“Hope” the Heifer: A Christmas Story

Hope the Heifer at the Villa Skaut orphanage in Konstancin, Poland, Christmas Eve, 1946. Attended left to right by Harvey Stump, Lee Cory, John Miller, and L. W. Shultz.

Hope the Heifer at the Villa Skaut orphanage in Konstancin, Poland, Christmas Day, 1946. Attended left to right by Harvey Stump, Lee Cory, John Miller, and L. W. Shultz. Photo from the Ray Zook album, Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

The heifer named “Hope” in my children’s picture book The Seagoing Cowboy is based on a real heifer named “Hope” that was sent to Poland in late 1946 on the S. S. William S. Halsted. Here is an edited version of the real Hope’s story as told by L. W. Shultz in his article “Poland Has Hope”:

“Hope” is a beautiful Holstein cow. She was born (1944) on a Pennsylvania farm in the United States of America. While quite young she was chosen to bring relief to hungry, thirsty children in Europe. She was reared on the farm of Rudolph Kulp near Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in the Coventry Church of the Brethren, the second oldest congregation of the Church of the Brethren in America.

The month of October 1946 found Hope on the Roger Roop farm near New Windsor, Maryland, waiting to be shipped to Poland. Finally on November 1, 1946, with 332 other beautiful Holsteins, Guernseys, Jerseys, and Brown Swiss, she was loaded on the William S. Halsted. Hope had a very narrow escape when the ship collided with the Esso Camden gasoline tanker only three hours out from port Baltimore in the Chesapeake Bay. However, the explosion, fire, and damage did not cause any fatalities among either man or beast.

Damage to William S. Halsted.

Seagoing cowboys survey the damage to their ship, the William S. Halsted, November 1946. Photo from the album of Ray Zook, Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

But it meant seventeen days of waiting while the ship was in dock for repair. Hope was cared for in the Union Stock Yards in Baltimore. On November 19, she was reloaded on the ship and started again for Danzig (Gdansk), where she landed on December 9, 1946. After some delay, she went on a railroad train to Warsaw and then on to the village of Konstancin where she found her new home, with another cow from the ship, in the orphanage of Villa Skaut.

The Jesakov family. Photo courtesy of Ray Zook.

The Jesakow family. Photo from the album of Ray Zook, Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

Here 130 orphans are being cared for by Leonid and Augusta Jesakow and their staff of workers, including their daughters, Irene, Lily, and Mary, all born in America.

What a welcome the children gave these cows! Hope also had a sturdy heifer calf to care for and to present to the orphans. This addition to the animal population at Villa Skaut was quite an event. Hope was giving ten liters of milk each day and will give more when spring comes.

On Christmas Day, 1946, after a morning service, pictures were taken of some of the orphans and Hope, while she was being milked. Present from America to bring these gifts to the children were Brethren Service workers Bruce and Clara Wood, and seagoing cowboys Lee R. Cory, John Miller, Harvey Stump, and Lawrence Shultz. These men received the thanks of the children and the orphanage management for the cows, candy, pencils, combs, toothbrushes, note books, etc., which were given as Christmas gifts. It was a never-to-be-forgotten Christmas time. Christmas Eve, presenting gifts with St. Mikolaj (St. Nicholas). Christmas services on December 25 in the morning, and the singing of Polish and English carols and songs in the evening until late at night. Thanks to Jadwiga, the teacher, and Francisek, the soloist.

Hope is really a life line for these children, Halia, Marta, Alicia, Wanda, Maria and all the rest. To all American Christians who have remembered them with food, clothing, and now Hope, they say “Dziekuje” (thank you).

***

And to all my readers, I wish a Blessed Christmas and a fruitful New Year ahead!

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

A Seagoing Cowboy Christmas

The following is an excerpt from an article titled “Cowboys at Christmas” that I wrote for Heifer International’s World Ark magazine.

Thirty-two cowboys back at sea,

Getting homesick as they could be,

Spent Christmas Day out on the deep,

And dreamt of home while fast asleep.

So wrote twenty-three-year old Willard Bontrager in “An Ode to Thirty-two Cowboys,” a poem he presented to his crew at their Christmas program on the SS Morgantown Victory December 25, 1946….

Morgantown Victory crew, 1946

Willard Bontrager’s crew on the SS Morgantown Victory delivered horses to Yugoslavia. Photo courtesy of Hartzel Schmidt

About 7,000 men of all ages, religions, colors, and walks of life responded to the call for “seagoing cowboys” during the years 1945 and 1946. A number of these cowboys found themselves away from home over the holidays, many for the first time. As Bontrager’s ode suggests, this affected some more than others.

