Reflections on the life of seagoing cowboy Homer J. Kopke

One of the joys of my work is hearing from the children of seagoing cowboys about the significance of their father’s experience. I think Christmas Day is a fitting time for me to share a recent letter I received that has moved me deeply.

Dear Ms. Miller,

Enclosed with this letter, you will find mementos of a Seagoing Cowboy voyage to Poland and Denmark aboard the S.S. William S. Halsted in August of 1946. These relics belonged to our father, Homer J. Kopke of Cleveland, Ohio. Because our Pop was the one who took most of the pictures, there’s only one with him in it: In the group portrait of the Seagoing Cowboys along the rail of their ship, Pop is the second from the left in the back row. Pop didn’t leave behind any documentation to accompany these pictures and papers, but I’ll try to put them in context.

Homer Kopke's seagoing cowboy crew, August 1946. Photo courtesy of the Homer Kopke family.

Homer Kopke’s seagoing cowboy crew, August 1946.
Photo courtesy of the Homer Kopke family.

Unlike most (perhaps all) of the other Seagoing Cowboys, Pop was a combat veteran of World War II. He was in the United States Army from before Pearl Harbor until after the surrender of Japan in 1945. As a First Sergeant in the amphibious engineers, Pop served on the front lines of quite a few beachheads, notably along the north coast of New Guinea. One superior officer once described him as being, “The first one in and the last one out, with never a man left behind.”

As Allied troops began to prevail in the South Pacific, Pop recognized that his unit would eventually be called upon for the invasion of the Japanese homeland, and he told me once that he had fully expected to be killed in that effort. So when he came home after the war, it was with the realization that he had survived only because the war had ended abruptly with tens of thousands of Japanese civilians being incinerated in a few moments of horror at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I never knew how my father processed memories of the war in his own mind. But I think it will suffice to say that when one of his granddaughters wanted to interview him on his war experiences for a school project, all Pop could do was cry and tell her, “Don’t make me remember the things I’ve spent sixty years trying to forget.” Especially after he retired, in the weeks leading up to the annual anniversary of the first atomic blast, Pop would fold hundreds, if not thousands of the origami paper cranes that mourners always place at the Children’s Monument in Hiroshima. Pop’s Seagoing Cowboy expedition a year after the war may have been another way of processing his retrospections.

Pop was not usually sentimental about material things. When our parents downsized to a retirement center in their 80s, Mama kept her china figurines and her wedding dress, but Pop got rid of nearly everything of his that could have been considered a keepsake, including the army uniform that he had been wearing when he returned to his mother’s porch. So I think it’s especially significant that when he died at the age of 92, the man who had tried so hard to forget his young adult years still had the enclosed tattered documents and yellowed snapshots of the Seagoing Cowboys tucked into a corner of his dresser drawer.

To complete this picture, I should report that after Pop returned from his Seagoing Cowboy expedition, he volunteered to become a Christian missionary, but the Mission Board of his denomination rejected him because, at the age of 28, he was considered too old to start training. Instead, Pop went to college and got married. (My sisters and I are aware that we were born only because Harry Truman dropped the Bomb, and the Mission Board dropped the ball.) Pop graduated from seminary in 1951, and he was ordained as a minister in what later became the United Church of Christ.

I remember that when my sisters and I were little children in the town of Woodsfield, Ohio, there was a Sunday morning when two brown heifers were tethered on our parsonage lawn, where they were dedicated to God before they were trucked from our church to the Heifer Project dispatch center. And I remember that after we kids were long married, when we would visit our aging parents in Cleveland, their guest bedroom was always crowded with the cardboard cows and pigs and sheep that Pop hauled around to all kinds of presentations while he represented Heifer Project in northeast Ohio.

And now, just after the fifth anniversary of our Pop’s death, I’m putting his precious old snapshots and papers into a box and sending them to you, Ms. Miller. Frankly, it’s hard to let go of them, but I’ve scanned copies for my family, and we authorize you to hold the originals for your research, and to copy them as you see fit for any publications. When you’re finished with these items for your own purposes, we’ll appreciate it if you will do as you have suggested and donate the originals to the Brethren Historical Library and Archives — and perhaps you can place this letter with them.

With all that said, it seems appropriate to close this recital by remembering a verse from the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” that Pop requested for his funeral:

Cure Thy children’s warring madness,

Bend our pride to Thy control.

Shame our wanton selfish gladness,

Rich in things and poor in soul.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,

Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,

Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.

On behalf of my sisters — and our Pop —

I thank you for preserving the stories of the Seagoing Cowboys.

Signed by Jonathan E. Kopke

As we consider the meaning of Christmas in this year of warring madness, may the words of Jonathan Kopke about his father’s experience be an inspiration to us all.

Christmas blessings, dear Reader,

Peggy

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