Out of the Fog — a Seagoing Cowboy Tale for Our Time

Ever feel like your life is in a heavy fog? Personally? Collectively? Can’t see where you’re headed individually? Where we’re headed as a country? As a world? As I reread this recollection of seagoing cowboy Les Messamer, it came across to me as an allegory for our times.

Messamer served on the S. S. Lindenwood Victory delivering heifers to China for UNRRA and the Heifer Project. In early 1947, after the heifers were unloaded in Shanghai, UNRRA sent the ship on down to New Zealand to pick up a load of sheep for China. Messamer remembers that part of the voyage well:

“It is doubtful if there is a more melancholy sound in the world than that of the fog horn of a ship sounding at regular intervals day and night. If memory is accurate, the fog horn was heard every eight minutes. It was a low, non-melodious toot that lasted for several seconds. For more than three days that sound was part of the S. S. Lindenwood Victory ship as it was approaching New Zealand. . . .

“Heavy fog on the ocean provides no sights to be seen. The gray stuff envelopes everything and everyone and becomes increasingly oppressive. The sound of the fog horn is necessary (or was at that time) to warn other ships of one’s location. That did not keep it from adding to the dismal situation. The fog horn is necessarily loud and interrupted naps and sleep time. It interrupted thoughts. It was always there – predictably and regularly – always.

“Other factors helped to make the time less than desirable. The cattle and feed had been unloaded in Shanghai and the work of cleaning the stalls to be ready for the next load was complete. There was nothing to do. The changes in the time of day were barely noticeable as there was no visible sunshine but instead there was the continuous gray – and the fog horn. Counting the number of times the fog horn sounded was one way to determine how many minutes had elapsed. Chess and checkers helped to while away the time. A trapeze built in one of the holds provided some exercise option, but that did not take up too many minutes out of a day. Everyone actually did a good job of handling the situation, but it was still obviously a depressive time for all.

“A difference in the feel of the waves signaled that we were approaching land, as the return of the waves, called land swells, rolled under the vessel. The captain sent word that we were approaching New Zealand, and many of us (seagoing cowboys and ‘regular’ sailors) lined the rail hoping for a glimpse of land. There was little conversation. There was nothing to see except fog. There were no flying fish, no whales, no dolphins, no turtles, no clouds, no sun, not even waves were visible. Not a thing was happening, except the normal rolling of the ship. The fog – and the fog horn – always the fog horn – continued.

“Then it happened! A portion of the sky cleared and in the clearing was the upper thousand feet of the snow capped mountain named after the explorer who is credited with first visiting the islands. It was bathed in sunshine and was instantly recognized as a sign from the Creator that all was well. No one spoke as each individual felt the reverence of the moment. The sight of Mt. Cook in the sunshine above the fog was instantly etched into the minds of those of us fortunate enough to be there.”

May the fog in your/our life/lives dissipate as we enter 2019.

Photo from publicdomainpictures.net.

Blessings to all of my readers for a bright and shiny New Year.

Peggy

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.”

In Memorium

It’s a fifth Friday again and time to remember those seagoing cowboys who have departed from us. These are the ones of whom I’m aware:

Amstutz, Ivan C., July 12, 2012, Kidron, OH. S. S. Mount Whitney to Poland, July 29, 1946.

Dalrymple, Barret V., November 1, 2018, Frankford, NJ. S. S. Samuel H. Walker to Italy, February 12, 1947.

Deck, Arnold, November 23, 2018, Crab Orchard, WV. S. S. American Importer to West Germany, January 6, 1955.

Guhr, Herbert, July 3, 2018, Hillsboro, KS. S. S. Woodstock Victory to Greece, January 18, 1947.

Heisey, Paul E., October 15, 2018, Newmanstown, PA. S. S. Clarksville Victory to Poland, December 12, 1945.

Hochstedler, Walter, October 24, 2018, Goshen, IN. S. S. Morgantown Victory to Poland, December 11, 1945.

Ladage, Kenneth Eldon, October 10, 2018, Springfield, IL. S. S. DePauw Victory to Greece, December 10, 1946.

Nelson, Norman, May 18, 2018, Lansdale, PA. S. S. Edward W. Burton to Poland, July 15, 1946.

Nofziger, Delmer E., July 8, 2018, Archbold, OH. S. S. Blue Island Victory to Poland, August 10, 1946.

Pyper, William John, March 2018, Tonasket, WA. S. S. Norwalk Victory to Poland, April 15, 1946; S. S. Lindenwood Victory to China/New Zealand, December 19, 1946.

Shives, William Harrison, July 3, 2018, Newport News, VA. S. S. Edwin D. Howard to Poland, June 30, 1946.

Stauffer, Jack, October 14, 2018, Newton, KS. Two trips: to Greece and Israel. Details unknown.

Thompson, Thoburn “Toby,” June 6, 2018, Cedar Falls, IA. S. S. Trade Wind to Okinawa, July 15, 1949.

Umholtz, Leo D, March 24, 2018, Mount Joy, PA. S. S. American Importer to West Germany, September 6, 1957.

Wallick, Philip B., March 29, 2018, Haverford, PA. S. S. Carroll Victory to Greece/South Africa, November 5, 1946.

Weber, George G., August 26, 2018, Ephrata, PA. S. S. Plymouth Victory to Greece, February 13, 1946.

Wenger, Herbert C., August 31, 2018, Harrisonburg, VA. S. S. Samuel S. Walker to Greece, December 15, 1945.

S. S. Park Victory story continues in Finland

The story of the S. S. Park Victory, including its years after World War II as the transporter of livestock and seagoing cowboys to Europe, is now on display in Kotka, Finland. The Maritime Museum of Finland, located in the Maritime Centre Vellamo, opened a Park Victory exhibition on November 7, 2018. Posters and artifacts of diver, historian, and author Jouko Moisala hold a prominent place as one approaches the ultramodern building completed in 2008.

