About Peggy Reiff Miller

I grew up on a small dairy farm in northwestern Illinois, went to a small country church, attended a small high school, then a small church-related college before venturing out into the big, wide world. I applied my liberal arts education to a number of jobs and careers for 35 years before hitting my stride as the writer and caretaker of the seagoing cowboy history. This calling has kept me well occupied since 2002.

A Seagoing Cowboy on Chick Detail

Leland Voth’s Merchant Marine card for service as a “cattleman.” Courtesy of Leland Voth.

Inspired by his older brother’s cattle boat trip to Europe in early 1946, Leland Voth decided to sign up, too, expecting to take care of heifers or horses. Little did he know that he would instead be put on “chick detail,” as he called it.

Soon after his sophomore year of high school ended, Leland set out on foot from his home in Lorraine, Kansas, to hitchhike to Newport News, Virginia. He slept in a YMCA in Kansas City his first night, then took public transportation to the edge of town where he set out hitchhiking again. “Along the way, however,” Leland says, “I waited for hours for a ride, to no avail. Finally a bread delivery truck picked me up and the driver informed me that the previous week a lady had been killed by a hitchhiker.” When the bread truck driver reached his destination of Lexington, Kentucky, Leland had the driver drop him off at the bus stop and took public transportation the rest of the way.

Leland reported to the Brethren Service Committee office at Pier X in Newport News.

The Brethren Service Committee office where seagoing cowboys checked in and received their assignments. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers, February 1946.

There he was asked to volunteer on the dock “to help assemble chicken batteries (cages) for baby chicks for the next ship.” When the S. S. Morgantown Victory crew was being assembled, Leland was able to sign on. “I helped fill the chick cages with 18,700 baby chicks and load them on the ship,” he says. The remainder of the cargo was 760 heifers. The destination: Poland.

When crew assignments were made, Leland got the night shift. His job was to feed and water the chicks and extract the dead ones. “The chick batteries were about 5 tiers high,” he says, “and each tier had a side spool of brown paper which was threaded in a narrow space under each tier to catch the chick droppings and was normally changed once a day. When the sea was really rough, the wide rolls of paper under the chick cages would fall off their racks and rip out the litter which made a mess that I had to clean up. To prevent such happenings, I made regular rounds to check whether the rolls of paper were centered on their hooks.

“The enjoyable time was to climb up the rungs of the ladder to breathe in the fresh ocean air,” Leland says. “It also was a chance to go to the galley, cut slices of freshly baked bread and smear it with a thick layer of orange marmalade. Orange marmalade became my favorite spread to this day.”

In Poland, the ship docked in Nowyport, the port area for Gdansk. The cattle and newborn calves were unloaded first. “One cow jumped out of its crate as it was being unloaded and broke its back on the dock,” Leland says. “After several days, the chicks were unloaded and I was free to tour the area for the two days remaining.”

Chicks being unloaded from the S. S. Rockland Victory in Nowyport, Poland, three weeks later. Photo credit: Robert Stewart.

The first night off ship, Leland went with other cowboys to deliver food they had brought with them to give to hungry people. The next day, they went by streetcar into Gdansk and saw the “piles and piles of bricks and rubble of buildings which had been bombed” that all cowboys to Poland witnessed.

“We discovered a former Mennonite Church which was badly damaged,” Leland says. There he found some books in the rubble which he took home to Kansas and later gave to the historian at Bethel College.

The exterior of the bombed out Danzig Mennonite Church. Photo credit: Paul Martin, May 1946.

“The return trip was uneventful,” Leland says. “Some of the men used butter as a suntan lotion while sunning on the deck until a notice appeared that ‘such activity was prohibited.'”

When the ship arrived back in Newport News, each cowboy received his $150 pay from UNRRA and two cents from the Merchant Marine (a penny a month, a token to make the cattle tenders legal workers on the ships). What to do with two cents? Leland’s crew put all their pennies in a jar, a total of about 64 cents, and drew numbers to see who would get them.

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Book Signing for THE SEAGOING COWBOY

For any of my readers who live near Dayton, Ohio, I will be doing a book signing for my children’s picture book The Seagoing Cowboy on Saturday, November 17, from 1:00-5:00 p.m. Location: New & Olde Pages Book Shoppe, 856 Union Blvd. (across from Kroger) in Englewood, Ohio. At least six other local authors will be participating in the store’s annual Holiday Open House. Hope to see some of you there!

Seagoing Cowboy ripple effects

Occasionally, a seagoing cowboy would make lasting connections with a person or family he met in the country to which he delivered livestock. Recently, I chanced to meet a woman whose uncle had made that connection for her. Here is Charlotte Paugh’s story in her own words:

“In 1945, my uncle Russel Helstern of Brookville, Ohio, signed up to become a seagoing cowboy on an UNNRA ship whose destination was Greece and the islands. The cargo was horses. While in Greece, he took note of families he thought could use some assistance.

