The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration’s livestock program is thought by some to be the largest effort of shipping animals overseas in world history. In the two years between June 1945 and April 1947, they had shipped a total of 369,048 draft and food-producing animals from the Western Hemisphere to Europe and a few other locations to help countries recover from World War II. This included, by UNRRA’s count, 174,202 horses, 28,976 mules, 36,199 cattle, and 129,671 other types of farm animals to Europe and a few other countries. There was another time in history, however, which out-paced UNRRA’s efforts – the difference between the two being that UNRRA’s mission helped heal the wounds of war, the other helped create them.
Three decades before UNRRA’s “seagoing cowboys” came into being, cattle tenders would have been required to care for the hundreds of thousands of horses and mules shipped from the United States to serve as beasts of burden and transport in World War I. According to the International Museum of the Horse, “In the four years of the war, the United States exported nearly a million horses to Europe. This seriously depleted the number of horses in America. When the American Expeditionary Force entered the war, it took with it an additional 182,000 horses. Of these, 60,000 were killed and only a scant 200 were returned to the United States. In spite of the innovations of World War I, one reality remained the same; the horse was the innocent victim.”
Large numbers of mules also found themselves on ships to Europe. The United States World War One Centennial Commission notes, “The 1922 British War Office report on statistics of the Great War states that 275,097 mules were purchased from North America.” One large Missouri firm, Guyton and Harrington, contracted with the British army for horses and mules. According to author Michael Price, they alone “sold 180,000 mules to the British army from 1914-1918. . . . They also sold 170,000 horses to the British.”
Some of the horses and mules used by the U. S. Army were bred and trained at the Army Quartermaster Remount Depot at Fort Reno in Oklahoma. When World War II rolled around with its advances in war machinery, horses and mules were no longer needed to the extent they were in World War I. After being decommissioned in 1948, the depot at Fort Reno was reactivated in 1952 to prepare horses and mules for export to Turkey. One of UNRRA’s former livestock ships, the S. S. Calvin Victory, now decommissioned and renamed the S. S. Columbia Heights, became the transport vehicle to take the animals across the ocean.
Todd Blomerth tells the story on his blog “Todd’s Historical Writings” of one of the young Army officers, William Pharr “Billy” Stromberg, involved with three of these shipments to Turkey. The Columbia Heights was in use during that same time period for the Levinson Brothers livestock trips to Israel which carried many a Mennonite seagoing cowboy to the Holy Lands. Interesting how histories intertwine!