First Heifer Project shipment to Czechoslovakia sailed 75 years ago this week

The Czechoslovakian Embassy in Washington, DC, expressed interest in Heifer Project’s offer to send cattle to that war-torn country in early December 1945. In the short time of one month, all red tape was cut and 171 heifers, donated by church groups from ten of the United States, departed from Baltimore January 6, 1946, on UNRRA’s S. S. Charles W. Wooster. On arrival in Bremen, Germany, the seagoing cowboys on this trip would have had similar experiences with those of UNRRA’s first shipment for Czechoslovakia. The animals, however, had little time to adjust to standing on solid ground. Czechoslovakian cattle experts transferred them into rail cars for a long arduous week’s trip to the Silesian area of northeastern Czechoslovakia, one of the regions that suffered the most during World War II.

The heifers arrived in Silesia in good condition February 4, where they were put in quarantine at the State Farm in Nerad near the border of Poland. After a meeting in Frydek to finalize distribution agreements, the officials involved drove some 25 miles to the farm to inspect the cattle.

“We crossed 29 wooden, propped up bridges, of very temporary construction, as all bridges in this region had been destroyed by the retreating Germans,” says Vlasta A. Vrazova of the American Relief for Czechoslovakia in a February 18, 1946, report to the Brethren Service Committee. “A year ago, war raged through this part of the country for many weeks. There is everywhere the same problem—empty barns. The Germans drove away all the cattle. In the Opava area 28,000 families were completely bombed out, another 20,000 families lost almost everything….Children are in grave danger. In first grade grammar school in the city of Praha 25 percent have tuberculosis and another 50 percent are on the danger line. The chief reason is malnutrition for five years….The crying need is milk!”

The home of Heifer Project recipient Frantisek Martinik of Vresina, Silesia, April 1946. Photo courtesy of the George Craig family.

An UNRRA report describes the ceremony that took place at the State Farm on the handing over of the Heifer Project animals, along with 193 UNRRA cattle sent with them. In a “picturesque mountain village of Northern Moravia,” the report says girls in regional dress presented bouquets to the UNRRA and Brethren Service Committee representatives present. “After a formal reception, the traditional ceremony of village maidens wreathing cows with garlands of flowers took place against the background of snow-clad hills and dark pine forests.” Oh, for a photo of that ceremony!

The UNRRA report notes that some of the Brethren-donated heifers were bought with pennies from school children in Ohio. Dr. J. E. Sayre, of the US Fellowship of Reconciliation, who was traveling in Europe at the time, represented the Brethren Service Committee at the reception. In his remarks at the gathering, he said,

In this gift from the children of Ohio to their needy brothers and sisters in Moravia can surely be discerned the great spirit, not of the moment but of the years ahead, that must illuminate our troubled world. The children shall speak. I have traveled a long way to witness this consummation of the spirit of good will that began with the pennies of thousands of American children. I am happy to find the cattle in such good condition. To the children back home in Ohio I shall report: “Your pennies will soon be providing milk for the babies of Czechoslovakia, and this will be not only for this year but also for next year and for many years to come.”

 

“This cow is our saviour from starvation,” the Kysuconova family tells their donor, Silesia, 1946. Photo courtesy of the George Craig family.


Next post: Recipients share their gratitude.

A Heifer Project Christmas Story

While UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Czechoslovakia was on its way in December 1945, a second shipment was in the works. The Brethren Service Committee’s Heifer Project had been in contact with the Czechoslovakian Embassy in Washington, DC, offering a gift of heifers to this war-torn country for the neediest of recipients.

On December 5,  BSC’s Director of Material Aid John Metzler, Sr. notified the Heifer Project Committee:

Contacts with the Czechoslovak Embassy show a great deal of interest in cattle there. Cables were sent yesterday getting governmental clearance from Czechoslovakia on the matter of distribution. UNRRA has agreed to transport these cattle . . . provided we can complete proper negotiations with that government.

Wheels turned quickly, with the Committee voting approval of the shipment on December 18 if word of acceptance came from Czechoslovakia.

On December 22, UNRRA issued a press statement to be released on December 24, 1945:

One hundred and seventy-five head of cattle have been offered to UNRRA by the Church of the Brethren for the people of Czechoslovakia. The animals, now at the Roger Roop farm at Union Bridge, Maryland, are bred heifers whose average age is two years. . . . After being shipped by UNRRA from Baltimore to an allied controlled port in Germany, the livestock will be transported by rail to their new homes in Czechoslovakia.

When notified of the contribution, Dr. Vaclav Myslivec, representative of the Czechoslovakian Ministry of Agriculture in the United States, said, “The people of my country are badly in need of milk for their children. In expressing their appreciation for this gift I cannot but recall that there were cattle in the stable on the night when the baby Jesus was born. The spirit of that first Christmas lives on in the hearts of the American people who so generously gave these fine animals to rehabilitate the war-devastated dairy herds of Czechoslovakia.”

On the 12th Day of Christmas in January 1946, 170 heifers — donated by Brethren, Evangelical and Reformed congregations, Mennonites, and other churches from as far away as Idaho and Kansas — began their voyage to Czechoslovakia on the S. S. Charles W. Wooster.

Two of the Czechoslovakian children whose family benefited from the gift of a heifer, 1946. Photo sent with thank you letter, courtesy of Heifer International.

May the spirit of that first Christmas and that of 75 years ago live on.
Wishing all my readers a Blessed Holiday Season and New Year to come.
And God bless the seagoing cowboys who delivered hope to a war-torn world.
~Peggy

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Czechoslovakia

S. S. Henry Dearborn in Baltimore, MD, December 1945. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

On December 12, 1945, the S. S. Henry Dearborn pulled out of Baltimore with a load of 411 heifers for Czechoslovakia, the first of 37 shipments made by UNRRA to that war-torn country. It was smooth sailing until Christmas Eve. The cowboys awoke that morning to find that a storm had crashed one of the cattle pens during the night, killing some of the animals. Arthur Lewis noted in his diary, “A wave that was about 45 feet high went in the Captain’s room (higher up in the midships), and the Steward had 18 inches of water in his room.”

Six days later, the ship docked safely in Bremerhaven, Germany. The cowboys took advantage of shore leave on New Year’s Eve and enjoyed 30 minutes of fireworks “set off by the ship in the harbor,” according to Lewis. January 2, the cattle were unloaded and put on trains for their journey to Czechoslovakia.

Unloading cattle in Bremerhaven for their train journey to Czechoslovakia, January 2, 1945. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

Two days later, the ship moved on up the Weser River to Bremen to unload the grain stored in the lower holds. A stevedore strike, however, delayed unloading, and the ship remained in Bremen for 20 days.

“This gave us a lot of free time to travel around town and out into the country,” says seagoing cowboy Elvin Hess. “Several things that we noticed, the house and barn were one unit built together. Cow manure was dried and used for fuel in their stoves. Another thing that really stood out was many blocks were nothing but rubble, but if there was a church in the block, that was the only building that remained standing.”

Remains of a church in Bremen, Germany, January 1946. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

Rubble in Bremen, Germany, January 1946. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

Located in the American Zone of Occupation, the US Army had a presence there. The cowboys took advantage of the facilities and activities this offered them as Merchant Mariners. Nearly every day, Lewis notes going to the Seaman’s Club or the Red Cross building for milk shakes, ice cream, coffee, and donuts or cake–a luxury cowboys to other countries did not have. Many a day included seeing a play or movie, such as “Kiss and Tell” starring Shirley Temple, “G.I. Joe,” “Three Is a Family,” etc.

The Red Cross Club in Bremen, Germany, 1946. Photo credit: Gene Swords.

Hess says, “Many of our nights were spent at the Red Cross Center where we played ping pong, cards, etc. If we would miss the last trolley to the docks we would have to walk back through all the ruins. That was the most scary part of the trip.”

Bremen, Germany, January 1946. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

“The trip gave me the opportunity to meet many people in all walks of life and to let your life shine,” Hess says. “What stuck with me the most was that people who were our enemies just months before would sit down and talk with you about having Peace on Earth.”

So may it be today.

 

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part V—Home in time for Thanksgiving

When the S. S. Virginian left Poland October 10, 1945, the seagoing cowboy crew expected to be home within a couple of weeks. They didn’t anticipate orders for their ship to go on to three ports in Sweden to pick up wood pulp to carry back to the US. With this side trip, the cowboys had the opportunity to visit a country not nearly so war-beaten as Poland.

