Special Post: International Day of Peace

On this International Day of Peace, I honor the Seagoing Cowboys
who helped usher in peace after World War II.

A seagoing cowboy reflects on visiting the memorial being built where the first shots of World War II had been fired. Gdansk, Poland, July 1946. Photo by Charles Shenk.

Seagoing cowboy Guy Buch, fluent in German, is being interviewed by German media. Buch was part of a special crew of Church of the Brethren seminary and college students intent on having dialogue with German Christians. Bremen, West Germany, July 1946. Photo courtesy of Guy Buch.

Another special crew tested whether black and white seagoing cowboys could work together on the same ship. The cowboys pray together on their return from Poland to the United States. July 1946. Photo by Ben Kaneda.

On this International Day of Peace,
I also honor the Brethren Service Committee and the Heifer Project
whose mission it was to build peace in a war-torn world.

Seagoing cowboy Martin Strate shakes the hand of a Japanese official after a ceremony to celebrate Heifer Project’s shipment of 25 bulls to Japan, May 1947. Photo by Norman Hostetler.

A “Campaign for Peace Action” brochure of the Church of the Brethren Peace Education Department, circa late 1940s. Courtesy of Heifer International archives.

May peace prevail in these troubled times.

~ Peggy Reiff Miller

 

War Bride Stowed Away on Livestock Ship

An undated newspaper clipping in the Heifer International archives carries this headline:

“Bride, Made Up as Negro Boy By Husband, Signed as Cattle Steward, Stows Across Atlantic”

The article, written by Harry P. Moore, appeared in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, circa early November, 1946.

At the end of World War II, when American troops moved into Poland, US Army Captain Paul K. Cowgill met and fell in love with a young Polish war widow, Katrinsyka Spicyk. Early in the war, the Germans killed her husband and forced her into slave labor. After meeting Captain Cowgill in 1945, the couple courted for a few months and were married. After Cowgill returned to the United States, they had a dilemma—how would they get Katrinsyka there? They were told it could take weeks or months for her to get accommodations on a passenger ship, and she wouldn’t be allowed on a freighter.

Their transportation problem was solved when Cowgill, now out of the Army, signed on to the S.S. Edward W. Burton which he knew was bound for Poland. The UNRRA ship departed from Newport News, Virginia, September 28, 1946, with a load of 810 horses.

The ship that carried Captain Cowgill to Poland, September 1946. Photo by Nelson Watts.

“On the way to Europe,” Cowgill told Moore, “I looked the ship over carefully and finally decided that a good hiding place would be a big ventilator that was used to supply air to the cattle in the ship’s hold.” He removed some “bolts and minor obstructions” and crawled into the space himself to test it out. It would work.

On arrival in Gdansk, he looked up his wife. Now the question was how to get her on the ship. He realized that the only dark-skinned people the Poles see are those who come on the crews of the US merchant ships. “It occurred to me that it would be just the thing to disguise my wife as a Negro boy,” he said. When they were ready to go, he blacked her face and they went down to the ship.

“She was carrying a few packages and I was ordering her about to make the guard on the pier believe we both belonged on the ship,” he said. The ruse worked and he was able to get her inside the ventilator without being seen. He took a blanket to her, and there she stayed for five days, eating what food he could bring her.

Once the ship was in the Atlantic Ocean, with no possibility of Katrinsyka being taken off ship in Europe and sent back to Poland, the couple turned themselves in to the Captain who questioned them separately. “The girl appeared frightened despite her black face,” he said. Satisfied that their stories matched, he decided to give them a break. He took their statements, made copies, and had them signed. When the Edward W. Burton arrived in Newport News, Captain Simmons accompanied Mr. & Mrs. Cowgill to Norfolk to straighten everything out with immigration and customs officials.

Photo from the Norfolk-Virginian Pilot.

“I am happy now,” Mrs. Cowgill said, “glad to be in America. It is such a fine place. Everybody laughs and I shall laugh, too.”

If my research is correct, the couple died just months apart in 2009 and 2010 and are buried side by side in Arlington National Cemetery, with Katrinsyka having changed her name to Anna Anita and her maiden name being Prosniak.

 

Ten young seagoing cowboys from Okanogan County, Washington, on an errand of mercy: Part III

The story of the Okanogan County, Washington, seagoing cowboys continues with their sobering arrival in Danzig, Poland, on December 27, 1945*:

The Clarksville Victory approaches the pier in Nowy Port, Poland, December 27, 1945. Photo by J. O. Yoder.

