On its maiden livestock voyage, the S.S. Mount Whitney docked in Nowy Port, Poland – Gdansk’s port city – August 8, 1946, with its load of nearly 1500 horses. Since “liberating” Gdansk from the Germans in March 1945 and obliterating the once beautiful city to ruins in the process, Russia had been tightening its vice on the city and the country.
Between the Russian and Polish police, Russian soldiers, and Polish resisters, the unrest made it an unstable place for seagoing cowboys to roam.
“Russians were everywhere,” said cowboy James Brunk. “Their headquarters was a large building in Gdynia with Stalin’s picture up on the front. If anyone was seen taking a picture of the building, the film was immediately confiscated and destroyed.”
Cowboy foreman Leonard Vaughn, had made some Polish friends on his previous trip to Gdansk in May. He and two shipmates set out after supper the day their ship arrived to visit the Porlanski family in the nearby town of Wrzeszcz. “A French-speaking Pole attached himself to us and we couldn’t shake him off,” Vaughn said in his journal. After having tea with the couple, the foursome left. “I wanted to walk home, but Frenchy didn’t,” Vaughn continued. “Soon we were completely lost. Frenchy wanted something to eat, so I gave him some money and told him we’d walk slowly on. As soon as he left, we ran. We walked and walked. We crossed a field and expected to get shot at. We came to a railroad and followed it. Every so often we met Polish workers and we asked ‘Nowy Port’ and they kept pointing the way we were going. Then we came to a dark place. Suddenly a shot rang out. We were paralyzed. In a moment we saw a cigarette light in the darkness. I yelled ‘Amerikanski’ and someone answered “Russki”. They were 2 Russian soldiers. We said ‘UNRRA’ and they nodded. We said ‘Nowy Port” and they pointed. We shook hands and left. I was really frightened. Soon we came to a road and we got on it. All at once it ended and there were 3 men. One was a Polish soldier, and all three spoke German. They told us to follow them and they led us thru fields and woods. We expected to get shot at any moment. Soon we came to a road and there stood Frenchy. But we went on and were handed over to another guard. This guard after a little walk handed us over to 2 boys. They were grand kids and I promised to visit them. I was so happy to see the ship that I almost had a heart attack. I never expected to see it again.”
Vaughn, Brunk, and shipmate Alvin Zook all noted another unsettling incident when the stevedores went on strike. “After about three days,” Brunk said, “a man on the dock was trying to get them to go back to work. They found out he was a ‘Russian secret policeman’. They charged him – killed him with a brick. That evening the Russians rounded them up, shot 56 of them in the town square, sent the rest of them off to Siberia. We had a new group of stevedores the next morning.” Zook noted, “They were only making 90 cents a day in our money. It was costing some of them 70 cents just to get to work.”
Zook was with a group of cowboys who toured a nearby battlefield. Bodies of German soldiers still lay among the brush, in trenches, and in an armored vehicle.
Being a Sunday morning, the group sat down on a bunch of shell casings next to a large gun that had jammed to have a worship service. “A young man from Minot, North Dakota, told the Christmas story, and it was very real to us,” Zook said. “Peace on earth, good will to men.”
This is a very powerful story. Usually the posts are about good feelings–the good the cowboys were doing, the nice people they met, they places they saw. This reminds us that there was also danger in being a cowboy, and that the volunteers who took on these assignments were real heroes!
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Thanks, Kirsten. I always appreciate your reflections.