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

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Trials of the S.S. William S. Halsted, Part III

After enduring storms at sea, the William S. Halsted delivers its goods to Poland and faces yet more trials, as Robert Ebey reports:

December 10 – – – [This morning] we visited Danzig which is about 90% destroyed….

Ruins of Danzig

Peggy Reiff Miller collection, courtesy of Ray Zook

The Polish Department of Agriculture sent a truck at 1:00 p.m. to take us on a tour of Danzig, Gydinia and Sopot where we were guests for a fine banquet. Even a band was there and played many selections including Yankee Doodle.

Tugs rescue William S. Halsted

It took two tugboats to dislodge the William S. Halsted after running aground in the channel outside of Novy Port. Photo credit: Robert Ebey

December 11 – – – We weighed anchor and headed for Copenhagen, Denmark. As we were leaving the Polish ship channel leading to the Bay of Danzig, the Halsted ran aground. Two powerful tugboats were sent for and an hour later our ship was freed.

December 19 – – – ….our last day in Copenhagen and six of us took a train ride to a small town outside the big city. We visited a grade school and a cooperative farm. Now that the 6000 tons of coal are unloaded, we are heading for Sweden to take on a cargo of 4000 tons of paper pulp to be taken to Boston, Massachusetts.

Icebreaker leads the way.

An icebreaker leads the way for the William S. Halsted into the Angerman River in Sweden. A ferry had just crossed the river creating another path across. Photo credit: Robert Ebey

December 23 – – – Arrived in Harnosand, Sweden, at the mouth of the Angerman River. We are about 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It is WINTER! As soon as an icebreaker arrived, we started up the Angerman River….About twenty miles upriver we reached the town of Waija. The paper pulp was brought to our ship on barges towed by tugboats….

December 24 – – – By noon the last of the 700 tons of paper pulp is in the holds and again the icebreaker leads us, this time down the river.

December 27-28 – – – We are at Iggesund and take on 1200 tons of paper pulp. Shore looks so inviting, but we have no way of getting there.

December 29-January 4 – – – Our final stop in Sweden. 2100 tons of paper pulp are loaded. Luckily, we are at a regular dock so we can come and go as we wish.

January 1 [1947] – – – We attend a New Year’s evening service in the Swedish Lutheran Church in Ljusne, a town about three miles from our ship….

January 3 – – – The ladies of the Ljusne Lutheran Church in our honor prepared a truly delicious evening meal. The children sang several carols in Swedish and we did so in English….

January 4 – – – At 8:30 a.m. our anchor is raised and we are on our way home.

January 6 – – – Copenhagen Harbor again. We anchored for just a few hours to take on water, vegetables, fresh meat and milk.

January 7 – – – We are in the North Sea and are experiencing a very severe blizzard. Visibility is nearly zero. Our fog horn blows constantly at regular intervals. We just missed another tanker. We don’t need another experience like that. This is by far the roughest water of the trip. In spite of the one inch ledge all around our table the dishes crash to the floor time and time again. Ray Zook and Bob Ebey are again the only ones to escape seasickness. The ship rocks over so far we cannot sleep. We need to hang on to keep from rolling off our bunks.

Ice on William S. Halsted

Ice coats the William S. Halsted after sailing through two snow storms. Photo credit: Robert Ebey

January 17 – – – Another severe snow storm has made walking on deck very difficult and hazardous. Our captain has ordered us to walk back and forth only for meals.

January 19 – – – At last the ocean has calmed down. We can now be out on deck at any time. The bow is covered with thick ice.

January 23 – – – Docked in Boston at 10:00 a.m….

January 24 – – – HOME AT LAST! Three and a half months away from home on a six weeks leave of absence.

 

Next post: The vessels used: Liberty and Victory ships converted into livestock carriers