S. S. Park Victory story continues in Finland

The story of the S. S. Park Victory, including its years after World War II as the transporter of livestock and seagoing cowboys to Europe, is now on display in Kotka, Finland. The Maritime Museum of Finland, located in the Maritime Centre Vellamo, opened a Park Victory exhibition on November 7, 2018. Posters and artifacts of diver, historian, and author Jouko Moisala hold a prominent place as one approaches the ultramodern building completed in 2008.

The S. S. Park Victory exhibit is prominently displayed to pedestrians and drivers alike. Photo: Jouko Moisala.

The Maritime Centre Vellamo sheds light on S. S. Park Victory history. Photo: Jouko Moisala.

The Centre is named after the Finnish mythological goddess of water, lakes, and the seas. The massive structure shimmers like the sea and evokes the power of the ocean with its wave-like shape. The exhibition runs through January 25, 2019.

S. S. Park Victory exhibit, Kotka, Finland, November 2018. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

Jouko Moisala at his S. S. Park Victory exhibit, November 2018. The painting in the upper left is the one I delivered to Jouko this past July. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

From the seagoing cowboy perspective, Kotka is a fitting place for this exhibition. It was the last port visited by the ill-fated S. S. Occidental Victory before it encountered a rock in the Gulf of Finland on its way home, preventing the cowboys from being with their families that Thanksgiving of 1946. This ship, however, unlike the Park Victory, did make its way back to the USA.

As for the rescued Park Victory lifeboat, Jouko Moisala informs me that it “is at last safe inside a place to clean it with sand. I can get an old ‘Champion’ to do it and I am only an assistant.” Kudos to Jouko for preserving and sharing all of this Park Victory history!

Lifeboat of S. S. Park Victory to be preserved

In my last S. S. Park Victory post, I promised to tell the story of the discovery of one of the ship’s lifeboats. The Victory ships were outfitted with four steel lifeboats, each 24 feet long with 27- to 29-person capacity.

Lifeboat #1 on the S. S. Park Victory, January 1946. Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

According to Park Victory historian Jouko Moisala, when the ship sank [link], only three of the lifeboats were deployed. After the rescue of the sailors using them, these three boats were returned in February 1948 to the Luckenbach shipping company that operated the Park Victory.The fourth went down with the ship. But what became of it?

Two months later, Iivari Suni and Erik Öhman were the first two divers to go down to the wreck. Their mission was to see how the coal the ship was carrying could be retrieved. Moisala believes these two divers must have cut the life boat loose, as it was likely in the way of bringing up the coal. As a result, the boat was lost to Park Victory history. That is, until Moisala received an email this past January from a man who had heard one of Moisala’s Park Victory lectures. The man knew the whereabouts of an old lifesaving boat and attached this picture.

Remains of Park Victory lifeboat. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

Moisala went to see the boat the next weekend. “There it was in the middle of the bed of reeds and full of trash,” he says. “That man told me the boat had been a property of an old smuggler of spirits from Estonia and Poland. This was quite usual in Finland after the war.” Moisala was told the smuggler had gotten the boat in Utö, the island off which the Park Victory sank, and it had been on land since 1960. From comparing photos Moisala took of the remains of the boat with the one taken by seagoing cowboy Harold Hoffman in 1946 that I had sent him, as well as photos of Victory ship lifeboats from the S. S. Red Oak Victory museum in California, Moisala found identifying marks that made him certain this was, in fact, the missing Park Victory lifeboat. What an exciting discovery!

Moisala and his wife set to work in frigid February weather emptying the boat of its trash. Finally in June, the boat was able to be shored up enough to move it off the spot where it had rested for so long.

Moisala gets help from friends in moving the Park Victory lifeboat. Photo credit: Jouko Moisala.

The boat was later moved into Turku to the grounds of a diving equipment manufacturer where Moisala began work on it in August. Moisala has quite a project on his hands! I’ll be eager to see the finished product! As I’m sure he will be, too.

