UNRRA Livestock trips from the eyes of a veterinarian

At the age of 25, with his army discharge and a degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in hand, Harold Burton launched the beginning of his veterinary career hired out to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration for $23 a day—darn good pay in 1946. He spent time with UNRRA both on land and sea.

Harold Burton, DVM, on the S. S. Mercer Victory delivering horses to Trieste, Italy, for Yugoslavia, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Harold Burton.

Doc Burton spent several months working at both the Levinson Brothers Terminal Stockyards off Pier X in Newport News, Virginia, and the Owen Brothers Stockyards on the property of the Atlantic Coast Line in Savannah, Georgia, where the animals were railed in from around the country. The yards were designed to handle 4500 and 3500 animals respectively. When delays in shipping happened, the numbers would often swell much beyond capacity.

The Levinson Brothers Terminal Stockyards off Pier X in Newport News, Virginia, 1946. Photo credit: Charles Lord.

All animals were screened on arrival at the stockyards. Both facilities included hospital pens and equipment sufficient to accommodate a large number of animals. Animals arriving sick or injured during their rail transport were sent to the hospital pens. “I was assigned the job of getting as many of them as possible ready to ship,” Burton says. “I had two big, strong farm-grown cowboys who were with me in Savannah. We think we did a good job. The only problem was the pen kept getting new patients.”

On the sea, Burton says, “the veterinarian’s job is to end up in Europe with as many healthy animals as possible. The old Victory ships had four holds with a small walkway in the middle and four stalls with four horses each on each side of the aisle. We wore a backpack with medicines and syringes, etc., and hobbles, ropes and twitches to restrain the animals if we had to give them injections or sutures or whatever. It was very poorly lighted, hot, dusty and VERY smelly. Your feet were in manure all the time.”

Cowboy in lower hold on the S. S. Carroll Victory, late 1946. Photo credit: Charles Lord.

Burton’s two livestock trips across the Atlantic took him to Poland in September 1946 and Trieste, Italy, in December 1946—both with horses. Most of those animals came to his ships wild from the western US. “My father was a country blacksmith and farrier,” Burton says, “and growing up I helped him. I learned how to hobble a horse, tie one leg up by rope to stabilize him so he couldn’t hurt himself or me. This was good to know working with these completely untamed beasts.

“It was extremely dangerous,” he says, “especially in rough seas. To give an intravenous injection or a blood transfusion, or anything where we needed to be close to these untamed animals, was worth your life. Bites, kicks, bumps and bruises were a daily thing. One time, a horse grabbed me by the left shoulder blade, picked me up, shook me and spit me out. I weighed 140 pounds at the time, but I can still feel the pain.”

Doc Burton’s seagoing cowboy crew on the S. S. Saginaw Victory to Poland, September 1946. Photo credit: Harold Burton.

Burton says the veterinarians were expected to keep good records of the sick and injured horses. They used a canvas sling under a sick horse’s belly to lift the animal from below deck to the hospital stall on the top deck. “We saved a fair percentage,” he says, “considering the circumstances we worked under. If a horse died, we swung it up on the roof of the top deck stalls and did a complete autopsy before pushing the carcass overboard.” UNRRA used these reports to better the program.

An autopsy on the S. S. Lindenwood Victory, summer 1946. This was not one of Doc Burton’s trips. Photo credit: L. Dwight Farringer.

“We veterinarians got lots of excellent experience firsthand,” Burton says. “If you could make an intravenous injection or suture or bandage on an animal on a rolling vessel in an extremely crowded area with wild savage beasts, it was a piece of cake in a barn on a farm back home.”

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