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.

Advertisements

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 [see Jan. 23 post] 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 SS 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 on the B&O railway of 335 Brown Swiss bred heifers and twelve bulls and 357 light draft mares . 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, and gained the honor of delivering the first UNRRA heifers to Europe. The Luckenbach arrived in Patras, Greece, two days later on Monday, July 16.

First heifer to Greece.

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

Both crews were able to visit the Acropolis, via 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. [Look for this story in my next post.]

Virginian crew at the Acropolis.

Members of the Virginian crew at the Acropolis, July 15, 1945. Photo courtesy of Earl 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 had been unloaded in Patras, after which they were ready to head back across the Atlantic; whereas the Virginian unloaded only part of its cargo in Piraeus and then had to travel further up around Greece to Salonika to unload the rest. Even with a stop at Béni Saf in Africa 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.”

Next post: Acropolis or bust! The hair-rising bus ride of the F. J. Luckenbach crew.