I recently came across a delightful 20-minute interview with Herb Pownall by Caroline Ballard on the HumaNature podcast of Wyoming Public Media. Herb served as an UNRRA seagoing cowboy supervisor on the S. S. Edwin D. Howard to Germany that left Newport News, Virginia, April 29, 1946, with a load of 833 bred heifers for Czechoslovakia. Herb has some great photos that also appear on the HumaNature website. Click here for the podcast and photos. Enjoy!
March 3, 2016, marks the 70th anniversary of the first trip of the S. S. Woodstock Victory as a livestock carrier. The Woodstock Victory is the ship featured in my children’s picture book to be released March 31, so I wanted to celebrate this day with a special post about the ship.
On March 3, 1946, 762 bawling heifers, 8 bulls, and 89 mares left Newport News, Virginia, on the Woodstock Victory bound for Poland. Of those heifers, 230 were sent by the Heifer Project as gifts to the most needy of Poland’s farmers. The rest of the animals were sent by UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration). UNRRA’s recipients were required to pay in some form for their animals.
“Floating barns” is what one Amish seagoing cowboy called the livestock ships. The seagoing cowboy supervisor for this trip, Don Bortner, reported, “We loaded 8485 bales of hay, 1831 bales of straw, 1595 bags of dairy feed and 100 bags of oats.” And, like the cycle of life in any barn on land, the “floating barns” had their ups and downs for the animals. Two of the gift heifers died on the way, one of toxema from a calf not being born and one of pneumonia. Another, “Heifer bsc 3131,” writes Bortner, “was admitted to the Hospital in Hatch four on the nite of Mar. 7, the roughest nite on the trip. After sticking her all over with needles and shaving her side she finally give in and lay on her left side. Dr. Quartrup and Dr. Freidman with the assistance of many cowboys performed a Ceasarian Operation. Had this not been done the heifer would have died. . . . I think the vets did a wonderful job under many handicaps.”
Amish cowboy Melvin R. Yoder was on this trip. His story was reported by Elmer S. Yoder in the October 2002 issue of Stark County Mennonite & Amish Historical Society’s Heritage newsletter:
Melvin and three others were assigned 100 heifers on the second deck down. The 100 heifers were in a large section or “pen” on the floor.
The trip to Poland took about two weeks. He remembers the excitement among the sailors when Bishop’s Rock was sighted on the south coast of England and at the head of the English Channel. They observed the white cliffs of Dover and headed into the North Sea, which Melvin said was described to them as the graveyard of the ocean.
They sailed through the Kiel Canal and into the Baltic. Due to the danger of mines, the ship anchored at night and sailed only during daylight hours, with two minesweepers preceding it.
. . . . After the heifers and horses were unloaded the cattlemen were free to do some sightseeing. But the main sights he remembers and has photographs of are the destruction and devastation of the war. The ship was not carrying any cargo on the return trip. . . .they had very few, if any, chores. . . .
They used their non-sleeping time mainly to play cards. Melvin took with him a barbering outfit, even though he was a novice, and gave haircuts to cattlemen. He did not say how many or how much he charged.
Over the course of a year, the Woodstock Victory made a total of six livestock trips, five to Poland and the final trip in January 1947 to Greece. She transported a total of 2,447 mares, 1,583 heifers, and 15,000 chicks to Poland and 790 mules to Greece.
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.
Next post: The Trials of the S.S. William S. Halsted
If you guessed they were all seagoing cowboys, you are right! They were three of the nearly 7,000 adventurous souls who took time out of their lives to tend livestock sent on ships to Europe after World War II for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the Heifer Project.
Bob Richards was 19 and a pre-ministerial student at Bridgewater College when he responded to the first round of calls for men to serve as cattle attendants for UNRRA. He sailed on the second UNRRA livestock ship to depart – the SS Virginian, leaving Baltimore for Greece on June 26, 1945.
Richards served as assistant editor for a report made by the cattlemen of this trip titled “Relief for Greece.” The report says that he gave the message at the cowboy crew’s second Sunday worship service on board. His topic: “You are the Light of the World.” Richards went on to become a minister in the Church of the Brethren for a time and taught religion classes at LaVerne College in California, while at the same time keeping up his pole-vault training and winning gold medals in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics.
William Styron signed up as a seagoing cowboy on an impulse the summer of 1946, according to his biographer James L. W. West III in William Styron, A Life. After three years of college and a short U.S. Marine Corps stint at the end of World War II, Styron wanted a summer break. He was staying with his parents in Newport News, Virginia, and was looking for a way to pass the time while waiting to participate in the prestigious two-week Bread Loaf writer’s conference that August. “Perhaps, he thought, he might do some seafaring,” West writes. And seafaring he did! Aboard the SS Cedar Rapids Victory that left Newport News July 10, 1946, bound for Trieste, Italy.
A dock worker strike in Trieste gave Styron the gift of added time abroad. He later drew on his time there to write “A Moment in Trieste,” a sketch that was published in 1948 in American Vanguard, a collection of pieces by “young American authors on the verge of professional recognition” edited by Don M. Wolfe. Biographer West tells me in an email that “late in his career, William Styron thought about basing a novel on his Cedar Rapids voyage. It was to be a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist, with experience as a Marine in WWII, encountered new experiences….” Sadly for us, that novel never got written. Styron died in 2006.
That same summer, 17-year-old Harvey Cox of Malvern, Pennsylvania, was looking for adventure between his junior and senior years of high school. He found it on the SS Robert W. Hart. Cox devotes an entire chapter to this voyage in Just As I Am, his book about his faith journey. The Hart left Baltimore June 28, 1946, headed for Gdansk, Poland.
A harrowing experience with a supervisor and a lacerating horse bite didn’t dampen Cox’s enthusiasm. He writes, “Everyday at sea I leaped out of bed when the bell rang at five; I was thousands of miles from Malvern; I was doing something important; I was becoming an adult.” Witnessing the vast devastation in Poland with its lingering acrid smells and seeing the war’s effects on the people, especially the children, made Cox more introspective on the way back across the Atlantic.
He writes, “As the long, empty days passed, I became aware of a conviction growing inside me that there could not be another war. It just was not worth it.” And he concludes, “A youthful adventure…had unexpectedly become a faith journey.” Cox went on to become a professor of theology at Harvard University and a peace activist.
Next post: Heifer Project’s first seagoing cowboy