The S. S. Park Victory: Livestock trip #2, Poland, December 1945 – Part III

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.

Seagoing cowboys from the S. S. Park Victory explore Gdansk, Poland, January 1946. Photo courtesy of Velma Hoffman.

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.”

Unloading a horse in the “flying stall” at Nowy Port, Poland. January 1946. Photo credit: Will Keller.

Livestock received the UNRRA brand to protect from theft. Photo credit: Will Keller.

“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.”

One of the locations UNRRA livestock were gathered. Photo courtesy of Velma Hoffman.

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.

Banquet provided by UNRRA and the Polish Department of Agriculture for the seagoing cowboys. Photo credit: Ben Kaneda, July 1946.

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.


The S. S. Park Victory: Livestock trip #2, Poland, December 1945 – Part II

The next leg of the Park Victory‘s journey began to expose the seagoing cowboys to the realities of war. The ship left Downs, England, at noon January 7 (1946) for the Kiel Canal, “twenty hours away thru the minefields,” notes the ship’s radioman, Will Keller. Early the next morning, “in thick fog we missed a buoy,” he writes. “EMERGENCY STOP! Reversed engine, drug anchor.”

When the fog lifted around noon, the ship proceeded past the German town of Cuxhaven and took on an Elbe River pilot to guide the ship through the canal. “Nice shore line,” assistant cowboy supervisor Harold Hoffman says in his diary. “Buildings look like any American town.” Soon the locks of the canal came into sight.

Interacting with Germans in the Kiel Canal lock. Photo courtesy of Harold Hoffman.

“Saw masts of several sunken vessels,” Hoffman notes. Entering the lock “was exciting. No one worked, even ship’s crew. Except to tie up ship. Gate closed. There probably 1 hr. or longer. Most men typical German. Some weather beaten. Some English around.” Then the interactions began. Cowboys and crewmen threw gum and candy to the children. “Bartering was fun,” says Hoffman. “Had ships made in a bottle for 5 pks. cigarettes. I got a pin for 2 pks.”

“Soon we moved on. Light fading,” Hoffman says . “Moved slowly through gates and into canal. Did not use motors, let the current carry us for some distance.” Then it was back to work, with the unpleasant task of raising a dead mare to the top deck from which she would be buried at sea when the ship reached open waters.

Not all animals survived the trip. Removing them from the ship was not an easy task. Photo credit: Will Keller.

The next morning, “At arising found ourselves anchored in Kiel harbor,” says Hoffman, where the ship would stay all day. That night, seagoing cowboy Fred Ramseyer notes a contrast in his diary. “See sunken ships all around in the bay. It’s a nice eve out. The moon is shining on the bay, the stars etc. on the ripples.”

The Park Victory had to wait until 7 a.m. the next morning to leave, “because [through] the next twelve hours’ run the water is filled with 137 sunken ships,” notes Hoffman, “so we must have day light to dodge them.” Not to mention the mines that still littered the Baltic Sea.

Sunken ships were still evident the following summer. Photo credit: Charles Shenk, July 1946.

“Departed Kiel with pilot thru maze of sunken vessels,” notes Keller, “big ones and little ones. Some with masts sticking out of water; others resting on the bottom with superstructures above water. Water sloshing in and out of open doorways and portholes. Six knife-edged minesweepers at work.”

After a cold, damp, and windy but safe passage through the Baltic Sea, on Friday afternoon, January 11, the Park Victory slowly moved towards the harbor at Danzig (Gdansk), Poland. Radioman Keller says, “Pilot sends word suggesting lock up all radio equipment and ‘disappear’ as we approach docking area, otherwise I might be impressed to serve as port’s radio station by local ‘authorities.’ As suggested, I locked up – and disappeared.

“As we proceeded up the channel into New Port (serving Danzig),” says Keller, “we saw ruins, and more ruins. And we heard gunfire, and more gunfire.” Hoffman elaborates in his diary: “Ships on banks taken out of harbor. German plane, large warehouse, steel structures damaged. All buildings of brick, some completely flat. Others just walls, others down in parts. Some with roofs out. Some looked as if hit directly. Railroads & tracks, cars, trucks crumbled & twisted. Passed Samuel Ingram [Liberty ship] docked with load of K rations. Plenty guards with rifles, machine guns & pistols. All seemed most curious. So was the boat personnel.”

A sample of the ruins that greeted the seagoing cowboys in Poland. Photo credit: Charles Shenk, July 1946.

