A seagoing cowboy encounters Russian soldiers

 

The F. J. Luckenbach docked in Nowyport, Poland, end of March 1946.

The F. J. Luckenbach docked in Nowyport, Poland, end of March 1946. Photo courtesy of Daniel Miller.

A year after Russian soldiers had “liberated” Gdansk from the Germans in March 1945, CPS Reserve member James M. Martin found himself in Poland by way of the livestock ship F. J. Luckenbach. The ship docked in Nowyport, which Jim recalls as “a small port town of obviously old and dilapidated houses that had mostly escaped destruction from the war.” The first afternoon, groups of cowboys strolled into town, finding few people on the streets and occasional Soviet soldiers. Jim writes:

Jim Martin talks with a Polish woman near the port. Photo courtesy of Jim Martin.

Jim Martin talks with a Polish woman near the port. Photo courtesy of Jim Martin.

To our surprise we found at the door of one of the houses a middle-aged man who spoke to us in English and invited us into his house. It developed that he had grown up in the U.S. and had somehow come to live in Poland as a young man. He had a Polish wife and two or three children. They were obviously incredibly poor and rather reluctantly admitted that they’d be glad for anything we didn’t need that we could give them. The man had a rather dejected manner and spoke freely but not joyfully.

Late in the afternoon of either the first or second day of our stay in Nowyport, we decided to take some of our cast-off clothing to the family we had met. We were leisurely strolling with the clothing in our arms when we were suddenly accosted by three Soviet soldiers (armed, of course). We couldn’t understand each other but it became apparent that we were to follow them.

They took us a short distance to an old wooden barn, completely empty except upstairs — I’d call it the hayloft — where there was a desk and several chairs and an unshaded light bulb suspended over the desk. At the desk sat another soldier who was obviously in command. There were also several other soldiers standing or sitting there.
The officer spoke toward us in Russian. We said we’re Americans. We couldn’t understand each other, except he probably understood ‘American.’

For a minute or two there was an awkward stalemate. Then it occurred to me to ask whether anyone speaks German. One soldier said he did a little. Well, ‘a little’ was the same for me.

So there began a cumbersome conversation. “Where were we going and why?” “To visit the family we had met and give them our cast-off clothes.” “This is not permissible for you to sell anything to anyone here.” “Oh, no, these are not for sale. Sie sint geschenke fur unserer Freunde. These are gifts for our friends.” “No, that’s not permitted. Nehmen sie zurick und gieben sie zum Rote Kreuz. Take them back and give them to the Red Cross.” That turned out to be the gist of our limited conversation, but we went around several times, I insisting that they are gifts and the officer insisting that we can’t do that and we should take them back home to the Red Cross. Eventually the same soldiers who had brought us there took us back to the ship.

Thinking of it afterwards I realized when we were first accosted it was dusk, and by the time we were taken back to the ship it was dark, so we probably were taking a greater risk than it seemed to me. Surely the area was under martial law and a curfew must have been in effect. Years afterward, one of the fellows in our group insisted that ‘you saved our lives.’ I don’t think it would have come to that, but I’m content to let him think so!!

I must add that the morning after we had been taken to the barn and questioned, we donned the extra clothing, several layers of it, strolled down to the home of the impoverished family, disrobed everything surplus, and left it there!

 

F. J. Luckenbach cowboys on a tour through Gdansk, early April 1946. Photo courtesy of Arnold Dietzel family.

F. J. Luckenbach cowboys on a tour through Gdansk, early April 1946. Photo courtesy of Arnold Dietzel family.

Of a tour through Gdansk that followed Jim recalls “block after block of skeletons of bombed-out buildings or piles of rubble that had once been buildings. Nothing in the newspapers back home could have brought to us the realities of war like this visit to Danzig. What must have been the terror in the hearts of the people who once called this home!”

Jim and his friends could leave Poland knowing they had at least helped the plight of one family, as well as the farmers who received the horses their ship delivered.

Find James M. Martin’s full account of his trip on the Cowboy Stories page of my website.

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Acropolis or bust! The hair-raising bus ride of the F. J. Luckenbach crew

From the unpublished 1945 journal of Gordon Bucher comes this entertaining account of his bus ride from his ship in Patras, Greece, to the Acropolis:

Wednesday – July 18 & Thursday – July 19

Big day! I have to write this on Thurs. as you will soon know why. We started in an old bus about 11 for Athens. It took us about 7 hrs to get there & we were nearly jolted through our seats. The road is about as good as a cow path. The homes are made of mud brick & seem to be quite filthy. At Corinth we saw Old Corinth where Paul was at from a distance. Also we saw the canal that links the Gulf of Corinth to the other body of water. It was blown [up] & a ship was sunk at the entrance so it was closed. All along the way we saw where trains had been bombed & bridges also. We had quite a lot of detours or divisions as they called it around bridges. Some of the blown bridges we crossed anyhow if they weren’t too bad. We got to Athens about 6:30 and went to the Acropolis where the Parthenon & Pantheon are. It was a bunch of ruins from a high mt. . . .

