Seagoing Cowboy meets German relatives, December 1946

His father’s protests nearly kept 17-year-old Gerald Liepert from the experience of a lifetime. When Gerald asked his parents to sign the form permitting him to accompany livestock to post-World War II Europe, his mother tipped the scales with her quiet response, “Let him learn how other people have to live.”

Gerald was accepted into UNRRA’s seagoing cowboy program and hoped to be able to travel to Germany where two of his mother’s sisters lived. The ship destined for Germany to which he was assigned, however, blew a boiler. With his money running short from sitting out a maritime strike in Newport News, Virginia, Gerald signed on to the next available ship. Late September 1946 found him on his way across the Atlantic on the S.S. Pierre Victory with a load of horses headed for Poland.

Leftover ammunition on Poland battlefield, 1946. Photo credit: Cletus Schrock.

The trip left a vivid imprint on this 17-year-old mind. Gerald tells of being taken to a battlefield by a 12-year-old guide and recalls “partial skeletons in bunkers, a skull inside a helmet, foot bones in rotting socks in fox holes, mortars with ammunition still stacked nearby, etc. . . . heavy stuff for a 17-year-old’s first time away from home.”

On return to Newport News in late October, Gerald learned the next ship to Germany would leave in mid-November. This allowed time for him to travel home to Wisconsin to regroup and gave his mother time to write to her sisters to let them know of Gerald’s pending arrival in Bremen, scheduled for December 2. Gerald had no idea whether he would be able to see his aunts, whom he had never met, as they lived a significant distance from Bremen in Schlangenbad in the American Zone of Germany.

The aftermath of the storm that hit the S. S. Zona Gale, November 1946. Photo credit: Jeff Shoff, courtesy of Heifer International.

Gerald’s ship, the S. S. Zona Gale, met with a fierce storm that washed many of the horses over board and seriously injured two of the cattlemen. This necessitatied a medical emergency stop in England, delaying arrival in Bremen by three days. In the meantime, Gerald’s Aunt Elsa Dauer and Aunt Hanni Graupner were making the arduous trip by train through the American, French, and British Zones at a time when the trains that were still running were cold and overcrowded, food was scarce and available only through ration cards or the Black Market, and lodging was hard to find. They went first to Bremerhaven where they learned the ship was delayed. After much difficulty in obtaining information, they traveled on by boat up the Weser River to Bremen. There, a kind man at the river pilot station named Mr. Kassel helped them, even to the extent of providing the address and phone number to call his wife should they need a place to sleep.

The two women found their way through the rubble of Bremen to a makeshift “hotel” where they found a “room” within a room divided by bed sheets where they could stay and wait, cold and hungry, until they had news of Gerald, calling Mrs. Kassel every day to see if the ship had arrived.

Back on the Zona Gale, Gerald was working the night watchman shift when the ship took on a German pilot and headed up the Weser River to Bremen. The Second Mate asked him, “Do you know if there is a cattleman named Lippert or Leippert on board?” Gerald said, “I think you are talking about me, Sir!” The Second Mate directed him to the pilot, who handed Gerald an envelope containing the message, “We are here in Bremen expecting you. Contact Lykes Brothers Steamship Agency to find out how you can reach us. Tante Else.” Exciting news, to be sure!

When the ship docked at 7 a.m., Gerald and his friend Delmar headed immediately for the Lykes Brothers office, only to find it didn’t open until 9. They returned to the ship, where Mr. Kassel was looking for Gerald. “I have a Frau Dauer and a Fräulein Graupner waiting at my home to see you,” he said. After obtaining their shore passes, Gerald and Delmar accompanied Mr. Kassel via tram in below zero weather to the apartment complex where he lived. Gerald was grateful for the turtleneck sweater he had bought from the ship’s store on his first trip and his fur-lined gloves.

After their first meeting, the Aunts asked Gerald to go back to Schlangenbad with them to meet the rest of the family. Gerald got the Captain’s permission to leave for a week, but the permission required of the U. S. Army was denied: Gerald had no passport or military ID, only a seaman’s card issued by the U. S. Coast Guard. “While disappointed, at the same time I was relieved,” Gerald says, “because I was anxious about the return trip from Schlangenbad to Bremen alone.”

“After chow the next morning,” says Gerald, “Delmar and I energized the galley crew, who gladly packaged most of the edible leftovers. We also had cigarettes in our socks and every pocket (a valuable Black Market commodity for the Germans). I’m sure that Kassel’s were aware they might receive some of the largess by opening their home to us. Even so, we were grateful, and they easily became our way station.”

Bremen, Germany, 1946. Photo credit: Ivan Meck album, Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

Aunts Elsa and Hanni stayed on for a few days. “On a sightseeing tour of the city of Bremen,” says Gerald, “I do not recall seeing one building intact. We did visit the cathedral and catacombs, (but) sightseeing is not really exciting when it is cold, both indoors and out!”

The day before Aunt Elsa and Aunt Hanni planned to leave, “Delmar and I pulled out all the stops in bringing as much largess off the ship as we could,” says Gerald. “There were nine raw eggs in Delmar’s field jacket pocket, a number 10 can of pineapple, and other assorted goodies contributed by the galley crew. We had already given up most of our warm clothes, keeping only our work clothes and something for the train ride home. How did we get all this stuff off the ship? On an earlier day, the Army gate guard was very cold and I gave him my good set of fur-lined gloves. After that we were never checked. My wool turtleneck sweater went back to Schlangenbad and was still being worn by my cousin Erika when I came back to Germany in 1952 with the U. S. Army.”

And how did Elsa and Hanni get all those goodies through customs when all the passengers were taken off the train to be checked at the French Zone? It seems the customs officials were taking too long to suit the train personnel. Inspections stopped a few persons ahead of the two women. They had lost their seats by the time they got back on the train, but they still had their treasures.

Thanks to Gerald Liepert and his cousin Philip Graupner for their accounts of this story.