Seagoing Cowboy Program Turns 75 this year!

Happy New Year to my faithful readers!

This year will mark the 75th anniversary of many significant events surrounding the end of World War II. Besides the end of fighting, the event that excites me most is the beginning of UNRRA’s seagoing cowboy program, initiated with UNRRA’s first shipment of June 24, 1945. I look forward to sharing bits of this history with you throughout the year – a history of helping a war-torn world rebuild.

For starters, let’s look at what the seagoing cowboy experience entailed as spelled out in a document titled “Information for Livestock Attendants.”

The following information comes from men who have already been to Europe as livestock attendants and is backed by their experience.

Handling of Animals

  1. Attendants should have and should exhibit a natural love for animals – a calm voice, with gentle treatment and manners, with no evidence of fear, is most effective.

    Cowboys on the S. S. Adrian Victory tend the horses on way to Greece, Oct. 1946. Photo: Elmer Bowers.

  2. Attendants should check carefully the eating habits and bodily functions of animals under their care and should report irregularities to the veterinarian at once.
  3. Each attendant will feed, water and care for 25 to 35 animals (cows, heifers, horses, mules, bulls) under the supervision of the veterinarian and the supervisor.
  4. Each man should assume his duties willingly and discharge them faithfully. This is not a pleasure ship.
  5. Cleaning should be done daily, as per instructions.

    Luke Bomberger cleans cattle stalls on the S. S. Boulder Victory to China, Feb. 1947. Photo: Eugene Souder.

  6. Be diligent in keeping watch – sometimes a delay of 15 minutes may mean the life of an animal under your charge.

Customs Aboard Ship

  1. It is well to have a talk with the ship’s captain or one of the mates before putting out to sea to learn the practices aboard ship, to discover what suggestions he may have regarding conduct of the crew aboard ship, privileges, responsibilities and general conduct. Remember the captain is the absolute master of all aboard his ship.

    Cowboys on the S. S. Carroll Victory watch chief engineer and mate cut chain. 1947. Photo: Charles Lord.

  2. Be friendly at all times with the ship’s regular crew. Let nothing disturb that relationship. Crew members respect character in others and expect to be treated as gentlemen.

    Luke Bomberger gets a tour of the engine room on the S. S. Boulder Victory to China, Feb. 1947. Photo: Eugene Souder.

  3. Ignore the caste system aboard ship and don’t let it disturb you.
  4. Do not abuse dining hall privileges. Snacks at night are for men who are on duty. When using this privilege when on duty, men must assume their part in cleaning up.
  5. Danger of fire at sea is terrific. Refrain from smoking.
  6. Men should be sure their mailing address is understood and forwarded to their homes before leaving. There are many uncertainties and do not be too much disturbed if mail does not reach you.

    Seagoing cowboy Bob Richards made sure his crew on the S. S. Virginian knew their mailing address. Orville Hersch scrapbook.

Conduct in Foreign Ports

  1. One can reflect credit or discredit upon the organization and the people he represents by the way he conducts himself among strangers. Be sensible – act discreetly and with an open, frank friendliness toward the people in the foreign ports. Act like Christians at all times.

    Shopping at the open air market in Trieste, Italy, Feb. 1946. Photo: Elmer Bowers.

  2. Never try to violate port rules or to evade port inspector’s regulations.
  3. Plan your own shore tours with competent guides. Ignore “gate offers”. Consult the UNRRA representative who boards the ship, the U.S. consul, and if available representatives of private relief agencies, cooperatives, Red Cross, church men, FOR members, et al.
  4. Crew members and livestock attendants are faced with the temptation to trade with black market operators in foreign ports. Cigarette sales, as well as sales of clothing at exorbitant prices are temptations to many of our men. Faced with such a situation one must keep in mind his purpose in coming to Europe. He has come to the people with help – not to help exploit them.

To be continued…

What do Olympic pole-vault champion Bob Richards, author of Sophie’s Choice William Styron, and Harvard theologian Harvey Cox have in common?

If you guessed they were all seagoing cowboys, you are right! They were three of the nearly 7,000 adventurous souls who took time out of their lives to tend livestock sent on ships to Europe after World War II for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the Heifer Project.

Bob Richards was 19 and a pre-ministerial student at Bridgewater College when he responded to the first round of calls for men to serve as cattle attendants for UNRRA. He sailed on the second UNRRA livestock ship to depart – the SS Virginian, leaving Baltimore for Greece on June 26, 1945.

Seagoing cowboy crew of the SS Virginian

The seagoing cowboy crew of the SS Virginian gathered at the Baltimore Church of the Brethren. Photo courtesy of Jerry Lefever.

Richards served as assistant editor for a report made by the cattlemen of this trip titled “Relief for Greece.” The report says that he gave the message at the cowboy crew’s second Sunday worship service on board. His topic: “You are the Light of the World.” Richards went on to become a minister in the Church of the Brethren for a time and taught religion classes at LaVerne College in California, while at the same time keeping up his pole-vault training and winning gold medals in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics.

William Styron signed up as a seagoing cowboy on an impulse the summer of 1946, according to his biographer James L. W. West III in William Styron, A Life. After three years of college and a short U.S. Marine Corps stint at the end of World War II, Styron wanted a summer break. He was staying with his parents in Newport News, Virginia, and was looking for a way to pass the time while waiting to participate in the prestigious two-week Bread Loaf writer’s conference that August. “Perhaps, he thought, he might do some seafaring,” West writes. And seafaring he did! Aboard the SS Cedar Rapids Victory that left Newport News July 10, 1946, bound for Trieste, Italy.

William Styron's card from the seagoing cowboy card file.

William Styron’s card from the seagoing cowboy card file. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

A dock worker strike in Trieste gave Styron the gift of added time abroad. He later drew on his time there to write “A Moment in Trieste,” a sketch that was published in 1948 in American Vanguard, a collection of pieces by “young American authors on the verge of professional recognition” edited by Don M. Wolfe. Biographer West tells me in an email that “late in his career, William Styron thought about basing a novel on his Cedar Rapids voyage. It was to be a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist, with experience as a Marine in WWII, encountered new experiences….” Sadly for us, that novel never got written. Styron died in 2006.

That same summer, 17-year-old Harvey Cox of Malvern, Pennsylvania, was looking for adventure between his junior and senior years of high school. He found it on the SS Robert W. Hart. Cox devotes an entire chapter to this voyage in Just As I Am, his book about his faith journey. The Hart left Baltimore June 28, 1946, headed for Gdansk, Poland.

Harvey Cox is second from the right in the front row of this seagoing cowboy crew photo on the SS Robert W. Hart. Photo courtesy of Richard Musselman family.

Harvey Cox is second from the right in the front row of this seagoing cowboy crew photo on the SS Robert W. Hart. Photo courtesy of Richard Musselman family.

A harrowing experience with a supervisor and a lacerating horse bite didn’t dampen Cox’s enthusiasm. He writes, “Everyday at sea I leaped out of bed when the bell rang at five; I was thousands of miles from Malvern; I was doing something important; I was becoming an adult.” Witnessing the vast devastation in Poland with its lingering acrid smells and seeing the war’s effects on the people, especially the children, made Cox more introspective on the way back across the Atlantic.

Cleaning up Gdansk, Poland, summer 1946.

Women at work cleaning up the rubble in Gdansk, Poland, July 1946. Photo credit: Richard Musselman, crew mate of Harvey Cox.

He writes, “As the long, empty days passed, I became aware of a conviction growing inside me that there could not be another war. It just was not worth it.” And he concludes, “A youthful adventure…had unexpectedly become a faith journey.” Cox went on to become a professor of theology at Harvard University and a peace activist.

Next post: Heifer Project’s first seagoing cowboy