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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Waste not? or Want not?

Captains and/or seagoing cowboy supervisors had a decision to make: what to do with all that manure their four-legged charges produced! Do we not waste it? Or do we not want it? If a Captain was altruistic, he might let the manure accumulate on the voyage and be offloaded at the destination for use as fertilizer. Many a cowboy with such a Captain said that by the time they reached their destination, the back ends of their animals were higher than their front ends.

Manure offloaded from the S. S. Bucknell Victory in Nowy Port, Poland, February 1946. Rich cargo for the Polish farmers. Photo: Harold Thut.

If the Captain liked his vessel “shipshape,” however, he may give the order to “Keep those stalls clean!” – in whatever way the cowboys could manage.

Cowboys Guhr and Brenneman pull up manure on the S. S. John J. Crittenden, November 1945. Photo: Ernest Bachman.

Luke Bomberger pitches manure overboard en route to China on the S. S. Boulder Victory, February 1947. Photo: Eugene Souder.

The very first UNRRA livestock trip, on the S. S. F. J. Luckenbach, was one on which the cowboys cleaned their stalls. College students Gordon Bucher and Ken Frantz worked on the top deck. They recalled an incident when they had thrown manure over the rail just as an older cowboy (whom I will not name) had stuck his head out a porthole right below. The joke of the trip became, “My name is (unnamed cowboy). What did YOU see when you looked out the porthole?”

Manure overboard! It didn’t all make it to Poland. Bucknell Victory, February 1946. Photo: Harold Thut.

Seagoing cowboy Ernest Williams, who in 1954 accompanied the 36th load of heifers sent to Germany for the Heifer Project, relates this story:

We tended the cattle twice a day, a pretty easy job. After a couple of days out, we made an effort to clean out the cages, which was considerable work in itself. Our method was to take the steel tubs used to wash clothes, which were about two to two-and-a-half feet in diameter with handles. We put as much weight in each one as we could handle and two of us would carry the tub and throw the waste overboard. We could see brown patches on the ocean behind the ship on both sides, dotting the trail of the ship. BIG MISTAKE. The trip was two weeks over. When we got to Europe, they said, “Where is the manure?” It was considered important fertilizer for the fields. We saw the “honey wagons” there hauling manure. We had wasted ours feeding the fish.

The ship used for Williams’ trip was not one of the regular livestock carriers that went to Germany, so the Captain would not have known the waste was expected along with the animals.

Images of Gdansk, before and after: 1946 and 2007

Following World War II, the city of Gdansk, formerly Danzig, Poland, undertook the daunting feat of rebuilding its Main Town as it had been before the war. In painstaking detail, city planners revitalized the historic architecture of building fronts and structures as they were designed centuries earlier. Park Victory radioman Will Keller returned to Gdansk in 2007 and took contrasting photos of scenes he had captured there in January 1946.

Will Keller on the S. S. Park Victory, 1946. Photo courtesy of Will Keller.

Will has passed on to me a wonderful collection of before and after images, five of which I share with you here.

Golden Gate at the beginning of Long Street:

Golden Gate, Gdansk, Poland, January 1946. Photo by Will Keller.

Golden Gate, Gdansk, Poland, 2007. Photo by Will Keller.

Golden House on Long Market:

Golden House, Gdansk, Poland, January 1946. Photo by Will Keller.

Golden House, Gdansk, Poland, 2007. Photo by Will Keller.

St. Mary’s Gate at the end of St. Mary’s Street:

St. Mary’s Gate, Gdansk, Poland, January 1946. Photo by Will Keller.

St. Mary’s Gate, Gdansk, Poland, 2007. Photo by Will Keller.

The Motlawa River waterfront with its historic Crane at the far right bend:

Motlawa River Waterfront, Gdansk, Poland, January 1946. Photo by Will Keller.

Motlawa River Waterfront, Gdansk, Poland, 2007. Photo by Will Keller.

The Great Arsenal at the beginning of Piwna Street:

Great Arsenal and Piwna Street, Gdansk, Poland, January 1946. Photo by Will Keller.