Rex Miller and Jouko Moisala look over the remains of the S. S. Park Victory lifeboat, July 13, 2018. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Jouko Moisala and I at his S. S. Park Victory lifeboat project in Turku, Finland, July 13, 2018. Photo: Rex Miller.

Utö islanders commemorate S. S. Park Victory

On our recent trip to Finland, we had the opportunity to travel to Utö, the southernmost year-round inhabited island of the Finnish archipelago off which the S. S. Park Victory sank in 1947. A small island of .31 square miles, it’s history is linked to the sea.

Rex and I on our way to the Utö lighthouse. Photo credit: Jouko Moisala.

With our host and guide Jouko Moisala, we walked all around the island. He pointed out to us the place where the Park Victory rests.

The S. S. Park Victory lies some 40 meters deep on the other side of the narrow rocky island to which I’m pointing. Photo credit: Rex Miller.

Four divers prepare to go down to the Park Victory. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

On a tour of the lighthouse, guide Hanna Kovanen shared her family’s story of the stormy night the ship went down and the role the islanders played in the rescue of the survivors. The call for help went out at 3:00 Christmas morning. Hanna’s short-statured grandmother trudged through waste-deep snow to get to the pier. She hauled an unconscious man over her shoulder to her house, took off his wet clothes, warmed him, and washed the oil off him. When the man came to, he later said he looked up and thought he must be in heaven because he was looking at an angel. The man was Allen Zepp, captain of the Park Victory.

Jouko shows us the Park Victory display in the island’s small museum. Captain Zepp’s photo is on the wall in the center of the picture. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Hanna’s grandmother took in another man who had dark curly hair that looked like it had been washed, but she thought he was still covered with oil. When scrubbing didn’t take the darkness away, she discovered he was a black man and had, in fact, already been cleaned. She had never seen a black man before.

Hanna said the islanders didn’t have extra winter clothing, so they pulled out their summer things to dress the scrubbed survivors in. Finnish Army clothes were also available from the small Finnish Defense Forces station on the island. The survivors were so grateful for the care they received from the islanders that after they arrived home they sent 100 pounds of sugar and 100 pounds of coffee to Utö, items that were rationed for the inhabitants at the time. The goods were apportioned to all the families on the island. Their gratitude led them to each pay their share for what they received into a fund that was used to commission a memorial for the ten sailors who lost their lives in the wreck.

Candelabra commissioned by the people of Utö in memory of the ten Park Victory sailors who lost their lives. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

The Park Victory’s isn’t the only shipwreck commemorated on the island. The Draken went down in 1929 on her way to England with a load of timber. The ship wrecked in a storm against a little rocky island just 150 meters from the shore of Utö. Two men tried to make it to shore. One made it; the other didn’t.

Rex and I at the Draken memorial. The cross is for the sailor who lost his life, the star for the one who lived. Photo credit: Jouko Moisala.

Utö did not have a rope rifle that could have shot a rope to the sailors to pull them ashore. A shopkeeper in Turku on the mainland sent them one two weeks later, and new life was breathed into lifesaving work in Finland, with the Draken’s captain, Niilo Saarinen, becoming head of the Finnish Maritime Rescue Society.

Our island trip ended all too soon, but the Park Victory story doesn’t end here. Another chapter is beginning with the discovery of one of its life boats. More on that in September.

One last personal note on our trip: we were amazed that our four-hour ship ride through the archipelago’s mass of rocky islands to Utö was free! The ship was part of Finland’s public transportation system, making stops at four islands to transport locals and tourists alike to and from the mainland. I still marvel at that!

A map on the ship showing its route. Photo credit: Rex Miller.

A day with Jouko was not complete without ice cream! Photo credit: Jouko Moisala.

S. S. Park Victory painting delivered in Finland

I would never have guessed a decade ago when I interviewed Norman Weber that I would one day be standing where he had stood in 1946 as a seagoing cowboy in Turku, Finland! But that is where my own seagoing cowboy journey took me and my husband two weeks ago. The purpose of the trip was to deliver a painting of the S. S. Park Victory to Jouko (pronounced Yoko) Moisala, the painting given to me by seagoing cowboy Fred Ramseyer.

Anne and Jouko Moilsala look on in anticipation as Rex Miller unpacks the S. S. Park Victory painting. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Jouko couldn’t take his eyes off the painting. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Jouko is a diving instructor based in Turku who has been diving the shipwreck of the Park Victory since 1974. He has acquired numerous artifacts from the wreck and done extensive research and written a book about the ship. And now he has a painting of the ship as it was viewed by an Italian artist in 1946 to add to his collection for which he is seeking a permanent exhibit place. Jouko served as editor of the Finnish Diving World magazine for twenty years and is well-known in the diving community. He does a number of presentations around Finland about the Park Victory. Jouko arranged an incredible week for us in Turku. We will be eternally grateful to him and his lovely wife Anne for making this such a special time for us. Photos follow:

Seagoing cowboy Norman Weber poses at the G. A. Petrelius monument overlooking Turku, Finland, November 1946. Photo courtesy of Norman Weber.

Jouko took us to the statue in Norm Weber’s picture. Photo: Jouko Moisala.

The first thing we saw at Jouko’s house was this hatch cover from the S. S. Park Victory. Small hatch covers like this one could be used as a life raft if necessary. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Park Victory artifacts are found in many places. This Park Victory chain decorates a flower bed beside a home in Turku. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

A few of the many historical posters Jouko has made to tell the story of the Park Victory. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Boxes of artifacts from the Park Victory. A lump of coal is in the box. All portholes in the ship were shattered in the sinking. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Rex holds a sextant from the Park Victory. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Dinnerware salvaged from the Park Victory. Photo: Jouko Moisala.

Jouko gave me one of the plates that was likely from the officer’s mess hall. Something I will always cherish! Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Yet to come the end of August: account of a trip to the island of Utö off which the Park Victory sank.

S. S. Park Victory painting travels to Finland

The Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be in Finland when this post goes live. I’ll be delivering a painting of the S. S. Park Victory given to me by seagoing cowboy Fred Ramseyer. Fred traveled to Poland on the S. S. Park Victory’s second livestock trip in December 1945. When I interviewed Fred in 2007, he showed me the painting he had of his ship.

An artist’s depiction of the S. S. Park Victory off the coast of Naples, Italy. May 1946. Photo: Vicki Dreher.

Here’s the story:

On his voyage, Fred became friends with the ship’s night cook and baker, Eddie Carlson. Fred helped Eddie at night just to have something to do. He remembers making candy with Eddie and that Eddie, who played the guitar, spent a lot of time with the cowboys. Eddie must have taken a liking to Fred especially, because some time after Fred had gotten home Eddie paid him a visit.

Eddie hitchhiked to Smithville, Ohio, where Fred lived and asked a man on the street for “Freddie.” The man turned out to be Fred’s father who took Eddie to the house. Eddie presented the painting of their ship to Fred and went on his way. Eddie had stayed in service on the S. S. Park Victory for another trip after Fred’s that went to Greece. On the way home, the ship had docked in Naples to pick up ballast. An enterprising painter on shore had painted the picture and Eddie acquired it.

Fred had the painting framed, along with his Merchant Marine card. It has graced his home ever since. At age 92, he wanted to find a good home for the painting. He called me to see if I would like to have it. I said, “Yes! And I know who would REALLY like to have it and will see that he gets it.” I explained about the interest in Finland in the S. S. Park Victory and shot off an email of inquiry to my contact there, Jouko Moisala. His response: “I am really very interested in the painting!!!!!”

So in March, Fred’s longtime friends Don and Vicki Dreher, who have often traveled with Fred and assist him now, drove Fred the three hours to my home. We had a lovely visit.

