Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – The Long Ride Home

An unexpectedly long ride home wraps up our seagoing cowboy stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney. The most severe winter in Europe in decades caused one roadblock after another from start to finish for this last livestock trip to Poland. After being unloaded, the Mount Whitney got iced in at the dock in Nowy Port in February causing an extended week’s stay — much to the dismay of seagoing cowboys eager to get home after already having surpassed the six-week journey they had expected.

Finally, on a Saturday morning, “we spied an ice breaker with a company of Swedish coal ships in tow like a hen with her chicks and were led several miles out,” said Norman Thomas.

The Swedish icebreaker Atlee helps the S.S. Mount Whitney on her way from Poland to Sweden, February 1947. Slide from Wesley Miller/Wilbert Zahl collection.

On their own now in the Baltic Sea, thick ice periodically brought the ship to a stop forcing her to back up and charge ahead at full speed to break through. During the night, the ship stopped completely, and there she sat for four hours. “As a last resort,” said Wilbert Zahl, “we hooked our fire hoses to the hot-water boilers and ran hot water down the sides of the ship. After several hours we were able to back out of the ice floe. Then with full speed ahead we hit the ice floe so hard that it split open, and we were on our way.”

A view down the side of the Mount Whitney from about 40 feet up as she forces her way with the help of hot water through the 2-foot thick ice floe in the Baltic Sea, February 1947. Slide from Wesley Miller/Wilbert Zahl collection.

We all thought we were going home,” Zahl said, “not knowing that the winds had piled up ice 25 feet deep in the Kattegat, so there was no way to get through.” By morning, the ship had anchored three miles off Karlskrona, Sweden, and there she stayed, stuck in the ice, for another seven weeks.

The Blekinge County Newspaper reports on ship's stuck off the coast of Karlskrona, Sweden, March 4, 1947.

An area Karlskrona newspaper reported on the story of the many ships stuck in their harbor, March 4, 1947. The title reads, “The merchant fleet wants spring to come in Karlskrona.” The Mount Whitney is one of the ships named. Souvenir of Ray Finke.

“Every day we could go on foot to Karlskrona where we were welcomed with open arms,” Zahl said. Thomas noted, “One was immediately struck by the tremendous contrast of peace. Shops were full of food stuffs and dry goods; new American cars meandered through the streets, the trains were modern and on time; and the people wonderfully hospitable.” Ray Finke said, “The people here can’t do enough for us and like so much to learn English.”

Richard Wright finds a faster way to get to shore. At least one cowboy came home with frostbitten feet from walking across the ice. Photo courtesy of Richard Wright.

Farmers, preachers, and other cowboys with responsibilities at home tried desperately in vain to find alternative means of getting home. Ray Finke corresponded regularly with his family. “Sure have good mail service from here to get a return letter in a week to 10 days,” he wrote his wife. He ended up doing his farming that spring by mail, sending instructions to his wife to orchestrate. “Some fellows didn’t have a way to get seeding done or anything,” he wrote home. “One fellow rented his farm by mail, etc., so there are a lot of fellows in bad shape.”

Fortunately, the cowboy crew was a compatible bunch, and made the best of it. With eleven ministers on board, they had church services every night. And they planned special services for Holy Week that ended in a “brief Easter Sunrise service in the ship’s bow at 5:15 a.m. as the cold wind howled and threatened us with flurries of snow,” said Thomas. Volleyball, chess, books, and card games helped pass the time. A group organized a class for memorizing scripture verses, and several clubs popped up. The Whiskers Club decided not to shave until arriving home. The Gloom Chasers Club wore their clothes backwards and put ribbons in their hair, along with other antics.

“Hardly a man was missing from our good ship’s bow when on Saturday afternoon, April 12th, the anchor at last was raised,” Thomas said. Heavy ice still lay outside Karlskrona’s harbor, and icebreakers led the way. The second day they joined a convoy of eight ships. “The first ship blew up striking a mine which had been loosened by the ice floes,” Zahl said. “All the other ships turned back but our Captain ordered us all to put on our life jackets and stand on top deck. He said he would move cautiously along the ice floes and if we struck a mine we should swim to the ice floe where we would be picked up somehow. We had scary sailing, but by evening we had reached Copenhagen safely.”

The welcome New City skyline as seen from the S.S. Mount Whitney, April 26, 1947. Slide from Wesley Miller/Wilbert Zahl collection.

With their food supply down to dried herring and wormy rice, Zahl said, “we were overjoyed when finally we saw the Statue of Liberty.” Despite all of their trials, Thomas concluded, “We believe it was worth while. We remember the words of our Lord when He said, ‘Even as ye did it unto the least of these ye did it unto Me.'”

If you would like to read the full story of the eleven ministers, you can find their booklet “Horses for Humanity” here.
Ray Finke’s letters home can be found on Facebook here. My thanks to Andrea Oevering for sharing them with me.

Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – Realities of war

On its final livestock voyage, the S.S. Mount Whitney arrived in Nowy Port, Poland, outside the city of Gdansk, on February 7, 1947. Nearly two years after the Russian army had run the Germans out and gutted and ravaged the once-beautiful ancient metropolis of Gdansk, the seagoing cowboys found a city reeling from the leftover realities of World War II.

The dock area where the S.S. Mount Whitney was unloaded, February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

While the ship was being unloaded, the Mount Whitney became icebound in the harbor, having arrived during the coldest Baltic winter in 40 years. This gave an extended period of time for the cowboys to explore the area while waiting on a Swedish ice breaker to pull them out.

Ice closes in on the SS Mount Whitney during unloading, February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

Many of the cowboys had brought relief goods with them to distribute, such as clothing, needles and thread, soap, and staple food goods. This gave them the opportunity to interact with people living there among the wreckage. The ministers writing the booklet “Horses for Humanity” about their trip describe a people living in suspicion and fear of their Russian occupiers. Many of the Poles bore the scars of having “been in a concentration camp or transported to Siberia or wounded in a fray.” And a large percentage of women had been raped.

“Following a group interview,” Wesley Miller noted, “we were begged never to publish the names of the speakers.” War had upset their communities to the point that “people find strangers all about them and have lost the sense of ‘neighborhood’.” Suspicion abounded, not just with neighbors but with government agencies as well after rigged elections placing the communists in control. People spoke in whispers, even in their homes. They shrunk in fear at the sound of an unexpected knock on their door.

Nowy Port headquarters of the ruling PPR (Polish Workers Party), February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

Even the cowboys were at risk. “When one of our numbers snapped a picture of a train in a depot, unknowingly breaking the law, he was arrested by a soldier in a blue uniform who carried a sub-machine gun slung over his shoulder,” Miller said.

Illegal shot of Polish train taken February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

Mount Whitney‘s captain had warned the cowboys not to leave the ship alone or be out at night. Wilbert Zahl tells in his memoir of going with Ray Finke to the Swedish Seaman’s Club one Sunday afternoon for entertainment sponsored by the Swedish churches. Upon realizing that it had become dark outside, they excused themselves and made a hasty exit. “It was pitch dark as we hurried on our way,” Zahl said. “Suddenly a man jumped out from a dark alley and with revolver in hand he kept saying, ‘Cigarette, cigarette.’ In my fright I kept saying, ‘habe nix’, meaning in both German and Polish, ‘Have none.’ I kept talking as we turned our pockets inside out. Finally we turned the street corner where the lights from the ship scared the man away. After that experience we always got back to our ship before nightfall. Americans who had cigarettes were vulnerable to attack since cigarettes were a hot item used to barter for food.”

Despite people’s fear, the cowboys also saw in the Polish people a determination to carry on.

Man digging out Gdansk ruins in which many people are still buried, February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

“Day after day,” noted Rev. Eldon Ramige, “workers were helping to clear out the bricks of bombed buildings for a few paltry zlotys that hardly kept them above semi-starvation. Mothers of families in basement one-room homes went about trying to keep their children in food and clothes and to send them to school. A large percentage of the youth of high school age do not have a bed to sleep on at night, sleeping on the floor with a coat for a cover, but they are in school. . . .

With stores nonexistent, people barter goods hand to hand on the street or in little stands like this one. Gdansk, Poland, February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

“Even in devastated hopeless Gdansk,” Ramige said, “there is evidence of that spirit within man that can not be broken.”

(to be continued)

Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – Last livestock run, January 1947

Little did the 80 seagoing cowboys of the S.S. Mount Whitney’s final livestock trip in January 1947 know their expected six-week trip to Poland and back would keep them away from home for nearly four months!

The seagoing cowboy crew of the S.S. Mount Whitney’s last livestock run. Photo courtesy of Wesley Miller.

The crew included eleven ministers who wrote the report “Horses for Humanity” of this eventful voyage. Most of the crew received their call to report to Newport News, Virginia, January 6 and traveled in speedily from as far away as Minnesota and Nebraska – only to have to wait to depart until the wee hours of January 25 due to a shortage of hay.

The S.S. Mount Whitney awaits sailing at Newport News, Virginia, January 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

The ship carried 1,462 horses, including a matched pair of registered Belgians to be given to the University of Warsaw, and 40 heifers donated to the Heifer Project by the Methodist Church for their church members in Poland. The cowboys had smooth sailing the first six days out until the ship ran into a fierce storm. For one 24-hour period, the Mount Whitney, which had looked immense in Newport News, tossed around like a cork on the vast churning sea making no mileage at all.

Not a safe time to be out on deck aboard the S.S. Mount Whitney, January 1947. Photo by Wesley Miller.

“Most of us had to go out on the upper deck to work with the horses there,” Ray Finke wrote home. “The sea sure was mad. Waves 50 to 60 feet high. When we would look ahead, it looked like water would go 3 feet over us, but the boat would always go over most of it.”

“The wind and the waves battered the forward stalls to pieces,” Melvin Witmer reported. “Trying to save the horses three of the men were almost swept overboard. One’s wristwatch was torn off and his leg gashed. Captain Shigley tried his best to spare the horses as much punishment as possible. We heard later that he did not sleep at all during those three days.”

Remains of the ocean’s wrath on Mount Whitney’s horse stalls, January 1947. Photo by Wesley Miller.

Twenty of the horses got washed overboard and many others weakened. UNRRA reports a loss of 98 horses on the trip, 6.7 percent. All four of the ship’s veterinarians and most of the cowboys got seasick during the storm. Wilbert Zahl notes in his memoir that as one of the few who didn’t get sick, “it fell on me, having come from a farm and knowing something about caring for cows and horses, to administer pills, etc., for the sick horses. . . . Shooting pills down a horse’s throat with a pill gun is not the most pleasant job. If the horse coughs as often they do, you get a lot of blubbery saliva sprayed into your face.”

Mount Whitney’s seagoing cowboy bunkroom housed 80 men in double bunks. Photo by Wesley Miller.

The storm also created a mess in the cowboys’ bunk room when their gear got tossed about. “Imagine 80 guys’ stuff all mixed up,” Finke said. “I found my shoes and suitcase over on opposite side of bunk room under another guy’s bunk. Would like to have a picture of us hunting for things and everyone on hands and knees.”

The Mount Whitney made good time after that, going up around Scotland and the northern tip of Denmark into the Kattegatt strait between Denmark and Sweden. The ship’s progress slowed, however, as she proceeded through the strait. “We who worked in the holds down below began to hear the ominous sound of heavy ice stubbornly disrupting our passage,” Witmer said.

Ice floating in the Kattegatt strait near Copenhagen, Denmark, January 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

“Ice became heavier as we went south until we reached Malmö, Sweden, where we were forced to join a convoy led by an ice breaker which led us through to the Baltic Sea. The Baltic itself was clear but the ice was thick enough off Gdynia to force us to go on to Nowy Port, where we docked Thursday evening, February 7.” A grateful cowboy crew had arrived safely in Poland.