A Seagoing Cowboy Song and a Poem

An email “in box” often brings surprises when one is considered an expert on a topic. Usually, a request for information. However, a little over three months ago I received an email that made my day. Mennonite singer-songwriter Tim Shue wrote, “Someone gave me a poem by a Willard L. Bontrager entitled ‘An Ode to Thirty-Two Cowboys’ in hopes that I would eventually write a song about it.” Some 12 years later, the deed has been accomplished.

The song, “Cowboys at Sea,” sung by Tim, appears on the recently released CD* of the Honeytown band of which Tim is a part. Tim has generously granted me permission to share it on my website. Click here to listen to this song, inspired by Bontrager’s poem below.

Willard L. Bontrager traveled to Trieste, Italy, on the S. S. Morgantown Victory with a load of horses for Yugoslavia, departing Newport News, Virginia, December 2, 1946.

The S. S. Morgantown Victory loading in Newport News, Virginia, December 1946. Photo credit: Hartzel Schmidt.

Thirty of the thirty-two cowboys on the S. S. Morgantown Victory, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Vernon Yoder.

Cowboy foreman Willard Evans and cowboy Willard Bontrager, December 1946. Photo credit: Hartzel Schmidt.

An Ode to Thirty-Two Cowboys
By Willard Bontrager
All names are purely fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. The Author.
1
Thirty-two cowboys sailed the seas;
Started out brave as ever you please
These brave cowboys hit the sack,
With nary a tho’t of turning back
2
Thirty-two cowboys got up the next morn,
Sorry that they had ever been born.
These brave cowboys lined the rail
Heaving too much for that little rail.
3
Thirty-two cowboys now morbid and weak
Went to their work very quiet and meek;
They watered their stock and pulled their hay,
Then went to work putting slings on a bay.

Morgantown Victory cowboys pulling up hay. Photo credit: Hartzel Schmidt.

4
Thirty-two cowboys sailed into the Med.
Found it not as they had read.
This inland sea–this nice smooth sea
Was lashed by wind–rough as could be.
5
Thirty-two cowboys hit the port
Acted as if they should have escort.
Most searched the town for Souvenir;
A few went to the bar for a drink of beer.
6
Thirty-two cowboys back at sea
Getting homesick as they could be,
Spent Christmas Day out in the deep,
Dreamt of home while fast asleep.
7
Thirty-two cowboys led by Gene.
His special we found was not so clean.
Roused his foremen at half past ten
To work on horses he needed men.
8
Thirty-two cowboys–two nite watch
When not sea sick, they were top notch.
They called the foremen out of bed
After the horses were nearly dead.
9
Thirty-two cowboys loved to mock
The man who called himself a doc.
In Number Four he made a bad guess,
Gave a dead horse a sling to caress.
10
Thirty-two cowboys massaging legs
Grumbling do what the doctor begs.
Pares Shreiner, our best Masseur,
Massaged the legs but couldn’t cure.
11
Thirty-two cowboys and their wild horse;
She was from the west and couldn’t have been worse.
She was in a sling for many a day,
Until found one morning full of decay.

Disposing of a dead horse from the Morgantown Victory, December 1946. Photo credit: Hartzel Schmidt.

12
Thirty-two cowboys–one was young Shantz
Just grew out of his knee-length pants.
He was our mess man’s pride and joy.
He found him a very understanding young boy.
13
Thirty-two cowboys with sleepy Paul
Who “Eggs Up” for supper did call.
He had just risen from his bunk,
And must have been feeling pretty punk.
14
Thirty-two cowboys lost 93 head
Which was not the fault of Kansas “Red”,
He was a good man with that lasso of his
And really knew that cowboy Biz.
15
Thirty-two cowboys–not one a poet
This isn’t good and don’t we know it!
But we tried to tell of our trials and woes
Of which we had plenty as each of us knows.

 

*Anyone wishing to purchase the Honeytown CD, “Good Enough,” can contact Tim Shue at 330-857-1115 or timmydshue (at) gmail (dot) com. Other songs on the album include “Strings Alive!,” “I Can’t Stand Up Alone,” “To Think Like a Tree,” etc.

