Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part I—The Voyage

On September 1, 1945, John Steele, of Goshen, Indiana, left his feed, coal, and building supply business in the hands of his employees to oversee a crew of seagoing cowboys on the first UNRRA shipment to Poland after World War II. What had been billed to him as a six-week trip kept him away from home for three months. Even so, he considers the trip the highlight of his life.

S. S. Virginian crew, September 1945. Photo courtesy of Lowell Erbaugh.

Steele arrived at the docks in Jersey City only to find his ship, the S. S. Virginian, in dry dock for repairs. On September 10, his 30 cow hands joined him aboard the massive merchant vessel built in 1903, which had seen service in two world wars and still bore some of its guns. The gun decks offered a prime view of New York City across the Hudson River. “The sight is marvelous,” writes cowboy Ken Kortemeier in his diary. The Empire State Building stood conspicuous on the skyline “with a small section near the top darkened as a result of the tragic B-25 crash.”

Kortemeier notes that the Queen Mary pulled in that morning with 14,000 troops aboard. “It fills one with emotion to see them line the deck, peering out of portholes eager to see and set foot on the land they love.”

On the night of September 13, two tug boats nudged the ship on its way. Kortemeier says, “It was a great sensation going down the harbor seeing the majestic New York City skyline light up as usual and fading slowly in the background. The Statue of Liberty was an inspirational sight as she stood there. Flood lights were on her and her torch was really burning. One of the last landmarks of New York that could be seen was Coney Island all lit up with the old Ferris wheel of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair well in the foreground. One could see automobiles as they sped along the boulevards bordering the River. Lights faded out and we ventured forth on the dark Atlantic with lighthouses winking at us as if it were now our turn.”

The S. S. Virginian. Photo by Elwood Geiger.

After their first day of work, the cowboys bonded at the stern of the ship with the first of many song fests, singing gospel and secular numbers after a short business meeting. “It was great,” says Kortemeier, “and the moon helped us by giving a silvery effect to the sea. Oh yes, sea, moon, and stars were there, but that is not all. God was there. Let the tempests rage, and the sea roar — remember still that the small voice speaketh and the men aboard this ship tonight are in His care.”

Despite smooth sailing the first five days, many of the cowboys got seasick. One cowboy upchucked 12 times the first day out. He remembers hanging over the toilet and pushing the flush button with his head. “We managed to get our work done even if we were sick,” says his partner. “We had canned corn quite often, and we’d say we kind of liked it because it tasted the same coming up as it did going down.”

The fifth day out, “the sea was extra rough,” notes Kortemeier, “and preparations were made for stormy weather. Several tons of straw piled high on the hatch were thrown overboard in the hope of making the ship less top-heavy.” But the real tests came as the Virginian neared the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland. After missing a collision with a small Danish ship by only about ten feet in a dense fog, the Virginian entered the dangerous waters of the North Sea. “Life boats were hung over side today so they can be released by merely slashing the rope,” Kortemeier notes. “Also, a watch (constant) is being maintained for mines. Thank God that we now have peace and we do not need to worry about subs. The fact of having a safe night is now brought up every morning in devotions.”

Even though mapped, mines at times broke off from their moorings. The Virginian missed one by about 40 yards off the coast of Norway on September 28. The next morning, Kortemeier notes, “we got a radio report from a ship sinking because it hit a mine in the area where we were yesterday.” Another close call.

The Virginian finally reached the harbor at Danzig on October 1. Kortemeier says, “I was moved to tears for the first time on this voyage as we came up the canal at Danzig. Oh, what ruin and devastation. The people were waiting for us, and the big sign says — heartily welcome in Gdansk. What a scene! Nearly every building gutted. We expect to go ashore tomorrow.”

Nowy Port, Poland, October 1945. Photo by Harry Kauffman.

Second UNRRA livestock ship departed the United States 75 years ago today

This is the second of two posts I made five years ago that I’m repeating in June to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the start of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and Brethren Service Committee’s seagoing cowboy program.

Five Elizabethtown College students make 2nd UNRRA ship out,
but arrive first in Greece.

This post will set the record straight for a friendly little rivalry that has taken place through the years between the Manchester College students and the Elizabethtown College students who were on the first two UNRRA livestock ships to depart the United States the end of June 1945.

