Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part I—The Voyage

On September 1, 1945, John Steele, of Goshen, Indiana, left his feed, coal, and building supply business in the hands of his employees to oversee a crew of seagoing cowboys on the first UNRRA shipment to Poland after World War II. What had been billed to him as a six-week trip kept him away from home for three months. Even so, he considers the trip the highlight of his life.

S. S. Virginian crew, September 1945. Photo courtesy of Lowell Erbaugh.

Steele arrived at the docks in Jersey City only to find his ship, the S. S. Virginian, in dry dock for repairs. On September 10, his 30 cow hands joined him aboard the massive merchant vessel built in 1903, which had seen service in two world wars and still bore some of its guns. The gun decks offered a prime view of New York City across the Hudson River. “The sight is marvelous,” writes cowboy Ken Kortemeier in his diary. The Empire State Building stood conspicuous on the skyline “with a small section near the top darkened as a result of the tragic B-25 crash.”

Kortemeier notes that the Queen Mary pulled in that morning with 14,000 troops aboard. “It fills one with emotion to see them line the deck, peering out of portholes eager to see and set foot on the land they love.”

On the night of September 13, two tug boats nudged the ship on its way. Kortemeier says, “It was a great sensation going down the harbor seeing the majestic New York City skyline light up as usual and fading slowly in the background. The Statue of Liberty was an inspirational sight as she stood there. Flood lights were on her and her torch was really burning. One of the last landmarks of New York that could be seen was Coney Island all lit up with the old Ferris wheel of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair well in the foreground. One could see automobiles as they sped along the boulevards bordering the River. Lights faded out and we ventured forth on the dark Atlantic with lighthouses winking at us as if it were now our turn.”

The S. S. Virginian. Photo by Elwood Geiger.

After their first day of work, the cowboys bonded at the stern of the ship with the first of many song fests, singing gospel and secular numbers after a short business meeting. “It was great,” says Kortemeier, “and the moon helped us by giving a silvery effect to the sea. Oh yes, sea, moon, and stars were there, but that is not all. God was there. Let the tempests rage, and the sea roar — remember still that the small voice speaketh and the men aboard this ship tonight are in His care.”

Despite smooth sailing the first five days, many of the cowboys got seasick. One cowboy upchucked 12 times the first day out. He remembers hanging over the toilet and pushing the flush button with his head. “We managed to get our work done even if we were sick,” says his partner. “We had canned corn quite often, and we’d say we kind of liked it because it tasted the same coming up as it did going down.”

The fifth day out, “the sea was extra rough,” notes Kortemeier, “and preparations were made for stormy weather. Several tons of straw piled high on the hatch were thrown overboard in the hope of making the ship less top-heavy.” But the real tests came as the Virginian neared the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland. After missing a collision with a small Danish ship by only about ten feet in a dense fog, the Virginian entered the dangerous waters of the North Sea. “Life boats were hung over side today so they can be released by merely slashing the rope,” Kortemeier notes. “Also, a watch (constant) is being maintained for mines. Thank God that we now have peace and we do not need to worry about subs. The fact of having a safe night is now brought up every morning in devotions.”

Even though mapped, mines at times broke off from their moorings. The Virginian missed one by about 40 yards off the coast of Norway on September 28. The next morning, Kortemeier notes, “we got a radio report from a ship sinking because it hit a mine in the area where we were yesterday.” Another close call.

The Virginian finally reached the harbor at Danzig on October 1. Kortemeier says, “I was moved to tears for the first time on this voyage as we came up the canal at Danzig. Oh, what ruin and devastation. The people were waiting for us, and the big sign says — heartily welcome in Gdansk. What a scene! Nearly every building gutted. We expect to go ashore tomorrow.”

Nowy Port, Poland, October 1945. Photo by Harry Kauffman.

Horses in Helsingborg, 1947

When the S. S. Virginia City Victory left Savannah, Georgia, January 29, 1947, her 30 seagoing cowboys had no idea what was in store for them. No doubt they had heard of other cowboys’ trips taking care of horses, heifers, or mules sent by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to help rebuild Europe after World War II. They expected to take care of the 774 horses on board as they crossed the Atlantic to Poland, to get to spend a few days exploring the recipient country, and to return home when their ship was unloaded. The extremely harsh northern European winter of 1947 scuttled those expectations. They never made it to Poland.

The intended route of the Virginia City Victory took the ship through the Skagerrak and Kattegat straits dividing Denmark from Norway and Sweden. While anchored off Sweden in the Kattegat, the Master of the ship received diversion orders from UNRRA via the shipping company on February 12. Ice in the Baltic Sea made it impossible to travel on to Poland. UNRRA ordered the ship to turn around and proceed to Rotterdam for further orders. The Master awaited confirmation orders from UNRRA’s London office.

Still in place two days later, 50 horses had already died on the trip. UNRRA representatives in Copenhagen, Denmark, suggested the horses should be discharged immediately. Suitable accommodations and agreement of local authorities made Helsingborg, Sweden, the port of choice. UNRRA canceled the orders to proceed to Rotterdam and instructed “master discharge forthwith and return [to the US].” The London office also suggested to the US office that the ship’s veterinarians and livestock attendants remain in Helsingborg so they could tend the animals when the weather allows the horses to be transported on to Poland. The veterinarians and cowboys would then return to the USA on another livestock ship.

This evidently did not sit well with the cowboys, the majority of whom came from the warm clime of the state of Georgia. Less than 15 minutes after the first cablegram from London, the US office received another: “Vessels attendants all wish return with vessel. Swedish authorities state they can provide attendants [to Poland] and all inclusive cost will be 3 Swedish kronen per horse per day.”

The Virginia City Victory docked in Helsingborg February 15, expecting to complete unloading and set sail, with cowboys on board, for New York City around February 20.

Watering horses on the Virginia City Victory in Helsingborg harbor before unloading. Photo from Kulturmagasinet/The Museum of Helsingborg, photographer Olle Lindberg.

Swedish historian Pelle Johansson, of the Kulturmagasinet/Museum of Helsingborg, alerted me to this story. According to newspaper accounts, Johansson says, “The main concern was finding stables and the fear of contagious diseases. The veterinarian at the local cavalry regiment seems to have been very careful. On the 15th, a delegation from UNRRA arrived in Helsingborg from Copenhagen to make an inspection and give their okay to an unloading. They are also awaiting an okay from Swedish authorities. Through the local newspapers, the veterinarian calls out for finding stables amongst the local farmers.

Unloading UNRRA horses in Helsingborg, Sweden, February, 1947. Note the ice in the harbor. Photo from Kulturmagasinet/The Museum of Helsingborg, photographer Olle Lindberg.

“The call was heard,” Johannson said, “so between February and May the [nearly 700] American horses were placed in farms and stables around the region. At the end of May two Danish ships came to collect the horses and took them to Gdansk.”

UNRRA horses on one of the farms where they were stabled near Helsingborg. Taken May 5, 1947. Photo from Kulturmagasinet/The Museum of Helsingborg, photographer Olle Lindberg.

UNRRA horses being loaded onto Danish ship for transport to Poland, May 13, 1947. Note the different type of vessel that allows the horses to simply walk down a ramp onto the ship. Photo from Kulturmagasinet/The Museum of Helsingborg, photographer Olle Lindberg.

Mr. Johansson is attempting to find some of those farm families who housed the horses to capture their stories. “One of the men I’ve interviewed,” he says, “remembers that the horse his father took to the farm was in a bad condition and was a ‘shy and worried one and probably didn’t do any work’.” Another lucky mare, however, gave birth to a foal, and the two animals were purchased and got to stay in Sweden.

My thanks to Mr. Johansson for sharing photos with me from the museum’s archives. The basic information for this post comes from my UNRRA research at the United Nations Archives in New York City and Mr. Johansson.

 

Documentary on Seagoing Cowboys

One of the joys of my work is being able to share materials with families of seagoing cowboys. One such request came to me from Sarasota [FL] Christian School student Lauren Miller. She was working on a project for National History Day inspired by her grandfather Leslie Horner’s experience as a seagoing cowboy to Poland on the S. S. Morgantown Victory in December 1945.

Seagoing Cowboys of the S. S. Morgantown Victory docked in Nowy Port, Poland, December 1945. Photo courtesy of Hugh Ehrman.

“National History Day is a nationwide event which is dedicated to explore and share historic events which legacies are seen in the world today,” she said. “For my project, I have decided to put together a 7-8 minute documentary focusing on the voyage of the S. S. Morgantown Victory….I mainly want to focus on how ordinary people can make a difference in an extraordinary situation and impact history.”

Fortunately, I had interviewed several cowboys from her grandfather’s trip and was able to share with Lauren a number of documents and photos from my archive. Thank you Lauren for allowing me to share your wonderful creation with my readers.

Second UNRRA livestock ship departed the United States 75 years ago today

This is the second of two posts I made five years ago that I’m repeating in June to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the start of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and Brethren Service Committee’s seagoing cowboy program.

Five Elizabethtown College students make 2nd UNRRA ship out,
but arrive first in Greece.

This post will set the record straight for a friendly little rivalry that has taken place through the years between the Manchester College students and the Elizabethtown College students who were on the first two UNRRA livestock ships to depart the United States the end of June 1945.

When I first talked with Gordon Bucher about his trip on the F. J. Luckenbach to Greece  that left New Orleans June 24, 1945, he wanted to know, “Wasn’t ours the first ship to leave the U. S.?” Having found the UNRRA records, I was able to tell him, “Yes.” The Elizabethtown cowboys who departed from Baltimore on the S.S. Virginian June 26, 1945, had always said they were on the first ship out. But diary accounts from the two trips and the UNRRA records show otherwise.

Turns out, it was an honest mistake on the part of the E-town cowboys, as even the media thought this to be the first shipment. The Baltimore Sun newspaper said on June 25, 1945:

GREECE CATTLE SAILS TODAY
UNRRA Shipment To Be First Consignment
Laden with 704 head of dairy cattle and horses, the first consignment of such animals to be sent to a European country by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the freighter Virginian will leave Baltimore today for Greece, where the livestock will be used in an agricultural rehabilitation program . . . .

The F. J. Luckenbach had already left New Orleans when this article went to press, and the Virginian didn’t leave port until a day after the article appeared, if the date typed under the article given to me is correct. Other media gave the same story, including the August 1945 Baltimore & Ohio Magazine:

First UNRRA Livestock Shipment for Europe Rides B&O

The article tells of the arrival to Baltimore of 335 Brown Swiss bred heifers and twelve bulls and 357 light draft mares on the B&O railway. It goes on to say:

This “first shipment” created a great deal of interest among the UNRRA people and various publicity agencies. The Coast Guard, Life, the Baltimore papers and the newsreel agencies all had photographers on the job . . . .

All of this while the Luckenbach was already on its way.

But alas, the Luckenbach was not to be the first to arrive in Greece. The Virginian, departing closer to Europe, arrived at its destination of Piraeus, Greece, the port for Athens, on Saturday, July 14.

First heifer to Greece.

A proud Greek poses with the first UNRRA heifer to put foot on European soil. Photo courtesy of Kate  Holderman.

The Luckenbach arrived in Patras, Greece, two days later on Monday, July 16. Both crews were able to visit the Acropolis, with a short $5.00 taxi ride for the Virginian crew and a hair-raising bus ride across the Peloponnese peninsula for the Luckenbach crew that almost made them miss their ship home.

Members of the S. S. Virginian crew at the Acropolis. Photo courtesy of Kate Holderman.

After unloading in Greece, both ships also stopped in Naples to pick up U. S. soldiers who had fought in Europe during the war to take them home – 140 for the Virginian and 150 for the Luckenbach. The Luckenbach, however, arrived home first. Their entire cargo was unloaded in Patras, after which they were ready to return home; whereas the Virginian unloaded only part of its cargo in Piraeus and then traveled further up around Greece to Salonika to unload the rest. Even with a stop in Béni Saf to pick up iron ore after picking up their soldiers in Naples, the Luckenbach had a considerable head start on the Virginian, arriving in New York City ten days ahead of them on August 10. They were met with a rousing welcome home for the soldiers on Staten Island complete with a WAC band playing the “Beer Barrel Polka” and a black band playing hot jazz, before finally docking in Jersey City. The Virginian delivered their soldiers to Newport News and finally docked in Brooklyn on August 20. No matter which ship they were on, the cowboys were glad to be back on U. S. soil.

Sources: Gordon Bucher’s unpublished journal and the report of the S.S. Virginian crew titled “Relief for Greece.”

Seagoing Cowboy program began 75 years ago this month!

For my regular June posts, I’ll be repeating two that I made five years ago about the first two trips of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and Brethren Service Committee’s seagoing cowboy program.  Seventy-five years ago this month, those first crews were being put together and sent to sea.

How ten Manchester College students ended up
on the first UNRRA cattle boat to Europe.

