Seagoing Cowboy excursion turns tragic

Not all seagoing cowboy stories had a happy ending. The trip of the S. S. Henry Dearborn in February 1947 was sailing along like any other. The 177 UNRRA horses, 176 UNRRA cattle, and 113 Heifer Project goats had been offloaded in Brindisi, Italy, where they were to be ferried on to Albania.

Postcard from Brindisi, Italy, February 1947. Courtesy of C. H. Beam.

After a week of sightseeing for the cowboys there and a stop in Bari, Italy, to pick up cargo for ballast, an intended short stop in Catania, Sicily, turned deadly.

Postcard from Catania, Sicily. Courtesy of C. H. Beam.

The lure of Mt. Etna, about twenty miles inland and erupting at the time, enticed ten of the cowboys and their foreman to hire a truck for 8,000 lire to take them up the mountain. “It was a nice trip up,” says Iowa cowboy Dale Wicks. “All the way up the mountain was farms. It was all terraced. There would be a stone wall, then a strip six or eight feet wide, then there would be another stone wall. It was all farmed that way. It looked like stair steps going up the mountain.

“There was snow on Mt. Etna. We didn’t get clear to the top, just as far as we could go by truck. It looked as though we could walk, but since our time was limited we didn’t get to. We started down about four o’clock. Jesse Ziegler, the foreman of our crew, made the remark, ‘This trip was the best thing we had had on the trip.’ It wasn’t until about fifteen minutes later until he was dead.”

The truck, as it turned out, had faulty brakes. “The driver was depending on shifting down to hold the speed down,” says Wicks. “When he went to shift down one time, he couldn’t get it in gear. He didn’t have enough brakes to hold it, so we just kept goin’ faster and faster. Most of us riding in the open back of the truck knew it would probably crash, so we huddled up against the back of the cab.” Three cowboys jumped out, two suffering major and minor bruises and one a broken wrist.

Out of control, the truck crashed into one of the stone walls and flipped over into a ravine. Ziegler, riding in the cab, Paul Glick, and Joseph Connellen were killed almost instantly. Four, including Wicks, were unconscious. The driver fled the scene. Some men going up the mountain in a horse-drawn cart came to the rescue, loading up the injured. They soon met a truck and transferred the injured to the truck for the ride to the hospital in Catania.

“It wasn’t much of a hospital,” Wicks recalls. Supplies were low after the war. “When I woke up, I was in bed with all of my clothes, even my shoes, on. Sanitation was very poor. None of the boys with broken bones were given anesthetic to set them. They were left two or three days before they did anything with them. You could hear them holler for quite a ways.”

The Des Moines Tribune picked up the news from the Associated Press. Courtesy of Dale Wicks family.

Eight days after the accident, UNRRA flew the six hospitalized cowboys to a U.S. Army hospital in Naples. Five of them were released two days later. They were checked into an UNRRA hotel and enjoyed seeing the sights until UNRRA finally found passage home for them on a ship filled mostly with war brides.

It was touch and go for the sixth cowboy, David Roy. His parents received a telegram saying he was in serious condition with a fractured left tibia and a severe laceration to his right knee complicated with gas gangrene. After his transfer to Naples, he also developed tetanus. His wife Jean says, “He has been told that he is only one of a few survivors of both tetanus and gas gangrene (from that period).”

For the cowboys not involved in the accident and the survivors well enough to board the ship, the trip home was a sober one. “They told us that the Steamship Co., Red Cross and American Consul would take care of the injured and the dead and notifying the next of kin,” Jesse Ziegler’s nephew George wrote to his mother. “The crew feels pretty bad about the bad luck and of course, we cowboys that are left do too. Flag flies at half mast.”

Heifer Project Executive Secretary Benjamin Bushong happened to be in Italy at the time of the accident. His attempts to have the bodies of the deceased cowboys shipped home failed when he could find no one to embalm them. “The Italians just don’t do things that way,” he said. They were moved instead to Palermo, Italy, where Brethren Service Committee worker Eugene Lichty, stationed in Carrara, and a Waldensian Church pastor conducted the funeral service. “These three bodies were placed in a beautiful small Protestant Cemetery on the edge of the city with a high mountain to the rear and the Sea in the opposite direction,” says Bushong.

After arriving home, Wicks suffered for ten years with terrible pain in his hip. When the doctors finally operated they found pocket after pocket of pus where bits of cinders had embedded themselves when Wicks slid over the lava-laden ground. Despite his injuries, he says, “I never was sorry I went. It was a very meaningful experience for me.”

Dale and Ruth Wicks, July 1, 2006. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

Next post: The wives who were left behind.

Lifeboat of S. S. Park Victory to be preserved

In my last S. S. Park Victory post, I promised to tell the story of the discovery of one of the ship’s lifeboats. The Victory ships were outfitted with four steel lifeboats, each 24 feet long with 27- to 29-person capacity.

Lifeboat #1 on the S. S. Park Victory, January 1946. Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

According to Park Victory historian Jouko Moisala, when the ship sank [link], only three of the lifeboats were deployed. After the rescue of the sailors using them, these three boats were returned in February 1948 to the Luckenbach shipping company that operated the Park Victory.The fourth went down with the ship. But what became of it?

Two months later, Iivari Suni and Erik Öhman were the first two divers to go down to the wreck. Their mission was to see how the coal the ship was carrying could be retrieved. Moisala believes these two divers must have cut the life boat loose, as it was likely in the way of bringing up the coal. As a result, the boat was lost to Park Victory history. That is, until Moisala received an email this past January from a man who had heard one of Moisala’s Park Victory lectures. The man knew the whereabouts of an old lifesaving boat and attached this picture.

Remains of Park Victory lifeboat. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

Moisala went to see the boat the next weekend. “There it was in the middle of the bed of reeds and full of trash,” he says. “That man told me the boat had been a property of an old smuggler of spirits from Estonia and Poland. This was quite usual in Finland after the war.” Moisala was told the smuggler had gotten the boat in Utö, the island off which the Park Victory sank, and it had been on land since 1960. From comparing photos Moisala took of the remains of the boat with the one taken by seagoing cowboy Harold Hoffman in 1946 that I had sent him, as well as photos of Victory ship lifeboats from the S. S. Red Oak Victory museum in California, Moisala found identifying marks that made him certain this was, in fact, the missing Park Victory lifeboat. What an exciting discovery!

Moisala and his wife set to work in frigid February weather emptying the boat of its trash. Finally in June, the boat was able to be shored up enough to move it off the spot where it had rested for so long.

Moisala gets help from friends in moving the Park Victory lifeboat. Photo credit: Jouko Moisala.

The boat was later moved into Turku to the grounds of a diving equipment manufacturer where Moisala began work on it in August. Moisala has quite a project on his hands! I’ll be eager to see the finished product! As I’m sure he will be, too.

Rex Miller and Jouko Moisala look over the remains of the S. S. Park Victory lifeboat, July 13, 2018. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Jouko Moisala and I at his S. S. Park Victory lifeboat project in Turku, Finland, July 13, 2018. Photo: Rex Miller.

Utö islanders commemorate S. S. Park Victory

On our recent trip to Finland, we had the opportunity to travel to Utö, the southernmost year-round inhabited island of the Finnish archipelago off which the S. S. Park Victory sank in 1947. A small island of .31 square miles, it’s history is linked to the sea.

Rex and I on our way to the Utö lighthouse. Photo credit: Jouko Moisala.

With our host and guide Jouko Moisala, we walked all around the island. He pointed out to us the place where the Park Victory rests.

The S. S. Park Victory lies some 40 meters deep on the other side of the narrow rocky island to which I’m pointing. Photo credit: Rex Miller.

Four divers prepare to go down to the Park Victory. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

On a tour of the lighthouse, guide Hanna Kovanen shared her family’s story of the stormy night the ship went down and the role the islanders played in the rescue of the survivors. The call for help went out at 3:00 Christmas morning. Hanna’s short-statured grandmother trudged through waste-deep snow to get to the pier. She hauled an unconscious man over her shoulder to her house, took off his wet clothes, warmed him, and washed the oil off him. When the man came to, he later said he looked up and thought he must be in heaven because he was looking at an angel. The man was Allen Zepp, captain of the Park Victory.

