The Naming and Launching of Liberty and Victory Ships

The emergency construction of over 2,700 Liberty ships and some 534 Victory ships during World War II required more than 3,200 names for these vessels. Launched over the course of four years, that averaged around 800 ships per year, or 66 per month. The U.S. Maritime Commission appointed a Ship Naming Committee for the task.

The Commission decided to name the Libertys – the first ships to be built – after dead people who had made outstanding contributions to the history and culture of the United States – the first being Patrick Henry of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame. 

The loading of the SS Zona Gale with Heifer Project cattle headed for France, April 1946. The ship is named after US author Zona Gale. Photo by Wilbur Stump.

The SS Joshua Hendy preparing to deliver horses to Greece, June 1945. The ship is named after Joshua Hendy, the founder of Joshua Hendy Iron Works. Photo by Larry Earhart.

The Victory ships bore the names of places: first allied countries, then U.S. cities and towns, and then U.S. colleges and universities. A series built for and named by the Navy carried the names of U.S. counties.

The SS Yugoslavia Victory delivering horses to Poland in July 1946. Photo by Wayne Zook.

The SS Norwalk Victory ready to deliver horses to Yugoslavia, June 1946. The ship is named after the city of Norwalk, California. Photo by Elmer Bowers.

S.S. De Pauw Victory after delivering horses to Poland, late 1946. The ship is named after De Pauw University. Photo by Paul Beard.

“Selecting a name for a ship was only a small part of a ceremony whose traditions are as old as antiquity,” writes John Gorley Bunker in Liberty Ships: The Ugly Ducklings of World War II. “The ship was christened at the launching ceremony, when she slid down the ways into saltwater for the first time.”

With tight production schedules at the shipyards and nature’s running of the tides, these festive ceremonies for the Liberty and Victory ships took place at all hours of the day and night. They attracted a crowd of dignitaries and shipyard workers alike. As time and budget allowed, they included band music, colorful bunting, speeches, and always the christening. By tradition, a female sponsor was chosen to break the ceremonial bottle of champagne across the bow of the ship with the words “I christen thee . . . .”, thus bringing good luck and protection to the ship and those who sailed on her. 

Artifacts from the launching of the SS Clarksville Victory include the remnants of the champagne bottle in a silk shroud broken against the ship’s bow by sponsor Anne Kleeman, its storage box, and the builders hull plate for the ship. Courtesy of Customs House Museum and Cultural Center, Clarksville, TN.

Bunker notes that selection of a ship’s sponsor could be fraught with political and social difficulties. With the Liberty ships, however, there were so many of them that he says, “Even the wives of grimy shipyard workers christened ships their husbands helped build.”

The Victory ships posed a different problem, as noted in Erhard Koehler’s paper “Victory Ship Nomenclature.” The Ship Naming Committee decided on a series of names of smaller cities and towns representing “Main Street” America to heighten the interest of the average citizen in the Merchant Marine. The Maritime Commission sent letters to the Mayors inviting them to participate in such ways as “having a fitting plaque inscribed and placed in the ship; providing a library of 100 or 200 books; providing recreational equipment of any kind; or presenting the ship with phonograph equipment with a selection of records.” They were also invited to select a sponsor from their community to be present at the ceremony.

This last idea “eventually led to the suspension of naming Victory ships after towns and cities,” Koehler says. “Given the frenetic pace of ship construction under wartime conditions and with travel restrictions in place, it was difficult at best to coordinate a launching ceremony that involved people outside of the local area.” When reality set in, launching ceremonies were scaled down. Shipyards took on the oversight of sponsor selection, and the new category of naming Victory ships for colleges and universities began. Rather than sending representatives from their institutions to travel across the country, the college or university most often invited alumni living in the area of the shipyard to the launching ceremony.

Such was the case for Calvin College (now University) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The college’s namesake Calvin Victory was one of UNRRA’s livestock ships. The University’s archivist found this post of materials about the launch that had been turned over to Tom the Book Guy back in 2014. How I wish they had come my way!

If you’d like a front seat view of what the Liberty and Victory ship launchings were like, check out this short video.

 

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Czechoslovakia

S. S. Henry Dearborn in Baltimore, MD, December 1945. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

On December 12, 1945, the S. S. Henry Dearborn pulled out of Baltimore with a load of 411 heifers for Czechoslovakia, the first of 37 shipments made by UNRRA to that war-torn country. It was smooth sailing until Christmas Eve. The cowboys awoke that morning to find that a storm had crashed one of the cattle pens during the night, killing some of the animals. Arthur Lewis noted in his diary, “A wave that was about 45 feet high went in the Captain’s room (higher up in the midships), and the Steward had 18 inches of water in his room.”

