Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part V—Home in time for Thanksgiving

When the S. S. Virginian left Poland October 10, 1945, the seagoing cowboy crew expected to be home within a couple of weeks. They didn’t anticipate orders for their ship to go on to three ports in Sweden to pick up wood pulp to carry back to the US. With this side trip, the cowboys had the opportunity to visit a country not nearly so war-beaten as Poland.

The Swedish flag represents the warm hospitality received by the seagoing cowboys there. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

On Friday, October 12, in the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland, the Virginian docked in the harbor of the little lumbering village of Vallvik. Cowboy Harry Kauffman described it as “the most beautiful spot I have ever seen. It is the beauty of nature – God’s green earth, low mountains covered with evergreen forests with a sprinkling of other trees with yellow and gold foliage – probably larches. The air is so rare and clear one can see for miles and oh what a contrast to the desolation and woe of Poland. It is a wonderful soothing relief in contrasts and relief so great that it nearly upsets one’s emotions. What strange creatures we are anyhow – we see sorrow and suffering until we shed tears and in just a little while again such splendor and beauty and peace that we look through eyes filled with tears and its hard to believe we are on the same earth.” Several of the cowboys echoed these thoughts.

A highlight for eight of the cowboys was finding a church in nearby Ljusne on Sunday in which to worship. “The walk was very invigorating and refreshing,” says R. Everett Petry, “as we followed a bicycle path all the way thru the pines and cedars. Here, as everywhere else, the bicycle was very much in evidence. It is very common to see an entire family out peddling along.”

Bicycles were the major form of transportation in the Swedish villages the seagoing cowboys visited, November 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

Petry described the church, which he estimated would seat about 500, as “not elaborate tho beautiful in its simplicity.” About 100 people came, mostly women. “We were unable to understand anything of what was said at any time, but still we felt that we had truly worshipped with them.” The cowboys were surprised at the end of the service when “an attractive lady (who they learned was the preacher’s wife) asked us in somewhat halting English, ‘Will you please enjoy a cup of coffee and light lunch with us?'”

Over coffee and pastries, “We talked with some who could understand us,” Petry says, “and truly, no one can ever know the wonderful feeling we enjoyed sharing the fellowship with those wonderful people.” The Swedes asked the cowboys to sing some American hymns, applauding after each one. “Finally we were asked to sing our National Anthem for them, which we willingly did, while every one of them very courteously stood, honoring us and our great United States.” Then they sang theirs, “and how that church did ring with their voices.”

On readying to leave, Petry says, “we stumbled onto the fact that they also sing one of our most popular hymns, ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ so all together, they in their native tongue and we in ours sang that hymn. We felt completely united in something very great and real.” Similar experiences of fellowship awaited the crew in their next stops, yet further north in Fagervik and Bollstabruk.

The Virginian departed Bollstabruk October 23 for the estimated 4,000-mile trip home. “Whoopie,” noted Kauffman in his journal, as eager as all the cowboys to get on their way home. But the ship was slowed down by fog, stalled off the southern tip of Sweden for a bad storm to pass, docked for naught in the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, Scotland due to missed signals before being sent through mine-infested waters on down to Southampton, England. There, on November 4, they picked up 132 US soldiers even more eager to get home than the cowboys.

US soldiers readying to board the S. S. Virginian in Southampton, England, for their return home, November 3, 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

On November 15, the Virginian finally pulled into an army pier in Brooklyn, New York, where the soldiers were met by a reception boat of WAC’s and a band.

The US Army welcomes the soldiers on the S. S. Virginian home, November 15, 1945.

Soldiers receive a rousing welcome home in Brooklyn, New York, November 15, 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

The cowboys debarked the next day at Pier 21 on Staten Island. It would be a joyful Thanksgiving for all!

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