I’m sharing a timely article today concerning seagoing cowboy Wally Fisher that came to me through my Google alerts. Wally represents many seagoing cowboys who served as conscientious objectors through the war. Some completed their Civilian Public Service in the “CPS Reserve Unit” as seagoing cowboys. Others, like Wally, signed up after being released from CPS to have a positive impact on a broken world. Thank you Jane Yoder-Short for your thoughtful reflection “Nonviolence offers hope for our war-torn militaristic world.”
Sunday, May 15, is International Conscientious Objectors Day, so this is a fitting time to write about the special CPS Reserve Unit put together for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration’s seagoing cowboy program.
Civilian Public Service was an alternative service set up at the onset of World War II for men who could not conscientiously serve in the military. CPS camps were set up in which these men could do “work of national importance,” such as fighting forest fires, working in mental institutions, doing dairy testing, etc. These camps were administered by the Historic Peace Churches – the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites, and Society of Friends (Quakers).
As UNRRA’s livestock shipments increased at the end of 1945, the need for qualified cattle attendants also expanded. An agreement was reached with the Selective Service System of the U. S. Government to allow CPS men to leave their camps to join a CPS Reserve Unit and sign up to be seagoing cowboys under the direction of the Brethren Service Committee.
Over the course of the program, 366 CPSers took this option. Some made more than one trip before being discharged from CPS. While waiting for their next ship, they were offered employment in the relief work taking place at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, at the rate of $.50 per hour plus maintenance. For their UNRRA service, the CPSers received the regular rate of $150 per trip.
Last week, when I spoke at the Mennonite Historical Society of Iowa spring meeting in Kalona, Iowa, I had the opportunity to meet up with two of the CPS Reserve cowboys I had interviewed several years ago – Levi Miller and Emil Ropp. What a great night reconnecting with them and other cowboys I knew and meeting some for the first time! Their stories always add a special note to my programs.
Here are the promised snippets from our Beyond Hunger Northern Indiana weekend September 12-14 held at Camp Alexander Mack in Milford, Indiana. And what a weekend it was! Heifer founder Dan West’s son Steve later reflected on the event in an email to some of the planners:
There is a graciousness about Heifer that I saw all of you tapping into. It is rather breathtaking just how a simple idea can go around the world to 21 million families, help them to survive and to create gracious smiles of their own. Animals have a way of going to the heart of relationships, totally without human words, to make the right earthy connection that this world so desperately needs.
To capture the depth and richness of the weekend would take more posts than I have time to make. My focus here, in keeping with the purpose of this blog, will be on the seagoing cowboys who delivered the animals that brought those gracious smiles to people around the world.
What a joy to have twenty-six seagoing and flying cowboys and cowgirls together to reminisce with each other, to share their memorabilia with the 180 participants, and to share their stories.
Here’s what some of the cowboys told us:
Robert Epp – SS Clarksville Victory to Poland, December 1945
The destructiveness of the war and the suffering of the people really impressed on me how war should be completely eliminated. We became acquainted with a cobbler there near the docks, and he said that when the Russians came through, one of them had been wounded and he took him in and kept him until he was well. And this soldier said he was so glad he had been wounded, now he didn’t need to fight anymore, which tells me that nobody really wants to do this.
Ralph Aschliman – SS Plymouth Victory to Greece, February 1947
On our return trip in the Mediterranean, it was a Sunday morning and the captain wanted us to unload the manure. We were just about 100% Mennonites and we said, “We prefer not to work on Sunday.” Well, our supervisor was not a Mennonite, and he thought he had a mutiny on his hands! So he came in and he said, “I want the name of every one of you who refuse to work on Sunday.” And I mean, it got quiet in there. Then one of the youngest guys said, “Well, you can have my name, right now.” That broke the dam and literally everyone said, “You can have my name.” That supervisor was stumped. He didn’t know what to do. Well, we agreed that we would make sure that the ship got emptied. Early Monday morning, we were out there. We relayed all the manure up to the winches. By the time the winch operators came on duty, we made sure that they kept busy and we unloaded it in record time. We were apologized to and said they just never, never saw a bunch of guys that could work like that. Well, we were all farm boys. We knew how to work!
Walter Hochstedler – SS Morgantown Victory to Poland, December 1945
We were taken out in the country on the battlefields. We still saw skeletons out there. I was one of the youngest and, you know, I had to make a decision whether I was going to sign up for Civilian Public Service, a C.O. Most of the fellows from the Mennonite church I attended went to the military, which was very unusual. But out there on the battlefield, to see the skeletons, I had to think, “That’s a mother’s boy, it could be some wife’s husband, could be some gal’s daddy.” And the way things looked around there, it didn’t look like it did much good. I knew when I had to register, I would apply for a C.O. position. It made an impact on my life.
Matt Meyer – SS Cedar Rapids Victory to Trieste, Italy, July 1946
The Mediterranean Sea was a worry. There was danger there in 1946 from the war. Mines were floating there, and if the ship hits them and it’s metal, usually it’s enough impact to destroy the ship. Every once in a while we’d hear an explosion, and it wasn’t very far away. That was a little scary.
