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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.