Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – The Long Ride Home

An unexpectedly long ride home wraps up our seagoing cowboy stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney. The most severe winter in Europe in decades caused one roadblock after another from start to finish for this last livestock trip to Poland. After being unloaded, the Mount Whitney got iced in at the dock in Nowy Port in February causing an extended week’s stay — much to the dismay of seagoing cowboys eager to get home after already having surpassed the six-week journey they had expected.

Finally, on a Saturday morning, “we spied an ice breaker with a company of Swedish coal ships in tow like a hen with her chicks and were led several miles out,” said Norman Thomas.

The Swedish icebreaker Atlee helps the S.S. Mount Whitney on her way from Poland to Sweden, February 1947. Slide from Wesley Miller/Wilbert Zahl collection.

On their own now in the Baltic Sea, thick ice periodically brought the ship to a stop forcing her to back up and charge ahead at full speed to break through. During the night, the ship stopped completely, and there she sat for four hours. “As a last resort,” said Wilbert Zahl, “we hooked our fire hoses to the hot-water boilers and ran hot water down the sides of the ship. After several hours we were able to back out of the ice floe. Then with full speed ahead we hit the ice floe so hard that it split open, and we were on our way.”

A view down the side of the Mount Whitney from about 40 feet up as she forces her way with the help of hot water through the 2-foot thick ice floe in the Baltic Sea, February 1947. Slide from Wesley Miller/Wilbert Zahl collection.

We all thought we were going home,” Zahl said, “not knowing that the winds had piled up ice 25 feet deep in the Kattegat, so there was no way to get through.” By morning, the ship had anchored three miles off Karlskrona, Sweden, and there she stayed, stuck in the ice, for another seven weeks.

The Blekinge County Newspaper reports on ship's stuck off the coast of Karlskrona, Sweden, March 4, 1947.

An area Karlskrona newspaper reported on the story of the many ships stuck in their harbor, March 4, 1947. The title reads, “The merchant fleet wants spring to come in Karlskrona.” The Mount Whitney is one of the ships named. Souvenir of Ray Finke.

“Every day we could go on foot to Karlskrona where we were welcomed with open arms,” Zahl said. Thomas noted, “One was immediately struck by the tremendous contrast of peace. Shops were full of food stuffs and dry goods; new American cars meandered through the streets, the trains were modern and on time; and the people wonderfully hospitable.” Ray Finke said, “The people here can’t do enough for us and like so much to learn English.”

Richard Wright finds a faster way to get to shore. At least one cowboy came home with frostbitten feet from walking across the ice. Photo courtesy of Richard Wright.

Farmers, preachers, and other cowboys with responsibilities at home tried desperately in vain to find alternative means of getting home. Ray Finke corresponded regularly with his family. “Sure have good mail service from here to get a return letter in a week to 10 days,” he wrote his wife. He ended up doing his farming that spring by mail, sending instructions to his wife to orchestrate. “Some fellows didn’t have a way to get seeding done or anything,” he wrote home. “One fellow rented his farm by mail, etc., so there are a lot of fellows in bad shape.”

Fortunately, the cowboy crew was a compatible bunch, and made the best of it. With eleven ministers on board, they had church services every night. And they planned special services for Holy Week that ended in a “brief Easter Sunrise service in the ship’s bow at 5:15 a.m. as the cold wind howled and threatened us with flurries of snow,” said Thomas. Volleyball, chess, books, and card games helped pass the time. A group organized a class for memorizing scripture verses, and several clubs popped up. The Whiskers Club decided not to shave until arriving home. The Gloom Chasers Club wore their clothes backwards and put ribbons in their hair, along with other antics.

“Hardly a man was missing from our good ship’s bow when on Saturday afternoon, April 12th, the anchor at last was raised,” Thomas said. Heavy ice still lay outside Karlskrona’s harbor, and icebreakers led the way. The second day they joined a convoy of eight ships. “The first ship blew up striking a mine which had been loosened by the ice floes,” Zahl said. “All the other ships turned back but our Captain ordered us all to put on our life jackets and stand on top deck. He said he would move cautiously along the ice floes and if we struck a mine we should swim to the ice floe where we would be picked up somehow. We had scary sailing, but by evening we had reached Copenhagen safely.”

