Seagoing Cowgirls?

How I would love to find a copy of the letter Dan West received from seven young women when the call went out for cattle tenders for the UNRRA livestock shipments in June 1945! What I HAVE found is Dan West’s response dated July 10, 1945, less than two weeks after the first UNRRA ships left the country:

Dear Folks:
I like the aggressive tone of your delightful letter, and I have done something about it- however not enough for results. Here on our front porch last night Irene Petry told me that she had talked with all of you.

  1. I am sympathetic toward your concern– very
  2. I am ignorant on the innards of cattle shipping, but suspect that the present policy excludes you from active service on livestock boats. More in the lingo– I guess you can’t swing it.
  3. Ben Bushong [the man in charge of cattle tender recruitment and soon to be named executive director of Heifer Project] is sympathetic with the younger generation- especially graceful bovines- and he is better informed. I am sending your letter on to him for reply, with a copy of this enclosed.
  4. Suppose I am right that you just can’t get on the ship. There will be others, and if there is a shortage of qualified male cattle tenders, cooks, scrubbers-upper, or what have you, the policy may be changed.
  5. Meantime – and seriously enough, why not write Ben at Brethren Service Committee, Fulton Building, Lancaster, Penna. giving him your qualifications for such work. We want a good honest job done by everybody who goes on such a mission. Also give him your motives.
  6. If you get licked all around, and if you mean business, keep on trying. You remember the importunate widow and the unjust judge. That old boy was a harder customer (I take it) than the Brethren Service Committee or the shipping companies. If you want precedent I am told that whole ships from Siberia to Portland were “manned” by women a year or more ago. Of course these Russians likely never heard of the importunate widow- and if they are superior in importunation to American women- well, there you are. It is a man’s world I admit, but do what you can to improve it, on land and/or sea.

More power to you.
Truly,
Dan West

Dan was much more susceptible to “importunation” than the shipping companies, however. To be a cattle tender on a ship for UNRRA, the seagoing cowboys had to join the Merchant Marine. No women were allowed on merchant ships during those UNRRA years. It wasn’t until after the Heifer Project continued on its own, and the cattle tenders were volunteers, that women had the opportunity to be seagoing cowgirls. And even then, the ship’s officers were reluctant to allow women to assist with the cattle.

Pratt and Julia Byrd pose with fellow cowboy Leslie Yoder in Bremen, Germany, Nov. 1950. Photo: Joe Dell

As near as I can tell, the first woman to go with a Heifer Project shipment was Julia Byrd, a journalist who accompanied her husband for a “Heifer Honeymoon” in 1950. I doubt she did much tending of cattle, as she was more interested in the story.

In 1955, Mary Mahoney, a reporter from Corpus Christi, Texas, accompanied a shipment of heifers to Germany. A Pleasonton, Tex. Express article about her trip quoted her as saying, “I grew up on a ranch and I guess that’s the reason they let me go.”

The article says, “But the captain on the ship was unconvinced of Mary’s ability as a cowgirl. Her editor had to book regular passage for her although she still managed to help other CROP representatives with the dairy cattle which were distributed at Kassel, Germany.”

Kathy Baldwin Moore found the same reluctance of the ship’s crew to allow her to assist with the cattle when she accompanied her father on a trip to Japan in 1958. Her story is written up in Heifer International’s World Ark magazine.

Kathy Baldwin (now Moore) and ship’s crew. Courtesy of Kathy Moore.

That same year, Beverly Hill, a high school senior from Frederick, Maryland, had no such difficulties when she tended an air shipment of 41 heifers, a bull, and a calf for Turkey. She had chaired the “Calves for Turkey” campaign of her Frederick County Christian Youth Council.

As more air shipments were made, more “flying cowgirls” followed.

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.

Seagoing Cowboys and the Maritime Union

Our last post told of the process by which an interested person became a seagoing cowboy and obtained his Merchant Marine ID that allowed him to legally work on a merchant vessel. Today’s post looks at the UNRRA end of the process. The supplying of these cattle-tending personnel for the livestock ships became a major problem for UNRRA in the early stages of the program.