When I first talked with Gordon Bucher about his trip on the F. J. Luckenbach to Greece  that left New Orleans June 24, 1945, he wanted to know, “Wasn’t ours the first ship to leave the U. S.?” Having found the UNRRA records, I was able to tell him, “Yes.” The Elizabethtown cowboys who departed from Baltimore on the S.S. Virginian June 26, 1945, had always said they were on the first ship out. But diary accounts from the two trips and the UNRRA records show otherwise.

Turns out, it was an honest mistake on the part of the E-town cowboys, as even the media thought this to be the first shipment. The Baltimore Sun newspaper said on June 25, 1945:

GREECE CATTLE SAILS TODAY
UNRRA Shipment To Be First Consignment
Laden with 704 head of dairy cattle and horses, the first consignment of such animals to be sent to a European country by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the freighter Virginian will leave Baltimore today for Greece, where the livestock will be used in an agricultural rehabilitation program . . . .

The F. J. Luckenbach had already left New Orleans when this article went to press, and the Virginian didn’t leave port until a day after the article appeared, if the date typed under the article given to me is correct. Other media gave the same story, including the August 1945 Baltimore & Ohio Magazine:

First UNRRA Livestock Shipment for Europe Rides B&O

The article tells of the arrival to Baltimore of 335 Brown Swiss bred heifers and twelve bulls and 357 light draft mares on the B&O railway. It goes on to say:

This “first shipment” created a great deal of interest among the UNRRA people and various publicity agencies. The Coast Guard, Life, the Baltimore papers and the newsreel agencies all had photographers on the job . . . .

All of this while the Luckenbach was already on its way.

But alas, the Luckenbach was not to be the first to arrive in Greece. The Virginian, departing closer to Europe, arrived at its destination of Piraeus, Greece, the port for Athens, on Saturday, July 14.

First heifer to Greece.

A proud Greek poses with the first UNRRA heifer to put foot on European soil. Photo courtesy of Kate  Holderman.

The Luckenbach arrived in Patras, Greece, two days later on Monday, July 16. Both crews were able to visit the Acropolis, with a short $5.00 taxi ride for the Virginian crew and a hair-raising bus ride across the Peloponnese peninsula for the Luckenbach crew that almost made them miss their ship home.

Members of the S. S. Virginian crew at the Acropolis. Photo courtesy of Kate Holderman.

After unloading in Greece, both ships also stopped in Naples to pick up U. S. soldiers who had fought in Europe during the war to take them home – 140 for the Virginian and 150 for the Luckenbach. The Luckenbach, however, arrived home first. Their entire cargo was unloaded in Patras, after which they were ready to return home; whereas the Virginian unloaded only part of its cargo in Piraeus and then traveled further up around Greece to Salonika to unload the rest. Even with a stop in Béni Saf to pick up iron ore after picking up their soldiers in Naples, the Luckenbach had a considerable head start on the Virginian, arriving in New York City ten days ahead of them on August 10. They were met with a rousing welcome home for the soldiers on Staten Island complete with a WAC band playing the “Beer Barrel Polka” and a black band playing hot jazz, before finally docking in Jersey City. The Virginian delivered their soldiers to Newport News and finally docked in Brooklyn on August 20. No matter which ship they were on, the cowboys were glad to be back on U. S. soil.

Sources: Gordon Bucher’s unpublished journal and the report of the S.S. Virginian crew titled “Relief for Greece.”

In Memorium

On this 5th Friday, it’s time to once again remember seagoing cowboys who have departed from us.

Bender, Byron W., January 4, 2020, Honolulu, Hawaii. S. S. Stephen R. Mallory to Poland, June 20, 1946.

Graham, Charles R., October 2019, Aurora, Colorado. S. S. Rock Springs Victory to Ethiopia, March 12, 1947.

Longenecker, William W. “Bill”, December 9, 2019, Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. S. S. South Bend Victory to Greece, December 4, 1946.

Rhodes, Luke C., May 23, 2016, Dalton, Ohio. S. S. Carroll Victory to Greece, November 5, 1946.

Rumble, Paul, September 28, 2019, Modesto, California. S. S. Michael James Monohan to Czechoslovakia (docking in Bremen, Germany), January 4, 1946.

