Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – Realities of war

On its final livestock voyage, the S.S. Mount Whitney arrived in Nowy Port, Poland, outside the city of Gdansk, on February 7, 1947. Nearly two years after the Russian army had run the Germans out and gutted and ravaged the once-beautiful ancient metropolis of Gdansk, the seagoing cowboys found a city reeling from the leftover realities of World War II.

The dock area where the S.S. Mount Whitney was unloaded, February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

While the ship was being unloaded, the Mount Whitney became icebound in the harbor, having arrived during the coldest Baltic winter in 40 years. This gave an extended period of time for the cowboys to explore the area while waiting on a Swedish ice breaker to pull them out.

Ice closes in on the SS Mount Whitney during unloading, February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

Many of the cowboys had brought relief goods with them to distribute, such as clothing, needles and thread, soap, and staple food goods. This gave them the opportunity to interact with people living there among the wreckage. The ministers writing the booklet “Horses for Humanity” about their trip describe a people living in suspicion and fear of their Russian occupiers. Many of the Poles bore the scars of having “been in a concentration camp or transported to Siberia or wounded in a fray.” And a large percentage of women had been raped.

“Following a group interview,” Wesley Miller noted, “we were begged never to publish the names of the speakers.” War had upset their communities to the point that “people find strangers all about them and have lost the sense of ‘neighborhood’.” Suspicion abounded, not just with neighbors but with government agencies as well after rigged elections placing the communists in control. People spoke in whispers, even in their homes. They shrunk in fear at the sound of an unexpected knock on their door.

Nowy Port headquarters of the ruling PPR (Polish Workers Party), February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

Even the cowboys were at risk. “When one of our numbers snapped a picture of a train in a depot, unknowingly breaking the law, he was arrested by a soldier in a blue uniform who carried a sub-machine gun slung over his shoulder,” Miller said.

Illegal shot of Polish train taken February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

Mount Whitney‘s captain had warned the cowboys not to leave the ship alone or be out at night. Wilbert Zahl tells in his memoir of going with Ray Finke to the Swedish Seaman’s Club one Sunday afternoon for entertainment sponsored by the Swedish churches. Upon realizing that it had become dark outside, they excused themselves and made a hasty exit. “It was pitch dark as we hurried on our way,” Zahl said. “Suddenly a man jumped out from a dark alley and with revolver in hand he kept saying, ‘Cigarette, cigarette.’ In my fright I kept saying, ‘habe nix’, meaning in both German and Polish, ‘Have none.’ I kept talking as we turned our pockets inside out. Finally we turned the street corner where the lights from the ship scared the man away. After that experience we always got back to our ship before nightfall. Americans who had cigarettes were vulnerable to attack since cigarettes were a hot item used to barter for food.”

Despite people’s fear, the cowboys also saw in the Polish people a determination to carry on.

Man digging out Gdansk ruins in which many people are still buried, February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

“Day after day,” noted Rev. Eldon Ramige, “workers were helping to clear out the bricks of bombed buildings for a few paltry zlotys that hardly kept them above semi-starvation. Mothers of families in basement one-room homes went about trying to keep their children in food and clothes and to send them to school. A large percentage of the youth of high school age do not have a bed to sleep on at night, sleeping on the floor with a coat for a cover, but they are in school. . . .

With stores nonexistent, people barter goods hand to hand on the street or in little stands like this one. Gdansk, Poland, February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

“Even in devastated hopeless Gdansk,” Ramige said, “there is evidence of that spirit within man that can not be broken.”

(to be continued)

2 thoughts on “Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – Realities of war

  1. I’m appreciating your SS Mount Whitney Stories, Peggy, especially about the darkness, some of which haunted my great uncle in the final decade of his life. He remembered the adventure and the brutality at such an impressionable time in his young life as a fellow sea cowboy. Love your devotion to these stories and men.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Stephanie. I’m sorry it was a difficult experience for your great uncle. He certainly wasn’t the only seagoing cowboy with haunting memories. Such a sad time in history, only to be repeated over and over.


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