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.

The seagoing cowboy story continues to captivate today’s students

I’m sneaking in an extra post this month. During this crazy time of pandemic, it’s always nice to hear positive stories. This story is about a school history project undertaken by 13-year-old Alicia Zimmerman. Her great-grandfather, John E. Hollinger, was a seagoing cowboy.

John Hollinger’s record card from the seagoing cowboy card file. Courtesy of Heifer International.

Alicia is a home schooler in the Harmony Homeschool group at Pleasant Valley Mennonite School in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. For her project, Alicia decided to tell her great-grandfather’s story. She reached out to me for photos for her display board, which I was happy to share with her. John sailed to Poland with a load of 200 horses and 458 cattle on the S. S. Mexican in November 1945.

John Hollinger’s ship, the S. S. Mexican, in harbor at Baltimore, MD. Photo courtesy of Clarence Reeser.

John Hollinger’s crew on the S. S. Mexican, November 1945. Photo courtesy of Clarence Reeser.

Alicia’s results were on display March 13, 2020.

Alicia’s history project. Photo courtesy of Alicia Zimmerman.

Alicia’s mother, Lynette Zimmerman, recalls hearing her grandfather tell stories about the grand welcome his seagoing cowboy crew received in Poland. That welcome ceremony is told in my post of March 11, 2016. John’s story adds a new element to it.

“He was engaged when he went,” Lynette says, “and one of the Polish families was serving him. They found out about his engagement and after they were done eating washed all the glassware they were using, packed the whole set up, plus the tablecloth, and sent it along home with him for their wedding gift, because they were so grateful for the livestock these men were bringing over to them. My mother has the last salad bowl with tongs in her cupboard [see photo on Alicia’s display board].”

“He also recounted the devastation of what he saw and I know it impacted him for life,” Lynette says. “War destroys a lot and hurts many.” One of the realities Alicia captured in her display.

Well done, Alicia! Thanks for sharing your project with us and for helping to share the seagoing cowboy story – a story of delivering hope to a war-torn world.

In this Lenten season, may we look for the positive and grasp on to hope in this pandemic-stricken world.

Fire and life boat drills for seagoing cowboys

If seagoing cowboys hadn’t thought about the possible dangers of their trips before they signed up, the required life boat drills once they were at sea may have drilled it into them. With all that hay on board, fire was a real threat. And with mines in European waters, explosions were, too. Not to mention storms pushing ships into rocks.

Cowboys on the F. J. Luckenbach are called to a fire and life boat drill, March 1946. Photo by James Martin.

Each cowboy was issued a fire and life boat station card at the beginning of their journey, with instructions for their particular task.

Fire and life boat station for seagoing cowboy Richard Musselman who made three trips in 1946 and 1947. Courtesy of Musselman family.

The cards were different for each shipping line.

The Grace Line station card for Santiago Iglesias seagoing cowboy Milt Lohr. Courtesy of Don Lohr.

Homer Kopke’s card for the S. S. William S. Halsted of the Moore-McCormack Lines. Courtesy of Kopke family.

Usually, on the reverse side were the signal instructions. More than one cowboy crew was summoned by these signals for real.

Signal instructions for fire and life boat drills. Courtesy of Musselman family.

Wise was the cowboy who took the drills seriously and prayed he’d never have to put them to use.

Seagoing cowboys on the S. S. Creighton Victory, July 1946. Photo by Ben Kaneda.

Seagoing Cowboy wives carry the load at home

Women’s History Month is the perfect time to recognize seagoing cowboy wives and families left at home while their men took their journeys. For three Midwestern farm wives, winter weather presented challenges on the home front.

Evelyn Grisso Smith recalls the winter of 1945-1946 when her father, Harvey Grisso, left their home in New Carlisle, Ohio, to travel to Poland on the S. S. Park Victory. “Mother and I were alone on the farm,” she says. “That winter a terrific storm came through followed by a blizzard that not only closed all the roads, but also the long lane to our house.” Ordinarily, her father would plow open the lane with a bulldozer blade on his tractor. “But this winter we were stuck,” Evelyn says.

“Well, almost. Mother had the presence of mind to park the car across the field at a neighbor’s house near the highway. If we then had to go someplace, we’d put on boots, head scarves, gloves, several layers of clothing, and stomp across the field through the snow to the car. Upon return, it was a repeat performance, only this time carrying bags of groceries.”