Six days later, the ship docked safely in Bremerhaven, Germany. The cowboys took advantage of shore leave on New Year’s Eve and enjoyed 30 minutes of fireworks “set off by the ship in the harbor,” according to Lewis. January 2, the cattle were unloaded and put on trains for their journey to Czechoslovakia.

Unloading cattle in Bremerhaven for their train journey to Czechoslovakia, January 2, 1945. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

Two days later, the ship moved on up the Weser River to Bremen to unload the grain stored in the lower holds. A stevedore strike, however, delayed unloading, and the ship remained in Bremen for 20 days.

“This gave us a lot of free time to travel around town and out into the country,” says seagoing cowboy Elvin Hess. “Several things that we noticed, the house and barn were one unit built together. Cow manure was dried and used for fuel in their stoves. Another thing that really stood out was many blocks were nothing but rubble, but if there was a church in the block, that was the only building that remained standing.”

Remains of a church in Bremen, Germany, January 1946. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

Rubble in Bremen, Germany, January 1946. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

Located in the American Zone of Occupation, the US Army had a presence there. The cowboys took advantage of the facilities and activities this offered them as Merchant Mariners. Nearly every day, Lewis notes going to the Seaman’s Club or the Red Cross building for milk shakes, ice cream, coffee, and donuts or cake–a luxury cowboys to other countries did not have. Many a day included seeing a play or movie, such as “Kiss and Tell” starring Shirley Temple, “G.I. Joe,” “Three Is a Family,” etc.

The Red Cross Club in Bremen, Germany, 1946. Photo credit: Gene Swords.

Hess says, “Many of our nights were spent at the Red Cross Center where we played ping pong, cards, etc. If we would miss the last trolley to the docks we would have to walk back through all the ruins. That was the most scary part of the trip.”

Bremen, Germany, January 1946. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

“The trip gave me the opportunity to meet many people in all walks of life and to let your life shine,” Hess says. “What stuck with me the most was that people who were our enemies just months before would sit down and talk with you about having Peace on Earth.”

So may it be today.

 

A Seagoing Cowboy on Chick Detail

Leland Voth’s Merchant Marine card for service as a “cattleman.” Courtesy of Leland Voth.

Inspired by his older brother’s cattle boat trip to Europe in early 1946, Leland Voth decided to sign up, too, expecting to take care of heifers or horses. Little did he know that he would instead be put on “chick detail,” as he called it.

Soon after his sophomore year of high school ended, Leland set out on foot from his home in Lorraine, Kansas, to hitchhike to Newport News, Virginia. He slept in a YMCA in Kansas City his first night, then took public transportation to the edge of town where he set out hitchhiking again. “Along the way, however,” Leland says, “I waited for hours for a ride, to no avail. Finally a bread delivery truck picked me up and the driver informed me that the previous week a lady had been killed by a hitchhiker.” When the bread truck driver reached his destination of Lexington, Kentucky, Leland had the driver drop him off at the bus stop and took public transportation the rest of the way.

Leland reported to the Brethren Service Committee office at Pier X in Newport News.

The Brethren Service Committee office where seagoing cowboys checked in and received their assignments. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers, February 1946.

There he was asked to volunteer on the dock “to help assemble chicken batteries (cages) for baby chicks for the next ship.” When the S. S. Morgantown Victory crew was being assembled, Leland was able to sign on. “I helped fill the chick cages with 18,700 baby chicks and load them on the ship,” he says. The remainder of the cargo was 760 heifers. The destination: Poland.

When crew assignments were made, Leland got the night shift. His job was to feed and water the chicks and extract the dead ones. “The chick batteries were about 5 tiers high,” he says, “and each tier had a side spool of brown paper which was threaded in a narrow space under each tier to catch the chick droppings and was normally changed once a day. When the sea was really rough, the wide rolls of paper under the chick cages would fall off their racks and rip out the litter which made a mess that I had to clean up. To prevent such happenings, I made regular rounds to check whether the rolls of paper were centered on their hooks.

“The enjoyable time was to climb up the rungs of the ladder to breathe in the fresh ocean air,” Leland says. “It also was a chance to go to the galley, cut slices of freshly baked bread and smear it with a thick layer of orange marmalade. Orange marmalade became my favorite spread to this day.”

