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.

 

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Seagoing cowboys mingle with returning World War II soldiers

As we have seen in previous posts, several of the early UNRRA livestock ships brought soldiers home from Europe. With their cargos unloaded, space was available for cots to be set up; but having had livestock as cargo, there was some serious cleaning that had to take place! Even though their work was supposed to have been finished after the animals were unloaded, many of the cowboy crews were coerced into helping to scrub the decks. As Byron Royer, supervisor of the Zona Gale cowboys, said,

 We agreed because of the emergency in regard to getting the troops home, to help clean up the ship. . . . It was definitely not a part of our duties. However, we did work all day and got the ship in a shape much as I doubt if it’s been in before.

Their eighty-eight G.I.s boarded the next day.

Gordon Bucher, on the F. J. Luckenbach, recorded in his journal for Sunday, July 22, 1945,

At 3:30 150 soldiers came on board & what a mess. We had to set up our cots in a stable & move our mattresses & stuff. If it means 25 more can come back to the U. S., it’s all right with me.

Most of the early cowboys were from the Church of the Brethren, one of the Historic Peace Churches, and many were conscientious objectors. Having G.I.s on board gave them a unique opportunity to dialogue with the soldiers. The S. S. Virginian crew includes a section about contact with the soldiers in their report of their trip titled “Relief for Greece” that gives a good idea of what these conversations might have been like. I’ll share that report in my next regular post.

On the Zona Gale, the G.I.s were invited to the worship services the cowboys had, and many good friendships were developed between cowboys and soldiers. Byron Royer records their homecoming in his account “A Seagoing Cowboy in Italy”:

     We ate our lunch and when we came out after lunch, we could just see the Coast of Virginia coming into sight. I wish you could have seen the GI’s as we were coming in. Those boys, most of them, had been away for from two to four years and they were one happy lot coming home.

Some were cursing and cracking obscene jokes to cover their true feelings. But most of them were thinking pretty seriously. There were even some who were crying — men who had been through months on the battlefield. I’m very glad they could come home with us.

We pulled into Hampton Roads (?) [sic] which is a sort of a bay which is the entrance into Newport News and Norfolk, Virginia. After a lot of red tape and examinations by the Health Service and Customs, the boat came out to take the GI’s ashore. We hated to say, “Goodbye” to them. You know, it’s surprising how well you learn to know people in a short time like that when you have nothing to do.

The boat had three WAC’s aboard. . . . The Red Cross had doughnuts and a cold drink of some kind for the boys as soon as they checked off and there was a GI band to furnish music for them as they went in.

They pulled away with a lot of yelling and waving and exchange of farewells.

I’ve found no photos as yet of these returning soldiers or of their accounts of coming home on a cattle boat. If anyone has any, I’d love to see them!

Next post: Conversations with the soldiers.