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:
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!
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.