Leisure time on a livestock ship as seagoing cowboys return home

The pictures will tell the tale in today’s post. Once a livestock ship arrived at its destination, the seagoing cowboy’s work was finished. Unless he had an unscrupulous captain who put the cowboys to work painting or scrubbing the ship (without extra pay), a cowboy’s time was his own on the return trip. His activity was limited only by his and his crewmates’ imaginations.

Captain wants it ship shape! Photo by Dwight Farringer.

Hanging out with the laundry. Photo by Elmer Bowers.

Rumble tumble! Photo by Elmer Bowers.

Time to relax. Photo by Elmer Bowers.

Dukes up! Photo by Elmer Bowers.

Ping Pong? Are you kidding? Photo courtesy of Elmer Beachy. 

Your bid. Photo courtesy of Roger Ingold.

Check mate? Photo by Dwight Farringer.

Catching some rays. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

Keep the ball in the court! Photo courtesy of John Lohrenz.

Cooling off in a transformed gun tub. Photo courtesy of Roger Ingold.

 

Nap time.
Photo courtesy of Richard Musselman family.

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Luke Bomberger holds record for most seagoing cowboy trips

Luke graciously shared his seagoing cowboy stories with me in July 2004.

Luke Bomberger graciously shared his seagoing cowboy stories with me in July 2004.

When 17-year-old Luke Bomberger of Mt. Joy, Pennsylvania, set sail for Greece on the S. S. Charles W. Wooster on August 15, 1945, he had no idea his expected two-month adventure would last twenty-one months. The Charles Wooster was only the seventh livestock ship to leave the United States. It carried 335 horses and the first Mennonites to sign up for the program. As all of the seagoing cowboys were required to do, these men had to join the Merchant Marine to be able to legally work on a merchant ship.

Luke explores the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, with crew members of the S. S. Charles W. Wooster, 1945. Photo courtesy of Wilbur Layman.

Luke explores the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, with crew members of the S. S. Charles W. Wooster, 1945. Photo courtesy of Wilbur Layman.

 

In line with his Mennonite upbringing, Luke had registered with his draft board as a conscientious objector. He turned 18 while he was at sea on the Charles Wooster, and his draft board came calling. When his parents told the board where he was and what he was doing, the board said he should keep on doing it for his service. His Merchant Marine status was his ticket to a tour of duty.

Luke, top left, enjoyed life-long friendships with some of these crew mates of the S. S. Norwalk Victory, Feb. 1946. Photo courtesy of Elmer Bowers.

Luke, top left, enjoyed life-long friendships with some of these crew mates of the S. S. Norwalk Victory, Feb. 1946. Photo courtesy of Elmer Bowers.

Luke made nine trips before his discharge on April 25, 1947. He is likely the only seagoing cowboy who received a letter from President Harry Truman, “To you who answered the call of your country and served in its Merchant Marine to bring about the total defeat of the enemy, I extend the heartfelt thanks of the Nation….” He also received a “Certificate of Substantially Continuous Service in the United States Merchant Marine” from the United States Maritime Commission.

Hiking with crew mates outside Trieste, Italy, February 1946. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers.

Hiking with crew mates outside Trieste, Italy, February 1946. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers.

Luke’s nine trips took him across the Atlantic Ocean sixteen times and across the Pacific twice. He traveled on eight different ships that took him to Greece, Poland, Italy, Germany, the Island of Crete, and China. He proved himself a worthy sailor on his first trip when he was hired as a “Wiper” for the return stretch to fill in for a regular crewman who had to stay behind in Greece. At the young age of 18, he became a cowboy foreman on his fifth trip and served in that capacity at least twice more.

Cleaning stalls on the way to China aboard the S. S. Boulder Victory. Photo credit: Eugene Souder.

Cleaning stalls on the way to China aboard the S. S. Boulder Victory. Photo credit: Eugene Souder.

All was not smooth sailing for this young man, though. Close encounters with mines floating in the water on a couple of his ships, a fire in the engine room on another, a fall in which he broke his hand, and a horse bite that left a lifelong scar on his back added drama to some of his trips. His scariest moment, however, was aboard an older merchant ship, the S. S. Mexican, on his second trip. He was serving as night watchman, making his rounds to check on the animals. After one of his hourly reports to the bridge, his foot slipped coming down a rain-slicked ladder and he shot across the deck on his back right towards an opening on the side of the ship. All that saved him from disappearing into the dark Atlantic night was a narrow lip of metal at the opening that caught his foot and stopped his slide. He was grateful to be alive, cracked ribs and all.