Howard Lord – SS Rock Springs Victory to Ethiopia, March 1947
First breakfast, I went in to take care of the cattle a little bit and went to breakfast, came back down, and without having any warning at all lost my whole breakfast right there. I just hung the hose up, headed for the ladder, and Dick Hoblin says, “What are you doing?” I said, “They tell me you’re better off to keep a full stomach. I just lost everything of my breakfast, I’m going to eat another breakfast.” I ate another big breakfast and never lost another meal the whole trip.
Jack Baker – SS Mexican to Poland, December 1945
We had 202 horses and 444 bred Holstein heifers, and some of the heifers had calves on the way over. We were standing on the ship watching them unload those heifers in Poland and a dock worker found a bucket that the cows were drinking from for ten days, didn’t clean it out, got down under the heifer, milked some milk, drank it right out of the bucket. And we looked at each other and said, “Wow.” We didn’t realize how hungry they were.
This gives you just a taste of the stories we heard. For those of you living near Manheim, Pennsylvania, you’ll have the opportunity to meet another group of seagoing cowboys on Saturday, October 25, at the Manheim Farm Show Complex. Go to this link to register for this next Heifer 70th anniversary event: http://www.heifer.org/beyond-hunger/communities-of-change.html
Reports and photo galleries of the Beyond Hunger Northern Indiana events can be found at these links:
- for an article on the Heifer International blog – http://www.heifer.org/join-the-conversation/blog/2014/September/event-honors-heifers-living-history-.html
- for Heifer International’s Flickr album – https://www.flickr.com/photos/heifer/sets/72157647844278920/
- for the Church of the Brethren photo gallery – http://www.bluemelon.com/churchofthebrethren/beyondhunger-heifers70thatcampmack#page-40/photo-5204934
Next post: Why didn’t the first Heifer Project shipment go to Spain?
It’s impossible to tell the seagoing cowboy story without also telling the story of the Heifer Project, the forerunner to today’s Heifer International. The seagoing cowboy program and the Heifer Project were linked through their relationship to the Brethren Service Committee, the outreach arm of the Church of the Brethren, begun in 1941. (More about that connection in another post.)
The Heifer Project was the brain child of Church of the Brethren staff worker and gentleman farmer Dan West. He was sent to Spain in 1937 to help in a Quaker relief project during the Spanish Civil War. After observing inadequate supplies of reconstituted powdered milk being doled out to infants with those not gaining weight being taken off the list to die, West came home to his Indiana farm in early 1938 with the idea of sending cows to Spain. With “a cow, not a cup,” people would be able to help themselves.
For four years, West relentlessly promoted this idea to neighbors, church members, church leaders, and government officials. Finally, in April 1942, the Church of the Brethren Men’s Work of Northern Indiana adopted his plan, which in a short time became a national program of the Brethren Service Committee known as “The Heifer Project.”
(A heifer by Dan West’s definition is “a cow-not-yet,” that is, a cow before it gives birth to its first calf. Pronounced heffer.)
A grassroots effort from the start, local committees were formed and heifers were donated and raised. But World War II was raging, and the animals couldn’t be shipped to Spain. So the first shipment went to Puerto Rico where the Brethren had a Civilian Public Service unit, the Martin G. Brumbaugh Reconstruction Unit, that put conscientious objectors to work during the war in one of the poorest sections of the island.
Eighteen heifers were collected at the Nappanee, Indiana, stockyards on June 7, 1944, 70 years ago this summer. The fifteen Guernseys, two Jerseys, and one Milking Shorthorn were given shots for shipping fever and on June 12 were loaded into a ventilated box car partitioned for cattle. Four days later, they arrived by train in Mobile, Alabama, along with their caretaker, Marvin Senger, the first paid staff person of the Heifer Project. On June 26, Senger was joined by Wayne Hostetler, a young Brethren farmer from Orrville, Ohio, who was the volunteer administrator for the Northern Ohio Heifer Project Committee. Senger returned home, and Hostetler became Heifer’s first seagoing cowboy before there was such a designation, making the trip to Puerto Rico at his own expense.
Shipping delays kept the heifers at the stockyards in Mobile for nearly a month. The day the heifers arrived, one gave birth to a bull calf at the stockyards, then became sick five days later. She was kept behind at the nearby farm of the Brethren Petcher family to recover, while her calf took her place on the SS William D. Bloxham, a brand new Liberty ship making its first voyage. (More about Liberty ships in a later post.)
In Mobile, Hostetler obtained his Merchant Marine papers making him a “Seaman with cattle man rating, salary 1 cent per month,” a formality to make it legal for him to work on the ship. On his return to Indiana, Marvin Senger reported to the Heifer Project Committee that the Brethren Service Committee was charged $15.00 for Hostetler’s fare. “Signed for $5000 life insurance,” he told them, “to be paid by the government in case ship is destroyed and Wayne should lose his life due to enemy action.”
These were dangerous times to be shipping cattle.
Next post: Hostetler’s report to the Heifer Project Committee on his return. As recorded by the secretary, it begins: “He was glad for the trip, but doubtful that he would have promised if he had had a whole day to think it over.”
Sources for Hostetler’s story: “Heifers for Relief” Newsletter Number 1, July 28, 1944; Heifer Project Committee Minutes, July 9, 1944.