Russell Helstern traveled to Greece on the S. S. Henry Dearborn on one of the very first UNRRA trips made in July, 1945. Photo: Arthur Lewis, December 1945.

“At the time of his return to Ohio, I was teaching a Jr. High Sunday School Class and looking for a Christmas project we could do. Uncle Russel gave me the names of the Petsalis family – parents and five children. They lived on the island of Paxus which had sustained extensive war damage.

“The Christmas boxes we sent contained dried fruits and other nonperishable food items. I decided to put in a pair of boys shoes. They were the first pair of shoes the youngest son, 10-year-old Elefterious, had ever had. He told his father that when he reached 18 he was going to join the Greek Merchant Marines and attempt to find me.

“Years later, Lefty, the name given to him by the naturalization judge, jumped ship in Houston, Texas. He hitchhiked to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, because he and his brother as young boys had picked up a bottle washed ashore in Greece. It contained a written message and Oklahoma was mentioned.

“Lefty spent 33 years attempting to find me. Through his wife and Social Security they had traced me, even though I had moved three times and changed my name. He had saved my original letter which was in the Christmas package. He had also sent a copy of this letter to relatives in the U.S. requesting their help in locating me.

“It has been a wonderful relationship with visits back and forth in the U.S. We traveled to Paxus to meet his family, spending a week on his island. There are so many other stories associated with this experience that a book could be written about the details.”

Thank you, Charlotte, for sharing this wonderful story! This is just one example of the many ripple effects the seagoing cowboy experience had.

Goats to Japan

I’ve been having great fun the past three weeks rummaging through boxes of Dan West’s correspondence at the Brethren Historical Library and Archives in Elgin, Illinois. Dan is the founder of Heifer International and was very active with the organization, serving as volunteer secretary of the Heifer Project Committee for many years. I’m finding a wealth of information that will help me flesh out a book I’m working on about the first decade of the Heifer Project. As I process the material I’m gathering, I’ll share snippets with you here. Like the following story that brought a smile to my face when I read it.

The year was 1949. The Heifer Project Committee had been making shipments of goats to Japan for over a year through the efforts of their representatives on the West Coast. Southern California rep David Norcross had sent a postcard to Dan West with this picture on it.

Courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

Dan wrote back to him, “Can you give me the story of the W.C.T.U. goats?” Here it is:

     The two goats on the enclosed card traveled all the way from America to Tokyo last year. This in itself is not so very unusual for a goat, since over 2,000 goats were sent to Japan and Okinawa during 1948. However, these two goats are unusual in that they were given names before they left the boat, and those names have stuck with them.

The story has its beginning when Mrs. Amy C. Weech, honorary president of the Virginia W.C.T.U. [Women’s Christian Temperance League] office in Washington, D.C., sent $100 to New Windsor, asking that two goats be sent to the credit of her organization and be named “Temperance” and “Teetotaller.” The Southern California-Arizona branch of Heifers for Relief went out of their way to put tags on the chain with the number tag, and these names inscribed. The tags were given to the supervisor who, before reaching their destination picked out two good white does and fastened these tags on their chains.

     It so happened that the number of goats was increased, as “Temperance” brought forth her first-born kid two or three days before the boat landed at Yokohama. The new little kid was given the name of “Purity.” Arrangements were made for the goats to go into the W.C.T.U. Rescue Home for Girls in Tokyo, where they were admired and were very welcome. Now they are furnishing milk for the girls at this home.

Watch for more of these snippets next year as Heifer International celebrates their 75th anniversary.

Waste not? or Want not?

Captains and/or seagoing cowboy supervisors had a decision to make: what to do with all that manure their four-legged charges produced! Do we not waste it? Or do we not want it? If a Captain was altruistic, he might let the manure accumulate on the voyage and be offloaded at the destination for use as fertilizer. Many a cowboy with such a Captain said that by the time they reached their destination, the back ends of their animals were higher than their front ends.

Manure offloaded from the S. S. Bucknell Victory in Nowy Port, Poland, February 1946. Rich cargo for the Polish farmers. Photo: Harold Thut.

If the Captain liked his vessel “shipshape,” however, he may give the order to “Keep those stalls clean!” – in whatever way the cowboys could manage.

Cowboys Guhr and Brenneman pull up manure on the S. S. John J. Crittenden, November 1945. Photo: Ernest Bachman.

Luke Bomberger pitches manure overboard en route to China on the S. S. Boulder Victory, February 1947. Photo: Eugene Souder.

The very first UNRRA livestock trip, on the S. S. F. J. Luckenbach, was one on which the cowboys cleaned their stalls. College students Gordon Bucher and Ken Frantz worked on the top deck. They recalled an incident when they had thrown manure over the rail just as an older cowboy (whom I will not name) had stuck his head out a porthole right below. The joke of the trip became, “My name is (unnamed cowboy). What did YOU see when you looked out the porthole?”

Manure overboard! It didn’t all make it to Poland. Bucknell Victory, February 1946. Photo: Harold Thut.

