The S. S. Columbia Heights was one of two main ships used for the Israel program. Photo credit: Virgil Stoltzfus.
For Israel cowboys Jim Rhodes and Bob Eshleman, a first stop in Iskenderun, Turkey, in September 1952 resulted in a near military arrest. The pair rented bicycles to tour the countryside while some of their ship’s cargo was unloaded. A couple of miles outside the city, while passing what looked like a phone booth, a Turkish armed guard stepped out. The guard motioned with his gun for the pair to dismount and follow him.
“He didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Turkish,” says Rhodes. “We were taken over a hill to a Quonset hut type of building. He escorted us inside and with his rifle motioned for us to sit down.”
“It was scary!” says Eshleman.
Some time later, an official came out of an office. “He asked us in perfect English who we were, where we were from, and what we were doing,” says Rhodes. “After that, his questions continued – about baseball! He finally said he believed us, since only American boys would know that much about the National League and the pennant races.” Their interrogator kindly informed them they were trespassing in a military zone, in an area being prepared for a NATO air base. The boys were treated to a tour of the site and a good meal in the mess hall before being transported back into the city.
Their host told the boys the base was hiring civilian help and offered them jobs operating earth moving equipment. “American boys who grew up around tractors could learn to run the equipment,” he told them.
“The pay would have been quite good,” Rhodes says, “but we declined. Instead of facing a firing squad, we were treated quite well.”
After the 1,070 sheep and 256 goats on board were unloaded, the S. S. Columbia Heights took the boys on to Haifa where 317 mules, 20 cows, and 20 bulls were delivered and where they had the opportunity to tour the Holy Lands.
“Our worst detail was unloading the manure and bedding from our hold,” says Eshleman. “In the lower holds, the ammonia nearly overcame us.”
“All the manure was to be dumped overboard in the Mediterranean before heading out into the Atlantic,” Rhodes says. “We were told it enhanced the nutrients in the water which benefited the fishing industry.”
J. Harold Buckwalter’s crew on the S. S. Pass Christian Victory was given a different explanation. “The cleaning was done by hand, with pitch forks and shovel. It was loaded into canvas slings and hoisted by boom and dumped over the side of the vessel. The job must be completed before we entered the Atlantic so the booms could be secured and hatches covered. We were only several days into the Atlantic when we understood why everything had to be secured.” Buckwalter also recalls, “We were given putty knives and steel brushes to clean every corner and square inch of the area.”
On another trip of the S. S. Columbia Heights, cowboy Theron Schlabach notes that for his crew, “once the manure was out we would take up the heavy planks that served as the floorboards of the pens, lean them up against the framework, and scrub every square inch of floorboard and superstructure thoroughly with steel brushes and lye-water. The lye burned our skin. But we worked diligently.”
That diligence did not go unnoticed, as we will see in the next post.