S. S. Park Victory painting delivered in Finland

I would never have guessed a decade ago when I interviewed Norman Weber that I would one day be standing where he had stood in 1946 as a seagoing cowboy in Turku, Finland! But that is where my own seagoing cowboy journey took me and my husband two weeks ago. The purpose of the trip was to deliver a painting of the S. S. Park Victory to Jouko (pronounced Yoko) Moisala, the painting given to me by seagoing cowboy Fred Ramseyer.

Anne and Jouko Moilsala look on in anticipation as Rex Miller unpacks the S. S. Park Victory painting. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Jouko couldn’t take his eyes off the painting. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Jouko is a diving instructor based in Turku who has been diving the shipwreck of the Park Victory since 1974. He has acquired numerous artifacts from the wreck and done extensive research and written a book about the ship. And now he has a painting of the ship as it was viewed by an Italian artist in 1946 to add to his collection for which he is seeking a permanent exhibit place. Jouko served as editor of the Finnish Diving World magazine for twenty years and is well-known in the diving community. He does a number of presentations around Finland about the Park Victory. Jouko arranged an incredible week for us in Turku. We will be eternally grateful to him and his lovely wife Anne for making this such a special time for us. Photos follow:

Seagoing cowboy Norman Weber poses at the G. A. Petrelius monument overlooking Turku, Finland, November 1946. Photo courtesy of Norman Weber.

Jouko took us to the statue in Norm Weber’s picture. Photo: Jouko Moisala.

The first thing we saw at Jouko’s house was this hatch cover from the S. S. Park Victory. Small hatch covers like this one could be used as a life raft if necessary. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Park Victory artifacts are found in many places. This Park Victory chain decorates a flower bed beside a home in Turku. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

A few of the many historical posters Jouko has made to tell the story of the Park Victory. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Boxes of artifacts from the Park Victory. A lump of coal is in the box. All portholes in the ship were shattered in the sinking. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Rex holds a sextant from the Park Victory. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Dinnerware salvaged from the Park Victory. Photo: Jouko Moisala.

Jouko gave me one of the plates that was likely from the officer’s mess hall. Something I will always cherish! Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Yet to come the end of August: account of a trip to the island of Utö off which the Park Victory sank.

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S. S. Park Victory painting travels to Finland

The Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be in Finland when this post goes live. I’ll be delivering a painting of the S. S. Park Victory given to me by seagoing cowboy Fred Ramseyer. Fred traveled to Poland on the S. S. Park Victory’s second livestock trip in December 1945. When I interviewed Fred in 2007, he showed me the painting he had of his ship.

An artist’s depiction of the S. S. Park Victory off the coast of Naples, Italy. May 1946. Photo: Vicki Dreher.

Here’s the story:

On his voyage, Fred became friends with the ship’s night cook and baker, Eddie Carlson. Fred helped Eddie at night just to have something to do. He remembers making candy with Eddie and that Eddie, who played the guitar, spent a lot of time with the cowboys. Eddie must have taken a liking to Fred especially, because some time after Fred had gotten home Eddie paid him a visit.

Eddie hitchhiked to Smithville, Ohio, where Fred lived and asked a man on the street for “Freddie.” The man turned out to be Fred’s father who took Eddie to the house. Eddie presented the painting of their ship to Fred and went on his way. Eddie had stayed in service on the S. S. Park Victory for another trip after Fred’s that went to Greece. On the way home, the ship had docked in Naples to pick up ballast. An enterprising painter on shore had painted the picture and Eddie acquired it.

Fred had the painting framed, along with his Merchant Marine card. It has graced his home ever since. At age 92, he wanted to find a good home for the painting. He called me to see if I would like to have it. I said, “Yes! And I know who would REALLY like to have it and will see that he gets it.” I explained about the interest in Finland in the S. S. Park Victory and shot off an email of inquiry to my contact there, Jouko Moisala. His response: “I am really very interested in the painting!!!!!”

So in March, Fred’s longtime friends Don and Vicki Dreher, who have often traveled with Fred and assist him now, drove Fred the three hours to my home. We had a lovely visit.