Smucker, Leonard Leroy, November 28, 2019, Ashland, Oregon. S. S. Stephen R. Mallory to Poland, June 20, 1946.

Zimmerman, William A., July 16, 2017, Sunbury, Pennsylvania. S. S. Virginian to Poland, June 27, 1946.

Rest in peace, dear seagoing friends.

Information for Livestock Attendants – Part II

Today we continue our look at what the seagoing cowboy experience entailed as spelled out in a document titled “Information for Livestock Attendants.”

Seasickness

  1. If shots and vaccinations can be taken several weeks before sailing, fewer cases of disability would be experienced.

    Two seasick cowboys on the S. S. Norwalk Victory, February 1946. Photo: Elmer Bowers.

  2. Seasickness is largely imagination. Fresh air, physical occupation, keeping feed in the stomach will do much to aid in preventing it.
  3. Eat moderately of simple foods. Keeping crackers and ginger in pockets to munch between meals may help.
  4. Spend much time in the open air near the middle of the ship. Keep away from the smell of cooking if possible.
  5. Seasick tablets are helpful for some, but cannot be depended on for everyone.

Supplies to Take Along

  1. Livestock attendants should take warm washable clothing. Laundry facilities are provided on most ships. Soap is furnished by the ship in most cases.

    Laundry time on the S. S. Queens Victory, July 1946. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

  2. Money should be carried in the form of travelers checks. A sufficient amount should be taken to cover transportation to the port city in the U.S. and return plus whatever incidentals are desired by the individual.
  3. Clothing items like socks, underwear, shirts, etc., can be purchased aboard ship from the ship’s store.
  4. Reading and recreation items, books, magazines, games, hobby materials.

    Cowboys on the S. S. Morgantown Victory came prepared in Dec. 1945. Photo: Glen Nafziger.

  5. Bible, daily devotion books, Testaments, etc.
  6. Stationary, fountain pen, stamps, diary, maps and guides of countries to be visited and, if you are a photo addict, a camera with plenty of film, binoculars.
  7. Specific clothing items; a good warm windbreaker to withstand the weather of the North Atlantic, one dress suit (not too good), two coat hangers, pair of sport pants, two sport shirts, jacket, sweater, two flannel work shirts, two pairs of work pants, four tee shirts, six undershirts and shorts, six pairs work socks, two pairs of dress socks, heavy work shoes, boots or overshoes, raincoat, wool cap.
  8. Handkerchiefs, razor, toothbrush, paste, comb, extra soap, needles, thread and buttons, money belt.
  9. Towels and soap are furnished by the ship.
  10. It is best to leave jewelry and watches at home.

Leisure-time Activities Aboard Ship

  1. The amount of leisure time on the way over varies with the number of cattle, the weather and other factors. Since there are no duties on the return trip, livestock men have plenty of time to themselves. This provides an excellent opportunity for self-improvement. Some suggestions:
  2. Plenty of good reading material should be taken along.
  3. Map of the world on which to mark the places visited.
  4. Model building (ships, airplanes, etc.) has provided excellent recreation for some men.
  5. Discussion groups, planned to include members of the crew, have proved stimulating and interesting.

    Discussion group on S. S. Creighton Victory, July 1946. Photo: Ben Kaneda.

  6. Evening singing sessions help spread good cheer.

    Christmas Eve on the S. S. Attleboro Victory, December 1946. Photo: Harold Cullar.

  7. Amateur stunt nights, etc., provide lots of fun.
  8. Religious services should be carefully planned and held at regular times. (both on way over and return trip)

    Sunday service on the S. S. Queens Victory, July 1946. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

Some Places To Visit (Mediterranean area)

  1. One should plan well his tours to interesting places in the towns he visits so as to make the most of time spent there.
  2. In Trieste: Cathedral, Via Cathedral, the Square of Blaza, hillside residences and gardens, Esplanade, stores and open air markets.
  3. In Naples: Mt. Vesuvius, Pompeii, Herculaneum, Cathedral of Pompeii, Castle of St. Elmo, Governor’s Palace, Cathedral King’s palace with moat and drawbridge, San Carlo Opera House, Torre del Greco and Cameo factories, Sorrento.

    The crew of the S. S. Virginian visited the ruins of Pompeii, July 1945. Orville Hersch scrapbook.

