family’s life, hope had come. And with hope there came gratitude and love. It was most surely Operation Stupendous.”

 

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