In an unidentified newspaper article, 16-year-old Fancher said, “You have to see that country to believe it. Everyone is hungry . . . The children are in rags and most of them have not been to school since the war started. You walk down the streets and they run up to you, holding out their hands and begging for food.” One of the images that still remains in Fancher’s mind today is that of seeing people on the street cutting steaks off of one of the mares that died.

Children following the seagoing cowboys in Gdansk, Poland, January 1946. Photo by Nelson Schumacher.

Henneman recalls that their ship had apples from Tonasket. “The labels on the box tell you where they come from, and who packed it. Somebody we knew packed them. You knew their number.” In Poland, he carried apples off the ship under his jacket and handed them out to people. “I guess it was stealing,” he said, “but we had plenty. They didn’t have any.” He bought other items that he carried off the ship and gave to people. The guards, who would normally shake someone down they suspected of carrying things off, would let him pass because they knew he was giving everything away.

Dave Henneman shares a story from J. O. Yoder’s book about their trip with Peggy Reiff Miller in 2014 interview. Photo by Sandra Brightbill.

Cigarettes were the prime black market commodity, and other cowboys learned they could buy cigarettes cheaply in the ship’s store and trade them for souvenirs. Or they could trade their dollars for Zloties to make their purchases. Dugan was able to obtain a violin which he still has and which he played for dances after he got home. Fancher brought home a little wooden box with a hand-carved lid.

Entertainment options in Danzig were slim. Dugan remembers visiting battlefields with ammunition and the bodies of unburied German soldiers still lying around. “Danzig is like some old Wild West town,” Fancher said in his newspaper interview. “It is full of Russian, Polish and British soldiers, and all the civilians carry guns–pistols, rifles or tommy-guns. There are a lot of shooting scrapes. Two English and four Russians were killed during the 14 days we were there, and some of our boys were held up and robbed of cigarets [sic] and American money.”

Exploring a battlefield near the docks in Poland, January 1946. Photo by Nelson Schumacher.

Fancher and John Woodard told the reporter, “one sight in Danzig was three times as horrible as the worst Boris Karloff movie.” Woodard explained, “That was the [building] the Germans used for human medical experiments. They showed us thru it . . . it was terrible. There were human bones all about, human skin that had been tanned, soap made from human fat . . . the smell was sickening . . . there were two petrified bodies . . .” The experience is one the cowboys do not like to talk about today. Their crew was one of only a few that were taken through the facility before it was put off limits.

Photo by Clarksville Victory fellow cowboy Eli Beachy, January 1946.

(to be continued)

* Excerpted from my article published in the Okanogan County Heritage magazine, Winter 2014.

Creighton Victory cowboys adopt a Polish boy to their crew

The seagoing cowboys on the S. S. Creighton Victory trip of July 4, 1946, to Poland were a special crew of interracial students recruited by the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen for UNRRA to determine if they could send integrated crews to Europe. The practice up to that time had been for cattle tenders to be segregated into all white or all black crews.

Fellowship of Southern Churchmen interracial seagoing cowboy crew at Hampton Institute, July 1946. Courtesy of Ben Kaneda.

When this Fellowship Crew reached Poland, they took on a special mission of their own – as described in the newsletter they published during their trip called “The Atlantic Daily.” In it, they included profiles of the entire crew. Profile #36 describes their mission:

The thirty-sixth member of the Fellowship Crew could only be Rog Stanislaw, 12-year-old Polish waif literally adopted by the cattlemen. Rog (pronounced Rook) won the admiration of everyone of the S. S. Creighton by his ever-smiling good nature, his good manners, and his honest desire for cleanliness.

The first evening that Rog left the Creighton after visiting with the men aboard, one of the ship’s regular crewmen gave him enough money in the form of Polish zlotych to enable him to buy himself a pair of shoes. Although Rog could speak only one or two words of English and German, his pride of his new shoes was apparent when he returned aboard the Creighton the next day.

Rog Stanislaw aboard the S. S. Creighton Victory in Nowy Port, Poland, July 1946. Photo courtesy of Ben Kaneda.

In spite of the fact that Rog often protested taking gifts from crew members, he was loaded down with soap, candy, apples, oranges, and gum when he had to leave the ship in the evening. Knowing this affable young boy who never asked for a single thing provided the other side of the picture to the large number of Polish children who followed American seamen by the hoards asking for gifts of all kinds.

