Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – August 1946: A volatile time to be in Gdansk

On its maiden livestock voyage, the S.S. Mount Whitney docked in Nowy Port, Poland – Gdansk’s port city – August 8, 1946, with its load of nearly 1500 horses. Since “liberating” Gdansk from the Germans in March 1945 and obliterating the once beautiful city to ruins in the process, Russia had been tightening its vice on the city and the country.

The ruins of Gdansk, Poland, August 1946. Photo by James Brunk.

Between the Russian and Polish police, Russian soldiers, and Polish resisters, the unrest made it an unstable place for seagoing cowboys to roam.

“About a minute after this picture was taken, snipers shot and killed the soldiers in this car,” says cowboy Alvin Zook. Photo by Alvin Zook.

“Russians were everywhere,” said cowboy James Brunk. “Their headquarters was a large building in Gdynia with Stalin’s picture up on the front. If anyone was seen taking a picture of the building, the film was immediately confiscated and destroyed.”

Leonard Vaughn managed to get a shot of the Russian headquarters on his first trip to Poland in May, 1946. Accounts differ as to whether this was in Gdynia or Gdansk. Photo by Leonard Vaughn.

Cowboy foreman Leonard Vaughn, had made some Polish friends on his previous trip to Gdansk in May. He and two shipmates set out after supper the day their ship arrived to visit the Porlanski family in the nearby town of Wrzeszcz. “A French-speaking Pole attached himself to us and we couldn’t shake him off,” Vaughn said in his journal. After having tea with the couple, the foursome left. “I wanted to walk home, but Frenchy didn’t,” Vaughn continued. “Soon we were completely lost. Frenchy wanted something to eat, so I gave him some money and told him we’d walk slowly on. As soon as he left, we ran. We walked and walked. We crossed a field and expected to get shot at. We came to a railroad and followed it. Every so often we met Polish workers and we asked ‘Nowy Port’ and they kept pointing the way we were going. Then we came to a dark place. Suddenly a shot rang out. We were paralyzed. In a moment we saw a cigarette light in the darkness. I yelled ‘Amerikanski’ and someone answered “Russki”. They were 2 Russian soldiers. We said ‘UNRRA’ and they nodded. We said ‘Nowy Port” and they pointed. We shook hands and left. I was really frightened. Soon we came to a road and we got on it. All at once it ended and there were 3 men. One was a Polish soldier, and all three spoke German. They told us to follow them and they led us thru fields and woods. We expected to get shot at any moment. Soon we came to a road and there stood Frenchy. But we went on and were handed over to another guard. This guard after a little walk handed us over to 2 boys. They were grand kids and I promised to visit them. I was so happy to see the ship that I almost had a heart attack. I never expected to see it again.”

Vaughn, Brunk, and shipmate Alvin Zook all noted another unsettling incident when the stevedores went on strike. “After about three days,” Brunk said, “a man on the dock was trying to get them to go back to work. They found out he was a ‘Russian secret policeman’. They charged him – killed him with a brick. That evening the Russians rounded them up, shot 56 of them in the town square, sent the rest of them off to Siberia. We had a new group of stevedores the next morning.” Zook noted, “They were only making 90 cents a day in our money. It was costing some of them 70 cents just to get to work.”

Zook was with a group of cowboys who toured a nearby battlefield. Bodies of German soldiers still lay among the brush, in trenches, and in an armored vehicle.

Seagoing cowboys tour a battlefield near Gdansk, Poland, August 1946. Photo by James Brunk.

Shell casings on the battlefield near Gdansk, Poland, August 1946. Photo by Alvin Zook.

Being a Sunday morning, the group sat down on a bunch of shell casings next to a large gun that had jammed to have a worship service. “A young man from Minot, North Dakota, told the Christmas story, and it was very real to us,” Zook said. “Peace on earth, good will to men.”

Hate begets war begets hate

A popular Advent theme is “Peace.” In these times of hateful vitriol, I pondered that theme as I read the account of seagoing cowboy Gordon Shull of his time in Gdansk, Poland, in May 1946. And I wonder, how does one defuse hate to keep it from breeding war? And after a war, how does one pacify the hate that lingers?

The destruction World War II survivors had to cope with in Gdansk, Poland, May 1946. Photo credit: Marvin Snell, shipmate of Gordon Shull.

Shull experienced that hate in post-World War II Gdansk. Gdansk had been the German free city of Danzig before the war, repopulated by the Poles at war’s end when most surviving German citizens were expelled in accord with the Potsdam Agreement. Life was rough for the small number of Germans who stayed, as detailed in Shull’s letter from that time:

“[T]he immigrating Poles have brought with them a blind, deep-seated hatred of all Germans . . . [and they] are taking their sweet revenge.

“Put yourself in the shoes of Mary K–, with whom I talked for several hours. Imagine yourself standing helpless by as an invading Russian soldier loots your home, opening trunks, overturning tables, adding your wristwatch to the half-dozen others that already adorn his arm . . . disguising yourself as an old woman in order to evade the sex-hungry soldiers, but sometimes failing because some 80-year-old women were raped, while others who had the misfortune of being young and beautiful were raped as much as 30 times.

“Then, after the Russians have settled down, and after your friends and relatives have left Danzig for uncertain fates in Russia or Germany, imagine yourself at the mercy of people whose moral principles, already reduced by war and its familiar accompaniments, have reached a new low in a boom-town atmosphere. You are now the scapegoat of a people who have suffered at the hands of Germans and Russians. Imagine yourself chased out of your home at the point of a gun by a Pole who allows you to take only that which you can lay your hands on as you leave (no . . . you must leave your camera, your watch, your bicycle, your jewelry) . . . finding a greenhouse or a clubroom or a not-too-badly-ruined dwelling in which to live . . . dragged out of bed at 6:00 AM, every once in a while, by Polish police, and forced to work all day in their headquarters for absolutely nothing . . . getting up at 5:00 each morning so that you can hide from the Poles, and thus go to your job – which, incidentally, pays about half as much as a Pole would get . . . thrown off of streetcars as soon as your identity is discovered . . . having no law whatever to protect you . . . living in perpetual fear, so that when someone knocks on your door, you hold your breath . . . .  All of this and more happened to middle-aged Mary K–. . . .

“Before the war, Mary was a Physics Instructor. A graduate of the University of Danzig, she had done work on the electronics microscope. Now she wields a sledge hammer. Her wage consists of one or two meals, and ten cents a day. That’s about enough to buy two or three loaves of bread on the market. . . .

With so many men killed in the war, women did most of the clean up work. Gdansk, summer 1946. Photo credit: Richard Musselman.

“Mary told us that she and many of her friends had opposed the Nazis so much that the Nazis had boycotted their businesses. ‘Because of our opposition,’ she said in pretty good English, ‘we didn’t dream that any harm would come to us after the war. But no . . . you can’t imagine!’ Several times in the course of our conversation she repeated that phrase, covering her head in her hands as if to suppress memories that were too bitter to describe, or even to hold in her mind. Then, with a determined [shake] of her head and a quick clenching of her fist, she would snap out of it.

“. . . Because we knew that she was not begging, and would share with other needy Germans anything we might give her, we made our contribution all the larger, when we left.”

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.