The Swedish flag represents the warm hospitality received by the seagoing cowboys there. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

On Friday, October 12, in the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland, the Virginian docked in the harbor of the little lumbering village of Vallvik. Cowboy Harry Kauffman described it as “the most beautiful spot I have ever seen. It is the beauty of nature – God’s green earth, low mountains covered with evergreen forests with a sprinkling of other trees with yellow and gold foliage – probably larches. The air is so rare and clear one can see for miles and oh what a contrast to the desolation and woe of Poland. It is a wonderful soothing relief in contrasts and relief so great that it nearly upsets one’s emotions. What strange creatures we are anyhow – we see sorrow and suffering until we shed tears and in just a little while again such splendor and beauty and peace that we look through eyes filled with tears and its hard to believe we are on the same earth.” Several of the cowboys echoed these thoughts.

A highlight for eight of the cowboys was finding a church in nearby Ljusne on Sunday in which to worship. “The walk was very invigorating and refreshing,” says R. Everett Petry, “as we followed a bicycle path all the way thru the pines and cedars. Here, as everywhere else, the bicycle was very much in evidence. It is very common to see an entire family out peddling along.”

Bicycles were the major form of transportation in the Swedish villages the seagoing cowboys visited, November 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

Petry described the church, which he estimated would seat about 500, as “not elaborate tho beautiful in its simplicity.” About 100 people came, mostly women. “We were unable to understand anything of what was said at any time, but still we felt that we had truly worshipped with them.” The cowboys were surprised at the end of the service when “an attractive lady (who they learned was the preacher’s wife) asked us in somewhat halting English, ‘Will you please enjoy a cup of coffee and light lunch with us?'”

Over coffee and pastries, “We talked with some who could understand us,” Petry says, “and truly, no one can ever know the wonderful feeling we enjoyed sharing the fellowship with those wonderful people.” The Swedes asked the cowboys to sing some American hymns, applauding after each one. “Finally we were asked to sing our National Anthem for them, which we willingly did, while every one of them very courteously stood, honoring us and our great United States.” Then they sang theirs, “and how that church did ring with their voices.”

On readying to leave, Petry says, “we stumbled onto the fact that they also sing one of our most popular hymns, ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ so all together, they in their native tongue and we in ours sang that hymn. We felt completely united in something very great and real.” Similar experiences of fellowship awaited the crew in their next stops, yet further north in Fagervik and Bollstabruk.

The Virginian departed Bollstabruk October 23 for the estimated 4,000-mile trip home. “Whoopie,” noted Kauffman in his journal, as eager as all the cowboys to get on their way home. But the ship was slowed down by fog, stalled off the southern tip of Sweden for a bad storm to pass, docked for naught in the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, Scotland due to missed signals before being sent through mine-infested waters on down to Southampton, England. There, on November 4, they picked up 132 US soldiers even more eager to get home than the cowboys.

US soldiers readying to board the S. S. Virginian in Southampton, England, for their return home, November 3, 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

On November 15, the Virginian finally pulled into an army pier in Brooklyn, New York, where the soldiers were met by a reception boat of WAC’s and a band.

The US Army welcomes the soldiers on the S. S. Virginian home, November 15, 1945.

Soldiers receive a rousing welcome home in Brooklyn, New York, November 15, 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

The cowboys debarked the next day at Pier 21 on Staten Island. It would be a joyful Thanksgiving for all!

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part IV—Happier days in Gdynia

Our last regular post highlighted the sobering tour on which UNRRA took the seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Virginian on October 4, 1945. While the cowboys explored the countryside, the ship moved from Nowy Port outside Gdansk where the livestock was unloaded to the port of Gdynia further up the coast to unload the remaining cargo. It took only two days to unload the animals and any remaining hay and feed in Nowy Port, but another six days to clear the ship in Gdynia.

On a battlefield above Gdynia, Poland, October 1945. Photo courtesy of Lowell Erbaugh.

The remaining cargo consisted of:
1,395 gallons of DDT
30 bags of chicken feathers
255 bolts of cotton piece goods
19,183 bales of clothing
36,032 cartons of soap
200 barrels of soap
2,452 bags of shoes
4,939 cases of canned food
7,000 shovels
26 drums of carbide
8 bales of bed sheeting
825 drums of lard
One crated auto.

A newer city, Gdynia was not as heavily damaged as Gdansk. “The living conditions in this town are quite good compared to other towns nearby,” Ken Kortemeier says in his diary.

A street in Gdynia, Poland, October 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

Unlike Gdansk where barter for candy, gum, or cigarettes was the name of the game for obtaining desired objects, the people of Gdynia were eager for American dollars. “It is interesting to look at the merchandise for sale in the stores and the amber articles for sale,” he says. “It is only found around the Baltic area where it is mined.”

