Farmboy Seminarian on a Cattleboat to Poland, 1946

Chicken delivery truck, Poland, summer 1946While organizing a bunch of old photos during last week’s visit to my 85-year-old father, I came across a small set I had never seen before of images from his oft-recounted trip delivering livestock to Poland in 1946. His voyage was on the S.S. Carroll Victory under the auspices of UNRRA, but he heard about the cattleboats from his Quaker contacts, who cooperated with the Church of the Brethren and Mennonites on what later evolved into Heifer International. My father was raised a Quaker, but later joined a Baptist church and spent the war years at the University of Richmond on a ministerial deferment. He graduated at the end of 1945, then enrolled in Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in February 1946.

Horse stalls and hay bales on deck, Poland, summer 1946

The following is my father’s account, very lightly edited by me.

At the beginning of summer vacation in 1946 I heard about the need for volunteers to care for horses being sent to Poland by United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). The ships that transported the horses to Poland were called “cattleboats” but I do not remember any cattle on my boat. We did take baby chicks and horses. I had worked with mules as a boy but had little experience with horses. The chance to visit Europe and be paid for the trip rather than having to pay for it fascinated me as I really wanted to see other countries but couldn’t afford to travel. So, with three other seminary students I signed up for the trip. The ships were converted Liberty ships from WWII and were manned by members of the U.S. Merchant Marine. I was accepted as a “cattleman” and left Norfolk in June of 1946 on a boat with 800 horses and 3000 baby chicks. The horses were to be used for reconstruction and the chicks for supplying eggs for food in Poland which was devastated by Germany and Russia in World War II.

I had never traveled before on the ocean and was a real landlubber. The beginning of the trip was rather mild but the stench in the lower decks from horses and their excretion made for rather poor sailing conditions for one inexperienced in sea travel. I found that the more marked movements of the ship up and down were not as bad as the swaying motion from side to side. When I felt that I was going to get sick I would lie on my back and look up through the opening in the upper decks. If I could lie still and see the sky my stomach would settle down. Contrary to the reputation horses have for “horse sense,” I found them much less intelligent than mules. When a horse got sick and fell in its stall it would lie there and die. A mule would have struggled to its feet. About 30 horses died on the trip and had to be thrown overboard. For some reason which I do not remember (I probably volunteered) I was transferred to caring for baby chicks, which was more to my liking and more consistent with my experience. However, I found that chicks were even dumber than horses. They would trample each other to death as the boat rocked on the ocean, or they would drown themselves in the water troughs at the outer edges of the coops. I don’t know how many chicks we lost on the trip but I believe a goodly number managed to stay alive until the arrival in Poland. I watched with interest as the Polish men tried to handle the horses as they were lowered from the ship on to Polish soil. Their “horse sense” did not include the understanding of the Polish language and the commands they were given did not communicate well to them the desires of the handlers.

The environment on ship was anything but a churchly one. Of the 90 men on board very few were Christians and many if not most were misfits in society who were only on the trip for the month’s food and lodging and the $150 they would be paid for working on the way over to Poland. There were no responsibilities on the return trip. The four of us from the Seminary held services on Sundays. One young man played a guitar for the hymn singing and the four of us took turns preaching. The “congregation” was certainly different from any I had ever preached to before. In fact, the whole atmosphere on board ship was so foreign to anything I had ever experienced that I felt like I was in a foreign country even before we got to Poland. The food was not too bad but it was certainly not home cooking. We slept in bunks which had been built for sailors.

The trip to the English Channel took about eight days as I remember. The White Cliffs of Dover were the first sight of land that we had seen since we left the USA, and they were welcome sights. However, they offered no relief from the sea as we did not disembark in England. We could see land and cars and buildings as we slowly made our way through the almost placid English Channel, which was in a good mood that day. We approached the Kiel Canal soon and went through what was for me a fascinating experience of navigating the Canal. We could get a very good view of the north of Germany as we slowly made our way through the canal. I was taken by the beauty of the land. We went through Schleswig-Holstein where Holstein cattle grazed in immaculate pastures divided by rows of trees. In the land of my own childhood, trees were cut down on farmland and farms were not landscaped as in North Germany. The Germany I saw was vastly different from the pictures of bombed out cities on TV.