Once docked, Hoffman notes, “Guys hanging all over ship. First on board Military and Customs. Can’t tell who is who or what. Poles, Germans or Russians. Notice posted to stay away from American Bar, as the day before one American seaman died, three critical as result of Vodka…. Time taken to make trip: 14 days, 3 hrs., 31 min.”

Everett Byer, in “A Cowboy Goes Abroad,” his unpublished report of this trip which he shared with his fellow cowboys, gives an account of the gravity of the situation the seagoing cowboys to Poland faced. He writes, “And so next morning we are permitted to go ashore, with final words of warning from our supervisor, handed down from the Captain:

This is a wide open city, without law. No permits or passes are needed but if you get in jail, you will probably stay here. We have no Counsul yet and cannot do much for you. Do not go ashore alone and the larger the group the better. Be sure to make it known that you are Americans, because a splendid feeling of good will is given toward Americans due to the tremendous aid in food and clothing that we have sent. Especially you ‘guys’ who talk a little German, be sure they know you are Americans, and don’t talk politics: they (Russians) have secret police and it may be just too bad.

“So, fifteen timid American farmers go ashore in a body,” writes Byer, ” to explore for the first time in a foreign land and in a town as wide open as any western town in our country’s early days.”

To be continued. . .

The S. S. Park Victory: Livestock trip #2, Poland, December 1945 – Part I

The seagoing cowboys on the second livestock trip of the S. S. Park Victory faced a much bleaker experience than those who went to Trieste. It was a rougher ride in wintry weather, for one thing. And the destination more devastated.

S. S. Park Victory awaits departure in Baltimore, December 1945. Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

Seagoing cowboy Daniel Hertzler says in an article for The Mennonite, “We were a diverse group of cattlemen…. Ten states and two Canadian provinces were represented. There were 16 Mennonites, 10 Brethren, one Methodist, one Baptist and one Presbyterian.” Of these men, the ship’s radio operator Will Keller notes, “Some younger, some older, some conscientious objectors to war, some adventurers, all well-behaved without exception.”

Seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Park Victory to Poland, Dec. 1945. Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

More seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Park Victory to Poland, Dec. 1945. Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

Cowboys started arriving December 18 and had plenty of time to get to know each other before the work began, as a snow storm and sickness of horses held 13 train car loads up in Kentucky. Keller notes that cattle were then substituted for the horses. Finally, on December 24, with all the cargo loaded, tug boats began pulling the Park Victory from the pier in Baltimore and moving down the Chesapeake Bay.

Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

“Everyone was excited,” notes assistant cowboy supervisor Harold Hoffman in his diary. That is, until the ship anchored off Norfolk, Virginia, where it sat for three days waiting for a full ship’s crew. Radioman Keller explains, “Anchored midstream away from any access to land so as to not lose crew members or cowboys over Christmas holiday.”

On Christmas Eve, Hoffman notes the finding of a dead mare. “Some start,” he says. But “What a Christmas dinner,” he writes the next day. “Stewards dept. really put themselves in good with the cowboys.”

Christmas menu. From the papers of Harold Hoffman, Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

However, it wasn’t such a good Christmas Day up top. “Had messy time feeding top deck in rain tonight getting the canvas back on the feed that a hard wind blew off,” Hoffman says. An omen of the chilly, cloudy, rainy weather and choppy seas that plagued the ship all the way across the Atlantic.

The ship set sail December 27, and two days later Hoffman writes, “This morning we began to get a real touch of sea life. Two of the boys went to the rail after breakfast. Most every one was affected some.” Later, I was “standing in line at slop chest [ship’s store] when it seemed the ship went on her side. Passageway doors opened and six inches of water came in. Soon the fire alarm. A rush for life jackets. Everyone wondered if it was drill or real. The crew was serious. Another alarm, some thought it was to abandon ship…. I rushed for my life jacket. The First Mate came through, said the last alarm was the dismissal.”

Photo credit: Fred Ramseyer.

Radioman Keller notes, “Not all animal manure developed on board will be discarded overboard. Odor becomes overwhelming in some places. Horrible below deck.” Pity the poor cowboys who were assigned to those holds!

The distribution of heifers and horses on the S. S. Park Victory to Poland, Dec. 1945. Drawing by Harold Hoffman.

Arrangement of the livestock in the Park Victory holds, Dec. 1945. Drawing by Harold Hoffman.

On New Year’s Day, 1946, part way across the Atlantic, Keller notes, “wartime radio silence at sea no longer required. Radio airwaves congested with commercial traffic.”