Seagoing cowboy Ernest Williams, who in 1954 accompanied the 36th load of heifers sent to Germany for the Heifer Project, relates this story:

We tended the cattle twice a day, a pretty easy job. After a couple of days out, we made an effort to clean out the cages, which was considerable work in itself. Our method was to take the steel tubs used to wash clothes, which were about two to two-and-a-half feet in diameter with handles. We put as much weight in each one as we could handle and two of us would carry the tub and throw the waste overboard. We could see brown patches on the ocean behind the ship on both sides, dotting the trail of the ship. BIG MISTAKE. The trip was two weeks over. When we got to Europe, they said, “Where is the manure?” It was considered important fertilizer for the fields. We saw the “honey wagons” there hauling manure. We had wasted ours feeding the fish.

The ship used for Williams’ trip was not one of the regular livestock carriers that went to Germany, so the Captain would not have known the waste was expected along with the animals.

Lifeboat of S. S. Park Victory to be preserved

In my last S. S. Park Victory post, I promised to tell the story of the discovery of one of the ship’s lifeboats. The Victory ships were outfitted with four steel lifeboats, each 24 feet long with 27- to 29-person capacity.

Lifeboat #1 on the S. S. Park Victory, January 1946. Photo credit: Harold Hoffman.

According to Park Victory historian Jouko Moisala, when the ship sank [link], only three of the lifeboats were deployed. After the rescue of the sailors using them, these three boats were returned in February 1948 to the Luckenbach shipping company that operated the Park Victory.The fourth went down with the ship. But what became of it?

Two months later, Iivari Suni and Erik Öhman were the first two divers to go down to the wreck. Their mission was to see how the coal the ship was carrying could be retrieved. Moisala believes these two divers must have cut the life boat loose, as it was likely in the way of bringing up the coal. As a result, the boat was lost to Park Victory history. That is, until Moisala received an email this past January from a man who had heard one of Moisala’s Park Victory lectures. The man knew the whereabouts of an old lifesaving boat and attached this picture.

Remains of Park Victory lifeboat. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

Moisala went to see the boat the next weekend. “There it was in the middle of the bed of reeds and full of trash,” he says. “That man told me the boat had been a property of an old smuggler of spirits from Estonia and Poland. This was quite usual in Finland after the war.” Moisala was told the smuggler had gotten the boat in Utö, the island off which the Park Victory sank, and it had been on land since 1960. From comparing photos Moisala took of the remains of the boat with the one taken by seagoing cowboy Harold Hoffman in 1946 that I had sent him, as well as photos of Victory ship lifeboats from the S. S. Red Oak Victory museum in California, Moisala found identifying marks that made him certain this was, in fact, the missing Park Victory lifeboat. What an exciting discovery!

Moisala and his wife set to work in frigid February weather emptying the boat of its trash. Finally in June, the boat was able to be shored up enough to move it off the spot where it had rested for so long.

Moisala gets help from friends in moving the Park Victory lifeboat. Photo credit: Jouko Moisala.

The boat was later moved into Turku to the grounds of a diving equipment manufacturer where Moisala began work on it in August. Moisala has quite a project on his hands! I’ll be eager to see the finished product! As I’m sure he will be, too.

Rex Miller and Jouko Moisala look over the remains of the S. S. Park Victory lifeboat, July 13, 2018. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Jouko Moisala and I at his S. S. Park Victory lifeboat project in Turku, Finland, July 13, 2018. Photo: Rex Miller.

In Memorium

It’s a fifth Friday again and time to remember those seagoing cowboys who have departed from us of late. These are the ones of whom I’m aware:

Buch, Guy Richard, July 4, 2018, North Manchester, IN. S. S. Queens Victory to  Czechoslovakia via Germany, June 9, 1946.

Frailey, Henry E., August 5, 2018, Lancaster, PA. S. S. John L. McCarley to Poland, July 2, 1946.

Kesler, Donn D., August 13, 2018, North Manchester, IN. S. S. Lindenwood Victory to China and New Zealand, December 19, 1946.

Leach, Rev. Robert Harris, July 25, 2018, Columbia, MO. S. S. Contest to Japan, July 3, 1948.

Meyer, Matthew M., August 27, 2018, Geneva, IL. S. S. Queens Victory to Czechoslovakia via Germany, June 9, 1946; S. S. Cedar Rapids Victory to Yugoslavia via Trieste, Italy, July 10, 1946.

Meyer, Vernon R., May 21, 2018, Wooster, OH. S. S. Gainesville Victory to Poland, July 24, 1946.

Miller, Clyde R., November 19, 2017, Eureka, IL. S. S. Norwalk Victory to Poland, January 5, 1947.

Rediger, Ferman, July 7, 2018, Friend, NE. S. S. F. J. Luckenbach to Poland, March 23, 1946.

Tobias, Richard, July 4, 2018, Tallmadge, OH. S. S. American Importer to Germany, September 1, 1956.