Seagoing Cowboy ripple effects

Occasionally, a seagoing cowboy would make lasting connections with a person or family he met in the country to which he delivered livestock. Recently, I chanced to meet a woman whose uncle had made that connection for her. Here is Charlotte Paugh’s story in her own words:

“In 1945, my uncle Russel Helstern of Brookville, Ohio, signed up to become a seagoing cowboy on an UNNRA ship whose destination was Greece and the islands. The cargo was horses. While in Greece, he took note of families he thought could use some assistance.

Russell Helstern traveled to Greece on the S. S. Henry Dearborn on one of the very first UNRRA trips made in July, 1945. Photo: Arthur Lewis, December 1945.

“At the time of his return to Ohio, I was teaching a Jr. High Sunday School Class and looking for a Christmas project we could do. Uncle Russel gave me the names of the Petsalis family – parents and five children. They lived on the island of Paxus which had sustained extensive war damage.

“The Christmas boxes we sent contained dried fruits and other nonperishable food items. I decided to put in a pair of boys shoes. They were the first pair of shoes the youngest son, 10-year-old Elefterious, had ever had. He told his father that when he reached 18 he was going to join the Greek Merchant Marines and attempt to find me.

“Years later, Lefty, the name given to him by the naturalization judge, jumped ship in Houston, Texas. He hitchhiked to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, because he and his brother as young boys had picked up a bottle washed ashore in Greece. It contained a written message and Oklahoma was mentioned.

“Lefty spent 33 years attempting to find me. Through his wife and Social Security they had traced me, even though I had moved three times and changed my name. He had saved my original letter which was in the Christmas package. He had also sent a copy of this letter to relatives in the U.S. requesting their help in locating me.

“It has been a wonderful relationship with visits back and forth in the U.S. We traveled to Paxus to meet his family, spending a week on his island. There are so many other stories associated with this experience that a book could be written about the details.”

Thank you, Charlotte, for sharing this wonderful story! This is just one example of the many ripple effects the seagoing cowboy experience had.

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Special Post: S. S. Woodstock Victory carries Heifer Project cattle to Poland 70 years ago today

seagoingcowboy-cover_FINAL-smallerMarch 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.

Seagoing cowboys get ready to pull up hay for their mules on the S. S. Woodstock Victory to Greece in January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Seagoing cowboys get ready to pull up hay for their mules on the S. S. Woodstock Victory to Greece in January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

“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.

The Woodstock Victory makes its way through the Kiel Canal on its third trip to Poland in June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

The Woodstock Victory makes its way through the Kiel Canal on its third trip to Poland in June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

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. . . .

Cowboys pass time playing cards on the Woodstock Victory's return from Greece, February 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Cowboys pass time playing cards on the Woodstock Victory‘s return from Greece, February 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

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.

The seagoing cowboy crew of the S. S. Woodstock Victory, June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

The seagoing cowboy crew of the S. S. Woodstock Victory, June 1946. Photo courtesy of Wayne Zook.

Plaque inside the Woodstock Victory. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Plaque inside the Woodstock Victory. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Roy Auernheimer in Greece, January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Jasper Dunn in Greece, January 1947. Photo courtesy of Roy Auernheimer.

Reflections on the life of seagoing cowboy Homer J. Kopke

One of the joys of my work is hearing from the children of seagoing cowboys about the significance of their father’s experience. I think Christmas Day is a fitting time for me to share a recent letter I received that has moved me deeply.

Dear Ms. Miller,

Enclosed with this letter, you will find mementos of a Seagoing Cowboy voyage to Poland and Denmark aboard the S.S. William S. Halsted in August of 1946. These relics belonged to our father, Homer J. Kopke of Cleveland, Ohio. Because our Pop was the one who took most of the pictures, there’s only one with him in it: In the group portrait of the Seagoing Cowboys along the rail of their ship, Pop is the second from the left in the back row. Pop didn’t leave behind any documentation to accompany these pictures and papers, but I’ll try to put them in context.

Homer Kopke's seagoing cowboy crew, August 1946. Photo courtesy of the Homer Kopke family.

Homer Kopke’s seagoing cowboy crew, August 1946.
Photo courtesy of the Homer Kopke family.

Unlike most (perhaps all) of the other Seagoing Cowboys, Pop was a combat veteran of World War II. He was in the United States Army from before Pearl Harbor until after the surrender of Japan in 1945. As a First Sergeant in the amphibious engineers, Pop served on the front lines of quite a few beachheads, notably along the north coast of New Guinea. One superior officer once described him as being, “The first one in and the last one out, with never a man left behind.”

As Allied troops began to prevail in the South Pacific, Pop recognized that his unit would eventually be called upon for the invasion of the Japanese homeland, and he told me once that he had fully expected to be killed in that effort. So when he came home after the war, it was with the realization that he had survived only because the war had ended abruptly with tens of thousands of Japanese civilians being incinerated in a few moments of horror at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I never knew how my father processed memories of the war in his own mind. But I think it will suffice to say that when one of his granddaughters wanted to interview him on his war experiences for a school project, all Pop could do was cry and tell her, “Don’t make me remember the things I’ve spent sixty years trying to forget.” Especially after he retired, in the weeks leading up to the annual anniversary of the first atomic blast, Pop would fold hundreds, if not thousands of the origami paper cranes that mourners always place at the Children’s Monument in Hiroshima. Pop’s Seagoing Cowboy expedition a year after the war may have been another way of processing his retrospections.

Pop was not usually sentimental about material things. When our parents downsized to a retirement center in their 80s, Mama kept her china figurines and her wedding dress, but Pop got rid of nearly everything of his that could have been considered a keepsake, including the army uniform that he had been wearing when he returned to his mother’s porch. So I think it’s especially significant that when he died at the age of 92, the man who had tried so hard to forget his young adult years still had the enclosed tattered documents and yellowed snapshots of the Seagoing Cowboys tucked into a corner of his dresser drawer.

To complete this picture, I should report that after Pop returned from his Seagoing Cowboy expedition, he volunteered to become a Christian missionary, but the Mission Board of his denomination rejected him because, at the age of 28, he was considered too old to start training. Instead, Pop went to college and got married. (My sisters and I are aware that we were born only because Harry Truman dropped the Bomb, and the Mission Board dropped the ball.) Pop graduated from seminary in 1951, and he was ordained as a minister in what later became the United Church of Christ.

I remember that when my sisters and I were little children in the town of Woodsfield, Ohio, there was a Sunday morning when two brown heifers were tethered on our parsonage lawn, where they were dedicated to God before they were trucked from our church to the Heifer Project dispatch center. And I remember that after we kids were long married, when we would visit our aging parents in Cleveland, their guest bedroom was always crowded with the cardboard cows and pigs and sheep that Pop hauled around to all kinds of presentations while he represented Heifer Project in northeast Ohio.

And now, just after the fifth anniversary of our Pop’s death, I’m putting his precious old snapshots and papers into a box and sending them to you, Ms. Miller. Frankly, it’s hard to let go of them, but I’ve scanned copies for my family, and we authorize you to hold the originals for your research, and to copy them as you see fit for any publications. When you’re finished with these items for your own purposes, we’ll appreciate it if you will do as you have suggested and donate the originals to the Brethren Historical Library and Archives — and perhaps you can place this letter with them.

With all that said, it seems appropriate to close this recital by remembering a verse from the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” that Pop requested for his funeral:

Cure Thy children’s warring madness,

Bend our pride to Thy control.

Shame our wanton selfish gladness,

Rich in things and poor in soul.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,

Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,

Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.

On behalf of my sisters — and our Pop —

I thank you for preserving the stories of the Seagoing Cowboys.

Signed by Jonathan E. Kopke

As we consider the meaning of Christmas in this year of warring madness, may the words of Jonathan Kopke about his father’s experience be an inspiration to us all.

Christmas blessings, dear Reader,

Peggy