The S. S. Park Victory exhibit is prominently displayed to pedestrians and drivers alike. Photo: Jouko Moisala.

The Maritime Centre Vellamo sheds light on S. S. Park Victory history. Photo: Jouko Moisala.

The Centre is named after the Finnish mythological goddess of water, lakes, and the seas. The massive structure shimmers like the sea and evokes the power of the ocean with its wave-like shape. The exhibition runs through January 25, 2019.

S. S. Park Victory exhibit, Kotka, Finland, November 2018. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

Jouko Moisala at his S. S. Park Victory exhibit, November 2018. The painting in the upper left is the one I delivered to Jouko this past July. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

From the seagoing cowboy perspective, Kotka is a fitting place for this exhibition. It was the last port visited by the ill-fated S. S. Occidental Victory before it encountered a rock in the Gulf of Finland on its way home, preventing the cowboys from being with their families that Thanksgiving of 1946. This ship, however, unlike the Park Victory, did make its way back to the USA.

As for the rescued Park Victory lifeboat, Jouko Moisala informs me that it “is at last safe inside a place to clean it with sand. I can get an old ‘Champion’ to do it and I am only an assistant.” Kudos to Jouko for preserving and sharing all of this Park Victory history!

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.

Seagoing Cowboy ripple effects

Occasionally, a seagoing cowboy would make lasting connections with a person or family he met in the country to which he delivered livestock. Recently, I chanced to meet a woman whose uncle had made that connection for her. Here is Charlotte Paugh’s story in her own words:

“In 1945, my uncle Russel Helstern of Brookville, Ohio, signed up to become a seagoing cowboy on an UNNRA ship whose destination was Greece and the islands. The cargo was horses. While in Greece, he took note of families he thought could use some assistance.

Russell Helstern traveled to Greece on the S. S. Henry Dearborn on one of the very first UNRRA trips made in July, 1945. Photo: Arthur Lewis, December 1945.

“At the time of his return to Ohio, I was teaching a Jr. High Sunday School Class and looking for a Christmas project we could do. Uncle Russel gave me the names of the Petsalis family – parents and five children. They lived on the island of Paxus which had sustained extensive war damage.

“The Christmas boxes we sent contained dried fruits and other nonperishable food items. I decided to put in a pair of boys shoes. They were the first pair of shoes the youngest son, 10-year-old Elefterious, had ever had. He told his father that when he reached 18 he was going to join the Greek Merchant Marines and attempt to find me.

“Years later, Lefty, the name given to him by the naturalization judge, jumped ship in Houston, Texas. He hitchhiked to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, because he and his brother as young boys had picked up a bottle washed ashore in Greece. It contained a written message and Oklahoma was mentioned.

“Lefty spent 33 years attempting to find me. Through his wife and Social Security they had traced me, even though I had moved three times and changed my name. He had saved my original letter which was in the Christmas package. He had also sent a copy of this letter to relatives in the U.S. requesting their help in locating me.

“It has been a wonderful relationship with visits back and forth in the U.S. We traveled to Paxus to meet his family, spending a week on his island. There are so many other stories associated with this experience that a book could be written about the details.”

Thank you, Charlotte, for sharing this wonderful story! This is just one example of the many ripple effects the seagoing cowboy experience had.

Waste not? or Want not?

Captains and/or seagoing cowboy supervisors had a decision to make: what to do with all that manure their four-legged charges produced! Do we not waste it? Or do we not want it? If a Captain was altruistic, he might let the manure accumulate on the voyage and be offloaded at the destination for use as fertilizer. Many a cowboy with such a Captain said that by the time they reached their destination, the back ends of their animals were higher than their front ends.

Manure offloaded from the S. S. Bucknell Victory in Nowy Port, Poland, February 1946. Rich cargo for the Polish farmers. Photo: Harold Thut.

If the Captain liked his vessel “shipshape,” however, he may give the order to “Keep those stalls clean!” – in whatever way the cowboys could manage.

Cowboys Guhr and Brenneman pull up manure on the S. S. John J. Crittenden, November 1945. Photo: Ernest Bachman.

Luke Bomberger pitches manure overboard en route to China on the S. S. Boulder Victory, February 1947. Photo: Eugene Souder.

The very first UNRRA livestock trip, on the S. S. F. J. Luckenbach, was one on which the cowboys cleaned their stalls. College students Gordon Bucher and Ken Frantz worked on the top deck. They recalled an incident when they had thrown manure over the rail just as an older cowboy (whom I will not name) had stuck his head out a porthole right below. The joke of the trip became, “My name is (unnamed cowboy). What did YOU see when you looked out the porthole?”

Manure overboard! It didn’t all make it to Poland. Bucknell Victory, February 1946. Photo: Harold Thut.

Seagoing cowboy Ernest Williams, who in 1954 accompanied the 36th load of heifers sent to Germany for the Heifer Project, relates this story:

We tended the cattle twice a day, a pretty easy job. After a couple of days out, we made an effort to clean out the cages, which was considerable work in itself. Our method was to take the steel tubs used to wash clothes, which were about two to two-and-a-half feet in diameter with handles. We put as much weight in each one as we could handle and two of us would carry the tub and throw the waste overboard. We could see brown patches on the ocean behind the ship on both sides, dotting the trail of the ship. BIG MISTAKE. The trip was two weeks over. When we got to Europe, they said, “Where is the manure?” It was considered important fertilizer for the fields. We saw the “honey wagons” there hauling manure. We had wasted ours feeding the fish.

The ship used for Williams’ trip was not one of the regular livestock carriers that went to Germany, so the Captain would not have known the waste was expected along with the animals.