Polish children beg for treats from Creighton Victory cowboys. Photo courtesy of Ben Kaneda.

On the last evening in port in Poland, the Fellowship Crew took up a collection of 633 zlotych and presented it to Rog who was both bashful and filled with gratitude.

There were tears in the eyes of Rog Stanislaw as the ship prepared to leave Poland. He wanted very much to go to America too. As he stood on the dock waving, waving, and waving, he became a mere speck in the distance as the Creighton Victory headed her bow in the direction of the Untied States of America, the land of plenty.

The suffering of all Poland was brought home to members of the Fellowship Crew time after time in visits to city and rural areas around Danzig but certainly no more lasting impression of the grief and need that exists there could have been seen than the young tow-headed Polish Rog Stanislaw, homeless waterfront wanderer who wanted to become a part of America so badly that he cried openly when his new American friends pulled out for home leaving him standing on the dock . . . alone.

A Seagoing Cowboy meditation on war

I recently came across this September 13, 1947, Gospel Messenger editorial by Desmond W. Bittinger in my research and asked for permission to reprint it here. The image was not a part of the original editorial.

Why Do You Hate Us So?

The seagoing cowboy walked sadly through the rubble of a devastated European city. A child with dwarfed body and twisted limbs and with the lined features of an old man followed afar off. Every time the cowboy waited for him he hid behind the walls of debris which lined the street.

The ruins of Gdansk, Poland, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Paul M. Martin

Finally the cowboy sat down in the rubble and looked about him. Near by were the forsaken ruins of a church. Across the street from it were the foundations of homes, but they were fire-scarred and heaped full of fallen bricks and timber. Here and there appeared broken fire hydrants and the evidences of exploded gas mains. As he rested the child sidled up nearer. It was evident that he was examining the American with unusual curiosity.

Finally, very much to the surprise of the American, he asked in English, “Why do you hate us so?”

“We don’t hate you,” the American replied quickly. “I just came over from America to bring cattle to you so that you could have milk to drink. On other ships we have sent you shoes and clothing. Little children in America save their pennies to send them to you. You are mistaken,” he said almost pleadingly. “We don’t hate you. We want you to grow up to be big and strong.”

The lad listened carefully as if trying to understand every word. Then waving his hand inclusively over the broken city he said, “I used to live here. This is my home. Didn’t you do this?”

And the cowboy hung his head. In imagination he saw this boy’s family. Half a dozen of them were here then. This was their church; over there was their home. Around the corner was their school. These streets were clean then. The walks leading up to the houses were always scrubbed; flowers bloomed in their yard. And inside the house there was always sunlight.

But all of that was changed now. Sunlight could not reach even the basement, for it was filled with rubble. Father was dead; mother was gone; perhaps she was a slave somewhere. Where were the other children? Some were dead; some were D.P.’s whom even America would not receive. The choir no longer sang in the church; there would be no more midnight Christmas celebrations. The American concluded his meditation, “This is worse than a graveyard; it is the inside of a tomb. Death is still here.”

Bombs from overhead had done this. They had done it to free a people, the cowboy had been told. When he looked up the lad had disappeared in the shadows. The little wizened face and the dwarfed body were gone.

To free a people? Can war ever free a people? he wondered. Though the lad was gone his questions filled all the crevices which had been homes. “Why do you hate us so? Didn’t you do this?”

We must share and give, praying God to help us live so unselfishly both now and hereafter that no little children ever again need ask, “Why do you hate us so?”

Love can cast out fear; it is the only thing which can. D.W.B.

Used by permission of Messenger magazine, Church of the Brethren.

 

An Amish Seagoing Cowboy’s Story: Cletus Schrock

UNRRA’s seagoing cowboys came from all denominations, religions, and non-religions. The stakes were the highest for some of the Amish cowboys whose Bishops did not allow such worldly activity. One of those cowboys was Cletus Schrock, a young Old Order Amish farmer from Topeka, Indiana.

As a conscientious objector to war, Cletus served in Civilian Public Service during World War II from September 1942 through the end of March 1946. In February 1946, the US Selective Service System agreed to allow CPSers to apply for “detached service” in the CPS Reserve to serve on livestock ships delivering animals to Europe until discharged.

Peggy Reiff Miller interviews Cletus Schrock, July 7, 2008.