Don and Vicki Dreher on an outing with Fred Ramseyer. Photo courtesy of Vicki Dreher.

Fred left me not only the painting, but also a Park Victory life jacket light and whistle he had, all of which I am delivering to Finland to be placed there with other memorabilia of the ship.

Fred Ramseyer and Peggy Reiff Miller holding the painting of the S. S. Park Victory. Photo: Don Dreher.

Life Jacket light and whistle from the S. S. Park Victory, 1946.

As our conversation came to an end, Fred said, “I’m glad the picture will do some good in the end, because the trip was the highlight of my life.”

Next post: Delivering the painting in Finland.

The S. S. Park Victory: Livestock trip #2, Poland, December 1945 – Part IV

Today, we look at postwar Poland through the eyes of Park Victory radioman Will Keller in an account he wrote for me from his diary notes:

“One afternoon took tram New Port to Danzig. Walked around ‘Old Town’ Danzig….

Limited tram service was available between Nowy Port and Gdansk January 1946. Photo courtesy of Fred Ramseyer.

“Woman runs up and asks if Americans will be sharing occupation with Russians….Manhole in snow-covered street suddenly rises and man climbs out, dusts himself off, replaces cover, and walks off. [A few] people around live in air raid shelters, sewers, among ruins. Returning to New Port, alongside tramway tracks six graves, 6 rifles upended in ground, 6 German helmets rocking back and forth in breeze….

Going on tour around Gdansk. January 1946. Photo courtesy of Fred Ramseyer.

“One morning UNRRA truck took cowboys and me on tour of Stutthof Concentration camp. Horrible site. Beautiful countryside. Large house at entrance. Tall trees. Stables, Crematory with smokestack. Piles and piles of clogs and worn-out shoes. Awful place. This is what I believe I saw: A tall, brick, tapering chimney (widening at the base), astride a windowless brick building standing on the eastern side of the camp. We entered a door on the north side and descended four or five steps. To our right was a wide ‘roll-up’ door, and to our left were six ovens, side-by-side, each with its own muffler. Over top of ovens was a walkway with handrail, and behind that a forest of neat pipes, and dials and valves. Horribly impressive….We exited on the south side of the building and looked again at the piles of clogs and worn-out shoes. Once, and not long ago, live people had stood in those very clogs and shoes. Was this what I saw? I wonder about that yet today….

“Battleground debris was everywhere—tanks dug-in with ugly snouts (turrets and guns) showing above ground. All kinds of damaged and abandoned vehicles. Armored cars, half-tracks, spent and unspent ammunition. Rows of trees dynamited so as to block use of a road….

“Small children begging for food. A boy of 5 or 6 years, holding a little girl’s hand. Each carries a tin pail. Our cook comes down the gangway, still wearing his kitchen apron, and ladles warm food into each pail. The children watch him, wide-eyed.

Park Victory cooks, January 1946. Photo courtesy of Fred Ramseyer.

“A ship’s boom swings up and out of a hold and over to the dock, lowering another animal container. Out staggers a sick cow, head hanging down, frothing at nostrils and mouth. Given extra injections by Vets. Old man and old woman waiting nearby come forward. Old man places rope around cow’s neck; old woman covers cow with blanket. Man leads cow away as old woman walks alongside hugging and petting cow….

“At the Polonia. Girls, desperate to escape Danzig, begging to be smuggled aboard ship….

Bar near the docks frequented by ship’s crew and seagoing cowboys. Photo credit: Will Keller.

“Jan 17, 1946 Park Victory leaves Danzig/Newport….Destination Copenhagen.

“Jan 18, 1946 shore leave in Copenhagen. What a change from Danzig!”

Next regular post: Images of Gdansk, before and after: 1946 and 2007

The S. S. Park Victory: Livestock trip #2, Poland, December 1945 – Part II

The next leg of the Park Victory‘s journey began to expose the seagoing cowboys to the realities of war. The ship left Downs, England, at noon January 7 (1946) for the Kiel Canal, “twenty hours away thru the minefields,” notes the ship’s radioman, Will Keller. Early the next morning, “in thick fog we missed a buoy,” he writes. “EMERGENCY STOP! Reversed engine, drug anchor.”