F. J. Luckenbach crew at the Acropolis.

The F. J. Luckenbach crew at the Acropoplis, July 1945. For whatever reason, the cowboys on this ship were not allowed to take cameras on board. This is the only known picture from this trip, likely taken by an unidentified professional Greek photographer. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Frantz

Next we saw where they play the Olympic games. The stadium is quite large. Next it was Mars Hill where Paul preached. More ruins! About 9 we started back after waiting some time for one of our men & also the headlights. Our first trouble was horn trouble. ½ hr delay. Next it was a large landslide where we waited about an hr. Then at the canal we were held up for about 15 min. but as we were Americans they let us through. At Corinth we waited for 2 hrs. while the Greeks tried to repair the clutch. We were getting worried as the ship was supposed to leave from 8 to 9 [a.m.]. It was 3 [a.m.] when we left Corinth. Again we were delayed a short time which seemed like hrs. as the clutch was out again. Instead of fixing it we just went along in our old Ford without a clutch. And did we roll! We came so close to the edge of the cliff that I felt like I was riding on air & boy was it hard. These Greek drivers won’t give the right of way to any one. In our excursion we managed to hit a wheel barrow, sideswipe 2 cars, & hit most of the ruts in the road. At night they have only one light usually & as two cars approach they flicker the lights on & off. It’s . . . dumb. Of course, I’m from America. Anyhow the sunset & sunrise over the mts & water were beautiful. Also the moonlight. It really is beautiful around here. About 10 min. to 8 we pulled into Patras. It took 11 hrs. Some of the crew on board ship were sort of scared when we hadn’t shown up. So I went to bed as you can’t sleep on a bucking horse. About 3 our ship finally pulled out of Patras harbor with all of us aboard. It took some time to get out as the wind was against us & the stern had to go first.

Thanks, Gordon, for sharing this delightful account!

Next post: A “Cowboy” evaluates the trip to Europe with relief cattle

 

Five Elizabethtown College students make 2nd UNRRA ship out, but arrive first in Greece

This post will set the record straight for a friendly little rivalry that has taken place through the years between the Manchester College students and the Elizabethtown College students who were on the first two UNRRA livestock ships to depart the United States the end of June 1945.

When I first talked with Gordon Bucher about his trip on the F. J. Luckenbach to Greece [see Jan. 23 post] that left New Orleans June 24, 1945, he wanted to know, “Wasn’t ours the first ship to leave the U. S.?” Having found the UNRRA records, I was able to tell him, “Yes.” The Elizabethtown cowboys who departed from Baltimore on the SS Virginian June 26, 1945, had always said they were on the first ship out. But diary accounts from the two trips and the UNRRA records show otherwise.

Turns out, it was an honest mistake on the part of the E-town cowboys, as even the media thought this to be the first shipment. The Baltimore Sun newspaper said on June 25, 1945:

GREECE CATTLE SAILS TODAY

UNRRA Shipment To Be First Consignment

     Laden with 704 head of dairy cattle and horses, the first consignment of such animals to be sent to a European country by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration the freighter Virginian will leave Baltimore today for Greece, where the livestock will be used in an agricultural rehabilitation program . . . .

The F. J. Luckenbach had already left New Orleans when this article went to press, and the Virginian didn’t leave port until a day after the article appeared, if the date typed under the article given to me is correct. Other media gave the same story, including the August 1945 Baltimore & Ohio Magazine:

First UNRRA Livestock Shipment for Europe Rides B&O

The article tells of the arrival to Baltimore on the B&O railway of 335 Brown Swiss bred heifers and twelve bulls and 357 light draft mares . It goes on to say:

This “first shipment” created a great deal of interest among the UNRRA people and various publicity agencies. The Coast Guard, Life, the Baltimore papers and the newsreel agencies all had photographers on the job . . . .

All of this while the Luckenbach was already on its way.

But alas, the Luckenbach was not to be the first to arrive in Greece. The Virginian, departing closer to Europe, arrived at its destination of Piraeus, Greece, the port for Athens, on Saturday, July 14, and gained the honor of delivering the first UNRRA heifers to Europe. The Luckenbach arrived in Patras, Greece, two days later on Monday, July 16.

First heifer to Greece.

A proud Greek poses with the first UNRRA heifer to put foot on European soil. Photo courtesy of Earl Holderman

Both crews were able to visit the Acropolis, via a short $5.00 taxi ride for the Virginian crew and a hair-raising bus ride across the Peloponnese peninsula for the Luckenbach crew that almost made them miss their ship home. [Look for this story in my next post.]

Virginian crew at the Acropolis.

Members of the Virginian crew at the Acropolis, July 15, 1945. Photo courtesy of Earl Holderman

After unloading in Greece, both ships also stopped in Naples to pick up U. S. soldiers who had fought in Europe during the war to take them home – 140 for the Virginian and 150 for the Luckenbach. The Luckenbach, however, arrived home first. Their entire cargo had been unloaded in Patras, after which they were ready to head back across the Atlantic; whereas the Virginian unloaded only part of its cargo in Piraeus and then had to travel further up around Greece to Salonika to unload the rest. Even with a stop at Béni Saf in Africa to pick up iron ore after picking up their soldiers in Naples, the Luckenbach had a considerable head start on the Virginian, arriving in New York City ten days ahead of them on August 10. They were met with a rousing welcome home for the soldiers on Staten Island complete with a WAC band playing the “Beer Barrel Polka” and a black band playing hot jazz, before finally docking in Jersey City. The Virginian delivered their soldiers to Newport News and finally docked in Brooklyn on August 20. No matter which ship they were on, the cowboys were glad to be back on U. S. soil.

Sources: Gordon Bucher’s unpublished journal and the report of the S.S. Virginian crew titled “Relief for Greece.”

Next post: Acropolis or bust! The hair-rising bus ride of the F. J. Luckenbach crew.