Street life in Gdynia in October 1945 was more normal than in nearby devastated Gdansk. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

“The people as a rule are cheerful and we had many a laugh as we talked to the folks in stores and in the streets,” notes Harry Kauffman. “It was a much needed break from what I had been seeing and hearing, although we see here, too, the tragedy of war. I saw a young woman with only one leg walking on crutches and one young man with both eyes gone.”

The market place in Gdynia, Poland, October 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

One day, Kortemeier and some friends went to the public market where he bought a German plate. “Hardware, dishes, clothes, rugs, etc., were all for sale,” he says. Kauffman adds, “Some of the sellers are perhaps dealers but many are poor people who sell anything they can possibly spare. Some cut glassware and chinaware looked very costly and some very old. All these things are sold for to get something to eat and to us Americans at only a fraction of their real value.”

All through their time in Poland, the cowboys continued to meet people who either wanted them to take letters with them to mail to relatives or friends in the US when they returned or wanted to be smuggled onto the ship to go to America. The S. S. Virginian left Poland October 10 with some letters in cowboy hands but no stowaways on board.

Cowboy supervisor John Steele had now been gone from home the total six weeks he had anticipated being away from his business. To his dismay, he would have another five weeks yet to go.

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part III–The Tour

On their third morning in Poland, UNRRA’s Minister of Agriculture to Poland Gene Hayes met the seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Virginian to take them on a tour. “Mr. Hayes told us before we started out that he would show us some things we would like to see and some things we would not like to see, but he wanted us to see them,” said Harry Kauffman. When Mr. Hayes arrived, the cowboys climbed into the back of a 1942 Chevrolet Army truck given to UNRRA.

Seagoing cowboys pile into UNRRA truck for their tour, October 4, 1945. Photo courtesy of Harry Kauffman.

“We went on down into the ruins of Gdansk,” says R. Everett Petry in his journal. “The total destruction can be neither imagined or exaggerated. Every single building in the downtown area is very literally demolished, with just parts of bare brick or stone walls standing as far as our eye could see.

Women largely did the work of clearing up the rubble, as most able-bodied men were no longer around. Gdansk, Poland, October 1945. Photo courtesy of Bub Erbaugh.

“Mr. Hayes told us that Danzig would be far easier rebuilt on a completely new location somewhere else, but because of its great historical value and its age and the fact that it was once one of the great art and culture centers of the world, the Polish people want to rebuild the entire city on its own site.” To visit the city today, one can see that they accomplished their goal.

The rebuilding of Gdansk. Photo by Peggy Reiff Miller, October 2013.

“Most of the damage was done by English and American airmen, running out the Germans,” Petry says, “and yet, the Polish people do not hold it against us….they call us their ‘liberators.'”

Hayes took the group to see a former 700-acre German estate east of Gdansk where the heifers had been taken. “We passed and met dozens of Poles,” Petry says, “obviously farmers who were driving horses hitched to wagons and carts loaded with all their earthly possessions, seeking their new homes in any section of country not Russian owned.” The estate lay on land that had at various times been part of Germany, Poland, and Russia. Now it would be part of Poland again, and the land would be divided into small parcels for Poles moving in from territory now claimed by Russia. 

Heifers graze at the former German estate east of Gdansk, Poland, where UNRRA heifers were taken, October 4, 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

The cattle were branded at the former blacksmith shop on the estate east of Gdansk, Poland, where the UNRRA heifers were taken. October 4, 1945. Photo courtesy of Harry Kauffman.

Trenches, foxholes, and military debris marked the estate as a site where battles had been fought. “There are German and Polish graves all over these fields,” says Lloyd Pepple. “We were told,” adds Petry, “that the nationality of the occupants of the graves could be identified by the cross. A German grave is identified by a German helmet on the cross. A Russian cross is marked by a red star placed at the top of the vertical part of the cross. And a Polish cross is just the plain cross with no identification at all. On every hand were visible signs of the death struggle in which many lives were lost, fighting for this ground.”

Helmets mark this grave at the estate east of Gdansk, Poland, where the UNRRA heifers were taken. October 4, 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

Hayes also took the group to another former German estate on the other side of Gdansk where the horses had been taken. “We were told that this estate was owned years ago by a wealthy German who was a great horse-man and he raised and bred pure thorough-bred horses,” says Petry. “The stables were huge and very strongly built and apparently a great many horses had been housed there. [Our] horses themselves were in excellent condition and appeared to have quieted down considerably.”