When UNRRA contacted M. R. Zigler, the executive of the Brethren Service Committee, in late spring of 1945 to say they had a ship ready, M. R., with his vast network of contacts, got on the phone and put the Brethren grapevine in action. Among other things, word was sent to the Brethren colleges, which by that time had completed their academic years and were gearing up for their summer sessions. Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana, was one of those schools.

MC grad Keith Horn recalls having seen a notice on a bulletin board at the college about a ship going overseas with animals. Others learned of the trip through the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference being held at Manchester that year. On its opening day, June 6, 1945, the Brethren Service Committee brought news to the Conference: “Relief soon may be possible from the church in America to the church in Europe,” including “heifers by freight shipment.” M. R. Zigler spoke the next day of “news of big shipments.” In just a short time from UNRRA’s first call to M. R. much had transpired – from one vessel to big shipments.

These reports created a buzz throughout the campus. People talked about it on the sidewalks, in their rooms, over dinner – and it was while waiting on tables in the old Oakwood dining hall that Manchester student Ken Frantz learned of the need for cattle attendants.

In all, ten Manchester College students signed up for this first cattle boat trip. The Gospel Messenger reported that there were 135 students enrolled in the Manchester summer session of 1945. Take ten of those students away, and the college lost over 7% of their student body that summer! But President Schwalm was supportive, as Richard Moomaw, a student leader on campus, relates. When he went to talk with the President to get permission to un-enroll, President Schwalm told him, “So many people are going, you should go, too!”

Because it was mostly a rural denomination, UNRRA had felt the Church of the Brethren would have enough men on farm deferment to provide the cattle attendants for their ships. But there was another deferment that figured into this story, as well – the ministerial deferment. Many of the MC students who went fell into this category. To maintain this status with the draft board, they had to be in school all year round – and that’s why so many of them were in summer school. But whatever the deferment, these students had to get permission from their draft boards to leave the country. Ken Frantz, who lived in North Manchester, recalls that he had no trouble with his Board in Wabash. But it was a different story for his brother Dean, who was living in Sydney, Indiana, at the time. The Kosciusko County Draft Board refused to let him go, or he would have been on the ship with Ken, too.

For many of these students, this was something positive they could do to help put a broken world back together again. Gordon Bucher recalls that his mother, in particular, wasn’t too keen on his going. He was just 19, the war was just over, and she was afraid for his safety. But Gordon stood firm. He said to her, “a lot of people have been endangered for the last four years. We hope to do something good, whether we’re in danger or not.” It was a form of service and ministry for many of the cowboys. And two of them – Floyd Bantz and Ken Frantz – even postponed their weddings from early summer to late summer to be able to go.

In a very short period of time, the ten Manchester students had made their applications, gotten their draft board permissions, and were on the train to New Orleans by June 13. They sailed on June 24, 1945, on the S.S. F. J. Luckenbach headed for Greece with 588 horses and 26 cattle attendants on board – the first of the 360 UNRRA livestock trips made between 1945 and 1947.

F. J. Luckenbach crew at the Acropolis.

The F. J. Luckenbach crew in Greece, July 1945. For whatever reason, the cowboys on this ship were not allowed to take cameras on board. This is the only known picture from this trip, likely taken by an unidentified professional Greek photographer at the Acropolis. Photo courtesy of Ken Frantz.

Rock Springs Victory to Ethiopia #4 – The Noah Theory

There’s a story connected with the March 1947 trip of the S. S. Rock Springs Victory to Ethiopia that I would put in the category of legend. The story was told some 35 years after the trip to seagoing cowboy Howard Lord and a hand full of other cowboys from that trip by one of their two foremen whom I will leave unnamed.

The foreman, Lord says, “started talking about the ‘Noah Theory,’ The officials were convinced that there would be a third world war, and since it was after 1945 it would be a nuclear, atomic war. Where would be the best place in the world to start over? And what would you need to start over? They sent some of the livestock on our ship to Greece as a cover up, a smoke screen. The rest of the cattle, and the sheep, and the mules, and the chickens went to Ethiopia to start over again. If there was a third world war, the last place they’d hit would be Ethiopia. If that was an actual theory that was part of our shipment, we never knew it. Nobody except our supervisor and two foremen knew it.”

A jack aboard the S. S. Rock Springs Victory, April 1947. Photo courtesy of Howard Lord.

Roosters on their way to Ethiopia on the S. S. Rock Springs Victory, April 1947. Photo courtesy of Howard Lord.

