How a novel turned into a blog

This will be a more personal post. At my presentations, I am often asked how I got into this seagoing cowboy history. So today, I’ll share that story with you.

It all started with an envelope of my Grandpa Abe’s photos my father gave me some years after grandpa died.
Turns out, Grandpa Abe had been a seagoing cowboy, accompanying a load of horses to Poland the end of September 1946.

I grew up in the Church of the Brethren, the denomination responsible for recruiting all of the livestock tenders for UNRRA’s shipments of farm animals to Europe after World War II. From my youth magazines, I knew about these “seagoing cowboys.” But I DIDN’T know that my grandpa had been one of them. He never talked about it with us grandkids, and we never knew to ask. I knew there were a couple of Polish dolls in grandpa’s attic where we grandkids often played, but I didn’t make the connection until seeing his photos.

After receiving that envelope of photos, I got curious about what grandpa’s trip may have been like. So in January 2002, I interviewed a man from our church, Al Guyer, who I knew had been a seagoing cowboy to Poland. The end of that year, I signed up for a book writing course through the Institute of Children’s Literature to write a young adult novel. Grandpa’s photos and stories of Al Guyer’s eventful trip kept beckoning to me, and I thought, what a great topic! The trip of a 16-year-old seagoing cowboy to Poland! My instructor agreed. The topic was “something new and different under the sun,” she said. Being historical fiction, it would require a great deal of research, so I sought out more seagoing cowboys to interview.

Interviewing J. O. Yoder about his trip to Poland on the S. S. Clarksville Victory in December 1945.

One cowboy led to another, and another, and another. And their stories were so fascinating and compelling that I was hooked! It didn’t take long to realize that this was a rich history, just hiding away in people’s minds, and drawers, and attics, and my mission changed to that of documenting this little-known, not-to-be-forgotten history of how men of all stripes delivered hope to a war-torn world. I’ve been at it for twenty years now, accumulating a sizable archive of cowboy photos and stories too significant to just sit on my shelves.

In 2007, I created a DVD documentary photostory, A Tribute to the Seagoing Cowboys, which I took on a Tribute Tour around the country meeting more cowboys and gathering their stories.

Meeting and hearing from seagoing cowboys at Brethren Village retirement community in Lititz, PA, April 14, 2009.

I started my seagoing cowboys website in 2008, and what a game changer that was! I began to get requests for information of all types related to this history from as far away as Poland, Germany, Finland, and Japan. Inadvertently, I had become the recognized “expert” on the seagoing cowboys and the related history of the Heifer Project.

My novel did get drafted and revised, and revised, and revised, but never published. Instead, it sort of morphed into my children’s picture book The Seagoing Cowboy. In the summer of 2014, while that book was in the works, I decided the best way to get more of this history out into the world was to start a blog. And I’ve been at it ever since.

 

Special Post: International Day of Peace

On this International Day of Peace, I honor the Seagoing Cowboys
who helped usher in peace after World War II.

A seagoing cowboy reflects on visiting the memorial being built where the first shots of World War II had been fired. Gdansk, Poland, July 1946. Photo by Charles Shenk.

Seagoing cowboy Guy Buch, fluent in German, is being interviewed by German media. Buch was part of a special crew of Church of the Brethren seminary and college students intent on having dialogue with German Christians. Bremen, West Germany, July 1946. Photo courtesy of Guy Buch.

Another special crew tested whether black and white seagoing cowboys could work together on the same ship. The cowboys pray together on their return from Poland to the United States. July 1946. Photo by Ben Kaneda.

On this International Day of Peace,
I also honor the Brethren Service Committee and the Heifer Project
whose mission it was to build peace in a war-torn world.

Seagoing cowboy Martin Strate shakes the hand of a Japanese official after a ceremony to celebrate Heifer Project’s shipment of 25 bulls to Japan, May 1947. Photo by Norman Hostetler.

A “Campaign for Peace Action” brochure of the Church of the Brethren Peace Education Department, circa late 1940s. Courtesy of Heifer International archives.

May peace prevail in these troubled times.

