A Seagoing Cowboy Christmas

The following is an excerpt from an article titled “Cowboys at Christmas” that I wrote for Heifer International’s World Ark magazine.

Thirty-two cowboys back at sea,

Getting homesick as they could be,

Spent Christmas Day out on the deep,

And dreamt of home while fast asleep.

So wrote twenty-three-year old Willard Bontrager in “An Ode to Thirty-two Cowboys,” a poem he presented to his crew at their Christmas program on the SS Morgantown Victory December 25, 1946….

Morgantown Victory crew, 1946

Willard Bontrager’s crew on the SS Morgantown Victory delivered horses to Yugoslavia. Photo courtesy of Hartzel Schmidt

About 7,000 men of all ages, religions, colors, and walks of life responded to the call for “seagoing cowboys” during the years 1945 and 1946. A number of these cowboys found themselves away from home over the holidays, many for the first time. As Bontrager’s ode suggests, this affected some more than others.

Cowboy Al Guyer of the SS Mexican had already been to Poland in 1945. There he had seen and smelled the rubble of war and experienced the hospitality of grateful Heifer Project recipients in the village of Suchy Dab. That Christmas Eve found him on his way home off the coast of Norway, where the SS Mexican was sitting out a storm. “I hunkered down on the side of the ship where the wind was not blowing and I was so homesick,” Guyer said. “I could look out and see that shore of rocks and waves, imagining being thrown on the rocks.”

SS Mexican crew, December 1945

The seagoing cowboys of the SS Mexican delivered heifers and horses to Poland in December 1945. Photo courtesy of Clarence Reeser

But the storm didn’t stop the festivities Christmas Day. Guyer’s shipmate Calvert Petre noted in his journal, “[J]ust when they had the tables set for the feast they sent word down to watch the tables. No one took them serious enough and when the storm hit us broadside, what a roll!!! It slid oranges, apples, candy, plates, and boys all on a pile….” They reset the tables and soon were digging into a duck dinner with all the trimmings.

Each cowboy crew had its own personality, as did their Christmas celebrations. To read more of their Christmas stories, the full article can be accessed online at this link: http://www.heifer.org/join-the-conversation/magazine/2014/holiday/cowboys-at-christmas.html

That’s it for 2014! I wish all my readers a safe and happy New Year’s Eve and abundant blessings in the New Year!

Next post: January 9, 2015

Advertisements

The Seagoing Cowboys of the Occidental Victory Spend Advent in Limbo

Norm Weber 2006

Norman Weber in 2006 in his home in Ontario, Canada, with memorabilia from his 1946 trip on the SS Occidental Victory to deliver horses to Poland. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller

In my last post, we made the acquaintance of Norman Weber and John Wesley Clay, seagoing cowboys on the SS Occidental Victory in 1946. Their ship hit a rock before Thanksgiving off the coast of Finland, tearing open two oil tanks. The vessel was able to make it to Stockholm with its damaged bottom, but the dry docks there were unable to handle the repairs. On Thanksgiving Day, the ship left Sweden and made its way slowly and safely to and through the Kiel Canal, across the rough waters of the North Sea, and into the Weser River to Bremerhaven, Germany.

The Advent season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is often seen as a time of waiting, and that is precisely what these cowboys of the Occidental Victory had to do in Germany. Their ship sat in port for over two weeks before pulling into dry dock where she was to stay until the next August. Longing to be home for Christmas, Weber says,

Norman Weber and John Wesley Clay

Norman Weber and John Wesley Clay wait aboard the SS Occidental Victory in December 1946 for a way home. Courtesy of Norman Weber

“All the seamen except a skeleton crew were put onto other ships. But it soon became quite evident that no one cared much about the cowboys.” So he and “Pop,” as he called Mr. Clay, decided they needed to take matters into their own hands.

“One cold day,” Weber says, “we walked to a bombed out Railway station. We managed to crowd into an already full train and for three cold hours traveled the 35 miles to Bremen. There we boarded a street car, and somehow got around the rubble of what was once a lovely seaport.” They found their way to the UNRRA office where calls were made to Washington, D.C. After several days of anxious waiting, a ship was found to take the cowboys home.

Norm Weber and two German friends

Norm Weber with two of the German children befriended by the Occidental Victory cowboys who fed them on the ship. Courtesy of Norman Weber

In the meantime, young Weber, a German-speaking Mennonite, and the elder John Wesley Clay explored the devastated cities of Bremerhaven and Bremen, making friends along the way. On December 15, the third Sunday of Advent, Clay and three other cowboys (Weber was sick and couldn’t go) attended services of a Methodist church in Bremerhaven. With their church building in ruins, the members met in one of their homes.

Methodis Church remains, Bremerhaven, Germany, 1946

The remains of the Methodist Church in Bremerhaven, Germany, December 1946. Courtesy of Norman Weber

 

 

Clay notes in his trip account,

Before the war the church had more than three hundred members, but there were only fifteen present. A lay preacher held the services. It was the most depressing religious service I have ever attended. The hopeless expression on the faces of the people was more like a funeral service than a regular Sunday morning service. It was bitter cold outside, and the snow was falling thick and fast, and there was no heat in the building. The elderly woman who played the organ could hardly do so with her cold fingers. The lay preacher had lost his wife and children in the air raid. Many members had lost their lives, and many more their homes.

We met one Sunday school teacher who has 25 little children in her class. We gave her twenty-five chocolate bars for their Christmas, which overjoyed her. American bombers had destroyed their church and city. Now we were giving them chocolate bars for their children. We had a feeling more of pain than of joy.

Oh, the horrors of war! May the good Lord spare us from ever seeing its like again.

German WWII ruins

Courtesy of Norman Weber

A fitting prayer for this Advent season.

Next post: Cowboys at Christmas