Sandwiched between these visits Hayes exposed the group to some of those things “we would not like to see,” as Harry Kauffman had noted. Cowboy supervisor John Steele explains it like this: “It is almost too horrible to tell what we saw. One large building, a half block square, had a flat roof and a post every 16 to 20 feet to support the roof. Hitler had tied two or three Jews to each post, then set fire to the building. The human bones were all around where each post had been. A large church was used as a gas chamber. Jews were taken from camp and told they could go there to take a bath. Then after they were inside, the gas was turned on. The bodies were used to make soap. At this place, we saw bodies stored in tanks of formaldehyde that were being saved to show at the trials of the Germans.”

“It was in the basement of a hospital,” says Ken Kortemeier. “Skeletons were all around and in another building nearby we saw leather made from human skin.” Kauffman adds, “I saw some of these products myself, and I wondered many times how and why can men sink so low as to do something like this.”

“Every one of us could only look and shudder and think…,” says Petry. “And we wondered why God permitted such things.”

Commemorative sign on the building seagoing cowboys toured in 1945. Photo by Peggy Reiff Miller, October 2013.

A few more of the early cowboy crews to Poland that followed were taken to this “human soap factory” as it was called before it was evidently put off limits for evidence of war crimes.

A later cowboy crew outside the Nazi medical research building they had toured in Gdansk, Poland, December 1945. Photo courtesy of Hugh Ehrman.

Petry sums up the experience for the Virginian crew in his journal that night: “All of us felt that today was, indeed, one of the most educational days we had ever spent.”

Next post: Happier days in Gdynia

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part II—Impressions of Gdansk

According to seagoing cowboy supervisor John Steele, the S. S. Virginian was the first merchant ship to enter Gdansk, Poland, after World War II. Whether this is true or not, I cannot confirm. At any rate, the cowboys were warmly welcomed by the Polish people—and sorely dismayed by the destruction around them.

“We were all day getting through Danzig Bay,” notes Lloyd Pepple in his journal. “These waters are still very dangerous. There is just a narrow lane through them. There are many sunken ships here, some with their upper parts above the water and some below the surface and only an experienced pilot can take a ship through.

“Danzig (Gdansk) is certainly dead and forlorn looking,” Pepple says, “and it certainly does arouse some strong feeling against the Hitler gang who would do and cause such destruction and murder. I have already found several persons with whom I could talk German and two with whom I could talk real well. And from one and all I heard the sad, tragic story of first German and then Russian looting, murder, and worse things. It is hard to suppress one’s emotions.”

Nowy Port, Poland, dock area where livestock were unloaded. October 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

The ship docked in Nowy Port, the port city for Gdansk, around 5:00 p.m. that Monday, October 1. Everett Petry writes of Russian officers and soldiers everywhere and choosing to stay on board that night in the safety and warmth of the ship. He speaks of Russians in their long, heavy coats and barefooted children in shorts with their legs blue from the cold.

Ken Kortemeier notes, however, that most of the children wore a smile. “They tell us 9/10 of Danzig is destroyed,” Kortemeier says. Bub Erbaugh adds, “The buildings have big holes in them, and a lot of buildings just aren’t.” A foretaste of what’s to come.

Horse lifted off the S. S. Virginian in Nowy Port, Poland, October 2, 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

Bright and early the next morning, the Polish stevedores got to work unloading the horses and heifers. “They unloaded with a flying stall,” says Pepple. “It is a big box, big enough to hold a horse. They pull it out of the bottom of the ship with winches and set it out on the street. Then they lead the horse away. Sometimes it takes 4 or 5 men to hold them.”

Corralling a horse on the docks of Nowy Port, Poland, October 2, 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

The 16-year-old S. S. Virginian captain’s son, who served as one of the cowboys, likened the unloading of the cattle to the streets of downtown Cheyenne. “They went whacko, jumping and bucking,” he said, “after being confined so long at sea.”

First heifers shipped into Poland by UNRRA after World War II, October 2, 1945. Photo courtesy of Bub Erbaugh.

That afternoon, a group of cowboys took a crowded, shot-up tram into Gdansk and witnessed more of the realities of war. “We didn’t see one building that was not hit with bombs or machine gun fire,” Pepple says. “It is a terrible sight.”

First seagoing cowboys to witness the destruction of Gdansk, Poland, after World War II. October 1945. Photo courtesy of Harry Kauffman.

We saw street cars still on the tracks all shot full of holes,” says Pepple. “They said the conductor and all the passengers were killed in these cars. We saw an old prison that had 800 Polish prisoners of war in it. The Germans set it afire and burned them up alive. You could see human bones all over it. There was nothing left of it but the walls.”