Finally, on January 6, “Sighted land of Scilly Islands,” says Hoffman. “Much excitement about it.” The ship made its way up through the English Channel to the White Cliffs of Dover, where it anchored for the night. Of the cliffs, Hoffman says, “They are a chalky-Limestone rock. White indeed…. This trip is really swell. It is like a dream, such a thrill.”

If the White Cliffs of Dover were thrilling, the next leg of the Park Victory trip was chilling, in more ways than the weather.

to be continued . . .

The S. S. Park Victory: Livestock trip #1, Trieste, October 1945

The S. S. Park Victory is one of 531 Victory ships built for transporting troops and materials during the latter years of World War II. Named after Park College (now Park University), the ship was launched April 21, 1945. On her maiden voyage, she carried U. S. Navy cargo around the Pacific, departing May 26 from southern California and ending September 14 in New York City. There, in the Todd Shipyard, she was transformed into a livestock carrier.¹ According to the notes of seagoing cowboy Norman Brumbaugh, this conversion cost $100,000.

A sister ship undergoes transformation from merchant ship to livestock carrier, November 1945. Photo credit: Paul Springer.

Newly outfitted with stalls on three levels and new ventilation and watering systems, the Park Victory headed on down to Baltimore, Maryland. She departed October 26, 1945, for Trieste, Italy, with her full quota of 32 seagoing cowboys and 336 mares, 149 mules, 310 heifers, and 12 bulls. Brumbaugh notes additional cargo of:
640 tons of water for the stock alone
35 tons of hay
30 tons of straw
36 tons of dairy feed
75 tons of oats
3,000 feet of rope
878 buckets.

Seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Park Victory to Trieste, October 1945. Photo courtesy of Paul Weaver.

Except for some rough seas, this first livestock trip of the Park Victory was relatively routine and easy. A week into the trip, Brumbaugh recorded in his diary, “Getting up too early these mornings and losing sleep because we keep moving time up each night for the last while….Been hungry nearly every night for last week, though we get plenty at meals.”

The trip became more exciting when land was spotted on the tenth day. Brumbaugh notes, “We did our best to hurry through our work and take in everything. There it was, Spain to our left, Africa to our right, the Rock of Gibraltar, an immense thing about dead ahead. Further in the Mediterranean we saw the mountains on the left were all snow capped, weather warm. Watching porpoise trying to race our ship was lots of fun. Spirits extra high.”

The ship arrived in Trieste with more livestock than at the start, as twenty calves were born en route and only one horse, one mule, and one heifer lost. The heifer choked to death and was butchered and put in the freezer.

War ruins in Trieste, November 1945. Photo credit: Paul Weaver.

Of Trieste, cowboy Paul Weaver says, “the harbor is pretty well destroyed and buildings near it, but the rest of the town isn’t hit. It is a very nice town but no cars, mostly military trucks and jeeps. Lots of bicycles, mules, donkeys, ox teams, horses, three-wheel motorcycles, half-ton trucks. The British and American Armies are both here. You get mobbed every time you go to town for cigarettes, soap and gum.” Weaver also notes, “This section of Italy is quite a disputed area between Yugo and Italy. General Tito comes down pretty often to try to take it back, but the Americans and British scare him out. There was some rumor of him coming yesterday, but he didn’t.”

Some of the cowboys took a side trip to Venice, November 1945. Photo credit: Paul Weaver.

As with all trips that ended at Trieste, the animals were shipped by rail just across the border to Yugoslavia. Members of this cowboy crew had the opportunity to go to there to see where the animals were taken. Cowboy LaVerne Elliott writes, “We kept winding and going up and finally got to top and we could look down on Trieste. Sure was beautiful with Adriatic Sea as background.” Brumbaugh adds, “I never saw such beautiful Christmas or snow scenery as this.”

To get into Yugoslavia, the cowboys’ were stopped at two guarded barricades, not sure if they would get through. First were the British guards, “of which we gave matches,” Brumbaugh notes. Then, after about a mile and a half across no man’s land, “after persuasion of Yugo soldiers, we gave gum, soap, and matches.”

At a Yugoslavian home, November 1945. Photo credit: Paul Weaver.

Brumbaugh writes, “People very poor up in Mts. with acres of stones. We saw our mules and horses being well taken care of by prisoners in bad need of clothing.” The cowboys stopped at a farm that had received a horse earlier, and Brumbaugh says, “Horse is well off. But people are without fuel and shoes. Came back and missed supper on this cold night, but were much better off than many.”