Don and Vicki Dreher on an outing with Fred Ramseyer. Photo courtesy of Vicki Dreher.

Fred left me not only the painting, but also a Park Victory life jacket light and whistle he had, all of which I am delivering to Finland to be placed there with other memorabilia of the ship.

Fred Ramseyer and Peggy Reiff Miller holding the painting of the S. S. Park Victory. Photo: Don Dreher.

Life Jacket light and whistle from the S. S. Park Victory, 1946.

As our conversation came to an end, Fred said, “I’m glad the picture will do some good in the end, because the trip was the highlight of my life.”

Next post: Delivering the painting in Finland.

The S. S. Park Victory Livestock trip #3, Greece, March 1946 – Part II

“April 30, 1946 approaching Patras. Almost 7 o’clock in the morning. I’m just getting up. Still sleepy. BOOM!” So begins radioman Will Keller’s account of the S. S. Park Victory accident off the coast of Greece. He continues:

“The ship gives a terrible lurch. ‘S____! We’ve been torpedoed. The war’s been over almost a year and we’ve been torpedoed,’ so I thought. Then I came to…we had struck a mine…15-20 miles outside Patras.

Mine damage viewed from under the S. S. Park Victory, May 1946. Photo credit: Will Keller.

“We were in a ‘tethered’ mine field. The black gang had heard the mine scrape under the engine room. They raced for the ladders. Someone slammed shut the watertight door to the Shaft Alley. Mine explodes under the Shaft Alley. Alarms, alarms, alarms! Broken glass. All electrical power lost. No lights. Emergency generator starts then shuts down. Battery-powered emergency lights are on. Look out porthole. Ship slewing trailing oil. Down by stern but not sinking.

“Radio’s dead. Turn on battery backup. Radio’s still dead. Open receiver drawer and find all tubes had jumped out of sockets. Jammed tubes back into sockets, push receiver back into drawer, turn on, and…it’s working! Examine transmitter carefully. Everything looks OK. But, it won’t work.

“Go out on bridge wing to take a look at antenna wires normally strung high between the masts. Now they’re lying on the deck and across the animals’ stalls.

“Bosun climbing ladder to the Bridge. I yell to him and point to antenna wires. He nods and directs two seamen to climb masts and raise wires off the deck. Cowboy livestock handlers gathering on main deck putting on life jackets. Now’s the time for quick whizz. Back on wing bridge and note antenna is off the deck. Seamen climbing down mast.

“Back to radio room. Turn on receiver. Turn on transmitter. Wonderful! Wait for dead internal on 500 Kcs, then ask Malta if they can read. OK! Malta says sounds OK. I tell him, casually, that we’ve struck a mine and that I’ll ‘CUL’ (see you later). The Mediterranean radio chatter dies down. A North African station, with French call letter whispers, ‘Anybody killed?’ I respond, ‘Don’t know.’

“Turn off radio equipment. Go to bridge and tell Captain and First Mate that I have radio working. They nod. ‘Thanks, Sparks. Standby.’ They continue to discuss with Engineers whether we can or should run the engine slowly and creep into Patras under our own power.

“I go back to the Radio Room.

“Fishermen in small boats come near Park Victory. Point to other tethered mines in the water nearby. Dumb thing to do is look over side to see mine 15-20 feet from side of ship. I looked.

“We are slowly drifting, trailing oil.

“I go back to the Radio Room…. Patras advised that an ‘Army’ tug was on the way.

“Sent off message to New York offices of Seas Shipping advising them of events.

“Towed in to Patras and docked. Unloaded donkeys. Donkeys reluctant to be driven off dock; seemed to prefer immediate relationships with opposite sex. Dock workers pound on them to clear the area so that more donkeys can be unloaded. This scene was repeated and repeated until all the donkeys had been unloaded and relationships satisfied. Townspeople, dockworkers and crew members fascinated onlookers.

The wounded Park Victory rests in the harbor at Patras, Greece, May 1946. Photo credit: Will Keller.