Cowboy Al Guyer of the SS Mexican had already been to Poland in 1945. There he had seen and smelled the rubble of war and experienced the hospitality of grateful Heifer Project recipients in the village of Suchy Dab. That Christmas Eve found him on his way home off the coast of Norway, where the SS Mexican was sitting out a storm. “I hunkered down on the side of the ship where the wind was not blowing and I was so homesick,” Guyer said. “I could look out and see that shore of rocks and waves, imagining being thrown on the rocks.”

SS Mexican crew, December 1945

The seagoing cowboys of the SS Mexican delivered heifers and horses to Poland in December 1945. Photo courtesy of Clarence Reeser

But the storm didn’t stop the festivities Christmas Day. Guyer’s shipmate Calvert Petre noted in his journal, “[J]ust when they had the tables set for the feast they sent word down to watch the tables. No one took them serious enough and when the storm hit us broadside, what a roll!!! It slid oranges, apples, candy, plates, and boys all on a pile….” They reset the tables and soon were digging into a duck dinner with all the trimmings.

Each cowboy crew had its own personality, as did their Christmas celebrations. To read more of their Christmas stories, the full article can be accessed online at this link: http://www.heifer.org/join-the-conversation/magazine/2014/holiday/cowboys-at-christmas.html

That’s it for 2014! I wish all my readers a safe and happy New Year’s Eve and abundant blessings in the New Year!

Next post: January 9, 2015

The Seagoing Cowboys of the Occidental Victory Spend Advent in Limbo

Norm Weber 2006

Norman Weber in 2006 in his home in Ontario, Canada, with memorabilia from his 1946 trip on the SS Occidental Victory to deliver horses to Poland. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

In my last post, we made the acquaintance of Norman Weber and John Wesley Clay, seagoing cowboys on the SS Occidental Victory in 1946. Their ship hit a rock before Thanksgiving off the coast of Finland, tearing open two oil tanks. The vessel was able to make it to Stockholm with its damaged bottom, but the dry docks there were unable to handle the repairs. On Thanksgiving Day, the ship left Sweden and made its way slowly and safely to and through the Kiel Canal, across the rough waters of the North Sea, and into the Weser River to Bremerhaven, Germany.

The Advent season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is often seen as a time of waiting, and that is precisely what these cowboys of the Occidental Victory had to do in Germany. Their ship sat in port for over two weeks before pulling into dry dock where she was to stay until the next August. Longing to be home for Christmas, Weber says,

Norman Weber and John Wesley Clay

Norman Weber and John Wesley Clay wait aboard the SS Occidental Victory in December 1946 for a way home. Courtesy of Norman Weber

“All the seamen except a skeleton crew were put onto other ships. But it soon became quite evident that no one cared much about the cowboys.” So he and “Pop,” as he called Mr. Clay, decided they needed to take matters into their own hands.

“One cold day,” Weber says, “we walked to a bombed out Railway station. We managed to crowd into an already full train and for three cold hours traveled the 35 miles to Bremen. There we boarded a street car, and somehow got around the rubble of what was once a lovely seaport.” They found their way to the UNRRA office where calls were made to Washington, D.C. After several days of anxious waiting, a ship was found to take the cowboys home.

Norm Weber and two German friends

Norm Weber with two of the German children befriended by the Occidental Victory cowboys who fed them on the ship. Courtesy of Norman Weber

In the meantime, young Weber, a German-speaking Mennonite, and the elder John Wesley Clay explored the devastated cities of Bremerhaven and Bremen, making friends along the way. On December 15, the third Sunday of Advent, Clay and three other cowboys (Weber was sick and couldn’t go) attended services of a Methodist church in Bremerhaven. With their church building in ruins, the members met in one of their homes.

Methodis Church remains, Bremerhaven, Germany, 1946

The remains of the Methodist Church in Bremerhaven, Germany, December 1946. Courtesy of Norman Weber

 

 

Clay notes in his trip account,

Before the war the church had more than three hundred members, but there were only fifteen present. A lay preacher held the services. It was the most depressing religious service I have ever attended. The hopeless expression on the faces of the people was more like a funeral service than a regular Sunday morning service. It was bitter cold outside, and the snow was falling thick and fast, and there was no heat in the building. The elderly woman who played the organ could hardly do so with her cold fingers. The lay preacher had lost his wife and children in the air raid. Many members had lost their lives, and many more their homes.

We met one Sunday school teacher who has 25 little children in her class. We gave her twenty-five chocolate bars for their Christmas, which overjoyed her. American bombers had destroyed their church and city. Now we were giving them chocolate bars for their children. We had a feeling more of pain than of joy.

Oh, the horrors of war! May the good Lord spare us from ever seeing its like again.

German WWII ruins

Courtesy of Norman Weber

A fitting prayer for this Advent season.

Next post: Cowboys at Christmas