1946 Heifer Project shipment to Italy becomes trip of a lifetime for Lititz, PA, high school boys

At age sixteen and between his junior and senior years of high school, Harry Badorf, Jr., and six of his friends made the trip of a life time. Harry’s Sunday School class at the Lititz [PA] Church of the Brethren was raising money to buy a heifer for the Heifer Project. Having heard the stories of others who had accompanied livestock to Europe for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, these boys decided to go the next step and sign up to be seagoing cowboys. They ended up on UNRRA’s S.S. Cyrus W. Field carrying a load of 330 Heifer Project animals to Naples, Italy.

Lititz, PA, seagoing cowboy Dick Nolt with one of the calves born aboard the S. S. Cyrus W. Field, June 1946. Photo courtesy of Stanley Schoenberger.

The ship departed from Baltimore, Maryland, in the wee hours of June 14, 1946. The light work of caring for heifers on the smooth seventeen-day crossing of the Atlantic Ocean afforded countless hours for playing cards and laying in the sun. “When we came back,” recalls Dick Nolt, “we didn’t look like we were white boys.”

On arrival in Naples on July 1, Badorf notes in his diary, “From where our ship is docked we can see Mt. Vesuvius and the Governor’s Palace. There are several wrecked and sunken ships in the harbor. Some parts of the city are bombed up fairly bad. . . .It is very hot and the flies are awful.”

Heat and flies notwithstanding, Badorf and his friends took advantage of the nine-day stay of the Cyrus W. Field in port. First, an UNRRA truck took the cowboys to see the farm about 40 miles outside Naples where the heifers would temporarily be held before distribution to selected farmers and institutions. The next day, UNRRA took the cowboy crew on a tour of Pompeii.

Art restoration in process at the excavation of Pompeii, July 1946. Photo courtesy of Stanley Schoenberger.

A brother of two of the Lititz cowboys who was serving in the U.S. Army in Italy arranged for a military “cracker box ambulance” to take the group to Rome. Eleven cowboys and four of the ship’s crew who were Catholic and wanted to see the Pope packed themselves into the vehicle for a bouncy trip north. “It was worth it,” says cowboy Jean DePerrot.

Taking a break from the “cracker box ambulance” on the way to Rome, July 4, 1946. Photo courtesy of Stanley Schoenberger.

The group toured the Coliseum, walked through the Roman Forum, went to the top of the dome at St. Peter’s Cathedral, and took in Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Badorf notes seeing “millions of dollars worth of pearls, rubies, gold and silver” at the Vatican Museum. But the Pope was nowhere to be seen.

The Lititz cowboys at the Roman Forum, July 1946. Photo courtesy of Stanley Schoenberger.

Lititz cowboys at St. Peter’s Cathedral. Front row: Stan Schoenberger, Harry Badorf, Dick Waltz. Back row: Jim Dietrich, Stan Dietrich, Jean DePerrot, Ken Dietrich. Photo courtesy of Harry Badorf.

With the help of army brother Stan Dietrich and the cowboys’ Merchant Marine cards, they were able to stay overnight in Rome at a U.S. Army Rest Center located in a complex of elaborate marble buildings built by Mussolini. There they got to swim in Mussolini’s swimming pool.

Cowboys after their swim in Mussolini’s indoor swimming pool. Photo courtesy of Stanley Schoenberger.

A sobering stop to see the immense World War II destruction at the Monte Cassino Monestery on their return to Naples capped off their two-day excursion.

Bombed Monte Cassino Monestery, July 1946. Photo courtesy of Stanley Schoenberger.

The next day, the Lititz boys took a limo up Mount Vesuvius, still warm from it’s 1944 eruption, They saw the bubbling lava and walked ankle-deep in its ashes. Then it was on to the Island of Capri. The crew hired a motor boat to take them around the island and into its Blue, Green, and White Grottoes. They got a hotel room for 150 lira each. The next morning they took a taxi up hairpin bends to explore Anacapri and its Villa San Michele and the Church of Saint Michael with its mosaic floor depicting the Garden of Eden. They returned to Naples in time to see a stirring production of Carmen at the open air San Carlo Opera House.

