An Amish Seagoing Cowboy’s Story: Lores Steury

Seagoing cowboys signed on to the job for a variety of reasons. Some were simply looking for adventure. Some wanted to see for themselves what the war had done. Others wanted to do something worthwhile to help those suffering from the war. For Amishman Lores Steury, the motivation was far more personal.

Steury had served over three years in Civilian Public Service camps during the war. Dissatisfaction hit him hard when he came home from CPS to his family farm. He and his family belonged to an independent Amish group, the Reformed Amish Christian, under an authoritarian leader. “They had no connection with anybody,” Steury said. “And that became very disappointing. That’s the one reason I decided to take a seagoing cowboy trip—to get away and decide what I really want to do with my life.”

Unlike Cletus Schrock who didn’t find out he would be excommunicated until he got home from his livestock trip, Steury decided to go knowing full well what would happen on his return. So he kept his plans to himself and rented a post office box for his correspondence with the seagoing cowboy office. “And then I made a mistake,” he said. “I gave them my home address at the farm, and my mother got the mail the day I got a card to report to Newport News. It was very difficult for my parents to know that I couldn’t be part of the church anymore. But they helped me out as much as they could. They took me to the train station.”

Seagoing Cowboys signed onto their ships at the Brethren Service Committee office at Pier X in Newport News, Virginia. Photo by Elmer Bowers.

When Steury arrived in Newport News, he met three young Mennonite men he knew from Indiana. The guys had to wait in port a few days before signing onto their ship, and there Steury experienced several “firsts”: seeing his first movies (Westerns), having a date with a girl he didn’t already know (from the nearby Mennonite community his three shipmates had contact with), and seeing separate drinking fountains and places on a bus for black people. On Sunday, December 15, the foursome departed on the S. S. Queens Victory to take a load of 770 mules to Greece.

Seagoing cowboys on the S. S. Queens Victory headed for Greece, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Earl Rohrer.

Steury found mules easy to take care of. “Just feed and water ’em and let ’em do as they please,” he said. He had heard others talk of having a much harder time with horses that needed to be kept standing the whole way across the ocean and would often bite. The easier work with mules left time for playing chess and checkers and other games.

A seagoing cowboy waters mules on the sister ship S. S. Attleboro Victory, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Harold Cullar.

“At night, I liked to be on the fantail and watch the propellers stir up the water making the phosphorus light up in the dark,” Steury said. “And I’d think, now what am I going to do with my life? Would I be a seagoing sailor that would enjoy the sea, maybe as a ship carpenter? Am I gonna go back home and be a prodigal son and say I did all wrong what I’d done? I just never felt I could do that.”

A worship service for Steury’s crew on the S. S. Queens Victory, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Earl Rohrer.

Steury’s ship docked in Piraeus, the port for Athens. “We did some sightseeing but the natives were very uneasy as Greece was in a Civil War at the time,” he said. He talked with people who had been on the brink of starvation during the German occupation. And he was approached by a man who wanted Steury and his friend to help him hide on the ship and help feed him. They told him, “We can’t do that. You’d get in trouble and we would, too.”

The man found another way. By the time the Queens Victory reached the Atlantic Ocean, he and six other Greeks desperate to get to the United States had made their presence known. “He was so happy!” Steury said. But his happiness was short lived. When the ship arrived in New York, the stowaways were put off at Ellis Island; and according to Steury, the shipping company had to pay $1,000 apiece to send them back to Greece.

On arriving home after some sightseeing in New York City, Steury said, laughing, “They didn’t butcher a fatted calf.” He was soon excommunicated and took up farming outside Berne with his Uncle Dan who belonged to the Evangelical Mennonite Church. He met his wife-to-be at a Rural Youth social. “I feel greatly blessed when I review my life with my lovely wife and family,” he told me. They ended up living in Goshen, Indiana, where he worked for Goshen College. “Thank the good Lord I did move to my cousin’s house and farm for Uncle Dan.”