  4. In Rome: Ancient Forum and ruins of the old city; St. Peters and Vatican City, Coliseum, cathedrals, Tiber River, Appian Way, aqueducts, Via 20 September.
  5. In Salonika: St. George’s and St. Sophia’s churches, old Venetian wall and tower, Turkish baths, market places.

    Touring the old city wall of Thessaloniki, Greece, July 1945. Orville Hersch scrapbook.

  6. In Athens: Parthenon and ruins of ancient city.

    Seagoing cowboy Charlie Lord captured this view of the Acropolis on his five-month trip on the S. S. Carroll Victory in early 1947.

(“Information for Livestock Attendants” document prepared by seagoing cowboys Russell Helstern and Ed Grater – February 28, 1946)

Seagoing Cowboy Program Turns 75 this year!

Happy New Year to my faithful readers!

This year will mark the 75th anniversary of many significant events surrounding the end of World War II. Besides the end of fighting, the event that excites me most is the beginning of UNRRA’s seagoing cowboy program, initiated with UNRRA’s first shipment of June 24, 1945. I look forward to sharing bits of this history with you throughout the year – a history of helping a war-torn world rebuild.

For starters, let’s look at what the seagoing cowboy experience entailed as spelled out in a document titled “Information for Livestock Attendants.”

The following information comes from men who have already been to Europe as livestock attendants and is backed by their experience.

Handling of Animals

  1. Attendants should have and should exhibit a natural love for animals – a calm voice, with gentle treatment and manners, with no evidence of fear, is most effective.

    Cowboys on the S. S. Adrian Victory tend the horses on way to Greece, Oct. 1946. Photo: Elmer Bowers.

  2. Attendants should check carefully the eating habits and bodily functions of animals under their care and should report irregularities to the veterinarian at once.
  3. Each attendant will feed, water and care for 25 to 35 animals (cows, heifers, horses, mules, bulls) under the supervision of the veterinarian and the supervisor.
  4. Each man should assume his duties willingly and discharge them faithfully. This is not a pleasure ship.
  5. Cleaning should be done daily, as per instructions.

    Luke Bomberger cleans cattle stalls on the S. S. Boulder Victory to China, Feb. 1947. Photo: Eugene Souder.

  6. Be diligent in keeping watch – sometimes a delay of 15 minutes may mean the life of an animal under your charge.

Customs Aboard Ship

  1. It is well to have a talk with the ship’s captain or one of the mates before putting out to sea to learn the practices aboard ship, to discover what suggestions he may have regarding conduct of the crew aboard ship, privileges, responsibilities and general conduct. Remember the captain is the absolute master of all aboard his ship.

    Cowboys on the S. S. Carroll Victory watch chief engineer and mate cut chain. 1947. Photo: Charles Lord.

  2. Be friendly at all times with the ship’s regular crew. Let nothing disturb that relationship. Crew members respect character in others and expect to be treated as gentlemen.

    Luke Bomberger gets a tour of the engine room on the S. S. Boulder Victory to China, Feb. 1947. Photo: Eugene Souder.

  3. Ignore the caste system aboard ship and don’t let it disturb you.
  4. Do not abuse dining hall privileges. Snacks at night are for men who are on duty. When using this privilege when on duty, men must assume their part in cleaning up.
  5. Danger of fire at sea is terrific. Refrain from smoking.
  6. Men should be sure their mailing address is understood and forwarded to their homes before leaving. There are many uncertainties and do not be too much disturbed if mail does not reach you.

    Seagoing cowboy Bob Richards made sure his crew on the S. S. Virginian knew their mailing address. Orville Hersch scrapbook.

Conduct in Foreign Ports

  1. One can reflect credit or discredit upon the organization and the people he represents by the way he conducts himself among strangers. Be sensible – act discreetly and with an open, frank friendliness toward the people in the foreign ports. Act like Christians at all times.

    Shopping at the open air market in Trieste, Italy, Feb. 1946. Photo: Elmer Bowers.