Luke says his trips made him more aware of persons of other countries and their needs, which influenced his family’s hosting of international exchange visitors and students through the years.

Seasickness: The Malady of the Seagoing Cowboys

Many a seagoing cowboy told me in an interview, “I was so seasick that at first I was afraid I was going to die, then I was so sick I was afraid I wouldn’t die.” I’ve since discovered this is a paraphrased Mark Twain quote, which the cowboys may have known or not known; but nevertheless, it was a very personal experience for many of the cowboys.

Two cowboys take an involuntary work break on the S.S. Norwalk Victory en route to Trieste, Italy in February 1946. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers.

Two cowboys take an involuntary work break on the S.S. Norwalk Victory en route to Trieste, Italy in February 1946. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers.

The Cleveland Clinic website tells us, “[Seasickness] happens when your brain receives conflicting messages about motion and your body’s position in space.” For preventing seasickness on a ship, they say, “When making reservations, choose a cabin in the middle of the ship and near the waterline. When on board, go up on deck and focus on the horizon.” As if!

A cowboy "feeds the fish" at the rail of the S.S. Earlham Victory on the way to Trieste, Italy, in January 1947.

A cowboy “feeds the fish” at the rail of the S.S. Earlham Victory on the way to Trieste, Italy, in January 1947. Photo credit: John Hostetler.

The poor seagoing cowboys didn’t have such options. Their quarters were usually in the cabin under the gun deck at the back of their ship, where they would feel the ups and downs of the ship to the Nth degree. And many of the work stations were in lower holds.

Owen Schlabach pretty well sums up the cowboys’ experience in his account of his trip on the SS Mount Whitney to Poland in November 1946:

The ocean was nice and calm the first few days, then it started to get rough and shook the boat. Many of the boys got so seasick they could not do their work anymore, leaving only Bob Flick and me [to] care for ninety horses. Some were so sick they looked blue-greenish around the eyes, and got really thin because they could not eat. One time I saw one of the ministers sitting on top deck in a corner looking so sick I thought he was dead. After watching him for a while, I saw to my relief that he was still breathing a little. No one died on this trip, but some were so sick they wished they could.

In Newport News I met a man who was in the Army who said if I listened to him, I wouldn’t get sick. This sounded like music to me. I told him I would be glad to listen. He said on the ship we would have free choice of soda crackers, and if we would keep our stomachs full and wouldn’t drink anything, we should not get sick. It worked, and none of us five got sick.

Other cowboys had different remedies. Melvin Bradshaw, cowboy to Poland in May 1946 aboard the SS Carroll Victory, wrote:

I had never traveled before on the ocean and was a real landlubber. The beginning of the trip was rather mild but the stench in the lower decks from horses and their excretion made for rather poor sailing conditions for one inexperienced in sea travel. I found that the more marked movements of the ship up and down were not as bad as the swaying motion from side to side. When I felt that I was going to get sick I would lie on my back and look up through the opening in the upper decks. If I could lie still and see the sky my stomach would settle down.

Fred Teach, aboard the SS American Importer to Germany in 1953, noted in his journal, “I had a slight attack of indigestion today, ate cucumbers and peanuts. Feel fine now.” Nelson Heatwole said of his trip to Poland on the SS John Barton Payne in May 1946, “For 2 days I suffered from seasickness but managed to keep up my strength and do my work with the help of crackers, lemons and liquids and some assistance of other cowboys.”

Cowboy Carl Geisler offered this musing, printed in a March 1946 Civilian Public Service Bulletin. He later served as foreman on the SS Rock Springs Victory to Ethiopia in March 1947.

WAYS TO PREVENT SEASICKNESS

(“Cowboys” take note)

  1. Don’t eat before you leave.
  2. Eat lots before you leave.
  3. Get your sea legs early.
  4. Stay mid-ship as much as possible.
  5. Drink lemon juice–then it will taste the same both ways.
  6. Eat as much as you can before you leave–it will probably be the last time.
  7. Sea sickness is definitely not “just in your head.”
  8. Don’t use the rail–there is usually an up-draft on all sides of the ship.
  9. When you feel hair in your throat, swallow.

(In case the above methods do not prevent an attack, the best way of stopping it is to go lean up against a shade tree.)*

*Paraphrased quote of British comedian and writer Spike Milligan.