A Seagoing Cowboy Christmas

The following is an excerpt from an article titled “Cowboys at Christmas” that I wrote for Heifer International’s World Ark magazine.

Thirty-two cowboys back at sea,

Getting homesick as they could be,

Spent Christmas Day out on the deep,

And dreamt of home while fast asleep.

So wrote twenty-three-year old Willard Bontrager in “An Ode to Thirty-two Cowboys,” a poem he presented to his crew at their Christmas program on the SS Morgantown Victory December 25, 1946….

Morgantown Victory crew, 1946

Willard Bontrager’s crew on the SS Morgantown Victory delivered horses to Yugoslavia. Photo courtesy of Hartzel Schmidt

About 7,000 men of all ages, religions, colors, and walks of life responded to the call for “seagoing cowboys” during the years 1945 and 1946. A number of these cowboys found themselves away from home over the holidays, many for the first time. As Bontrager’s ode suggests, this affected some more than others.

Cowboy Al Guyer of the SS Mexican had already been to Poland in 1945. There he had seen and smelled the rubble of war and experienced the hospitality of grateful Heifer Project recipients in the village of Suchy Dab. That Christmas Eve found him on his way home off the coast of Norway, where the SS Mexican was sitting out a storm. “I hunkered down on the side of the ship where the wind was not blowing and I was so homesick,” Guyer said. “I could look out and see that shore of rocks and waves, imagining being thrown on the rocks.”

SS Mexican crew, December 1945

The seagoing cowboys of the SS Mexican delivered heifers and horses to Poland in December 1945. Photo courtesy of Clarence Reeser

But the storm didn’t stop the festivities Christmas Day. Guyer’s shipmate Calvert Petre noted in his journal, “[J]ust when they had the tables set for the feast they sent word down to watch the tables. No one took them serious enough and when the storm hit us broadside, what a roll!!! It slid oranges, apples, candy, plates, and boys all on a pile….” They reset the tables and soon were digging into a duck dinner with all the trimmings.

Each cowboy crew had its own personality, as did their Christmas celebrations. To read more of their Christmas stories, the full article can be accessed online at this link: http://www.heifer.org/join-the-conversation/magazine/2014/holiday/cowboys-at-christmas.html

That’s it for 2014! I wish all my readers a safe and happy New Year’s Eve and abundant blessings in the New Year!

Next post: January 9, 2015

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2 thoughts on “A Seagoing Cowboy Christmas

  1. Dear Peggy, This morning I was talking with Charles Ziegler, who is a ninety-some year-old person living here at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community, Harrisonburg, VA and I asked him how he was related to M.R. Ziegler. His mind is really sharp and he said his father was his first cousin. M.R’s whole family was very devoted to the church and were all into peace-making. Charles’ family served in the military but not so with the M.R. Ziegler family. But they were close in their fellowship and big leaders in farming, political and community affaires here in Rockingham County. So I’m glad to get back close to M.R. who helped bring about the Seagoing Cowboys.—Eugene K. Souder, serving on 3 trips to Poland, Greece and China from 1945 to 1947.

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  2. Hello, Eugene! Thanks for sharing this bit of Zigler family history and the meaning that has for you in relation to your seagoing cowboy experience. There are many, many crossovers in Brethren and Mennonite families, my own included. My paternal grandfather was from a Mennonite family but married into the Church of the Brethren. Our denominations have much in common.
    Wishing you a Happy New Year!

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