Their last day of adventure took in the breathtaking sights along the famed Salerno Amalfi Drive, followed by a return to Mount Vesuvius. “It took us about an hour and a half to hike up,” notes Badorf, “and we ran down in about 15 mintues.”

I had a delightful interview with four of the Lititz men several years ago in which they all agreed, “We learned more in those nine days than in any history or geography class in school.”

Next post: Heifer Project helps Italian families recover from World War II

Seagoing cowboy L. W. Shultz unites Warsaw, Indiana, with Warsaw, Poland, 1945

A side story from Heifer Project’s S. S. Santiago Iglesias trip to Poland, of the two previous posts, revolves around Indiana seagoing cowboy L. W. Shultz.

L. W. Shultz photo and autograph in cowboy supervisor Clifton Crouse’s scrapbook. Courtesy of Merle Crouse.

One of those larger than life figures in the Church of the Brethren, with his fingers in many pots, Shultz was instrumental in the formation of the Brethren Service Committee (BSC) in 1939. He served on the committee through the years of World War II and was therefore involved in the creation of the Heifer Project, a BSC program.

In 1942, the year Heifer Project began, Shultz took a leave of absence from his duties as professor and librarian at Manchester College to work more actively with the BSC’s development of their relief work. So it comes as no surprise that when Heifer Project was preparing to send its first shipment of heifers to Poland in the fall of 1945, they called on Shultz to serve as cowboy foreman for the trip. He was sent to the UNRRA headquarters in Washington, D.C., to make arrangements.

Shultz was a mover and a shaker who didn’t miss out on opportunities. Somehow, through the Deputy Prime Minister of Poland, who was also the Minister of Agriculture and who was in Washington, D.C., at the same time as Shultz, Shultz made arrangements to take a trip to Warsaw while his ship was in Poland. And somehow, it developed that the city of Warsaw, Indiana, sent a gift of $1,000 with Shultz to be presented to the Mayor of Warsaw, Poland. The slowness in unloading the livestock and cargo off the S. S. Santiago Iglesias gave Shultz ample time for a three-day trip to Warsaw to deliver the monetary gift from Indiana.

L. W. Shultz, left, greeting Mayor Stanislaw Tolwinski in his office in Warsaw, Poland, December 1945. Photo courtesy of the Shultz family.

A year later, in November 1946, Shultz went as cowboy supervisor and foreman with another load of Heifer Project cattle to Poland, this time on the SS William S. Halsted. Before leaving home, Shultz had arranged for himself and three other cowboys to stay in Poland to lay plans for Brethren Service Committee work there. In his autobiography Shultz writes, “Our captain was determined that we all should return [to the United States] with him but on the last night in port we four went ashore AWOL and stayed over night in the home of an old cobbler. The next morning we went down to the dock just in time to see the ship pull out.”

During their travels, the foursome visited heifer recipients and distributed relief supplies they had brought along. Shultz’s service to Poland on both trips did not go unrecognized by the Polish people. In a December 3, 1945, thank you letter from the mayor of Warsaw, Poland, to the mayor of Warsaw, Indiana, for their monetary gift, Mayor Tolwinski writes,

As Mayor of the City of Warsaw, the most ruined city of all by the Hitler barbarism, I have the privilege to extend to you through Mr. Lawrence Shultz my heartiest brotherly greetings to you personally, and through you to the people of the City of Warsaw, Indiana U. S. A.

We are proud that the tradition of the struggle for freedom in the United States in which our Polish warriors took part, is still so deeply alive among the American Society as to express itself in giving the name of our city to an American City.

One of those warriors to whom Mayor Tolwinski refers was Tadeusz Kosciuszko, born in Poland in 1746. He came to America in 1776 to help during America’s war of independence, becoming a Brigadier General of the Continental Army. He remains to this day a symbol of Polish-American goodwill. A medal created on the bicentennial of Kosciuszko’s birth in 1946 was presented to Shultz on his second visit to Warsaw, Poland – a fitting tribute, as the city of Warsaw, Indiana, resides in Kosciusko County, named after the General. The medal now resides in the library of Manchester University [previously College] where Shultz spent so many years as librarian.

