Life on the S. S. Virginian: From the letters of O. R. Hersch, Part II

This continues the reflections of Orville Hersch in his letters home about his time on the S.S. Virginian, the second UNRRA livestock ship to leave the United States, the end of June 1945.

Fire and Life Boat Drills

“We have fire drill once a week, also life boat drill at the same [time] or immediately following. Each person on the ship is required to go to his station for fire drill – and the fire hose is/hoses are turned on to check on their working alright [sic]. Then the whistle is as follows –
1 long blast – go to your fire station.
3 short blasts – turn off the water.
6 short blasts & 1 long blast – go to your life boat.
3 short blasts – dismissal – return to our work.

“In this life boat drill we all put on our life belts to which are attached a whistle to blow, a knife to cut or defend ourselves when in the water, a flashlight to attract attention in the darkness etc. The flashlights are all new batteries & shine brightly. The rafts on which 20 men can ride look like this:

From letters of O. R. Hersch, courtesy of Heifer International.

From letters of O. R. Hersch, courtesy of Heifer International.

slats on top – also on the bottom – The bottom is like the top – so the raft cannot fall upside down. Between two [vertical] air tanks is a compartment containing fire signals, fishing tackles, chocolate bars, canned fresh water, hatchets, gigs, oars, spears, food etc.

Life boat drill on the S. S. Creighton Victory, July 1946. Photo courtesy of Ben Kaneda.

Life boat drill on the S. S. Creighton Victory, July 1946. Photo courtesy of Ben Kaneda.

“In case the ship strikes a floating mine – a ‘SOS’ will call other ships to our aid – so these boats & rafts will help us out until the other ships arrive. The raft slides off the ship when a small ring is slid away from an open link and the raft held to the side of the ship so a man can climb down a knotted rope over the side of the ship to the waters edge and then swim to the raft. Our life preservers are well able to keep us afloat even tho we don’t know how to swim – most of us in case of danger would leap from the ship feet first & hold one hand between our chin on the top of our life preserver and the other hand over our nose to keep the water out. These life preservers give us a feeling of security in the midst of this boundless deep – the depth of which makes the deep azure blue of a deep blue sky.”

Bill of Lading

Besides the official cargo on the Virginian, the cowboys had brought along items like soap, needles, thread, buttons, etc., which Orville is distributing here to Greeks in Salonika. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

Besides the official cargo on the Virginian, the cowboys had brought along items like soap, needles, thread, buttons, etc., which Orville is distributing here to grateful Greeks in Salonika. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

The livestock ships usually carried additional cargo in the bottom holds, of which Orville wrote, “Perhaps you will be interested in the bill of lading of our ship. We have –
2000 sewing machines
1548 bales of straw
13 steel chains weighing 14000#
30 bundles of steel weighing 93490#
41 steel bars weighing 149900#
12000 bags of 16% dairy feed
5557 bales of mixed hay (timothy & clover) – 293 ton
40 bags bran – 2 ton
702 bags oats – 40 ton
2735 ton superphosphate – fertilizer
260 large crated boxes of tractors & parts – 2 ton each
270 bundles of parts
325 heifers
12 bulls
375 mares
(also have 11 fresh cows – 10 living calves – so we milk & have plenty of milk & the calves are doing fine)
5028 net tonnage of our ship
7985 gross tonnage of our ship
48 men in the ships crew, seamen etc.
26 cattle men

To power this vessel, Orville reported it carried 13637 barrels (bbl) of oil with 42 gallons per barrel, or 2091 ton. It used 325 bbl of oil each day at sea and 70 bbl when in port. The ship carried 1230 tons of fresh water of which 35 tons were used per day with livestock on board and 15 tons without livestock.

Quite an undertaking! Imagine the details UNRRA had to work out for each of their 360 shipments.

Orvillel Hersch at the old wall of Salonika, Greece, July 1945. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

Orville Hersch at the old wall of Salonika, Greece, July 1945. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

Life on the S. S. Virginian: From the letters of O. R. Hersch, Part I

For a recent presentation for the Manassas (VA) Church of the Brethren, I reviewed the letters of one of their former members, 49-year-old seagoing cowboy supervisor O. R. Hersch. I’ll share some of his observations written to his family with you. Sometimes he signed his seagoing cowboy documents as Orville Robert, sometimes as Robert O., and sometimes as O. R. I’ll call him Orville. He served on the second UNRRA ship to leave the United States, the S. S. Virginian, which left from Baltimore for Greece June 26, 1945.

O. R. Hersch aboard the S. S. Virginian, July 1945. O. R. Hersch album, courtesy of Heifer International.

O. R. Hersch aboard the S. S. Virginian, July 1945. From the O. R. Hersch album, courtesy of Heifer International.

Uncertainties of a fledgling program

While waiting to leave Baltimore, Orville wrote a letter to his son Harold giving instructions for the farm work at home and says, “. . .as the moments pass, there are almost too many things to write and new emotions stir one’s breast. I feel that this venture is going to be a big one –bigger than we think. . . . In a sense I feel that [I] am out of the picture for some time and perhaps my feelings might prompt words I should not say.” He had had conversations with cowboys of the S. S. Mexican loading at the same time and writes, “on it’s last trip out [it] went as far as Calcutta, India. One can never tell for certain just ‘where do we go from here.’ I talked with our Capt. of the ship (Coughlin) this morning and he said his ship orders were to see to it that we were assured of passage back.” This program was so new, that the cowboys, and I’m sure their families, didn’t know what to expect.

Care of the livestock

Horses aboard the S. S. Virginian. Courtesy of Earl Holderman.

Horses aboard the S. S. Virginian. Photo courtesy of Earl Holderman.

The Virginian carried 375 horses and 347 cattle. Orville described the work of the cowboys. “Right after breakfast [the horses] are to have all the water they can drink – there is a bucket in front of each horse and the bucket is filled with a hose of running water. After the water they are fed about 2 qt. of oats or oats and bran or bran alone if they need a more laxative kind of feed.” Orville noted elsewhere that for the cattle it was two pounds of 16% dairy feed once a day.  All of the animals were given as much water and hay as they could consume twice a day and salt once a day.

Newspaper clipping from O. R. Hersch album. Courtesy of Heifer International.

Newspaper clipping from O. R. Hersch album. Courtesy of Heifer International.

 

Mucking out the stalls was another daily task. Orville wrote that after feeding the horses, “the manure is cleaned from behind them and the alley way or walk way is swept clean. The manure is thrown out thru a little hole. The urine goes down thru the floor the horses stand on and runs off thru holes in the ship & out into the sea or ocean. We do not bed the horses much because they are made to stand up all the time – all the way over. [This was due to their sensitive digestive systems. Horses knees lock, and they can sleep standing up.] The cattle may lay down when they wish to. All the horses & cattle will be kept tied – else in a storm at sea when the ship rolls the cattle would all push to one corner & so be hurt.”

Not all animals survived. Orville noted eleven days into the trip, “So far we have lost about 12 horses and 6 heifers and a bull. The cattle all (except one) died of pneumonia. The horses which we opened [autopsied] were also pneumonia victims – or they call it shipping fever.” UNRRA reported an overall loss of 3.8% for the horses, cattle, and mules they shipped. The losses ranged from zero per cent to 35.2%, the latter on the trip of the S. S. Beloit Victory that hit severe winter weather en route to Poland in February of 1947. A sad outcome for recipients waiting on the arrival of their animals.

To be continued with Part II December 9.