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.


Meeting heifer recipients in Germany

In this and my next two regular posts, I’ll share more about the Heifer Project shipments to Germany in the 1950s – first through the eyes of a seagoing cowboy, then those of a Heifer Project representative in Germany, and then my own.

Elshoff, Rev 001

Rev. A. H. Elshoff and son Donnie, ready to travel

In August 1950, seagoing cowboy Rev. A. H. Elshoff, of Tillamook, Oregon, traded his suit for blue jeans and accompanied a train car load of 28 heifers across the U.S.A., ultimately to Pier 60 in New York City. His son Donnie joined up with him in Maryland for the trip across the Atlantic Ocean on the S. S. American Importer to West Germany for Heifer Project’s 10th German shipment.

Arriving in Bremerhaven on September 5, Rev. Elshoff recorded in his journal: “The impression of our first old world city is strange and unfavorable. The dimly lighted streets, the outmoded cars used for taxis, the dress of the crowds of window shoppers, the numberless bicycles for which a special path is maintained on one side of the street, the vacancies of bombed out areas, all combined to create a dismal feeling.”

The trip up the Weser River the next day provided a brief contrast. “All the world seemed at peace in the forty miles of pastoral scenes; we saw many fine herds of Holstein cows, fine horses, farmers digging their potatoes, a number of small villages with an occasional windmill, men trying their luck at fishing (mostly eels); a few pleasure boats and many utility boats, etc. But the grim reminders of war are everywhere in sight, chief among them an abandoned submarine base connected with the Weser by short canals. . . . The ruins approaching Bremen and the many square miles of ruins in the city are the most depressing sights yet. Great areas of apartment houses, a great hospital and a score of cathedral type churches are only skeletal remains. How anyone survived is a miracle.”

The next day Rev. Elshoff noted, “We started the day at 5 o’clock so the animals would be in readiness for unloading which began at 7:30. . . . Mr. And Mrs. Joe Dell, European representatives of Heifers for Relief, came aboard at mid-morning. We were very happy to meet them; for the next several days we were in their tender care.” Towards evening, “we went to the little farm at the end of Bismarksstrasse where our animals had been put in a little stone barn for their two weeks period of quarantine. They were as cozy as could be in the care of a farmer who loves animals. Their first meal in Germany was supplemented with rudebakers [sic]; they were a fine lot of contented heifers. I confess to a bit of sentimental grief at leaving my fine pets that had been in my charge for a 7000 mile journey but I was consoled in the knowledge that their destination was the fulfillment of a labor of love.”

Rev. Elshoff had the opportunity the following day to experience the distribution of 16 heifers from the 8th shipment that had arrived in June. The heifers went to Coesfeld, where the Red Earth project was underway, draining the moor and putting it into agricultural production. Refugees were being settled on small tracts of this reclaimed land. At the distribution, Rev. Elshoff watched as eligible recipients each drew a number and went to stand beside his heifer, tied under a large shed. “The joy and appreciation registered by the recipients is beyond description,” Elshoff wrote in his journal. “A little later, I heard their stories, briefly of course, but all of them filled with painful memories of suffering and persecution.”

“My only crime,” said one young man, “is that my great-grandfather was a German.”
“My father died in the war; my mother and I fled leaving all our possessions behind.”
“I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” said a young mother. “Now my two little children will have milk to drink. My husband is not able to earn enough to buy milk.”
“We had 15 cows on my farm in Poland,” said a father, who with his wife and two grown daughters was trying to build life over, “but were forced to leave them behind.”

“So it went with all sixteen,” Elshoff says, “each a tale of atrocities, loss of relatives, loss of all earthly possessions. In contrast, now they received an animal that means life and health, a gift from people who have compassion, who are humanitarian, who give without asking in return. . . . ‘We can hardly believe this is true; it is too good’ they said, ‘we didn’t believe that such people exist’.”

A refugee family with their new heifer at the Coesfeld distribution, Sept. 8, 1950. Photo courtesy of Muriel Elshoff.

A refugee family with their new heifer at the Coesfeld distribution, Sept. 8, 1950. Photo courtesy of Muriel Elshoff.

