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.

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Luke Bomberger holds record for most seagoing cowboy trips

Luke graciously shared his seagoing cowboy stories with me in July 2004.

Luke Bomberger graciously shared his seagoing cowboy stories with me in July 2004.

When 17-year-old Luke Bomberger of Mt. Joy, Pennsylvania, set sail for Greece on the S. S. Charles W. Wooster on August 15, 1945, he had no idea his expected two-month adventure would last twenty-one months. The Charles Wooster was only the seventh livestock ship to leave the United States. It carried 335 horses and the first Mennonites to sign up for the program. As all of the seagoing cowboys were required to do, these men had to join the Merchant Marine to be able to legally work on a merchant ship.

Luke explores the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, with crew members of the S. S. Charles W. Wooster, 1945. Photo courtesy of Wilbur Layman.

Luke explores the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, with crew members of the S. S. Charles W. Wooster, 1945. Photo courtesy of Wilbur Layman.

 

In line with his Mennonite upbringing, Luke had registered with his draft board as a conscientious objector. He turned 18 while he was at sea on the Charles Wooster, and his draft board came calling. When his parents told the board where he was and what he was doing, the board said he should keep on doing it for his service. His Merchant Marine status was his ticket to a tour of duty.

Luke, top left, enjoyed life-long friendships with some of these crew mates of the S. S. Norwalk Victory, Feb. 1946. Photo courtesy of Elmer Bowers.

Luke, top left, enjoyed life-long friendships with some of these crew mates of the S. S. Norwalk Victory, Feb. 1946. Photo courtesy of Elmer Bowers.

Luke made nine trips before his discharge on April 25, 1947. He is likely the only seagoing cowboy who received a letter from President Harry Truman, “To you who answered the call of your country and served in its Merchant Marine to bring about the total defeat of the enemy, I extend the heartfelt thanks of the Nation….” He also received a “Certificate of Substantially Continuous Service in the United States Merchant Marine” from the United States Maritime Commission.

Hiking with crew mates outside Trieste, Italy, February 1946. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers.

Hiking with crew mates outside Trieste, Italy, February 1946. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers.

Luke’s nine trips took him across the Atlantic Ocean sixteen times and across the Pacific twice. He traveled on eight different ships that took him to Greece, Poland, Italy, Germany, the Island of Crete, and China. He proved himself a worthy sailor on his first trip when he was hired as a “Wiper” for the return stretch to fill in for a regular crewman who had to stay behind in Greece. At the young age of 18, he became a cowboy foreman on his fifth trip and served in that capacity at least twice more.

Cleaning stalls on the way to China aboard the S. S. Boulder Victory. Photo credit: Eugene Souder.

Cleaning stalls on the way to China aboard the S. S. Boulder Victory. Photo credit: Eugene Souder.

All was not smooth sailing for this young man, though. Close encounters with mines floating in the water on a couple of his ships, a fire in the engine room on another, a fall in which he broke his hand, and a horse bite that left a lifelong scar on his back added drama to some of his trips. His scariest moment, however, was aboard an older merchant ship, the S. S. Mexican, on his second trip. He was serving as night watchman, making his rounds to check on the animals. After one of his hourly reports to the bridge, his foot slipped coming down a rain-slicked ladder and he shot across the deck on his back right towards an opening on the side of the ship. All that saved him from disappearing into the dark Atlantic night was a narrow lip of metal at the opening that caught his foot and stopped his slide. He was grateful to be alive, cracked ribs and all.

Luke says his trips made him more aware of persons of other countries and their needs, which influenced his family’s hosting of international exchange visitors and students through the years.

Meeting Heifer Recipients in Poland, Part I–Suchy Dab, 1945

This post begins a series of three stories about meeting Heifer Project and UNRRA recipients in Poland. Our first story takes us all the way back to November 1945 and the UNRRA and Heifer Project trip of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias, just seven months after fighting ceased in Europe. This was the third shipment to Poland made by UNRRA and the first by the Heifer Project .

The S. S. Santiago Iglesias awaits loading in Baltimore, MD, November 1945

The S. S. Santiago Iglesias awaits loading in Baltimore, MD, November 1945. Photo courtesy of Clifton Crouse family.

The ship left Baltimore Nov 19, 1945, with 150 Heifer Project animals on board and another 225 UNRRA heifers. The S. S. Santiago Iglesias docked in Nowy Port, Poland, outside of Gdansk. The sights that met the seagoing cowboys when they arrived were ones of utter devastation. The war had left Gdansk and the surrounding area in ruins. And the cowboys, their work being finished, were free to explore.

The village of Suchy Dab gave a warm welcome to the seagoing cowboys they thought had delivered their animals. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

The village of Suchy Dab gave a warm welcome to the seagoing cowboys they thought had delivered their animals. Photo courtesy of Heifer International. (An UNRRA photo, I believe.)

The Heifer Project animals were unloaded and distributed in the village of Suchy Dab, some 20 miles outside the city, to pre-selected farmers who had no cow. The village put on a celebration to thank the cowboys for bringing them these heifers.

One of the cowboy leaders for this trip of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias was L. W. Shultz, who was the administrator of Camp Alexander Mack (IN) and first chairman of the Brethren Service Committee. Church of the Brethren pastor Ross Noffsinger was a cowboy crew leader on another ship carrying only UNRRA animals, the S. S. Mexican, which left Baltimore for Poland three days before the Santiago Iglesias. So these two ships were both docked in Nowy Port at the same time.

L. W. Shultz with his guide in Warsaw, where he delivered a check from the city of Warsaw, Indiana, to the mayor of Warsaw, Poland. Photo courtesy of the family of L. W. Shultz.

L. W. Shultz with his guide in Warsaw, where he delivered a check from the city of Warsaw, Indiana, to the mayor of Warsaw, Poland. Photo courtesy of the family of L. W. Shultz.

When the truck came to pick up the cowboy crew from the Santiago Iglesias to take them to Suchy Dab for this celebration, L. W. Shultz was away from the ship tending to business in Warsaw; and somehow it happened that the crew of the S.S. Mexican, which had not delivered any Heifer Project animals, got picked up instead of L.W.’s crew. This mistake led to a memorable event for S. S. Mexican cowboy Al Guyer, who was the very first seagoing cowboy that I interviewed, in February 2002. He recalls:

It was over Thanksgiving time, and it was starting to get pretty cold, but they took all the cattlemen out to the country where the cows were given to the farmers, and the farmers had us all together in a great big community building, I guess it was, where they had a banquet for us. And the banquet consisted of some dry fish and little round cakes of some kind, and some brown bread, I think they had, and some vodka. And then they had the children there, and they sang to us. And, oh, how they expressed their real joy in receiving the animals! And then they had kind of a service of friendship where they used salt and bread, and they gave speeches, and there was an interpreter, and our leader, Ross Noffsinger, responded. Of course, it was all done in Polish, and I don’t remember the words to it, except I knew it was an expression of their friendship and thanks for the animals.

The crew of the S. S. Mexican, November 1945.

The crew of the S. S. Mexican, November 1945. Photo courtesy of Clarence Reeser.

And so it was that this crew of the S. S. Mexican received the ceremony of bread and salt, the Polish traditional expression of hospitality, that was intended for the Santiago Iglesias crew. You can imagine L. W. Shultz’s response when he returned to his ship and found out his crew had not been the one taken for the celebration! He quickly arranged for a second celebration for his crew.

Knowing all this history, this town was on my list of places I wanted to find when I traveled to Poland in 2013. More about that in Part II.