A Greek odyssey and 21st birthday to remember

The S. S. Charles W. Wooster preparing to go to Greece, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Perry Bontrager.

The livestock trip of the S. S. Charles W. Wooster started out like any other. On receiving their orders, seagoing cowboys gathered in Houston, Texas, to care for a load of 335 wild Mexican mares bound for Greece. They departed Easter Sunday, April 23, 1946. After an uneventful crossing of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea, the ship docked in Patras, Greece, to unload some of its cargo before going on to Piraeus to unload the rest. In Patras, the ship and the cowboys, however, would go their separate ways.

Approaching the docks at Patras, Greece, May 1946. Photo courtesy of Perry Bontrager.

On arrival in Patras on May 13, cowboy Perry Bontrager was taken with the beauty of the town. “The country is very mountainous,” he notes in his diary. “Some covered with snow. But down around the town, it is really hot.” And not all was beautiful. “It is a sorryful [sic] sight the way some of the people are dressed,” he says. “Little children come with tin cans and want to have them filled with food.”

The next day, about 100 of the horses were unloaded, followed the day after that by some of the sulpher and cotton the ship also carried. “This is to be the last day at Patras,” Bontrager notes. “So about nine tenth of the ship crew went out for a drunk [sic]. Quite a few of the fellows wouldn’t of made it back to the ship if someone wouldn’t of helped them.”

With brains still fogged from their nightly binge, miscommunications caused the ship’s crew to back the vessel into a cement dock jamming the propeller into the rudder. “As a result,” says cowboy Victor Goering, “they had to unload some cargo on to barges and eventually they were able to use the winches to pull us back to where we had been originally.” There, the remainder of the cargo was unloaded.

The S. S. Charles W. Wooster rammed into the dock in Patras, Greece, May 16, 1946. Photo courtesy of Victor Goering.

Unable to proceed on its own power, the Charles W. Wooster was towed to Naples, Italy, for repair. This left the cowboys stranded until UNRRA could make arrangements to return them home, giving them an extra five days to explore and enjoy the city of Patras.

On May 22, “They loaded us into the back of a 4-wheel army truck and with our luggage on a heavy army trailer we headed for Athens,” says cowboy Wilbur Swartzendruber. “This proved to be one of the most dangerous rides I have ever been on. Our veterinarian along with a Greek driver who was intoxicated, slid the trailer around every corner we went around. He crowded a British bread truck off the road and it upset, spilling bread over the countryside. The good Lord surely did look over us on this ride.”

A lunch stop on the way to Athens, May 22, 1946. Luggage trailer in the background. Photo courtesy of Perry Bontrager.

“On the way to Athens,” says Goering, “we saw some effects of the bombing of the railroads. Almost every trestle showed some damage and there were many railcars lying on their sides and completely burned out.”

After their exhausting 150-mile journey, the cowboys settled into the Monrapos Hotel in Amarosa, about 15 miles beyond Athens. Here they would stay for eleven or twelve days until UNRRA found ships for their return trip.

The seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Charles W. Wooster in Amarosa, Greece, May 1946. Photo courtesy of Perry Bontrager.

Given a daily allowance by UNRRA, the cowboys took in the sights of Athenian antiquities, went to movies, and relaxed. An unexpected Greek vacation.

Seagoing cowboys at the Acropolis, May 1946. Photo courtesy of Victor Goering.

UNRRA’s travel arrangements split the cowboys into a group of twelve returning on June 2 on the S. S. John Jacob Astor and the remaining six departing the next day on the S. S. Paul Hamilton Hayne. Bontrager notes, “We are traveling back as first class passengers.” A luxury other cowboys stuck with cleaning out the stalls on their return trips would envy.

“Our discharge in Newport News, Virginia, on June 24 was a happy one for me,” says Swartzendruber, a John Jacob Astor passenger. “It was my 21st birthday.” A day and a trip to remember!

