What a logistical nightmare it must have been for Benjamin Bushong and his staff in the Seagoing Cowboy Office to man UNRRA’s livestock ships. For every one of the 360 livestock shipments, timing had to work out for a ship, the animals, and the seagoing cowboys to be at the port at the same time. Ships that were scheduled were often switched at the last minute creating delays. A wave of postwar strikes (including coal, railroad, and maritime) also played havoc with carefully laid plans, stranding some groups of cowboys, as well as livestock, in the port cities up to two months.
Robert Ebey, a young pastor serving in Michigan, reports on October 10, 1946, “I received a telegram indicating that the maritime strike was ‘just over’ so I should leave at once.” He took the next train to Baltimore the following day, only to find that the strike continued. Despite daily news reports “expecting settlement within the next few hours,” the strike lasted until November 1. For whatever reason their delay, men like Ebey found themselves with time on their hands. If they had signed onto the ship’s articles before the delay, they received $2.50 per day in port. If they hadn’t gotten that far in the process, they were on their own dollar. Some went home.
Cowboys who reported to Baltimore could stay at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland. A former college campus, dormitories housed staff and volunteers who worked at the center. Cowboys would often help with the processing of used clothing sent to the Center to be shipped overseas for relief, helped at the Roger Roop farm where heifers were collected for the Heifer Project, or hired themselves out to local farmers.
The Center was a busy hub of activity with speakers such as Dan West and other religious leaders, games, music, folk dances, and side trips to Washington, D.C — and girls. While waiting at the Center for one of the first UNRRA ships to sail, Earl Holderman met a young volunteer with whom he had a whirlwind romance. They exchanged letters while he was overseas, reunited on his return, and later married.
Many of the cowboys hadn’t been far from home before. Imagine being ordered to report to New York City with all its hustle and bustle and exciting things to do and see: Broadway, the Empire State Building, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall.
Some Midwestern cowboys got their first taste of city life and the Deep South in New Orleans.
In 1946, Newport News became the central port for UNRRA livestock shipments, and a Brethren Service Committee satellite office was established there to service the cowboys. They often stayed at the Catholic Maritime Club. Some groups of cowboys took advantage of nearby beaches and maritime museums. Many Mennonite cowboys enjoyed the hospitality of the nearby Warwick River Mennonite community where they would go to help at Yoder’s Dairy, or join the local young people for their wiener roasts, Bible studies, or singing. Women today still recall how eagerly they anticipated each new group of cowboys during that time.
Whether it was Baltimore, New York, New Orleans, or Newport News, one experience common to most of the cowboys was watching the loading of the ships. The animals were most often hoisted up into the ship in large sturdy wooden crates called “flying stalls.”
After however many days in port, the anticipated day arrived when land legs were turned into sea legs and the real adventure began.
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