In my last post, I shared the havoc storms caused on the Italian ship S. S. Humanitas as it transported Heifer Project cattle and coal from Baltimore, Maryland, to Italy in 1947 and 1948. This week we learn about a different type of havoc the Humanitas seagoing cowboys witnessed.
The slowing down of the ship on its first trip in December 1947, reported in our last post by cowboy Charles Cutting, did indeed involve “something unusual.” Timed to arrive offshore from Naples around 10:00 p.m., the ship crawled to a stop with all lights turned off. The cowboys were asked to stay in their quarters until further notice from the captain. Curiosity prompted Cutting and a friend named Burk, however, to hide in the cattle stall area. There they saw someone on the flying bridge swing a lantern.
“Out of the darkness,” Cutting says, “we could hear the splash of oars as a rowboat came alongside.” Cutting and Burk watched as crew members proceeded to transfer large boxes of cigarettes to the rowboat. A search light in the distance cut off the process for a second rowboat. “We started a slow forward motion without running lights,” Cutting said. When out of sight behind an island, the lantern signal resumed and the unloading process began again, with boxes lowered into the small boats and gunny sacks pulled up on board the Humanitas. Cutting now understood why so many rooms had been locked on the way over.
Noticing a flashlight moving across a dining table in the captain’s mess, Cutting and Burk left their hiding spot to look in the porthole. There, they observed the dumping of the gunnysacks and the counting of stacks of Italian lire. So engrossed in this operation were Cutting and Burk that they didn’t notice the two figures behind them. “The first realization came when I felt an arm around my throat and the slight coldness of a knifepoint in the small of my back,” Cutting says. After a shouting match between crew members, the captain told the boys they could watch from the radio room. With hearts racing, they needed no further convincing to head directly there.
Before daybreak, a patrol boat caught the ship’s crew in the act of smuggling. The officials removed the remaining boxes for which Cutting learned the next day they paid 50% of the black market price. “I was amazed to learn how business was conducted in this foreign land,” he says. He learned that each box, which cost $100 in Baltimore, had the value of $1,000 in Italian lire. “We also learned that this entire operation was under the auspices of Lucky Luciano,” Cutting says.
The smuggling operation repeated itself on Byron Frantz’s trip in February. Frantz charted the ship’s progress daily on a wall map. “After we passed the Straits of Gibralter,” he says, “I remarked that it looked like we would get to Naples at noon four days later.” He was told, “No it will be evening.” This conversation replayed the next day. On the fourth day, he discovered they were still at sea. “When I went to the engine room I found that the ship was at half speed!”
Out on deck after supper, Frantz saw the lights of Naples. He went to the cabin and asked his bunkmates to follow him “for a great sight. Can you imagine my surprise,” he says, “to find only total darkness. We were running parallel to the coast for thirty minutes and then back again for thirty minutes in order to stay beyond the three mile limit in International water. Naples was now on the other side of the ship! The Italian police had no authority beyond the three mile limit.”
After several hours of this, the smuggling operation commenced. Unlike Cutting’s experience, the cowboys on this second trip were not ordered inside. “Our crew told us to lock everything and trust no one” as men from the row boats came on board.
“By daylight all was tidy,” Frantz says. “Our ship made contact with the port, the police boats met us and escorted us into the dock in such a way that we could not bring things into the port. Of course at that time, we had gotten rid of all of it in international waters.”
The smuggling saga continues in our next post.
(The full story of Charles Cutting’s trip to Europe can be found in his book 1947 Europe from a Duffle Bag.)