When the fog lifted around noon, the ship proceeded past the German town of Cuxhaven and took on an Elbe River pilot to guide the ship through the canal. “Nice shore line,” assistant cowboy supervisor Harold Hoffman says in his diary. “Buildings look like any American town.” Soon the locks of the canal came into sight.

Interacting with Germans in the Kiel Canal lock. Photo courtesy of Harold Hoffman.

“Saw masts of several sunken vessels,” Hoffman notes. Entering the lock “was exciting. No one worked, even ship’s crew. Except to tie up ship. Gate closed. There probably 1 hr. or longer. Most men typical German. Some weather beaten. Some English around.” Then the interactions began. Cowboys and crewmen threw gum and candy to the children. “Bartering was fun,” says Hoffman. “Had ships made in a bottle for 5 pks. cigarettes. I got a pin for 2 pks.”

“Soon we moved on. Light fading,” Hoffman says . “Moved slowly through gates and into canal. Did not use motors, let the current carry us for some distance.” Then it was back to work, with the unpleasant task of raising a dead mare to the top deck from which she would be buried at sea when the ship reached open waters.

Not all animals survived the trip. Removing them from the ship was not an easy task. Photo credit: Will Keller.

The next morning, “At arising found ourselves anchored in Kiel harbor,” says Hoffman, where the ship would stay all day. That night, seagoing cowboy Fred Ramseyer notes a contrast in his diary. “See sunken ships all around in the bay. It’s a nice eve out. The moon is shining on the bay, the stars etc. on the ripples.”

The Park Victory had to wait until 7 a.m. the next morning to leave, “because [through] the next twelve hours’ run the water is filled with 137 sunken ships,” notes Hoffman, “so we must have day light to dodge them.” Not to mention the mines that still littered the Baltic Sea.

Sunken ships were still evident the following summer. Photo credit: Charles Shenk, July 1946.

“Departed Kiel with pilot thru maze of sunken vessels,” notes Keller, “big ones and little ones. Some with masts sticking out of water; others resting on the bottom with superstructures above water. Water sloshing in and out of open doorways and portholes. Six knife-edged minesweepers at work.”

After a cold, damp, and windy but safe passage through the Baltic Sea, on Friday afternoon, January 11, the Park Victory slowly moved towards the harbor at Danzig (Gdansk), Poland. Radioman Keller says, “Pilot sends word suggesting lock up all radio equipment and ‘disappear’ as we approach docking area, otherwise I might be impressed to serve as port’s radio station by local ‘authorities.’ As suggested, I locked up – and disappeared.

“As we proceeded up the channel into New Port (serving Danzig),” says Keller, “we saw ruins, and more ruins. And we heard gunfire, and more gunfire.” Hoffman elaborates in his diary: “Ships on banks taken out of harbor. German plane, large warehouse, steel structures damaged. All buildings of brick, some completely flat. Others just walls, others down in parts. Some with roofs out. Some looked as if hit directly. Railroads & tracks, cars, trucks crumbled & twisted. Passed Samuel Ingram [Liberty ship] docked with load of K rations. Plenty guards with rifles, machine guns & pistols. All seemed most curious. So was the boat personnel.”

A sample of the ruins that greeted the seagoing cowboys in Poland. Photo credit: Charles Shenk, July 1946.

Once docked, Hoffman notes, “Guys hanging all over ship. First on board Military and Customs. Can’t tell who is who or what. Poles, Germans or Russians. Notice posted to stay away from American Bar, as the day before one American seaman died, three critical as result of Vodka…. Time taken to make trip: 14 days, 3 hrs., 31 min.”

Everett Byer, in “A Cowboy Goes Abroad,” his unpublished report of this trip which he shared with his fellow cowboys, gives an account of the gravity of the situation the seagoing cowboys to Poland faced. He writes, “And so next morning we are permitted to go ashore, with final words of warning from our supervisor, handed down from the Captain:

This is a wide open city, without law. No permits or passes are needed but if you get in jail, you will probably stay here. We have no Counsul yet and cannot do much for you. Do not go ashore alone and the larger the group the better. Be sure to make it known that you are Americans, because a splendid feeling of good will is given toward Americans due to the tremendous aid in food and clothing that we have sent. Especially you ‘guys’ who talk a little German, be sure they know you are Americans, and don’t talk politics: they (Russians) have secret police and it may be just too bad.

