Dan West – World War I Conscientious Objector

Today is International Conscientious Objection Day. There will be an ecumenical gathering this evening at the World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, commemorating those who were conscientious objectors in World War I. There was no alternative service at that time, so COs had to either serve within the military or go to prison. Dan West, the founder of Heifer International, was one of those men.

Dan was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1918. He entered service not knowing how far he could cooperate with the army. His experience became a defining moment in his life. Here is his story in his own words in a paper titled “Your Goals,” as told to a group of Brethren Volunteer Service workers years later:

       There was not any Alternative Service then, but I was a CO. After a few weeks I was transferred to the 39th Machine Gun Battalion. When I got there, I went to my new captain to get released. He cursed me hard, evidently to change my mind. But he didn’t.
A few hours later I went back with a new idea: to offer to go to the Ft Leavenworth Penitentiary. My captain did not curse me any more, but said he could not move me on then.
After a few hard weeks I was assigned to the Quartermaster Corps. There I did not kill anybody, but I felt a part of a killing machine. That still hurts my conscience, and I developed a new GOAL to work for peace-not for war. That has lasted ever since.

Dan became one of the most prominent voices for peace in the church and later became Peace Educator for the Church of the Brethren. In that role, he was selected to be the Church of the Brethren representative to a Quaker (Society of Friends) relief project in Spain during the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and 1938. Observing babies and tubercular children dying from a lack of milk while his babies back home were well fed made him determined to promote a plan to send cows to Spain, an idea hatched in discussions with colleagues in the relief project. Four years later, Dan’s plan was adopted by the Church of the Brethren District Men’s Work of Northern Indiana, then later by the denomination as a national plan which soon became ecumenical. The Heifer Project, as it was named, grew into today’s independent Heifer International.

Dan West distributes clothing to Spanish women and children affected by the Spanish Civil War, 1937. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

Would that more people would develop the goal “to do as much for peace as a soldier does for war,” another way Dan talked of his goal.


Special Post: Nonviolence and the Seagoing Cowboys

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.”

Civilian Public Service Unit for Seagoing Cowboys

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).

CPSers Lowell Short, Emil Ropp, and Alfred Gross at work on the S. S. Queens Victory to Poland, June 1946.

CPSers Lowell Short, Emil Ropp, and Alfred Gross at work on the S. S. Queens Victory to Poland, June 1946. Photo courtesy of Emil Ropp.

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.

Seagoing cowboys at the Kalona (IA) Mennonite Church, May 3, 2016. Left to right, seated: Emil Ropp, Henry Mullett; standing: Levi Miller, Charles Silliman, Weldon Beach, Peggy Reiff Miller, Paul Walther, Wallace Fisher. Photo credit: Mary Lou Farmer.

Seagoing cowboys join me at the Kalona (IA) Mennonite Church, May 3, 2016. Left to right, seated: Emil Ropp, Henry Mullett; standing: Levi Miller, Charles Silliman, Weldon Beach, Peggy Reiff Miller, Paul Walther, Wallace Fisher. Photo credit: Mary Lou Farmer.

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.

Levi Miller's permission to leave his CPS camp to become a seagoing cowboy. Courtesy of Levi Miller.

Levi Miller’s permission to leave his CPS camp to become a seagoing cowboy. Courtesy of Levi Miller.

Levi Miller receives his orders to report for his CPS Reserve assignment. Courtesy of Levi Miller.

Levi Miller receives his orders to report for his CPS Reserve assignment. Courtesy of Levi Miller.


Heifer International Honors the Seagoing Cowboys

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:

Jan West Schrock and brother Steve share a moment of fun.

Jan West Schrock and Steve West, children of Heifer International founder Dan West, share a moment of fun at the Friday evening indoor campfire. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

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.

Cowboys and cowgirls pose with their awards.

Twenty-four of the honored seagoing and flying cowboys and cowgirls pose with Heifer International’s CEO Pierri Ferrari and Peggy Reiff Miller. Photo courtesy of Church of the Brethren/Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford.

Cowboys conversing

Ivan Patterson shares a story with fellow seagoing cowboy Gordon Shull. Photo courtesy of Church of the Brethren/Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford.

Richard Reiste's display

Cowboy Richard Reiste tells about his trip to China. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.


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 EppSS Clarksville Victory to Poland, December 1945

Walter Hochstedler and Robert Epp share stories.

Robert Epp (right) shares a story with fellow cowboy Walter Hochstedler (left). Their ships were in Poland at the same time in December 1945. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

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 AschlimanSS Plymouth Victory to Greece, February 1947

Ralph Aschliman makes a difference.

Seagoing Cowboy Ralph Aschliman (right) receives his Make a Difference Award from Heifer International CEO Pierre Ferrari. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

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 HochstedlerSS Morgantown Victory to Poland, December 1945

Cowboy gets a hug.

Seagoing cowboy Walter Hochstedler gets a hug from friend Garry Weybright. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

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 MeyerSS Cedar Rapids Victory to Trieste, Italy, July 1946

Matt Meyer with his Make a Difference award

Seagoing Cowboy Matt Meyer displays his Make a Difference Award with friends Sarah and Jay Wittmeyer (left) and wife Virginia (right). Photo courtesy of Church of the Brethren/Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford


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 LordSS Rock Springs Victory to Ethiopia, March 1947

Rock Springs Victory seagoing cowboys

Howard Lord poses with shipmates Dick Hoblin and Bob Heimberger who sailed to Ethiopia together on the SS Rock Springs Victory in early 1947. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

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

Jack Baker tells his story.

Jack Baker shares his seagoing cowboy story in a breakout session I moderated. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

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:

Next post: Why didn’t the first Heifer Project shipment go to Spain?

Heifer Project’s First Seagoing Cowboy


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.

Dan West

Dan West, founder of Heifer International. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

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.

First Heifer Project shipment, June 1944

                                                Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

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.