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

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!

Lifeboat of S. S. Park Victory to be preserved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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