Young ‘doc’ helped bring horses to Europe after WWII
aboard the SS Mercer Victory ship in 1947.
Burton family photo
Related story: Heifer International can arrange animals as gifts
By Ron Hayes
What do you do with a Victory ship after the victory has been won?
On Dec. 31, 1946, one of those former World War II cargo carriers, the SS Saginaw, left Newport News, Va., to cross the Atlantic.
On board were 960 horses, 30 cowboys and a very young veterinarian named Harold Burton.
A Victory ship that had once waged war was bound for Europe once again, to wage peace.
Three years earlier, 44 countries, led by the U.S., had created the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to aid people liberated from the Axis powers.
“I had my Army discharge papers and I had a diploma from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine,” Burton remembers. “I had just turned 25 and I was broke and this was an opportunity to make $23 a day.”
To friends and neighbors in Briny Breezes, “Doc” Burton is a 94-year-old retiree with a cheerful disposition and a sly sense of humor. Nearly seven decades ago, he was a young vet from Hereford, Md., struggling to keep 960 horses healthy in the middle of Atlantic storms until they reached Gdansk and the Polish farmers struggling to recover from the war.
“The majority of countries like Poland were just countries of small farmers, and they had nothing to farm with,” Burton explains. “The Germans had gone across it one way, and the Russians had gone across the other way, and there was just nothing there.”
As the SS Saginaw’s veterinarian, he was among the elite. The seagoing cowboys were provided by Heifers for Relief, a charity organized by the Church of the Brethren to provide cattle to needy countries. But while the cowboys slept on tiny bunks or hammocks, Doc Burton lived and ate in the officers’ quarters.
Still, the job was no vacation cruise.
“One time a horse grabbed me by the left shoulder blade, picked me up, shook me and spit me out,” he recalls. “I weighed 140 pounds at the time, and I can still feel the pain.”
This was not what the Maryland farm boy had envisioned when he asked the family doctor if he should became an MD or a DVM.
“Well,” the wise old doctor said, “if you become a physician, the patients lie to you all the time, but if you become a vet, the animals will never lie to you.”
Young Harold Burton became a vet. “And I never did have an animal lie to me,” he says. “The owners sometimes, but never the animals.”
Burton, a winter resident of Briny Breezes.
Photo provided by Joan Nichols
No luxuries, for anyone
Burton’s shipload of horses traveled first to Kiel, Germany, then through its canal to the Baltic Sea and on to Gdansk, where the horses were unloaded.
“We saw whole families living in bombed-out buildings with only two walls,” he remembers. “They made artificial walls from old sheets and debris and anything that might keep out the cold. What they ate was what they could get ahold of.”
The horses Doc Burton helped deliver were intended to help the Poles re-establish farming. “But I’m confident they hadn’t had any protein for three or four years at least,” he says, “so you can bet some of those horses were eaten.”
On another voyage, he docked in Trieste, Italy, to unload horses bound for Yugoslavia, but his elite status as ship’s vet offered no luxuries on the return trip. The ship’s refrigerator broke in the Adriatic and all the meat on board went bad. Stopping at Gibraltar to repair and restock, the purser announced that he’d made a marvelous deal. They would dine on lamb all the way home.
The ship departed, the cooks cooked, and soon a sickening odor escaped the kitchen. Their delectable lamb was disgusting goat meat.
“But our first mate loved peanut butter, which he had on board in gallon cans, and our baker could bake the most delicious rolls,” Burton says, “so some of us thrived on peanut butter and rolls until we got home.”
Burton made only two trips on the old Victory ships, delivering nearly 2,000 horses to war-torn countries fighting to recover. Most of his days were spent at the home ports in Savannah, Ga., or Newport News, Va., getting the horses in shape for the voyage.
“In Savannah, I had a $3 a week room on the third floor of the YMCA and ate in the basement dining room in a local home,” he recalls. “Cornpone drowned in blackstrap molasses.”
By 1947, when the UNRRA shut down, 360 Victory ships had delivered about 300,000 animals to help war-torn countries recover.
The Heifers for Relief project never shut down. As Heifer International, it has provided farm animals to more than 22 million families in 125 countries, and still does.
Married with children
Doc Burton went home to Maryland and married Betty Dwyn. “I married her for her money when she was a kid and I was a kid and it turned out she had $80,” he says. “But I kept her anyway.”
On Dec. 27, they will have been married 68 years. None of their four children became a “Doc.”
“Not on a bet,” he says. “They saw me wake up at night to go on a farm call I’d already gone on four times during the day.”
Doc Burton cared for horses, dogs, cats, guinea pigs and monkeys — you name it — for 40 years around Baltimore County and retired to Briny Breezes in his 60s.
And then one day, maybe 20 years ago, he was thumbing through a farm newspaper back in Maryland when a notice caught his eye.
The Church of the Brethren’s seagoing cowboys were having a reunion in Manheim, Pa., about a 90-minute drive away.
“So my son and I went to this reunion of cowboys. I told them I wasn’t a cowboy, I was a vet, and they were thrilled because they’d been looking for a vet. As best as anyone there could tell, I’m the only vet from those Victory ships who’s still alive!
“I was a big shot from that time on.”