Everett Petry writes of the odors of bodies still buried in the rubble, the remarkable ability of the Polish people to push on amidst such destruction, and how the mention of “UNRRA,” in which they put their hope, would bring smiles to people’s faces.

Harry Kauffman stayed in the port that afternoon and the next day, talking with people who could speak German. And he heard the stories of the cowboys who had gone into Gdansk. “Tonight I write these lines with a heavy heart,” he notes in his journal, “unashamed that my eyes are swimming with tears at the things I have seen and heard. Tomorrow the Commissioner of Agriculture for Poland which is working for the UNRRA has arranged to take us on an all day tour.” He would see some of World War II’s horrors for himself.

To be continued

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.”

Seagoing Cowboy program began 75 years ago this month!

For my regular June posts, I’ll be repeating two that I made five years ago about the first two trips of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and Brethren Service Committee’s seagoing cowboy program.  Seventy-five years ago this month, those first crews were being put together and sent to sea.

How ten Manchester College students ended up
on the first UNRRA cattle boat to Europe.

When UNRRA contacted M. R. Zigler, the executive of the Brethren Service Committee, in late spring of 1945 to say they had a ship ready, M. R., with his vast network of contacts, got on the phone and put the Brethren grapevine in action. Among other things, word was sent to the Brethren colleges, which by that time had completed their academic years and were gearing up for their summer sessions. Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana, was one of those schools.

MC grad Keith Horn recalls having seen a notice on a bulletin board at the college about a ship going overseas with animals. Others learned of the trip through the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference being held at Manchester that year. On its opening day, June 6, 1945, the Brethren Service Committee brought news to the Conference: “Relief soon may be possible from the church in America to the church in Europe,” including “heifers by freight shipment.” M. R. Zigler spoke the next day of “news of big shipments.” In just a short time from UNRRA’s first call to M. R. much had transpired – from one vessel to big shipments.

These reports created a buzz throughout the campus. People talked about it on the sidewalks, in their rooms, over dinner – and it was while waiting on tables in the old Oakwood dining hall that Manchester student Ken Frantz learned of the need for cattle attendants.

In all, ten Manchester College students signed up for this first cattle boat trip. The Gospel Messenger reported that there were 135 students enrolled in the Manchester summer session of 1945. Take ten of those students away, and the college lost over 7% of their student body that summer! But President Schwalm was supportive, as Richard Moomaw, a student leader on campus, relates. When he went to talk with the President to get permission to un-enroll, President Schwalm told him, “So many people are going, you should go, too!”

Because it was mostly a rural denomination, UNRRA had felt the Church of the Brethren would have enough men on farm deferment to provide the cattle attendants for their ships. But there was another deferment that figured into this story, as well – the ministerial deferment. Many of the MC students who went fell into this category. To maintain this status with the draft board, they had to be in school all year round – and that’s why so many of them were in summer school. But whatever the deferment, these students had to get permission from their draft boards to leave the country. Ken Frantz, who lived in North Manchester, recalls that he had no trouble with his Board in Wabash. But it was a different story for his brother Dean, who was living in Sydney, Indiana, at the time. The Kosciusko County Draft Board refused to let him go, or he would have been on the ship with Ken, too.

For many of these students, this was something positive they could do to help put a broken world back together again. Gordon Bucher recalls that his mother, in particular, wasn’t too keen on his going. He was just 19, the war was just over, and she was afraid for his safety. But Gordon stood firm. He said to her, “a lot of people have been endangered for the last four years. We hope to do something good, whether we’re in danger or not.” It was a form of service and ministry for many of the cowboys. And two of them – Floyd Bantz and Ken Frantz – even postponed their weddings from early summer to late summer to be able to go.

In a very short period of time, the ten Manchester students had made their applications, gotten their draft board permissions, and were on the train to New Orleans by June 13. They sailed on June 24, 1945, on the S.S. F. J. Luckenbach headed for Greece with 588 horses and 26 cattle attendants on board – the first of the 360 UNRRA livestock trips made between 1945 and 1947.

F. J. Luckenbach crew at the Acropolis.

The F. J. Luckenbach crew in Greece, July 1945. For whatever reason, the cowboys on this ship were not allowed to take cameras on board. This is the only known picture from this trip, likely taken by an unidentified professional Greek photographer at the Acropolis. Photo courtesy of Ken Frantz.