A Seagoing Cowboy Song and a Poem

An email “in box” often brings surprises when one is considered an expert on a topic. Usually, a request for information. However, a little over three months ago I received an email that made my day. Mennonite singer-songwriter Tim Shue wrote, “Someone gave me a poem by a Willard L. Bontrager entitled ‘An Ode to Thirty-Two Cowboys’ in hopes that I would eventually write a song about it.” Some 12 years later, the deed has been accomplished.

The song, “Cowboys at Sea,” sung by Tim, appears on the recently released CD* of the Honeytown band of which Tim is a part. Tim has generously granted me permission to share it on my website. Click here to listen to this song, inspired by Bontrager’s poem below.

Willard L. Bontrager traveled to Trieste, Italy, on the S. S. Morgantown Victory with a load of horses for Yugoslavia, departing Newport News, Virginia, December 2, 1946.

The S. S. Morgantown Victory loading in Newport News, Virginia, December 1946. Photo credit: Hartzel Schmidt.

Thirty of the thirty-two cowboys on the S. S. Morgantown Victory, December 1946. Photo courtesy of Vernon Yoder.

Cowboy foreman Willard Evans and cowboy Willard Bontrager, December 1946. Photo credit: Hartzel Schmidt.

An Ode to Thirty-Two Cowboys
By Willard Bontrager
All names are purely fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. The Author.
1
Thirty-two cowboys sailed the seas;
Started out brave as ever you please
These brave cowboys hit the sack,
With nary a tho’t of turning back
2
Thirty-two cowboys got up the next morn,
Sorry that they had ever been born.
These brave cowboys lined the rail
Heaving too much for that little rail.
3
Thirty-two cowboys now morbid and weak
Went to their work very quiet and meek;
They watered their stock and pulled their hay,
Then went to work putting slings on a bay.

Morgantown Victory cowboys pulling up hay. Photo credit: Hartzel Schmidt.

4
Thirty-two cowboys sailed into the Med.
Found it not as they had read.
This inland sea–this nice smooth sea
Was lashed by wind–rough as could be.
5
Thirty-two cowboys hit the port
Acted as if they should have escort.
Most searched the town for Souvenir;
A few went to the bar for a drink of beer.
6
Thirty-two cowboys back at sea
Getting homesick as they could be,
Spent Christmas Day out in the deep,
Dreamt of home while fast asleep.
7
Thirty-two cowboys led by Gene.
His special we found was not so clean.
Roused his foremen at half past ten
To work on horses he needed men.
8
Thirty-two cowboys–two nite watch
When not sea sick, they were top notch.
They called the foremen out of bed
After the horses were nearly dead.
9
Thirty-two cowboys loved to mock
The man who called himself a doc.
In Number Four he made a bad guess,
Gave a dead horse a sling to caress.
10
Thirty-two cowboys massaging legs
Grumbling do what the doctor begs.
Pares Shreiner, our best Masseur,
Massaged the legs but couldn’t cure.
11
Thirty-two cowboys and their wild horse;
She was from the west and couldn’t have been worse.
She was in a sling for many a day,
Until found one morning full of decay.

Disposing of a dead horse from the Morgantown Victory, December 1946. Photo credit: Hartzel Schmidt.

12
Thirty-two cowboys–one was young Shantz
Just grew out of his knee-length pants.
He was our mess man’s pride and joy.
He found him a very understanding young boy.
13
Thirty-two cowboys with sleepy Paul
Who “Eggs Up” for supper did call.
He had just risen from his bunk,
And must have been feeling pretty punk.
14
Thirty-two cowboys lost 93 head
Which was not the fault of Kansas “Red”,
He was a good man with that lasso of his
And really knew that cowboy Biz.
15
Thirty-two cowboys–not one a poet
This isn’t good and don’t we know it!
But we tried to tell of our trials and woes
Of which we had plenty as each of us knows.

