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. . .

Special Crew #2: All-Mennonite crew of high school and college students come of age on a cattle boat

Half of the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory all-Mennonite crew.  Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

Half of the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory all-Mennonite crew. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

“Take a teenage Mennonite boy after World War II, put him on a cattle boat to Europe or China, stir him up with storms at sea, spice him with adventure and danger, bake him in the smoldering rubble of war, and what do you have? A recipe for the coming of age of a seagoing cowboy.” So begins my article “Coming of age on a cattle boat” for The Mennonite, January 10, 2006.

The other half of the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory crew. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

The other half of the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory crew. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

Seventy years ago this week, thirty-two of those Mennonites, mostly high school and college students, set sail on the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory for Poland under the watchful eye of Bethel College history professor Dr. Melvin Gingerich. The Mallory left Newport News, Virginia, June 20, 1946, with 834 horses and a pistol-packing captain who made it known that he was the law on the ship, leaving no uncertainty that he would use his gun if necessary.

The trip was fraught with difficulties from the get-go, beyond the usual storms at sea and horse bites. Two days out to sea, engine troubles caused a side trip to Boston, giving the cowboys a chance to explore historical sites. Don Zook recalls seeing his first major league baseball game that night, as the Boston Braves were in town. Robert Ramseyer’s group went to the movies. While sitting in the harbor at Boston for three days their work still had to be done. Hot, stuffy, ammonia-laden holds made the work less than appealing and started a string of deaths of horses. According to UNRRA records, sixty-eight were lost before arriving in Poland.

The mess hall on the Mallory was one hold down. Photo courtesy of Loren Zimmerman.

Life goes on. The mess hall on the Mallory was one hold down. Photo courtesy of Loren Zimmerman.

Shortly after departing Boston, a generator went out; but the ship sailed on. Before reaching Europe boiler trouble and trouble with the watering system developed. Another day, the captain noticed cat hairs in his water glass. Al Meyer noted in his diary, “Skeleton and hair of cat found in sieve from drinking water tank. All water passed thru decayed cat until now. [We] call water ‘cat-nip-tea’!”

As if all of that wasn’t enough, the refrigeration system went on the fritz. The cowboys enjoyed an ice cream binge that evening and ate large portions of meat as it thawed until the walk-in cooler was empty, necessitating a stop in Plymouth, England, to restock and take on ice and water. Walking around Plymouth gave these young men their first taste of war devastation, raising an awareness that was heightened when the captain refused taking on a German pilot at Kiel, Germany, to guide the ship through the Baltic Sea, subsequently getting lost in a mine field causing close encounters with spiky mines and anxious moments for the crew.

Remnants of the war around Gdansk could not be avoided. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer/Len Smucker.

Remnants of the war around Gdansk could not be avoided. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer/Len Smucker.

Len Smucker notes that seeing war-torn Poland is “etched in my mind.” He recalls being met at the ship by young boys offering their sisters and mothers for sex. The cowboys roamed over battlefields and stood on the spot in Westerplatte where World War II started. Some, including Al Meyer, went to see the destroyed Danzig Mennonite Church. The Polish Mennonites did not share the peace position of the Mennonite Church in the United States.

This plaque in the Danzig Mennonite Church served as a sobering reminder of Polish Mennonite participation in World War I. Photo courtesy of Richard Rush.

This plaque in the Danzig Mennonite Church served as a sobering reminder of Polish Mennonite participation in World War I. Photo courtesy of Richard Rush.

Meyer recalls, “The thing I remember most is a tablet on the wall in honor of the brave men who gave their lives for the German Fatherland in the First World War. It was sort of symbolic to see the wreckage of the Second World War, a bombed out Mennonite community of which there were no remaining people.”

On their way home, the Mallory cowboys enjoyed a week in Copenhagen, Denmark, where the ship stopped for repairs.

Tivoli Gardens gave the Mallory cowboys a diversion from the weight of what they had seen in England and Poland. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

Tivoli Gardens provided a diversion from the weight of war aftermath. Courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

This relatively undamaged city gave the group a chance to see Europe in its more pristine, classical sense, rounding out an experience they would never forget. They were also able to connect with Mennonites in Denmark.

These seagoing cowboys were boys when they left on the trip, but came home young men who went on to distinguish themselves in fields of medicine, higher education, and church and service work.

Even Captain Cronin was impressed:

Praise from the pistol-packing captain. Courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

Courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

Next post: Special Crew #3: Interracial crew of Southern college students sponsored by the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen