Heifer Project’s goodwill mission to Puerto Rico, 1945

CPSer Carl Epp and Rufus King prepare to unload Heifer Project cattle in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in May 1945. Photo courtesy of Carl Epp.

Seventy-four years ago this month, the second shipment the Heifer Project made to Puerto Rico, with 45 heifers and 5 bulls, arrived in San Juan, May 25, 1945. But why Puerto Rico? people ask. Weren’t the Heifer Project animals being raised intended for Europe?

Yes, they were. But while these cattle were being gathered in April, World War II was still in motion, making shipping across the Atlantic impossible. Heifer Project had animals ready to send and needed to find a place for them. The Brethren Service Committee, which oversaw the Heifer Project, had connections in Puerto Rico. They were in charge of the Civilian Public Service Unit #43, the Brumbaugh Reconstruction Unit. This unit was formed in December 1943 to address community needs of medical care, public health, and social service on this poverty-stricken island.

Rufus King, Director of the Unit, reported in the Gospel Messenger (May 19, 1945):

Puerto Rico is one of the most thickly populated areas in the world. It has 550 people per square mile; two million people on an island 100 miles long and 35 miles wide. Only 20 per cent of the land is owned or tenanted by individual farmers, although sixty-seven per cent of the population is rural. The result of this situation is extreme poverty, ignorance, disease and malnutrition.

Puerto Rico became the logical place for Heifer Project to send its animals. The Brumbaugh Reconstruction Unit had two projects where cattle were placed, a Brethren project in the mountain village of Castañer and a Mennonite project in the coastal area of La Plata. Both projects had built hospitals. Each project received six heifers and one bull to form the nucleus of a herd to support the hospital work and the CPS workers.

The cattle pens at Castañer, Puerto Rico, date unknown. Photo by Dean Kagarise, Tom Lehman collection.

Carl Epp and Harry Martins with Heifer Project cattle at La Plata, Puerto Rico. 1945. Photo courtesy of Carl Epp.

The Brumbaugh Reconstruction Unit worked closely with the Puerto Rican Restoration Administration (PRRA) which helped set up homesteads for farm laborers. Eleven animals from this shipment went to PRRA recipients in the La Plata area. The remaining 25 were distributed to selected Puerto Rican farmers through the Farm Security Administration.

Puerto Rican farmers receive their heifers from the PRRA allotment, May 1945. Photo courtesy of Carl Epp.

Rufus King summarizes the import of the overall work in Puerto Rico in his Gospel Messenger article:

We know we have only scratched the surface, but we Brethren must give ourselves a fair opportunity to demonstrate what can be done toward building up the body, mind and spirit of a people in one area of Puerto Rico; we must give ourselves a fair chance to see the fruits of our efforts in developing a spirit of initiative and co-operation among a people and in helping them to help themselves. This takes time, more time than the few years of the war period can afford.

Angel Perez Rodriguez with male calf born to Heifer Project cow, Castañer, Puerto Rico, 1946. Photo courtesy of Don Sollenberger.

Seagoing Cowboys before World War II – Part I

The term “seagoing cowboy” was coined at the start of UNRRA’s livestock shipments in June 1945; but the men who carried this title weren’t the first to tend livestock on the oceans. Bob Zigler, Heifer Project’s seagoing cowboy office manager in 1946, wrote:

       It seems that livestock has been transported on a commercial basis since man began to tame animals and graze them in herds. For years cattle boats have been the ‘poor man’s taxi’ to adventure and foreign lands. By choice or necessity many have used this means to make their way over the sea lanes of the world.

Of the thousands who have sailed probably the best known was the late Will Rogers. Will, as youth, had left his home in the Indian Territory for Argentina and the great cattle ranches of the pampas. But several months passed by in an unsuccessful effort for fame and fortune and the future was not promising. So he signed aboard the SS Kelvinside bound for Durban, South Africa with a load of livestock. And a load it was for on board were 500 head of cattle, 700 hard tail mules, 400 horses, and on a specially built deck, a flock of sheep.* Truly a floating menagerie. The trip from Buenos Aries lasted 25 days and as it has been for many since that time, it was 25 eons of relentless agony. The year was 1902.

Then came the crisis and agony of World War I, leaving millions of hungry people across Europe in its wake. The Germans suffered not only from war damage, but also from the reparations required of them in the Versailles Treaty to deliver 800,000 milk cows to the Allied countries from an already dwindled herd. With a low supply of milk, death rates from tuberculosis and infant mortality had doubled since before the war. And German-American Missouri Synod Lutheran and Mennonite church leaders and farmers in the Midwest responded to the need.

In 1920 and 1921, four shipments of cows and heifers were assembled, of which three were delivered, through the work of the American Dairy Cattle Company in Chicago. The first shipment arrived in Hamburg, Germany, November 12, 1920. The 700 Holstein cows were held in quarantine until the cattle company received assurance that the animals would not be sent out of Germany as reparations.

Mennonite historian Raymond F. Wiebe of Hillsboro, Kansas, notes the second shipment of cows and heifers were donated by Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and Mennonite families of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Applications for “cattle tenders (cow milkers)” were solicited by the committee involved. One of those cattle tenders was Peter C. Andres who accompanied the Kansas cows to Texas. He wrote home from Texas City that ten vigorous youths from Hillsboro had joined him. To this Kansas farm boy, the size and construction of his ship, the S. S. West Arrow, was both impressive and frightening; but his confidence grew as he became familiar with the ship.

The West Arrow arrived in Bremen, Germany, February 7, 1921, with 732 cows, 40 newborn calves, and 30 cattle tenders who were met on board by a grateful welcoming committee of prominent German citizens. The American Friends Service Committee and the German Red Cross allocated and delivered the animals to orphanages and nursing homes, while the German Red Cross treated the young Americans to a two-week tour around the country. The American Dairy Cattle Company had requested the German Red Cross to provide this tour so the young men could see the dire need in the country and report on the conditions there when they got home, encouraging more people to donate more cows.

After the tour, half of the cattle tenders traveled on to Berlin for a reception. Photo provided by Raymond F. Wiebe.

In the meantime, in South Dakota, another drive was on to solicit cows for a third shipment, but it was not smooth sailing for those involved. (coming in next post)

*I’m not certain where Bob Zigler got this information, but I question whether that many animals would fit on a ship back then. The Victory ships built at the end of World War II could only hold around 800 large animals along with their provisions. It wasn’t until the S. S. Mount Whitney was built in 1945 that 1500 animals could be transported at one time. I haven’t been able to find information on the S. S. Kelvinside to confirm its capacity.

Sources: Notes of Raymond F. Wiebe and “Gift Cows for Germany” by La Vern J. Rippley, North Dakota History, Summer 1973.

Cattle for Israel – Part III

The Levinson livestock trips were known by the Israel Cattle Breeder’s Association as “Operation Cattle and Draught Animals for Israel.” Living near the Mennonite community in Denbigh, Virginia, and being acquainted with the service of Mennonite seagoing cowboys for UNRRA, it was to the Mennonites the Levinson brothers appealed to find their cattle tenders for this operation.

Mennonite seagoing cowboys to Israel, June 1951. Photo courtesy of Virgil Stoltzfus.

A February 1959 letter from the Israel Cattle Breeder’s Association to Melvin Gingerich of the Mennonite Research Foundation praises the work of these young Mennonites:

As you may know, altogether some 15 ships with 12,000 cows, heifers, and calves and some 5,000 horses and mules have been bought and shipped to Israel in the years 1950/1953.

Having been in charge together with Mr. Ben Levinson of Williamsburg, Virginia, I must say that the help, eagerness and devotion of these boys was so high; that I’m sure was a big factor in the success of my mission.

I take this occasion to express on behalf of the Members of this Association our thanks to all that took part in the Operation.

I’m sorry that I can’t give you a list of the participants, but Mr. Ben Levinson might have those lists in his files, all I can say is that at least 100 boys of your church have taken part in this Operation, and they are all very fine cowmen.

May I add that the Operation as a whole has been very successful, the milk production in Israel since has gone up from 180 million pounds to 440 million, and the average per cow yearly production went up from 8,000 pounds to 11,000.