Kosciuszko medal awarded to L. W. Shultz. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Kosciuszko medal awarded to L. W. Shultz. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Heifer Project’s first shipment to Poland, Part II – seagoing cowboys experience Poland

The seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias, like almost all cowboys who went to Poland, were immediately struck by the devastation that surrounded them. “No one can imagine the damage until it is seen,” Pennsylvania cowboy Milt Lohr wrote in his diary, amazed that people still lived in the ruins, and others were still buried beneath them.

Four days after arriving, city welfare worker Anna Yawaska came to take two car loads of cowboys through the rubble to visit an orphanage with almost 700 children. “They range in age from 1 year to 14 years,” Lohr says. Some of the children entertained the cowboys with songs and recitations – all in Polish. “We didn’t understand a word,” says Lohr. Even so, the children captured the cowboys’ hearts.

Orphanage children entertain the cowboys of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias, Dec. 1945. Photo courtesy of the L. W. Shultz family.

Another day, on a trek into the country, Lohr and ten other cowboys happened onto a battlefield. “The trees were about all stripped of their limbs to a height of 40 to 50 feet,” Lohr says. The cowboys found foxholes, trenches, spent shells, German cannons, wrecked tanks, a destroyed barracks, and graves with German helmets on them. All reminders of a month-long battle only months earlier between the Germans and the Russians for control of the area.

Seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias explore a battlefield above Gdynia, Poland, December 1945. Photo courtesy of the L. W. Shultz family.

Lohr writes of meeting Americans who had gotten trapped in Poland at the beginning of the war. Like the man from Buffalo, New York, who had come over to settle an estate just before the war and hadn’t heard from his wife in the USA since 1942. And a mother and two daughters from Detroit, Michigan, who had the misfortune to be in Poland on a European tour in 1939 when Germany declared war there and couldn’t get home. They were a rich source of information for the cowboys.

While in port, Lohr records seeing several ships come in with Polish soldiers, refugees, and prisoners of war from such countries as England, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany. Cowboy supervisor Clifton Crouse wrote home of an English ship delivering 1100 Poles who had been in German slave labor. “We saw them going by the hundreds, taking their few belongings with them, on sleds, on their backs, trucks, etc. They looked happy, but I’m afraid they will be badly disappointed when they find out conditions.”

A German ship returning Polish refugees as seen by the cowboy crew from the S. S. Morgantown Victory, Jan. 4, 1946. Photo credit: Hugh Ehrman.

The highlight of the trip for Indiana cowboy Clarence Sink was a tour into the country to meet recipients of the Heifer Project animals they had delivered. “After traveling about 40 miles in the back of a truck,” he says, “we came to one village where they had a bobsled and team waiting to take us on. The first place we stopped was a typical little peasant hut. We stood and talked in the kitchen awhile and the lady of the house opened what we thought was the pantry door, and there in a little room was a fine Brown Swiss heifer that we had brought over from America. She was bedded down in deep straw and the family told us that they carried water to her. They stood with tears in their eyes because they were so appreciative.

“The climax of the whole day’s trip came about three o’clock in the afternoon,” Sink says, “when the people prepared a meal for us in one of the homes. Many of the people of the village had gathered.” Spokesmen for both groups exchanged meaningful greetings. “Then we sang and had grace for the meal of milk and eggs.” It was “a very sacrificial meal,” Sink says. Likely especially so, because this was an added event; the celebration meant for this crew of cowboys was mistakenly given earlier to the crew of the S.S. Mexican, in port delivering UNRRA animals at the same time.

Of the trip as a whole, Sink concludes, “It is our conviction that the Heifer Project has been successful not only because we have sent them cows but also because we took them our love and concern. We ate with them in their homes and we sang and prayed together. Missions of this nature will go a long way in hastening the day when we shall be brothers indeed.”

Heifer Project’s first shipment to Poland, Part I

Severely crippled by World War II, Poland became the third European country to receive animals from the Heifer Project. Between November 1945 and August 1948, Heifer made seven shipments to Poland sending 1038 head of cattle and 45 horses. [See the story of the S. S. WIlliam S. Halsted here.] Shipments ceased when Russia achieved a firm grip on Poland. After the fall of Communism in the late 1980s, Heifer resumed assistance to farmers there for a number of years.

