A Seagoing Cowboy on Chick Detail

Leland Voth’s Merchant Marine card for service as a “cattleman.” Courtesy of Leland Voth.

Inspired by his older brother’s cattle boat trip to Europe in early 1946, Leland Voth decided to sign up, too, expecting to take care of heifers or horses. Little did he know that he would instead be put on “chick detail,” as he called it.

Soon after his sophomore year of high school ended, Leland set out on foot from his home in Lorraine, Kansas, to hitchhike to Newport News, Virginia. He slept in a YMCA in Kansas City his first night, then took public transportation to the edge of town where he set out hitchhiking again. “Along the way, however,” Leland says, “I waited for hours for a ride, to no avail. Finally a bread delivery truck picked me up and the driver informed me that the previous week a lady had been killed by a hitchhiker.” When the bread truck driver reached his destination of Lexington, Kentucky, Leland had the driver drop him off at the bus stop and took public transportation the rest of the way.

Leland reported to the Brethren Service Committee office at Pier X in Newport News.

The Brethren Service Committee office where seagoing cowboys checked in and received their assignments. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers, February 1946.

There he was asked to volunteer on the dock “to help assemble chicken batteries (cages) for baby chicks for the next ship.” When the S. S. Morgantown Victory crew was being assembled, Leland was able to sign on. “I helped fill the chick cages with 18,700 baby chicks and load them on the ship,” he says. The remainder of the cargo was 760 heifers. The destination: Poland.

When crew assignments were made, Leland got the night shift. His job was to feed and water the chicks and extract the dead ones. “The chick batteries were about 5 tiers high,” he says, “and each tier had a side spool of brown paper which was threaded in a narrow space under each tier to catch the chick droppings and was normally changed once a day. When the sea was really rough, the wide rolls of paper under the chick cages would fall off their racks and rip out the litter which made a mess that I had to clean up. To prevent such happenings, I made regular rounds to check whether the rolls of paper were centered on their hooks.

“The enjoyable time was to climb up the rungs of the ladder to breathe in the fresh ocean air,” Leland says. “It also was a chance to go to the galley, cut slices of freshly baked bread and smear it with a thick layer of orange marmalade. Orange marmalade became my favorite spread to this day.”

In Poland, the ship docked in Nowyport, the port area for Gdansk. The cattle and newborn calves were unloaded first. “One cow jumped out of its crate as it was being unloaded and broke its back on the dock,” Leland says. “After several days, the chicks were unloaded and I was free to tour the area for the two days remaining.”

Chicks being unloaded from the S. S. Rockland Victory in Nowyport, Poland, three weeks later. Photo credit: Robert Stewart.

The first night off ship, Leland went with other cowboys to deliver food they had brought with them to give to hungry people. The next day, they went by streetcar into Gdansk and saw the “piles and piles of bricks and rubble of buildings which had been bombed” that all cowboys to Poland witnessed.

“We discovered a former Mennonite Church which was badly damaged,” Leland says. There he found some books in the rubble which he took home to Kansas and later gave to the historian at Bethel College.

The exterior of the bombed out Danzig Mennonite Church. Photo credit: Paul Martin, May 1946.

“The return trip was uneventful,” Leland says. “Some of the men used butter as a suntan lotion while sunning on the deck until a notice appeared that ‘such activity was prohibited.'”

When the ship arrived back in Newport News, each cowboy received his $150 pay from UNRRA and two cents from the Merchant Marine (a penny a month, a token to make the cattle tenders legal workers on the ships). What to do with two cents? Leland’s crew put all their pennies in a jar, a total of about 64 cents, and drew numbers to see who would get them.

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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