In Poland, the ship docked in Nowyport, the port area for Gdansk. The cattle and newborn calves were unloaded first. “One cow jumped out of its crate as it was being unloaded and broke its back on the dock,” Leland says. “After several days, the chicks were unloaded and I was free to tour the area for the two days remaining.”

Chicks being unloaded from the S. S. Rockland Victory in Nowyport, Poland, three weeks later. Photo credit: Robert Stewart.

The first night off ship, Leland went with other cowboys to deliver food they had brought with them to give to hungry people. The next day, they went by streetcar into Gdansk and saw the “piles and piles of bricks and rubble of buildings which had been bombed” that all cowboys to Poland witnessed.

“We discovered a former Mennonite Church which was badly damaged,” Leland says. There he found some books in the rubble which he took home to Kansas and later gave to the historian at Bethel College.

The exterior of the bombed out Danzig Mennonite Church. Photo credit: Paul Martin, May 1946.

“The return trip was uneventful,” Leland says. “Some of the men used butter as a suntan lotion while sunning on the deck until a notice appeared that ‘such activity was prohibited.'”

When the ship arrived back in Newport News, each cowboy received his $150 pay from UNRRA and two cents from the Merchant Marine (a penny a month, a token to make the cattle tenders legal workers on the ships). What to do with two cents? Leland’s crew put all their pennies in a jar, a total of about 64 cents, and drew numbers to see who would get them.

Seagoing Cowgirls?

How I would love to find a copy of the letter Dan West received from seven young women when the call went out for cattle tenders for the UNRRA livestock shipments in June 1945! What I HAVE found is Dan West’s response dated July 10, 1945, less than two weeks after the first UNRRA ships left the country:

Dear Folks:
I like the aggressive tone of your delightful letter, and I have done something about it- however not enough for results. Here on our front porch last night Irene Petry told me that she had talked with all of you.

  1. I am sympathetic toward your concern– very
  2. I am ignorant on the innards of cattle shipping, but suspect that the present policy excludes you from active service on livestock boats. More in the lingo– I guess you can’t swing it.
  3. Ben Bushong [the man in charge of cattle tender recruitment and soon to be named executive director of Heifer Project] is sympathetic with the younger generation- especially graceful bovines- and he is better informed. I am sending your letter on to him for reply, with a copy of this enclosed.
  4. Suppose I am right that you just can’t get on the ship. There will be others, and if there is a shortage of qualified male cattle tenders, cooks, scrubbers-upper, or what have you, the policy may be changed.
  5. Meantime – and seriously enough, why not write Ben at Brethren Service Committee, Fulton Building, Lancaster, Penna. giving him your qualifications for such work. We want a good honest job done by everybody who goes on such a mission. Also give him your motives.
  6. If you get licked all around, and if you mean business, keep on trying. You remember the importunate widow and the unjust judge. That old boy was a harder customer (I take it) than the Brethren Service Committee or the shipping companies. If you want precedent I am told that whole ships from Siberia to Portland were “manned” by women a year or more ago. Of course these Russians likely never heard of the importunate widow- and if they are superior in importunation to American women- well, there you are. It is a man’s world I admit, but do what you can to improve it, on land and/or sea.

More power to you.
Truly,
Dan West

Dan was much more susceptible to “importunation” than the shipping companies, however. To be a cattle tender on a ship for UNRRA, the seagoing cowboys had to join the Merchant Marine. No women were allowed on merchant ships during those UNRRA years. It wasn’t until after the Heifer Project continued on its own, and the cattle tenders were volunteers, that women had the opportunity to be seagoing cowgirls. And even then, the ship’s officers were reluctant to allow women to assist with the cattle.

Pratt and Julia Byrd pose with fellow cowboy Leslie Yoder in Bremen, Germany, Nov. 1950. Photo: Joe Dell

As near as I can tell, the first woman to go with a Heifer Project shipment was Julia Byrd, a journalist who accompanied her husband for a “Heifer Honeymoon” in 1950. I doubt she did much tending of cattle, as she was more interested in the story.

In 1955, Mary Mahoney, a reporter from Corpus Christi, Texas, accompanied a shipment of heifers to Germany. A Pleasonton, Tex. Express article about her trip quoted her as saying, “I grew up on a ranch and I guess that’s the reason they let me go.”

The article says, “But the captain on the ship was unconvinced of Mary’s ability as a cowgirl. Her editor had to book regular passage for her although she still managed to help other CROP representatives with the dairy cattle which were distributed at Kassel, Germany.”

Kathy Baldwin Moore found the same reluctance of the ship’s crew to allow her to assist with the cattle when she accompanied her father on a trip to Japan in 1958. Her story is written up in Heifer International’s World Ark magazine.

Kathy Baldwin (now Moore) and ship’s crew. Courtesy of Kathy Moore.

That same year, Beverly Hill, a high school senior from Frederick, Maryland, had no such difficulties when she tended an air shipment of 41 heifers, a bull, and a calf for Turkey. She had chaired the “Calves for Turkey” campaign of her Frederick County Christian Youth Council.

As more air shipments were made, more “flying cowgirls” followed.

Luke Bomberger holds record for most seagoing cowboy trips

Luke graciously shared his seagoing cowboy stories with me in July 2004.

Luke Bomberger graciously shared his seagoing cowboy stories with me in July 2004.

When 17-year-old Luke Bomberger of Mt. Joy, Pennsylvania, set sail for Greece on the S. S. Charles W. Wooster on August 15, 1945, he had no idea his expected two-month adventure would last twenty-one months. The Charles Wooster was only the seventh livestock ship to leave the United States. It carried 335 horses and the first Mennonites to sign up for the program. As all of the seagoing cowboys were required to do, these men had to join the Merchant Marine to be able to legally work on a merchant ship.

Luke explores the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, with crew members of the S. S. Charles W. Wooster, 1945. Photo courtesy of Wilbur Layman.

Luke explores the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, with crew members of the S. S. Charles W. Wooster, 1945. Photo courtesy of Wilbur Layman.

 

In line with his Mennonite upbringing, Luke had registered with his draft board as a conscientious objector. He turned 18 while he was at sea on the Charles Wooster, and his draft board came calling. When his parents told the board where he was and what he was doing, the board said he should keep on doing it for his service. His Merchant Marine status was his ticket to a tour of duty.

Luke, top left, enjoyed life-long friendships with some of these crew mates of the S. S. Norwalk Victory, Feb. 1946. Photo courtesy of Elmer Bowers.

Luke, top left, enjoyed life-long friendships with some of these crew mates of the S. S. Norwalk Victory, Feb. 1946. Photo courtesy of Elmer Bowers.

Luke made nine trips before his discharge on April 25, 1947. He is likely the only seagoing cowboy who received a letter from President Harry Truman, “To you who answered the call of your country and served in its Merchant Marine to bring about the total defeat of the enemy, I extend the heartfelt thanks of the Nation….” He also received a “Certificate of Substantially Continuous Service in the United States Merchant Marine” from the United States Maritime Commission.

Hiking with crew mates outside Trieste, Italy, February 1946. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers.

Hiking with crew mates outside Trieste, Italy, February 1946. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers.

Luke’s nine trips took him across the Atlantic Ocean sixteen times and across the Pacific twice. He traveled on eight different ships that took him to Greece, Poland, Italy, Germany, the Island of Crete, and China. He proved himself a worthy sailor on his first trip when he was hired as a “Wiper” for the return stretch to fill in for a regular crewman who had to stay behind in Greece. At the young age of 18, he became a cowboy foreman on his fifth trip and served in that capacity at least twice more.

Cleaning stalls on the way to China aboard the S. S. Boulder Victory. Photo credit: Eugene Souder.

Cleaning stalls on the way to China aboard the S. S. Boulder Victory. Photo credit: Eugene Souder.

All was not smooth sailing for this young man, though. Close encounters with mines floating in the water on a couple of his ships, a fire in the engine room on another, a fall in which he broke his hand, and a horse bite that left a lifelong scar on his back added drama to some of his trips. His scariest moment, however, was aboard an older merchant ship, the S. S. Mexican, on his second trip. He was serving as night watchman, making his rounds to check on the animals. After one of his hourly reports to the bridge, his foot slipped coming down a rain-slicked ladder and he shot across the deck on his back right towards an opening on the side of the ship. All that saved him from disappearing into the dark Atlantic night was a narrow lip of metal at the opening that caught his foot and stopped his slide. He was grateful to be alive, cracked ribs and all.

Luke says his trips made him more aware of persons of other countries and their needs, which influenced his family’s hosting of international exchange visitors and students through the years.