Jouko shows us the Park Victory display in the island’s small museum. Captain Zepp’s photo is on the wall in the center of the picture. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Hanna’s grandmother took in another man who had dark curly hair that looked like it had been washed, but she thought he was still covered with oil. When scrubbing didn’t take the darkness away, she discovered he was a black man and had, in fact, already been cleaned. She had never seen a black man before.

Hanna said the islanders didn’t have extra winter clothing, so they pulled out their summer things to dress the scrubbed survivors in. Finnish Army clothes were also available from the small Finnish Defense Forces station on the island. The survivors were so grateful for the care they received from the islanders that after they arrived home they sent 100 pounds of sugar and 100 pounds of coffee to Utö, items that were rationed for the inhabitants at the time. The goods were apportioned to all the families on the island. Their gratitude led them to each pay their share for what they received into a fund that was used to commission a memorial for the ten sailors who lost their lives in the wreck.

Candelabra commissioned by the people of Utö in memory of the ten Park Victory sailors who lost their lives. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

The Park Victory’s isn’t the only shipwreck commemorated on the island. The Draken went down in 1929 on her way to England with a load of timber. The ship wrecked in a storm against a little rocky island just 150 meters from the shore of Utö. Two men tried to make it to shore. One made it; the other didn’t.

Rex and I at the Draken memorial. The cross is for the sailor who lost his life, the star for the one who lived. Photo credit: Jouko Moisala.

Utö did not have a rope rifle that could have shot a rope to the sailors to pull them ashore. A shopkeeper in Turku on the mainland sent them one two weeks later, and new life was breathed into lifesaving work in Finland, with the Draken’s captain, Niilo Saarinen, becoming head of the Finnish Maritime Rescue Society.

Our island trip ended all too soon, but the Park Victory story doesn’t end here. Another chapter is beginning with the discovery of one of its life boats. More on that in September.

One last personal note on our trip: we were amazed that our four-hour ship ride through the archipelago’s mass of rocky islands to Utö was free! The ship was part of Finland’s public transportation system, making stops at four islands to transport locals and tourists alike to and from the mainland. I still marvel at that!

A map on the ship showing its route. Photo credit: Rex Miller.

A day with Jouko was not complete without ice cream! Photo credit: Jouko Moisala.

S. S. Park Victory painting delivered in Finland

I would never have guessed a decade ago when I interviewed Norman Weber that I would one day be standing where he had stood in 1946 as a seagoing cowboy in Turku, Finland! But that is where my own seagoing cowboy journey took me and my husband two weeks ago. The purpose of the trip was to deliver a painting of the S. S. Park Victory to Jouko (pronounced Yoko) Moisala, the painting given to me by seagoing cowboy Fred Ramseyer.

Anne and Jouko Moilsala look on in anticipation as Rex Miller unpacks the S. S. Park Victory painting. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Jouko couldn’t take his eyes off the painting. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Jouko is a diving instructor based in Turku who has been diving the shipwreck of the Park Victory since 1974. He has acquired numerous artifacts from the wreck and done extensive research and written a book about the ship. And now he has a painting of the ship as it was viewed by an Italian artist in 1946 to add to his collection for which he is seeking a permanent exhibit place. Jouko served as editor of the Finnish Diving World magazine for twenty years and is well-known in the diving community. He does a number of presentations around Finland about the Park Victory. Jouko arranged an incredible week for us in Turku. We will be eternally grateful to him and his lovely wife Anne for making this such a special time for us. Photos follow:

Seagoing cowboy Norman Weber poses at the G. A. Petrelius monument overlooking Turku, Finland, November 1946. Photo courtesy of Norman Weber.

Jouko took us to the statue in Norm Weber’s picture. Photo: Jouko Moisala.

The first thing we saw at Jouko’s house was this hatch cover from the S. S. Park Victory. Small hatch covers like this one could be used as a life raft if necessary. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Park Victory artifacts are found in many places. This Park Victory chain decorates a flower bed beside a home in Turku. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

A few of the many historical posters Jouko has made to tell the story of the Park Victory. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Boxes of artifacts from the Park Victory. A lump of coal is in the box. All portholes in the ship were shattered in the sinking. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Rex holds a sextant from the Park Victory. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Dinnerware salvaged from the Park Victory. Photo: Jouko Moisala.

Jouko gave me one of the plates that was likely from the officer’s mess hall. Something I will always cherish! Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Yet to come the end of August: account of a trip to the island of Utö off which the Park Victory sank.

The S. S. Park Victory Livestock trip #3, Greece, March 1946 – Part II

“April 30, 1946 approaching Patras. Almost 7 o’clock in the morning. I’m just getting up. Still sleepy. BOOM!” So begins radioman Will Keller’s account of the S. S. Park Victory accident off the coast of Greece. He continues:

“The ship gives a terrible lurch. ‘S____! We’ve been torpedoed. The war’s been over almost a year and we’ve been torpedoed,’ so I thought. Then I came to…we had struck a mine…15-20 miles outside Patras.

Mine damage viewed from under the S. S. Park Victory, May 1946. Photo credit: Will Keller.

“We were in a ‘tethered’ mine field. The black gang had heard the mine scrape under the engine room. They raced for the ladders. Someone slammed shut the watertight door to the Shaft Alley. Mine explodes under the Shaft Alley. Alarms, alarms, alarms! Broken glass. All electrical power lost. No lights. Emergency generator starts then shuts down. Battery-powered emergency lights are on. Look out porthole. Ship slewing trailing oil. Down by stern but not sinking.

“Radio’s dead. Turn on battery backup. Radio’s still dead. Open receiver drawer and find all tubes had jumped out of sockets. Jammed tubes back into sockets, push receiver back into drawer, turn on, and…it’s working! Examine transmitter carefully. Everything looks OK. But, it won’t work.

“Go out on bridge wing to take a look at antenna wires normally strung high between the masts. Now they’re lying on the deck and across the animals’ stalls.

“Bosun climbing ladder to the Bridge. I yell to him and point to antenna wires. He nods and directs two seamen to climb masts and raise wires off the deck. Cowboy livestock handlers gathering on main deck putting on life jackets. Now’s the time for quick whizz. Back on wing bridge and note antenna is off the deck. Seamen climbing down mast.

“Back to radio room. Turn on receiver. Turn on transmitter. Wonderful! Wait for dead internal on 500 Kcs, then ask Malta if they can read. OK! Malta says sounds OK. I tell him, casually, that we’ve struck a mine and that I’ll ‘CUL’ (see you later). The Mediterranean radio chatter dies down. A North African station, with French call letter whispers, ‘Anybody killed?’ I respond, ‘Don’t know.’

“Turn off radio equipment. Go to bridge and tell Captain and First Mate that I have radio working. They nod. ‘Thanks, Sparks. Standby.’ They continue to discuss with Engineers whether we can or should run the engine slowly and creep into Patras under our own power.

“I go back to the Radio Room.

“Fishermen in small boats come near Park Victory. Point to other tethered mines in the water nearby. Dumb thing to do is look over side to see mine 15-20 feet from side of ship. I looked.

“We are slowly drifting, trailing oil.

“I go back to the Radio Room…. Patras advised that an ‘Army’ tug was on the way.

“Sent off message to New York offices of Seas Shipping advising them of events.

“Towed in to Patras and docked. Unloaded donkeys. Donkeys reluctant to be driven off dock; seemed to prefer immediate relationships with opposite sex. Dock workers pound on them to clear the area so that more donkeys can be unloaded. This scene was repeated and repeated until all the donkeys had been unloaded and relationships satisfied. Townspeople, dockworkers and crew members fascinated onlookers.

The wounded Park Victory rests in the harbor at Patras, Greece, May 1946. Photo credit: Will Keller.

“May 1-8, 1946 With Park Victory wounded the cowboys are no longer needed. Cowboy livestock caretakers, Foreman, and two Vets leave ship for Athens. Captain Fairbairn replaced by W. F. O’Toole.

The seagoing cowboy crew of the S. S. Park Victory, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Robert Frantz.

“Helmeted diver goes under ship and explores damage caused by mine. He reports it looks OK to proceed to Taranto, Italy, for temporary repairs.”

The S. S. Park Victory in dry dock in Taranto, Italy. May 1946. Photo credit: Will Keller.

By May 26, the Park Victory was on her way home to the Baltimore shipyards for full repair. Fortunately, no lives were lost in this accident.

The vessel made three more livestock trips that year before UNRRA disbanded. To Poland in August, to Germany with livestock for Czechoslovakia in October, and to Greece in December. Another accident while carrying coal to Finland the end of 1947 was to be her demise, however; but her memory lives on in Finland, where I’ll be going in July. More on that in a later post.

The S. S. Park Victory Livestock trip #3, Greece, March 1946 – Part I

Robert “Bob” Frantz aboard the S. S. Park Victory, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Robert Frantz.

An expected four- to six-week trip delivering mules to Greece turned out to be a three-and-a-half month journey for CPSer Bob Frantz. While serving his term in Civilian Public Service at Michigan State College in Lansing, he says, “I received information that CPS men would be eligible to volunteer as Sea Going Cowboys.” Bob applied and was accepted. “Why did I consider leaving my wife and young son to do this? I felt that I had done little in CPS to help humanity, perhaps taking animals to needy people would ease my conscience and the adventure was tempting.” An adventure it was!

Unidentified newspaper clipping circa March 1946. Courtesy of Will Keller.

Bob soon received his orders to report to Houston, Texas, where the S. S. Park Victory was loading 900 wild mules from Mexico. He reports that about a third of the cowboy crew were CPSers, others signed on to make a contribution to the project, and “quite a number were professional Merchant Marines who needed a short term job and practiced a life style quite different from mine,” Bob says. Learning to know and appreciate some of them “broadened my philosophy of life a great deal.”

“Our work was to see that the mules had hay and water and a few other jobs,” Bob says. “Two weeks on the ocean became a bit boring. Some relief came when we were allowed to convert a ‘gun tub’ on the stern to a swimming pool.”

Livestock ship or cruise ship? Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

After stopping in Athen’s port of Piraeus to receive orders, the Park Victory steamed on up the Aegean Sea to Kavala to unload most of the wild cargo.

The wild mules were difficult to handle, with some running off into the water. Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

The Greek Civil War was under way at the time, but that didn’t stop UNRRA from taking the cowboys on a tour of nearby Philippi to see the site of the first Christian church in Macedonia, the jail where the Apostle Paul was held, and the Roman road.

Temple at Philippi built in the 5th Century A.D. Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

The ship traveled back to Piraeus to unload the remainder of the cargo, giving the cowboy crew the opportunity to tour the historical sites of Athens. Exactly one month into its journey, this is where most UNRRA cowboys would have said good-bye to Greece and headed on home. The Park Victory crew, however, received orders to proceed to Cyprus to pick up a load of donkeys, which they then delivered to Salonika.

In Cyprus, donkeys were loaded from barges alongside the ship. Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

The journey still wasn’t finished after unloading in Salonika. Another order sent them to Haifa, Palestine, to refuel before picking up another load of donkeys in Cyprus to deliver to Patras on Greece’s west coast. This fateful leg of the trip extended the cowboys’ stay in Greece by an additional two weeks when the Park Victory hit a mine left over from the war off the coast of Patras.

“We were able to go the short distance into Patras and unload the donkeys,” Bob Frantz says, “but the SS Park Victory was unable to continue. It was a frightening experience, but there were no injuries. It could have been much worse.”

Cowboy supervisor Rudy Potochnik made arrangements for housing and feeding the cowboys in Athens where they spent two weeks before finding passage home. “The situation was bad,” reports Potochnik, “since it was now about three months since leaving. The men had no funds. In Athens we got some additional spending money for the men. We had to buy soap and towels. UNRRA allowed $3.00 a day to pay room and incidental expenses.”

Supervisor Potochnik found passage home for the cowboys through the War Shipping Administration on the S. S. Marine Shark. “UNRRA paid for the passage of these men as passengers on this ship,” he says. “It was five and one-half thousand [dollars].”