~ Peggy Reiff Miller

 

Oceans of Possibilities: Turning Swords into Plowshares

If you missed my program for the Indian Valley Public Library last week and would like to see it, you can tune in to the 56-minute recording here. I talk about the ways in which the seagoing cowboys and the Heifer Project contributed to building peace after World War II. Enjoy!

~Peggy

War Bride Stowed Away on Livestock Ship

An undated newspaper clipping in the Heifer International archives carries this headline:

“Bride, Made Up as Negro Boy By Husband, Signed as Cattle Steward, Stows Across Atlantic”

The article, written by Harry P. Moore, appeared in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, circa early November, 1946.

At the end of World War II, when American troops moved into Poland, US Army Captain Paul K. Cowgill met and fell in love with a young Polish war widow, Katrinsyka Spicyk. Early in the war, the Germans killed her husband and forced her into slave labor. After meeting Captain Cowgill in 1945, the couple courted for a few months and were married. After Cowgill returned to the United States, they had a dilemma—how would they get Katrinsyka there? They were told it could take weeks or months for her to get accommodations on a passenger ship, and she wouldn’t be allowed on a freighter.

Their transportation problem was solved when Cowgill, now out of the Army, signed on to the S.S. Edward W. Burton which he knew was bound for Poland. The UNRRA ship departed from Newport News, Virginia, September 28, 1946, with a load of 810 horses.

The ship that carried Captain Cowgill to Poland, September 1946. Photo by Nelson Watts.

“On the way to Europe,” Cowgill told Moore, “I looked the ship over carefully and finally decided that a good hiding place would be a big ventilator that was used to supply air to the cattle in the ship’s hold.” He removed some “bolts and minor obstructions” and crawled into the space himself to test it out. It would work.

On arrival in Gdansk, he looked up his wife. Now the question was how to get her on the ship. He realized that the only dark-skinned people the Poles see are those who come on the crews of the US merchant ships. “It occurred to me that it would be just the thing to disguise my wife as a Negro boy,” he said. When they were ready to go, he blacked her face and they went down to the ship.

“She was carrying a few packages and I was ordering her about to make the guard on the pier believe we both belonged on the ship,” he said. The ruse worked and he was able to get her inside the ventilator without being seen. He took a blanket to her, and there she stayed for five days, eating what food he could bring her.

Once the ship was in the Atlantic Ocean, with no possibility of Katrinsyka being taken off ship in Europe and sent back to Poland, the couple turned themselves in to the Captain who questioned them separately. “The girl appeared frightened despite her black face,” he said. Satisfied that their stories matched, he decided to give them a break. He took their statements, made copies, and had them signed. When the Edward W. Burton arrived in Newport News, Captain Simmons accompanied Mr. & Mrs. Cowgill to Norfolk to straighten everything out with immigration and customs officials.

Photo from the Norfolk-Virginian Pilot.

“I am happy now,” Mrs. Cowgill said, “glad to be in America. It is such a fine place. Everybody laughs and I shall laugh, too.”

If my research is correct, the couple died just months apart in 2009 and 2010 and are buried side by side in Arlington National Cemetery, with Katrinsyka having changed her name to Anna Anita and her maiden name being Prosniak.

 

Ten young seagoing cowboys from Okanogan County, Washington, on an errand of mercy: Part IV

The story of the Okanogan County, Washington, seagoing cowboys concludes in this post with their departure from Poland*:

When it came time to leave on January 7, 1946,Yoder noted in his journal, “There didn’t seem to be any regrets with us on ship. It was a bit touching however to watch the natives all stop working, regardless of what, and passionately watch our big ships slowly turn around and then head out toward the Baltic. They all stood watching along the shore or several blocks inland as if paralyzed.”

On the dock, Nowy Port, Poland, January 1946. Photo credit: Nelson Schumacher.

A few of those natives made it onto the ship. “We had three or four stowaways on board,” Henneman recalls. “So I’d feed ’em. Took bottles of water down to ’em.” He gave his phone number to one who spoke good English. “I says, if you make it off ship, call me up and say, ‘I made it! I made it! I made it!’ I said, I’ll know what you’re talking about. A few months after that, he phoned me up and he says, ‘I made it!’ I often wondered what kind of a citizen he made. I bet he was a good one.”

Photo credit: Eli Beachy.

The ship returned to Houston, Texas, where the cowboys waited for their $150 checks from UNRRA before seeing some sights and heading back to school.

Yoder and two other cowboys took in the World Champion Rodeo and Texas Fat Stock Show, February 1, 1946. Yoder says in his diary, “Tex Ritter was there and The Lone Ranger and horse ‘Silver.'” Photo credit: Paul Bucher.

With the world opened up to them, these young cowboys came back to Tonasket with a mission. In a program for the local Lions Club, the boys described the conditions they had seen, the distress of people trying to resume their lives amidst the wreckage of war, and how the children were particularly vulnerable. The Tonasket Times summed up the tenor of their message about the people of Europe: “Their cry for help, which in this country is voiced through such organizations as the Lions Club should meet with a generous response by well fed, well clothed Americans, who have never had to endure in comparable degree the suffering that is the lot of Europe today.” A fitting statement that should make even J. O. Yoder proud of those boys.

Eight of the Tonasket, Washington, seagoing cowboys. Front, L to R: Gerald Vandiver, Dave Henneman, Johnny Woodard; Back, L to R: Jack Fancher, Kenneth Lorz, Bruce Pickens, Bill Dugan, Mark Bontrager. Photographer unknown.

* Excerpted from my article published in the Okanogan County Heritage magazine, Winter 2014.

 

Ten young seagoing cowboys from Okanogan County, Washington, on an errand of mercy: Part III

The story of the Okanogan County, Washington, seagoing cowboys continues with their sobering arrival in Danzig, Poland, on December 27, 1945*:

The Clarksville Victory approaches the pier in Nowy Port, Poland, December 27, 1945. Photo by J. O. Yoder.

In an unidentified newspaper article, 16-year-old Fancher said, “You have to see that country to believe it. Everyone is hungry . . . The children are in rags and most of them have not been to school since the war started. You walk down the streets and they run up to you, holding out their hands and begging for food.” One of the images that still remains in Fancher’s mind today is that of seeing people on the street cutting steaks off of one of the mares that died.

Children following the seagoing cowboys in Gdansk, Poland, January 1946. Photo by Nelson Schumacher.

Henneman recalls that their ship had apples from Tonasket. “The labels on the box tell you where they come from, and who packed it. Somebody we knew packed them. You knew their number.” In Poland, he carried apples off the ship under his jacket and handed them out to people. “I guess it was stealing,” he said, “but we had plenty. They didn’t have any.” He bought other items that he carried off the ship and gave to people. The guards, who would normally shake someone down they suspected of carrying things off, would let him pass because they knew he was giving everything away.

Dave Henneman shares a story from J. O. Yoder’s book about their trip with Peggy Reiff Miller in 2014 interview. Photo by Sandra Brightbill.

Cigarettes were the prime black market commodity, and other cowboys learned they could buy cigarettes cheaply in the ship’s store and trade them for souvenirs. Or they could trade their dollars for Zloties to make their purchases. Dugan was able to obtain a violin which he still has and which he played for dances after he got home. Fancher brought home a little wooden box with a hand-carved lid.

Entertainment options in Danzig were slim. Dugan remembers visiting battlefields with ammunition and the bodies of unburied German soldiers still lying around. “Danzig is like some old Wild West town,” Fancher said in his newspaper interview. “It is full of Russian, Polish and British soldiers, and all the civilians carry guns–pistols, rifles or tommy-guns. There are a lot of shooting scrapes. Two English and four Russians were killed during the 14 days we were there, and some of our boys were held up and robbed of cigarets [sic] and American money.”

Exploring a battlefield near the docks in Poland, January 1946. Photo by Nelson Schumacher.

Fancher and John Woodard told the reporter, “one sight in Danzig was three times as horrible as the worst Boris Karloff movie.” Woodard explained, “That was the [building] the Germans used for human medical experiments. They showed us thru it . . . it was terrible. There were human bones all about, human skin that had been tanned, soap made from human fat . . . the smell was sickening . . . there were two petrified bodies . . .” The experience is one the cowboys do not like to talk about today. Their crew was one of only a few that were taken through the facility before it was put off limits.

