A Seagoing Cowboy Romance

Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to relate a seagoing cowboy romance story. In June 1945, two programs of the Brethren Service Committee pulled together a farm boy from Indiana and a college girl from California.

As World War II came to an end in Europe, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) laid plans for shipping livestock that June to help Europe’s farmers rebuild. When the Brethren Service Committee (BSC) agreed to recruit the cattle tenders UNRRA would need, a call went out through the church and to its college campuses for men to serve. Manchester College freshman Earl Holderman responded and found himself on the way to the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, arriving June 13.

The Brethren Service Center, a former college campus purchased by the Brethren Service Committee the previous September, was humming away as a collection center for clothing and other war relief activities. LaVerne [CA] College juniors Kathryn Root and Bernice Brandt responded to a call for short-term volunteers to work at the center on their summer vacation. After a three-and-a-half day cross-country train ride, Katy and Bernie arrived at the Brethren Service Center Saturday, June 9.

Windsor Hall at the Brethren Service Center served as the girls’ dormitory. Photo: Ken West.

“Our part of the work is carried on in a huge room on the 1st floor of the Girl’s Dorm,” says Katy in her journal Monday, June 11. “There are boxes stacked clear to the ceiling to be opened. It is interesting work – sorting, mending, labeling, baling, stenciling, cutting out new materials, receiving made up garments. We feel happy about each bale that is finished.”

Bernie and Katy outside their dormitory. Photo courtesy of Kate Holderman.

Her happiness scale perked up a little more that Wednesday. She notes, “The fellas who are to tend the shipload of cattle going overseas are beginning to arrive….When we came down at 5:00 to eat supper, the guys from Indiana were sitting on the steps. They looked at us & we sorta looked at them – that was all there was to it. After supper, we had a good time getting acquainted with them….Earl Holderman and Gordon Keever were the two most interesting.”

The next day, Katy notes, “Well —- I got better acquainted with one of the cattle fellas this evening. After supper, Earl Holderman suggested that Bernie and I show him around – so we did….He asked me to go to the skating party with him the next night.”

Earl Holderman at the Brethren Service Center. Photo courtesy of Kate Holderman.

After the skating party, “Earl and I sat on the gym steps for quite a while and talked. He’s surely nice. He will be 21 in July. He is about 5’9″ tall – has a good build – nice brown eyes, brown hair, a nice big grin and a wonderful personality. He is very well mannered. He stayed out of school for 2 years between High School and College and farmed with his Dad. I surely wish he wasn’t leaving here so soon. We’ll hardly have time to get acquainted before they leave.”

It was time enough, however, for Earl to know Katy was the girl he wanted. After only four days, Katy notes on Sunday, “He wanted me to take his class ring – I didn’t know whether to or not. It’s all happened so quickly that I’ve hardly had time to catch my breath. I wish I knew more about him – Indiana is such a long way from California.”

Earl was not to be daunted by her refusal. His attentions continued up to the night before he was to leave to report to his ship. Eight days after they met, Katie says, “I hated like fury to have tonight end….I’m so afraid he might not get back from overseas before we go home. He gave me his ring and this time I took it. Hope I’m not making a mistake!”

Earl was able to get back to the Center for a night before his ship left. “He wants me to be his girl for always,” Katy says. “I just didn’t know what to say.”

Pursued by one of the Civilian Public Service guys stationed at the Center while Earl was gone, Katy stayed true to her commitment to Earl, even with doubts along the way. Letters flowed both directions. Katy told of the goings on at the Center and a whirlwind weekend with the girls to New York City, full of Broadway shows, automat food, and shopping; and being awakened Saturday morning by an “awful crash,” later seeing the Empire State Building on fire “way up towards the top” where a plane had crashed into it.

Earl wrote of being seasick the second day out, “feeding the fish” more than 21 times. But he got his sea legs and wrote about seeing the ancient ruins around Athens, then Salonica; of the dangerous waters around Greece they were in where ships were sunk by mines the week before; and of seeing a volcano erupt off the coast of Naples.

Some of Earl’s crew at the Acropolis. Photo courtesy of Kate Holderman.

Earl’s ship got back the beginning of Katy’s last week at the Center. Before he left, he had asked her to join his family at their cabin on Lake Syracuse for a week if he got back in time. He asked her again on his return, and Katy did. She had a grand time meeting his family.

Katy and Earl at his home in Nappanee, Indiana, August 1945. Photo courtesy of Kate Holderman.

Katy returned to LaVerne to finish her degree. Earl returned to Manchester for a semester and then moved to California where Katy’s uncle gave him a job. They married December 29, 1946, and celebrated 59 anniversaries before Earl died in 2006.

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