Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part III–The Tour

On their third morning in Poland, UNRRA’s Minister of Agriculture to Poland Gene Hayes met the seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Virginian to take them on a tour. “Mr. Hayes told us before we started out that he would show us some things we would like to see and some things we would not like to see, but he wanted us to see them,” said Harry Kauffman. When Mr. Hayes arrived, the cowboys climbed into the back of a 1942 Chevrolet Army truck given to UNRRA.

Seagoing cowboys pile into UNRRA truck for their tour, October 4, 1945. Photo courtesy of Harry Kauffman.

“We went on down into the ruins of Gdansk,” says R. Everett Petry in his journal. “The total destruction can be neither imagined or exaggerated. Every single building in the downtown area is very literally demolished, with just parts of bare brick or stone walls standing as far as our eye could see.

Women largely did the work of clearing up the rubble, as most able-bodied men were no longer around. Gdansk, Poland, October 1945. Photo courtesy of Bub Erbaugh.

“Mr. Hayes told us that Danzig would be far easier rebuilt on a completely new location somewhere else, but because of its great historical value and its age and the fact that it was once one of the great art and culture centers of the world, the Polish people want to rebuild the entire city on its own site.” To visit the city today, one can see that they accomplished their goal.

The rebuilding of Gdansk. Photo by Peggy Reiff Miller, October 2013.

“Most of the damage was done by English and American airmen, running out the Germans,” Petry says, “and yet, the Polish people do not hold it against us….they call us their ‘liberators.'”

Hayes took the group to see a former 700-acre German estate east of Gdansk where the heifers had been taken. “We passed and met dozens of Poles,” Petry says, “obviously farmers who were driving horses hitched to wagons and carts loaded with all their earthly possessions, seeking their new homes in any section of country not Russian owned.” The estate lay on land that had at various times been part of Germany, Poland, and Russia. Now it would be part of Poland again, and the land would be divided into small parcels for Poles moving in from territory now claimed by Russia. 

Heifers graze at the former German estate east of Gdansk, Poland, where UNRRA heifers were taken, October 4, 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

The cattle were branded at the former blacksmith shop on the estate east of Gdansk, Poland, where the UNRRA heifers were taken. October 4, 1945. Photo courtesy of Harry Kauffman.

Trenches, foxholes, and military debris marked the estate as a site where battles had been fought. “There are German and Polish graves all over these fields,” says Lloyd Pepple. “We were told,” adds Petry, “that the nationality of the occupants of the graves could be identified by the cross. A German grave is identified by a German helmet on the cross. A Russian cross is marked by a red star placed at the top of the vertical part of the cross. And a Polish cross is just the plain cross with no identification at all. On every hand were visible signs of the death struggle in which many lives were lost, fighting for this ground.”

Helmets mark this grave at the estate east of Gdansk, Poland, where the UNRRA heifers were taken. October 4, 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

Hayes also took the group to another former German estate on the other side of Gdansk where the horses had been taken. “We were told that this estate was owned years ago by a wealthy German who was a great horse-man and he raised and bred pure thorough-bred horses,” says Petry. “The stables were huge and very strongly built and apparently a great many horses had been housed there. [Our] horses themselves were in excellent condition and appeared to have quieted down considerably.”

Sandwiched between these visits Hayes exposed the group to some of those things “we would not like to see,” as Harry Kauffman had noted. Cowboy supervisor John Steele explains it like this: “It is almost too horrible to tell what we saw. One large building, a half block square, had a flat roof and a post every 16 to 20 feet to support the roof. Hitler had tied two or three Jews to each post, then set fire to the building. The human bones were all around where each post had been. A large church was used as a gas chamber. Jews were taken from camp and told they could go there to take a bath. Then after they were inside, the gas was turned on. The bodies were used to make soap. At this place, we saw bodies stored in tanks of formaldehyde that were being saved to show at the trials of the Germans.”

