According to seagoing cowboy supervisor John Steele, the S. S. Virginian was the first merchant ship to enter Gdansk, Poland, after World War II. Whether this is true or not, I cannot confirm. At any rate, the cowboys were warmly welcomed by the Polish people—and sorely dismayed by the destruction around them.
“We were all day getting through Danzig Bay,” notes Lloyd Pepple in his journal. “These waters are still very dangerous. There is just a narrow lane through them. There are many sunken ships here, some with their upper parts above the water and some below the surface and only an experienced pilot can take a ship through.
“Danzig (Gdansk) is certainly dead and forlorn looking,” Pepple says, “and it certainly does arouse some strong feeling against the Hitler gang who would do and cause such destruction and murder. I have already found several persons with whom I could talk German and two with whom I could talk real well. And from one and all I heard the sad, tragic story of first German and then Russian looting, murder, and worse things. It is hard to suppress one’s emotions.”
The ship docked in Nowy Port, the port city for Gdansk, around 5:00 p.m. that Monday, October 1. Everett Petry writes of Russian officers and soldiers everywhere and choosing to stay on board that night in the safety and warmth of the ship. He speaks of Russians in their long, heavy coats and barefooted children in shorts with their legs blue from the cold.
Ken Kortemeier notes, however, that most of the children wore a smile. “They tell us 9/10 of Danzig is destroyed,” Kortemeier says. Bub Erbaugh adds, “The buildings have big holes in them, and a lot of buildings just aren’t.” A foretaste of what’s to come.
Bright and early the next morning, the Polish stevedores got to work unloading the horses and heifers. “They unloaded with a flying stall,” says Pepple. “It is a big box, big enough to hold a horse. They pull it out of the bottom of the ship with winches and set it out on the street. Then they lead the horse away. Sometimes it takes 4 or 5 men to hold them.”
The 16-year-old S. S. Virginian captain’s son, who served as one of the cowboys, likened the unloading of the cattle to the streets of downtown Cheyenne. “They went whacko, jumping and bucking,” he said, “after being confined so long at sea.”
That afternoon, a group of cowboys took a crowded, shot-up tram into Gdansk and witnessed more of the realities of war. “We didn’t see one building that was not hit with bombs or machine gun fire,” Pepple says. “It is a terrible sight.”
We saw street cars still on the tracks all shot full of holes,” says Pepple. “They said the conductor and all the passengers were killed in these cars. We saw an old prison that had 800 Polish prisoners of war in it. The Germans set it afire and burned them up alive. You could see human bones all over it. There was nothing left of it but the walls.”
Everett Petry writes of the odors of bodies still buried in the rubble, the remarkable ability of the Polish people to push on amidst such destruction, and how the mention of “UNRRA,” in which they put their hope, would bring smiles to people’s faces.
Harry Kauffman stayed in the port that afternoon and the next day, talking with people who could speak German. And he heard the stories of the cowboys who had gone into Gdansk. “Tonight I write these lines with a heavy heart,” he notes in his journal, “unashamed that my eyes are swimming with tears at the things I have seen and heard. Tomorrow the Commissioner of Agriculture for Poland which is working for the UNRRA has arranged to take us on an all day tour.” He would see some of World War II’s horrors for himself.
To be continued