Seagoing Cowboys and the Maritime Union

Our last post told of the process by which an interested person became a seagoing cowboy and obtained his Merchant Marine ID that allowed him to legally work on a merchant vessel. Today’s post looks at the UNRRA end of the process. The supplying of these cattle-tending personnel for the livestock ships became a major problem for UNRRA in the early stages of the program.

First, as we’ve previously noted, was the lack of qualified candidates. In their Historical Livestock Report, UNRRA notes: “Draft Boards were still requiring great numbers of men. Employment possibilities were excellent in most fields…” making it difficult to find the caliber of person desired. UNRRA solved this problem by contracting with the Brethren Service Committee to recruit the cattle tenders. https://seagoingcowboysblog.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/unrra-and-the-brethren-service-committee-partner-up/

The report also states, “The relationship between the ship’s crew and the cattle attendants on shipboard and the possible interest of the Maritime Unions in the cattlemen presented additional problems.” To avoid potential conflicts between these three groups, UNRRA Livestock Branch employee Sol Lischinsky was sent to New York to confer with union officials. It took several conferences for an agreement to be reached, after which National Maritime Union president Joseph Curran “dispatched a letter to [UNRRA’s] Director General in which he advised that the N.M.U. would have no interest in the cattle attendants, even though they were to be signed on ships articles as members of the ship’s crew.”

The UNRRA report went on to say,

It was agreed with the War Shipping Administration and the ships operators that cattle attendants would be subject to the same regulations on shipboard as were the regular ship’s crew. Veterinarians and supervisors were to be accorded the same privileges as were the ship’s officers. This was necessary in order to insure a relationship between the persons responsible for the care of the animals and those responsible for the operation of the ship which would lend itself to the best interest of the animals.

Under the original agreement with the Brethren Service Committee, UNRRA paid the sum of $150.00 for each man recruited. Later revisions in the agreement provided for the payment of an additional $100.00 for men designated as foremen….

This meant that seagoing cowboys received $150.00 per trip, whether that trip took four weeks or four months. They were, however, paid per month by the Merchant Marine — all of one cent per month! — a simple formality to make the cowboys legal workers on the merchant vessels.

Seagoing cowboy receives penny for Merchant Marine service.

This unidentified newspaper clipping highlights the seagoing cowboy pay.

Next post: Hanging around in the port city

Becoming a Seagoing Cowboy

One of the first questions I ask a seagoing cowboy in an interview is, “How did you learn about the seagoing cowboy program?” Some say through their church or school, others saw an ad in a church or farm magazine, some heard an ad on the radio, and many learned by word of mouth.

seagoing cowboy ad

Once interested, the cowboy-to-be contacted the seagoing cowboy office at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, and put in his application. Then the waiting began. Maybe a matter of hours after an initial phone call if livestock tenders were urgently needed. Maybe a couple of weeks or longer, especially if a longshoreman’s strike was in process.

The Seagoing Cowboy office

Located in Old Main at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, the seagoing cowboy office was the hub of coordination efforts to keep the UNRRA livestock ships manned. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library & Archives

Finally, that telegram or phone call came saying to report to New Windsor or directly to the port of loading. Could have been Baltimore; New York City; Newport News; New Orleans; Portland, Maine; Savannah, Georgia; Houston, Texas.

Telegram to report

Alfred Willms [misspelled in telegram] orders to report to Newport News. Courtesy of Alfred Willms

Bags were packed and the cowboy headed to the port at his own expense, whatever way he could get there. Maybe train, or bus, or car, or thumb. Many had never been out of their state before. Some, even their own county.

Cowboys ready to travel.

Lloyd Gingrich (right) and friend are ready for their adventure on the  S.S. Adrian Victory to Poland, July 1946. Photo courtesy of Lloyd Gingrich

Then the process of obtaining seaman’s papers in a strange city began, with trips to a number of offices including that of the Coast Guard, the five and dime store for passport pictures, the doctor for a quick physical exam and inoculations. If the applicant was under 18, he needed to have a permission form from his parents. If he was of draft age, he needed a release from his draft board to leave the country. Finally, the cowboy received his papers showing he was a member of the U. S. Merchant Marine with the classification of “cattleman.”

Seaman's card

My Grandpa Abe’s seaman’s card. He went to Poland on the S.S. Pierre Victory in October 1946.

On receiving his papers, the cowboy took the seaman’s oath. When his ship was ready, he signed on to the ship’s articles, separate articles from what the regular crew signed, making him a member of the seagoing cowboy crew. He was ready for the adventure of a lifetime!

Next post: Seagoing cowboys and the Maritime Union