Greek-Americans waiting to board the S. S. Marine Shark to finally go home. Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

The passengers, says Bob Frantz, were “mostly Greek-Americans who had been stranded in Greece for the duration of the war. It was not a pleasant trip, with lots of sea sickness, but we were thankful to be going home. The New York sky line looked very good to all of us.”

Next post: Radioman Will Keller’s account of the Park Victory’s accident.

“Hope” the Heifer: A Christmas Story

Hope the Heifer at the Villa Skaut orphanage in Konstancin, Poland, Christmas Eve, 1946. Attended left to right by Harvey Stump, Lee Cory, John Miller, and L. W. Shultz.

Hope the Heifer at the Villa Skaut orphanage in Konstancin, Poland, Christmas Day, 1946. Attended left to right by Harvey Stump, Lee Cory, John Miller, and L. W. Shultz. Photo from the Ray Zook album, Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

The heifer named “Hope” in my children’s picture book The Seagoing Cowboy is based on a real heifer named “Hope” that was sent to Poland in late 1946 on the S. S. William S. Halsted. Here is an edited version of the real Hope’s story as told by L. W. Shultz in his article “Poland Has Hope”:

“Hope” is a beautiful Holstein cow. She was born (1944) on a Pennsylvania farm in the United States of America. While quite young she was chosen to bring relief to hungry, thirsty children in Europe. She was reared on the farm of Rudolph Kulp near Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in the Coventry Church of the Brethren, the second oldest congregation of the Church of the Brethren in America.

The month of October 1946 found Hope on the Roger Roop farm near New Windsor, Maryland, waiting to be shipped to Poland. Finally on November 1, 1946, with 332 other beautiful Holsteins, Guernseys, Jerseys, and Brown Swiss, she was loaded on the William S. Halsted. Hope had a very narrow escape when the ship collided with the Esso Camden gasoline tanker only three hours out from port Baltimore in the Chesapeake Bay. However, the explosion, fire, and damage did not cause any fatalities among either man or beast.

Damage to William S. Halsted.

Seagoing cowboys survey the damage to their ship, the William S. Halsted, November 1946. Photo from the album of Ray Zook, Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

But it meant seventeen days of waiting while the ship was in dock for repair. Hope was cared for in the Union Stock Yards in Baltimore. On November 19, she was reloaded on the ship and started again for Danzig (Gdansk), where she landed on December 9, 1946. After some delay, she went on a railroad train to Warsaw and then on to the village of Konstancin where she found her new home, with another cow from the ship, in the orphanage of Villa Skaut.

The Jesakov family. Photo courtesy of Ray Zook.

The Jesakow family. Photo from the album of Ray Zook, Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

Here 130 orphans are being cared for by Leonid and Augusta Jesakow and their staff of workers, including their daughters, Irene, Lily, and Mary, all born in America.

What a welcome the children gave these cows! Hope also had a sturdy heifer calf to care for and to present to the orphans. This addition to the animal population at Villa Skaut was quite an event. Hope was giving ten liters of milk each day and will give more when spring comes.

On Christmas Day, 1946, after a morning service, pictures were taken of some of the orphans and Hope, while she was being milked. Present from America to bring these gifts to the children were Brethren Service workers Bruce and Clara Wood, and seagoing cowboys Lee R. Cory, John Miller, Harvey Stump, and Lawrence Shultz. These men received the thanks of the children and the orphanage management for the cows, candy, pencils, combs, toothbrushes, note books, etc., which were given as Christmas gifts. It was a never-to-be-forgotten Christmas time. Christmas Eve, presenting gifts with St. Mikolaj (St. Nicholas). Christmas services on December 25 in the morning, and the singing of Polish and English carols and songs in the evening until late at night. Thanks to Jadwiga, the teacher, and Francisek, the soloist.

Hope is really a life line for these children, Halia, Marta, Alicia, Wanda, Maria and all the rest. To all American Christians who have remembered them with food, clothing, and now Hope, they say “Dziekuje” (thank you).

***

And to all my readers, I wish a Blessed Christmas and a fruitful New Year ahead!