First, as we’ve previously noted, was the lack of qualified candidates. In their Historical Livestock Report, UNRRA notes: “Draft Boards were still requiring great numbers of men. Employment possibilities were excellent in most fields…” making it difficult to find the caliber of person desired. UNRRA solved this problem by contracting with the Brethren Service Committee to recruit the cattle tenders. https://seagoingcowboysblog.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/unrra-and-the-brethren-service-committee-partner-up/

The report also states, “The relationship between the ship’s crew and the cattle attendants on shipboard and the possible interest of the Maritime Unions in the cattlemen presented additional problems.” To avoid potential conflicts between these three groups, UNRRA Livestock Branch employee Sol Lischinsky was sent to New York to confer with union officials. It took several conferences for an agreement to be reached, after which National Maritime Union president Joseph Curran “dispatched a letter to [UNRRA’s] Director General in which he advised that the N.M.U. would have no interest in the cattle attendants, even though they were to be signed on ships articles as members of the ship’s crew.”

The UNRRA report went on to say,

It was agreed with the War Shipping Administration and the ships operators that cattle attendants would be subject to the same regulations on shipboard as were the regular ship’s crew. Veterinarians and supervisors were to be accorded the same privileges as were the ship’s officers. This was necessary in order to insure a relationship between the persons responsible for the care of the animals and those responsible for the operation of the ship which would lend itself to the best interest of the animals.

Under the original agreement with the Brethren Service Committee, UNRRA paid the sum of $150.00 for each man recruited. Later revisions in the agreement provided for the payment of an additional $100.00 for men designated as foremen….

This meant that seagoing cowboys received $150.00 per trip, whether that trip took four weeks or four months. They were, however, paid per month by the Merchant Marine — all of one cent per month! — a simple formality to make the cowboys legal workers on the merchant vessels.

Seagoing cowboy receives penny for Merchant Marine service.

This unidentified newspaper clipping highlights the seagoing cowboy pay.

Next post: Hanging around in the port city

Becoming a Seagoing Cowboy

One of the first questions I ask a seagoing cowboy in an interview is, “How did you learn about the seagoing cowboy program?” Some say through their church or school, others saw an ad in a church or farm magazine, some heard an ad on the radio, and many learned by word of mouth.

seagoing cowboy ad

Once interested, the cowboy-to-be contacted the seagoing cowboy office at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, and put in his application. Then the waiting began. Maybe a matter of hours after an initial phone call if livestock tenders were urgently needed. Maybe a couple of weeks or longer, especially if a longshoreman’s strike was in process.

The Seagoing Cowboy office

Located in Old Main at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, the seagoing cowboy office was the hub of coordination efforts to keep the UNRRA livestock ships manned. Photo courtesy of Brethren Historical Library & Archives

Finally, that telegram or phone call came saying to report to New Windsor or directly to the port of loading. Could have been Baltimore; New York City; Newport News; New Orleans; Portland, Maine; Savannah, Georgia; Houston, Texas.

Telegram to report

Alfred Willms [misspelled in telegram] orders to report to Newport News. Courtesy of Alfred Willms

Bags were packed and the cowboy headed to the port at his own expense, whatever way he could get there. Maybe train, or bus, or car, or thumb. Many had never been out of their state before. Some, even their own county.

Cowboys ready to travel.

Lloyd Gingrich (right) and friend are ready for their adventure on the  S.S. Adrian Victory to Poland, July 1946. Photo courtesy of Lloyd Gingrich

Then the process of obtaining seaman’s papers in a strange city began, with trips to a number of offices including that of the Coast Guard, the five and dime store for passport pictures, the doctor for a quick physical exam and inoculations. If the applicant was under 18, he needed to have a permission form from his parents. If he was of draft age, he needed a release from his draft board to leave the country. Finally, the cowboy received his papers showing he was a member of the U. S. Merchant Marine with the classification of “cattleman.”

Seaman's card

My Grandpa Abe’s seaman’s card. He went to Poland on the S.S. Pierre Victory in October 1946.

On receiving his papers, the cowboy took the seaman’s oath. When his ship was ready, he signed on to the ship’s articles, separate articles from what the regular crew signed, making him a member of the seagoing cowboy crew. He was ready for the adventure of a lifetime!

Next post: Seagoing cowboys and the Maritime Union