Seagoing Cowboy excursion turns tragic

Not all seagoing cowboy stories had a happy ending. The trip of the S. S. Henry Dearborn in February 1947 was sailing along like any other. The 177 UNRRA horses, 176 UNRRA cattle, and 113 Heifer Project goats had been offloaded in Brindisi, Italy, where they were to be ferried on to Albania.

Postcard from Brindisi, Italy, February 1947. Courtesy of C. H. Beam.

After a week of sightseeing for the cowboys there and a stop in Bari, Italy, to pick up cargo for ballast, an intended short stop in Catania, Sicily, turned deadly.

Postcard from Catania, Sicily. Courtesy of C. H. Beam.

The lure of Mt. Etna, about twenty miles inland and erupting at the time, enticed ten of the cowboys and their foreman to hire a truck for 8,000 lire to take them up the mountain. “It was a nice trip up,” says Iowa cowboy Dale Wicks. “All the way up the mountain was farms. It was all terraced. There would be a stone wall, then a strip six or eight feet wide, then there would be another stone wall. It was all farmed that way. It looked like stair steps going up the mountain.

“There was snow on Mt. Etna. We didn’t get clear to the top, just as far as we could go by truck. It looked as though we could walk, but since our time was limited we didn’t get to. We started down about four o’clock. Jesse Ziegler, the foreman of our crew, made the remark, ‘This trip was the best thing we had had on the trip.’ It wasn’t until about fifteen minutes later until he was dead.”

The truck, as it turned out, had faulty brakes. “The driver was depending on shifting down to hold the speed down,” says Wicks. “When he went to shift down one time, he couldn’t get it in gear. He didn’t have enough brakes to hold it, so we just kept goin’ faster and faster. Most of us riding in the open back of the truck knew it would probably crash, so we huddled up against the back of the cab.” Three cowboys jumped out, two suffering major and minor bruises and one a broken wrist.

Out of control, the truck crashed into one of the stone walls and flipped over into a ravine. Ziegler, riding in the cab, Paul Glick, and Joseph Connellen were killed almost instantly. Four, including Wicks, were unconscious. The driver fled the scene. Some men going up the mountain in a horse-drawn cart came to the rescue, loading up the injured. They soon met a truck and transferred the injured to the truck for the ride to the hospital in Catania.

“It wasn’t much of a hospital,” Wicks recalls. Supplies were low after the war. “When I woke up, I was in bed with all of my clothes, even my shoes, on. Sanitation was very poor. None of the boys with broken bones were given anesthetic to set them. They were left two or three days before they did anything with them. You could hear them holler for quite a ways.”

The Des Moines Tribune picked up the news from the Associated Press. Courtesy of Dale Wicks family.

Eight days after the accident, UNRRA flew the six hospitalized cowboys to a U.S. Army hospital in Naples. Five of them were released two days later. They were checked into an UNRRA hotel and enjoyed seeing the sights until UNRRA finally found passage home for them on a ship filled mostly with war brides.

It was touch and go for the sixth cowboy, David Roy. His parents received a telegram saying he was in serious condition with a fractured left tibia and a severe laceration to his right knee complicated with gas gangrene. After his transfer to Naples, he also developed tetanus. His wife Jean says, “He has been told that he is only one of a few survivors of both tetanus and gas gangrene (from that period).”

For the cowboys not involved in the accident and the survivors well enough to board the ship, the trip home was a sober one. “They told us that the Steamship Co., Red Cross and American Consul would take care of the injured and the dead and notifying the next of kin,” Jesse Ziegler’s nephew George wrote to his mother. “The crew feels pretty bad about the bad luck and of course, we cowboys that are left do too. Flag flies at half mast.”

