Clarence Stutzman grew up in an Amish community in Hutchinson, Kansas. When I interviewed him in 2015, he said, “It’s still a mystery to me how my mother let me go.” When he read of the need for seagoing cowboys in the Mennonite Weekly, he thought, I can do that.
“I was a light-weight guy at the time—17 and 120 pounds. I remember my mom saying, ‘Aw, you’re too small, they wouldn’t take a child like you.’ I went ahead and sent in a letter. The first thing I knew, I get a telegram to report to New Windsor, Maryland. No questions asked. No physical, no interview, no nothing.”
It was a big thing in those days to get a telegram. “I guess my folks were so shocked they didn’t know what to do.” He said they didn’t want to go against MCC, so they agreed and bought him a train ticket.
On arrival at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, where the seagoing cowboy office was located, he sorted clothing and did other relief jobs for a couple of weeks the end of December 1945 until his ship was ready to go.
There he learned that he had to be 18 to get a seaman’s card at that time. Fortunately for him, his birthday was December 31, as his orders were to report to his ship January 1st. He made it on board the S. S. Virginian when it departed from Baltimore for Poland January 4, 1946.
“The trip was life-changing for me,” Stutzman says. His experiences mirrored those of other cowboys who went to Poland. Floating mines in European waters, a tour by UNRRA in the back of an army truck that took them to former concentration camps and battlefields, acquiring souvenirs. He bought a songbook from an old peddler scavenged from the abandoned Danzig Mennonite Church .
One souvenir in particular initiated the change in Stutzman’s life—a belt buckle that he cut off a dead German soldier’s uniform. Being Amish, he knew the German language. The buckle bore the words “Gott mit uns,” meaning “God is with us.” Having been taught all his life by his Amish and Christian upbringing not to fight, this hit him hard.
“We were thinking of the Germans as very heathen for what they were doing—not that there might be Christians on the other end of the fighting. When I saw that this was a Christian fellow and he was killed on the battlefield, how Christians were fighting each other, it put me into a real paradox theologically.”
Unlike Amish cowboys Cletus Schrock and Lores Steury who were excommunicated for taking their trips, Stutzman was welcomed home and treated well. His theological questioning had begun, however. About four years later, he left the Amish church and joined a Mennonite congregation. His obituary says he lived an “incredibly full life….He was full of ideas, grand plans, ingenuity, wonderlust [sic], and eternal optimism.” He traveled the world and had two patents.
“My experiences were real wide,” he told me. And it all started with a cattle boat trip to Poland.