The welcome New City skyline as seen from the S.S. Mount Whitney, April 26, 1947. Slide from Wesley Miller/Wilbert Zahl collection.

With their food supply down to dried herring and wormy rice, Zahl said, “we were overjoyed when finally we saw the Statue of Liberty.” Despite all of their trials, Thomas concluded, “We believe it was worth while. We remember the words of our Lord when He said, ‘Even as ye did it unto the least of these ye did it unto Me.'”

If you would like to read the full story of the eleven ministers, you can find their booklet “Horses for Humanity” here.
Ray Finke’s letters home can be found on Facebook here. My thanks to Andrea Oevering for sharing them with me.

Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – We Must Never Forget

On February 13, 1947, forty men from the S.S. Mount Whitney, including seagoing cowboys, ship’s officers, and veterinarians, boarded trucks in Nowy Port, Poland, bound for the Stutthof Concentration Camp. What follows comes from the account written by Rev. Oscar E. Stern for the booklet “Horses for Humanity” about this last Mount Whitney livestock trip. [Be advised: the following content may be upsetting to sensitive individuals.]

Guard tower and barracks, Stutthof Concentration Camp, February 13, 1947. Photo by Wilbert Zahl.

“Traveling over roads literally strewn with the wreckage of military trucks, tanks, and guns, for a distance of about 30 miles, we turned into a brick gateway which looked more like the entrance to a park or a hospital than anything else. But beyond the imposing headquarters which was also built of red brick were the long rows of barracks, barbed wire enclosures, towers from which the grounds were guarded, all silently bearing witness to the horribly cruel persecution and deaths dealt out to many helpless and innocent people who had been imprisoned there.

“Our guides were Mr. and Mrs. Frank Krol who had been imprisoned at Studthof [sic] for 3 years during which time three of their five children died. As we went about we received from them a somewhat detailed account of what had taken place.

Photo by Wesley Miller.

“The barracks were large unheated rooms made to house 150 people. The sleeping quarters were the bare floor with one blanket for each person. Toilets were fixed at intervals about a quarter of a city block apart. The barracks were connected by narrow corridors, making enclosed passage to all. The camp was put into operation before all the buildings were completed. The inmates suffered from exposure, wounds from cruel beatings, sickness, and always hunger, until death made its inevitable claim to the extent of 200 lives a day. Those who died within the barracks were buried beneath the floors of the unfinished barracks, where they remain to the present time.

“Separate quarters were maintained for men and women. All suffered alike the bitterness of organized torture. Many were forced to dig their own graves and then as they stood beside the trenches they had dug, they were shot down by a firing squad. All that the Nazis had to do was throw dirt over the warm bodies.

“A gas chamber, a cement enclosure 9×21 feet was the most effective mass killer. It destroyed as many as 150 lives at a time. The helpless victims were first stripped of their clothing, given a hot shower and then diabolically, were forced into the gas chamber by fellow prisoners who in turn were forced to their dreadful task by the Nazis. The Poles* were packed into the gas chamber until there was no room for more. Within 15 minutes after the door was closed and the gas turned on, all those inside were dead.

Photo by Wesley Miller.

“Nearby were the ovens where the bodies were cremated. . . .

Photo by Wesley Miller.

Photo by Wesley Miller.

An eloquent monument to the dead still stands on the grounds in the form of a huge pile of shoes in the shape of a squat pyramid, 30 feet square, 15 feet high. The countless thousands of shoes were covered by a blanket of new-fallen snow. As we stood before them it was hard to believe that they once warmed living feet.

Photo by Wesley Miller.

“The Poles have erected two large wooden crosses, one over the gas chamber, one over the ovens, as memorials to the beloved dead. [Note the oven photo above.] From time to time they place wreaths beneath them and garlands of flowers and they observe together a five minute period of silent communion. We and all who have seen carry etched forever in our minds the grim picture of the almost unbelievable crimes of misdirected German soldiers who at the end paid for their deeds with their lives.”

* Internees came from more countries than Poland.

For additional accounts see the Wikipedia and Holocaust Museum pages.

Next post: the long trip home.