UNRRA Livestock trips from the eyes of a veterinarian

At the age of 25, with his army discharge and a degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in hand, Harold Burton launched the beginning of his veterinary career hired out to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration for $23 a day—darn good pay in 1946. He spent time with UNRRA both on land and sea.

Harold Burton, DVM, on the S. S. Mercer Victory delivering horses to Trieste, Italy, for Yugoslavia, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Harold Burton.

Doc Burton spent several months working at both the Levinson Brothers Terminal Stockyards off Pier X in Newport News, Virginia, and the Owen Brothers Stockyards on the property of the Atlantic Coast Line in Savannah, Georgia, where the animals were railed in from around the country. The yards were designed to handle 4500 and 3500 animals respectively. When delays in shipping happened, the numbers would often swell much beyond capacity.

The Levinson Brothers Terminal Stockyards off Pier X in Newport News, Virginia, 1946. Photo credit: Charles Lord.

All animals were screened on arrival at the stockyards. Both facilities included hospital pens and equipment sufficient to accommodate a large number of animals. Animals arriving sick or injured during their rail transport were sent to the hospital pens. “I was assigned the job of getting as many of them as possible ready to ship,” Burton says. “I had two big, strong farm-grown cowboys who were with me in Savannah. We think we did a good job. The only problem was the pen kept getting new patients.”

On the sea, Burton says, “the veterinarian’s job is to end up in Europe with as many healthy animals as possible. The old Victory ships had four holds with a small walkway in the middle and four stalls with four horses each on each side of the aisle. We wore a backpack with medicines and syringes, etc., and hobbles, ropes and twitches to restrain the animals if we had to give them injections or sutures or whatever. It was very poorly lighted, hot, dusty and VERY smelly. Your feet were in manure all the time.”

Cowboy in lower hold on the S. S. Carroll Victory, late 1946. Photo credit: Charles Lord.

Burton’s two livestock trips across the Atlantic took him to Poland in September 1946 and Trieste, Italy, in December 1946—both with horses. Most of those animals came to his ships wild from the western US. “My father was a country blacksmith and farrier,” Burton says, “and growing up I helped him. I learned how to hobble a horse, tie one leg up by rope to stabilize him so he couldn’t hurt himself or me. This was good to know working with these completely untamed beasts.

“It was extremely dangerous,” he says, “especially in rough seas. To give an intravenous injection or a blood transfusion, or anything where we needed to be close to these untamed animals, was worth your life. Bites, kicks, bumps and bruises were a daily thing. One time, a horse grabbed me by the left shoulder blade, picked me up, shook me and spit me out. I weighed 140 pounds at the time, but I can still feel the pain.”

Doc Burton’s seagoing cowboy crew on the S. S. Saginaw Victory to Poland, September 1946. Photo credit: Harold Burton.

Burton says the veterinarians were expected to keep good records of the sick and injured horses. They used a canvas sling under a sick horse’s belly to lift the animal from below deck to the hospital stall on the top deck. “We saved a fair percentage,” he says, “considering the circumstances we worked under. If a horse died, we swung it up on the roof of the top deck stalls and did a complete autopsy before pushing the carcass overboard.” UNRRA used these reports to better the program.

An autopsy on the S. S. Lindenwood Victory, summer 1946. This was not one of Doc Burton’s trips. Photo credit: L. Dwight Farringer.

“We veterinarians got lots of excellent experience firsthand,” Burton says. “If you could make an intravenous injection or suture or bandage on an animal on a rolling vessel in an extremely crowded area with wild savage beasts, it was a piece of cake in a barn on a farm back home.”

Instructions for Masters of Livestock Carriers

A year ago, this blog took a look at the “Information for Livestock Attendants” issued to seagoing cowboys by UNRRA’s recruiting agency, the Brethren Service Committee. Created by a couple of cowboys eight months after the program began, the document would give applicants an idea of what to expect on their trips delivering dairy and draft animals to Europe after World War II. It took a whole year into the program and many misunderstandings about the lines of duty between the regular ship’s crew and the cowboys before UNRRA saw the need to supply the Masters of the ships with a document outlining these duties to clear up existing confusions. Here’s a sampling of their instructions:

All Veterinarians and Attendants are directly responsible to the Master. Attendants will take orders directly from the Veterinarian in charge.

Attendants will board the vessel 24 hours previous to loading of animals. They are signed on separate articles at 1¢ a month, but are not required to sign off. [But don’t feel sorry for them—they received $150 per trip from UNRRA.]

Newspaper and date unknown. A seagoing cowboy gets his one-cent pay from his Captain.

Attendants shall place hay in all stalls previous to loading and shall feed and water animals and keep stalls clean and assist the Veterinarians in every way possible. They shall move all feed, etc. from feed compartments to the different decks where animals are carried.

Pulling up hay on the S. S. Woodstock Victory, January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Where winches are used to hoist feed, dump manure or dead animals, the winches are to be operated by members of the ship’s crew. The crew is to assist in every way possible, especially in the removal of dead animals.

Not all animals survived the trip. The S. S. Charles W. Wooster crew buries a horse at sea, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Perry Bontrager.

The Attendants will always move manure to the square of the hatch and place same in cargo net. The crew will then discharge it over the side.

At the present time, all ships, except those proceeding to Bremerhaven, are saving manure for disposal in Europe, as it is needed for fertilizer. It should be stowed on deck, or in any convenient place below deck, but should not be allowed to collect in stalls. For ships calling at Bremerhaven, manure should be dumped at sea. Stalls are to be cleaned at least twice a week.

Manure is offloaded from the S. S. Mount Whitney at Nowy Port, Poland, July 1946. Photo courtesy of James Brunk.

A small amount of manure and straw left in stalls is desirable, as it helps the footing of the animals.

The Chief Engineer shall make certain he always has a full supply of spare parts for the blowers. The Bureau of Animal Industry may at any time ask for a volumetric test to be made of the ventilating system, to make sure they are getting a complete change of air every five minutes.

One hour before the loading of the animals, the ventilation system should be put into operation. The Chief Mate should see that all buckets are in place, fresh water hoses led out, and that the Attendants have feed in the stalls. This is important as the animals, just after loading, are in a highly nervous condition. [The lack of ventilation systems on some early shipments led to many animal deaths.]

When horses are carried, there is usually from 40 to 50 stalls left empty for use as hospitals. Cleaning the stalls can be accomplished by moving four horses in one ten foot pen into these empty hospital stalls. When this pen has been cleaned, the horses in the adjoining pen are moved into the pen just cleaned, and so on down each row of stalls.

Hospital ward on the S. S. Attleboro Victory, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Harold Cullar.

On the return voyage, the Attendants will clean and wash down all compartments where animals were carried, so that on the vessel’s arrival at her loading port, she will be ready for disinfecting. This will mean a considerable saving in both time and expense at the loading port.

Washing down the stalls on the S. S. Lindenwood Victory, August 1946. Photo courtesy of L. Dwight Farringer.

It is suggested that at the commencement of each voyage, the Chief Mate of the vessel and the Veterinarian in charge of the Attendants, instruct their respective men as to the duties of each group, in order to avoid friction later.

How well these instructions were adhered to is anybody’s guess! Some Captain’s had a mind of their own.