Seagoing Cowboy excursion turns tragic

Not all seagoing cowboy stories had a happy ending. The trip of the S. S. Henry Dearborn in February 1947 was sailing along like any other. The 177 UNRRA horses, 176 UNRRA cattle, and 113 Heifer Project goats had been offloaded in Brindisi, Italy, where they were to be ferried on to Albania.

Postcard from Brindisi, Italy, February 1947. Courtesy of C. H. Beam.

After a week of sightseeing for the cowboys there and a stop in Bari, Italy, to pick up cargo for ballast, an intended short stop in Catania, Sicily, turned deadly.

Postcard from Catania, Sicily. Courtesy of C. H. Beam.

The lure of Mt. Etna, about twenty miles inland and erupting at the time, enticed ten of the cowboys and their foreman to hire a truck for 8,000 lire to take them up the mountain. “It was a nice trip up,” says Iowa cowboy Dale Wicks. “All the way up the mountain was farms. It was all terraced. There would be a stone wall, then a strip six or eight feet wide, then there would be another stone wall. It was all farmed that way. It looked like stair steps going up the mountain.

“There was snow on Mt. Etna. We didn’t get clear to the top, just as far as we could go by truck. It looked as though we could walk, but since our time was limited we didn’t get to. We started down about four o’clock. Jesse Ziegler, the foreman of our crew, made the remark, ‘This trip was the best thing we had had on the trip.’ It wasn’t until about fifteen minutes later until he was dead.”

The truck, as it turned out, had faulty brakes. “The driver was depending on shifting down to hold the speed down,” says Wicks. “When he went to shift down one time, he couldn’t get it in gear. He didn’t have enough brakes to hold it, so we just kept goin’ faster and faster. Most of us riding in the open back of the truck knew it would probably crash, so we huddled up against the back of the cab.” Three cowboys jumped out, two suffering major and minor bruises and one a broken wrist.

Out of control, the truck crashed into one of the stone walls and flipped over into a ravine. Ziegler, riding in the cab, Paul Glick, and Joseph Connellen were killed almost instantly. Four, including Wicks, were unconscious. The driver fled the scene. Some men going up the mountain in a horse-drawn cart came to the rescue, loading up the injured. They soon met a truck and transferred the injured to the truck for the ride to the hospital in Catania.

“It wasn’t much of a hospital,” Wicks recalls. Supplies were low after the war. “When I woke up, I was in bed with all of my clothes, even my shoes, on. Sanitation was very poor. None of the boys with broken bones were given anesthetic to set them. They were left two or three days before they did anything with them. You could hear them holler for quite a ways.”

The Des Moines Tribune picked up the news from the Associated Press. Courtesy of Dale Wicks family.

Eight days after the accident, UNRRA flew the six hospitalized cowboys to a U.S. Army hospital in Naples. Five of them were released two days later. They were checked into an UNRRA hotel and enjoyed seeing the sights until UNRRA finally found passage home for them on a ship filled mostly with war brides.

It was touch and go for the sixth cowboy, David Roy. His parents received a telegram saying he was in serious condition with a fractured left tibia and a severe laceration to his right knee complicated with gas gangrene. After his transfer to Naples, he also developed tetanus. His wife Jean says, “He has been told that he is only one of a few survivors of both tetanus and gas gangrene (from that period).”

For the cowboys not involved in the accident and the survivors well enough to board the ship, the trip home was a sober one. “They told us that the Steamship Co., Red Cross and American Consul would take care of the injured and the dead and notifying the next of kin,” Jesse Ziegler’s nephew George wrote to his mother. “The crew feels pretty bad about the bad luck and of course, we cowboys that are left do too. Flag flies at half mast.”

Heifer Project Executive Secretary Benjamin Bushong happened to be in Italy at the time of the accident. His attempts to have the bodies of the deceased cowboys shipped home failed when he could find no one to embalm them. “The Italians just don’t do things that way,” he said. They were moved instead to Palermo, Italy, where Brethren Service Committee worker Eugene Lichty, stationed in Carrara, and a Waldensian Church pastor conducted the funeral service. “These three bodies were placed in a beautiful small Protestant Cemetery on the edge of the city with a high mountain to the rear and the Sea in the opposite direction,” says Bushong.

After arriving home, Wicks suffered for ten years with terrible pain in his hip. When the doctors finally operated they found pocket after pocket of pus where bits of cinders had embedded themselves when Wicks slid over the lava-laden ground. Despite his injuries, he says, “I never was sorry I went. It was a very meaningful experience for me.”

Dale and Ruth Wicks, July 1, 2006. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

Next post: The wives who were left behind.

Seagoing Cowboy ripple effects

Occasionally, a seagoing cowboy would make lasting connections with a person or family he met in the country to which he delivered livestock. Recently, I chanced to meet a woman whose uncle had made that connection for her. Here is Charlotte Paugh’s story in her own words:

“In 1945, my uncle Russel Helstern of Brookville, Ohio, signed up to become a seagoing cowboy on an UNNRA ship whose destination was Greece and the islands. The cargo was horses. While in Greece, he took note of families he thought could use some assistance.

Russell Helstern traveled to Greece on the S. S. Henry Dearborn on one of the very first UNRRA trips made in July, 1945. Photo: Arthur Lewis, December 1945.

“At the time of his return to Ohio, I was teaching a Jr. High Sunday School Class and looking for a Christmas project we could do. Uncle Russel gave me the names of the Petsalis family – parents and five children. They lived on the island of Paxus which had sustained extensive war damage.

“The Christmas boxes we sent contained dried fruits and other nonperishable food items. I decided to put in a pair of boys shoes. They were the first pair of shoes the youngest son, 10-year-old Elefterious, had ever had. He told his father that when he reached 18 he was going to join the Greek Merchant Marines and attempt to find me.

“Years later, Lefty, the name given to him by the naturalization judge, jumped ship in Houston, Texas. He hitchhiked to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, because he and his brother as young boys had picked up a bottle washed ashore in Greece. It contained a written message and Oklahoma was mentioned.

“Lefty spent 33 years attempting to find me. Through his wife and Social Security they had traced me, even though I had moved three times and changed my name. He had saved my original letter which was in the Christmas package. He had also sent a copy of this letter to relatives in the U.S. requesting their help in locating me.

“It has been a wonderful relationship with visits back and forth in the U.S. We traveled to Paxus to meet his family, spending a week on his island. There are so many other stories associated with this experience that a book could be written about the details.”

Thank you, Charlotte, for sharing this wonderful story! This is just one example of the many ripple effects the seagoing cowboy experience had.