After some days, her Uncle Orville came by to plow them out. “Mother and I walked out to watch.” When he got to the curve in the lane that dropped off down to a creek, “the tractor began sliding sideways down the cliff. I recall feeling very frightened that the tractor was going to roll over and kill Uncle Orville,” Evelyn says. “I started to cry and called for my Daddy. The tractor didn’t roll, and somehow Uncle Orville got the tractor out of there.”

The Grisso farm in New Carlisle, Ohio, in a lighter snowfall in a later year. Photo courtesy of Evelyn Grisso Smith.

Evelyn’s snowperson. Photo courtesy of Evelyn Grisso Smith.

The following winter, the George Weybright family accompanied him at Thanksgiving time on a car trip from their farm near Goshen, Indiana, to his ship in New Orleans. He was to be the cowboy supervisor for a Heifer Project shipment to China. “That was a big step in our lives,” his wife Rachel says.

Loren, twins Mike & Muriel, and Garry Weybright on the dock in New Orleans, November 1946. Photo courtesy of Garry Weybright.

Rachel Weybright, with her four children ages 2-1/2 to 9, took the long way driving home to visit friends in Iowa. Arriving on Friday evening, they intended to stay the weekend. “However, on Saturday morning,” Rachel says, “the weather forecast predicted a heavy snowstorm.” She changed plans and started home. “The storm kept chasing us, we kept going with just a skiff of snow in our path, and reached home about midnight. There was less than an inch of snow covering the ground when we got home, but by morning, we had about eight inches of it. To say I was glad to be home safely was a gross understatement!”

Problems arose at home when the hired man developed medical problems. A new hired man had to be sought in a hurry. Cows don’t wait to be milked. “[The new man’s] inabilities became more visible in February when we had an ice storm that covered electric wires with ice two inches thick,” Rachel says. “We were without power from Tuesday until Saturday evening, so we milked more than 20 cows by hand twice a day; carried water from a neighbor’s hand pump to water the cows, hogs, chickens, and people; ate cold meals or fireplace offerings….There was great rejoicing when the power came on!”

The Weybright family shortly after George’s return, May 17, 1947. Photo courtesy of Garry Weybright.

Ruth Wicks found herself snowed in that same winter in Adel, Iowa, while her husband, Dale Wicks, was on his trip to Italy. With two small children in tow, she had to walk out her gravel road to the main road where her parents picked them up to go to town or to church. Then notice came from the Red Cross of Dale’s accident in Sicily. “I knew he was thrown out on the lava, and I had horrors that his face had slid on the rocks and what his head would be like. After I saw the picture in the Des Moines paper, I was just so relieved.”

With his extended stay in Italy, planting season arrived before Dale did. “Family members helped out,” Ruth says, “so when Dale got home, they had the first crops already planted.

“Dale had been gone so long,” she says, “that our two-year-old daughter didn’t even recognize him. When he put his arms around me and kissed me, she didn’t like that strange man! After that, she did, though.”

Dale and Ruth Wicks, July 1, 2006. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

Credit goes to all the seagoing cowboy wives for helping their men deliver hope to a war-torn world!

Seagoing Cowboy excursion turns tragic

Not all seagoing cowboy stories had a happy ending. The trip of the S. S. Henry Dearborn in February 1947 was sailing along like any other. The 177 UNRRA horses, 176 UNRRA cattle, and 113 Heifer Project goats had been offloaded in Brindisi, Italy, where they were to be ferried on to Albania.

Postcard from Brindisi, Italy, February 1947. Courtesy of C. H. Beam.

After a week of sightseeing for the cowboys there and a stop in Bari, Italy, to pick up cargo for ballast, an intended short stop in Catania, Sicily, turned deadly.

Postcard from Catania, Sicily. Courtesy of C. H. Beam.

The lure of Mt. Etna, about twenty miles inland and erupting at the time, enticed ten of the cowboys and their foreman to hire a truck for 8,000 lire to take them up the mountain. “It was a nice trip up,” says Iowa cowboy Dale Wicks. “All the way up the mountain was farms. It was all terraced. There would be a stone wall, then a strip six or eight feet wide, then there would be another stone wall. It was all farmed that way. It looked like stair steps going up the mountain.

“There was snow on Mt. Etna. We didn’t get clear to the top, just as far as we could go by truck. It looked as though we could walk, but since our time was limited we didn’t get to. We started down about four o’clock. Jesse Ziegler, the foreman of our crew, made the remark, ‘This trip was the best thing we had had on the trip.’ It wasn’t until about fifteen minutes later until he was dead.”

