Benjamin Bushong: Chief engineer of the seagoing cowboy program

Benjamin G. Bushong’s deep friendship with Dan West would have unforeseen consequences for this Pennsylvania dairy farmer and Guernsey breeder. When West came home in 1938 from relief work in Spain during the Spanish Civil War with the idea of sending cows to Spain to help provide starving children with the milk they needed, he shared his idea with Bushong around the Bushong’s kitchen table. From that point on, Bushong became a confidante and advisor for West on getting the program adopted and started.

Benjamin G. Bushong. Photo courtesy of Mark Bushong.

The Heifer Project, started in northern Indiana in 1942, came into being as a program of the Brethren Service Committee of the Church of the Brethren in January 1943. That same year, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration [UNRRA] was formed by 44 of the allied nations to be ready to assist devastated countries at war’s end.

Soon after VE-Day in Europe in May 1945, UNRRA made its first test-run in shipping live cargo – six purebred bulls to Greece, supplied by the Heifer Project. Bushong proved his organizational and red-tape cutting abilities engineering this shipment.

Of this experience, Bushong’s granddaughter Rebecca Bushong notes, “The work was tiring and frustrating, but in these early dealings with UNRRA and world governments, Ben Bushong was learning valuable lessons in diplomacy that would serve him and his denomination well in the coming years.”*

With this successful shipment, UNRRA decided to include live animals in their shipments to Europe. But they had a problem: where would they find the handlers for their livestock? Heifer Project also had a problem: where would they find ships for theirs? An agreement was made: UNRRA would ship Heifer Project animals free of charge, and the Brethren Service Committee [BSC] would recruit all the cattle tenders UNRRA needed.

Having proved his value to both organizations with the bull shipment, the Brethren Service Committee drafted Bushong to be their “man on the spot” on the east coast for working with UNRRA. Bushong’s and his family’s life would never be the same. Starting on a volunteer basis from home, he served double duty as recruiting agent for UNRRA’s livestock handlers and coordinator of Heifer Project shipments for BSC – and on top of that, also managing his farm in Pennsylvania. The first shipments of UNRRA cattle and BSC “seagoing cowboys” departed from US shores the end of June 1945.

News clipping from Lancaster, PA, newspaper, 1945.

UNRRA’s program soon mushroomed, with an estimated need of 8,000 cattle tenders to see the program through. The heavy responsibilities pulled Bushong off the farm, which his son Mark ran by then. Headquarters for the seagoing cowboy office were established at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland. By March 1946, BSC put Bushong on salary as the executive director of the Heifer Project and head of the seagoing cowboy program, a position he held until 1951. Throughout UNRRA’s two years of shipping livestock, they employed nearly 7,000 seagoing cowboys.

The busy seagoing cowboy office at the Brethren Service Center, New Windsor, MD, 1946. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

Bushong’s office recruited and handled payroll for them all. It boggles the mind to think of all the juggling acts this one man and his small staff had to perform to see that the right number of cattle tenders, with proper papers in hand, were in place at the right time for the right ship – and in the case of UNRRA shipments which included Heifer Project cattle, the right number of animals with the proper papers. Not to mention Bushong’s numerous committee meetings, negotiations with US and foreign government officials, dealing with longshoremen strikes, and handling problem cases or injuries of seagoing cowboys.

The Heifer Project Committee meeting at Quaker Hill in Richmond, Indiana, July 20, 1949. Benjamin Bushong is seated at the table next to Dan West on the right. Photo credit: Palladium-Item.

Bushong was definitely a man on the go!

* Bushong, Rebecca, “Ben Bushong – Apostle of Mercy,” Brethren Life and Thought, Spring 1979, p. 73

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 – Realities of war

On its final livestock voyage, the S.S. Mount Whitney arrived in Nowy Port, Poland, outside the city of Gdansk, on February 7, 1947. Nearly two years after the Russian army had run the Germans out and gutted and ravaged the once-beautiful ancient metropolis of Gdansk, the seagoing cowboys found a city reeling from the leftover realities of World War II.

The dock area where the S.S. Mount Whitney was unloaded, February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

While the ship was being unloaded, the Mount Whitney became icebound in the harbor, having arrived during the coldest Baltic winter in 40 years. This gave an extended period of time for the cowboys to explore the area while waiting on a Swedish ice breaker to pull them out.

Ice closes in on the SS Mount Whitney during unloading, February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

Many of the cowboys had brought relief goods with them to distribute, such as clothing, needles and thread, soap, and staple food goods. This gave them the opportunity to interact with people living there among the wreckage. The ministers writing the booklet “Horses for Humanity” about their trip describe a people living in suspicion and fear of their Russian occupiers. Many of the Poles bore the scars of having “been in a concentration camp or transported to Siberia or wounded in a fray.” And a large percentage of women had been raped.