In Memorium

As this Fifth Friday rolls around, it’s time to once again recognize the seagoing cowboys who have recently passed from this earthly world.

Bankston, L. Miller, February 3, 2020, Laurel, Mississippi. S. S. Hattiesburg Victory to Greece, July 22, 1946.

Eldridge, John J., December 15, 2020, Goshen, Indiana. S. S. Queens Victory to Poland, September 4, 1946.

Hollenberg, Edward L., October 19, 2020, Goshen, Indiana. S. S. F. J. Luckenbach to Greece, June 24, 1945.

Kent, Marshall, January, 2021 (day unknown), Napa, California. S. S. Park Victory to Yugoslavia (docking in Trieste, Italy), October 26, 1945; S. S. Park Victory to Poland, December 23, 1945; S. S. Cedar Rapids Victory to Poland, March 30, 1946; S. S. Mount Whitney to Poland, August 31, 1946; S. S. Hattiesburg Victory to Poland, February 4, 1947.

Pellman, William R., October 28, 2020, Lititz, Pennsylvania. S. S. Mexican to Poland, November 8, 1945; S. S. Mount Whitney to Poland, November 30, 1946.

Ringenberg, Ralph, December 19, 2020, Elkhart, Indiana. S. S. Harvard Victory to Yugoslavia (docking in Trieste, Italy), November 22, 1946.

Rink, Fred, Jr., December 9, 2020, Millersburg, Indiana. S. S. Carroll Victory to Poland, February 16, 1946.

Troxell, Richard H., Jr., December 20, 2020, Williamsport, Maryland. S. S. Cyrus W. Fields to Czechoslovakia (docking in Germany), August 22, 1946.

Weaver, David M., January 8, 2021, Lititz, Pennsylvania. S. S. F. J. Luckenbach to Poland, January 15, 1946.

Whitmore, Eugene R., November 14, 2020, Roanoke, Virginia. S. S. Queens Victory to Poland, September 4, 1946.

Rest in peace, dear seagoing friends.

Grateful Silesian Heifer Project recipients send their thanks to donors, 1946

When the Heifer Project made their first shipment of cattle to Czechoslovakia in January 1946, recipients were encouraged to send photos and letters to the Heifer Project office to be shared with the donors of their animals so international correspondence could develop. Here are some translated excerpts:

“I am a widow. My house and barn burned down during the war and the cow in the barn as well. Some weeks ago I was advised by our local National committee to go to Moravaska Ostrava, where a cow shipped from USA is ready for me; I could not believe it, but it was true and when I brought her home we all wept being deeply touched by the generosity of yours. The children take care of the cow every day on the pasture.” Anna Hravcikova, Zabreh

Anna Hravcikova and her children cherish their Heifer Project cow, 1946. Photo courtesy of the George Craig family.

“The war razed our buildings, killed livestock and nothing was left except our ravaged home…. When the cow arrived there was much happiness. Five eager children jumped about me and the cow. When I brought the first milk they stood around with their little pots each one eager to taste the milk from America….” Anna Dostalova, Stepankovice

“I thank you most sincerely in the name of my family of 7 for the gift of a cow. It came to us at the right time and helped us when we were most needy….An old slogan of ours has been proven— ‘When need is greatest, the help of God is nearest!’ ” Joseph Yolat, Zarubek

“With feelings of deepest gratitude we received from you a priceless gift—a cow for our Evangelical orphanage in Trinec near Tesinsko. Toward the end of the war our orphanage invaded by the German armada was completely damaged….Out of sacrifices of members of our Evangelical Committee we began slowly to rebuild the orphanage….We had a big holiday when we brought the cow home. No one could believe that it was given to us free…..” Parish Priest, Trinec

The grateful Frank Vojkuvka family with their donated cow, 1946. “Your gift was for us a great surprise,” they said. Photo courtesy of the George Craig family.

“I am beginning alone because until now my husband has not been reported. I am alone with two children—a 5 year old and a three year old boy, also an elderly mother….Our entire farm was demolished….[Our cow] means for me the greatest means of livelihood. It has become a member of our family. I thank you dear friends most heartily for this precious gift and believe me that we will think of you the rest of our lives and be grateful.” Elizabeth Moravcova, Bolatice

“We and the children are looking forward with joy to pasturing the cow; and we shall sing in doing it—after which it will give us more milk.” Josef Hornik, Kozmice

“We had been expelled by the Germans from our birthplace and during the time of occupation we were with our five children in a small camp where we had to live on ration cards. Milk never was sufficient. The children suffered terribly. After the liberation of our country, we returned and found a completely devastated homestead….By your beautiful gift you helped us a lot….I send you my heartiest thanks.” Family Rajnochova, Skorotin

The Frantisek Martinik family in front of their ruined home, 1946. Photo courtesy of the George Craig family.

“The friendly and sacrificial attitude of the selfless Americans in help to the Silesian people is proving that there are still good people in the World despite of the hatred in Warfare and that Love didn’t die and never will in human hearts.” Frantisek Martinik, Vresine

May we continue to prove through our actions that there are still good people in the world.

 

First Heifer Project shipment to Czechoslovakia sailed 75 years ago this week

The Czechoslovakian Embassy in Washington, DC, expressed interest in Heifer Project’s offer to send cattle to that war-torn country in early December 1945. In the short time of one month, all red tape was cut and 171 heifers, donated by church groups from ten of the United States, departed from Baltimore January 6, 1946, on UNRRA’s S. S. Charles W. Wooster. On arrival in Bremen, Germany, the seagoing cowboys on this trip would have had similar experiences with those of UNRRA’s first shipment for Czechoslovakia. The animals, however, had little time to adjust to standing on solid ground. Czechoslovakian cattle experts transferred them into rail cars for a long arduous week’s trip to the Silesian area of northeastern Czechoslovakia, one of the regions that suffered the most during World War II.

The heifers arrived in Silesia in good condition February 4, where they were put in quarantine at the State Farm in Nerad near the border of Poland. After a meeting in Frydek to finalize distribution agreements, the officials involved drove some 25 miles to the farm to inspect the cattle.

“We crossed 29 wooden, propped up bridges, of very temporary construction, as all bridges in this region had been destroyed by the retreating Germans,” says Vlasta A. Vrazova of the American Relief for Czechoslovakia in a February 18, 1946, report to the Brethren Service Committee. “A year ago, war raged through this part of the country for many weeks. There is everywhere the same problem—empty barns. The Germans drove away all the cattle. In the Opava area 28,000 families were completely bombed out, another 20,000 families lost almost everything….Children are in grave danger. In first grade grammar school in the city of Praha 25 percent have tuberculosis and another 50 percent are on the danger line. The chief reason is malnutrition for five years….The crying need is milk!”

The home of Heifer Project recipient Frantisek Martinik of Vresina, Silesia, April 1946. Photo courtesy of the George Craig family.

An UNRRA report describes the ceremony that took place at the State Farm on the handing over of the Heifer Project animals, along with 193 UNRRA cattle sent with them. In a “picturesque mountain village of Northern Moravia,” the report says girls in regional dress presented bouquets to the UNRRA and Brethren Service Committee representatives present. “After a formal reception, the traditional ceremony of village maidens wreathing cows with garlands of flowers took place against the background of snow-clad hills and dark pine forests.” Oh, for a photo of that ceremony!

The UNRRA report notes that some of the Brethren-donated heifers were bought with pennies from school children in Ohio. Dr. J. E. Sayre, of the US Fellowship of Reconciliation, who was traveling in Europe at the time, represented the Brethren Service Committee at the reception. In his remarks at the gathering, he said,

In this gift from the children of Ohio to their needy brothers and sisters in Moravia can surely be discerned the great spirit, not of the moment but of the years ahead, that must illuminate our troubled world. The children shall speak. I have traveled a long way to witness this consummation of the spirit of good will that began with the pennies of thousands of American children. I am happy to find the cattle in such good condition. To the children back home in Ohio I shall report: “Your pennies will soon be providing milk for the babies of Czechoslovakia, and this will be not only for this year but also for next year and for many years to come.”

 

“This cow is our saviour from starvation,” the Kysuconova family tells their donor, Silesia, 1946. Photo courtesy of the George Craig family.


Next post: Recipients share their gratitude.

A Heifer Project Christmas Story

While UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Czechoslovakia was on its way in December 1945, a second shipment was in the works. The Brethren Service Committee’s Heifer Project had been in contact with the Czechoslovakian Embassy in Washington, DC, offering a gift of heifers to this war-torn country for the neediest of recipients.

On December 5,  BSC’s Director of Material Aid John Metzler, Sr. notified the Heifer Project Committee:

Contacts with the Czechoslovak Embassy show a great deal of interest in cattle there. Cables were sent yesterday getting governmental clearance from Czechoslovakia on the matter of distribution. UNRRA has agreed to transport these cattle . . . provided we can complete proper negotiations with that government.

Wheels turned quickly, with the Committee voting approval of the shipment on December 18 if word of acceptance came from Czechoslovakia.

On December 22, UNRRA issued a press statement to be released on December 24, 1945:

One hundred and seventy-five head of cattle have been offered to UNRRA by the Church of the Brethren for the people of Czechoslovakia. The animals, now at the Roger Roop farm at Union Bridge, Maryland, are bred heifers whose average age is two years. . . . After being shipped by UNRRA from Baltimore to an allied controlled port in Germany, the livestock will be transported by rail to their new homes in Czechoslovakia.

When notified of the contribution, Dr. Vaclav Myslivec, representative of the Czechoslovakian Ministry of Agriculture in the United States, said, “The people of my country are badly in need of milk for their children. In expressing their appreciation for this gift I cannot but recall that there were cattle in the stable on the night when the baby Jesus was born. The spirit of that first Christmas lives on in the hearts of the American people who so generously gave these fine animals to rehabilitate the war-devastated dairy herds of Czechoslovakia.”

On the 12th Day of Christmas in January 1946, 170 heifers — donated by Brethren, Evangelical and Reformed congregations, Mennonites, and other churches from as far away as Idaho and Kansas — began their voyage to Czechoslovakia on the S. S. Charles W. Wooster.

Two of the Czechoslovakian children whose family benefited from the gift of a heifer, 1946. Photo sent with thank you letter, courtesy of Heifer International.

May the spirit of that first Christmas and that of 75 years ago live on.
Wishing all my readers a Blessed Holiday Season and New Year to come.
And God bless the seagoing cowboys who delivered hope to a war-torn world.
~Peggy

Extra post: “The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World®”

Have you ever been “given” a cow, or a goat, or a flock of chicks for Christmas, in name only, with the money going to Heifer International for them to provide that animal, along with training, to help lift a family out of poverty? Or have you ever received Heifer’s “Most Important Gift Catalog in the World®” at holiday time from which you can select such a gift for someone?

This catalog has been published for many years now. I’m currently working on a book about the first decade of the Heifer Project, and I’ve just come across a story which shows this idea was alive already in 1946, four years after Heifer was founded in 1942.

