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.

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Special Crew #2: All-Mennonite crew of high school and college students come of age on a cattle boat

Half of the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory all-Mennonite crew.  Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

Half of the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory all-Mennonite crew. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

“Take a teenage Mennonite boy after World War II, put him on a cattle boat to Europe or China, stir him up with storms at sea, spice him with adventure and danger, bake him in the smoldering rubble of war, and what do you have? A recipe for the coming of age of a seagoing cowboy.” So begins my article “Coming of age on a cattle boat” for The Mennonite, January 10, 2006.

The other half of the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory crew. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

The other half of the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory crew. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

Seventy years ago this week, thirty-two of those Mennonites, mostly high school and college students, set sail on the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory for Poland under the watchful eye of Bethel College history professor Dr. Melvin Gingerich. The Mallory left Newport News, Virginia, June 20, 1946, with 834 horses and a pistol-packing captain who made it known that he was the law on the ship, leaving no uncertainty that he would use his gun if necessary.

The trip was fraught with difficulties from the get-go, beyond the usual storms at sea and horse bites. Two days out to sea, engine troubles caused a side trip to Boston, giving the cowboys a chance to explore historical sites. Don Zook recalls seeing his first major league baseball game that night, as the Boston Braves were in town. Robert Ramseyer’s group went to the movies. While sitting in the harbor at Boston for three days their work still had to be done. Hot, stuffy, ammonia-laden holds made the work less than appealing and started a string of deaths of horses. According to UNRRA records, sixty-eight were lost before arriving in Poland.

The mess hall on the Mallory was one hold down. Photo courtesy of Loren Zimmerman.

Life goes on. The mess hall on the Mallory was one hold down. Photo courtesy of Loren Zimmerman.

Shortly after departing Boston, a generator went out; but the ship sailed on. Before reaching Europe boiler trouble and trouble with the watering system developed. Another day, the captain noticed cat hairs in his water glass. Al Meyer noted in his diary, “Skeleton and hair of cat found in sieve from drinking water tank. All water passed thru decayed cat until now. [We] call water ‘cat-nip-tea’!”

As if all of that wasn’t enough, the refrigeration system went on the fritz. The cowboys enjoyed an ice cream binge that evening and ate large portions of meat as it thawed until the walk-in cooler was empty, necessitating a stop in Plymouth, England, to restock and take on ice and water. Walking around Plymouth gave these young men their first taste of war devastation, raising an awareness that was heightened when the captain refused taking on a German pilot at Kiel, Germany, to guide the ship through the Baltic Sea, subsequently getting lost in a mine field causing close encounters with spiky mines and anxious moments for the crew.

Remnants of the war around Gdansk could not be avoided. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer/Len Smucker.

Remnants of the war around Gdansk could not be avoided. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer/Len Smucker.

Len Smucker notes that seeing war-torn Poland is “etched in my mind.” He recalls being met at the ship by young boys offering their sisters and mothers for sex. The cowboys roamed over battlefields and stood on the spot in Westerplatte where World War II started. Some, including Al Meyer, went to see the destroyed Danzig Mennonite Church. The Polish Mennonites did not share the peace position of the Mennonite Church in the United States.

This plaque in the Danzig Mennonite Church served as a sobering reminder of Polish Mennonite participation in World War I. Photo courtesy of Richard Rush.

This plaque in the Danzig Mennonite Church served as a sobering reminder of Polish Mennonite participation in World War I. Photo courtesy of Richard Rush.

Meyer recalls, “The thing I remember most is a tablet on the wall in honor of the brave men who gave their lives for the German Fatherland in the First World War. It was sort of symbolic to see the wreckage of the Second World War, a bombed out Mennonite community of which there were no remaining people.”

On their way home, the Mallory cowboys enjoyed a week in Copenhagen, Denmark, where the ship stopped for repairs.

Tivoli Gardens gave the Mallory cowboys a diversion from the weight of what they had seen in England and Poland. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

Tivoli Gardens provided a diversion from the weight of war aftermath. Courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

This relatively undamaged city gave the group a chance to see Europe in its more pristine, classical sense, rounding out an experience they would never forget. They were also able to connect with Mennonites in Denmark.

These seagoing cowboys were boys when they left on the trip, but came home young men who went on to distinguish themselves in fields of medicine, higher education, and church and service work.

Even Captain Cronin was impressed:

Praise from the pistol-packing captain. Courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

Courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

Next post: Special Crew #3: Interracial crew of Southern college students sponsored by the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen