Luke Bomberger holds record for most seagoing cowboy trips

Luke graciously shared his seagoing cowboy stories with me in July 2004.

Luke Bomberger graciously shared his seagoing cowboy stories with me in July 2004.

When 17-year-old Luke Bomberger of Mt. Joy, Pennsylvania, set sail for Greece on the S. S. Charles W. Wooster on August 15, 1945, he had no idea his expected two-month adventure would last twenty-one months. The Charles Wooster was only the seventh livestock ship to leave the United States. It carried 335 horses and the first Mennonites to sign up for the program. As all of the seagoing cowboys were required to do, these men had to join the Merchant Marine to be able to legally work on a merchant ship.

Luke explores the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, with crew members of the S. S. Charles W. Wooster, 1945. Photo courtesy of Wilbur Layman.

Luke explores the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, with crew members of the S. S. Charles W. Wooster, 1945. Photo courtesy of Wilbur Layman.

 

In line with his Mennonite upbringing, Luke had registered with his draft board as a conscientious objector. He turned 18 while he was at sea on the Charles Wooster, and his draft board came calling. When his parents told the board where he was and what he was doing, the board said he should keep on doing it for his service. His Merchant Marine status was his ticket to a tour of duty.

Luke, top left, enjoyed life-long friendships with some of these crew mates of the S. S. Norwalk Victory, Feb. 1946. Photo courtesy of Elmer Bowers.

Luke, top left, enjoyed life-long friendships with some of these crew mates of the S. S. Norwalk Victory, Feb. 1946. Photo courtesy of Elmer Bowers.

Luke made nine trips before his discharge on April 25, 1947. He is likely the only seagoing cowboy who received a letter from President Harry Truman, “To you who answered the call of your country and served in its Merchant Marine to bring about the total defeat of the enemy, I extend the heartfelt thanks of the Nation….” He also received a “Certificate of Substantially Continuous Service in the United States Merchant Marine” from the United States Maritime Commission.

Hiking with crew mates outside Trieste, Italy, February 1946. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers.

Hiking with crew mates outside Trieste, Italy, February 1946. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers.

Luke’s nine trips took him across the Atlantic Ocean sixteen times and across the Pacific twice. He traveled on eight different ships that took him to Greece, Poland, Italy, Germany, the Island of Crete, and China. He proved himself a worthy sailor on his first trip when he was hired as a “Wiper” for the return stretch to fill in for a regular crewman who had to stay behind in Greece. At the young age of 18, he became a cowboy foreman on his fifth trip and served in that capacity at least twice more.

Cleaning stalls on the way to China aboard the S. S. Boulder Victory. Photo credit: Eugene Souder.

Cleaning stalls on the way to China aboard the S. S. Boulder Victory. Photo credit: Eugene Souder.

All was not smooth sailing for this young man, though. Close encounters with mines floating in the water on a couple of his ships, a fire in the engine room on another, a fall in which he broke his hand, and a horse bite that left a lifelong scar on his back added drama to some of his trips. His scariest moment, however, was aboard an older merchant ship, the S. S. Mexican, on his second trip. He was serving as night watchman, making his rounds to check on the animals. After one of his hourly reports to the bridge, his foot slipped coming down a rain-slicked ladder and he shot across the deck on his back right towards an opening on the side of the ship. All that saved him from disappearing into the dark Atlantic night was a narrow lip of metal at the opening that caught his foot and stopped his slide. He was grateful to be alive, cracked ribs and all.

Luke says his trips made him more aware of persons of other countries and their needs, which influenced his family’s hosting of international exchange visitors and students through the years.

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Acropolis or bust! The hair-raising bus ride of the F. J. Luckenbach crew

From the unpublished 1945 journal of Gordon Bucher comes this entertaining account of his bus ride from his ship in Patras, Greece, to the Acropolis:

Wednesday – July 18 & Thursday – July 19

Big day! I have to write this on Thurs. as you will soon know why. We started in an old bus about 11 for Athens. It took us about 7 hrs to get there & we were nearly jolted through our seats. The road is about as good as a cow path. The homes are made of mud brick & seem to be quite filthy. At Corinth we saw Old Corinth where Paul was at from a distance. Also we saw the canal that links the Gulf of Corinth to the other body of water. It was blown [up] & a ship was sunk at the entrance so it was closed. All along the way we saw where trains had been bombed & bridges also. We had quite a lot of detours or divisions as they called it around bridges. Some of the blown bridges we crossed anyhow if they weren’t too bad. We got to Athens about 6:30 and went to the Acropolis where the Parthenon & Pantheon are. It was a bunch of ruins from a high mt. . . .

F. J. Luckenbach crew at the Acropolis.

The F. J. Luckenbach crew at the Acropoplis, July 1945. For whatever reason, the cowboys on this ship were not allowed to take cameras on board. This is the only known picture from this trip, likely taken by an unidentified professional Greek photographer. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Frantz

Next we saw where they play the Olympic games. The stadium is quite large. Next it was Mars Hill where Paul preached. More ruins! About 9 we started back after waiting some time for one of our men & also the headlights. Our first trouble was horn trouble. ½ hr delay. Next it was a large landslide where we waited about an hr. Then at the canal we were held up for about 15 min. but as we were Americans they let us through. At Corinth we waited for 2 hrs. while the Greeks tried to repair the clutch. We were getting worried as the ship was supposed to leave from 8 to 9 [a.m.]. It was 3 [a.m.] when we left Corinth. Again we were delayed a short time which seemed like hrs. as the clutch was out again. Instead of fixing it we just went along in our old Ford without a clutch. And did we roll! We came so close to the edge of the cliff that I felt like I was riding on air & boy was it hard. These Greek drivers won’t give the right of way to any one. In our excursion we managed to hit a wheel barrow, sideswipe 2 cars, & hit most of the ruts in the road. At night they have only one light usually & as two cars approach they flicker the lights on & off. It’s . . . dumb. Of course, I’m from America. Anyhow the sunset & sunrise over the mts & water were beautiful. Also the moonlight. It really is beautiful around here. About 10 min. to 8 we pulled into Patras. It took 11 hrs. Some of the crew on board ship were sort of scared when we hadn’t shown up. So I went to bed as you can’t sleep on a bucking horse. About 3 our ship finally pulled out of Patras harbor with all of us aboard. It took some time to get out as the wind was against us & the stern had to go first.

Thanks, Gordon, for sharing this delightful account!

Next post: A “Cowboy” evaluates the trip to Europe with relief cattle

 

Five Elizabethtown College students make 2nd UNRRA ship out, but arrive first in Greece

This post will set the record straight for a friendly little rivalry that has taken place through the years between the Manchester College students and the Elizabethtown College students who were on the first two UNRRA livestock ships to depart the United States the end of June 1945.

When I first talked with Gordon Bucher about his trip on the F. J. Luckenbach to Greece [see Jan. 23 post] that left New Orleans June 24, 1945, he wanted to know, “Wasn’t ours the first ship to leave the U. S.?” Having found the UNRRA records, I was able to tell him, “Yes.” The Elizabethtown cowboys who departed from Baltimore on the SS Virginian June 26, 1945, had always said they were on the first ship out. But diary accounts from the two trips and the UNRRA records show otherwise.

Turns out, it was an honest mistake on the part of the E-town cowboys, as even the media thought this to be the first shipment. The Baltimore Sun newspaper said on June 25, 1945:

GREECE CATTLE SAILS TODAY

UNRRA Shipment To Be First Consignment

     Laden with 704 head of dairy cattle and horses, the first consignment of such animals to be sent to a European country by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration the freighter Virginian will leave Baltimore today for Greece, where the livestock will be used in an agricultural rehabilitation program . . . .

The F. J. Luckenbach had already left New Orleans when this article went to press, and the Virginian didn’t leave port until a day after the article appeared, if the date typed under the article given to me is correct. Other media gave the same story, including the August 1945 Baltimore & Ohio Magazine:

First UNRRA Livestock Shipment for Europe Rides B&O

The article tells of the arrival to Baltimore on the B&O railway of 335 Brown Swiss bred heifers and twelve bulls and 357 light draft mares . It goes on to say:

This “first shipment” created a great deal of interest among the UNRRA people and various publicity agencies. The Coast Guard, Life, the Baltimore papers and the newsreel agencies all had photographers on the job . . . .

All of this while the Luckenbach was already on its way.

But alas, the Luckenbach was not to be the first to arrive in Greece. The Virginian, departing closer to Europe, arrived at its destination of Piraeus, Greece, the port for Athens, on Saturday, July 14, and gained the honor of delivering the first UNRRA heifers to Europe. The Luckenbach arrived in Patras, Greece, two days later on Monday, July 16.

First heifer to Greece.

A proud Greek poses with the first UNRRA heifer to put foot on European soil. Photo courtesy of Earl Holderman

Both crews were able to visit the Acropolis, via a short $5.00 taxi ride for the Virginian crew and a hair-raising bus ride across the Peloponnese peninsula for the Luckenbach crew that almost made them miss their ship home. [Look for this story in my next post.]

Virginian crew at the Acropolis.

Members of the Virginian crew at the Acropolis, July 15, 1945. Photo courtesy of Earl Holderman

After unloading in Greece, both ships also stopped in Naples to pick up U. S. soldiers who had fought in Europe during the war to take them home – 140 for the Virginian and 150 for the Luckenbach. The Luckenbach, however, arrived home first. Their entire cargo had been unloaded in Patras, after which they were ready to head back across the Atlantic; whereas the Virginian unloaded only part of its cargo in Piraeus and then had to travel further up around Greece to Salonika to unload the rest. Even with a stop at Béni Saf in Africa to pick up iron ore after picking up their soldiers in Naples, the Luckenbach had a considerable head start on the Virginian, arriving in New York City ten days ahead of them on August 10. They were met with a rousing welcome home for the soldiers on Staten Island complete with a WAC band playing the “Beer Barrel Polka” and a black band playing hot jazz, before finally docking in Jersey City. The Virginian delivered their soldiers to Newport News and finally docked in Brooklyn on August 20. No matter which ship they were on, the cowboys were glad to be back on U. S. soil.

Sources: Gordon Bucher’s unpublished journal and the report of the S.S. Virginian crew titled “Relief for Greece.”

Next post: Acropolis or bust! The hair-rising bus ride of the F. J. Luckenbach crew.