The S. S. Park Victory Livestock trip #3, Greece, March 1946 – Part I

Robert “Bob” Frantz aboard the S. S. Park Victory, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Robert Frantz.

An expected four- to six-week trip delivering mules to Greece turned out to be a three-and-a-half month journey for CPSer Bob Frantz. While serving his term in Civilian Public Service at Michigan State College in Lansing, he says, “I received information that CPS men would be eligible to volunteer as Sea Going Cowboys.” Bob applied and was accepted. “Why did I consider leaving my wife and young son to do this? I felt that I had done little in CPS to help humanity, perhaps taking animals to needy people would ease my conscience and the adventure was tempting.” An adventure it was!

Unidentified newspaper clipping circa March 1946. Courtesy of Will Keller.

Bob soon received his orders to report to Houston, Texas, where the S. S. Park Victory was loading 900 wild mules from Mexico. He reports that about a third of the cowboy crew were CPSers, others signed on to make a contribution to the project, and “quite a number were professional Merchant Marines who needed a short term job and practiced a life style quite different from mine,” Bob says. Learning to know and appreciate some of them “broadened my philosophy of life a great deal.”

“Our work was to see that the mules had hay and water and a few other jobs,” Bob says. “Two weeks on the ocean became a bit boring. Some relief came when we were allowed to convert a ‘gun tub’ on the stern to a swimming pool.”

Livestock ship or cruise ship? Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

After stopping in Athen’s port of Piraeus to receive orders, the Park Victory steamed on up the Aegean Sea to Kavala to unload most of the wild cargo.

The wild mules were difficult to handle, with some running off into the water. Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

The Greek Civil War was under way at the time, but that didn’t stop UNRRA from taking the cowboys on a tour of nearby Philippi to see the site of the first Christian church in Macedonia, the jail where the Apostle Paul was held, and the Roman road.

Temple at Philippi built in the 5th Century A.D. Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

The ship traveled back to Piraeus to unload the remainder of the cargo, giving the cowboy crew the opportunity to tour the historical sites of Athens. Exactly one month into its journey, this is where most UNRRA cowboys would have said good-bye to Greece and headed on home. The Park Victory crew, however, received orders to proceed to Cyprus to pick up a load of donkeys, which they then delivered to Salonika.

In Cyprus, donkeys were loaded from barges alongside the ship. Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

The journey still wasn’t finished after unloading in Salonika. Another order sent them to Haifa, Palestine, to refuel before picking up another load of donkeys in Cyprus to deliver to Patras on Greece’s west coast. This fateful leg of the trip extended the cowboys’ stay in Greece by an additional two weeks when the Park Victory hit a mine left over from the war off the coast of Patras.

“We were able to go the short distance into Patras and unload the donkeys,” Bob Frantz says, “but the SS Park Victory was unable to continue. It was a frightening experience, but there were no injuries. It could have been much worse.”

Cowboy supervisor Rudy Potochnik made arrangements for housing and feeding the cowboys in Athens where they spent two weeks before finding passage home. “The situation was bad,” reports Potochnik, “since it was now about three months since leaving. The men had no funds. In Athens we got some additional spending money for the men. We had to buy soap and towels. UNRRA allowed $3.00 a day to pay room and incidental expenses.”

Supervisor Potochnik found passage home for the cowboys through the War Shipping Administration on the S. S. Marine Shark. “UNRRA paid for the passage of these men as passengers on this ship,” he says. “It was five and one-half thousand [dollars].”

Greek-Americans waiting to board the S. S. Marine Shark to finally go home. Photo credit: Robert Frantz.

The passengers, says Bob Frantz, were “mostly Greek-Americans who had been stranded in Greece for the duration of the war. It was not a pleasant trip, with lots of sea sickness, but we were thankful to be going home. The New York sky line looked very good to all of us.”

Next post: Radioman Will Keller’s account of the Park Victory’s accident.