Great Arsenal and Piwna Street, Gdansk, Poland, 2007. Photo by Will Keller.

Next post: We leave Poland for Park Victory Livestock trip #3 to Greece

 

These have also been assembled into a matching game for children on my website.

The S. S. Park Victory: Livestock trip #2, Poland, December 1945 – Part IV

Today, we look at postwar Poland through the eyes of Park Victory radioman Will Keller in an account he wrote for me from his diary notes:

“One afternoon took tram New Port to Danzig. Walked around ‘Old Town’ Danzig….

Limited tram service was available between Nowy Port and Gdansk January 1946. Photo courtesy of Fred Ramseyer.

“Woman runs up and asks if Americans will be sharing occupation with Russians….Manhole in snow-covered street suddenly rises and man climbs out, dusts himself off, replaces cover, and walks off. [A few] people around live in air raid shelters, sewers, among ruins. Returning to New Port, alongside tramway tracks six graves, 6 rifles upended in ground, 6 German helmets rocking back and forth in breeze….

Going on tour around Gdansk. January 1946. Photo courtesy of Fred Ramseyer.

“One morning UNRRA truck took cowboys and me on tour of Stutthof Concentration camp. Horrible site. Beautiful countryside. Large house at entrance. Tall trees. Stables, Crematory with smokestack. Piles and piles of clogs and worn-out shoes. Awful place. This is what I believe I saw: A tall, brick, tapering chimney (widening at the base), astride a windowless brick building standing on the eastern side of the camp. We entered a door on the north side and descended four or five steps. To our right was a wide ‘roll-up’ door, and to our left were six ovens, side-by-side, each with its own muffler. Over top of ovens was a walkway with handrail, and behind that a forest of neat pipes, and dials and valves. Horribly impressive….We exited on the south side of the building and looked again at the piles of clogs and worn-out shoes. Once, and not long ago, live people had stood in those very clogs and shoes. Was this what I saw? I wonder about that yet today….

“Battleground debris was everywhere—tanks dug-in with ugly snouts (turrets and guns) showing above ground. All kinds of damaged and abandoned vehicles. Armored cars, half-tracks, spent and unspent ammunition. Rows of trees dynamited so as to block use of a road….

“Small children begging for food. A boy of 5 or 6 years, holding a little girl’s hand. Each carries a tin pail. Our cook comes down the gangway, still wearing his kitchen apron, and ladles warm food into each pail. The children watch him, wide-eyed.

Park Victory cooks, January 1946. Photo courtesy of Fred Ramseyer.

“A ship’s boom swings up and out of a hold and over to the dock, lowering another animal container. Out staggers a sick cow, head hanging down, frothing at nostrils and mouth. Given extra injections by Vets. Old man and old woman waiting nearby come forward. Old man places rope around cow’s neck; old woman covers cow with blanket. Man leads cow away as old woman walks alongside hugging and petting cow….

“At the Polonia. Girls, desperate to escape Danzig, begging to be smuggled aboard ship….

Bar near the docks frequented by ship’s crew and seagoing cowboys. Photo credit: Will Keller.

“Jan 17, 1946 Park Victory leaves Danzig/Newport….Destination Copenhagen.

“Jan 18, 1946 shore leave in Copenhagen. What a change from Danzig!”

Next regular post: Images of Gdansk, before and after: 1946 and 2007

The S. S. Park Victory: Livestock trip #2, Poland, December 1945 – Part III

One of the fascinating realities about the seagoing cowboy trips that has kept me so engrossed for the past sixteen years is that every cowboy’s experience is uniquely his. Thus, for every group of 25 cowboys, there are 25 stories! Today, I share seagoing cowboy supervisor Harold Hoffman’s experience exploring the port area of Poland.

Seagoing cowboys from the S. S. Park Victory explore Gdansk, Poland, January 1946. Photo courtesy of Velma Hoffman.

