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.

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A seagoing cowboy encounters Russian soldiers

 

The F. J. Luckenbach docked in Nowyport, Poland, end of March 1946.

The F. J. Luckenbach docked in Nowyport, Poland, end of March 1946. Photo courtesy of Daniel Miller.

A year after Russian soldiers had “liberated” Gdansk from the Germans in March 1945, CPS Reserve member James M. Martin found himself in Poland by way of the livestock ship F. J. Luckenbach. The ship docked in Nowyport, which Jim recalls as “a small port town of obviously old and dilapidated houses that had mostly escaped destruction from the war.” The first afternoon, groups of cowboys strolled into town, finding few people on the streets and occasional Soviet soldiers. Jim writes:

Jim Martin talks with a Polish woman near the port. Photo courtesy of Jim Martin.

Jim Martin talks with a Polish woman near the port. Photo courtesy of Jim Martin.

To our surprise we found at the door of one of the houses a middle-aged man who spoke to us in English and invited us into his house. It developed that he had grown up in the U.S. and had somehow come to live in Poland as a young man. He had a Polish wife and two or three children. They were obviously incredibly poor and rather reluctantly admitted that they’d be glad for anything we didn’t need that we could give them. The man had a rather dejected manner and spoke freely but not joyfully.

Late in the afternoon of either the first or second day of our stay in Nowyport, we decided to take some of our cast-off clothing to the family we had met. We were leisurely strolling with the clothing in our arms when we were suddenly accosted by three Soviet soldiers (armed, of course). We couldn’t understand each other but it became apparent that we were to follow them.

They took us a short distance to an old wooden barn, completely empty except upstairs — I’d call it the hayloft — where there was a desk and several chairs and an unshaded light bulb suspended over the desk. At the desk sat another soldier who was obviously in command. There were also several other soldiers standing or sitting there.
The officer spoke toward us in Russian. We said we’re Americans. We couldn’t understand each other, except he probably understood ‘American.’

For a minute or two there was an awkward stalemate. Then it occurred to me to ask whether anyone speaks German. One soldier said he did a little. Well, ‘a little’ was the same for me.

So there began a cumbersome conversation. “Where were we going and why?” “To visit the family we had met and give them our cast-off clothes.” “This is not permissible for you to sell anything to anyone here.” “Oh, no, these are not for sale. Sie sint geschenke fur unserer Freunde. These are gifts for our friends.” “No, that’s not permitted. Nehmen sie zurick und gieben sie zum Rote Kreuz. Take them back and give them to the Red Cross.” That turned out to be the gist of our limited conversation, but we went around several times, I insisting that they are gifts and the officer insisting that we can’t do that and we should take them back home to the Red Cross. Eventually the same soldiers who had brought us there took us back to the ship.

Thinking of it afterwards I realized when we were first accosted it was dusk, and by the time we were taken back to the ship it was dark, so we probably were taking a greater risk than it seemed to me. Surely the area was under martial law and a curfew must have been in effect. Years afterward, one of the fellows in our group insisted that ‘you saved our lives.’ I don’t think it would have come to that, but I’m content to let him think so!!

I must add that the morning after we had been taken to the barn and questioned, we donned the extra clothing, several layers of it, strolled down to the home of the impoverished family, disrobed everything surplus, and left it there!

 

F. J. Luckenbach cowboys on a tour through Gdansk, early April 1946. Photo courtesy of Arnold Dietzel family.

F. J. Luckenbach cowboys on a tour through Gdansk, early April 1946. Photo courtesy of Arnold Dietzel family.

Of a tour through Gdansk that followed Jim recalls “block after block of skeletons of bombed-out buildings or piles of rubble that had once been buildings. Nothing in the newspapers back home could have brought to us the realities of war like this visit to Danzig. What must have been the terror in the hearts of the people who once called this home!”

Jim and his friends could leave Poland knowing they had at least helped the plight of one family, as well as the farmers who received the horses their ship delivered.

Find James M. Martin’s full account of his trip on the Cowboy Stories page of my website.