Cracking nuts for Thanksgiving dinner on the trip home. Photo credit: Paul Weaver.

¹ Jouko Moisala, S/S Park Victoryn Tarina, Fandonia Oy, Finland, 2017.

Next post: Park Victory trip #2 – Poland

The Seagoing Cowboy story alive in Finland!

The Christmas Eve sinking of the S. S. Park Victory as told in my December 22 post is a famous shipwreck in Finland and popular among divers. This former livestock carrier went down with a load of coal that stormy night.

Diving the S. S. Park Victory. Photo copyright: Erik Saanila.

Diving the S. S. Park Victory. Photo copyright Erik Saanila.

One has only to search the term “Park Victory” on youtube to find multiple underwater videos of dives to what remains of the vessel. Jouko Moisala, diving instructor and editor of a Finnish diving magazine, has written a book about the history of the Park Victory that was released this past October.

Jouko Moisala celebrates with his publisher, Anne Pentti, at the launch of his book. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

The book includes a section on its livestock carrier history for which I served as a resource. This part of the ship’s history was not widely known in Finland before the book came out.

Listing in Jouko’s book of the livestock trips made by the Park Victory.

Seagoing cowboy crews in Jouko’s book.

It remains to be seen whether the book will be translated into English. I’ll let you know if it is! It is currently being translated into Swedish.

Jouko has put together a series of large posters on the Park Victory‘s history for an exhibit and has been making appearances around Finland sharing the story.

Poster #3 of Jouko’s exhibit on the S. S. Park Victory.

My upcoming posts will include stories of some of the Park Victory’s livestock trips. Its demise off the shores of Finland was not its only accident.

The Christmas Eve fate of the S. S. Park Victory: not to be forgotten

In Finland there is a national reading of the Christmas Peace at noon every Christmas Eve. On the island of Utö at the farthest edge of Finland’s southwest archipelago, this reading will be followed at 1:00 p.m. by the lighting of ten candles in the island’s chapel. These candles represent the ten seamen who lost their lives in the sinking of the S. S. Park Victory on Christmas Eve 70 years ago.

Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

The S. S. Park Victory delivers horses and heifers to Poland, December 1945. Photo by Will Keller, Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

The Park Victory will be remembered by many seagoing cowboys for the six trips she made as an UNRRA livestock carrier, October 1945 through December 1946. She is remembered quite differently in Finland, however. In December 1947, she was delivering a load of coal to Finland, possibly for the Marshall Plan. She anchored in good weather near the lighthouse off the island of Utö  before dark on Christmas Eve, awaiting orders as to whether to proceed to Turku or Helsinki the next day. During the night, a wicked snow storm descended on the ship. The gale-force winds dislodged the anchor, and the ship fought for her life. The rocky coastline won, however, breaking into and flooding the engine room.

The distress signal was sent out and lifeboats lowered. At risk to their own lives, help was dispatched from the fishing community of Utö. A small military craft captained by Thorvald Sjöberg found a group of seamen huddled on a low reef. Between the winds and underwater rocks, there wasn’t a safe way to reach the men. Captain Sjöberg kept his craft nearby until daylight when they were able to get a rope to the men. One had died of hypothermia and the rest were in bad condition, some having survived the night in little more than their underwear. In all, thirty-eight of the seamen were found, rescued, and compassionately tended to by the brave Utö islanders.

Rescuing Captain Thorvald Sjoberg, the widow of Park Victory Captain Allen Zepp, and Hanna Kovanen, who was ten years old at the time of the sinking, reunite on Uto, summer 2017. Mrs. Kovanen will light the ten candles on Christmas Eve in commemoration of the seamen who lost their lives. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

In memory of those who perished:
Mose Andersson, F.W.T., 19
Augustine Bebrant, Messman, 50
Eric Cain, Assistant Electrician, 36
Herbert Deglow, Oiler, 23
Michael Duffy, Chief Electrician, 50
Henry Holste, Junior Third Mate, 65
Rex Jackson, Wiper, 40
Juan Lopez, Chief Cook, 50
Daris Mitchell, Junior Engineer, 51
La Verne Woods, Junior Engineer, 19

A Blessed Holiday Season to my readers.

Sources for this post: correspondence with Jouko Moisala, and the article “The Gloomy Christmas Eve at Sea” by Martin Latimeri.

This is a famous shipwreck in Finland and popular among divers. More on that in my next regular post in January.