As soon as the Park Victory docked the afternoon of January 11, interaction began with the guards and officials who came on board. For Hoffman, and most cowboys, the conversations painted a picture of postwar reality. One Polish guard bought cigarettes, Hoffman notes in his diary, which were the favored black market currency. Another “told of Russians coming to his house. Took his valuables. Wanted his wife. He couldn’t understand them. He told them she had T.B. They took 14 yr. old girl, kept her 5 days. Raped her 51 times. Brought her back, said she was drunk, is still sick, has syllphis [sic].”

Even though docked in port, there was still work to do feeding and watering the animals until unloading began the next morning. “Would unload at night,” Hoffman notes, “but [there is] fear of high jacking at night on way to stock yards.”

Unloading a horse in the “flying stall” at Nowy Port, Poland. January 1946. Photo credit: Will Keller.

Livestock received the UNRRA brand to protect from theft. Photo credit: Will Keller.

“Many [cowboys and crew] went from ship in evening to Bars. 4 crew had anti machine guns pulled on them by Russians. Very frequently hear shots. Open season on Poles as well as Russians.”

“A German dock worker lived in N.Y. 9 yrs.,” Hoffman notes. “Came to see mother. All clothes he owned (he) had on. Sold overcoat for food.”

One of the locations UNRRA livestock were gathered. Photo courtesy of Velma Hoffman.

The fourth day in port, as they did for many of the livestock crews, UNRRA took a group of the Park Victory men on a tour of the area. “Went to a camp where the Germans built stables and barracks,” Hoffman says. “Had a lot of UNRRA stock there. Saw a lot of our mares and heifers.” Later they were taken “to a little settlement of several families. Had horses, cows, hogs, rabbits. They were so appreciative of their stock.”

The UNRRA tours usually ended with a generous thank you dinner for the cowboys at a restaurant in the nearby resort town of Sopot which bore little damage from the war. “Courses were first 4 kinds of cold meats & bread,” Hoffman says. “Then vodka. Soup served in cups & saucers. Throughout meal brought vodka. After soup, stine [sic] of beer. Dinner of stake [sic], french fries, peas & carrots, cake of wet dough and delicious frosting.” Many a cowboy felt conflicted being served such a lavish meal while the people they’d been meeting were going hungry.

Banquet provided by UNRRA and the Polish Department of Agriculture for the seagoing cowboys. Photo credit: Ben Kaneda, July 1946.

On the day of departure, Hoffman records an incident that lowered his opinion of the ship’s Captain. As the Park Victory was pulling away, a Polish man on dock shouted “American comrade,” pointing down the channel. “Soon someone thought they saw the third engineer on the dock,” Hoffman notes. “I quickly spotted him through glasses as I had visited with him several times. Had taken a great interest in him because of his parents living in Poland. He was waving and calling to us. I saw the Master on top side walk to port side rail, look at him a moment, then turn away, walk back to center and light a cigarette. My heart sank for fear of (the engineer’s) welfare in such a country. Also my heart filled with rage at the Master for being so unjust to a fellow even tho he is much lower in position. Then I wondered how the 3rd Engineer must have felt. Later that night Don said he came aboard with the [channel] pilot and told some of his experiences. He had to go 400 miles. Part way by car, 2 days by train. His parents didn’t recognize him. His father is in very bad health and in clothes of shreds. He could provide (his father) some clothes. His mother told him he must sleep in the hay loft because his former friends and school mates would probably try to kill him for his possessions and identification papers in hopes that they might get to the states.” Fortunately, they didn’t come.

Next post: Ship’s radioman Will Keller’s experience in Poland.

The S. S. Park Victory: Livestock trip #2, Poland, December 1945 – Part II

The next leg of the Park Victory‘s journey began to expose the seagoing cowboys to the realities of war. The ship left Downs, England, at noon January 7 (1946) for the Kiel Canal, “twenty hours away thru the minefields,” notes the ship’s radioman, Will Keller. Early the next morning, “in thick fog we missed a buoy,” he writes. “EMERGENCY STOP! Reversed engine, drug anchor.”

When the fog lifted around noon, the ship proceeded past the German town of Cuxhaven and took on an Elbe River pilot to guide the ship through the canal. “Nice shore line,” assistant cowboy supervisor Harold Hoffman says in his diary. “Buildings look like any American town.” Soon the locks of the canal came into sight.