“It was in the basement of a hospital,” says Ken Kortemeier. “Skeletons were all around and in another building nearby we saw leather made from human skin.” Kauffman adds, “I saw some of these products myself, and I wondered many times how and why can men sink so low as to do something like this.”

“Every one of us could only look and shudder and think…,” says Petry. “And we wondered why God permitted such things.”

Commemorative sign on the building seagoing cowboys toured in 1945. Photo by Peggy Reiff Miller, October 2013.

A few more of the early cowboy crews to Poland that followed were taken to this “human soap factory” as it was called before it was evidently put off limits for evidence of war crimes.

A later cowboy crew outside the Nazi medical research building they had toured in Gdansk, Poland, December 1945. Photo courtesy of Hugh Ehrman.

Petry sums up the experience for the Virginian crew in his journal that night: “All of us felt that today was, indeed, one of the most educational days we had ever spent.”

Next post: Happier days in Gdynia

Heifer Project’s first shipment to Poland, Part II – seagoing cowboys experience Poland

The seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias, like almost all cowboys who went to Poland, were immediately struck by the devastation that surrounded them. “No one can imagine the damage until it is seen,” Pennsylvania cowboy Milt Lohr wrote in his diary, amazed that people still lived in the ruins, and others were still buried beneath them.

Four days after arriving, city welfare worker Anna Yawaska came to take two car loads of cowboys through the rubble to visit an orphanage with almost 700 children. “They range in age from 1 year to 14 years,” Lohr says. Some of the children entertained the cowboys with songs and recitations – all in Polish. “We didn’t understand a word,” says Lohr. Even so, the children captured the cowboys’ hearts.

Orphanage children entertain the cowboys of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias, Dec. 1945. Photo courtesy of the L. W. Shultz family.

Another day, on a trek into the country, Lohr and ten other cowboys happened onto a battlefield. “The trees were about all stripped of their limbs to a height of 40 to 50 feet,” Lohr says. The cowboys found foxholes, trenches, spent shells, German cannons, wrecked tanks, a destroyed barracks, and graves with German helmets on them. All reminders of a month-long battle only months earlier between the Germans and the Russians for control of the area.

Seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias explore a battlefield above Gdynia, Poland, December 1945. Photo courtesy of the L. W. Shultz family.

Lohr writes of meeting Americans who had gotten trapped in Poland at the beginning of the war. Like the man from Buffalo, New York, who had come over to settle an estate just before the war and hadn’t heard from his wife in the USA since 1942. And a mother and two daughters from Detroit, Michigan, who had the misfortune to be in Poland on a European tour in 1939 when Germany declared war there and couldn’t get home. They were a rich source of information for the cowboys.

While in port, Lohr records seeing several ships come in with Polish soldiers, refugees, and prisoners of war from such countries as England, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany. Cowboy supervisor Clifton Crouse wrote home of an English ship delivering 1100 Poles who had been in German slave labor. “We saw them going by the hundreds, taking their few belongings with them, on sleds, on their backs, trucks, etc. They looked happy, but I’m afraid they will be badly disappointed when they find out conditions.”

A German ship returning Polish refugees as seen by the cowboy crew from the S. S. Morgantown Victory, Jan. 4, 1946. Photo credit: Hugh Ehrman.

The highlight of the trip for Indiana cowboy Clarence Sink was a tour into the country to meet recipients of the Heifer Project animals they had delivered. “After traveling about 40 miles in the back of a truck,” he says, “we came to one village where they had a bobsled and team waiting to take us on. The first place we stopped was a typical little peasant hut. We stood and talked in the kitchen awhile and the lady of the house opened what we thought was the pantry door, and there in a little room was a fine Brown Swiss heifer that we had brought over from America. She was bedded down in deep straw and the family told us that they carried water to her. They stood with tears in their eyes because they were so appreciative.