“I was working in a mental hospital in Staunton, Virginia,” he told me, “and I tried to get into the detached service.” The hospital superintendent, however, said, “I can’t let you go. I don’t have a replacement. So I was stuck ’til I got my Selective Service discharge.” That day arrived on March 31.

CPS release form for Cletus Schrock.

“I just packed a suitcase and went to the Brethren Service office in Newport News, and they said I’m on the next ship out.” That ship was the S. S. Carroll Victory headed for Poland with a load of horses April 11, 1946.

“I was brought up with horses,” he said, “so I was in charge of one hold of 154 of them. I had three men helping me that they hired off the street to be cowboys.”

Cletus Schrock is the cowboy with a mark over his head. Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

In Poland, Cletus recalls the devastation: “Alles kaputt!” he said. Everything’s ruined! “That’s what a lot of them would say. There was only two buildings in the big city of Danzig that I remember were not damaged. The rest of ’em were just pretty well dilapidated.”

Cletus, center cowboy, with the Roth brothers befriended a Polish boy in the ruins of Danzig/Gdansk, Poland, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

Women at work cleaning up the debris in Gdansk, Poland, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

The cowboys found remnants of the war not far from the ship.

Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

And like many of the cowboys, Cletus met people who wanted desperately to go to America. One couple who befriended him said, “If there’s any way we could be stowaways and hide on the ship….” He had to turn them down. As he did the woman by his side in this photo.

Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

On the return trip, Cletus got a break. “See, the boys were supposed to wash down all the stalls,” he said. “I didn’t have to do any of that, because I had my hair cutting tools in my locker, and one of the boys seen I had ’em. The guys were wanting hair cuts and the word got around to the captain. The first guy I cut hair was the captain, and that was quite interesting. I got to be right up there where all the controls were. So I cut hair. And that’s all I did coming back. I got to know men from all over the country, and some of ’em paid me a dollar.”

When Cletus arrived home, his Amish community found out about his trip. “That wasn’t good news for me,” he said. His first Sunday back, his Amish bishops cornered him and said, “We heard about what you did. We don’t believe in that.”

Cletus had come to appreciate the Mennonites who ran the CPS camps in which he had served, so he decided to leave the Amish and join a Mennonite congregation near him. “I knew I had helped people,” he said, “and so I didn’t feel like one of the Amish anymore.”

His decision to leave came at a greater cost than just being cut off from his church family. “My dad had bought a farm for me of 120 acres with buildings on it that I was to get if I stayed Amish. Since I didn’t stay Amish, I didn’t get anything. It didn’t bother me that much, because it wasn’t my main goal. I just learned a lot about helping people, especially when I worked in the hospital, and then going on over across.”

 

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part IV—Happier days in Gdynia

Our last regular post highlighted the sobering tour on which UNRRA took the seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Virginian on October 4, 1945. While the cowboys explored the countryside, the ship moved from Nowy Port outside Gdansk where the livestock was unloaded to the port of Gdynia further up the coast to unload the remaining cargo. It took only two days to unload the animals and any remaining hay and feed in Nowy Port, but another six days to clear the ship in Gdynia.

On a battlefield above Gdynia, Poland, October 1945. Photo courtesy of Lowell Erbaugh.

The remaining cargo consisted of:
1,395 gallons of DDT
30 bags of chicken feathers
255 bolts of cotton piece goods
19,183 bales of clothing
36,032 cartons of soap
200 barrels of soap
2,452 bags of shoes
4,939 cases of canned food
7,000 shovels
26 drums of carbide
8 bales of bed sheeting
825 drums of lard
One crated auto.

A newer city, Gdynia was not as heavily damaged as Gdansk. “The living conditions in this town are quite good compared to other towns nearby,” Ken Kortemeier says in his diary.

A street in Gdynia, Poland, October 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

Unlike Gdansk where barter for candy, gum, or cigarettes was the name of the game for obtaining desired objects, the people of Gdynia were eager for American dollars. “It is interesting to look at the merchandise for sale in the stores and the amber articles for sale,” he says. “It is only found around the Baltic area where it is mined.”

Street life in Gdynia in October 1945 was more normal than in nearby devastated Gdansk. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

“The people as a rule are cheerful and we had many a laugh as we talked to the folks in stores and in the streets,” notes Harry Kauffman. “It was a much needed break from what I had been seeing and hearing, although we see here, too, the tragedy of war. I saw a young woman with only one leg walking on crutches and one young man with both eyes gone.”

