When the S. S. Virginia City Victory left Savannah, Georgia, January 29, 1947, her 30 seagoing cowboys had no idea what was in store for them. No doubt they had heard of other cowboys’ trips taking care of horses, heifers, or mules sent by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to help rebuild Europe after World War II. They expected to take care of the 774 horses on board as they crossed the Atlantic to Poland, to get to spend a few days exploring the recipient country, and to return home when their ship was unloaded. The extremely harsh northern European winter of 1947 scuttled those expectations. They never made it to Poland.
The intended route of the Virginia City Victory took the ship through the Skagerrak and Kattegat straits dividing Denmark from Norway and Sweden. While anchored off Sweden in the Kattegat, the Master of the ship received diversion orders from UNRRA via the shipping company on February 12. Ice in the Baltic Sea made it impossible to travel on to Poland. UNRRA ordered the ship to turn around and proceed to Rotterdam for further orders. The Master awaited confirmation orders from UNRRA’s London office.
Still in place two days later, 50 horses had already died on the trip. UNRRA representatives in Copenhagen, Denmark, suggested the horses should be discharged immediately. Suitable accommodations and agreement of local authorities made Helsingborg, Sweden, the port of choice. UNRRA canceled the orders to proceed to Rotterdam and instructed “master discharge forthwith and return [to the US].” The London office also suggested to the US office that the ship’s veterinarians and livestock attendants remain in Helsingborg so they could tend the animals when the weather allows the horses to be transported on to Poland. The veterinarians and cowboys would then return to the USA on another livestock ship.
This evidently did not sit well with the cowboys, the majority of whom came from the warm clime of the state of Georgia. Less than 15 minutes after the first cablegram from London, the US office received another: “Vessels attendants all wish return with vessel. Swedish authorities state they can provide attendants [to Poland] and all inclusive cost will be 3 Swedish kronen per horse per day.”
The Virginia City Victory docked in Helsingborg February 15, expecting to complete unloading and set sail, with cowboys on board, for New York City around February 20.
Swedish historian Pelle Johansson, of the Kulturmagasinet/Museum of Helsingborg, alerted me to this story. According to newspaper accounts, Johansson says, “The main concern was finding stables and the fear of contagious diseases. The veterinarian at the local cavalry regiment seems to have been very careful. On the 15th, a delegation from UNRRA arrived in Helsingborg from Copenhagen to make an inspection and give their okay to an unloading. They are also awaiting an okay from Swedish authorities. Through the local newspapers, the veterinarian calls out for finding stables amongst the local farmers.
“The call was heard,” Johannson said, “so between February and May the [nearly 700] American horses were placed in farms and stables around the region. At the end of May two Danish ships came to collect the horses and took them to Gdansk.”
Mr. Johansson is attempting to find some of those farm families who housed the horses to capture their stories. “One of the men I’ve interviewed,” he says, “remembers that the horse his father took to the farm was in a bad condition and was a ‘shy and worried one and probably didn’t do any work’.” Another lucky mare, however, gave birth to a foal, and the two animals were purchased and got to stay in Sweden.
My thanks to Mr. Johansson for sharing photos with me from the museum’s archives. The basic information for this post comes from my UNRRA research at the United Nations Archives in New York City and Mr. Johansson.