Seagoing cowboys often faced dangers at sea, and this was true for those on the S.S. Mount Whitney, as well. Mines like this one found by divers off the eastern coast of Greece in 2016 still lurked in European waterways.
The ship’s crew had to be on constant lookout for mines bobbing in the water. Seagoing cowboys were often asked to take their turn standing watch.
Luke Bomberger recalled an incident on Mount Whitney‘s second trip, on the way home after unloading the Icelandic ponies in Poland. “My dad was up in the mess hall in the afternoon playing chess with another guy,” he said, “and I was out on the deck. There was a first, second, and third mate, and they had different watches. Those guys never run, they walk. They’re officers. I saw the second mate RUN into the wheelhouse, and I thought ‘there’s somethin’ up.’ And I looked over the side, and just like that, about the time he got in the wheelhouse, I could feel the ship turn, and he spun that wheel real fast and turned the rudder, and I looked down and there was a mine, and it was that close I could have spit on it.”
That was October 3, 1946. Bomberger’s shipmate Harold Jennings recorded in his diary that day, “They had to swerve the boat out of the path of a mine – Really shook everyone up.”
Owen Schlabach reports another mine incident in December, 1946, on the way home from the Mount Whitney‘s third trip to Poland.* “After we left the Baltic Sea it was really smooth, with nice sailing, until 4:00 in the morning when we heard a loud noise; they had dropped the anchor. Our ship was equipped with a mine detector, and when the lights started to blink they would drop the anchor, because they didn’t know where the mine was. About two hours later we were off a distance when we saw a ship come the other way and hit the mine. We saw it slowly turn on its side. It took about three hours to sink, but they managed to get all the people off.”
Atlantic storms posed another danger for the cowboys. Owen Schlabach reports running into a storm on their way home that lasted five days and nights. “The night before Christmas,” he said, “the waves were 60 feet high and the captain sent us word to be prepared, because he didn’t know if we would still be sailing by morning. This was a real concern for everyone, as a lifeboat was of no use in such a storm as this. The ship would creak and groan as if a giant hand was twisting it. That evening we had a prayer meeting till midnight.”
The cowboys anchored themselves into their beds by putting their arms and legs out through the railings to keep from falling as the ship rocked back and forth. “At 4:00,” Schlabach said, “we heard an awful noise. There was no place to run, so we just stayed where we were. Later we found out our metal lunch trays had gone sliding over onto the floor when the ship swayed so far to the side. Our shoes and clothes were all mixed together on the floor from sliding back and forth, making a real mess. But we were really thankful still to be sailing. We couldn’t sit down to eat for all five days, but we would just stand and try to balance our trays. Sometimes the ship leaned so far that water spilled out of the commodes.”
After arriving back in Newport News, Virginia, on New Year’s Day 1947, the Mount Whitney went into dry dock for repairs from the thrashing it took. According to Schlabach, the newspapers called it the worst storm in history, with five ships sunk during the storm. “Thank God we were spared,” he said.
*Owen Schlabach’s story is recorded in Elmer K. Hertzler’s book Cowboy on the High Seas and Other Stories as told to Marie E. Cutman.