Less than a month after V-E Day, the Heifer Project Committee was already laying plans for shipping to Poland. Their June 3, 1945, minutes recorded a vote that “We make shipment of animals, not to exceed 150, to Poland through UNRRA to be distributed by National Cooperatives, unless a better way is found.” Target date for the shipment was July 15.

With so many pieces of the shipping puzzle to be put together, however, it wasn’t until November 10 that the S. S. Santiago Iglesias pulled away from Pier 6 in Baltimore, Maryland, with 18 seagoing cowboys, 150 Heifer Project dairy cattle, and another 223 UNRRA cattle on board. Besides the bedding and feed for the animals, cowboy Milt Lohr reports that the ship also carried a cargo of 1189 drums of lard, 12,274 cases of soap, 3,371 tons of fertilizer, 12,560 drums of diesel oil, and 1,215 drums of fish oil. Relief packages from Polish officials who met the ship in Baltimore added to the cargo, as well.

Unidentified newspaper article from Clifton Crouse album. Courtesy of Merle Crouse.

On arrival in Poland November 28, the plight of the people soon became evident. “As we entered Danzig,” reports cowboy Clarence Sink, “we beheld a once large beautiful city now laying in ruins, ninety percent destroyed. . . .The unloading barns had all been destroyed, so our cattle were swung ashore and turned loose along the street. All of the feed was also swung ashore. . . .Early the next morning, about fifty people gathered and we were told that these people had walked in as far as fifty miles, from various villages, after these cattle. The Secretary of Agriculture from Warsaw was there and had charge of the distributions and all these cattle were driven, on foot, to the rural communities. [Read the story of one of those recipients here.]

Dairy cattle being unloaded from the S. S. Santiago Iglesias in Nowy Port, Poland, November 1945. UNRRA photo.

Damaged warehouses and the litter of battle are grim reminders of the war as cattle leave the docks for Polish farms whose dairy cattle were destroyed during the fighting. UNRRA photo.

“Our unloading was slow,” Sink says, “because the men were so weak, physically, that they could only work an hour or so of their eight hour shift. The Commander of the Port, who was in charge of War Shipping, informed us that all of the dock workers had been living on less than half the required diet for body sustenance for over six years.” Cowboy supervisor Clifton Crouse told his family the stevedores were so hungry that they emptied five drums of lard, a handful at a time, putting it in their pockets.

Because of the slowness of unloading the ship, this crew of seagoing cowboys had three weeks to absorb the sights, sounds, and smells of postwar Poland. More on their experiences in the next two posts.

These Polish farmers and the guard were delighted to find 14 unexpected calves born on the Santiago Iglesias at sea. UNRRA photo.

Heifers to Belgium, 1945

Even before the Heifer Project became official in April 1942, Dan West was in communication with officials of the Belgian Commission for the Study of Post-War Problems. Dairy cattle were needed in Belgium. So it comes as no surprise that Belgium was one of the first countries to which Heifer Project animals were sent after World War II in 1945. Two shipments totaling 335 heifers went to Belgium that October and November. Mennonite seagoing cowboy Noah W. Schrock of Orrville, Ohio, started his trip that October at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland:

Sorting clothing at the Brethren Service Center, New Windsor, Maryland. Many seagoing cowboys helped with this task while waiting for their ship assignments. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

     There we helped paint and sort, pack and bale clothing. On Oct. 15 we went to the Roop farm where they had 350 cattle. “Brethren Heifer Project.”
     We loaded four car load for Williamsburg, Virginia. In three days we arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia. I rode on the engine or caboose. Every so often the R.R. Co. rule was to water the cattle. So they had to unload, water the cattle, and load again. Slow process. This was done 3 times.
Now the Long Shoremen were on strike, so I had to wait till I got orders. After spending a week or more with friends . . ., I got orders to report to a boat named ‘Wooster’ [Charles W. Wooster]. I watched them load 216 [UNRRA] horses and 124 cattle. On October 25, Charles Rohrer from Indiana and I started sailing. “The old ark are a movering”.

Rohrer, cowboy supervisor, of North Manchester, Indiana, continues the story:

Charles Rohrer at dockside with one of Heifer Project’s donated heifers, November 1945. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

     I was given charge of the colored help, who were the cowboys, and were supposed to feed, water and bed the cattle. I am proud to say we did not lose any of our cattle, but gained five, as we had 5 fine baby calves by the time we arrived in Belgium. The ship’s crew became very fond of our baby calves and were constantly coming down to the hold of the ship to pet and admire our livestock.
Many seamen remarked that it was so peaceful down with the cattle that it seemed almost as reverent as a church, and we assured them they were with God’s cattle on His mission of love and good will.
We are all very happy and joyful to see Bishop’s Rock, the first land we sight . . . . We proceeded very cautiously up the English Channel because of the danger of mines and sunken ships. . . . After 16 days of sailing we arrived at the mouth of the Sheldt River, which flows from Belgium and Holland. . . . All along the river were points where the battle had raged, and buildings were skeletons of blasted and burned rubble.
When we arrived, I was amazed at the wide spread destruction. Over 3000 buzz bumbs alone had fallen on that unhappy city; hardly a building has all its windows and roof intact. . . . Most families lived in one room, as they receive only a little over 200 pounds of coal per month.
Food is scarce and very costly. . . . I cannot understand how the poor people live.
The Belgians were overjoyed to receive the gift of cattle. Their newspapers from all over Belgium gave us the warmest kind of welcome. . . .
The Belgian officials graciously escorted me around over Belgium, to inspect the places where the Brethren cattle were to be placed. They have 120 TB hospitals, which were very short of milk, plus a great many orphanages. Our cattle have been pro rated among these very worthy institutions. It was a joy to see the warm reception given me as I toured ward after ward of these institutions. Poorly clad children and adults sang American songs and cheered for America, and often thanked me personally, for those who were so kind as to give them help in so generous a manner.
I informed them, thru the interpreter given me by the Belgian Government, that it was our religious belief in brotherly love which prompted the gift. . . .
I can recommend this trip as a most profitable one, not in dollars and cents, but in experience and service to the Kingdom of God.

 

A calf born on the ship gives joy to a Belgian on arrival in Antwerp, November 1945. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

Reflections of a 1945 Seagoing Cowboy to France on stewardship

The focus of these blog posts is usually on a seagoing cowboy’s trip. This post will focus, however, on how the trip to France in August 1945 affected the life of 35-year-old cowboy Paul Rodeheffer and his family, as shared with former Heifer International staffer and “Cowboy Custodian” Bill Beck in this undated account.

Paul Rodeheffer’s card from the seagoing cowboy file of the Brethren Service Committee. Courtesy of Heifer International.

Stewardship to us is receiving and sharing God’s gifts with others for His purpose in the world….

Because I was a farmer producing food, I did not have to go to war. Out of gratitude, I took the unexpected chance to go with the first load of cattle [to France] for the organization “Heifers for Relief,” where the cows were given to orphanages, hospitals and families with more than six children.

It was here that I saw firsthand that gifts given through the church (in this case Church of the Brethren) actually reached their destination. Through the years we have ignored pleas for our money through the mail and over T.V. We give to the church and its related schools and organizations because we know it gets to the right place.

This trip was the biggest risk we ever took. I left my wife with two boys, 3 and almost 1 year old, at home with my father. It was just before harvest, and the corn picker which I had bought was not even set up. For all its uncertainties this trip proved to us that the more you give the more you get. In our family it changed our priorities about many things.

1st. My absence from the farm changed family attitudes. I, tending cattle on a freighter, seasick sometimes, changed my thinking. At home, my father, unable to carry on alone with the farm, changed his mind and decided to let me buy it when I returned. My only sister agreed, and so just 33 years ago this week, we made the transaction.

2nd. The trip gave us new friends, on the boat and in the churches where I shared my experience. The baby sitter who stayed with Elnor and the boys, and now her whole family, are among our best friends.

3rd. The trip gave me a lasting relaxed attitude toward work and possessions. After two months, I came home on October 20, 1945. The corn picker had to be set up and crops were waiting to be harvested. But the beans and corn were all saved with no Sunday harvesting.

Stewardship, like the miracle of seed time to harvest, is a progressive lifelong process for us.