Photo by Clarksville Victory fellow cowboy Eli Beachy, January 1946.

(to be continued)

* Excerpted from my article published in the Okanogan County Heritage magazine, Winter 2014.

Creighton Victory cowboys adopt a Polish boy to their crew

The seagoing cowboys on the S. S. Creighton Victory trip of July 4, 1946, to Poland were a special crew of interracial students recruited by the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen for UNRRA to determine if they could send integrated crews to Europe. The practice up to that time had been for cattle tenders to be segregated into all white or all black crews.

Fellowship of Southern Churchmen interracial seagoing cowboy crew at Hampton Institute, July 1946. Courtesy of Ben Kaneda.

When this Fellowship Crew reached Poland, they took on a special mission of their own – as described in the newsletter they published during their trip called “The Atlantic Daily.” In it, they included profiles of the entire crew. Profile #36 describes their mission:

The thirty-sixth member of the Fellowship Crew could only be Rog Stanislaw, 12-year-old Polish waif literally adopted by the cattlemen. Rog (pronounced Rook) won the admiration of everyone of the S. S. Creighton by his ever-smiling good nature, his good manners, and his honest desire for cleanliness.

The first evening that Rog left the Creighton after visiting with the men aboard, one of the ship’s regular crewmen gave him enough money in the form of Polish zlotych to enable him to buy himself a pair of shoes. Although Rog could speak only one or two words of English and German, his pride of his new shoes was apparent when he returned aboard the Creighton the next day.

Rog Stanislaw aboard the S. S. Creighton Victory in Nowy Port, Poland, July 1946. Photo courtesy of Ben Kaneda.

In spite of the fact that Rog often protested taking gifts from crew members, he was loaded down with soap, candy, apples, oranges, and gum when he had to leave the ship in the evening. Knowing this affable young boy who never asked for a single thing provided the other side of the picture to the large number of Polish children who followed American seamen by the hoards asking for gifts of all kinds.

Polish children beg for treats from Creighton Victory cowboys. Photo courtesy of Ben Kaneda.

On the last evening in port in Poland, the Fellowship Crew took up a collection of 633 zlotych and presented it to Rog who was both bashful and filled with gratitude.

There were tears in the eyes of Rog Stanislaw as the ship prepared to leave Poland. He wanted very much to go to America too. As he stood on the dock waving, waving, and waving, he became a mere speck in the distance as the Creighton Victory headed her bow in the direction of the Untied States of America, the land of plenty.

The suffering of all Poland was brought home to members of the Fellowship Crew time after time in visits to city and rural areas around Danzig but certainly no more lasting impression of the grief and need that exists there could have been seen than the young tow-headed Polish Rog Stanislaw, homeless waterfront wanderer who wanted to become a part of America so badly that he cried openly when his new American friends pulled out for home leaving him standing on the dock . . . alone.

An Amish Seagoing Cowboy’s Story: Clarence Stutzman

Clarence Stutzman grew up in an Amish community in Hutchinson, Kansas. When I interviewed him in 2015, he said, “It’s still a mystery to me how my mother let me go.” When he read of the need for seagoing cowboys in the Mennonite Weekly, he thought, I can do that.

“I was a light-weight guy at the time—17 and 120 pounds. I remember my mom saying, ‘Aw, you’re too small, they wouldn’t take a child like you.’ I went ahead and sent in a letter. The first thing I knew, I get a telegram to report to New Windsor, Maryland. No questions asked. No physical, no interview, no nothing.”

It was a big thing in those days to get a telegram. “I guess my folks were so shocked they didn’t know what to do.” He said they didn’t want to go against MCC, so they agreed and bought him a train ticket.

On arrival at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, where the seagoing cowboy office was located, he sorted clothing and did other relief jobs for a couple of weeks the end of December 1945 until his ship was ready to go.

On the campus of the Brethren Service Center, former Blue Ridge College. The old gym on the right housed much of the relief activity. Photo credit: Howard Lord.

