The Convergence of UNRRA, the Seagoing Cowboys, and the Heifer Project

By June 1945, the Heifer Project had, on their own, made two shipments of heifers across the seas to Puerto Rico, an overland shipment to Mexico, and two to Arkansas. A program of the Brethren Service Committee (BSC) of the Church of the Brethren, with other denominations participating, the Heifer Project was intent on sending cows to provide relief to the victims of World War II.

During the war, 44 of the “united nations” created UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, to assist countries devastated by the war. As plans for UNRRA took shape, BSC’s Executive, M. R. Zigler, lobbied UNRRA to include Heifer Project animals in their shipments. The sending of six bulls to Greece in May 1945 served as a test.

When UNRRA began shipping livestock in earnest the end of June 1945, the seagoing cowboy program was born through an agreement between UNRRA and the BSC: the BSC would serve as the recruiting agency for the cattle tenders for all of UNRRA’s intended shipments. In return, UNRRA would ship Heifer Project animals free of charge and under the terms of the Heifer Project, meaning the animals would be a gift to the neediest of preselected farmers. UNRRA recipients had to pay a bit, depending on UNRRA’s agreement with the receiving country.

The Seagoing Cowboy Office at the Brethren Service Center, New Windsor, MD. Circa 1946. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

Over the course of UNRRA’s two-year active life span, 4,000 of the approximately 300,000 animals shipped were from the Heifer Project. It’s the seagoing cowboy stories from these UNRRA/Heifer Project shipments I’ll be focusing on during this 75th Anniversary year of Heifer International.

Heifer Project cattle bound for Ethiopia waiting to be loaded onto the S. S. Rock Springs Victory (out of sight on left), March 1947. Photo credit: Howard Lord.

In getting the seagoing cowboy program off the ground after UNRRA’s first two livestock shipments [read about them here and here], the BSC made these recommendations to the Heifer Project Committee in their June 25, 1945, meeting:
1. A foreman should be appointed who would be the spokesman for the entire group. [This was carried out. And a cowboy supervisor was hired by UNRRA for each crew, as well.]
2. Plans should be made for religious worship on the boat. [When UNRRA’s shipments mushroomed, this happened only when there were cowboys in the crew who initiated it.]

Cowboys on the S. S. Norwalk Victory take time for Sunday morning worship en route to Trieste, Italy. February 1946. Photo credit: Elmer J. Bowers.

3. An Educational Director should be appointed. This would include some education on relief needs, livestock needs, language of country which men are going to, church participation in the program, etc. [This fell by the wayside. Tending the animals left little time for anything else.]
4. Recreational program should be planned as on the return trip the men will apparently have no work which will occupy their time. [Some of the crews did take recreational equipment with them, but many had to devise their own pass-times. And the cowboys were often co-opted by the Captain to clean out stalls or do other work on the return trip.]

The Attleboro Victory crew enjoys a game of volleyball on the way home from Greece. December 1946. Photo credit: John Lohrentz.

The June 25 Heifer Project Committee minutes also state, “There was considerable discussion on the selection of these men that are to accompany these shipments. It is felt that we should make this a real testimony, as this is the kind of religion that talks.” These high ideals for this seagoing cowboy program at times bore fruit. But UNRRA’s shipping program and the need for cattle tenders increased so rapidly that just getting the required number of men on the ships was all BSC could manage at times. Ideal cowboys or not, however, these shipments of livestock on their own spoke volumes to grateful destitute recipients.

Heifer International celebrates 75 years of shipments in 2019

Even though the Heifer Project was birthed in 1942, Heifer International has for decades celebrated its anniversaries according to the date of their first shipment, July 14, 1944. Plans are in the works for celebrating their 75th anniversary this year. In honor of this anniversary, I’ll be sharing Heifer Project stories with you throughout the year along with seagoing cowboy stories.

Dan West, 1960. Photo by Kermon Thommason, courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

For starters, I offer a challenge to all of you creatives out there! Coming off the holiday season is an appropriate time to share a delightful effort spearheaded by Heifer’s founder Dan West for Heifer’s 24th year. As I was researching his files at the Brethren Historical Library and Archives this past October, I came across a draft for words to a song Dan called “Twenty-four Years of Heifers” – to be sung to the tune of “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

At the end, Dan issued this challenge: “If you want to help this folksong to develop, you are welcome to try.”

So, dear creative readers! If you want to help this folksong (or any other) develop for Heifer’s 75th anniversary, you are welcome to try! I’d love to see what you come up with.

Here’s Dan’s draft:

TWENTY-FOUR YEARS OF HEIFERS – a musical conversation

Several – maybe many authors
Tune: “Twelve Days of Christmas”

1. Four Solos: a. Puerto Rican, b. Japanese, c. (duet) Korean, d. Egyptian, e. Ecuadorean

   a. In the first year of heifers Somebody gave to me
       A healthy calf – and new responsibility
   b. In the third year of heifers Somebody gave to me
       A healthy doe – and new responsibility
   c. In the fifth year of heifers Somebody gave to me
       Plane loads of eggs – they hatched into chicks
       That laid a million eggs – and a new responsibility
   d. In the sixth year of heifers Somebody gave to me
       15 healthy chicks – and a new responsibility
   e. In the ? Year of heifers Somebody gave to me
       A healthy gilt – and a new responsibility.

2. Four ignorant persons (singly at first)

      a. What is a heifer?
      b. What is a dough?*
      c. What is a guilt?*
      d. Why did they give?

(then together): What new responsibility?

3. The six “foreigners” together

      “PASS ON THE GIFT”
      This is what they said When they gave to us
      Living gifts of love – with that new responsibility

4. All together

      We have seen in Heifer Project
      – a way of building health
      – source of animal protein
      – “Complete amino acids” (Prof. Anton Carlson, University of Chicago)
      – “Source of love and laughter” (St. Francis of Assisi)
      – “Help them help themselves” (Sir John Orr, FAO Director General)
      – Restore their self-respect
      – “Democracy in Action” (Douglas Henderson, U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia)

* misspelled intentionally

That’s where he stopped. In my next post, I’ll share the musical score for Dan and Company’s creation.

Goats to Japan

I’ve been having great fun the past three weeks rummaging through boxes of Dan West’s correspondence at the Brethren Historical Library and Archives in Elgin, Illinois. Dan is the founder of Heifer International and was very active with the organization, serving as volunteer secretary of the Heifer Project Committee for many years. I’m finding a wealth of information that will help me flesh out a book I’m working on about the first decade of the Heifer Project. As I process the material I’m gathering, I’ll share snippets with you here. Like the following story that brought a smile to my face when I read it.

The year was 1949. The Heifer Project Committee had been making shipments of goats to Japan for over a year through the efforts of their representatives on the West Coast. Southern California rep David Norcross had sent a postcard to Dan West with this picture on it.

Courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

Dan wrote back to him, “Can you give me the story of the W.C.T.U. goats?” Here it is:

     The two goats on the enclosed card traveled all the way from America to Tokyo last year. This in itself is not so very unusual for a goat, since over 2,000 goats were sent to Japan and Okinawa during 1948. However, these two goats are unusual in that they were given names before they left the boat, and those names have stuck with them.

The story has its beginning when Mrs. Amy C. Weech, honorary president of the Virginia W.C.T.U. [Women’s Christian Temperance League] office in Washington, D.C., sent $100 to New Windsor, asking that two goats be sent to the credit of her organization and be named “Temperance” and “Teetotaller.” The Southern California-Arizona branch of Heifers for Relief went out of their way to put tags on the chain with the number tag, and these names inscribed. The tags were given to the supervisor who, before reaching their destination picked out two good white does and fastened these tags on their chains.

     It so happened that the number of goats was increased, as “Temperance” brought forth her first-born kid two or three days before the boat landed at Yokohama. The new little kid was given the name of “Purity.” Arrangements were made for the goats to go into the W.C.T.U. Rescue Home for Girls in Tokyo, where they were admired and were very welcome. Now they are furnishing milk for the girls at this home.

Watch for more of these snippets next year as Heifer International celebrates their 75th anniversary.

Reflections on the life of seagoing cowboy Homer J. Kopke

One of the joys of my work is hearing from the children of seagoing cowboys about the significance of their father’s experience. I think Christmas Day is a fitting time for me to share a recent letter I received that has moved me deeply.

Dear Ms. Miller,

Enclosed with this letter, you will find mementos of a Seagoing Cowboy voyage to Poland and Denmark aboard the S.S. William S. Halsted in August of 1946. These relics belonged to our father, Homer J. Kopke of Cleveland, Ohio. Because our Pop was the one who took most of the pictures, there’s only one with him in it: In the group portrait of the Seagoing Cowboys along the rail of their ship, Pop is the second from the left in the back row. Pop didn’t leave behind any documentation to accompany these pictures and papers, but I’ll try to put them in context.

Homer Kopke's seagoing cowboy crew, August 1946. Photo courtesy of the Homer Kopke family.

Homer Kopke’s seagoing cowboy crew, August 1946.
Photo courtesy of the Homer Kopke family.

Unlike most (perhaps all) of the other Seagoing Cowboys, Pop was a combat veteran of World War II. He was in the United States Army from before Pearl Harbor until after the surrender of Japan in 1945. As a First Sergeant in the amphibious engineers, Pop served on the front lines of quite a few beachheads, notably along the north coast of New Guinea. One superior officer once described him as being, “The first one in and the last one out, with never a man left behind.”

As Allied troops began to prevail in the South Pacific, Pop recognized that his unit would eventually be called upon for the invasion of the Japanese homeland, and he told me once that he had fully expected to be killed in that effort. So when he came home after the war, it was with the realization that he had survived only because the war had ended abruptly with tens of thousands of Japanese civilians being incinerated in a few moments of horror at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I never knew how my father processed memories of the war in his own mind. But I think it will suffice to say that when one of his granddaughters wanted to interview him on his war experiences for a school project, all Pop could do was cry and tell her, “Don’t make me remember the things I’ve spent sixty years trying to forget.” Especially after he retired, in the weeks leading up to the annual anniversary of the first atomic blast, Pop would fold hundreds, if not thousands of the origami paper cranes that mourners always place at the Children’s Monument in Hiroshima. Pop’s Seagoing Cowboy expedition a year after the war may have been another way of processing his retrospections.

Pop was not usually sentimental about material things. When our parents downsized to a retirement center in their 80s, Mama kept her china figurines and her wedding dress, but Pop got rid of nearly everything of his that could have been considered a keepsake, including the army uniform that he had been wearing when he returned to his mother’s porch. So I think it’s especially significant that when he died at the age of 92, the man who had tried so hard to forget his young adult years still had the enclosed tattered documents and yellowed snapshots of the Seagoing Cowboys tucked into a corner of his dresser drawer.

To complete this picture, I should report that after Pop returned from his Seagoing Cowboy expedition, he volunteered to become a Christian missionary, but the Mission Board of his denomination rejected him because, at the age of 28, he was considered too old to start training. Instead, Pop went to college and got married. (My sisters and I are aware that we were born only because Harry Truman dropped the Bomb, and the Mission Board dropped the ball.) Pop graduated from seminary in 1951, and he was ordained as a minister in what later became the United Church of Christ.

I remember that when my sisters and I were little children in the town of Woodsfield, Ohio, there was a Sunday morning when two brown heifers were tethered on our parsonage lawn, where they were dedicated to God before they were trucked from our church to the Heifer Project dispatch center. And I remember that after we kids were long married, when we would visit our aging parents in Cleveland, their guest bedroom was always crowded with the cardboard cows and pigs and sheep that Pop hauled around to all kinds of presentations while he represented Heifer Project in northeast Ohio.

And now, just after the fifth anniversary of our Pop’s death, I’m putting his precious old snapshots and papers into a box and sending them to you, Ms. Miller. Frankly, it’s hard to let go of them, but I’ve scanned copies for my family, and we authorize you to hold the originals for your research, and to copy them as you see fit for any publications. When you’re finished with these items for your own purposes, we’ll appreciate it if you will do as you have suggested and donate the originals to the Brethren Historical Library and Archives — and perhaps you can place this letter with them.

With all that said, it seems appropriate to close this recital by remembering a verse from the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” that Pop requested for his funeral:

Cure Thy children’s warring madness,

Bend our pride to Thy control.

Shame our wanton selfish gladness,

Rich in things and poor in soul.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,

Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,

Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.

On behalf of my sisters — and our Pop —

I thank you for preserving the stories of the Seagoing Cowboys.

Signed by Jonathan E. Kopke

As we consider the meaning of Christmas in this year of warring madness, may the words of Jonathan Kopke about his father’s experience be an inspiration to us all.

Christmas blessings, dear Reader,

Peggy