The market place in Gdynia, Poland, October 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

One day, Kortemeier and some friends went to the public market where he bought a German plate. “Hardware, dishes, clothes, rugs, etc., were all for sale,” he says. Kauffman adds, “Some of the sellers are perhaps dealers but many are poor people who sell anything they can possibly spare. Some cut glassware and chinaware looked very costly and some very old. All these things are sold for to get something to eat and to us Americans at only a fraction of their real value.”

All through their time in Poland, the cowboys continued to meet people who either wanted them to take letters with them to mail to relatives or friends in the US when they returned or wanted to be smuggled onto the ship to go to America. The S. S. Virginian left Poland October 10 with some letters in cowboy hands but no stowaways on board.

Cowboy supervisor John Steele had now been gone from home the total six weeks he had anticipated being away from his business. To his dismay, he would have another five weeks yet to go.

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part III–The Tour

On their third morning in Poland, UNRRA’s Minister of Agriculture to Poland Gene Hayes met the seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Virginian to take them on a tour. “Mr. Hayes told us before we started out that he would show us some things we would like to see and some things we would not like to see, but he wanted us to see them,” said Harry Kauffman. When Mr. Hayes arrived, the cowboys climbed into the back of a 1942 Chevrolet Army truck given to UNRRA.

Seagoing cowboys pile into UNRRA truck for their tour, October 4, 1945. Photo courtesy of Harry Kauffman.

“We went on down into the ruins of Gdansk,” says R. Everett Petry in his journal. “The total destruction can be neither imagined or exaggerated. Every single building in the downtown area is very literally demolished, with just parts of bare brick or stone walls standing as far as our eye could see.

Women largely did the work of clearing up the rubble, as most able-bodied men were no longer around. Gdansk, Poland, October 1945. Photo courtesy of Bub Erbaugh.

“Mr. Hayes told us that Danzig would be far easier rebuilt on a completely new location somewhere else, but because of its great historical value and its age and the fact that it was once one of the great art and culture centers of the world, the Polish people want to rebuild the entire city on its own site.” To visit the city today, one can see that they accomplished their goal.

The rebuilding of Gdansk. Photo by Peggy Reiff Miller, October 2013.

“Most of the damage was done by English and American airmen, running out the Germans,” Petry says, “and yet, the Polish people do not hold it against us….they call us their ‘liberators.'”

Hayes took the group to see a former 700-acre German estate east of Gdansk where the heifers had been taken. “We passed and met dozens of Poles,” Petry says, “obviously farmers who were driving horses hitched to wagons and carts loaded with all their earthly possessions, seeking their new homes in any section of country not Russian owned.” The estate lay on land that had at various times been part of Germany, Poland, and Russia. Now it would be part of Poland again, and the land would be divided into small parcels for Poles moving in from territory now claimed by Russia. 

Heifers graze at the former German estate east of Gdansk, Poland, where UNRRA heifers were taken, October 4, 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

The cattle were branded at the former blacksmith shop on the estate east of Gdansk, Poland, where the UNRRA heifers were taken. October 4, 1945. Photo courtesy of Harry Kauffman.

Trenches, foxholes, and military debris marked the estate as a site where battles had been fought. “There are German and Polish graves all over these fields,” says Lloyd Pepple. “We were told,” adds Petry, “that the nationality of the occupants of the graves could be identified by the cross. A German grave is identified by a German helmet on the cross. A Russian cross is marked by a red star placed at the top of the vertical part of the cross. And a Polish cross is just the plain cross with no identification at all. On every hand were visible signs of the death struggle in which many lives were lost, fighting for this ground.”

Helmets mark this grave at the estate east of Gdansk, Poland, where the UNRRA heifers were taken. October 4, 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

Hayes also took the group to another former German estate on the other side of Gdansk where the horses had been taken. “We were told that this estate was owned years ago by a wealthy German who was a great horse-man and he raised and bred pure thorough-bred horses,” says Petry. “The stables were huge and very strongly built and apparently a great many horses had been housed there. [Our] horses themselves were in excellent condition and appeared to have quieted down considerably.”