“The climax of the whole day’s trip came about three o’clock in the afternoon,” Sink says, “when the people prepared a meal for us in one of the homes. Many of the people of the village had gathered.” Spokesmen for both groups exchanged meaningful greetings. “Then we sang and had grace for the meal of milk and eggs.” It was “a very sacrificial meal,” Sink says. Likely especially so, because this was an added event; the celebration meant for this crew of cowboys was mistakenly given earlier to the crew of the S.S. Mexican, in port delivering UNRRA animals at the same time.

Of the trip as a whole, Sink concludes, “It is our conviction that the Heifer Project has been successful not only because we have sent them cows but also because we took them our love and concern. We ate with them in their homes and we sang and prayed together. Missions of this nature will go a long way in hastening the day when we shall be brothers indeed.”

Hate begets war begets hate

A popular Advent theme is “Peace.” In these times of hateful vitriol, I pondered that theme as I read the account of seagoing cowboy Gordon Shull of his time in Gdansk, Poland, in May 1946. And I wonder, how does one defuse hate to keep it from breeding war? And after a war, how does one pacify the hate that lingers?

The destruction World War II survivors had to cope with in Gdansk, Poland, May 1946. Photo credit: Marvin Snell, shipmate of Gordon Shull.

Shull experienced that hate in post-World War II Gdansk. Gdansk had been the German free city of Danzig before the war, repopulated by the Poles at war’s end when most surviving German citizens were expelled in accord with the Potsdam Agreement. Life was rough for the small number of Germans who stayed, as detailed in Shull’s letter from that time:

“[T]he immigrating Poles have brought with them a blind, deep-seated hatred of all Germans . . . [and they] are taking their sweet revenge.

“Put yourself in the shoes of Mary K–, with whom I talked for several hours. Imagine yourself standing helpless by as an invading Russian soldier loots your home, opening trunks, overturning tables, adding your wristwatch to the half-dozen others that already adorn his arm . . . disguising yourself as an old woman in order to evade the sex-hungry soldiers, but sometimes failing because some 80-year-old women were raped, while others who had the misfortune of being young and beautiful were raped as much as 30 times.

“Then, after the Russians have settled down, and after your friends and relatives have left Danzig for uncertain fates in Russia or Germany, imagine yourself at the mercy of people whose moral principles, already reduced by war and its familiar accompaniments, have reached a new low in a boom-town atmosphere. You are now the scapegoat of a people who have suffered at the hands of Germans and Russians. Imagine yourself chased out of your home at the point of a gun by a Pole who allows you to take only that which you can lay your hands on as you leave (no . . . you must leave your camera, your watch, your bicycle, your jewelry) . . . finding a greenhouse or a clubroom or a not-too-badly-ruined dwelling in which to live . . . dragged out of bed at 6:00 AM, every once in a while, by Polish police, and forced to work all day in their headquarters for absolutely nothing . . . getting up at 5:00 each morning so that you can hide from the Poles, and thus go to your job – which, incidentally, pays about half as much as a Pole would get . . . thrown off of streetcars as soon as your identity is discovered . . . having no law whatever to protect you . . . living in perpetual fear, so that when someone knocks on your door, you hold your breath . . . .  All of this and more happened to middle-aged Mary K–. . . .

“Before the war, Mary was a Physics Instructor. A graduate of the University of Danzig, she had done work on the electronics microscope. Now she wields a sledge hammer. Her wage consists of one or two meals, and ten cents a day. That’s about enough to buy two or three loaves of bread on the market. . . .

With so many men killed in the war, women did most of the clean up work. Gdansk, summer 1946. Photo credit: Richard Musselman.

“Mary told us that she and many of her friends had opposed the Nazis so much that the Nazis had boycotted their businesses. ‘Because of our opposition,’ she said in pretty good English, ‘we didn’t dream that any harm would come to us after the war. But no . . . you can’t imagine!’ Several times in the course of our conversation she repeated that phrase, covering her head in her hands as if to suppress memories that were too bitter to describe, or even to hold in her mind. Then, with a determined [shake] of her head and a quick clenching of her fist, she would snap out of it.

