Displaced Person Transports: Cargo of Hope

It was a short note, just a request for information about a troopship listed on this website. The author mentioned he came to the United States as a Displaced Person (D.P.), and that he has taken "many cruises on some of the world's biggest cruise ships, but this was one of the best."

"By today's standards the food was probably not great, but is was the best we had eaten in years. For the first time in my life I had oranges, bananas, nickel Cokes in bottles out of a machine, and in the evening we saw black-and-white American movies where beautiful actresses wore strapless dress and gowns.

"Although about half the bunks were not used and remained folded up it was quite crowded. The crossing was long and rough. Many passengers were seasick. We learned to avoid being downwind from the large deck vents which constantly emitted nauseating smells and fumes."

This letter brought a rush of memories, since I too came to the United States as a Displaced Person in 1949. Although at 6 years of age I was too young to form strong opinions about the cuisine, I distinctly remember eating the first orange of my life aboard the USAT General R. L. Howze. I also remember the terrible smells, since nearly all were sick during a fierce North Atlantic storm that extended our planned 10-day voyage by 4 days.

In July 1948, the U. S. Immigration Bureau announced that 205,000 D.P.'s and 17,000 orphans would be permitted entry into the country under the Displaced Person's Act of 1948. According to Watson B. Miller, Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization, "A board set up in Hamburg, Germany will carefully screen all D.P.'s to sift out Communists and other subversives." [I guess I passed the test.]

Displaced Persons were mostly Eastern Europeans: people who were unable or unwilling to return to their native countries after World War II. Some were "ostarbeiter" [eastern-workers] -- people forced to work in German factories and farms, some were survivors of concentration camps, and others fled to Germany to escape Communist rule. After the war they were housed in camps administered by the International Refugee Organization.

Eventually, the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, and Australia opened their doors to the refugees. To emigrate to the U.S., a Displaced Person needed a sponsor who arranged for housing and employment [which could not replace an American worker]. For most refugees their embarkation point was Bremerhaven; others left via Italy or Shanghai.

In 1947, USAT General S. D. Sturgis was the first American troopship to carry European refugees to their new homes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where they could become farmers or factory workers. Army Transport Service and its successor, Military Sea Transportation Service, operated some of the refugee ships; others were operated under charter by private companies. These C-4 Maritime Commission ships were built to transport 3,485 GI's, but usually carried fewer than 700 refugees.

C-4 troopship
Typical C-4 Troopship used to transport Displaced Persons

"We watched them come aboard at Bremerhaven, many dressed in cast-off clothes and carrying their pitifully meager belongings. First came the orphans, then the aged and finally the families... Though there were 193 family groups aboard, there were no facilities for quartering families together. The 374 men bunked aft, the 316 women forward, with cabins reserved for the aged and for mothers with small children."

"As we moved up the Weser River towards the sea, the passengers gradually fell silent. They realized they were leaving their mother continent, probably never to return again. As long as land was in sight, the D.P.'s stood there on deck watching their past fade into oblivion..." wrote a member of the crew on one of these voyages.

Meals were taken at standing-height tables, except for mothers with small children who were given seats in the former officer's dining room. Women were assigned to help in the kitchen; men were given clean-up assignments on deck or in the engine room.

"Providing their own work details, the quarters were kept swabbed and cleaned by the passengers themselves... But duties made small demands on their time, with the whole day theirs to spend on deck. Family groups gathered to luxuriate in the joy of just being together. Others congregated in groups, telling each other of the things they had heard of the land that was now only a few days away."

My parents heard the streets in America were "paved with gold."

Crowded accommodations displaced person
Crowded accommodations in the women's hold

My husband served as Third Engineer aboard the Military Sea Transportation Service operated USNS General M. B. Stewart that carried D.P.'s from Bremerhaven to New York. His living accommodations were quite different from those pictured above.

displaced persons crowd ship rail
First glimpse of their new country

"As the ship approached the Statue of Liberty the fireboats sent up their streams of water and the whistles of greeting reached a crescendo. New York was welcoming these citizens-to-be as only New York can welcome... As the ship moved in toward the dock, her flags fluttered from bow to stern; while amidship were eleven foreign flags, representing the nations from which these future citizens had been drawn.

"Among them, the largest group consisted of 388 Poles, Next in number were 178 Lithuanians. The remainder were composed of 59 Czechs, 32 Latvians, 17 Ukrainians, 14 Estonians, 10 Yugoslavs, 10 Roumanians, 6 Hungarians, 16 Germans and 83 without country, all coming from lands whose people have long been known as hardworking and thrifty... Ranging in age from a seven-week-old infant-in-arms to a seventy-nine-year-old woman, with 63 orphans among their number....

Displaced Persons
Displaced Persons: young and old

"Representatives of the nation, of the state and of the city welcomed them as future citizens. There was Attorney General Tom Clark to convey a message to them from President Truman. Governor Dewey, too, sent a welcome through his representative, while Mayor O'Dwyer spoke of the people of New York City itself. Representative Frank Fellows, author of the Bill authorizing their entry into the country, was also on hand...."

The General R. L. Howze, with your webmistress aboard, was greeted by a brass band waiting on the docks of Boston harbor on an Easter Sunday. Like other Displaced Persons, we soon found out that although the streets in America were not paved with gold, America was the land of golden opportunities.

"Ex-Transport Carries D.P.'s," The Mast Magazine, September 1948
"Cargo of Hopes," John K. Tennant, The Mast Magazine, December 1948
"D.P. Run," L. N. Mermer, The Mast Magazine, July 1948
"DP's on Way in 6 Months," New York Times, July 10, 1948
Personal Correspondence
Photos: Mast Magazine and personal collection

List of Troopships of World War II


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