“Following a group interview,” Wesley Miller noted, “we were begged never to publish the names of the speakers.” War had upset their communities to the point that “people find strangers all about them and have lost the sense of ‘neighborhood’.” Suspicion abounded, not just with neighbors but with government agencies as well after rigged elections placing the communists in control. People spoke in whispers, even in their homes. They shrunk in fear at the sound of an unexpected knock on their door.

Nowy Port headquarters of the ruling PPR (Polish Workers Party), February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

Even the cowboys were at risk. “When one of our numbers snapped a picture of a train in a depot, unknowingly breaking the law, he was arrested by a soldier in a blue uniform who carried a sub-machine gun slung over his shoulder,” Miller said.

Illegal shot of Polish train taken February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

Mount Whitney‘s captain had warned the cowboys not to leave the ship alone or be out at night. Wilbert Zahl tells in his memoir of going with Ray Finke to the Swedish Seaman’s Club one Sunday afternoon for entertainment sponsored by the Swedish churches. Upon realizing that it had become dark outside, they excused themselves and made a hasty exit. “It was pitch dark as we hurried on our way,” Zahl said. “Suddenly a man jumped out from a dark alley and with revolver in hand he kept saying, ‘Cigarette, cigarette.’ In my fright I kept saying, ‘habe nix’, meaning in both German and Polish, ‘Have none.’ I kept talking as we turned our pockets inside out. Finally we turned the street corner where the lights from the ship scared the man away. After that experience we always got back to our ship before nightfall. Americans who had cigarettes were vulnerable to attack since cigarettes were a hot item used to barter for food.”

Despite people’s fear, the cowboys also saw in the Polish people a determination to carry on.

Man digging out Gdansk ruins in which many people are still buried, February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

“Day after day,” noted Rev. Eldon Ramige, “workers were helping to clear out the bricks of bombed buildings for a few paltry zlotys that hardly kept them above semi-starvation. Mothers of families in basement one-room homes went about trying to keep their children in food and clothes and to send them to school. A large percentage of the youth of high school age do not have a bed to sleep on at night, sleeping on the floor with a coat for a cover, but they are in school. . . .

With stores nonexistent, people barter goods hand to hand on the street or in little stands like this one. Gdansk, Poland, February 1947. Photo: Wesley Miller & Wilbert Zahl collection, used by permission.

“Even in devastated hopeless Gdansk,” Ramige said, “there is evidence of that spirit within man that can not be broken.”

(to be continued)

In Memoriam – Jan West Schrock

This special post today honors not a seagoing cowboy, but a person integrally related to Heifer Project history. Jan West Schrock, daughter of Heifer International founder Dan West, slipped away peacefully on March 8, 2023, in Camden, Maine. Jan was one year old when her father conceived of the idea of sending cows to Spain while helping to develop a relief program there during the Spanish Civil War. For the past eight-and-a-half decades, she has been close to Heifer’s development in one way or another – from family involvement, to serving as a Heifer staff member later in life, and vigorously promoting Heifer’s work thereafter these past 20 years.

Growing up in the Church of the Brethren, I always knew about the Heifer Project and Dan West. I attended a youth leaders lab at which he was one of the facilitators when I was in high school, but did not know him well. I became aware of Jan when she served as Director of Brethren Volunteer Service in the latter part of the 20th Century. After I started researching the history of the seagoing cowboys and the Heifer Project in 2002, Jan and I connected at Heifer’s 60th Anniversary celebration honoring the seagoing cowboys in Goshen, Indiana, in 2004.

Jan and I at the Elkhart County Fairgrounds, Heifer International 60th anniversary, 2004.

From that time on, our friendship grew and blossomed. Several times, we did joint presentations together in which Jan would tell her father’s story and I’d pick up the Heifer and seagoing cowboy history from there. We had great fun doing those programs together. Our last was in 2018 when we shared the organization’s history with the Heifer International Board of Directors at Heifer’s Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas.

Jan and I before sharing our stories at the Heifer Ranch, May 2018.

Jan was a strong supporter of my work, and I shall miss her dearly.

To learn more about this amazing and talented woman, you can read her full obituary here.

Rest in peace, dear friend.


In Memoriam

As this fifth Friday rolls around, it is time once again to remember the seagoing cowboys who have crossed their final sea.

Bontrager, Warren Edgar, January 5, 2023, Goshen, Indiana. S.S. Norwalk Victory to Poland, January 9, 1947.

Brightbill, David Lemoyne, January 13, 2023, Bridgewater, Virginia. S.S. Samuel H. Walker to Yugoslavia (docking in Trieste, Italy), August 27, 1945; S.S. American Importer to West Germany, March 10, 1952, a Heifer Project shipment.

