The story of the Okanogan County, Washington, seagoing cowboys continues*:
[December 4, 1945,] the crew of 32 cowboys boarded the SS Clarksville Victory at Bushy Pier No. 1 in Brooklyn. Problems in getting the horses to the ship gave the crew eight days of relative leisure to explore the wonders of New York City. The cowboys also got to watch the loading of the ship. Bill Dugan recalls that the 742 horses were loaded one by one. Some were lifted by a large strap put around the body, others in wooden crates, to be lowered into the holds of the ship. One horse got away, taking a swim in the New York harbor, eventually getting out at another pier and being brought back to ship.
On a cold Wednesday, December 12, the Clarksville Victory finally headed out into the Atlantic. The first night out, in [supervisor J. O.] Yoder’s words, the sea was “a swirling mass of boiling tar. It is one continuous up-heaving body—full of vales and knolls.” The result: “At least 15 or 20 fellows fed the fish and were consequently quite useless.” Dave Henneman recalls being seasick that first day, but fine after that. Dugan and Jick Fancher were two of the lucky ones who never got sick.
The crew settled into the work and rhythm of watering and feeding the horses, which Fancher says were all types and of all dispositions. Henneman recalls, “There was one big old horse, he was kind of ornery. He got a hold of my coat one day and picked me right up off my feet.” Henneman’s experience with horses soon brought horse and tender to an understanding for the remainder of the trip.
The Clarksville Victory was one of the Victory ships built in mass during the war to transport supplies and troops. An article in the Tonasket Times said, “The boys thought a lot of their ship, which seemed well built. . . . Their bunks, arranged in three tiers were in the gunners quarters, only instead of having guns to tend and possibly an enemy to fire on, as did the former crew, our lads were on an errand of mercy.”
Their ship served them well when they ran into a storm that Gerald Vandiver told the Spokane Daily Chronicle “put two cruisers, an aircraft carrier and three merchant ships in dry dock, but our ship, the Clarksville Victory, suffered no ill effects. However, some of the horses were thrown down and were unable to get up. Fifty horses died on the trip, most of them as a result of the storm.” Of the rough sailing, Dugan recalls, “We were kids yet, and we didn’t have sense enough to be afraid. Four more degrees [of roll] and the ship wouldn’t have come up.”
The route of the Clarksville Victory took the Washington boys up through the English Channel, past the White Cliffs of Dover, and through the Kiel Canal to the Baltic Sea.
They spent Christmas Day anchored in the harbor at Kiel, Germany, where they got their first real taste of war aftermath. Kiel, an industrial center for submarine building, was heavily bombed during the war. Fancher described the harbor as “just a bunch of ship stacks sticking up.”
Their arrival in Danzig, Poland, on December 27 was equally as sobering.
(to be continued)
* Excerpted from my article published in the Okanogan County Heritage magazine, Winter 2014.