“So, fifteen timid American farmers go ashore in a body,” writes Byer, ” to explore for the first time in a foreign land and in a town as wide open as any western town in our country’s early days.”

To be continued. . .

The S. S. Park Victory: Livestock trip #2, Poland, December 1945 – Part I

The seagoing cowboys on the second livestock trip of the S. S. Park Victory faced a much bleaker experience than those who went to Trieste. It was a rougher ride in wintry weather, for one thing. And the destination more devastated.

S. S. Park Victory awaits departure in Baltimore, December 1945. Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

Seagoing cowboy Daniel Hertzler says in an article for The Mennonite, “We were a diverse group of cattlemen…. Ten states and two Canadian provinces were represented. There were 16 Mennonites, 10 Brethren, one Methodist, one Baptist and one Presbyterian.” Of these men, the ship’s radio operator Will Keller notes, “Some younger, some older, some conscientious objectors to war, some adventurers, all well-behaved without exception.”

Seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Park Victory to Poland, Dec. 1945. Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

More seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Park Victory to Poland, Dec. 1945. Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

Cowboys started arriving December 18 and had plenty of time to get to know each other before the work began, as a snow storm and sickness of horses held 13 train car loads up in Kentucky. Keller notes that cattle were then substituted for the horses. Finally, on December 24, with all the cargo loaded, tug boats began pulling the Park Victory from the pier in Baltimore and moving down the Chesapeake Bay.

Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

“Everyone was excited,” notes assistant cowboy supervisor Harold Hoffman in his diary. That is, until the ship anchored off Norfolk, Virginia, where it sat for three days waiting for a full ship’s crew. Radioman Keller explains, “Anchored midstream away from any access to land so as to not lose crew members or cowboys over Christmas holiday.”

On Christmas Eve, Hoffman notes the finding of a dead mare. “Some start,” he says. But “What a Christmas dinner,” he writes the next day. “Stewards dept. really put themselves in good with the cowboys.”

Christmas menu. From the papers of Harold Hoffman, Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

However, it wasn’t such a good Christmas Day up top. “Had messy time feeding top deck in rain tonight getting the canvas back on the feed that a hard wind blew off,” Hoffman says. An omen of the chilly, cloudy, rainy weather and choppy seas that plagued the ship all the way across the Atlantic.

The ship set sail December 27, and two days later Hoffman writes, “This morning we began to get a real touch of sea life. Two of the boys went to the rail after breakfast. Most every one was affected some.” Later, I was “standing in line at slop chest [ship’s store] when it seemed the ship went on her side. Passageway doors opened and six inches of water came in. Soon the fire alarm. A rush for life jackets. Everyone wondered if it was drill or real. The crew was serious. Another alarm, some thought it was to abandon ship…. I rushed for my life jacket. The First Mate came through, said the last alarm was the dismissal.”

Photo credit: Fred Ramseyer.

Radioman Keller notes, “Not all animal manure developed on board will be discarded overboard. Odor becomes overwhelming in some places. Horrible below deck.” Pity the poor cowboys who were assigned to those holds!

The distribution of heifers and horses on the S. S. Park Victory to Poland, Dec. 1945. Drawing by Harold Hoffman.

Arrangement of the livestock in the Park Victory holds, Dec. 1945. Drawing by Harold Hoffman.

On New Year’s Day, 1946, part way across the Atlantic, Keller notes, “wartime radio silence at sea no longer required. Radio airwaves congested with commercial traffic.”

Finally, on January 6, “Sighted land of Scilly Islands,” says Hoffman. “Much excitement about it.” The ship made its way up through the English Channel to the White Cliffs of Dover, where it anchored for the night. Of the cliffs, Hoffman says, “They are a chalky-Limestone rock. White indeed…. This trip is really swell. It is like a dream, such a thrill.”

If the White Cliffs of Dover were thrilling, the next leg of the Park Victory trip was chilling, in more ways than the weather.

to be continued . . .