Heifer Project Executive Secretary Benjamin Bushong happened to be in Italy at the time of the accident. His attempts to have the bodies of the deceased cowboys shipped home failed when he could find no one to embalm them. “The Italians just don’t do things that way,” he said. They were moved instead to Palermo, Italy, where Brethren Service Committee worker Eugene Lichty, stationed in Carrara, and a Waldensian Church pastor conducted the funeral service. “These three bodies were placed in a beautiful small Protestant Cemetery on the edge of the city with a high mountain to the rear and the Sea in the opposite direction,” says Bushong.

After arriving home, Wicks suffered for ten years with terrible pain in his hip. When the doctors finally operated they found pocket after pocket of pus where bits of cinders had embedded themselves when Wicks slid over the lava-laden ground. Despite his injuries, he says, “I never was sorry I went. It was a very meaningful experience for me.”

Dale and Ruth Wicks, July 1, 2006. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

Next post: The wives who were left behind.

Dr. Martin M. Kaplan: Heifer International’s second seagoing cowboy delivers bulls to Greece, Part I

It was an eventful crossing of the Atlantic for seagoing cowboy and veterinarian Dr. Martin M. Kaplan. His “unusual mission” started the day World War II ended in Europe in May 1945.

With his veterinary degree and master’s degree in public health, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) hired Dr. Kaplan to accompany six pedigreed bulls to Greece. The bulls were a gift of the Heifer Project to service an insemination program of the Near East Foundation. Greece had lost 40% of its cattle during the war. The insemination program would help the Greek dairy industry recover.

After a long train ride from UNRRA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Kaplan arrived in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, the morning of Thursday, May 10, to meet his ship. However, when UNRRA contracted the Swedish vessel M/S Boolongena, the war was still on. “The neutral Swedes did not want to break rules by having a paying passenger on one of their freighters going into a war zone,” Kaplan says. So with his master’s in public health, UNRRA was able to sign Kaplan on as the ship’s doctor.

M/S Boolongena, 1952. Source: City of Vancouver Archives. Photographer: Walter Edwin Frost.

Kaplan soon met “the six crosses I would bear” and the man who had purchased them for the Brethren Service Committee, Benjamin Bushong. Bushong was to have tended the bulls until sailing, but an urgent development with the 50 heifers being gathered for Heifer Project’s next shipment to Puerto Rico pulled him away.

In Kaplan’s entertaining report to UNRRA, he says, “[The bulls] were in an isolated railroad car, 1½ miles away from the ship. All the feed and water were gone, ½ bale of hay remained, 2 bulls were completely unbroken, and darkness was approaching….After throwing this lapful at me, Bushong bid me a cheery good-bye, and assured me that I would have little trouble.”

Kaplan had the railroad car moved closer to the ship and procured feed and hay after which he endured “rain and snow for three days, a growing compost pile that assumed formidable proportions by the fourth day in the middle of the car, [and] six suspicious bulls.”

The Heifer Project’s six Brown Swiss pedigreed bulls after arrival in Greece, May 1945. Photo credit: UNRRA Photograph.

In the meantime, stalls were built under the forecastle deck, the location at the front of the ship that normally housed sailors’ living quarters. This meant having to get the bulls through a 2½-feet-wide doorway, “but it was the best location available,” Kaplan says.

Departure was set for Monday, May 14. At 6:00 a.m., two hours before loading time, Kaplan says, “I fed the animals heavily to dull the edge of their tempers for the forthcoming excitement (my drugs hadn’t as yet arrived). There was little difficulty in moving the animals individually from the railroad car directly into a horse-box, thence by means of a crane onto the deck. The delicate procedure was to lead them through a narrow doorway, up a 20 feet long wooden ramp, over obstacles reminiscent of a steeple chase, into their individual stalls.” This task fell to Kaplan when the longshoremen, normally the only ones allowed to touch the cargo during loading, “formally invited” Kaplan “to lead the bulls to their stalls. . . . I led four of them and was chased by two,” Kaplan says, “but they all ended up in their respective places with a net result of one slightly squashed finger.”

[to be continued in April 12 post]

UNRRA and the Brethren Service Committee Partner Up

As World War II was ravaging Europe, a number of the allied nations hammered out a plan to help the devastated countries recover when the war ended. On November 9, 1943, forty-four nations, meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, chartered the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).

M.R. Zigler, Executive Secretary of the Brethren Service Committee

Brethren Service Committee Executive Secretary M.R. Zigler was a real mover and a shaker, destined for his time in history. Source unknown.

The Heifer Project of the Church of the Brethren Service Committee was already underway at that time. Heifers were being donated and raised for shipment to Spain (see last post), with growing interest in shipping to Belgium, as well. M.R. Zigler, the executive secretary of the Brethren Service Committee (BSC), lobbied UNRRA during its formative time to ship Heifer Project animals to Europe. But many UNRRA officials believed shipping livestock was too hazardous an undertaking. Meanwhile, the Heifer Project successfully made their first shipment of animals to Puerto Rico in May 1944.

A year later, in early May 1945 as the war in Europe was coming to an end, the Agricultural Rehabilitation Division of UNRRA finally obtained permission to ship livestock. A request had come in from the Near East Foundation for bulls for Greece to help rebuild their devastated dairy industry through artificial insemination. UNRRA called on M.R. Zigler for help, and Zigler called on Benjamin Bushong, a Brethren dairyman and cattle breeder from Pennsylvania.

Ben Bushong

Benjamin G. Bushong. Courtesy Mark Bushong.

The bull Parnassus in Greece.

The bull Parnassus being led to the Greek Orthodox bishop for blessing. Courtesy of United Nations Archives and Record Management Section.

Bushong located six purebred Brown Swiss bulls that fit the bill. Heifer Project paid for and donated the bulls for UNRRA to ship to Greece. The bulls left St. John’s, Canada, May 14, 1945, on the SS Boolongena. That same day, the Ag Rehab Division of UNRRA requisitioned 600 mares and 600 head of cattle to be prepared for shipment.

Ships were lined up. Feed was purchased. But UNRRA had a problem: where would they get the men to take care of the animals on the ships? The UNRRA Livestock Program Historical Report says,

[M]ost available manpower was either in defense work or in military service. Faced with the problem of a ship soon ready to sail, the BSC was asked to supply enough men for this first vessel. Since the constituency of the Church of the Brethren was of rural background, it was believed that enough men could be found who had farm deferments and thus would be available for this voyage. In a short time enough men had signified their availability to man several ships and thus the program of recruiting ‘sea-going cowboys’ was begun.

An agreement was worked out between UNRRA and the Brethren Service Committee that the BSC would recruit the estimated 8,000 cattle tenders UNRRA would need for its projected shipments; in return, UNRRA would provide free shipping for the Heifer Project animals sent on UNRRA ships. By the end of the program less than two years later, about 7,000 men and boys ages 16 to 72 had served as seagoing cowboys on UNRRA’s 360 livestock shipments. They accompanied some 300,000 animals to Europe and China, of which 4,000 were from the Heifer Project.

You might wonder, why on earth did a church organization take on such a monumental task for a non-church agency? UNRRA’s historical report says,

The Church of the Brethren was and is actively interested in dynamic Christianity. The willingness to provide men for the first ships was due to a realization of an urgent need in a justifiable project which was in critical circumstances. However, the contracting for 8,000 men was based on broader and perhaps more fundamental reasons. First of all was the belief that the livestock program was one which was extremely significant for the rebuilding of war devastated countries. Because of the rural background, the denomination could use some of its abilities in this unusual work. It was also believed that for many such a trip would be an unusually broadening and educational experience which would express itself in an increased interest in the relief program, a better understanding of the effects of war on the lives of people, an active desire to build a better world. These may have been idealistic motivations but numerous examples can now be cited to prove the justification of such reasoning.”

And my interviews of well over 150 of these men bear this statement out.

Next post: Cowboys at sea and abroad on Thanksgiving