Yours very truly,
L.E. Shmaragd, Secretary

As to the value of these trips, Fred Gingerich called it “a wonderful broadening experience.” Bob Eshleman notes, “It increased my self confidence and self worth.” For Jim Rhodes, it was his first exposure to hunger. “I saw children in Turkey chasing each other and fighting over cast aside apple cores and other food scraps,” he says. And for Kenton Brubaker, it was an “introduction to the situation in Palestine. I witnessed the destruction of Arab homes in Haifa, the tension in Jerusalem. It gave me a base of contrast for two more recent visits to Israel and Bethlehem.” And several of these cowboys cited seeing the Holy Lands and the opportunity to walk where Jesus had walked.

Virgil Stoltzfus caring for heifers en route to Israel, June 1951. Photo courtesy of Virgil Stoltzfus.

War ruins in Haifa. Photo courtesy of Virgil Stoltzfus.








Israel Cattle Breeder’s Letter from Melvin Gingerich files, Mennonite Church USA Archives. Edited. [Note that Melvin Gingerich researched the work of the Mennonite seagoing cowboys to Israel and was not one himself. He also had no relationship to Fred Gingerich.]

Luke Bomberger holds record for most seagoing cowboy trips

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

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

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.

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’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.

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

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.

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

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.

Special Crew #4: Second All-Mennonite Crew

Several months after the Mennonite student crew of the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory made their trip to Poland, a second all-Mennonite crew departed from Newport News, Virginia, on the S. S. Frederic C. Howe November 15, 1946. Bound for Trieste, Italy, they cared for over 700 horses that would be transported on to Yugoslavia.

Courtesy: Henry Weaver, Jr.

Courtesy: Henry Weaver, Jr.

This post will be told through the slides of Henry “Hank” Weaver, Jr., an eighteen-year-old student at Eastern Mennonite College who was taking a year off between his freshman and sophomore years when he made his trip.





Photo credit: Henry Weaver, Jr.

Photo credit: Henry Weaver, Jr.



“All but four cowboys got seasick,” Hank said. He was among the lucky four who didn’t.




Photo credit: Henry Weaver, Jr.

Photo credit: Henry Weaver, Jr.




The “bosses,” Chris, Trimmer, Art, and Walt.




Photo credit: Henry Weaver, Jr.

Photo credit: Henry Weaver, Jr.



Like the Mennoite crew that went to Poland, these cowboys were greeted in Trieste by the devastation of war.




Photo credit: Henry Weaver, Jr.

Photo credit: Henry Weaver, Jr.



Hank and his friends take a “taxi” to see Trieste.

Photo credit: Henry Weaver, Jr.

Photo credit: Henry Weaver, Jr.






An old Roman amphitheater was one of their stops.




Photo credit: Henry Weaver, Jr.

Photo credit: Henry Weaver, Jr.



They took a bus to Venice, a bit uneasy about whether they’d make it back in time to catch the ship, but relaxed when they saw the Captain was on the bus, too.





Photo credit: Henry Weaver, Jr.

Photo credit: Henry Weaver, Jr.


The ship was met by “bum boats” off the coast of Spain on the way home, with merchants wanting to sell bedspreads and table cloths. The basket goes up with the merchandise and down with the pay.



The Frederic C. Howe completed its trip on December 31, 1946, docking in New York City.

As I do with all seagoing cowboys I interview, I asked Hank if this trip had influenced his later life. He said it stoked his interest in other countries and led him to a career administering college study abroad programs. He started Goshen College’s program in Indiana and served as Deputy Director for Education Abroad in the University of California system. His work has taken him to over half the countries of the world.

Next post: the seagoing cowboy who made the most trips

Special Crew #2: All-Mennonite crew of high school and college students come of age on a cattle boat

Half of the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory all-Mennonite crew.  Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

Half of the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory all-Mennonite crew. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

“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.

The other half of the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory crew. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

The other half of the S. S. Stephen R. Mallory crew. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

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.

The mess hall on the Mallory was one hold down. Photo courtesy of Loren Zimmerman.

Life goes on. The mess hall on the Mallory was one hold down. Photo courtesy of Loren Zimmerman.

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.

Remnants of the war around Gdansk could not be avoided. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer/Len Smucker.

Remnants of the war around Gdansk could not be avoided. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer/Len Smucker.

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.

This plaque in the Danzig Mennonite Church served as a sobering reminder of Polish Mennonite participation in World War I. Photo courtesy of Richard Rush.

This plaque in the Danzig Mennonite Church served as a sobering reminder of Polish Mennonite participation in World War I. Photo courtesy of Richard Rush.

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.

Tivoli Gardens gave the Mallory cowboys a diversion from the weight of what they had seen in England and Poland. Photo courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

Tivoli Gardens provided a diversion from the weight of war aftermath. Courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

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:

Praise from the pistol-packing captain. Courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

Courtesy of Robert Ramseyer.

Next post: Special Crew #3: Interracial crew of Southern college students sponsored by the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen

Meeting Heifer Project and UNRRA recipients in Poland, Part II–Suchy Dab, 2013

Out of the blue in early 2013, I received an email from an architectural history doctoral student in Poland that opened up an opportunity for me I could previously only have imagined. Magda Starega was looking for postwar images of the Danzig Mennonite Church for a paper she was writing about its architecture; she was told I might have some that were taken by seagoing cowboys.

Many Mennonite seagoing cowboys visited the ruins of the abandoned Danzig Mennonite Church. Photo courtesy of Glen Nafziger.

Many Mennonite seagoing cowboys visited the ruins of the abandoned Danzig Mennonite Church. Photo courtesy of Glen Nafziger.

The former Danzig Mennonite Church today serves a Pentecostal Church of Poland congregation. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

The former Danzig Mennonite Church now serves a Pentecostal Church of Poland congregation. The building is on the Polish National Register of Historic Buildings. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.



A correspondence with Magda developed. She wondered what other images I had of postwar Gdansk (the Polish name of the city, reclaimed after the war). I recognized in her a highly professional young woman. Knowing I would be in Germany later that year, the light bulbs went off in my brain. Could I extend my trip and travel on to Poland? See for myself where my grandfather and a majority of the seagoing cowboys had been? Find the rebuilt locations of images shared with me by the cowboys? Would Magda help me? She readily agreed, and my short, four-day visit far exceeded my expectations.

Magda and Grace found the house in the Suchy Dab celebration photo of 1945. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Magda and Grace found the house in the Suchy Dab celebration photo of 1945. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

At our initial September 30 meeting in the Gryf Hotel in Gdansk, Magda brought a colleague with her, Grazyna Goszczynska, known to me as Grace. In Grace, I recognized another highly professional woman, who had experience in photography and curating historical photo collections. Before leaving home, I had sent Magda the image I had of the ceremony in Suchy Dab we saw in my last post and wondered if we might be able to find that location. And Magda and Grace took me there.

What a thrilling day to stand in the same street as the Heifer Project recipients of 1945, in front of the same house in the photo! We learned later that during the war that house was occupied by a local authority.

Magda and Grace then took me on a cold call to visit a nearby farmer, a Mr. Alaut, who Grace had discovered had received an UNRRA horse in late 1946. We walked up their lane along a fencerow of salmon-colored dahlias and were met by two friendly little black and white dogs who announced our arrival. When the family learned our purpose, they welcomed us into the house that Mr. Alaut’s parents had taken over days before World War II began, after its German owners had left. He said they were safe there during the war.

The Alaut farm in Krzywe Koto, Poland, October 2013. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller

The Alaut farm in Krzywe Koto, Poland, October 2013. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller

Mr. Alaut recalled walking the twenty kilometers to the ship at age 16 to get the horse for his family, their first horse for the farm. “It was a beautiful horse, but wild!” he said. “I walked it home with a lead rope.” Many of the seagoing cowboys had told me the horses they cared for were wild off the western range, and I often wondered how on earth the recipients managed them. Here was my chance to get an answer. “We trained it,” he said. “My neighbor had gotten a horse, too, and we made the two horses work together as a team.”

Mr. Alaut told me, “We kept the horse in the house to keep it safe. We were afraid of the Russians. They would just come and take anything they wanted. They would steal horses and sell them.”

One of two descendants of the UNRRA horse Mr. Alaut received in 1946. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

One of two descendants of the UNRRA horse Mr. Alaut received in 1946. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Like all recipients I visited in Europe, Mr. Alaut expressed his gratitude. “Because of help from the U.S.A., we were able to get a start,” he said.

Today, the third generation runs the farm, raising grain and sugar beets, hogs and geese. They still had two descendants of their UNRRA horse, but these, Mr. Alaut said, “will be the end of the line. No one wants horses today.”