  2. Never try to violate port rules or to evade port inspector’s regulations.
  3. Plan your own shore tours with competent guides. Ignore “gate offers”. Consult the UNRRA representative who boards the ship, the U.S. consul, and if available representatives of private relief agencies, cooperatives, Red Cross, church men, FOR members, et al.
  4. Crew members and livestock attendants are faced with the temptation to trade with black market operators in foreign ports. Cigarette sales, as well as sales of clothing at exorbitant prices are temptations to many of our men. Faced with such a situation one must keep in mind his purpose in coming to Europe. He has come to the people with help – not to help exploit them.

To be continued…

Life on the S. S. Virginian: From the letters of O. R. Hersch, Part II

This continues the reflections of Orville Hersch in his letters home about his time on the S.S. Virginian, the second UNRRA livestock ship to leave the United States, the end of June 1945.

Fire and Life Boat Drills

“We have fire drill once a week, also life boat drill at the same [time] or immediately following. Each person on the ship is required to go to his station for fire drill – and the fire hose is/hoses are turned on to check on their working alright [sic]. Then the whistle is as follows –
1 long blast – go to your fire station.
3 short blasts – turn off the water.
6 short blasts & 1 long blast – go to your life boat.
3 short blasts – dismissal – return to our work.

“In this life boat drill we all put on our life belts to which are attached a whistle to blow, a knife to cut or defend ourselves when in the water, a flashlight to attract attention in the darkness etc. The flashlights are all new batteries & shine brightly. The rafts on which 20 men can ride look like this:

From letters of O. R. Hersch, courtesy of Heifer International.

From letters of O. R. Hersch, courtesy of Heifer International.

slats on top – also on the bottom – The bottom is like the top – so the raft cannot fall upside down. Between two [vertical] air tanks is a compartment containing fire signals, fishing tackles, chocolate bars, canned fresh water, hatchets, gigs, oars, spears, food etc.

Life boat drill on the S. S. Creighton Victory, July 1946. Photo courtesy of Ben Kaneda.

Life boat drill on the S. S. Creighton Victory, July 1946. Photo courtesy of Ben Kaneda.

“In case the ship strikes a floating mine – a ‘SOS’ will call other ships to our aid – so these boats & rafts will help us out until the other ships arrive. The raft slides off the ship when a small ring is slid away from an open link and the raft held to the side of the ship so a man can climb down a knotted rope over the side of the ship to the waters edge and then swim to the raft. Our life preservers are well able to keep us afloat even tho we don’t know how to swim – most of us in case of danger would leap from the ship feet first & hold one hand between our chin on the top of our life preserver and the other hand over our nose to keep the water out. These life preservers give us a feeling of security in the midst of this boundless deep – the depth of which makes the deep azure blue of a deep blue sky.”

Bill of Lading

Besides the official cargo on the Virginian, the cowboys had brought along items like soap, needles, thread, buttons, etc., which Orville is distributing here to Greeks in Salonika. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

Besides the official cargo on the Virginian, the cowboys had brought along items like soap, needles, thread, buttons, etc., which Orville is distributing here to grateful Greeks in Salonika. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

The livestock ships usually carried additional cargo in the bottom holds, of which Orville wrote, “Perhaps you will be interested in the bill of lading of our ship. We have –
2000 sewing machines
1548 bales of straw
13 steel chains weighing 14000#
30 bundles of steel weighing 93490#
41 steel bars weighing 149900#
12000 bags of 16% dairy feed
5557 bales of mixed hay (timothy & clover) – 293 ton
40 bags bran – 2 ton
702 bags oats – 40 ton
2735 ton superphosphate – fertilizer
260 large crated boxes of tractors & parts – 2 ton each
270 bundles of parts
325 heifers
12 bulls
375 mares
(also have 11 fresh cows – 10 living calves – so we milk & have plenty of milk & the calves are doing fine)
5028 net tonnage of our ship
7985 gross tonnage of our ship
48 men in the ships crew, seamen etc.
26 cattle men

To power this vessel, Orville reported it carried 13637 barrels (bbl) of oil with 42 gallons per barrel, or 2091 ton. It used 325 bbl of oil each day at sea and 70 bbl when in port. The ship carried 1230 tons of fresh water of which 35 tons were used per day with livestock on board and 15 tons without livestock.

Quite an undertaking! Imagine the details UNRRA had to work out for each of their 360 shipments.

Orvillel Hersch at the old wall of Salonika, Greece, July 1945. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

Orville Hersch at the old wall of Salonika, Greece, July 1945. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

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.