Cattle for Israel: An additional seagoing cowboy program – Part I

Key figures in the supply of livestock for UNRRA’s shipments to Europe after WWII were two Jewish brothers, Ben and Sol Levinson, owners of the Levinson Livestock Company. With an office in Newport News, Virginia, and a 4,000-acre farm along the C&O railroad near Williamsburg, they re-purposed a 600-head feed lot for handling animals for export. Two years after UNRRA’s work ceased, the Levinson brothers were exporting again – this time to Israel. The first shipment left Newport News November 16, 1949, setting a new seagoing cowboy program in motion.

The S. S. Pass Christian Victory loads cattle for Israel in Newport News, VA, Nov. 1949. Photo credit: John R. Martin.

The Palestine News of December 2, 1949, reported the shipment’s arrival:

HAIFA, Thursday [Dec. 1]. — More milk will flow in Israel after today’s arrival of 744 milch cows, 42 calves and two bulls of Friesian stock, on the s.s. Pass Christian Victory, a ship of the U.S. Maritime Commission. This is the first consignment of cattle ordered by the Jewish Agency Agricultural Department, for building up livestock in new settlements.

Seagoing cowboy J. Harold Buckwalter notes in his diary on November 16:

They loaded no. 5 hatch first with the milk cows. We started milking first thing. Our beginning number was about 40. (We loaded 900 bred registered Holstien [sic] heifers, which were scheduled to give birth to their first calves after arrival in Israel!, but because the ship was delayed in New Orleans, before coming to Newport News, the calves began to arrive before sailing and we milked our way across the atlantic!)

First crew of seagoing cowboys for Israel livestock program, Nov. 1949. Photo credit: John R. Martin.

“We were supposed to have milking machines on board,” says Lewis Burkholder. “I went as a milker and the pay was $175.00. Some men went as feeders and their pay was $150.00.”

The extra pay hardly made up for the rigors of the job. “By the time we got to Israel we were milking eight hours a day,” Burkholder says. “Four in the morning and four in the evening.”

The crossing was a rough one. “Imagine milking cows by hand with the ship rolling from side to side and most of the cows were first lactation heifers and many of us were seasick. Our hands got very, very sore from milking so many hours. One man had brought a large bottle of liniment along, so in the evening we would rub it on our hands and then hold our hands over the light bulb at each bed.”

What did they do with so much milk? one wonders. “We were supposed to pull the milk up to the deck and dump it over the side,” Burkholder says. “We learned that some cows would drink the milk so we recycled some of it. Some cows would drink as much as ten gallons.”

Camels walking through Nazareth, Dec. 1949. Photo credit: J. Harold Buckwalter.

On arrival in Haifa, J. Harold Buckwalter recalls receiving a “Royal Welcome.” Their hard work was rewarded when the cowboys were given a two-day, all-expense-paid tour of the Holy Lands by the Israeli government. Buckwalter notes seeing “flocks of sheep along the hills,” seeing “Arabs along the roads, riding donkeys,” driving past “citrus groves and olive trees, palms and banana trees,” seeing “immigration settlements, living in tents.” They visited a Kibbutz and Holy sites in Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Mount Zion. On their own after the tour, they explored the Sea of Galilee and Tel Aviv and went up Mount Carmel for a view of Haifa at night.

John R. Martin notes, “The trip turned out to be an experience of a life time.”

(to be continued)