An Amish Seagoing Cowboy’s Story: Cletus Schrock

UNRRA’s seagoing cowboys came from all denominations, religions, and non-religions. The stakes were the highest for some of the Amish cowboys whose Bishops did not allow such worldly activity. One of those cowboys was Cletus Schrock, a young Old Order Amish farmer from Topeka, Indiana.

As a conscientious objector to war, Cletus served in Civilian Public Service during World War II from September 1942 through the end of March 1946. In February 1946, the US Selective Service System agreed to allow CPSers to apply for “detached service” in the CPS Reserve to serve on livestock ships delivering animals to Europe until discharged.

Peggy Reiff Miller interviews Cletus Schrock, July 7, 2008.

“I was working in a mental hospital in Staunton, Virginia,” he told me, “and I tried to get into the detached service.” The hospital superintendent, however, said, “I can’t let you go. I don’t have a replacement. So I was stuck ’til I got my Selective Service discharge.” That day arrived on March 31.

CPS release form for Cletus Schrock.

“I just packed a suitcase and went to the Brethren Service office in Newport News, and they said I’m on the next ship out.” That ship was the S. S. Carroll Victory headed for Poland with a load of horses April 11, 1946.

“I was brought up with horses,” he said, “so I was in charge of one hold of 154 of them. I had three men helping me that they hired off the street to be cowboys.”

Cletus Schrock is the cowboy with a mark over his head. Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

In Poland, Cletus recalls the devastation: “Alles kaputt!” he said. Everything’s ruined! “That’s what a lot of them would say. There was only two buildings in the big city of Danzig that I remember were not damaged. The rest of ’em were just pretty well dilapidated.”

Cletus, center cowboy, with the Roth brothers befriended a Polish boy in the ruins of Danzig/Gdansk, Poland, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

Women at work cleaning up the debris in Gdansk, Poland, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

The cowboys found remnants of the war not far from the ship.

Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

And like many of the cowboys, Cletus met people who wanted desperately to go to America. One couple who befriended him said, “If there’s any way we could be stowaways and hide on the ship….” He had to turn them down. As he did the woman by his side in this photo.

Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

On the return trip, Cletus got a break. “See, the boys were supposed to wash down all the stalls,” he said. “I didn’t have to do any of that, because I had my hair cutting tools in my locker, and one of the boys seen I had ’em. The guys were wanting hair cuts and the word got around to the captain. The first guy I cut hair was the captain, and that was quite interesting. I got to be right up there where all the controls were. So I cut hair. And that’s all I did coming back. I got to know men from all over the country, and some of ’em paid me a dollar.”

When Cletus arrived home, his Amish community found out about his trip. “That wasn’t good news for me,” he said. His first Sunday back, his Amish bishops cornered him and said, “We heard about what you did. We don’t believe in that.”

Cletus had come to appreciate the Mennonites who ran the CPS camps in which he had served, so he decided to leave the Amish and join a Mennonite congregation near him. “I knew I had helped people,” he said, “and so I didn’t feel like one of the Amish anymore.”

His decision to leave came at a greater cost than just being cut off from his church family. “My dad had bought a farm for me of 120 acres with buildings on it that I was to get if I stayed Amish. Since I didn’t stay Amish, I didn’t get anything. It didn’t bother me that much, because it wasn’t my main goal. I just learned a lot about helping people, especially when I worked in the hospital, and then going on over across.”

 

UNRRA Livestock trips from the eyes of a veterinarian

At the age of 25, with his army discharge and a degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in hand, Harold Burton launched the beginning of his veterinary career hired out to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration for $23 a day—darn good pay in 1946. He spent time with UNRRA both on land and sea.

Harold Burton, DVM, on the S. S. Mercer Victory delivering horses to Trieste, Italy, for Yugoslavia, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Harold Burton.

Doc Burton spent several months working at both the Levinson Brothers Terminal Stockyards off Pier X in Newport News, Virginia, and the Owen Brothers Stockyards on the property of the Atlantic Coast Line in Savannah, Georgia, where the animals were railed in from around the country. The yards were designed to handle 4500 and 3500 animals respectively. When delays in shipping happened, the numbers would often swell much beyond capacity.

The Levinson Brothers Terminal Stockyards off Pier X in Newport News, Virginia, 1946. Photo credit: Charles Lord.

All animals were screened on arrival at the stockyards. Both facilities included hospital pens and equipment sufficient to accommodate a large number of animals. Animals arriving sick or injured during their rail transport were sent to the hospital pens. “I was assigned the job of getting as many of them as possible ready to ship,” Burton says. “I had two big, strong farm-grown cowboys who were with me in Savannah. We think we did a good job. The only problem was the pen kept getting new patients.”

On the sea, Burton says, “the veterinarian’s job is to end up in Europe with as many healthy animals as possible. The old Victory ships had four holds with a small walkway in the middle and four stalls with four horses each on each side of the aisle. We wore a backpack with medicines and syringes, etc., and hobbles, ropes and twitches to restrain the animals if we had to give them injections or sutures or whatever. It was very poorly lighted, hot, dusty and VERY smelly. Your feet were in manure all the time.”

Cowboy in lower hold on the S. S. Carroll Victory, late 1946. Photo credit: Charles Lord.

Burton’s two livestock trips across the Atlantic took him to Poland in September 1946 and Trieste, Italy, in December 1946—both with horses. Most of those animals came to his ships wild from the western US. “My father was a country blacksmith and farrier,” Burton says, “and growing up I helped him. I learned how to hobble a horse, tie one leg up by rope to stabilize him so he couldn’t hurt himself or me. This was good to know working with these completely untamed beasts.

“It was extremely dangerous,” he says, “especially in rough seas. To give an intravenous injection or a blood transfusion, or anything where we needed to be close to these untamed animals, was worth your life. Bites, kicks, bumps and bruises were a daily thing. One time, a horse grabbed me by the left shoulder blade, picked me up, shook me and spit me out. I weighed 140 pounds at the time, but I can still feel the pain.”

Doc Burton’s seagoing cowboy crew on the S. S. Saginaw Victory to Poland, September 1946. Photo credit: Harold Burton.

Burton says the veterinarians were expected to keep good records of the sick and injured horses. They used a canvas sling under a sick horse’s belly to lift the animal from below deck to the hospital stall on the top deck. “We saved a fair percentage,” he says, “considering the circumstances we worked under. If a horse died, we swung it up on the roof of the top deck stalls and did a complete autopsy before pushing the carcass overboard.” UNRRA used these reports to better the program.

An autopsy on the S. S. Lindenwood Victory, summer 1946. This was not one of Doc Burton’s trips. Photo credit: L. Dwight Farringer.

“We veterinarians got lots of excellent experience firsthand,” Burton says. “If you could make an intravenous injection or suture or bandage on an animal on a rolling vessel in an extremely crowded area with wild savage beasts, it was a piece of cake in a barn on a farm back home.”

A Greek odyssey and 21st birthday to remember

The S. S. Charles W. Wooster preparing to go to Greece, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Perry Bontrager.

The livestock trip of the S. S. Charles W. Wooster started out like any other. On receiving their orders, seagoing cowboys gathered in Houston, Texas, to care for a load of 335 wild Mexican mares bound for Greece. They departed Easter Sunday, April 23, 1946. After an uneventful crossing of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea, the ship docked in Patras, Greece, to unload some of its cargo before going on to Piraeus to unload the rest. In Patras, the ship and the cowboys, however, would go their separate ways.

Approaching the docks at Patras, Greece, May 1946. Photo courtesy of Perry Bontrager.

On arrival in Patras on May 13, cowboy Perry Bontrager was taken with the beauty of the town. “The country is very mountainous,” he notes in his diary. “Some covered with snow. But down around the town, it is really hot.” And not all was beautiful. “It is a sorryful [sic] sight the way some of the people are dressed,” he says. “Little children come with tin cans and want to have them filled with food.”

The next day, about 100 of the horses were unloaded, followed the day after that by some of the sulpher and cotton the ship also carried. “This is to be the last day at Patras,” Bontrager notes. “So about nine tenth of the ship crew went out for a drunk [sic]. Quite a few of the fellows wouldn’t of made it back to the ship if someone wouldn’t of helped them.”

With brains still fogged from their nightly binge, miscommunications caused the ship’s crew to back the vessel into a cement dock jamming the propeller into the rudder. “As a result,” says cowboy Victor Goering, “they had to unload some cargo on to barges and eventually they were able to use the winches to pull us back to where we had been originally.” There, the remainder of the cargo was unloaded.

The S. S. Charles W. Wooster rammed into the dock in Patras, Greece, May 16, 1946. Photo courtesy of Victor Goering.

Unable to proceed on its own power, the Charles W. Wooster was towed to Naples, Italy, for repair. This left the cowboys stranded until UNRRA could make arrangements to return them home, giving them an extra five days to explore and enjoy the city of Patras.

On May 22, “They loaded us into the back of a 4-wheel army truck and with our luggage on a heavy army trailer we headed for Athens,” says cowboy Wilbur Swartzendruber. “This proved to be one of the most dangerous rides I have ever been on. Our veterinarian along with a Greek driver who was intoxicated, slid the trailer around every corner we went around. He crowded a British bread truck off the road and it upset, spilling bread over the countryside. The good Lord surely did look over us on this ride.”

A lunch stop on the way to Athens, May 22, 1946. Luggage trailer in the background. Photo courtesy of Perry Bontrager.

“On the way to Athens,” says Goering, “we saw some effects of the bombing of the railroads. Almost every trestle showed some damage and there were many railcars lying on their sides and completely burned out.”

After their exhausting 150-mile journey, the cowboys settled into the Monrapos Hotel in Amarosa, about 15 miles beyond Athens. Here they would stay for eleven or twelve days until UNRRA found ships for their return trip.

The seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Charles W. Wooster in Amarosa, Greece, May 1946. Photo courtesy of Perry Bontrager.

Given a daily allowance by UNRRA, the cowboys took in the sights of Athenian antiquities, went to movies, and relaxed. An unexpected Greek vacation.

Seagoing cowboys at the Acropolis, May 1946. Photo courtesy of Victor Goering.

UNRRA’s travel arrangements split the cowboys into a group of twelve returning on June 2 on the S. S. John Jacob Astor and the remaining six departing the next day on the S. S. Paul Hamilton Hayne. Bontrager notes, “We are traveling back as first class passengers.” A luxury other cowboys stuck with cleaning out the stalls on their return trips would envy.

“Our discharge in Newport News, Virginia, on June 24 was a happy one for me,” says Swartzendruber, a John Jacob Astor passenger. “It was my 21st birthday.” A day and a trip to remember!

First Heifer Project shipment to Czechoslovakia sailed 75 years ago this week

The Czechoslovakian Embassy in Washington, DC, expressed interest in Heifer Project’s offer to send cattle to that war-torn country in early December 1945. In the short time of one month, all red tape was cut and 171 heifers, donated by church groups from ten of the United States, departed from Baltimore January 6, 1946, on UNRRA’s S. S. Charles W. Wooster. On arrival in Bremen, Germany, the seagoing cowboys on this trip would have had similar experiences with those of UNRRA’s first shipment for Czechoslovakia. The animals, however, had little time to adjust to standing on solid ground. Czechoslovakian cattle experts transferred them into rail cars for a long arduous week’s trip to the Silesian area of northeastern Czechoslovakia, one of the regions that suffered the most during World War II.

The heifers arrived in Silesia in good condition February 4, where they were put in quarantine at the State Farm in Nerad near the border of Poland. After a meeting in Frydek to finalize distribution agreements, the officials involved drove some 25 miles to the farm to inspect the cattle.

“We crossed 29 wooden, propped up bridges, of very temporary construction, as all bridges in this region had been destroyed by the retreating Germans,” says Vlasta A. Vrazova of the American Relief for Czechoslovakia in a February 18, 1946, report to the Brethren Service Committee. “A year ago, war raged through this part of the country for many weeks. There is everywhere the same problem—empty barns. The Germans drove away all the cattle. In the Opava area 28,000 families were completely bombed out, another 20,000 families lost almost everything….Children are in grave danger. In first grade grammar school in the city of Praha 25 percent have tuberculosis and another 50 percent are on the danger line. The chief reason is malnutrition for five years….The crying need is milk!”

The home of Heifer Project recipient Frantisek Martinik of Vresina, Silesia, April 1946. Photo courtesy of the George Craig family.

An UNRRA report describes the ceremony that took place at the State Farm on the handing over of the Heifer Project animals, along with 193 UNRRA cattle sent with them. In a “picturesque mountain village of Northern Moravia,” the report says girls in regional dress presented bouquets to the UNRRA and Brethren Service Committee representatives present. “After a formal reception, the traditional ceremony of village maidens wreathing cows with garlands of flowers took place against the background of snow-clad hills and dark pine forests.” Oh, for a photo of that ceremony!

The UNRRA report notes that some of the Brethren-donated heifers were bought with pennies from school children in Ohio. Dr. J. E. Sayre, of the US Fellowship of Reconciliation, who was traveling in Europe at the time, represented the Brethren Service Committee at the reception. In his remarks at the gathering, he said,

In this gift from the children of Ohio to their needy brothers and sisters in Moravia can surely be discerned the great spirit, not of the moment but of the years ahead, that must illuminate our troubled world. The children shall speak. I have traveled a long way to witness this consummation of the spirit of good will that began with the pennies of thousands of American children. I am happy to find the cattle in such good condition. To the children back home in Ohio I shall report: “Your pennies will soon be providing milk for the babies of Czechoslovakia, and this will be not only for this year but also for next year and for many years to come.”

 

“This cow is our saviour from starvation,” the Kysuconova family tells their donor, Silesia, 1946. Photo courtesy of the George Craig family.


Next post: Recipients share their gratitude.

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Czechoslovakia

S. S. Henry Dearborn in Baltimore, MD, December 1945. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

On December 12, 1945, the S. S. Henry Dearborn pulled out of Baltimore with a load of 411 heifers for Czechoslovakia, the first of 37 shipments made by UNRRA to that war-torn country. It was smooth sailing until Christmas Eve. The cowboys awoke that morning to find that a storm had crashed one of the cattle pens during the night, killing some of the animals. Arthur Lewis noted in his diary, “A wave that was about 45 feet high went in the Captain’s room (higher up in the midships), and the Steward had 18 inches of water in his room.”

Six days later, the ship docked safely in Bremerhaven, Germany. The cowboys took advantage of shore leave on New Year’s Eve and enjoyed 30 minutes of fireworks “set off by the ship in the harbor,” according to Lewis. January 2, the cattle were unloaded and put on trains for their journey to Czechoslovakia.

Unloading cattle in Bremerhaven for their train journey to Czechoslovakia, January 2, 1945. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

Two days later, the ship moved on up the Weser River to Bremen to unload the grain stored in the lower holds. A stevedore strike, however, delayed unloading, and the ship remained in Bremen for 20 days.

“This gave us a lot of free time to travel around town and out into the country,” says seagoing cowboy Elvin Hess. “Several things that we noticed, the house and barn were one unit built together. Cow manure was dried and used for fuel in their stoves. Another thing that really stood out was many blocks were nothing but rubble, but if there was a church in the block, that was the only building that remained standing.”

Remains of a church in Bremen, Germany, January 1946. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

Rubble in Bremen, Germany, January 1946. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

Located in the American Zone of Occupation, the US Army had a presence there. The cowboys took advantage of the facilities and activities this offered them as Merchant Mariners. Nearly every day, Lewis notes going to the Seaman’s Club or the Red Cross building for milk shakes, ice cream, coffee, and donuts or cake–a luxury cowboys to other countries did not have. Many a day included seeing a play or movie, such as “Kiss and Tell” starring Shirley Temple, “G.I. Joe,” “Three Is a Family,” etc.

The Red Cross Club in Bremen, Germany, 1946. Photo credit: Gene Swords.

Hess says, “Many of our nights were spent at the Red Cross Center where we played ping pong, cards, etc. If we would miss the last trolley to the docks we would have to walk back through all the ruins. That was the most scary part of the trip.”

Bremen, Germany, January 1946. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

“The trip gave me the opportunity to meet many people in all walks of life and to let your life shine,” Hess says. “What stuck with me the most was that people who were our enemies just months before would sit down and talk with you about having Peace on Earth.”

So may it be today.

 

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part V—Home in time for Thanksgiving

When the S. S. Virginian left Poland October 10, 1945, the seagoing cowboy crew expected to be home within a couple of weeks. They didn’t anticipate orders for their ship to go on to three ports in Sweden to pick up wood pulp to carry back to the US. With this side trip, the cowboys had the opportunity to visit a country not nearly so war-beaten as Poland.

The Swedish flag represents the warm hospitality received by the seagoing cowboys there. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

On Friday, October 12, in the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland, the Virginian docked in the harbor of the little lumbering village of Vallvik. Cowboy Harry Kauffman described it as “the most beautiful spot I have ever seen. It is the beauty of nature – God’s green earth, low mountains covered with evergreen forests with a sprinkling of other trees with yellow and gold foliage – probably larches. The air is so rare and clear one can see for miles and oh what a contrast to the desolation and woe of Poland. It is a wonderful soothing relief in contrasts and relief so great that it nearly upsets one’s emotions. What strange creatures we are anyhow – we see sorrow and suffering until we shed tears and in just a little while again such splendor and beauty and peace that we look through eyes filled with tears and its hard to believe we are on the same earth.” Several of the cowboys echoed these thoughts.

A highlight for eight of the cowboys was finding a church in nearby Ljusne on Sunday in which to worship. “The walk was very invigorating and refreshing,” says R. Everett Petry, “as we followed a bicycle path all the way thru the pines and cedars. Here, as everywhere else, the bicycle was very much in evidence. It is very common to see an entire family out peddling along.”

Bicycles were the major form of transportation in the Swedish villages the seagoing cowboys visited, November 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

Petry described the church, which he estimated would seat about 500, as “not elaborate tho beautiful in its simplicity.” About 100 people came, mostly women. “We were unable to understand anything of what was said at any time, but still we felt that we had truly worshipped with them.” The cowboys were surprised at the end of the service when “an attractive lady (who they learned was the preacher’s wife) asked us in somewhat halting English, ‘Will you please enjoy a cup of coffee and light lunch with us?'”

Over coffee and pastries, “We talked with some who could understand us,” Petry says, “and truly, no one can ever know the wonderful feeling we enjoyed sharing the fellowship with those wonderful people.” The Swedes asked the cowboys to sing some American hymns, applauding after each one. “Finally we were asked to sing our National Anthem for them, which we willingly did, while every one of them very courteously stood, honoring us and our great United States.” Then they sang theirs, “and how that church did ring with their voices.”

On readying to leave, Petry says, “we stumbled onto the fact that they also sing one of our most popular hymns, ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ so all together, they in their native tongue and we in ours sang that hymn. We felt completely united in something very great and real.” Similar experiences of fellowship awaited the crew in their next stops, yet further north in Fagervik and Bollstabruk.

The Virginian departed Bollstabruk October 23 for the estimated 4,000-mile trip home. “Whoopie,” noted Kauffman in his journal, as eager as all the cowboys to get on their way home. But the ship was slowed down by fog, stalled off the southern tip of Sweden for a bad storm to pass, docked for naught in the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, Scotland due to missed signals before being sent through mine-infested waters on down to Southampton, England. There, on November 4, they picked up 132 US soldiers even more eager to get home than the cowboys.

US soldiers readying to board the S. S. Virginian in Southampton, England, for their return home, November 3, 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

On November 15, the Virginian finally pulled into an army pier in Brooklyn, New York, where the soldiers were met by a reception boat of WAC’s and a band.

The US Army welcomes the soldiers on the S. S. Virginian home, November 15, 1945.

Soldiers receive a rousing welcome home in Brooklyn, New York, November 15, 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

The cowboys debarked the next day at Pier 21 on Staten Island. It would be a joyful Thanksgiving for all!

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part IV—Happier days in Gdynia

Our last regular post highlighted the sobering tour on which UNRRA took the seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Virginian on October 4, 1945. While the cowboys explored the countryside, the ship moved from Nowy Port outside Gdansk where the livestock was unloaded to the port of Gdynia further up the coast to unload the remaining cargo. It took only two days to unload the animals and any remaining hay and feed in Nowy Port, but another six days to clear the ship in Gdynia.

On a battlefield above Gdynia, Poland, October 1945. Photo courtesy of Lowell Erbaugh.

The remaining cargo consisted of:
1,395 gallons of DDT
30 bags of chicken feathers
255 bolts of cotton piece goods
19,183 bales of clothing
36,032 cartons of soap
200 barrels of soap
2,452 bags of shoes
4,939 cases of canned food
7,000 shovels
26 drums of carbide
8 bales of bed sheeting
825 drums of lard
One crated auto.

A newer city, Gdynia was not as heavily damaged as Gdansk. “The living conditions in this town are quite good compared to other towns nearby,” Ken Kortemeier says in his diary.

A street in Gdynia, Poland, October 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

Unlike Gdansk where barter for candy, gum, or cigarettes was the name of the game for obtaining desired objects, the people of Gdynia were eager for American dollars. “It is interesting to look at the merchandise for sale in the stores and the amber articles for sale,” he says. “It is only found around the Baltic area where it is mined.”

Street life in Gdynia in October 1945 was more normal than in nearby devastated Gdansk. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

“The people as a rule are cheerful and we had many a laugh as we talked to the folks in stores and in the streets,” notes Harry Kauffman. “It was a much needed break from what I had been seeing and hearing, although we see here, too, the tragedy of war. I saw a young woman with only one leg walking on crutches and one young man with both eyes gone.”