Interacting with Germans in the Kiel Canal lock. Photo courtesy of Harold Hoffman.

“Saw masts of several sunken vessels,” Hoffman notes. Entering the lock “was exciting. No one worked, even ship’s crew. Except to tie up ship. Gate closed. There probably 1 hr. or longer. Most men typical German. Some weather beaten. Some English around.” Then the interactions began. Cowboys and crewmen threw gum and candy to the children. “Bartering was fun,” says Hoffman. “Had ships made in a bottle for 5 pks. cigarettes. I got a pin for 2 pks.”

“Soon we moved on. Light fading,” Hoffman says . “Moved slowly through gates and into canal. Did not use motors, let the current carry us for some distance.” Then it was back to work, with the unpleasant task of raising a dead mare to the top deck from which she would be buried at sea when the ship reached open waters.

Not all animals survived the trip. Removing them from the ship was not an easy task. Photo credit: Will Keller.

The next morning, “At arising found ourselves anchored in Kiel harbor,” says Hoffman, where the ship would stay all day. That night, seagoing cowboy Fred Ramseyer notes a contrast in his diary. “See sunken ships all around in the bay. It’s a nice eve out. The moon is shining on the bay, the stars etc. on the ripples.”

The Park Victory had to wait until 7 a.m. the next morning to leave, “because [through] the next twelve hours’ run the water is filled with 137 sunken ships,” notes Hoffman, “so we must have day light to dodge them.” Not to mention the mines that still littered the Baltic Sea.

Sunken ships were still evident the following summer. Photo credit: Charles Shenk, July 1946.

“Departed Kiel with pilot thru maze of sunken vessels,” notes Keller, “big ones and little ones. Some with masts sticking out of water; others resting on the bottom with superstructures above water. Water sloshing in and out of open doorways and portholes. Six knife-edged minesweepers at work.”

After a cold, damp, and windy but safe passage through the Baltic Sea, on Friday afternoon, January 11, the Park Victory slowly moved towards the harbor at Danzig (Gdansk), Poland. Radioman Keller says, “Pilot sends word suggesting lock up all radio equipment and ‘disappear’ as we approach docking area, otherwise I might be impressed to serve as port’s radio station by local ‘authorities.’ As suggested, I locked up – and disappeared.

“As we proceeded up the channel into New Port (serving Danzig),” says Keller, “we saw ruins, and more ruins. And we heard gunfire, and more gunfire.” Hoffman elaborates in his diary: “Ships on banks taken out of harbor. German plane, large warehouse, steel structures damaged. All buildings of brick, some completely flat. Others just walls, others down in parts. Some with roofs out. Some looked as if hit directly. Railroads & tracks, cars, trucks crumbled & twisted. Passed Samuel Ingram [Liberty ship] docked with load of K rations. Plenty guards with rifles, machine guns & pistols. All seemed most curious. So was the boat personnel.”

A sample of the ruins that greeted the seagoing cowboys in Poland. Photo credit: Charles Shenk, July 1946.

Once docked, Hoffman notes, “Guys hanging all over ship. First on board Military and Customs. Can’t tell who is who or what. Poles, Germans or Russians. Notice posted to stay away from American Bar, as the day before one American seaman died, three critical as result of Vodka…. Time taken to make trip: 14 days, 3 hrs., 31 min.”

Everett Byer, in “A Cowboy Goes Abroad,” his unpublished report of this trip which he shared with his fellow cowboys, gives an account of the gravity of the situation the seagoing cowboys to Poland faced. He writes, “And so next morning we are permitted to go ashore, with final words of warning from our supervisor, handed down from the Captain:

This is a wide open city, without law. No permits or passes are needed but if you get in jail, you will probably stay here. We have no Counsul yet and cannot do much for you. Do not go ashore alone and the larger the group the better. Be sure to make it known that you are Americans, because a splendid feeling of good will is given toward Americans due to the tremendous aid in food and clothing that we have sent. Especially you ‘guys’ who talk a little German, be sure they know you are Americans, and don’t talk politics: they (Russians) have secret police and it may be just too bad.