Here’s the story in the words of Thurl Metzger, then serving as volunteer administrative assistant in the Heifer Project office at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, through Civilian Public Service:

It began several weeks ago at a farewell party given for Wayne and Wilma Buckle. They are a couple who gave a year of service at the Center here and helped to start this plant in operation. They requested no gifts; instead, an offering was taken in honor of their service for a donation to the Heifer Project. This amounted to some thirty-odd dollars and at a later meeting the group decided to complete the amount necessary to purchase a heifer — the “Wilma Buckle Memorial Heifer”. A scheme was worked out for inter-department competition. Any department could use whatever means they chose, consistent with the ten commandments, but each was to keep the amount collected a secret. The climax of a final party was the heifer auctioning. A barefooted lassie from deep in the hills of Virginia led in the heifer whose udder looked surprisingly like a base-ball glove and whose four legs had shoes on. Each department was authorized to bid the amount which it had raised. The bidding was lively; the excitement was high and the cow performed well. When the bidding was over and the addition completed, a total of $512.30 had been contributed [enough for two heifers]. The money was given by the employees of the Service Center, many of whom are volunteer workers. There are now about 125 people here.

Still trying to think of an appropriate gift for that hard-to-buy person on your list? Heifer’s catalog is now also online. Choose your animal here.

Happy Holidays!

 

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Czechoslovakia

S. S. Henry Dearborn in Baltimore, MD, December 1945. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

On December 12, 1945, the S. S. Henry Dearborn pulled out of Baltimore with a load of 411 heifers for Czechoslovakia, the first of 37 shipments made by UNRRA to that war-torn country. It was smooth sailing until Christmas Eve. The cowboys awoke that morning to find that a storm had crashed one of the cattle pens during the night, killing some of the animals. Arthur Lewis noted in his diary, “A wave that was about 45 feet high went in the Captain’s room (higher up in the midships), and the Steward had 18 inches of water in his room.”

Six days later, the ship docked safely in Bremerhaven, Germany. The cowboys took advantage of shore leave on New Year’s Eve and enjoyed 30 minutes of fireworks “set off by the ship in the harbor,” according to Lewis. January 2, the cattle were unloaded and put on trains for their journey to Czechoslovakia.

Unloading cattle in Bremerhaven for their train journey to Czechoslovakia, January 2, 1945. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

Two days later, the ship moved on up the Weser River to Bremen to unload the grain stored in the lower holds. A stevedore strike, however, delayed unloading, and the ship remained in Bremen for 20 days.

“This gave us a lot of free time to travel around town and out into the country,” says seagoing cowboy Elvin Hess. “Several things that we noticed, the house and barn were one unit built together. Cow manure was dried and used for fuel in their stoves. Another thing that really stood out was many blocks were nothing but rubble, but if there was a church in the block, that was the only building that remained standing.”

Remains of a church in Bremen, Germany, January 1946. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

Rubble in Bremen, Germany, January 1946. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

Located in the American Zone of Occupation, the US Army had a presence there. The cowboys took advantage of the facilities and activities this offered them as Merchant Mariners. Nearly every day, Lewis notes going to the Seaman’s Club or the Red Cross building for milk shakes, ice cream, coffee, and donuts or cake–a luxury cowboys to other countries did not have. Many a day included seeing a play or movie, such as “Kiss and Tell” starring Shirley Temple, “G.I. Joe,” “Three Is a Family,” etc.

The Red Cross Club in Bremen, Germany, 1946. Photo credit: Gene Swords.

Hess says, “Many of our nights were spent at the Red Cross Center where we played ping pong, cards, etc. If we would miss the last trolley to the docks we would have to walk back through all the ruins. That was the most scary part of the trip.”

Bremen, Germany, January 1946. Photo credit: Arthur Lewis.

“The trip gave me the opportunity to meet many people in all walks of life and to let your life shine,” Hess says. “What stuck with me the most was that people who were our enemies just months before would sit down and talk with you about having Peace on Earth.”

So may it be today.

 

A Seagoing Cowboy presentation you don’t have to travel to!

I’ll be doing my first ever Zoom presentation on seagoing cowboys for the Indian Valley Public Library in Telford, PA, next week. If anyone would like to tune in, you can register here: https://ivpl.assabetinteractive.com/cal…/seagoing-cowboys/
It’s next Tuesday, December 8 at 7:00. Will run about an hour. Would love to see some of you there!