It’s a theory for which I’ve found no confirmation. I found nothing in the UNRRA files I researched in the United Nations archives, nor in any Heifer Project archives I’ve gone through, that would give even a hint of credence to this theory.

George Woodbridge’s history of UNRRA, volume two, tells of the devastation that took place in Ethiopia from six years of Italian occupation in World War II and of the needs and the difficulties in meeting those needs due to collapsed infrastructure and murder of the educated segment of the population. The Brethren Service Committee worked with UNRRA to provide cattle through the Heifer Project for regeneration of their herds and provided five men, as well, who stayed a year to teach the use of modern agricultural machinery and techniques.

Cattle stranded in the streets of Djibouti after unloading off the Rock Springs Victory. The railroad was out between Djibouti and Cairo, delaying passage on to Addis Ababa. April 1947. Photo courtesy of Howard Lord.

There were, to be sure, a variety of animals sent to Ethiopia on this, the one and only, UNRRA livestock trip to Ethiopia. After the first offloading of nearly half the Rock Springs Victory animals in Greece, UNRRA reports the following for Ethiopia: 323 cattle, both heifers and bulls of beef and dairy breeds (of which 248 were sent as gifts from the Heifer Project per their report); 3 jacks; 60 sheep; and 117 chickens. This variety of animals would fall far short of what would be needed for restarting a world’s agriculture.

Delivering UNRRA roosters and chickens in Ethiopia, 1947. Photo courtesy of Howard Lord.

Transporting cattle to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1947. Photo courtesy of Howard Lord.

The origin of the “Noah Theory” remains a mystery. A story spun by one of the ship’s regular crew, perhaps, who wanted to have some fun with the seagoing cowboy leaders, swearing them to secrecy? We’ll likely never know.

Heifer Project and UNRRA cattle grazing outside Addis Ababa, Egypt, 1947. Photo courtesy of Howard Lord.

The hope for this shipment, scribbled in notes of then Executive Secretary of Heifer Project Benjamin Bushing, was that Ethiopia would become the “Bread Basket of the Middle East for years to come.”

Special post: Celebrating the 75th anniversary of Heifer International’s first shipment to Europe

May 14, 1945, is a special day in Heifer International history. It marks a dream finally realized.

The Heifer Project, Dan West’s dream of sending cows to Europe to help starving war victims, came to life in April 1942. The Church of the Brethren Northern Indiana District Men’s Work organization adopted West’s idea and named a committee to get it going. The idea caught on, and by January 1943 it became a national program of the Brethren Service Committee. However – and this is a BIG however – with World War II raging, shipping live cargo across the Atlantic was simply out of the question. And not for the lack of trying on the part of the Heifer Project Committee to get heifers to Belgium and Spain. In 1944, with plenty of heifers ready to go, the committee sent a small pilot shipment instead to Puerto Rico.

Concurrently, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was in the planning stages of how they would operate when hostilities ceased. Despite West’s attempts to get UNRRA to agree to ship Heifer Project animals, UNRRA did not intend to ship live cargo. But when the Near East Foundation requested bulls for Greece to help the country’s devastated dairy industry rebuild, UNRRA approached the Heifer Project for assistance with a pilot project of their own. Brethren Pennsylvania diary farmer and Guernsey breeder Benjamin Bushong was drafted to obtain the bulls for the Heifer Project and see them to the ship. May 14, 1945, just six days after V-E day in Europe, six purebred bulls sailed for Greece. Bushong became Executive Secretary of the Heifer Project later that year and often joked that the first “heifers” to Europe were “six bulls.”

Brown Swiss bulls donated by the Heifer Project after arrival in Greece, May 1945. Credit: UNRRA photo.

Read the story of that first European livestock shipment for both UNRRA and the Heifer Project in two parts here and here.

Congratulations Heifer International on another live-saving milestone!

Rock Springs Victory to Ethiopia #2 – Greece, Suez Canal, and Djibouti

Another unique experience of the S. S. Rock Springs Victory seagoing cowboy crew of March 1947 was delivering Heifer Project animals to Ethiopia. They were one of only two UNRRA livestock crews to travel through the Suez Canal and the only one to deliver animals to the African continent. The other UNRRA ship, the S. S. Carroll Victory, after unloading their initial live cargo in Greece, was sent down to South Africa to pick up a load of horses and deliver them back to Greece – twice.