“. . . Because we knew that she was not begging, and would share with other needy Germans anything we might give her, we made our contribution all the larger, when we left.”

A Seagoing Cowboy on Chick Detail

Leland Voth’s Merchant Marine card for service as a “cattleman.” Courtesy of Leland Voth.

Inspired by his older brother’s cattle boat trip to Europe in early 1946, Leland Voth decided to sign up, too, expecting to take care of heifers or horses. Little did he know that he would instead be put on “chick detail,” as he called it.

Soon after his sophomore year of high school ended, Leland set out on foot from his home in Lorraine, Kansas, to hitchhike to Newport News, Virginia. He slept in a YMCA in Kansas City his first night, then took public transportation to the edge of town where he set out hitchhiking again. “Along the way, however,” Leland says, “I waited for hours for a ride, to no avail. Finally a bread delivery truck picked me up and the driver informed me that the previous week a lady had been killed by a hitchhiker.” When the bread truck driver reached his destination of Lexington, Kentucky, Leland had the driver drop him off at the bus stop and took public transportation the rest of the way.

Leland reported to the Brethren Service Committee office at Pier X in Newport News.

The Brethren Service Committee office where seagoing cowboys checked in and received their assignments. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers, February 1946.

There he was asked to volunteer on the dock “to help assemble chicken batteries (cages) for baby chicks for the next ship.” When the S. S. Morgantown Victory crew was being assembled, Leland was able to sign on. “I helped fill the chick cages with 18,700 baby chicks and load them on the ship,” he says. The remainder of the cargo was 760 heifers. The destination: Poland.

When crew assignments were made, Leland got the night shift. His job was to feed and water the chicks and extract the dead ones. “The chick batteries were about 5 tiers high,” he says, “and each tier had a side spool of brown paper which was threaded in a narrow space under each tier to catch the chick droppings and was normally changed once a day. When the sea was really rough, the wide rolls of paper under the chick cages would fall off their racks and rip out the litter which made a mess that I had to clean up. To prevent such happenings, I made regular rounds to check whether the rolls of paper were centered on their hooks.

“The enjoyable time was to climb up the rungs of the ladder to breathe in the fresh ocean air,” Leland says. “It also was a chance to go to the galley, cut slices of freshly baked bread and smear it with a thick layer of orange marmalade. Orange marmalade became my favorite spread to this day.”

In Poland, the ship docked in Nowyport, the port area for Gdansk. The cattle and newborn calves were unloaded first. “One cow jumped out of its crate as it was being unloaded and broke its back on the dock,” Leland says. “After several days, the chicks were unloaded and I was free to tour the area for the two days remaining.”

Chicks being unloaded from the S. S. Rockland Victory in Nowyport, Poland, three weeks later. Photo credit: Robert Stewart.

The first night off ship, Leland went with other cowboys to deliver food they had brought with them to give to hungry people. The next day, they went by streetcar into Gdansk and saw the “piles and piles of bricks and rubble of buildings which had been bombed” that all cowboys to Poland witnessed.

“We discovered a former Mennonite Church which was badly damaged,” Leland says. There he found some books in the rubble which he took home to Kansas and later gave to the historian at Bethel College.

The exterior of the bombed out Danzig Mennonite Church. Photo credit: Paul Martin, May 1946.

“The return trip was uneventful,” Leland says. “Some of the men used butter as a suntan lotion while sunning on the deck until a notice appeared that ‘such activity was prohibited.'”

When the ship arrived back in Newport News, each cowboy received his $150 pay from UNRRA and two cents from the Merchant Marine (a penny a month, a token to make the cattle tenders legal workers on the ships). What to do with two cents? Leland’s crew put all their pennies in a jar, a total of about 64 cents, and drew numbers to see who would get them.