“Take a teenage Mennonite boy after World War II, put him on a cattle boat to Europe or China, stir him up with storms at sea, spice him with adventure and danger, bake him in the smoldering rubble of war, and what do you have? A recipe for the coming of age of a seagoing cowboy.” So begins my article “Coming of age on a cattle boat” for The Mennonite, January 10, 2006.
Seventy years ago this week, thirty-two of those Mennonites, mostly high school and college students, set sail on the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory for Poland under the watchful eye of Bethel College history professor Dr. Melvin Gingerich. The Mallory left Newport News, Virginia, June 20, 1946, with 834 horses and a pistol-packing captain who made it known that he was the law on the ship, leaving no uncertainty that he would use his gun if necessary.
The trip was fraught with difficulties from the get-go, beyond the usual storms at sea and horse bites. Two days out to sea, engine troubles caused a side trip to Boston, giving the cowboys a chance to explore historical sites. Don Zook recalls seeing his first major league baseball game that night, as the Boston Braves were in town. Robert Ramseyer’s group went to the movies. While sitting in the harbor at Boston for three days their work still had to be done. Hot, stuffy, ammonia-laden holds made the work less than appealing and started a string of deaths of horses. According to UNRRA records, sixty-eight were lost before arriving in Poland.
Shortly after departing Boston, a generator went out; but the ship sailed on. Before reaching Europe boiler trouble and trouble with the watering system developed. Another day, the captain noticed cat hairs in his water glass. Al Meyer noted in his diary, “Skeleton and hair of cat found in sieve from drinking water tank. All water passed thru decayed cat until now. [We] call water ‘cat-nip-tea’!”
As if all of that wasn’t enough, the refrigeration system went on the fritz. The cowboys enjoyed an ice cream binge that evening and ate large portions of meat as it thawed until the walk-in cooler was empty, necessitating a stop in Plymouth, England, to restock and take on ice and water. Walking around Plymouth gave these young men their first taste of war devastation, raising an awareness that was heightened when the captain refused taking on a German pilot at Kiel, Germany, to guide the ship through the Baltic Sea, subsequently getting lost in a mine field causing close encounters with spiky mines and anxious moments for the crew.
Len Smucker notes that seeing war-torn Poland is “etched in my mind.” He recalls being met at the ship by young boys offering their sisters and mothers for sex. The cowboys roamed over battlefields and stood on the spot in Westerplatte where World War II started. Some, including Al Meyer, went to see the destroyed Danzig Mennonite Church. The Polish Mennonites did not share the peace position of the Mennonite Church in the United States.
Meyer recalls, “The thing I remember most is a tablet on the wall in honor of the brave men who gave their lives for the German Fatherland in the First World War. It was sort of symbolic to see the wreckage of the Second World War, a bombed out Mennonite community of which there were no remaining people.”
On their way home, the Mallory cowboys enjoyed a week in Copenhagen, Denmark, where the ship stopped for repairs.
This relatively undamaged city gave the group a chance to see Europe in its more pristine, classical sense, rounding out an experience they would never forget. They were also able to connect with Mennonites in Denmark.
These seagoing cowboys were boys when they left on the trip, but came home young men who went on to distinguish themselves in fields of medicine, higher education, and church and service work.
Even Captain Cronin was impressed:
Next post: Special Crew #3: Interracial crew of Southern college students sponsored by the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen