An Amish Seagoing Cowboy’s Story: Clarence Stutzman

Clarence Stutzman grew up in an Amish community in Hutchinson, Kansas. When I interviewed him in 2015, he said, “It’s still a mystery to me how my mother let me go.” When he read of the need for seagoing cowboys in the Mennonite Weekly, he thought, I can do that.

“I was a light-weight guy at the time—17 and 120 pounds. I remember my mom saying, ‘Aw, you’re too small, they wouldn’t take a child like you.’ I went ahead and sent in a letter. The first thing I knew, I get a telegram to report to New Windsor, Maryland. No questions asked. No physical, no interview, no nothing.”

It was a big thing in those days to get a telegram. “I guess my folks were so shocked they didn’t know what to do.” He said they didn’t want to go against MCC, so they agreed and bought him a train ticket.

On arrival at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, where the seagoing cowboy office was located, he sorted clothing and did other relief jobs for a couple of weeks the end of December 1945 until his ship was ready to go.

On the campus of the Brethren Service Center, former Blue Ridge College. The old gym on the right housed much of the relief activity. Photo credit: Howard Lord.

There he learned that he had to be 18 to get a seaman’s card at that time. Fortunately for him, his birthday was December 31, as his orders were to report to his ship January 1st. He made it on board the S. S. Virginian when it departed from Baltimore for Poland January 4, 1946.

The cowboy crew on Clarence Stutzman’s ship, the S. S. Virginian, January 1946. Photo courtesy of Alpheus Rohrer.

“The trip was life-changing for me,” Stutzman says. His experiences mirrored those of other cowboys who went to Poland. Floating mines in European waters, a tour by UNRRA in the back of an army truck that took them to former concentration camps and battlefields, acquiring souvenirs. He bought a songbook from an old peddler scavenged from the abandoned Danzig Mennonite Church .

The Danzig Mennonite Church destroyed in World War II. Photo credit: Stutzman’s shipmate Richard Rush.

Title page of a songbook retrieved from the Danzig Mennonite Church by seagoing cowboy Levi Miller, summer 1946. The title means “The Day Begins.” Photo by Peggy Reiff Miller.

One souvenir in particular initiated the change in Stutzman’s life—a belt buckle that he cut off a dead German soldier’s uniform. Being Amish, he knew the German language. The buckle bore the words “Gott mit uns,” meaning “God is with us.” Having been taught all his life by his Amish and Christian upbringing not to fight, this hit him hard. 

Belt buckle of a German soldier. Peggy Reiff Miller collection, from the
family of cowboy Milton Lohr.

“We were thinking of the Germans as very heathen for what they were doing—not that there might be Christians on the other end of the fighting. When I saw that this was a Christian fellow and he was killed on the battlefield, how Christians were fighting each other, it put me into a real paradox theologically.”

Unlike Amish cowboys Cletus Schrock and Lores Steury who were excommunicated for taking their trips, Stutzman was welcomed home and treated well. His theological questioning had begun, however. About four years later, he left the Amish church and joined a Mennonite congregation. His obituary says he lived an “incredibly full life….He was full of ideas, grand plans, ingenuity, wonderlust [sic], and eternal optimism.” He traveled the world and had two patents.

“My experiences were real wide,” he told me. And it all started with a cattle boat trip to Poland.

6 thoughts on “An Amish Seagoing Cowboy’s Story: Clarence Stutzman

  1. Thank you for this interesting story. I enjoy reading all the seagoing cowboy adventures. It makes me feel closer to my dad. He’s been gone 6 years now, how I wish I could talk to him just one more time about his cowboy adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I too had a great time with Harvey Schrock, an Amish youth of near Waynesboro, VA. We were on the Boulder Victory that went to Chingwngtao in North China and were there in April,1947. I got better acquainted with him when most of our cowboys were at the train station waiting for the north bound train to take us to the Great Wall located only 10 miles north. But we were informed that the train would not arrive on schedule because the Communists has attacked the train track and the train woulld not arrive. 4 of us cowboys stayed at the station and found out a south bound train would arrive in about an hour. We decided to take that train to Tientsin, bout 100 miles south to see more of the China countryside from the view of the train. Harvey Schrock was one of the 4. We stayed at a YMCA overnight and decided in the morning we needed to get back to our ship since we did not know when it would return to America. But on the trip back we also knew we would never get closer to the Great Wall and decided to chance it and stay on the train to the Great Wall. Mission Accomplished! We walked on the wall for about 15 minutes and again decided we better get back to the Boulder Victory. So we walked the 10 miles using the train tracks as our guide. But we were warned not to walk on the tracks since we might be taken as enemy and potentially shot. We finally arrived to where our ship was docked and a Swedish liner was in its place. We didn’t know what to do. That ship thought our ship headed back to America. We found a customs house and asked there. After a long telephone conversation he said, “You boys are lucky, The ship is in harbor and the Coolies are unloading manure. You can get on the Fu Ping, a tug boat that will pick up the coolies at 5am.” It was now about 11pm. After a restless sleep on the benches of the tug boat we arrived back home and were soon resting in our cots. But that didn’t last long. The other cowboys who didn’t get to the Great Wall were ticked off that we get to do something they did not and soon had us up working washing down the decks. Thankfully we were bound for America by our good planning. Harvey Schrock and I decided to hitch hike from San Francisco to Virginia, but decided not to travel together since we figured we would be picked up better if we were alone. We did, however,in Salt Lake City. I was about a hlf day ahead of him and I said to be sure to pick me up if he get aa good ride. That day in the desert it was hard traveling and sure enough he did spot me and stopped. The driver was heading to Detroit and he took me to Goshen, IN where I wanted to make a visit. Harvey Schrock, an Amishman at the time later became Mennonite and became business manager of Eastern Mennonite College. He later became a pastor in PA and some years ago went to his heavenly home. What a great journey with a dear Amish young man. Eugene Souder, reporting on his 3rd cattleboat trip. First to Poland, next to Greece and last to China.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Eugene! Thanks for sharing your wonderful story here. I’m not sure how many people check out comments that are left to my posts, so I would like to share what you’ve written here in my next regular post. Would that be okay with you?

      Like

  3. Thank you for sharing Clarences’s story. My husband and I would see him at the Ohio Conferences over the yrs we were in that conference.

    Like

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