Saturday, April 16, 2011

Victory Ship

I knew Asa Watkins as an old man. During World War II he had claimed Conscientious Objector (CO) status and, through his conscription, gotten the chance to work as a hospital attendant at a mental institution. The many CO's working in such settings found themselves up against deplorable conditions, such as neglect and abuse of the mental patients. They did not accept these conditions, and began many investigations of hospitals around the nation. The result was a fundamental improvement of conditions and an increase in awareness leading to the mental health system we have today. The following story tells what happened to Asa Watkins immediately after his work in the hospital.


Whereas most US Service men were released from duty shortly after the US victory in the war (May 8, 1945, for the European conflict and Aug. 15, 1945, for the Japanese conflict), the first mention in Asa’s surviving letters of the release of fellow COs is in his January 7, 1946 letter: “Six men were released today including Jack!” Asa recalled, with some annoyance, that it took until the Spring of 1946 (probably April) for his own release from hospital duty to come through. He saw this as further punishment meted out by the government to COs for their beliefs. Many COs around the nation shared this resentment.

But the point of his release from Eastern State Hospital was not quite the end of the war for Asa. He, like many former CPS'ers, joined relief efforts (specifically, a cattle drive) overseas for humanitarian reasons and out of a curiosity to see what the war had been for others. This would bring Asa to catharsis. Even the most furtive glances about the port cities he visited moved him deeply.

The relief efforts were mounted by the United Nations' Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) with the aim of alleviating the suffering in the war-devastated countries. The cattle drives were conveyed by Victory Ship. The Victory Ship was the style of cargo ship in which all of the post war relief efforts were carried out. It was the more dependable design of cargo ship to succeed the Liberty Ship from earlier in the war. German submarines had sunk those quite frequently and easily. The introduction of the Victory Ship made the war effort, as well as relief, much more successful.

Warren Sawyer was a young Quaker who also happened to serve at Buck Creek, Asa’s CPS work camp at Marion, North Carolina, though they may not have served there concurrently; Asa never mentioned him and may not have known him. From Buck Creek Warren went to work as an attendant at the Philadelphia State Hospital, or Byberry. At the end of his hospital service he also planned to go on a cattle drive by ship. Warren’s and Asa’s voyages may have occurred at different times to different destinations. However, in his letter of Jan 21, 1946,

Warren conveys some basic practical information on the arrangements for a trip that sounds very similar to Asa’s:

“...I expect to apply for a cattle-boat project sponsored by the Brethren Service Committee. They are recruiting ex-CPS men to assist in transporting cattle and horses to Poland. The fellows are needed to care for the animals while they are on the high seas. Each trip lasts about six weeks, and those who participate in the program receive $150 for their services....”

So, presumably, Asa’s relief voyage took about six weeks, and he got $150 for it. This adds to our concrete understanding of it. Asa did not provide accounts of many of the day-to-day things he did as a cowhand. Maybe he would have remembered these better if so many dramatic things hadn’t happened on his voyage.

Richard (“Dick”) Gessell, Jack Gessell’s younger brother, listened attentively as Asa told him about his relief voyage during a visit to him and Jack at their home in Audubon, New Jersey, in June of 1946. Dick had already developed an admiration for Asa since he had met him the year before while visiting Jack at the Eastern State Hospital. Dick was only fifteen at the time, and Asa had impressed him with his great cordiality, having spent some time giving him “the grand tour” of the hospital. Asa had allowed the young man to attend an electric shock treatment and an autopsy, which he found traumatic, but highly interesting. Dick Gessell writes:

I had completed my junior year in high school and was trying, and failing, to find a summer job in the area. Asa suggested I go to Newport News, VA, with the hope of working on a cattle boat. After a short delay, I was in fact accepted and made the voyage to Greece with no difficulties. As with Asa, my ship was chartered by the UNRRA and the cattle were provided under a program sponsored by the Bretheren [sic] Church.

Asa’s tendency to downplay the negative accounts for Dick not having gotten the full picture of the possible perils he he might face at sea. If he had, Dick might have developed a strong reluctance about it. It’s likely that Asa’s account focused on the great need in Europe. Dick would see Asa very few times later in life, but he always remembered him fondly, and admiringly, for his influence in getting him to make his own voyage, an experience he considered useful to others and uniquely educational.

Dick’s account of his own voyage did include his “mundane” duties, which were probably very much like Asa’s: Each cattleman was responsible for a certain number of cows. The chief task was to give them enough grain feed, hay and water from early morning till the evening. It was very hot in the hold, and it oppressed the poor cows terribly. In that heat, water was very important. Cows are more delicate than people realize. They suffered a very high fatality rate due to the toll of the heat and intestinal problems. There was one vet per trip and he was constantly busy looking after all his charges.

Dick remembered the cleanup of the ship after delivery as a most nauseating task. A “horrible stench” remained after the cattle’s departure. The stalls that had been put in especially to hold the cattle would be removed so that the ships’ cargo space could be used for other purposes. If the ships were to be usable for anything else, they needed a good cleaning. To accomplish this, the cowhands flooded the lower sections of the ship with water and scrubbed their hearts out. They spilled a deluge of sweat at that task, carrying out this labor of Hercules entirely on their own. The sailors on board didn’t get involved with clean-up: cattlemen didn’t sail the ship; they didn’t clean up after the cattle.

Once Dick’s trip had been accomplished, he had nothing to do. The Greeks (or the Poles, or the Italians) had nothing to send back to The States, and the ships went back empty. So, on the way back there was lots of free time: time to read, to play games, laze about, or write the detailed journals Dick kept throughout the voyage. Asa, on his return voyage, could have made drawings on the ship, as he had previously made them in the hospital. But if he did, he never mentioned them, and none survive.

Asa arrived at Newport News, VA, with little knowledge of cattle, but ready to shovel manure in order to help those overseas. His Victory Ship left in the spring of 1946 for the European ports of Danzig (now Gdansk), Poland, and Trieste, Italy. A hundred head of cattle were in his care. All the cows were pregnant, and, therefore, twice their number were expected to arrive at the destination. This was not to be, for many of the cows, and their offspring, failed to survive the battering of stormy seas, or succumbed to disease.

The root of many of the problems the ship and crew encountered was the Captain’s addiction to alcohol. He simply couldn’t control the ship. The 1st and 2nd mates, whom Asa got to know well, handled it entirely by themselves. At one point, the ship encountered a terrible storm, almost capsizing. Then, one of the cattlemen, a kid in his late teens or early twenty’s, became very sea sick, as did all the former CPS’ers. But the kid was a diabetic, and needed serious attention. The Captain, perhaps having heard that he had been a hospital attendant, appointed Asa his day nurse, and another cattleman his night nurse. Asa and the other man did the best they could, but the diabetes was out of control. They lacked the proper nourishment to care for him. He went into a diabetic coma and died. Though the Captain was in no state to handle very much, he, at least, had the sense to hold a funeral. He asked Asa to choose bible verses for the service. Asa did so. The Captain was sober long enough to read them. Then, they promptly dumped the boy’s body into the thrashing, boiling ocean. Not long afterward, the ship got lost in a minefield. They managed to sail out of it unharmed. Later, the Captain effected some careless navigation, and got them stuck on a sandbar.

When the ship finally docked in Poland, the surviving cattle were unloaded. Then the Captain had a “gorgeous dame” hauled up to the bridge in a lifeboat. She remained encapsulated in his cabin for the entire time the ship was docked in Gdansk. Just before embarking on the voyage back to the US, the lifeboat descended with the “beautiful creature,” who climbed out onto the dock and disappeared. The Captain then refused to take the ship to Copenhagen to take on water as ballast. That was a very serious failure. If, for instance, the ship had run into another storm in the Atlantic it could easily have capsized.

Finally done with the war, Asa moved to New York City in the fall of 1946. There he embarked on a fully civilian life. There he resumed his involvement with art at the New York Studio School. Eventually, he settled in Morristown, New Jersey, and went on to teach art at Rutgers University in the early 1950s. Perhaps as a carry over from his experiences as a hospital attendant, he offered art therapy in the Newark School system to emotionally disturbed and physically handicaped youngsters, from 1956 to his retirement in 1983.