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.

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The S. S. Park Victory: Livestock trip #1, Trieste, October 1945

The S. S. Park Victory is one of 531 Victory ships built for transporting troops and materials during the latter years of World War II. Named after Park College (now Park University), the ship was launched April 21, 1945. On her maiden voyage, she carried U. S. Navy cargo around the Pacific, departing May 26 from southern California and ending September 14 in New York City. There, in the Todd Shipyard, she was transformed into a livestock carrier.¹ According to the notes of seagoing cowboy Norman Brumbaugh, this conversion cost $100,000.

A sister ship undergoes transformation from merchant ship to livestock carrier, November 1945. Photo credit: Paul Springer.

Newly outfitted with stalls on three levels and new ventilation and watering systems, the Park Victory headed on down to Baltimore, Maryland. She departed October 26, 1945, for Trieste, Italy, with her full quota of 32 seagoing cowboys and 336 mares, 149 mules, 310 heifers, and 12 bulls. Brumbaugh notes additional cargo of:
640 tons of water for the stock alone
35 tons of hay
30 tons of straw
36 tons of dairy feed
75 tons of oats
3,000 feet of rope
878 buckets.

Seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Park Victory to Trieste, October 1945. Photo courtesy of Paul Weaver.

Except for some rough seas, this first livestock trip of the Park Victory was relatively routine and easy. A week into the trip, Brumbaugh recorded in his diary, “Getting up too early these mornings and losing sleep because we keep moving time up each night for the last while….Been hungry nearly every night for last week, though we get plenty at meals.”

The trip became more exciting when land was spotted on the tenth day. Brumbaugh notes, “We did our best to hurry through our work and take in everything. There it was, Spain to our left, Africa to our right, the Rock of Gibraltar, an immense thing about dead ahead. Further in the Mediterranean we saw the mountains on the left were all snow capped, weather warm. Watching porpoise trying to race our ship was lots of fun. Spirits extra high.”

The ship arrived in Trieste with more livestock than at the start, as twenty calves were born en route and only one horse, one mule, and one heifer lost. The heifer choked to death and was butchered and put in the freezer.

War ruins in Trieste, November 1945. Photo credit: Paul Weaver.

Of Trieste, cowboy Paul Weaver says, “the harbor is pretty well destroyed and buildings near it, but the rest of the town isn’t hit. It is a very nice town but no cars, mostly military trucks and jeeps. Lots of bicycles, mules, donkeys, ox teams, horses, three-wheel motorcycles, half-ton trucks. The British and American Armies are both here. You get mobbed every time you go to town for cigarettes, soap and gum.” Weaver also notes, “This section of Italy is quite a disputed area between Yugo and Italy. General Tito comes down pretty often to try to take it back, but the Americans and British scare him out. There was some rumor of him coming yesterday, but he didn’t.”

Some of the cowboys took a side trip to Venice, November 1945. Photo credit: Paul Weaver.

As with all trips that ended at Trieste, the animals were shipped by rail just across the border to Yugoslavia. Members of this cowboy crew had the opportunity to go to there to see where the animals were taken. Cowboy LaVerne Elliott writes, “We kept winding and going up and finally got to top and we could look down on Trieste. Sure was beautiful with Adriatic Sea as background.” Brumbaugh adds, “I never saw such beautiful Christmas or snow scenery as this.”

To get into Yugoslavia, the cowboys’ were stopped at two guarded barricades, not sure if they would get through. First were the British guards, “of which we gave matches,” Brumbaugh notes. Then, after about a mile and a half across no man’s land, “after persuasion of Yugo soldiers, we gave gum, soap, and matches.”

At a Yugoslavian home, November 1945. Photo credit: Paul Weaver.

Brumbaugh writes, “People very poor up in Mts. with acres of stones. We saw our mules and horses being well taken care of by prisoners in bad need of clothing.” The cowboys stopped at a farm that had received a horse earlier, and Brumbaugh says, “Horse is well off. But people are without fuel and shoes. Came back and missed supper on this cold night, but were much better off than many.”

 

Cracking nuts for Thanksgiving dinner on the trip home. Photo credit: Paul Weaver.

¹ Jouko Moisala, S/S Park Victoryn Tarina, Fandonia Oy, Finland, 2017.

Next post: Park Victory trip #2 – Poland

The Seagoing Cowboy story alive in Finland!

The Christmas Eve sinking of the S. S. Park Victory as told in my December 22 post is a famous shipwreck in Finland and popular among divers. This former livestock carrier went down with a load of coal that stormy night.

Diving the S. S. Park Victory. Photo copyright: Erik Saanila.

Diving the S. S. Park Victory. Photo copyright Erik Saanila.

One has only to search the term “Park Victory” on youtube to find multiple underwater videos of dives to what remains of the vessel. Jouko Moisala, diving instructor and editor of a Finnish diving magazine, has written a book about the history of the Park Victory that was released this past October.

Jouko Moisala celebrates with his publisher, Anne Pentti, at the launch of his book. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

The book includes a section on its livestock carrier history for which I served as a resource. This part of the ship’s history was not widely known in Finland before the book came out.

Listing in Jouko’s book of the livestock trips made by the Park Victory.

Seagoing cowboy crews in Jouko’s book.