 

*Anyone wishing to purchase the Honeytown CD, “Good Enough,” can contact Tim Shue at 330-857-1115 or timmydshue (at) gmail (dot) com. Other songs on the album include “Strings Alive!,” “I Can’t Stand Up Alone,” “To Think Like a Tree,” etc.

A Seagoing Cowboy on Chick Detail

Leland Voth’s Merchant Marine card for service as a “cattleman.” Courtesy of Leland Voth.

Inspired by his older brother’s cattle boat trip to Europe in early 1946, Leland Voth decided to sign up, too, expecting to take care of heifers or horses. Little did he know that he would instead be put on “chick detail,” as he called it.

Soon after his sophomore year of high school ended, Leland set out on foot from his home in Lorraine, Kansas, to hitchhike to Newport News, Virginia. He slept in a YMCA in Kansas City his first night, then took public transportation to the edge of town where he set out hitchhiking again. “Along the way, however,” Leland says, “I waited for hours for a ride, to no avail. Finally a bread delivery truck picked me up and the driver informed me that the previous week a lady had been killed by a hitchhiker.” When the bread truck driver reached his destination of Lexington, Kentucky, Leland had the driver drop him off at the bus stop and took public transportation the rest of the way.

Leland reported to the Brethren Service Committee office at Pier X in Newport News.

The Brethren Service Committee office where seagoing cowboys checked in and received their assignments. Photo credit: Elmer Bowers, February 1946.

There he was asked to volunteer on the dock “to help assemble chicken batteries (cages) for baby chicks for the next ship.” When the S. S. Morgantown Victory crew was being assembled, Leland was able to sign on. “I helped fill the chick cages with 18,700 baby chicks and load them on the ship,” he says. The remainder of the cargo was 760 heifers. The destination: Poland.

When crew assignments were made, Leland got the night shift. His job was to feed and water the chicks and extract the dead ones. “The chick batteries were about 5 tiers high,” he says, “and each tier had a side spool of brown paper which was threaded in a narrow space under each tier to catch the chick droppings and was normally changed once a day. When the sea was really rough, the wide rolls of paper under the chick cages would fall off their racks and rip out the litter which made a mess that I had to clean up. To prevent such happenings, I made regular rounds to check whether the rolls of paper were centered on their hooks.

“The enjoyable time was to climb up the rungs of the ladder to breathe in the fresh ocean air,” Leland says. “It also was a chance to go to the galley, cut slices of freshly baked bread and smear it with a thick layer of orange marmalade. Orange marmalade became my favorite spread to this day.”

In Poland, the ship docked in Nowyport, the port area for Gdansk. The cattle and newborn calves were unloaded first. “One cow jumped out of its crate as it was being unloaded and broke its back on the dock,” Leland says. “After several days, the chicks were unloaded and I was free to tour the area for the two days remaining.”

Chicks being unloaded from the S. S. Rockland Victory in Nowyport, Poland, three weeks later. Photo credit: Robert Stewart.

The first night off ship, Leland went with other cowboys to deliver food they had brought with them to give to hungry people. The next day, they went by streetcar into Gdansk and saw the “piles and piles of bricks and rubble of buildings which had been bombed” that all cowboys to Poland witnessed.

“We discovered a former Mennonite Church which was badly damaged,” Leland says. There he found some books in the rubble which he took home to Kansas and later gave to the historian at Bethel College.

The exterior of the bombed out Danzig Mennonite Church. Photo credit: Paul Martin, May 1946.

“The return trip was uneventful,” Leland says. “Some of the men used butter as a suntan lotion while sunning on the deck until a notice appeared that ‘such activity was prohibited.'”

When the ship arrived back in Newport News, each cowboy received his $150 pay from UNRRA and two cents from the Merchant Marine (a penny a month, a token to make the cattle tenders legal workers on the ships). What to do with two cents? Leland’s crew put all their pennies in a jar, a total of about 64 cents, and drew numbers to see who would get them.