Sandwiched between these visits Hayes exposed the group to some of those things “we would not like to see,” as Harry Kauffman had noted. Cowboy supervisor John Steele explains it like this: “It is almost too horrible to tell what we saw. One large building, a half block square, had a flat roof and a post every 16 to 20 feet to support the roof. Hitler had tied two or three Jews to each post, then set fire to the building. The human bones were all around where each post had been. A large church was used as a gas chamber. Jews were taken from camp and told they could go there to take a bath. Then after they were inside, the gas was turned on. The bodies were used to make soap. At this place, we saw bodies stored in tanks of formaldehyde that were being saved to show at the trials of the Germans.”

“It was in the basement of a hospital,” says Ken Kortemeier. “Skeletons were all around and in another building nearby we saw leather made from human skin.” Kauffman adds, “I saw some of these products myself, and I wondered many times how and why can men sink so low as to do something like this.”

“Every one of us could only look and shudder and think…,” says Petry. “And we wondered why God permitted such things.”

Commemorative sign on the building seagoing cowboys toured in 1945. Photo by Peggy Reiff Miller, October 2013.

A few more of the early cowboy crews to Poland that followed were taken to this “human soap factory” as it was called before it was evidently put off limits for evidence of war crimes.

A later cowboy crew outside the Nazi medical research building they had toured in Gdansk, Poland, December 1945. Photo courtesy of Hugh Ehrman.

Petry sums up the experience for the Virginian crew in his journal that night: “All of us felt that today was, indeed, one of the most educational days we had ever spent.”

Next post: Happier days in Gdynia

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part II—Impressions of Gdansk

According to seagoing cowboy supervisor John Steele, the S. S. Virginian was the first merchant ship to enter Gdansk, Poland, after World War II. Whether this is true or not, I cannot confirm. At any rate, the cowboys were warmly welcomed by the Polish people—and sorely dismayed by the destruction around them.

“We were all day getting through Danzig Bay,” notes Lloyd Pepple in his journal. “These waters are still very dangerous. There is just a narrow lane through them. There are many sunken ships here, some with their upper parts above the water and some below the surface and only an experienced pilot can take a ship through.

“Danzig (Gdansk) is certainly dead and forlorn looking,” Pepple says, “and it certainly does arouse some strong feeling against the Hitler gang who would do and cause such destruction and murder. I have already found several persons with whom I could talk German and two with whom I could talk real well. And from one and all I heard the sad, tragic story of first German and then Russian looting, murder, and worse things. It is hard to suppress one’s emotions.”

Nowy Port, Poland, dock area where livestock were unloaded. October 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

The ship docked in Nowy Port, the port city for Gdansk, around 5:00 p.m. that Monday, October 1. Everett Petry writes of Russian officers and soldiers everywhere and choosing to stay on board that night in the safety and warmth of the ship. He speaks of Russians in their long, heavy coats and barefooted children in shorts with their legs blue from the cold.

Ken Kortemeier notes, however, that most of the children wore a smile. “They tell us 9/10 of Danzig is destroyed,” Kortemeier says. Bub Erbaugh adds, “The buildings have big holes in them, and a lot of buildings just aren’t.” A foretaste of what’s to come.

Horse lifted off the S. S. Virginian in Nowy Port, Poland, October 2, 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

Bright and early the next morning, the Polish stevedores got to work unloading the horses and heifers. “They unloaded with a flying stall,” says Pepple. “It is a big box, big enough to hold a horse. They pull it out of the bottom of the ship with winches and set it out on the street. Then they lead the horse away. Sometimes it takes 4 or 5 men to hold them.”

Corralling a horse on the docks of Nowy Port, Poland, October 2, 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

The 16-year-old S. S. Virginian captain’s son, who served as one of the cowboys, likened the unloading of the cattle to the streets of downtown Cheyenne. “They went whacko, jumping and bucking,” he said, “after being confined so long at sea.”

First heifers shipped into Poland by UNRRA after World War II, October 2, 1945. Photo courtesy of Bub Erbaugh.

That afternoon, a group of cowboys took a crowded, shot-up tram into Gdansk and witnessed more of the realities of war. “We didn’t see one building that was not hit with bombs or machine gun fire,” Pepple says. “It is a terrible sight.”

First seagoing cowboys to witness the destruction of Gdansk, Poland, after World War II. October 1945. Photo courtesy of Harry Kauffman.

We saw street cars still on the tracks all shot full of holes,” says Pepple. “They said the conductor and all the passengers were killed in these cars. We saw an old prison that had 800 Polish prisoners of war in it. The Germans set it afire and burned them up alive. You could see human bones all over it. There was nothing left of it but the walls.”