“So, fifteen timid American farmers go ashore in a body,” writes Byer, ” to explore for the first time in a foreign land and in a town as wide open as any western town in our country’s early days.”

To be continued. . .

The S. S. Park Victory: Livestock trip #2, Poland, December 1945 – Part I

The seagoing cowboys on the second livestock trip of the S. S. Park Victory faced a much bleaker experience than those who went to Trieste. It was a rougher ride in wintry weather, for one thing. And the destination more devastated.

S. S. Park Victory awaits departure in Baltimore, December 1945. Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

Seagoing cowboy Daniel Hertzler says in an article for The Mennonite, “We were a diverse group of cattlemen…. Ten states and two Canadian provinces were represented. There were 16 Mennonites, 10 Brethren, one Methodist, one Baptist and one Presbyterian.” Of these men, the ship’s radio operator Will Keller notes, “Some younger, some older, some conscientious objectors to war, some adventurers, all well-behaved without exception.”

Seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Park Victory to Poland, Dec. 1945. Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

More seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Park Victory to Poland, Dec. 1945. Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

Cowboys started arriving December 18 and had plenty of time to get to know each other before the work began, as a snow storm and sickness of horses held 13 train car loads up in Kentucky. Keller notes that cattle were then substituted for the horses. Finally, on December 24, with all the cargo loaded, tug boats began pulling the Park Victory from the pier in Baltimore and moving down the Chesapeake Bay.

Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

“Everyone was excited,” notes assistant cowboy supervisor Harold Hoffman in his diary. That is, until the ship anchored off Norfolk, Virginia, where it sat for three days waiting for a full ship’s crew. Radioman Keller explains, “Anchored midstream away from any access to land so as to not lose crew members or cowboys over Christmas holiday.”

On Christmas Eve, Hoffman notes the finding of a dead mare. “Some start,” he says. But “What a Christmas dinner,” he writes the next day. “Stewards dept. really put themselves in good with the cowboys.”

Christmas menu. From the papers of Harold Hoffman, Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

However, it wasn’t such a good Christmas Day up top. “Had messy time feeding top deck in rain tonight getting the canvas back on the feed that a hard wind blew off,” Hoffman says. An omen of the chilly, cloudy, rainy weather and choppy seas that plagued the ship all the way across the Atlantic.

The ship set sail December 27, and two days later Hoffman writes, “This morning we began to get a real touch of sea life. Two of the boys went to the rail after breakfast. Most every one was affected some.” Later, I was “standing in line at slop chest [ship’s store] when it seemed the ship went on her side. Passageway doors opened and six inches of water came in. Soon the fire alarm. A rush for life jackets. Everyone wondered if it was drill or real. The crew was serious. Another alarm, some thought it was to abandon ship…. I rushed for my life jacket. The First Mate came through, said the last alarm was the dismissal.”

Photo credit: Fred Ramseyer.

Radioman Keller notes, “Not all animal manure developed on board will be discarded overboard. Odor becomes overwhelming in some places. Horrible below deck.” Pity the poor cowboys who were assigned to those holds!

The distribution of heifers and horses on the S. S. Park Victory to Poland, Dec. 1945. Drawing by Harold Hoffman.

Arrangement of the livestock in the Park Victory holds, Dec. 1945. Drawing by Harold Hoffman.

On New Year’s Day, 1946, part way across the Atlantic, Keller notes, “wartime radio silence at sea no longer required. Radio airwaves congested with commercial traffic.”

Finally, on January 6, “Sighted land of Scilly Islands,” says Hoffman. “Much excitement about it.” The ship made its way up through the English Channel to the White Cliffs of Dover, where it anchored for the night. Of the cliffs, Hoffman says, “They are a chalky-Limestone rock. White indeed…. This trip is really swell. It is like a dream, such a thrill.”

If the White Cliffs of Dover were thrilling, the next leg of the Park Victory trip was chilling, in more ways than the weather.

to be continued . . .