An Amish Seagoing Cowboy’s Story: Clarence Stutzman

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.

On the campus of the Brethren Service Center, former Blue Ridge College. The old gym on the right housed much of the relief activity. Photo credit: Howard Lord.

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 cowboy crew on Clarence Stutzman’s ship, the S. S. Virginian, January 1946. Photo courtesy of Alpheus Rohrer.

“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 .

The Danzig Mennonite Church destroyed in World War II. Photo credit: Stutzman’s shipmate Richard Rush.

Title page of a songbook retrieved from the Danzig Mennonite Church by seagoing cowboy Levi Miller, summer 1946. The title means “The Day Begins.” Photo by Peggy Reiff Miller.

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. 

Belt buckle of a German soldier. Peggy Reiff Miller collection, from the
family of cowboy Milton Lohr.

“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.

An Amish Seagoing Cowboy’s Story: Lores Steury

Seagoing cowboys signed on to the job for a variety of reasons. Some were simply looking for adventure. Some wanted to see for themselves what the war had done. Others wanted to do something worthwhile to help those suffering from the war. For Amishman Lores Steury, the motivation was far more personal.

Steury had served over three years in Civilian Public Service camps during the war. Dissatisfaction hit him hard when he came home from CPS to his family farm. He and his family belonged to an independent Amish group, the Reformed Amish Christian, under an authoritarian leader. “They had no connection with anybody,” Steury said. “And that became very disappointing. That’s the one reason I decided to take a seagoing cowboy trip—to get away and decide what I really want to do with my life.”

Unlike Cletus Schrock who didn’t find out he would be excommunicated until he got home from his livestock trip, Steury decided to go knowing full well what would happen on his return. So he kept his plans to himself and rented a post office box for his correspondence with the seagoing cowboy office. “And then I made a mistake,” he said. “I gave them my home address at the farm, and my mother got the mail the day I got a card to report to Newport News. It was very difficult for my parents to know that I couldn’t be part of the church anymore. But they helped me out as much as they could. They took me to the train station.”

Seagoing Cowboys signed onto their ships at the Brethren Service Committee office at Pier X in Newport News, Virginia. Photo by Elmer Bowers.

When Steury arrived in Newport News, he met three young Mennonite men he knew from Indiana. The guys had to wait in port a few days before signing onto their ship, and there Steury experienced several “firsts”: seeing his first movies (Westerns), having a date with a girl he didn’t already know (from the nearby Mennonite community his three shipmates had contact with), and seeing separate drinking fountains and places on a bus for black people. On Sunday, December 15, the foursome departed on the S. S. Queens Victory to take a load of 770 mules to Greece.

Seagoing cowboys on the S. S. Queens Victory headed for Greece, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Earl Rohrer.

Steury found mules easy to take care of. “Just feed and water ’em and let ’em do as they please,” he said. He had heard others talk of having a much harder time with horses that needed to be kept standing the whole way across the ocean and would often bite. The easier work with mules left time for playing chess and checkers and other games.

A seagoing cowboy waters mules on the sister ship S. S. Attleboro Victory, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Harold Cullar.

“At night, I liked to be on the fantail and watch the propellers stir up the water making the phosphorus light up in the dark,” Steury said. “And I’d think, now what am I going to do with my life? Would I be a seagoing sailor that would enjoy the sea, maybe as a ship carpenter? Am I gonna go back home and be a prodigal son and say I did all wrong what I’d done? I just never felt I could do that.”

A worship service for Steury’s crew on the S. S. Queens Victory, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Earl Rohrer.

Steury’s ship docked in Piraeus, the port for Athens. “We did some sightseeing but the natives were very uneasy as Greece was in a Civil War at the time,” he said. He talked with people who had been on the brink of starvation during the German occupation. And he was approached by a man who wanted Steury and his friend to help him hide on the ship and help feed him. They told him, “We can’t do that. You’d get in trouble and we would, too.”