There he learned that he had to be 18 to get a seaman’s card at that time. Fortunately for him, his birthday was December 31, as his orders were to report to his ship January 1st. He made it on board the S. S. Virginian when it departed from Baltimore for Poland January 4, 1946.

The cowboy crew on Clarence Stutzman’s ship, the S. S. Virginian, January 1946. Photo courtesy of Alpheus Rohrer.

“The trip was life-changing for me,” Stutzman says. His experiences mirrored those of other cowboys who went to Poland. Floating mines in European waters, a tour by UNRRA in the back of an army truck that took them to former concentration camps and battlefields, acquiring souvenirs. He bought a songbook from an old peddler scavenged from the abandoned Danzig Mennonite Church .

The Danzig Mennonite Church destroyed in World War II. Photo credit: Stutzman’s shipmate Richard Rush.

Title page of a songbook retrieved from the Danzig Mennonite Church by seagoing cowboy Levi Miller, summer 1946. The title means “The Day Begins.” Photo by Peggy Reiff Miller.

One souvenir in particular initiated the change in Stutzman’s life—a belt buckle that he cut off a dead German soldier’s uniform. Being Amish, he knew the German language. The buckle bore the words “Gott mit uns,” meaning “God is with us.” Having been taught all his life by his Amish and Christian upbringing not to fight, this hit him hard. 

Belt buckle of a German soldier. Peggy Reiff Miller collection, from the
family of cowboy Milton Lohr.

“We were thinking of the Germans as very heathen for what they were doing—not that there might be Christians on the other end of the fighting. When I saw that this was a Christian fellow and he was killed on the battlefield, how Christians were fighting each other, it put me into a real paradox theologically.”

Unlike Amish cowboys Cletus Schrock and Lores Steury who were excommunicated for taking their trips, Stutzman was welcomed home and treated well. His theological questioning had begun, however. About four years later, he left the Amish church and joined a Mennonite congregation. His obituary says he lived an “incredibly full life….He was full of ideas, grand plans, ingenuity, wonderlust [sic], and eternal optimism.” He traveled the world and had two patents.

“My experiences were real wide,” he told me. And it all started with a cattle boat trip to Poland.

An Amish Seagoing Cowboy’s Story: Cletus Schrock

UNRRA’s seagoing cowboys came from all denominations, religions, and non-religions. The stakes were the highest for some of the Amish cowboys whose Bishops did not allow such worldly activity. One of those cowboys was Cletus Schrock, a young Old Order Amish farmer from Topeka, Indiana.

As a conscientious objector to war, Cletus served in Civilian Public Service during World War II from September 1942 through the end of March 1946. In February 1946, the US Selective Service System agreed to allow CPSers to apply for “detached service” in the CPS Reserve to serve on livestock ships delivering animals to Europe until discharged.

Peggy Reiff Miller interviews Cletus Schrock, July 7, 2008.

“I was working in a mental hospital in Staunton, Virginia,” he told me, “and I tried to get into the detached service.” The hospital superintendent, however, said, “I can’t let you go. I don’t have a replacement. So I was stuck ’til I got my Selective Service discharge.” That day arrived on March 31.

CPS release form for Cletus Schrock.

“I just packed a suitcase and went to the Brethren Service office in Newport News, and they said I’m on the next ship out.” That ship was the S. S. Carroll Victory headed for Poland with a load of horses April 11, 1946.

“I was brought up with horses,” he said, “so I was in charge of one hold of 154 of them. I had three men helping me that they hired off the street to be cowboys.”

Cletus Schrock is the cowboy with a mark over his head. Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

In Poland, Cletus recalls the devastation: “Alles kaputt!” he said. Everything’s ruined! “That’s what a lot of them would say. There was only two buildings in the big city of Danzig that I remember were not damaged. The rest of ’em were just pretty well dilapidated.”

Cletus, center cowboy, with the Roth brothers befriended a Polish boy in the ruins of Danzig/Gdansk, Poland, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

Women at work cleaning up the debris in Gdansk, Poland, April 1946. Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

The cowboys found remnants of the war not far from the ship.

Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

And like many of the cowboys, Cletus met people who wanted desperately to go to America. One couple who befriended him said, “If there’s any way we could be stowaways and hide on the ship….” He had to turn them down. As he did the woman by his side in this photo.