Everett Petry writes of the odors of bodies still buried in the rubble, the remarkable ability of the Polish people to push on amidst such destruction, and how the mention of “UNRRA,” in which they put their hope, would bring smiles to people’s faces.

Harry Kauffman stayed in the port that afternoon and the next day, talking with people who could speak German. And he heard the stories of the cowboys who had gone into Gdansk. “Tonight I write these lines with a heavy heart,” he notes in his journal, “unashamed that my eyes are swimming with tears at the things I have seen and heard. Tomorrow the Commissioner of Agriculture for Poland which is working for the UNRRA has arranged to take us on an all day tour.” He would see some of World War II’s horrors for himself.

To be continued

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part I—The Voyage

On September 1, 1945, John Steele, of Goshen, Indiana, left his feed, coal, and building supply business in the hands of his employees to oversee a crew of seagoing cowboys on the first UNRRA shipment to Poland after World War II. What had been billed to him as a six-week trip kept him away from home for three months. Even so, he considers the trip the highlight of his life.

S. S. Virginian crew, September 1945. Photo courtesy of Lowell Erbaugh.

Steele arrived at the docks in Jersey City only to find his ship, the S. S. Virginian, in dry dock for repairs. On September 10, his 30 cow hands joined him aboard the massive merchant vessel built in 1903, which had seen service in two world wars and still bore some of its guns. The gun decks offered a prime view of New York City across the Hudson River. “The sight is marvelous,” writes cowboy Ken Kortemeier in his diary. The Empire State Building stood conspicuous on the skyline “with a small section near the top darkened as a result of the tragic B-25 crash.”

Kortemeier notes that the Queen Mary pulled in that morning with 14,000 troops aboard. “It fills one with emotion to see them line the deck, peering out of portholes eager to see and set foot on the land they love.”

On the night of September 13, two tug boats nudged the ship on its way. Kortemeier says, “It was a great sensation going down the harbor seeing the majestic New York City skyline light up as usual and fading slowly in the background. The Statue of Liberty was an inspirational sight as she stood there. Flood lights were on her and her torch was really burning. One of the last landmarks of New York that could be seen was Coney Island all lit up with the old Ferris wheel of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair well in the foreground. One could see automobiles as they sped along the boulevards bordering the River. Lights faded out and we ventured forth on the dark Atlantic with lighthouses winking at us as if it were now our turn.”

The S. S. Virginian. Photo by Elwood Geiger.

After their first day of work, the cowboys bonded at the stern of the ship with the first of many song fests, singing gospel and secular numbers after a short business meeting. “It was great,” says Kortemeier, “and the moon helped us by giving a silvery effect to the sea. Oh yes, sea, moon, and stars were there, but that is not all. God was there. Let the tempests rage, and the sea roar — remember still that the small voice speaketh and the men aboard this ship tonight are in His care.”

Despite smooth sailing the first five days, many of the cowboys got seasick. One cowboy upchucked 12 times the first day out. He remembers hanging over the toilet and pushing the flush button with his head. “We managed to get our work done even if we were sick,” says his partner. “We had canned corn quite often, and we’d say we kind of liked it because it tasted the same coming up as it did going down.”

The fifth day out, “the sea was extra rough,” notes Kortemeier, “and preparations were made for stormy weather. Several tons of straw piled high on the hatch were thrown overboard in the hope of making the ship less top-heavy.” But the real tests came as the Virginian neared the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland. After missing a collision with a small Danish ship by only about ten feet in a dense fog, the Virginian entered the dangerous waters of the North Sea. “Life boats were hung over side today so they can be released by merely slashing the rope,” Kortemeier notes. “Also, a watch (constant) is being maintained for mines. Thank God that we now have peace and we do not need to worry about subs. The fact of having a safe night is now brought up every morning in devotions.”

Even though mapped, mines at times broke off from their moorings. The Virginian missed one by about 40 yards off the coast of Norway on September 28. The next morning, Kortemeier notes, “we got a radio report from a ship sinking because it hit a mine in the area where we were yesterday.” Another close call.

The Virginian finally reached the harbor at Danzig on October 1. Kortemeier says, “I was moved to tears for the first time on this voyage as we came up the canal at Danzig. Oh, what ruin and devastation. The people were waiting for us, and the big sign says — heartily welcome in Gdansk. What a scene! Nearly every building gutted. We expect to go ashore tomorrow.”

Nowy Port, Poland, October 1945. Photo by Harry Kauffman.