“May 1-8, 1946 With Park Victory wounded the cowboys are no longer needed. Cowboy livestock caretakers, Foreman, and two Vets leave ship for Athens. Captain Fairbairn replaced by W. F. O’Toole.

The seagoing cowboy crew of the S. S. Park Victory, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Robert Frantz.

“Helmeted diver goes under ship and explores damage caused by mine. He reports it looks OK to proceed to Taranto, Italy, for temporary repairs.”

The S. S. Park Victory in dry dock in Taranto, Italy. May 1946. Photo credit: Will Keller.

By May 26, the Park Victory was on her way home to the Baltimore shipyards for full repair. Fortunately, no lives were lost in this accident.

The vessel made three more livestock trips that year before UNRRA disbanded. To Poland in August, to Germany with livestock for Czechoslovakia in October, and to Greece in December. Another accident while carrying coal to Finland the end of 1947 was to be her demise, however; but her memory lives on in Finland, where I’ll be going in July. More on that in a later post.

The S. S. Park Victory Livestock trip #3, Greece, March 1946 – Part I

Robert “Bob” Frantz aboard the S. S. Park Victory, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Robert Frantz.

An expected four- to six-week trip delivering mules to Greece turned out to be a three-and-a-half month journey for CPSer Bob Frantz. While serving his term in Civilian Public Service at Michigan State College in Lansing, he says, “I received information that CPS men would be eligible to volunteer as Sea Going Cowboys.” Bob applied and was accepted. “Why did I consider leaving my wife and young son to do this? I felt that I had done little in CPS to help humanity, perhaps taking animals to needy people would ease my conscience and the adventure was tempting.” An adventure it was!

Unidentified newspaper clipping circa March 1946. Courtesy of Will Keller.

Bob soon received his orders to report to Houston, Texas, where the S. S. Park Victory was loading 900 wild mules from Mexico. He reports that about a third of the cowboy crew were CPSers, others signed on to make a contribution to the project, and “quite a number were professional Merchant Marines who needed a short term job and practiced a life style quite different from mine,” Bob says. Learning to know and appreciate some of them “broadened my philosophy of life a great deal.”

“Our work was to see that the mules had hay and water and a few other jobs,” Bob says. “Two weeks on the ocean became a bit boring. Some relief came when we were allowed to convert a ‘gun tub’ on the stern to a swimming pool.”

Livestock ship or cruise ship? Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

After stopping in Athen’s port of Piraeus to receive orders, the Park Victory steamed on up the Aegean Sea to Kavala to unload most of the wild cargo.

The wild mules were difficult to handle, with some running off into the water. Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

The Greek Civil War was under way at the time, but that didn’t stop UNRRA from taking the cowboys on a tour of nearby Philippi to see the site of the first Christian church in Macedonia, the jail where the Apostle Paul was held, and the Roman road.

Temple at Philippi built in the 5th Century A.D. Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

The ship traveled back to Piraeus to unload the remainder of the cargo, giving the cowboy crew the opportunity to tour the historical sites of Athens. Exactly one month into its journey, this is where most UNRRA cowboys would have said good-bye to Greece and headed on home. The Park Victory crew, however, received orders to proceed to Cyprus to pick up a load of donkeys, which they then delivered to Salonika.

In Cyprus, donkeys were loaded from barges alongside the ship. Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

The journey still wasn’t finished after unloading in Salonika. Another order sent them to Haifa, Palestine, to refuel before picking up another load of donkeys in Cyprus to deliver to Patras on Greece’s west coast. This fateful leg of the trip extended the cowboys’ stay in Greece by an additional two weeks when the Park Victory hit a mine left over from the war off the coast of Patras.

“We were able to go the short distance into Patras and unload the donkeys,” Bob Frantz says, “but the SS Park Victory was unable to continue. It was a frightening experience, but there were no injuries. It could have been much worse.”