Flea market, Poland, summer 1946Street photographer, Poland, summer 1946
Shell of a fine building, Poland, summer 1946

Poland was very different from Germany. We landed in Gdansk and the devastation wrought by Germany and Russia in World War II was evident everywhere we looked. We were in port about 4 days and were allowed to go ashore. On the way across the Atlantic we had been told that cigarettes were the best currency in Poland since none were available there. On ship we had been permitted to buy two cartons apiece on about three occasions. I did not smoke and did not intend to engage in blackmarket trading so I didn’t buy any. Several who asked me to buy some for them were angry when I refused. One of the Seminary students and I tried to maintain some appearance of the faith we professed while on ship and in Poland, but the two others bought cigarettes and went to Warsaw while we were in port. We had been strictly forbidden to go anywhere farther than we could return to the ship at night. The two fellow travelers were strongly reprimanded and were not given a recommendation to take another such UNRRA trip. My friend and I were highly recommended for another voyage but did not go again.

Brick building intact, Poland, summer 1946There was a redheaded boy from Franklin, Virginia, on board. I did not know him and was not drawn to get to know him. He tried to get me to go with him in Poland but his description of his planned exploits did not appeal to me. Before he left the ship he started drinking vodka and chasing it with water. Then, as he began to become inebriated, he drank water and chased it with vodka. He left the ship alone. It was not too long before some kind Polish natives brought him back to the ship dead drunk. He lay on the floor of the ship unconscious with flies attending him for most of the time we were in port. Another young man went ashore, visited a prostitute and came back and developed the “clap.” He was so drunk that I persuaded him to leave his money with me before he left again. He cursed but he gave me his money. Later he thanked me, for the suffering of venereal disease was bad enough for him without losing his money too.

We found out why they drank so much beer in Poland. Water was very scarce and what there was tasted awful. We were taken on a tour of Gdansk and as far as Gdynia. There was not much to see. We did visit a few very old church buildings. They were always located on scenic spots and were beautifully constructed. When we remarked to our obviously not very religious tour guide that the cathedrals were beautiful he said, “Yes, and cold.” They were indeed symbols of great architecture rather than ardent religion – as might be said of many church buildings in all lands and ages.

Little girl, Poland, summer 1946After two days I was ready to head for home. On our rather uneventful trip home we had much leisure time to think about what we had seen. There were only two incidents worthy of mention, at least the only ones that I remember, on our return trip. As we were our leaving the Kiel Canal beside another Liberty ship the captains made a bet as to who would get there first. The navigator on our ship took us a tenth of a percentage point off course and we lost. While we were changing courses near the end of the trip to get to Norfolk I was standing on the ship without a shirt on in the hot sun looking for land, and I got so sunburned that I could not bear to wear a shirt. When I arrived at my brother Bob’s and Bertha’s house with a month’s beard and no shirt on my red back Bertha did not recognize me and only my voice persuaded her to let me in.

Street kids, Poland, summer 1946

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36 Comments

Filed under economics, family, Poland, religion, travel, U.S., war

36 responses to “Farmboy Seminarian on a Cattleboat to Poland, 1946

  1. Ernest Hollaway

    I am glad your son posted this, for I had never heard of this venture! While your motives might not have been purely altruistic, you surely helped the people in a devastated country.
    I first crossed the Atlantic during WWII on a troopship that sailed in a convoy through the North Atlantic during a stormy winter. My company was quartered on the lowest deck between the galley (kitchen) and the head (toilets)
    and I was the only officer who did not get sick, so I had to stay with them most of the time!
    Melvin, you should receive a short greeting from me on the birthday that is fast approaching!

  2. Dennis Knight

    Thank you for sharing this story. Enjoyed learning about a part of your life I had not heard before.
    I look forward to the blogs about great golfing adventures! Too bad there were no cameras to record those events.

  3. Tomasz Ropiejko

    I live in Gdansk and it was great to read the story about your Dad’s trip to my home city in 1946. Thank you for posting the photographs. Fortunately the city has been rebuild and it looks much better than on the photographs. The building described as “the brick building” is located in Gdansk and not in Gdynia. It is an old city hall still in a very good shape. Would you happened to have any photographs of the Danzig Mennonite church building? Some of “the seagoing cowboys” visited that place. I have no idea if your father did.

    • Dan Dungan

      I am pleased to have a contact in Gdansk at last. When I was there as a “cowboy” on a liberty ship in 1946 I met in an open-air market a young girl of perhaps 10 or 12 and was given the name of Gerhardt Bratke, address, Maussegasse 2. I’m not sure whether that was her name or that of her mother to whom I spoke. I intended to visit this family and give them all my supply of cigarettes (the currency of the time) before sailing away, but on getting back to the ship was told that no leave was possible as we were sailing the next morning. I sent a care package (sort of relief) but never heard from her or her family. I know it is very unlikely that this person can now be traced, but it is unfinished business in my life I and would like to resolve it somehow. Do you know of anyone who could help?

      • Cheryl Greenawalt for John Cross

        Dan, This is John Cross. You and I, if I remember right went over together on the RR Rafael Rivera. Please contact me at 4680 300th Ave, Webb, Iowa 51366. Then I will contact you by phone or computer and my wife will have to respond. John

    • Paul Unruh

      I was in Poland in 1946 on a Liberty ship bringing horses to Poland.
      I have a picture of The Mennonite Church building taken by one of our shipmates. You can e-mail me at jppu@comcast.com My name is Paul Unruh

      • Tomasz Ropiejko

        Dear Paul, I was excited to read about the photograph of the Mennonite church building in Gdansk. I have send an e-mail to your address but it returned as undelivered. Can you please e-mail me at tr@kzgdansk.org. thanks

      • Paul, I also tried emailing you without success. Who was your shipmate that took the photo? I’m trying to determine if it’s one I might already have.

      • Paul Unruh

        My error. My e-mail is. jppu@comcast.net I believe the picture was taken by Dr. Gingerich or Rev. Oswald

  4. Thanks, Tomasz, for stopping by and helping to identify the old city hall building in Gdansk. We were guessing it was in Gdynia because Gdansk was generally much more heavily damaged. I’ve corrected its caption in my Flickr set of these photos. If you click on the “cattleboats” link, you’ll be able to contact the lady who is compiling a lot of the stories and photos. She was able to identify several of the photos that my father could not.

    • Tomasz Ropiejko

      Thank you for your reply. While looking again at your photographs we identified a “market hall” that is in Gdansk (labeled as a flea market in Gdynia). The building has recently been renovated (here is a link: http://media.photobucket.com/image/hala%20targowa%20w%20Gda%2525C5%252584sku/pdworakowski/100_2628.jpg). Also the picture with the little girl appears also to be taken in Gdansk, as Gdynia is a relatively young city (established in 1920’s) and does not have such architecture as in the background of this picture. Anyway it is great to look at pictures like that. Once again, thank you for sharing them. I have just recently established contact with the lady you mentioned as a “seagoing cowboys” researcher.

  5. Dan Dungan

    Thank you, Joel, for sharing your father’s story of the cattleboat. It brought back memories. I also sailed on one of those ships in 1946 (in September). I was also a Quaker with the Brethren at New Windsor Md. Like your father, I was with a crew of largely non-christian types (of 32 there were only the three of us “Brethren boys” and we were the only ones who came away from Poland clean of VD or at least crabs).

    Our ship (Rafael R Rivera) carried only horses – 826 of them, of which 56 died on the way over – and we followed the same route through the Kiel Canal. I am interested in the response you have received from one Tomasz Ropiejko of Gdansk, and will contact him directly.

    • Cheryl Greenawalt for John Cross

      Dan, I didn’t read down far enough before I posted to see that you are one of the ones that was with my dad on the Rivera. Please contact me if possible at bcgreen6@yahoo.com. John would love to hear from you. John’s daughter, Cheryl. Thanks.

  6. Lyndel Trissell

    Hello, my name is Lyndel in Piqua OH. My father, EVERETT PETRY (known as Pete) was a Seagoing Cowboy and went to Poland : September – November, 1945, on the S.S. Virginian. I grew up hearing story after story, and he left a detailed journal and letters that are worth pure gold to our family – – and part will become shared history, thanks to Peggy Reiff Miller. If anyone has a connection with the ship at that time through a relative that may have travelled then, I would love to hear from you.Thank You.

    • ChasityLee

      I am looking for more information in regards to my late grandfather,Howard Lee who was a Merchant Marine that had traveled to Poland carrying horses.This is all he had shared, other than his personal response of local children as stale biscuits were tossed on the streets. Any information would be appreciated. Chasity.Lee01@yahoo.com

      • Hello, ChasityLee. I can answer your question about your grandfather. I’ve been researching and writing about the seagoing cowboys for the past 13 years, and my records show that Howard Ralph Lee, who was 18 at the time, was on the SS Spartanburg Victory that left from Newport News, Virginia, for Poland January 7, 1947 with 757 horses on board. That’s all the information I have on that particular trip. You can find more information about the seagoing cowboys, however, at my website and my blog at http://www.seagoingcowboys.com.

      • jppu@comcast.net

        I’m Paul Unruh – a sea going cowboy .  Sailed on the S.S. Stephen R. Mallory out of Newport News, VA  June 19, 1946  delivered 767 horses to Danzig Poland on July 13, 1946  Have no knowledge of Everett Petry. 

      • Chasity Lee

        Thank You! I just found out he was on Spartenburg,left same port,but January 7.

  7. In 1946 I was offered a Seagoing Cowboy adventure
    at North Central College in Illinois.
    I saw more ravages of war than in my 4 war years in
    the Navy. I was foreman of a chicken gang on the
    ship to Novyport, Poland.
    I traveled to Gdynia and Sopot by rail and enjoyed
    every day of it. My heart ached for the people in
    such horrible conditions.
    Me and my wife have done a lot of traveling,
    but I’d love to go back to Poland.
    Jencuya Polish for thanks.
    and it is wonderful recalling
    those days,
    Joel Starr

    • Hello, Joel,
      I’ve just now found this stream of comments to Joel Bradshaw’s original post, thanks to Cheryl Greenawalt. I’m the one researching the stories of the seagoing cowboys and would love to have you complete one of my questionnaires. You can contact me through my website at http://www.seagoingcowboys.com. Hope to hear from you!

  8. Joel Starr

    Hi..All the stories from Seagoing Cowboys are GREAT!
    I’ll never forget the scenery and people in those Polish
    cities, The Russian soldiers treated the people like
    dirt. I’m proud of the directors of the Heifer movement
    and what it did for the war-torn countries. It was
    truly a Christian spirit.
    Joel Starr..Chula Vista, CA

  9. Keith Roger-Beard Trinity

    I believe my Father was on that ship, Paul Beard. I wish he were still around to share the story. Thanks! Keith Roger-Beard Trinity.

    • Keith, I wish your father were still around to tell his story, too. In my research on the seagoing cowboys, I have come across a wonderful photo album of your father’s which he gave to Heifer International for their archives. With Heifer’s permission, I used some of his photos in my DVD photostory documentary “A Tribute to the Segoing Cowboys.” I’ve also found an audiotape there with your father telling about his experience, so his trips are well documented. Paul’s trip on the SS Carroll Victory was in November 1946 to Greece and South Africa. A few of his photos were from a trip to Poland, but I’m not sure of the name of that ship. I’m sorry that I was not able to imeet you father and hear his story personally.

  10. Am still deeply interested in all the Seagoing
    Cowboy stories. Haven’t read any in a couple
    of years. Joel Starr starrmj@sbcglobal.net

  11. Paul Unruh

    My error. My E Mail is. jppu@comcast.net

  12. Steve Ceskowski

    Reviewing my father’s Merchant Marine Certificate of Discharge papers I saw he served on the Carroll Victory from July 15 to August 23, 1946. My father told me of this post-combat cruise with the horses when I was a young boy. He stated that there were some Amish aboard to tend the horses. He further stated the Carroll Victory also delivered horses to Yugoslavia before returning home to Baltimore Maryland. Your story and photos greatly helped me understand my Dad’s last voyage in the Merchant Marine. Steve Ceskowski Beach Park, Illinois

  13. Paul Unruh

    Trying to e-mail Tomasz Ropiejko, I have a picture of The Mennonite Church in Gdansk taken in 1946. Paul Unruh jppu@comcast.net

  14. Thank you for sharing your wonderful story as a Heifer Seagoing Cowboy. As a relatively new Heifer donor/volunteer (since 2002) my passion for this charity is enriched by your history. I am hopeful Heifer will promote this early history more broadly.

  15. Hello Joel – I hope you are able to see this comment as I am commenting several years past your original posting.

    My great grandfather Wilmer Yoder was on the SS Virginian in 1946 taking cattle to Poland. He was a mennonite, as was too old to serve as a Conscientious Objector in WW2, so he was a part of this relief mission after the war.

    I was glad to read of another’s experience. We only have his journal entries of the trip that has been given out to the family.

  16. I found a leger from my dad who went on the cattle boats, I’ve seen photos but I never asked him for the stories, dad died in 2003 & I found a leger 3 days ago I posted some on facebook if you’d like to see what I found https://www.facebook.com/diane.h.lamonica

    • Hello, Diane. I’ve checked out your Facebook post and have sent you a message via Facebook. I hope you’ll be in touch. I may be able to give you more information about your father’s trip.

      • Keith Beard Triity

        Great scans and pictures, my Father, Paul Beard, was there. If you see his name, let me know. Thanks, Keith Beard Trinity

      • Hello, Keith! I’ve found many photos of your father’s at the Heifer International archives, as well as accounts of his trips, and I’ve interviewed some of the men who were on his last trip on the S. S. Carroll Victory. You can email me at peggyreiffmiller (at) gmail (dot) com if you’d like to be in touch.

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