The market place in Gdynia, Poland, October 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

One day, Kortemeier and some friends went to the public market where he bought a German plate. “Hardware, dishes, clothes, rugs, etc., were all for sale,” he says. Kauffman adds, “Some of the sellers are perhaps dealers but many are poor people who sell anything they can possibly spare. Some cut glassware and chinaware looked very costly and some very old. All these things are sold for to get something to eat and to us Americans at only a fraction of their real value.”

All through their time in Poland, the cowboys continued to meet people who either wanted them to take letters with them to mail to relatives or friends in the US when they returned or wanted to be smuggled onto the ship to go to America. The S. S. Virginian left Poland October 10 with some letters in cowboy hands but no stowaways on board.

Cowboy supervisor John Steele had now been gone from home the total six weeks he had anticipated being away from his business. To his dismay, he would have another five weeks yet to go.

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

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part II—Impressions of Gdansk

According to seagoing cowboy supervisor John Steele, the S. S. Virginian was the first merchant ship to enter Gdansk, Poland, after World War II. Whether this is true or not, I cannot confirm. At any rate, the cowboys were warmly welcomed by the Polish people—and sorely dismayed by the destruction around them.

“We were all day getting through Danzig Bay,” notes Lloyd Pepple in his journal. “These waters are still very dangerous. There is just a narrow lane through them. There are many sunken ships here, some with their upper parts above the water and some below the surface and only an experienced pilot can take a ship through.

“Danzig (Gdansk) is certainly dead and forlorn looking,” Pepple says, “and it certainly does arouse some strong feeling against the Hitler gang who would do and cause such destruction and murder. I have already found several persons with whom I could talk German and two with whom I could talk real well. And from one and all I heard the sad, tragic story of first German and then Russian looting, murder, and worse things. It is hard to suppress one’s emotions.”

Nowy Port, Poland, dock area where livestock were unloaded. October 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

The ship docked in Nowy Port, the port city for Gdansk, around 5:00 p.m. that Monday, October 1. Everett Petry writes of Russian officers and soldiers everywhere and choosing to stay on board that night in the safety and warmth of the ship. He speaks of Russians in their long, heavy coats and barefooted children in shorts with their legs blue from the cold.

Ken Kortemeier notes, however, that most of the children wore a smile. “They tell us 9/10 of Danzig is destroyed,” Kortemeier says. Bub Erbaugh adds, “The buildings have big holes in them, and a lot of buildings just aren’t.” A foretaste of what’s to come.

Horse lifted off the S. S. Virginian in Nowy Port, Poland, October 2, 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

Bright and early the next morning, the Polish stevedores got to work unloading the horses and heifers. “They unloaded with a flying stall,” says Pepple. “It is a big box, big enough to hold a horse. They pull it out of the bottom of the ship with winches and set it out on the street. Then they lead the horse away. Sometimes it takes 4 or 5 men to hold them.”

Corralling a horse on the docks of Nowy Port, Poland, October 2, 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

The 16-year-old S. S. Virginian captain’s son, who served as one of the cowboys, likened the unloading of the cattle to the streets of downtown Cheyenne. “They went whacko, jumping and bucking,” he said, “after being confined so long at sea.”

First heifers shipped into Poland by UNRRA after World War II, October 2, 1945. Photo courtesy of Bub Erbaugh.

That afternoon, a group of cowboys took a crowded, shot-up tram into Gdansk and witnessed more of the realities of war. “We didn’t see one building that was not hit with bombs or machine gun fire,” Pepple says. “It is a terrible sight.”

First seagoing cowboys to witness the destruction of Gdansk, Poland, after World War II. October 1945. Photo courtesy of Harry Kauffman.

We saw street cars still on the tracks all shot full of holes,” says Pepple. “They said the conductor and all the passengers were killed in these cars. We saw an old prison that had 800 Polish prisoners of war in it. The Germans set it afire and burned them up alive. You could see human bones all over it. There was nothing left of it but the walls.”

Everett Petry writes of the odors of bodies still buried in the rubble, the remarkable ability of the Polish people to push on amidst such destruction, and how the mention of “UNRRA,” in which they put their hope, would bring smiles to people’s faces.

Harry Kauffman stayed in the port that afternoon and the next day, talking with people who could speak German. And he heard the stories of the cowboys who had gone into Gdansk. “Tonight I write these lines with a heavy heart,” he notes in his journal, “unashamed that my eyes are swimming with tears at the things I have seen and heard. Tomorrow the Commissioner of Agriculture for Poland which is working for the UNRRA has arranged to take us on an all day tour.” He would see some of World War II’s horrors for himself.

To be continued

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.