Cowboy supervisor Rudy Potochnik made arrangements for housing and feeding the cowboys in Athens where they spent two weeks before finding passage home. “The situation was bad,” reports Potochnik, “since it was now about three months since leaving. The men had no funds. In Athens we got some additional spending money for the men. We had to buy soap and towels. UNRRA allowed $3.00 a day to pay room and incidental expenses.”

Supervisor Potochnik found passage home for the cowboys through the War Shipping Administration on the S. S. Marine Shark. “UNRRA paid for the passage of these men as passengers on this ship,” he says. “It was five and one-half thousand [dollars].”

Greek-Americans waiting to board the S. S. Marine Shark to finally go home. Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

The passengers, says Bob Frantz, were “mostly Greek-Americans who had been stranded in Greece for the duration of the war. It was not a pleasant trip, with lots of sea sickness, but we were thankful to be going home. The New York sky line looked very good to all of us.”

Next post: Radioman Will Keller’s account of the Park Victory’s accident.

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

Today, we look at postwar Poland through the eyes of Park Victory radioman Will Keller in an account he wrote for me from his diary notes:

“One afternoon took tram New Port to Danzig. Walked around ‘Old Town’ Danzig….

Limited tram service was available between Nowy Port and Gdansk January 1946. Photo courtesy of Fred Ramseyer.

“Woman runs up and asks if Americans will be sharing occupation with Russians….Manhole in snow-covered street suddenly rises and man climbs out, dusts himself off, replaces cover, and walks off. [A few] people around live in air raid shelters, sewers, among ruins. Returning to New Port, alongside tramway tracks six graves, 6 rifles upended in ground, 6 German helmets rocking back and forth in breeze….

Going on tour around Gdansk. January 1946. Photo courtesy of Fred Ramseyer.

“One morning UNRRA truck took cowboys and me on tour of Stutthof Concentration camp. Horrible site. Beautiful countryside. Large house at entrance. Tall trees. Stables, Crematory with smokestack. Piles and piles of clogs and worn-out shoes. Awful place. This is what I believe I saw: A tall, brick, tapering chimney (widening at the base), astride a windowless brick building standing on the eastern side of the camp. We entered a door on the north side and descended four or five steps. To our right was a wide ‘roll-up’ door, and to our left were six ovens, side-by-side, each with its own muffler. Over top of ovens was a walkway with handrail, and behind that a forest of neat pipes, and dials and valves. Horribly impressive….We exited on the south side of the building and looked again at the piles of clogs and worn-out shoes. Once, and not long ago, live people had stood in those very clogs and shoes. Was this what I saw? I wonder about that yet today….

“Battleground debris was everywhere—tanks dug-in with ugly snouts (turrets and guns) showing above ground. All kinds of damaged and abandoned vehicles. Armored cars, half-tracks, spent and unspent ammunition. Rows of trees dynamited so as to block use of a road….

“Small children begging for food. A boy of 5 or 6 years, holding a little girl’s hand. Each carries a tin pail. Our cook comes down the gangway, still wearing his kitchen apron, and ladles warm food into each pail. The children watch him, wide-eyed.

Park Victory cooks, January 1946. Photo courtesy of Fred Ramseyer.

“A ship’s boom swings up and out of a hold and over to the dock, lowering another animal container. Out staggers a sick cow, head hanging down, frothing at nostrils and mouth. Given extra injections by Vets. Old man and old woman waiting nearby come forward. Old man places rope around cow’s neck; old woman covers cow with blanket. Man leads cow away as old woman walks alongside hugging and petting cow….

“At the Polonia. Girls, desperate to escape Danzig, begging to be smuggled aboard ship….

Bar near the docks frequented by ship’s crew and seagoing cowboys. Photo credit: Will Keller.

“Jan 17, 1946 Park Victory leaves Danzig/Newport….Destination Copenhagen.

“Jan 18, 1946 shore leave in Copenhagen. What a change from Danzig!”

Next regular post: Images of Gdansk, before and after: 1946 and 2007

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. . .