Little did the 80 seagoing cowboys of the S.S. Mount Whitney’s final livestock trip in January 1947 know their expected six-week trip to Poland and back would keep them away from home for nearly four months!
The crew included eleven ministers who wrote the report “Horses for Humanity” of this eventful voyage. Most of the crew received their call to report to Newport News, Virginia, January 6 and traveled in speedily from as far away as Minnesota and Nebraska – only to have to wait to depart until the wee hours of January 25 due to a shortage of hay.
The ship carried 1,462 horses, including a matched pair of registered Belgians to be given to the University of Warsaw, and 40 heifers donated to the Heifer Project by the Methodist Church for their church members in Poland. The cowboys had smooth sailing the first six days out until the ship ran into a fierce storm. For one 24-hour period, the Mount Whitney, which had looked immense in Newport News, tossed around like a cork on the vast churning sea making no mileage at all.
“Most of us had to go out on the upper deck to work with the horses there,” Ray Finke wrote home. “The sea sure was mad. Waves 50 to 60 feet high. When we would look ahead, it looked like water would go 3 feet over us, but the boat would always go over most of it.”
“The wind and the waves battered the forward stalls to pieces,” Melvin Witmer reported. “Trying to save the horses three of the men were almost swept overboard. One’s wristwatch was torn off and his leg gashed. Captain Shigley tried his best to spare the horses as much punishment as possible. We heard later that he did not sleep at all during those three days.”
Twenty of the horses got washed overboard and many others weakened. UNRRA reports a loss of 98 horses on the trip, 6.7 percent. All four of the ship’s veterinarians and most of the cowboys got seasick during the storm. Wilbert Zahl notes in his memoir that as one of the few who didn’t get sick, “it fell on me, having come from a farm and knowing something about caring for cows and horses, to administer pills, etc., for the sick horses. . . . Shooting pills down a horse’s throat with a pill gun is not the most pleasant job. If the horse coughs as often they do, you get a lot of blubbery saliva sprayed into your face.”
The storm also created a mess in the cowboys’ bunk room when their gear got tossed about. “Imagine 80 guys’ stuff all mixed up,” Finke said. “I found my shoes and suitcase over on opposite side of bunk room under another guy’s bunk. Would like to have a picture of us hunting for things and everyone on hands and knees.”
The Mount Whitney made good time after that, going up around Scotland and the northern tip of Denmark into the Kattegatt strait between Denmark and Sweden. The ship’s progress slowed, however, as she proceeded through the strait. “We who worked in the holds down below began to hear the ominous sound of heavy ice stubbornly disrupting our passage,” Witmer said.
“Ice became heavier as we went south until we reached Malmö, Sweden, where we were forced to join a convoy led by an ice breaker which led us through to the Baltic Sea. The Baltic itself was clear but the ice was thick enough off Gdynia to force us to go on to Nowy Port, where we docked Thursday evening, February 7.” A grateful cowboy crew had arrived safely in Poland.