It remains to be seen whether the book will be translated into English. I’ll let you know if it is! It is currently being translated into Swedish.

Jouko has put together a series of large posters on the Park Victory‘s history for an exhibit and has been making appearances around Finland sharing the story.

Poster #3 of Jouko’s exhibit on the S. S. Park Victory.

My upcoming posts will include stories of some of the Park Victory’s livestock trips. Its demise off the shores of Finland was not its only accident.

The Christmas Eve fate of the S. S. Park Victory: not to be forgotten

In Finland there is a national reading of the Christmas Peace at noon every Christmas Eve. On the island of Utö at the farthest edge of Finland’s southwest archipelago, this reading will be followed at 1:00 p.m. by the lighting of ten candles in the island’s chapel. These candles represent the ten seamen who lost their lives in the sinking of the S. S. Park Victory on Christmas Eve 70 years ago.

Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

The S. S. Park Victory delivers horses and heifers to Poland, December 1945. Photo by Will Keller, Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

The Park Victory will be remembered by many seagoing cowboys for the six trips she made as an UNRRA livestock carrier, October 1945 through December 1946. She is remembered quite differently in Finland, however. In December 1947, she was delivering a load of coal to Finland, possibly for the Marshall Plan. She anchored in good weather near the lighthouse off the island of Utö  before dark on Christmas Eve, awaiting orders as to whether to proceed to Turku or Helsinki the next day. During the night, a wicked snow storm descended on the ship. The gale-force winds dislodged the anchor, and the ship fought for her life. The rocky coastline won, however, breaking into and flooding the engine room.

The distress signal was sent out and lifeboats lowered. At risk to their own lives, help was dispatched from the fishing community of Utö. A small military craft captained by Thorvald Sjöberg found a group of seamen huddled on a low reef. Between the winds and underwater rocks, there wasn’t a safe way to reach the men. Captain Sjöberg kept his craft nearby until daylight when they were able to get a rope to the men. One had died of hypothermia and the rest were in bad condition, some having survived the night in little more than their underwear. In all, thirty-eight of the seamen were found, rescued, and compassionately tended to by the brave Utö islanders.

Rescuing Captain Thorvald Sjoberg, the widow of Park Victory Captain Allen Zepp, and Hanna Kovanen, who was ten years old at the time of the sinking, reunite on Uto, summer 2017. Mrs. Kovanen will light the ten candles on Christmas Eve in commemoration of the seamen who lost their lives. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

In memory of those who perished:
Mose Andersson, F.W.T., 19
Augustine Bebrant, Messman, 50
Eric Cain, Assistant Electrician, 36
Herbert Deglow, Oiler, 23
Michael Duffy, Chief Electrician, 50
Henry Holste, Junior Third Mate, 65
Rex Jackson, Wiper, 40
Juan Lopez, Chief Cook, 50
Daris Mitchell, Junior Engineer, 51
La Verne Woods, Junior Engineer, 19

A Blessed Holiday Season to my readers.
~Peggy

Sources for this post: correspondence with Jouko Moisala, and the article “The Gloomy Christmas Eve at Sea” by Martin Latimeri.

This is a famous shipwreck in Finland and popular among divers. More on that in my next regular post in January.

Thank you, Seagoing Cowboys!

At this time of Thanksgiving, I have much to be thankful for as relates to my work:

First of all, I’m thankful for a supportive husband and family who give me the space and the grace to follow my passion of telling the seagoing cowboy story.

I’m grateful for the tremendous team at Brethren Press who have been hard at work with me to create our upcoming picture book The Seagoing Cowboy to be released in March. Illustrations by Claire Ewart bring the story to life in a “beautifully vivid” way, to quote my publisher, Wendy McFadden. Watch for the “cover reveal” soon.

I’m thankful for and excited about the increasing interest overseas in the seagoing cowboy and Heifer Project stories. I’m working with the Oberschlesisches Landesmuseum in Ratingen, Germany, on an upcoming exhibit that will include a display of the seagoing cowboys and Heifer Project shipments to Silesia after World War II. I’ll share more about that at a later date. And I’m working with Jouko Moisala from Finland on a display related to a famous shipwreck in December 1947 off the coast there involving one of the livestock ships, the SS Park Victory, after it ceased to be used for animals. There will be a 70th anniversary commemoration of this shipwreck in 2017 in which the history of this ship will be displayed. So many good things happening!

And most of all, I’m especially thankful for the many seagoing cowboys who have so graciously shared their stories, their photos, their diaries, and other materials with me. Their stories have been compelling enough to keep me busy for nearly fourteen years now. And what they have given to me enables me to share this fascinating history with the world. They carry a great legacy which is summed up in these lines from a 1946 ad in the Ephrata Review:

Men of good moral and ethical ideals who will conduct themselves in a manner which will be a tribute to their country and the program of which they are a part will be welcomed and respected by the people of Europe. It is felt that by learning to know these people and understanding their problems that the “cowboys” will become more valuable citizens to the country and the world.

And so they have.

The Heifer Foundation has set up a Cowboy Endowment that will help to support the work of Heifer International and honor the seagoing cowboys in the process. I invite you to join me in giving thanks for the service of these men by making today a day of “Thanks” and “Giving.” Learn more here.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!