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

One of the fascinating realities about the seagoing cowboy trips that has kept me so engrossed for the past sixteen years is that every cowboy’s experience is uniquely his. Thus, for every group of 25 cowboys, there are 25 stories! Today, I share seagoing cowboy supervisor Harold Hoffman’s experience exploring the port area of Poland.

Seagoing cowboys from the S. S. Park Victory explore Gdansk, Poland, January 1946. Photo courtesy of Velma Hoffman.

As soon as the Park Victory docked the afternoon of January 11, interaction began with the guards and officials who came on board. For Hoffman, and most cowboys, the conversations painted a picture of postwar reality. One Polish guard bought cigarettes, Hoffman notes in his diary, which were the favored black market currency. Another “told of Russians coming to his house. Took his valuables. Wanted his wife. He couldn’t understand them. He told them she had T.B. They took 14 yr. old girl, kept her 5 days. Raped her 51 times. Brought her back, said she was drunk, is still sick, has syllphis [sic].”

Even though docked in port, there was still work to do feeding and watering the animals until unloading began the next morning. “Would unload at night,” Hoffman notes, “but [there is] fear of high jacking at night on way to stock yards.”

Unloading a horse in the “flying stall” at Nowy Port, Poland. January 1946. Photo credit: Will Keller.

Livestock received the UNRRA brand to protect from theft. Photo credit: Will Keller.

“Many [cowboys and crew] went from ship in evening to Bars. 4 crew had anti machine guns pulled on them by Russians. Very frequently hear shots. Open season on Poles as well as Russians.”

“A German dock worker lived in N.Y. 9 yrs.,” Hoffman notes. “Came to see mother. All clothes he owned (he) had on. Sold overcoat for food.”

One of the locations UNRRA livestock were gathered. Photo courtesy of Velma Hoffman.

The fourth day in port, as they did for many of the livestock crews, UNRRA took a group of the Park Victory men on a tour of the area. “Went to a camp where the Germans built stables and barracks,” Hoffman says. “Had a lot of UNRRA stock there. Saw a lot of our mares and heifers.” Later they were taken “to a little settlement of several families. Had horses, cows, hogs, rabbits. They were so appreciative of their stock.”

The UNRRA tours usually ended with a generous thank you dinner for the cowboys at a restaurant in the nearby resort town of Sopot which bore little damage from the war. “Courses were first 4 kinds of cold meats & bread,” Hoffman says. “Then vodka. Soup served in cups & saucers. Throughout meal brought vodka. After soup, stine [sic] of beer. Dinner of stake [sic], french fries, peas & carrots, cake of wet dough and delicious frosting.” Many a cowboy felt conflicted being served such a lavish meal while the people they’d been meeting were going hungry.

Banquet provided by UNRRA and the Polish Department of Agriculture for the seagoing cowboys. Photo credit: Ben Kaneda, July 1946.

On the day of departure, Hoffman records an incident that lowered his opinion of the ship’s Captain. As the Park Victory was pulling away, a Polish man on dock shouted “American comrade,” pointing down the channel. “Soon someone thought they saw the third engineer on the dock,” Hoffman notes. “I quickly spotted him through glasses as I had visited with him several times. Had taken a great interest in him because of his parents living in Poland. He was waving and calling to us. I saw the Master on top side walk to port side rail, look at him a moment, then turn away, walk back to center and light a cigarette. My heart sank for fear of (the engineer’s) welfare in such a country. Also my heart filled with rage at the Master for being so unjust to a fellow even tho he is much lower in position. Then I wondered how the 3rd Engineer must have felt. Later that night Don said he came aboard with the [channel] pilot and told some of his experiences. He had to go 400 miles. Part way by car, 2 days by train. His parents didn’t recognize him. His father is in very bad health and in clothes of shreds. He could provide (his father) some clothes. His mother told him he must sleep in the hay loft because his former friends and school mates would probably try to kill him for his possessions and identification papers in hopes that they might get to the states.” Fortunately, they didn’t come.

Next post: Ship’s radioman Will Keller’s experience in Poland.

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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 . . .