The man found another way. By the time the Queens Victory reached the Atlantic Ocean, he and six other Greeks desperate to get to the United States had made their presence known. “He was so happy!” Steury said. But his happiness was short lived. When the ship arrived in New York, the stowaways were put off at Ellis Island; and according to Steury, the shipping company had to pay $1,000 apiece to send them back to Greece.

On arriving home after some sightseeing in New York City, Steury said, laughing, “They didn’t butcher a fatted calf.” He was soon excommunicated and took up farming outside Berne with his Uncle Dan who belonged to the Evangelical Mennonite Church. He met his wife-to-be at a Rural Youth social. “I feel greatly blessed when I review my life with my lovely wife and family,” he told me. They ended up living in Goshen, Indiana, where he worked for Goshen College. “Thank the good Lord I did move to my cousin’s house and farm for Uncle Dan.”

An Amish Seagoing Cowboy’s Story: Cletus Schrock

UNRRA’s seagoing cowboys came from all denominations, religions, and non-religions. The stakes were the highest for some of the Amish cowboys whose Bishops did not allow such worldly activity. One of those cowboys was Cletus Schrock, a young Old Order Amish farmer from Topeka, Indiana.

As a conscientious objector to war, Cletus served in Civilian Public Service during World War II from September 1942 through the end of March 1946. In February 1946, the US Selective Service System agreed to allow CPSers to apply for “detached service” in the CPS Reserve to serve on livestock ships delivering animals to Europe until discharged.

Peggy Reiff Miller interviews Cletus Schrock, July 7, 2008.

“I was working in a mental hospital in Staunton, Virginia,” he told me, “and I tried to get into the detached service.” The hospital superintendent, however, said, “I can’t let you go. I don’t have a replacement. So I was stuck ’til I got my Selective Service discharge.” That day arrived on March 31.

CPS release form for Cletus Schrock.

“I just packed a suitcase and went to the Brethren Service office in Newport News, and they said I’m on the next ship out.” That ship was the S. S. Carroll Victory headed for Poland with a load of horses April 11, 1946.

“I was brought up with horses,” he said, “so I was in charge of one hold of 154 of them. I had three men helping me that they hired off the street to be cowboys.”

Cletus Schrock is the cowboy with a mark over his head. Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

In Poland, Cletus recalls the devastation: “Alles kaputt!” he said. Everything’s ruined! “That’s what a lot of them would say. There was only two buildings in the big city of Danzig that I remember were not damaged. The rest of ’em were just pretty well dilapidated.”

Cletus, center cowboy, with the Roth brothers befriended a Polish boy in the ruins of Danzig/Gdansk, Poland, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

Women at work cleaning up the debris in Gdansk, Poland, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

The cowboys found remnants of the war not far from the ship.

Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

And like many of the cowboys, Cletus met people who wanted desperately to go to America. One couple who befriended him said, “If there’s any way we could be stowaways and hide on the ship….” He had to turn them down. As he did the woman by his side in this photo.

Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

On the return trip, Cletus got a break. “See, the boys were supposed to wash down all the stalls,” he said. “I didn’t have to do any of that, because I had my hair cutting tools in my locker, and one of the boys seen I had ’em. The guys were wanting hair cuts and the word got around to the captain. The first guy I cut hair was the captain, and that was quite interesting. I got to be right up there where all the controls were. So I cut hair. And that’s all I did coming back. I got to know men from all over the country, and some of ’em paid me a dollar.”

When Cletus arrived home, his Amish community found out about his trip. “That wasn’t good news for me,” he said. His first Sunday back, his Amish bishops cornered him and said, “We heard about what you did. We don’t believe in that.”

Cletus had come to appreciate the Mennonites who ran the CPS camps in which he had served, so he decided to leave the Amish and join a Mennonite congregation near him. “I knew I had helped people,” he said, “and so I didn’t feel like one of the Amish anymore.”

His decision to leave came at a greater cost than just being cut off from his church family. “My dad had bought a farm for me of 120 acres with buildings on it that I was to get if I stayed Amish. Since I didn’t stay Amish, I didn’t get anything. It didn’t bother me that much, because it wasn’t my main goal. I just learned a lot about helping people, especially when I worked in the hospital, and then going on over across.”

 

Special Post: S. S. Woodstock Victory carries Heifer Project cattle to Poland 70 years ago today

seagoingcowboy-cover_FINAL-smallerMarch 3, 2016, marks the 70th anniversary of the first trip of the S. S. Woodstock Victory as a livestock carrier. The Woodstock Victory is the ship featured in my children’s picture book to be released March 31, so I wanted to celebrate this day with a special post about the ship.

On March 3, 1946, 762 bawling heifers, 8 bulls, and 89 mares left Newport News, Virginia, on the Woodstock Victory bound for Poland. Of those heifers, 230 were sent by the Heifer Project as gifts to the most needy of Poland’s farmers. The rest of the animals were sent by UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration). UNRRA’s recipients were required to pay in some form for their animals.

Seagoing cowboys get ready to pull up hay for their mules on the S. S. Woodstock Victory to Greece in January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Seagoing cowboys get ready to pull up hay for their mules on the S. S. Woodstock Victory to Greece in January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

“Floating barns” is what one Amish seagoing cowboy called the livestock ships. The seagoing cowboy supervisor for this trip, Don Bortner, reported, “We loaded 8485 bales of hay, 1831 bales of straw, 1595 bags of dairy feed and 100 bags of oats.” And, like the cycle of life in any barn on land, the “floating barns” had their ups and downs for the animals. Two of the gift heifers died on the way, one of toxema from a calf not being born and one of pneumonia. Another, “Heifer bsc 3131,” writes Bortner, “was admitted to the Hospital in Hatch four on the nite of Mar. 7, the roughest nite on the trip. After sticking her all over with needles and shaving her side she finally give in and lay on her left side. Dr. Quartrup and Dr. Freidman with the assistance of many cowboys performed a Ceasarian Operation. Had this not been done the heifer would have died. . . . I think the vets did a wonderful job under many handicaps.”

Amish cowboy Melvin R. Yoder was on this trip. His story was reported by Elmer S. Yoder in the October 2002 issue of Stark County Mennonite & Amish Historical Society’s Heritage newsletter:

Melvin and three others were assigned 100 heifers on the second deck down. The 100 heifers were in a large section or “pen” on the floor.

The trip to Poland took about two weeks. He remembers the excitement among the sailors when Bishop’s Rock was sighted on the south coast of England and at the head of the English Channel. They observed the white cliffs of Dover and headed into the North Sea, which Melvin said was described to them as the graveyard of the ocean.

The Woodstock Victory makes its way through the Kiel Canal on its third trip to Poland in June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

The Woodstock Victory makes its way through the Kiel Canal on its third trip to Poland in June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

They sailed through the Kiel Canal and into the Baltic. Due to the danger of mines, the ship anchored at night and sailed only during daylight hours, with two minesweepers preceding it.
. . . . After the heifers and horses were unloaded the cattlemen were free to do some sightseeing. But the main sights he remembers and has photographs of are the destruction and devastation of the war. The ship was not carrying any cargo on the return trip. . . .they had very few, if any, chores. . . .

Cowboys pass time playing cards on the Woodstock Victory's return from Greece, February 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Cowboys pass time playing cards on the Woodstock Victory‘s return from Greece, February 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

They used their non-sleeping time mainly to play cards. Melvin took with him a barbering outfit, even though he was a novice, and gave haircuts to cattlemen. He did not say how many or how much he charged.

Over the course of a year, the Woodstock Victory made a total of six livestock trips, five to Poland and the final trip in January 1947 to Greece. She transported a total of 2,447 mares, 1,583 heifers, and 15,000 chicks to Poland and 790 mules to Greece.

The seagoing cowboy crew of the S. S. Woodstock Victory, June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

The seagoing cowboy crew of the S. S. Woodstock Victory, June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

Plaque inside the Woodstock Victory. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Plaque inside the Woodstock Victory. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Roy Auernheimer in Greece, January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Jasper Dunn in Greece, January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.