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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Seagoing Cowboy Supervisor Herb Pownall tells his story

I recently came across a delightful 20-minute interview with Herb Pownall by Caroline Ballard on the HumaNature podcast of Wyoming Public Media. Herb served as an UNRRA seagoing cowboy supervisor on the S. S. Edwin D. Howard to Germany that left Newport News, Virginia, April 29, 1946, with a load of 833 bred heifers for Czechoslovakia. Herb has some great photos that also appear on the HumaNature website. Click here for the podcast and photos. Enjoy!

Special Post: S. S. Woodstock Victory carries Heifer Project cattle to Poland 70 years ago today

seagoingcowboy-cover_FINAL-smallerMarch 3, 2016, marks the 70th anniversary of the first trip of the S. S. Woodstock Victory as a livestock carrier. The Woodstock Victory is the ship featured in my children’s picture book to be released March 31, so I wanted to celebrate this day with a special post about the ship.

On March 3, 1946, 762 bawling heifers, 8 bulls, and 89 mares left Newport News, Virginia, on the Woodstock Victory bound for Poland. Of those heifers, 230 were sent by the Heifer Project as gifts to the most needy of Poland’s farmers. The rest of the animals were sent by UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration). UNRRA’s recipients were required to pay in some form for their animals.

Seagoing cowboys get ready to pull up hay for their mules on the S. S. Woodstock Victory to Greece in January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Seagoing cowboys get ready to pull up hay for their mules on the S. S. Woodstock Victory to Greece in January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

“Floating barns” is what one Amish seagoing cowboy called the livestock ships. The seagoing cowboy supervisor for this trip, Don Bortner, reported, “We loaded 8485 bales of hay, 1831 bales of straw, 1595 bags of dairy feed and 100 bags of oats.” And, like the cycle of life in any barn on land, the “floating barns” had their ups and downs for the animals. Two of the gift heifers died on the way, one of toxema from a calf not being born and one of pneumonia. Another, “Heifer bsc 3131,” writes Bortner, “was admitted to the Hospital in Hatch four on the nite of Mar. 7, the roughest nite on the trip. After sticking her all over with needles and shaving her side she finally give in and lay on her left side. Dr. Quartrup and Dr. Freidman with the assistance of many cowboys performed a Ceasarian Operation. Had this not been done the heifer would have died. . . . I think the vets did a wonderful job under many handicaps.”

Amish cowboy Melvin R. Yoder was on this trip. His story was reported by Elmer S. Yoder in the October 2002 issue of Stark County Mennonite & Amish Historical Society’s Heritage newsletter:

Melvin and three others were assigned 100 heifers on the second deck down. The 100 heifers were in a large section or “pen” on the floor.

The trip to Poland took about two weeks. He remembers the excitement among the sailors when Bishop’s Rock was sighted on the south coast of England and at the head of the English Channel. They observed the white cliffs of Dover and headed into the North Sea, which Melvin said was described to them as the graveyard of the ocean.

The Woodstock Victory makes its way through the Kiel Canal on its third trip to Poland in June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

The Woodstock Victory makes its way through the Kiel Canal on its third trip to Poland in June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

They sailed through the Kiel Canal and into the Baltic. Due to the danger of mines, the ship anchored at night and sailed only during daylight hours, with two minesweepers preceding it.
. . . . After the heifers and horses were unloaded the cattlemen were free to do some sightseeing. But the main sights he remembers and has photographs of are the destruction and devastation of the war. The ship was not carrying any cargo on the return trip. . . .they had very few, if any, chores. . . .

Cowboys pass time playing cards on the Woodstock Victory's return from Greece, February 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Cowboys pass time playing cards on the Woodstock Victory‘s return from Greece, February 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

They used their non-sleeping time mainly to play cards. Melvin took with him a barbering outfit, even though he was a novice, and gave haircuts to cattlemen. He did not say how many or how much he charged.

Over the course of a year, the Woodstock Victory made a total of six livestock trips, five to Poland and the final trip in January 1947 to Greece. She transported a total of 2,447 mares, 1,583 heifers, and 15,000 chicks to Poland and 790 mules to Greece.

The seagoing cowboy crew of the S. S. Woodstock Victory, June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

The seagoing cowboy crew of the S. S. Woodstock Victory, June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

Plaque inside the Woodstock Victory. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Plaque inside the Woodstock Victory. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Roy Auernheimer in Greece, January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Jasper Dunn in Greece, January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.