Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – The Long Ride Home

An unexpectedly long ride home wraps up our seagoing cowboy stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney. The most severe winter in Europe in decades caused one roadblock after another from start to finish for this last livestock trip to Poland. After being unloaded, the Mount Whitney got iced in at the dock in Nowy Port in February causing an extended week’s stay — much to the dismay of seagoing cowboys eager to get home after already having surpassed the six-week journey they had expected.

Finally, on a Saturday morning, “we spied an ice breaker with a company of Swedish coal ships in tow like a hen with her chicks and were led several miles out,” said Norman Thomas.

The Swedish icebreaker Atlee helps the S.S. Mount Whitney on her way from Poland to Sweden, February 1947. Slide from Wesley Miller/Wilbert Zahl collection.

On their own now in the Baltic Sea, thick ice periodically brought the ship to a stop forcing her to back up and charge ahead at full speed to break through. During the night, the ship stopped completely, and there she sat for four hours. “As a last resort,” said Wilbert Zahl, “we hooked our fire hoses to the hot-water boilers and ran hot water down the sides of the ship. After several hours we were able to back out of the ice floe. Then with full speed ahead we hit the ice floe so hard that it split open, and we were on our way.”

A view down the side of the Mount Whitney from about 40 feet up as she forces her way with the help of hot water through the 2-foot thick ice floe in the Baltic Sea, February 1947. Slide from Wesley Miller/Wilbert Zahl collection.

We all thought we were going home,” Zahl said, “not knowing that the winds had piled up ice 25 feet deep in the Kattegat, so there was no way to get through.” By morning, the ship had anchored three miles off Karlskrona, Sweden, and there she stayed, stuck in the ice, for another seven weeks.

The Blekinge County Newspaper reports on ship's stuck off the coast of Karlskrona, Sweden, March 4, 1947.

An area Karlskrona newspaper reported on the story of the many ships stuck in their harbor, March 4, 1947. The title reads, “The merchant fleet wants spring to come in Karlskrona.” The Mount Whitney is one of the ships named. Souvenir of Ray Finke.

“Every day we could go on foot to Karlskrona where we were welcomed with open arms,” Zahl said. Thomas noted, “One was immediately struck by the tremendous contrast of peace. Shops were full of food stuffs and dry goods; new American cars meandered through the streets, the trains were modern and on time; and the people wonderfully hospitable.” Ray Finke said, “The people here can’t do enough for us and like so much to learn English.”

Richard Wright finds a faster way to get to shore. At least one cowboy came home with frostbitten feet from walking across the ice. Photo courtesy of Richard Wright.

Farmers, preachers, and other cowboys with responsibilities at home tried desperately in vain to find alternative means of getting home. Ray Finke corresponded regularly with his family. “Sure have good mail service from here to get a return letter in a week to 10 days,” he wrote his wife. He ended up doing his farming that spring by mail, sending instructions to his wife to orchestrate. “Some fellows didn’t have a way to get seeding done or anything,” he wrote home. “One fellow rented his farm by mail, etc., so there are a lot of fellows in bad shape.”

Fortunately, the cowboy crew was a compatible bunch, and made the best of it. With eleven ministers on board, they had church services every night. And they planned special services for Holy Week that ended in a “brief Easter Sunrise service in the ship’s bow at 5:15 a.m. as the cold wind howled and threatened us with flurries of snow,” said Thomas. Volleyball, chess, books, and card games helped pass the time. A group organized a class for memorizing scripture verses, and several clubs popped up. The Whiskers Club decided not to shave until arriving home. The Gloom Chasers Club wore their clothes backwards and put ribbons in their hair, along with other antics.

“Hardly a man was missing from our good ship’s bow when on Saturday afternoon, April 12th, the anchor at last was raised,” Thomas said. Heavy ice still lay outside Karlskrona’s harbor, and icebreakers led the way. The second day they joined a convoy of eight ships. “The first ship blew up striking a mine which had been loosened by the ice floes,” Zahl said. “All the other ships turned back but our Captain ordered us all to put on our life jackets and stand on top deck. He said he would move cautiously along the ice floes and if we struck a mine we should swim to the ice floe where we would be picked up somehow. We had scary sailing, but by evening we had reached Copenhagen safely.”

The welcome New City skyline as seen from the S.S. Mount Whitney, April 26, 1947. Slide from Wesley Miller/Wilbert Zahl collection.

With their food supply down to dried herring and wormy rice, Zahl said, “we were overjoyed when finally we saw the Statue of Liberty.” Despite all of their trials, Thomas concluded, “We believe it was worth while. We remember the words of our Lord when He said, ‘Even as ye did it unto the least of these ye did it unto Me.'”

If you would like to read the full story of the eleven ministers, you can find their booklet “Horses for Humanity” here.
Ray Finke’s letters home can be found on Facebook here. My thanks to Andrea Oevering for sharing them with me.

Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – We Must Never Forget

On February 13, 1947, forty men from the S.S. Mount Whitney, including seagoing cowboys, ship’s officers, and veterinarians, boarded trucks in Nowy Port, Poland, bound for the Stutthof Concentration Camp. What follows comes from the account written by Rev. Oscar E. Stern for the booklet “Horses for Humanity” about this last Mount Whitney livestock trip. [Be advised: the following content may be upsetting to sensitive individuals.]

Guard tower and barracks, Stutthof Concentration Camp, February 13, 1947. Photo by Wilbert Zahl.

“Traveling over roads literally strewn with the wreckage of military trucks, tanks, and guns, for a distance of about 30 miles, we turned into a brick gateway which looked more like the entrance to a park or a hospital than anything else. But beyond the imposing headquarters which was also built of red brick were the long rows of barracks, barbed wire enclosures, towers from which the grounds were guarded, all silently bearing witness to the horribly cruel persecution and deaths dealt out to many helpless and innocent people who had been imprisoned there.

“Our guides were Mr. and Mrs. Frank Krol who had been imprisoned at Studthof [sic] for 3 years during which time three of their five children died. As we went about we received from them a somewhat detailed account of what had taken place.

Photo by Wesley Miller.

“The barracks were large unheated rooms made to house 150 people. The sleeping quarters were the bare floor with one blanket for each person. Toilets were fixed at intervals about a quarter of a city block apart. The barracks were connected by narrow corridors, making enclosed passage to all. The camp was put into operation before all the buildings were completed. The inmates suffered from exposure, wounds from cruel beatings, sickness, and always hunger, until death made its inevitable claim to the extent of 200 lives a day. Those who died within the barracks were buried beneath the floors of the unfinished barracks, where they remain to the present time.

“Separate quarters were maintained for men and women. All suffered alike the bitterness of organized torture. Many were forced to dig their own graves and then as they stood beside the trenches they had dug, they were shot down by a firing squad. All that the Nazis had to do was throw dirt over the warm bodies.

“A gas chamber, a cement enclosure 9×21 feet was the most effective mass killer. It destroyed as many as 150 lives at a time. The helpless victims were first stripped of their clothing, given a hot shower and then diabolically, were forced into the gas chamber by fellow prisoners who in turn were forced to their dreadful task by the Nazis. The Poles* were packed into the gas chamber until there was no room for more. Within 15 minutes after the door was closed and the gas turned on, all those inside were dead.

Photo by Wesley Miller.

“Nearby were the ovens where the bodies were cremated. . . .

Photo by Wesley Miller.

Photo by Wesley Miller.

An eloquent monument to the dead still stands on the grounds in the form of a huge pile of shoes in the shape of a squat pyramid, 30 feet square, 15 feet high. The countless thousands of shoes were covered by a blanket of new-fallen snow. As we stood before them it was hard to believe that they once warmed living feet.

Photo by Wesley Miller.

“The Poles have erected two large wooden crosses, one over the gas chamber, one over the ovens, as memorials to the beloved dead. [Note the oven photo above.] From time to time they place wreaths beneath them and garlands of flowers and they observe together a five minute period of silent communion. We and all who have seen carry etched forever in our minds the grim picture of the almost unbelievable crimes of misdirected German soldiers who at the end paid for their deeds with their lives.”

* Internees came from more countries than Poland.

For additional accounts see the Wikipedia and Holocaust Museum pages.

Next post: the long trip home.

 

Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – Last livestock run, January 1947

Little did the 80 seagoing cowboys of the S.S. Mount Whitney’s final livestock trip in January 1947 know their expected six-week trip to Poland and back would keep them away from home for nearly four months!

The seagoing cowboy crew of the S.S. Mount Whitney’s last livestock run. Photo courtesy of Wesley Miller.

The crew included eleven ministers who wrote the report “Horses for Humanity” of this eventful voyage. Most of the crew received their call to report to Newport News, Virginia, January 6 and traveled in speedily from as far away as Minnesota and Nebraska – only to have to wait to depart until the wee hours of January 25 due to a shortage of hay.

The S.S. Mount Whitney awaits sailing at Newport News, Virginia, January 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

The ship carried 1,462 horses, including a matched pair of registered Belgians to be given to the University of Warsaw, and 40 heifers donated to the Heifer Project by the Methodist Church for their church members in Poland. The cowboys had smooth sailing the first six days out until the ship ran into a fierce storm. For one 24-hour period, the Mount Whitney, which had looked immense in Newport News, tossed around like a cork on the vast churning sea making no mileage at all.

Not a safe time to be out on deck aboard the S.S. Mount Whitney, January 1947. Photo by Wesley Miller.

“Most of us had to go out on the upper deck to work with the horses there,” Ray Finke wrote home. “The sea sure was mad. Waves 50 to 60 feet high. When we would look ahead, it looked like water would go 3 feet over us, but the boat would always go over most of it.”

“The wind and the waves battered the forward stalls to pieces,” Melvin Witmer reported. “Trying to save the horses three of the men were almost swept overboard. One’s wristwatch was torn off and his leg gashed. Captain Shigley tried his best to spare the horses as much punishment as possible. We heard later that he did not sleep at all during those three days.”

Remains of the ocean’s wrath on Mount Whitney’s horse stalls, January 1947. Photo by Wesley Miller.

Twenty of the horses got washed overboard and many others weakened. UNRRA reports a loss of 98 horses on the trip, 6.7 percent. All four of the ship’s veterinarians and most of the cowboys got seasick during the storm. Wilbert Zahl notes in his memoir that as one of the few who didn’t get sick, “it fell on me, having come from a farm and knowing something about caring for cows and horses, to administer pills, etc., for the sick horses. . . . Shooting pills down a horse’s throat with a pill gun is not the most pleasant job. If the horse coughs as often they do, you get a lot of blubbery saliva sprayed into your face.”

Mount Whitney’s seagoing cowboy bunkroom housed 80 men in double bunks. Photo by Wesley Miller.

The storm also created a mess in the cowboys’ bunk room when their gear got tossed about. “Imagine 80 guys’ stuff all mixed up,” Finke said. “I found my shoes and suitcase over on opposite side of bunk room under another guy’s bunk. Would like to have a picture of us hunting for things and everyone on hands and knees.”

The Mount Whitney made good time after that, going up around Scotland and the northern tip of Denmark into the Kattegatt strait between Denmark and Sweden. The ship’s progress slowed, however, as she proceeded through the strait. “We who worked in the holds down below began to hear the ominous sound of heavy ice stubbornly disrupting our passage,” Witmer said.

Ice floating in the Kattegatt strait near Copenhagen, Denmark, January 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

“Ice became heavier as we went south until we reached Malmö, Sweden, where we were forced to join a convoy led by an ice breaker which led us through to the Baltic Sea. The Baltic itself was clear but the ice was thick enough off Gdynia to force us to go on to Nowy Port, where we docked Thursday evening, February 7.” A grateful cowboy crew had arrived safely in Poland.