The truck, as it turned out, had faulty brakes. “The driver was depending on shifting down to hold the speed down,” says Wicks. “When he went to shift down one time, he couldn’t get it in gear. He didn’t have enough brakes to hold it, so we just kept goin’ faster and faster. Most of us riding in the open back of the truck knew it would probably crash, so we huddled up against the back of the cab.” Three cowboys jumped out, two suffering major and minor bruises and one a broken wrist.

Out of control, the truck crashed into one of the stone walls and flipped over into a ravine. Ziegler, riding in the cab, Paul Glick, and Joseph Connellen were killed almost instantly. Four, including Wicks, were unconscious. The driver fled the scene. Some men going up the mountain in a horse-drawn cart came to the rescue, loading up the injured. They soon met a truck and transferred the injured to the truck for the ride to the hospital in Catania.

“It wasn’t much of a hospital,” Wicks recalls. Supplies were low after the war. “When I woke up, I was in bed with all of my clothes, even my shoes, on. Sanitation was very poor. None of the boys with broken bones were given anesthetic to set them. They were left two or three days before they did anything with them. You could hear them holler for quite a ways.”

The Des Moines Tribune picked up the news from the Associated Press. Courtesy of Dale Wicks family.

Eight days after the accident, UNRRA flew the six hospitalized cowboys to a U.S. Army hospital in Naples. Five of them were released two days later. They were checked into an UNRRA hotel and enjoyed seeing the sights until UNRRA finally found passage home for them on a ship filled mostly with war brides.

It was touch and go for the sixth cowboy, David Roy. His parents received a telegram saying he was in serious condition with a fractured left tibia and a severe laceration to his right knee complicated with gas gangrene. After his transfer to Naples, he also developed tetanus. His wife Jean says, “He has been told that he is only one of a few survivors of both tetanus and gas gangrene (from that period).”

For the cowboys not involved in the accident and the survivors well enough to board the ship, the trip home was a sober one. “They told us that the Steamship Co., Red Cross and American Consul would take care of the injured and the dead and notifying the next of kin,” Jesse Ziegler’s nephew George wrote to his mother. “The crew feels pretty bad about the bad luck and of course, we cowboys that are left do too. Flag flies at half mast.”

Heifer Project Executive Secretary Benjamin Bushong happened to be in Italy at the time of the accident. His attempts to have the bodies of the deceased cowboys shipped home failed when he could find no one to embalm them. “The Italians just don’t do things that way,” he said. They were moved instead to Palermo, Italy, where Brethren Service Committee worker Eugene Lichty, stationed in Carrara, and a Waldensian Church pastor conducted the funeral service. “These three bodies were placed in a beautiful small Protestant Cemetery on the edge of the city with a high mountain to the rear and the Sea in the opposite direction,” says Bushong.

After arriving home, Wicks suffered for ten years with terrible pain in his hip. When the doctors finally operated they found pocket after pocket of pus where bits of cinders had embedded themselves when Wicks slid over the lava-laden ground. Despite his injuries, he says, “I never was sorry I went. It was a very meaningful experience for me.”

Dale and Ruth Wicks, July 1, 2006. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

Next post: The wives who were left behind.

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.

In Memorium

On this 5th Friday, it’s time to once again remember seagoing cowboys who have departed from us.

Bender, Byron W., January 4, 2020, Honolulu, Hawaii. S. S. Stephen R. Mallory to Poland, June 20, 1946.

Graham, Charles R., October 2019, Aurora, Colorado. S. S. Rock Springs Victory to Ethiopia, March 12, 1947.

Longenecker, William W. “Bill”, December 9, 2019, Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. S. S. South Bend Victory to Greece, December 4, 1946.

Rhodes, Luke C., May 23, 2016, Dalton, Ohio. S. S. Carroll Victory to Greece, November 5, 1946.

Rumble, Paul, September 28, 2019, Modesto, California. S. S. Michael James Monohan to Czechoslovakia (docking in Bremen, Germany), January 4, 1946.

Smucker, Leonard Leroy, November 28, 2019, Ashland, Oregon. S. S. Stephen R. Mallory to Poland, June 20, 1946.

Zimmerman, William A., July 16, 2017, Sunbury, Pennsylvania. S. S. Virginian to Poland, June 27, 1946.

Rest in peace, dear seagoing friends.