Seagoing cowboy conversations with returning World War II soldiers

Here is the report from “Relief for Greece” in which Donald Lefever writes about his interchanges with the soldiers on the S. S. Virginian:

Our Contacts with Soldiers on the Return Trip

At Naples 140 soldiers came aboard the Virginian for transportation home. The great majority of these men had been in the service for three or more years and all of them had enough points to be discharged when they arrived in the States. Practically all had seen action in the most severe fighting in Italy and Africa. We had many opportunities to talk with these soldiers since neither they nor our group had any work to do.

When conversing with a soldier any length of time I frequently asked him some or all of the following questions: Do you favor peacetime conscription? What is your attitude toward the race question? What was our nation fighting for?

The answer to the first question was almost unanimous. Of the men I talked to five out of six were against peacetime conscription. They believed that the higher officers and officials of the army would favor the step in order to insure themselves a well paying position in peacetime. Most of the soldiers felt that conscription in peacetime would be a violation of our democracy.

The answer to the race question presented mor [sic] varied opinions. First, let me state that perhaps one-fourth of the soldiers on board were Negroes who, incidently, seemed to get along quite well with the rest of the soldiers. The soldiers all had their living and eating quarters together which is not the way things are usually done in the U. S. Army. We found that the army had done very little to rid the white soldiers of their ideas of white supremacy. Some admitted that the Negro should be treated better but most thought the Negro was in some way inferior to the average white man. The attitude of the Negro soldiers toward the problem seemed to be more rational. One young man from New York said, “We expect no gifts, all we want is equal rights; the right to compete on an equal basis.” Another married man from Ohio said it was his opinion that a Christian nation should accept all races as equal, whatever their color or heritage. “It is pretty disgusting and it lowers your self-respect to be excluded from a theatre or a concert hall just because your skin happens to be brown,” were the words of a young man from Arizona. These Negroes felt that if they were good enough to risk their lives for the country the least the government could do for them was to insure them of equal rights and opportunities.

When asked what the nation was fighting for most of the soldiers would reply that it was fighting for the survival of democracy. When asked what they themselves were fighting for they weren’t so sure. Many said they fought because they were made to fight. Others fought because it was either their skins or the other fellows; they preferred that it be the other fellows. Very few fellows said they fought because they hated the Germans. In fact some said they had nothing against the Germans. Many admitted that the German atrocities did not far surpass the American atrocities. One fellow said, “There were good and bad on both sides and our side did plenty that the people will never hear about back in the States. Another young man from the South remarked that it was funny that, “if we didn’t fight they would put us in prison or shoot us and the same thing would happen to the Germans if they didn’t fight. We both are fighting someone else’s war and we both are fighting for the same ideal of freedom.” One of the soldiers told a member of our group that he didn’t think a real Christian could fight. Another young married fellow with a child he had never seen said to a small group of us, “We fight, we obey commands and we aren’t supposed to think. In twenty years my little boy will be fighting the next war and he won’t know why.”

What a closing statement! I wonder if his little boy ended up fighting in Vietnam.

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Seagoing cowboys mingle with returning World War II soldiers

As we have seen in previous posts, several of the early UNRRA livestock ships brought soldiers home from Europe. With their cargos unloaded, space was available for cots to be set up; but having had livestock as cargo, there was some serious cleaning that had to take place! Even though their work was supposed to have been finished after the animals were unloaded, many of the cowboy crews were coerced into helping to scrub the decks. As Byron Royer, supervisor of the Zona Gale cowboys, said,

 We agreed because of the emergency in regard to getting the troops home, to help clean up the ship. . . . It was definitely not a part of our duties. However, we did work all day and got the ship in a shape much as I doubt if it’s been in before.

Their eighty-eight G.I.s boarded the next day.

Gordon Bucher, on the F. J. Luckenbach, recorded in his journal for Sunday, July 22, 1945,

At 3:30 150 soldiers came on board & what a mess. We had to set up our cots in a stable & move our mattresses & stuff. If it means 25 more can come back to the U. S., it’s all right with me.

Most of the early cowboys were from the Church of the Brethren, one of the Historic Peace Churches, and many were conscientious objectors. Having G.I.s on board gave them a unique opportunity to dialogue with the soldiers. The S. S. Virginian crew includes a section about contact with the soldiers in their report of their trip titled “Relief for Greece” that gives a good idea of what these conversations might have been like. I’ll share that report in my next regular post.

On the Zona Gale, the G.I.s were invited to the worship services the cowboys had, and many good friendships were developed between cowboys and soldiers. Byron Royer records their homecoming in his account “A Seagoing Cowboy in Italy”:

     We ate our lunch and when we came out after lunch, we could just see the Coast of Virginia coming into sight. I wish you could have seen the GI’s as we were coming in. Those boys, most of them, had been away for from two to four years and they were one happy lot coming home.

Some were cursing and cracking obscene jokes to cover their true feelings. But most of them were thinking pretty seriously. There were even some who were crying — men who had been through months on the battlefield. I’m very glad they could come home with us.

We pulled into Hampton Roads (?) [sic] which is a sort of a bay which is the entrance into Newport News and Norfolk, Virginia. After a lot of red tape and examinations by the Health Service and Customs, the boat came out to take the GI’s ashore. We hated to say, “Goodbye” to them. You know, it’s surprising how well you learn to know people in a short time like that when you have nothing to do.

The boat had three WAC’s aboard. . . . The Red Cross had doughnuts and a cold drink of some kind for the boys as soon as they checked off and there was a GI band to furnish music for them as they went in.

They pulled away with a lot of yelling and waving and exchange of farewells.

I’ve found no photos as yet of these returning soldiers or of their accounts of coming home on a cattle boat. If anyone has any, I’d love to see them!

Next post: Conversations with the soldiers.