Photo courtesy of Cletus Schrock.

On the return trip, Cletus got a break. “See, the boys were supposed to wash down all the stalls,” he said. “I didn’t have to do any of that, because I had my hair cutting tools in my locker, and one of the boys seen I had ’em. The guys were wanting hair cuts and the word got around to the captain. The first guy I cut hair was the captain, and that was quite interesting. I got to be right up there where all the controls were. So I cut hair. And that’s all I did coming back. I got to know men from all over the country, and some of ’em paid me a dollar.”

When Cletus arrived home, his Amish community found out about his trip. “That wasn’t good news for me,” he said. His first Sunday back, his Amish bishops cornered him and said, “We heard about what you did. We don’t believe in that.”

Cletus had come to appreciate the Mennonites who ran the CPS camps in which he had served, so he decided to leave the Amish and join a Mennonite congregation near him. “I knew I had helped people,” he said, “and so I didn’t feel like one of the Amish anymore.”

His decision to leave came at a greater cost than just being cut off from his church family. “My dad had bought a farm for me of 120 acres with buildings on it that I was to get if I stayed Amish. Since I didn’t stay Amish, I didn’t get anything. It didn’t bother me that much, because it wasn’t my main goal. I just learned a lot about helping people, especially when I worked in the hospital, and then going on over across.”

 

Looking back 75 years: UNRRA’s first livestock shipment to Poland, Part IV—Happier days in Gdynia

Our last regular post highlighted the sobering tour on which UNRRA took the seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Virginian on October 4, 1945. While the cowboys explored the countryside, the ship moved from Nowy Port outside Gdansk where the livestock was unloaded to the port of Gdynia further up the coast to unload the remaining cargo. It took only two days to unload the animals and any remaining hay and feed in Nowy Port, but another six days to clear the ship in Gdynia.

On a battlefield above Gdynia, Poland, October 1945. Photo courtesy of Lowell Erbaugh.

The remaining cargo consisted of:
1,395 gallons of DDT
30 bags of chicken feathers
255 bolts of cotton piece goods
19,183 bales of clothing
36,032 cartons of soap
200 barrels of soap
2,452 bags of shoes
4,939 cases of canned food
7,000 shovels
26 drums of carbide
8 bales of bed sheeting
825 drums of lard
One crated auto.

A newer city, Gdynia was not as heavily damaged as Gdansk. “The living conditions in this town are quite good compared to other towns nearby,” Ken Kortemeier says in his diary.

A street in Gdynia, Poland, October 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

Unlike Gdansk where barter for candy, gum, or cigarettes was the name of the game for obtaining desired objects, the people of Gdynia were eager for American dollars. “It is interesting to look at the merchandise for sale in the stores and the amber articles for sale,” he says. “It is only found around the Baltic area where it is mined.”

Street life in Gdynia in October 1945 was more normal than in nearby devastated Gdansk. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

“The people as a rule are cheerful and we had many a laugh as we talked to the folks in stores and in the streets,” notes Harry Kauffman. “It was a much needed break from what I had been seeing and hearing, although we see here, too, the tragedy of war. I saw a young woman with only one leg walking on crutches and one young man with both eyes gone.”

The market place in Gdynia, Poland, October 1945. Still shot from movie taken by Ken Kortemeier.

One day, Kortemeier and some friends went to the public market where he bought a German plate. “Hardware, dishes, clothes, rugs, etc., were all for sale,” he says. Kauffman adds, “Some of the sellers are perhaps dealers but many are poor people who sell anything they can possibly spare. Some cut glassware and chinaware looked very costly and some very old. All these things are sold for to get something to eat and to us Americans at only a fraction of their real value.”

All through their time in Poland, the cowboys continued to meet people who either wanted them to take letters with them to mail to relatives or friends in the US when they returned or wanted to be smuggled onto the ship to go to America. The S. S. Virginian left Poland October 10 with some letters in cowboy hands but no stowaways on board.

Cowboy supervisor John Steele had now been gone from home the total six weeks he had anticipated being away from his business. To his dismay, he would have another five weeks yet to go.