In a postscript to his journal, Rev. Elshoff wrote: “In my mind’s eye there will always be projected the scene of these peasant family groups, leading their precious animals to their homes across the moor. Tillamook is a place of abundance and peace; may “Rote Erde” by Coesfeld, reclaimed from the marsh, and treasuring the gift of Christian love brought through Heifers for Relief, become a place of abundance and peace also!”


I’m indebted to Donald Elshoff’s widow, Muriel, for sharing Rev. A. H. Elshoff’s account, “Diary of a 15,000 Mile Journey in the Interest of Heifers for Relief,” with me.

Next up:
Fifth Friday post: “In Memorium”
Next regular post: Joe Dell tells the story of the recipients of the rest of the heifers of the 8th shipment.

The Seagoing Cowboys of the Occidental Victory Spend Advent in Limbo

Norm Weber 2006

Norman Weber in 2006 in his home in Ontario, Canada, with memorabilia from his 1946 trip on the SS Occidental Victory to deliver horses to Poland. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

In my last post, we made the acquaintance of Norman Weber and John Wesley Clay, seagoing cowboys on the SS Occidental Victory in 1946. Their ship hit a rock before Thanksgiving off the coast of Finland, tearing open two oil tanks. The vessel was able to make it to Stockholm with its damaged bottom, but the dry docks there were unable to handle the repairs. On Thanksgiving Day, the ship left Sweden and made its way slowly and safely to and through the Kiel Canal, across the rough waters of the North Sea, and into the Weser River to Bremerhaven, Germany.

The Advent season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is often seen as a time of waiting, and that is precisely what these cowboys of the Occidental Victory had to do in Germany. Their ship sat in port for over two weeks before pulling into dry dock where she was to stay until the next August. Longing to be home for Christmas, Weber says,

Norman Weber and John Wesley Clay

Norman Weber and John Wesley Clay wait aboard the SS Occidental Victory in December 1946 for a way home. Courtesy of Norman Weber

“All the seamen except a skeleton crew were put onto other ships. But it soon became quite evident that no one cared much about the cowboys.” So he and “Pop,” as he called Mr. Clay, decided they needed to take matters into their own hands.

“One cold day,” Weber says, “we walked to a bombed out Railway station. We managed to crowd into an already full train and for three cold hours traveled the 35 miles to Bremen. There we boarded a street car, and somehow got around the rubble of what was once a lovely seaport.” They found their way to the UNRRA office where calls were made to Washington, D.C. After several days of anxious waiting, a ship was found to take the cowboys home.

Norm Weber and two German friends

Norm Weber with two of the German children befriended by the Occidental Victory cowboys who fed them on the ship. Courtesy of Norman Weber

In the meantime, young Weber, a German-speaking Mennonite, and the elder John Wesley Clay explored the devastated cities of Bremerhaven and Bremen, making friends along the way. On December 15, the third Sunday of Advent, Clay and three other cowboys (Weber was sick and couldn’t go) attended services of a Methodist church in Bremerhaven. With their church building in ruins, the members met in one of their homes.

Methodis Church remains, Bremerhaven, Germany, 1946

The remains of the Methodist Church in Bremerhaven, Germany, December 1946. Courtesy of Norman Weber



Clay notes in his trip account,

Before the war the church had more than three hundred members, but there were only fifteen present. A lay preacher held the services. It was the most depressing religious service I have ever attended. The hopeless expression on the faces of the people was more like a funeral service than a regular Sunday morning service. It was bitter cold outside, and the snow was falling thick and fast, and there was no heat in the building. The elderly woman who played the organ could hardly do so with her cold fingers. The lay preacher had lost his wife and children in the air raid. Many members had lost their lives, and many more their homes.

We met one Sunday school teacher who has 25 little children in her class. We gave her twenty-five chocolate bars for their Christmas, which overjoyed her. American bombers had destroyed their church and city. Now we were giving them chocolate bars for their children. We had a feeling more of pain than of joy.

Oh, the horrors of war! May the good Lord spare us from ever seeing its like again.

German WWII ruins

Courtesy of Norman Weber

A fitting prayer for this Advent season.

Next post: Cowboys at Christmas