Coleman, Glenn E., December 23, 2022, Vermilion, Ohio. Heifer Project shipment to West Germany, 1956. Details unknown.

de Perrot, Jean L. “Jon”, January 10, 2023, Lititz, Pennsylvania. S.S. Cyrus W. Field to Italy, June 14, 1946.

Detweiler, Merrill M., February 28, 2023, Telford, Pennsylvania. S.S. Columbia Heights Victory to Israel, December 3, 1951, a Levinson Brothers shipment.

Ganzel, Dwight Lyman, March 25, 2023, Lincoln, Nebraska. S.S. Wesley W. Barrett to Poland, April 14, 1946; S.S. Gainesville Victory to Poland, June 4, 1946.

Garis, Marvin, January 14, 2023, Kirkwood, Pennsylvania. S.S. Samuel H. Walker to Greece, December 15, 1945.

Green, Robert Duff, March 25, 2023, Culpepper, Virginia. S.S. Virginia City Victory to Poland, July 9, 1946.

Hochstetler, Milan Moses, January 1, 2023, Cumberland, Virginia. S.S. Robert W. Hart to Poland, August 20, 1946.

Kennel, Christian D., August 1, 2012, Lititz, Pennsylvania. S.S. Charles Wooster to Czechoslovakia (docking in Bremen, Germany), January 7, 1946.

McNett, Harold Franklin, December 28, 2022, Bridgewater, Virginia. S.S. Clarksville Victory to Poland, December 12, 1945.

Nunemaker, John E., February 9, 2023, Goshen, Indiana. S.S. Queens Victory to Poland, September 4, 1946. (This is the John who found his family’s work horse  on his ship after being sold and tended her across the Atlantic as portrayed in my children’s picture book The Seagoing Cowboy.)

Richards, Robert Eugene “Bob”, February 26, 2023, Waco, TX. S.S. Virginian to Greece, June 26, 1945. (The Bob Richards of Wheaties fame: Olympic pole-vaulting champion, 1948, 1952, and 1956)

Stoltzfus, Ralph H., January 13, 2023, Lititz, Pennsylvania. S.S. Alceé Fortier to Greece, November 1, 1945.

Rest in peace dear seagoing friends.


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.

Clarksville Victory program coming up!

I’m looking forward to telling the story of the Clarksville Victory seagoing cowboys at the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center in Clarksville, TN, Thursday night!

The SS Clarksville Victory and Her Seagoing Cowboys: Healing the Wounds of War

March 16 @ 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Free to the public; does not include Museum admission | Turner Auditorium 

The SS Clarksville Victory, named after the city of Clarksville, Tennessee, made seven trips to Europe after World War II delivering livestock to Poland and Greece for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). In an illustrated talk, Peggy Reiff Miller will bring to life the story of the men, dubbed “seagoing cowboys,” who tended the animals on these voyages. Some of the first civilians to enter Europe after the war, their service helped to rebuild a broken world. 

Customs House Museum & Cultural Center
200 S 2nd St
Clarksville, TN 37040-3400

Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – Dangers at sea

Seagoing cowboys often faced dangers at sea, and this was true for those on the S.S. Mount Whitney, as well. Mines like this one found by divers off the eastern coast of Greece in 2016 still lurked in European waterways.

World War II mine found off the coast of Skopelos, Greece, 2016. Source:

The ship’s crew had to be on constant lookout for mines bobbing in the water. Seagoing cowboys were often asked to take their turn standing watch.

Luke Bomberger recalled an incident on Mount Whitney‘s second trip, on the way home after unloading the Icelandic ponies in Poland. “My dad was up in the mess hall in the afternoon playing chess with another guy,” he said, “and I was out on the deck. There was a first, second, and third mate, and they had different watches. Those guys never run, they walk. They’re officers. I saw the second mate RUN into the wheelhouse, and I thought ‘there’s somethin’ up.’ And I looked over the side, and just like that, about the time he got in the wheelhouse, I could feel the ship turn, and he spun that wheel real fast and turned the rudder, and I looked down and there was a mine, and it was that close I could have spit on it.”

That was October 3, 1946. Bomberger’s shipmate Harold Jennings recorded in his diary that day, “They had to swerve the boat out of the path of a mine – Really shook everyone up.”

Owen Schlabach reports another mine incident in December, 1946, on the way home from the Mount Whitney‘s third trip to Poland.* “After we left the Baltic Sea it was really smooth, with nice sailing, until 4:00 in the morning when we heard a loud noise; they had dropped the anchor. Our ship was equipped with a mine detector, and when the lights started to blink they would drop the anchor, because they didn’t know where the mine was. About two hours later we were off a distance when we saw a ship come the other way and hit the mine. We saw it slowly turn on its side. It took about three hours to sink, but they managed to get all the people off.”

Rough Atlantic seas on Mount Whitney‘s second return trip to US.  Her next return trip was rougher yet.  Still shot, Luke Bomberger movie footage.

Atlantic storms posed another danger for the cowboys. Owen Schlabach reports running into a storm on their way home that lasted five days and nights. “The night before Christmas,” he said, “the waves were 60 feet high and the captain sent us word to be prepared, because he didn’t know if we would still be sailing by morning. This was a real concern for everyone, as a lifeboat was of no use in such a storm as this. The ship would creak and groan as if a giant hand was twisting it. That evening we had a prayer meeting till midnight.”

The cowboys anchored themselves into their beds by putting their arms and legs out through the railings to keep from falling as the ship rocked back and forth. “At 4:00,” Schlabach said, “we heard an awful noise. There was no place to run, so we just stayed where we were. Later we found out our metal lunch trays had gone sliding over onto the floor when the ship swayed so far to the side. Our shoes and clothes were all mixed together on the floor from sliding back and forth, making a real mess. But we were really thankful still to be sailing. We couldn’t sit down to eat for all five days, but we would just stand and try to balance our trays. Sometimes the ship leaned so far that water spilled out of the commodes.”

After arriving back in Newport News, Virginia, on New Year’s Day 1947, the Mount Whitney went into dry dock for repairs from the thrashing it took. According to Schlabach, the newspapers called it the worst storm in history, with five ships sunk during the storm. “Thank God we were spared,” he said.

*Owen Schlabach’s story is recorded in Elmer K. Hertzler’s book Cowboy on the High Seas and Other Stories as told to Marie E. Cutman.

Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – A side trip to Iceland

Luke Bomberger, the likely holder of the record for most trips by a seagoing cowboy, sailed on the S.S. Mount Whitney on two of his nine trips – the Mount Whitney‘s first trip written about in my last three posts, and her second trip that immediately followed on September 1, 1946. This time, Luke’s father took a leave from his banking job and joined him.

Elam & Luke Bomberger aboard the S.S. Mount Whitney, September 1946

Elam Bomberger expected a short trip over and back, like the Mount Whitney‘s first trip. UNRRA, however, had different plans. After unloading their horses in Poland, UNRRA sent the Mount Whitney to Iceland to pick up ponies to take back to Poland, adding two-and-half weeks to the trip and an extended leave for Bomberger from his bank.

“This place is quite a contrast from Poland,” Elam says in a letter home. “The people are mostly blond, blue-eyed and look clean and very well dressed. There are no officers about the ship. One need not fear to be out after dark.”

Street scene in Reykjavík, Iceland, September 1946.

“Before the war people here were poor but the war changed things completely,” Bomberger says. “Today everybody has work at a high wage and everything you wish to buy is extremely high in price. . . . The business section of [Reykjavík] is old and the streets are narrow. They are filled with automobiles and drive on the left side of the street with much speed. . . . The newer section of the town has nice homes with lawns and flowers but no trees grow here. Can you imagine a country with high mountains and no trees?”

Stucco houses in Reykjavík, Iceland, September 1946.

Shipmate Harold Jennings notes in his diary on September 22, “We hit rather a dangerous time here.” The United States had occupied Iceland during World War II, and the Mount Whitney happened to be there while negotiations were underway between the United States and Iceland over the US desire to continue having a military base there. Elam Bomberger says, “The Communistic element is much opposed to it and they made an effort to break up the meetings.”

Jennings notes, “The Communists tore loose and want to chase the Americans out of Iceland. Boys that went to Red Cross were brought back in bus and told to stay on boat.” The US Army issued an order that “no one was allowed off ship,” in Bomberger’s words. On a brighter note, the Northern lights which he saw almost every night thrilled Harold Jennings.

Once the Icelandic ponies – which the Icelanders preferred to call horses – were loaded, the ship made its way back to Poland. Jennings says the ponies are “really gentle little animals.” Unfortunately, those gentle creatures would not see the light of day the rest of their lives after being put to work in Polish underground mines.

Icelandic ponies awaiting loading onto the S.S. Mount Whitney, Reykjavík, Iceland, September 1946.

The Mount Whitney‘s return to the US experienced another short delay leaving port in Poland. “Tugs pulled us out of dock at 2:00,” Jennings notes, “but some fifty feet of rope got tangled up in screw. Also we run aground trying to get that out. We’re now waiting for a diver to see what the damage is.”

A ship’s officer rides back up in the S.S. Mount Whitney bosun’s chair after inspecting the tangled rope, Nowy Port, Poland, October 1946.

All must have been okay, as the ship pulled out bright and early the next morning, and Elam Bomberger was finally on his way home.

All photos are still shots from Luke Bomberger’s movie footage of this voyage.