 

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part V—Home in time for Thanksgiving

When the S. S. Virginian left Poland October 10, 1945, the seagoing cowboy crew expected to be home within a couple of weeks. They didn’t anticipate orders for their ship to go on to three ports in Sweden to pick up wood pulp to carry back to the US. With this side trip, the cowboys had the opportunity to visit a country not nearly so war-beaten as Poland.

The Swedish flag represents the warm hospitality received by the seagoing cowboys there. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

On Friday, October 12, in the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland, the Virginian docked in the harbor of the little lumbering village of Vallvik. Cowboy Harry Kauffman described it as “the most beautiful spot I have ever seen. It is the beauty of nature – God’s green earth, low mountains covered with evergreen forests with a sprinkling of other trees with yellow and gold foliage – probably larches. The air is so rare and clear one can see for miles and oh what a contrast to the desolation and woe of Poland. It is a wonderful soothing relief in contrasts and relief so great that it nearly upsets one’s emotions. What strange creatures we are anyhow – we see sorrow and suffering until we shed tears and in just a little while again such splendor and beauty and peace that we look through eyes filled with tears and its hard to believe we are on the same earth.” Several of the cowboys echoed these thoughts.

A highlight for eight of the cowboys was finding a church in nearby Ljusne on Sunday in which to worship. “The walk was very invigorating and refreshing,” says R. Everett Petry, “as we followed a bicycle path all the way thru the pines and cedars. Here, as everywhere else, the bicycle was very much in evidence. It is very common to see an entire family out peddling along.”

Bicycles were the major form of transportation in the Swedish villages the seagoing cowboys visited, November 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

Petry described the church, which he estimated would seat about 500, as “not elaborate tho beautiful in its simplicity.” About 100 people came, mostly women. “We were unable to understand anything of what was said at any time, but still we felt that we had truly worshipped with them.” The cowboys were surprised at the end of the service when “an attractive lady (who they learned was the preacher’s wife) asked us in somewhat halting English, ‘Will you please enjoy a cup of coffee and light lunch with us?'”

Over coffee and pastries, “We talked with some who could understand us,” Petry says, “and truly, no one can ever know the wonderful feeling we enjoyed sharing the fellowship with those wonderful people.” The Swedes asked the cowboys to sing some American hymns, applauding after each one. “Finally we were asked to sing our National Anthem for them, which we willingly did, while every one of them very courteously stood, honoring us and our great United States.” Then they sang theirs, “and how that church did ring with their voices.”

On readying to leave, Petry says, “we stumbled onto the fact that they also sing one of our most popular hymns, ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ so all together, they in their native tongue and we in ours sang that hymn. We felt completely united in something very great and real.” Similar experiences of fellowship awaited the crew in their next stops, yet further north in Fagervik and Bollstabruk.

The Virginian departed Bollstabruk October 23 for the estimated 4,000-mile trip home. “Whoopie,” noted Kauffman in his journal, as eager as all the cowboys to get on their way home. But the ship was slowed down by fog, stalled off the southern tip of Sweden for a bad storm to pass, docked for naught in the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, Scotland due to missed signals before being sent through mine-infested waters on down to Southampton, England. There, on November 4, they picked up 132 US soldiers even more eager to get home than the cowboys.

US soldiers readying to board the S. S. Virginian in Southampton, England, for their return home, November 3, 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

On November 15, the Virginian finally pulled into an army pier in Brooklyn, New York, where the soldiers were met by a reception boat of WAC’s and a band.

The US Army welcomes the soldiers on the S. S. Virginian home, November 15, 1945.

Soldiers receive a rousing welcome home in Brooklyn, New York, November 15, 1945. Still shot from film footage of Ken Kortemeier.

The cowboys debarked the next day at Pier 21 on Staten Island. It would be a joyful Thanksgiving for all!