Five Elizabethtown College students make 2nd UNRRA ship out, but arrive first in Greece

This post will set the record straight for a friendly little rivalry that has taken place through the years between the Manchester College students and the Elizabethtown College students who were on the first two UNRRA livestock ships to depart the United States the end of June 1945.

When I first talked with Gordon Bucher about his trip on the F. J. Luckenbach to Greece [see Jan. 23 post] that left New Orleans June 24, 1945, he wanted to know, “Wasn’t ours the first ship to leave the U. S.?” Having found the UNRRA records, I was able to tell him, “Yes.” The Elizabethtown cowboys who departed from Baltimore on the SS Virginian June 26, 1945, had always said they were on the first ship out. But diary accounts from the two trips and the UNRRA records show otherwise.

Turns out, it was an honest mistake on the part of the E-town cowboys, as even the media thought this to be the first shipment. The Baltimore Sun newspaper said on June 25, 1945:

GREECE CATTLE SAILS TODAY

UNRRA Shipment To Be First Consignment

     Laden with 704 head of dairy cattle and horses, the first consignment of such animals to be sent to a European country by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration the freighter Virginian will leave Baltimore today for Greece, where the livestock will be used in an agricultural rehabilitation program . . . .

The F. J. Luckenbach had already left New Orleans when this article went to press, and the Virginian didn’t leave port until a day after the article appeared, if the date typed under the article given to me is correct. Other media gave the same story, including the August 1945 Baltimore & Ohio Magazine:

First UNRRA Livestock Shipment for Europe Rides B&O

The article tells of the arrival to Baltimore on the B&O railway of 335 Brown Swiss bred heifers and twelve bulls and 357 light draft mares . It goes on to say:

This “first shipment” created a great deal of interest among the UNRRA people and various publicity agencies. The Coast Guard, Life, the Baltimore papers and the newsreel agencies all had photographers on the job . . . .

All of this while the Luckenbach was already on its way.

But alas, the Luckenbach was not to be the first to arrive in Greece. The Virginian, departing closer to Europe, arrived at its destination of Piraeus, Greece, the port for Athens, on Saturday, July 14, and gained the honor of delivering the first UNRRA heifers to Europe. The Luckenbach arrived in Patras, Greece, two days later on Monday, July 16.

First heifer to Greece.

A proud Greek poses with the first UNRRA heifer to put foot on European soil. Photo courtesy of Earl Holderman

Both crews were able to visit the Acropolis, via a short $5.00 taxi ride for the Virginian crew and a hair-raising bus ride across the Peloponnese peninsula for the Luckenbach crew that almost made them miss their ship home. [Look for this story in my next post.]

Virginian crew at the Acropolis.

Members of the Virginian crew at the Acropolis, July 15, 1945. Photo courtesy of Earl Holderman

After unloading in Greece, both ships also stopped in Naples to pick up U. S. soldiers who had fought in Europe during the war to take them home – 140 for the Virginian and 150 for the Luckenbach. The Luckenbach, however, arrived home first. Their entire cargo had been unloaded in Patras, after which they were ready to head back across the Atlantic; whereas the Virginian unloaded only part of its cargo in Piraeus and then had to travel further up around Greece to Salonika to unload the rest. Even with a stop at Béni Saf in Africa to pick up iron ore after picking up their soldiers in Naples, the Luckenbach had a considerable head start on the Virginian, arriving in New York City ten days ahead of them on August 10. They were met with a rousing welcome home for the soldiers on Staten Island complete with a WAC band playing the “Beer Barrel Polka” and a black band playing hot jazz, before finally docking in Jersey City. The Virginian delivered their soldiers to Newport News and finally docked in Brooklyn on August 20. No matter which ship they were on, the cowboys were glad to be back on U. S. soil.

Sources: Gordon Bucher’s unpublished journal and the report of the S.S. Virginian crew titled “Relief for Greece.”

Next post: Acropolis or bust! The hair-rising bus ride of the F. J. Luckenbach crew.