Like the S. S. Carroll Victory, the Rock Springs Victory stopped in Greece on their way where they unloaded part of UNRRA’s cargo of horses, mules, and cattle in Piraeus, Athen’s port city. Howard Lord’s first impression in Greece was of the hunger. “It just floored me,” he says. “Then here came a little train all decorated up like Christmas. It was their Independence Day in Greece! And I thought, well, they’re able to celebrate.”

Celebrating Greece’s Independence Day, March 25, 1947. Photo courtesy of Bob Heimberger.

Like all cowboys to Piraeus, they also took in the Greek antiquities around Athens.

Touring the Acropolis, March 1947. Photo courtesy of Howard Lord.

The next leg of the journey took them through Suez Canal, into the Red Sea, and on down the coast of eastern Africa to Djibouti, the capital city of what was then French Somaliland and the port for land-locked Ethiopia.

“We saw lots of wrecked ships and old destroyed tanks from World War II in the Suez Canal,” notes cowboy Stanley Wakeman. Among other things.

Beach huts along the Suez Canal, March 1947. Photo courtesy of Bob Heimberger.

As they sailed on, it got hotter and hotter, from “Very hot” in Wakeman’s journal on March 28 in the Suez Canal, to “105° in the shade” the next day in the Red Sea, to “VERY VERY HOT – 120º” on April 2 in Djibouti. An exaggeration, perhaps? Lord recalls it being “98 degrees all day – every day [in Djibouti]!”

A whole new world awaited there. Because of the lack of an adequate dock, the Rock Springs Victory had to anchor itself offshore and unload the animals and feed into barges, maybe 30 to 40 feet long and 12 feet wide.

Unloading cattle and feed off the S. S. Rock Springs Victory off the shore of Djibouti. April 1947. Photo courtesy of Howard Lord.

“They’d load the barge full of cattle,” Lord says, “and a young man with a pole would stick it against the bottom of the water and poled that barge into the dock, barely able to move it. Just one single guy with one pole. He’d have to move from side to side. It was really somethin’.”

A sole laborer poling a load of cattle into Djibouti. April 1947. Photo courtesy of Howard Lord.

On shore, the cowboys must have been as much a curiosity to the Africans as the Africans were to them. These cowboys saw sights no other crew had seen.

Cowboys roaming the area around Djibouti encounter some camels. April 1947. Photo courtesy of Howard Lord.

With no common language, the Americans took raisins with them to barter for souvenirs. That’s how cowboy Bob Heimberger acquired the metal cup the crew used for their Easter Sunday Communion on their return voyage.

Trading raisins to Djibouti residents for souvenirs, April 1947. Photo courtesy of Bob Heimberger.

For six members of the crew, the voyage was just beginning in Djibouti.

Seagoing cowboys heading on to assignments in Ethiopia, April 1947. Photo courtesy of Howard Lord.

Five had been selected by the Brethren Service Committee for a special assignment to accompany the cattle to Ethiopia, where they were to stay for a year at the request of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to train the Ethiopians how to breed and care for the livestock and teach the use of modern farm machinery and agricultural methods. The sixth, a Methodist missionary, would travel on to his project in the Belgian Congo. The remainder of the cowboy crew headed back with their ship to New York City.

Next post: Monkey business on the Rock Springs Victory

Fire and life boat drills for seagoing cowboys

If seagoing cowboys hadn’t thought about the possible dangers of their trips before they signed up, the required life boat drills once they were at sea may have drilled it into them. With all that hay on board, fire was a real threat. And with mines in European waters, explosions were, too. Not to mention storms pushing ships into rocks.

Cowboys on the F. J. Luckenbach are called to a fire and life boat drill, March 1946. Photo by James Martin.

Each cowboy was issued a fire and life boat station card at the beginning of their journey, with instructions for their particular task.

Fire and life boat station for seagoing cowboy Richard Musselman who made three trips in 1946 and 1947. Courtesy of Musselman family.

The cards were different for each shipping line.

The Grace Line station card for Santiago Iglesias seagoing cowboy Milt Lohr. Courtesy of Don Lohr.

Homer Kopke’s card for the S. S. William S. Halsted of the Moore-McCormack Lines. Courtesy of Kopke family.

Usually, on the reverse side were the signal instructions. More than one cowboy crew was summoned by these signals for real.

Signal instructions for fire and life boat drills. Courtesy of Musselman family.

Wise was the cowboy who took the drills seriously and prayed he’d never have to put them to use.

Seagoing cowboys on the S. S. Creighton Victory, July 1946. Photo by Ben Kaneda.

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.