Hats off to the U.S. Merchant Marine!

This Veteran’s Day is a good time to take hats off to the U.S. Merchant Marine, long seen as the stepchild to the U.S. military branches. The U.S. government engaged the Merchant Marine in the dangerous job of transporting troops and supplies through hostile seas throughout World War II.

1944 US Merchant Marine recruitment poster. Source: National Archives.

The U.S. Department of Defense reports that nearly 250,000 civilian merchant mariners served as part of the U.S. military during World War II. According to the National World War II Museum, 9,521 of those merchant mariners lost their lives between 1939 and 1945 – a higher proportional loss than in any of the military branches. And yet, these merchant mariners were denied the same benefits and recognition received by servicemen of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Army Air Force, or the U.S. Navy. It wasn’t until 1988 that the Merchant Marine seamen of World War II were awarded veteran status by the U.S. government and became eligible for benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In 2020 then, Congress passed the Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act to recognize and honor these World War II veterans. Due to Covid, it wasn’t until May 19 of this year that the award was officially made.

At the U.S. Capitol, World War II members of the U.S. Merchant Marine pose for a photograph with replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to merchant mariners for their service during the war, May 18, 2022. Photo By: Ike Hayman, House Creative Services Photographer

Last fall the American Merchant Marine Veterans held their convention in anticipation of the Gold Medal award in Baltimore on the S. S. John W. Brown, one of two remaining functioning Liberty ships from WWII. Merchant Mariner Lee Cox recalled the ill treatment the seamen got from other servicemen. “We got insulted a lot during the war by the Army guys,” he said in a Veterans History Museum report. “Navy guys would say, ‘Hey draft dodger drunks’.”

After the war, many of these same mariners, and many new ones, operated the merchant ships used by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to deliver the supplies and livestock to help devastated Allies rebuild.

Crew members steer the S. S. Carroll Victory into port in Kavalla, Greece, November 18, 1946. © Charles Lord.

Deckhands pull up the anchor chain on the S. S. Carroll Victory, January, 1947. © Charles Lord

The seagoing cowboys who cared for the livestock had to join the Merchant Marine.

Merchant Marine ID card of seagoing cowboy Elmer Bowers obtained through the US Coast Guard, 1946. From the Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

For this, they received the pay of 1 cent per month, simply to make them legal workers on a merchant ship.

Seagoing cowboy receives his 1 cent Merchant Marine pay from the captain of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias, early 1946. Name of newspaper unknown.

The threat of war-time attack was no longer present, but danger still lurked in the European and East Asian waterways from the presence of WWII mines not yet cleared.

The underside of the S. S. Park Victory after hitting a mine April 30, 1946, off the coast of Patras, Greece. The ship was pulled to shore and the mules aboard successfully unloaded. Photo by Will Keller, ship’s radioman.

The seagoing cowboys were often asked to take turns with the seamen to stand on watch for the mines. The regular Merchant Marine seamen received extra hazard pay when in these waters; however, the seagoing cowboys, with the classification of “cattleman”, did not. They, nevertheless, are proud of their service, too.

The seagoing cowboy crew of the S. S. Saginaw Victory, September 1946. Photo by ship’s veterinarian, Harold Burton.

Fire and life boat drills for seagoing cowboys

If seagoing cowboys hadn’t thought about the possible dangers of their trips before they signed up, the required life boat drills once they were at sea may have drilled it into them. With all that hay on board, fire was a real threat. And with mines in European waters, explosions were, too. Not to mention storms pushing ships into rocks.

Cowboys on the F. J. Luckenbach are called to a fire and life boat drill, March 1946. Photo by James Martin.

Each cowboy was issued a fire and life boat station card at the beginning of their journey, with instructions for their particular task.

Fire and life boat station for seagoing cowboy Richard Musselman who made three trips in 1946 and 1947. Courtesy of Musselman family.

The cards were different for each shipping line.

The Grace Line station card for Santiago Iglesias seagoing cowboy Milt Lohr. Courtesy of Don Lohr.

Homer Kopke’s card for the S. S. William S. Halsted of the Moore-McCormack Lines. Courtesy of Kopke family.

Usually, on the reverse side were the signal instructions. More than one cowboy crew was summoned by these signals for real.

Signal instructions for fire and life boat drills. Courtesy of Musselman family.

Wise was the cowboy who took the drills seriously and prayed he’d never have to put them to use.

Seagoing cowboys on the S. S. Creighton Victory, July 1946. Photo by Ben Kaneda.

Seagoing cowboy L. W. Shultz unites Warsaw, Indiana, with Warsaw, Poland, 1945

A side story from Heifer Project’s S. S. Santiago Iglesias trip to Poland, of the two previous posts, revolves around Indiana seagoing cowboy L. W. Shultz.

L. W. Shultz photo and autograph in cowboy supervisor Clifton Crouse’s scrapbook. Courtesy of Merle Crouse.

One of those larger than life figures in the Church of the Brethren, with his fingers in many pots, Shultz was instrumental in the formation of the Brethren Service Committee (BSC) in 1939. He served on the committee through the years of World War II and was therefore involved in the creation of the Heifer Project, a BSC program.

In 1942, the year Heifer Project began, Shultz took a leave of absence from his duties as professor and librarian at Manchester College to work more actively with the BSC’s development of their relief work. So it comes as no surprise that when Heifer Project was preparing to send its first shipment of heifers to Poland in the fall of 1945, they called on Shultz to serve as cowboy foreman for the trip. He was sent to the UNRRA headquarters in Washington, D.C., to make arrangements.

Shultz was a mover and a shaker who didn’t miss out on opportunities. Somehow, through the Deputy Prime Minister of Poland, who was also the Minister of Agriculture and who was in Washington, D.C., at the same time as Shultz, Shultz made arrangements to take a trip to Warsaw while his ship was in Poland. And somehow, it developed that the city of Warsaw, Indiana, sent a gift of $1,000 with Shultz to be presented to the Mayor of Warsaw, Poland. The slowness in unloading the livestock and cargo off the S. S. Santiago Iglesias gave Shultz ample time for a three-day trip to Warsaw to deliver the monetary gift from Indiana.

L. W. Shultz, left, greeting Mayor Stanislaw Tolwinski in his office in Warsaw, Poland, December 1945. Photo courtesy of the Shultz family.

A year later, in November 1946, Shultz went as cowboy supervisor and foreman with another load of Heifer Project cattle to Poland, this time on the SS William S. Halsted. Before leaving home, Shultz had arranged for himself and three other cowboys to stay in Poland to lay plans for Brethren Service Committee work there. In his autobiography Shultz writes, “Our captain was determined that we all should return [to the United States] with him but on the last night in port we four went ashore AWOL and stayed over night in the home of an old cobbler. The next morning we went down to the dock just in time to see the ship pull out.”

During their travels, the foursome visited heifer recipients and distributed relief supplies they had brought along. Shultz’s service to Poland on both trips did not go unrecognized by the Polish people. In a December 3, 1945, thank you letter from the mayor of Warsaw, Poland, to the mayor of Warsaw, Indiana, for their monetary gift, Mayor Tolwinski writes,

As Mayor of the City of Warsaw, the most ruined city of all by the Hitler barbarism, I have the privilege to extend to you through Mr. Lawrence Shultz my heartiest brotherly greetings to you personally, and through you to the people of the City of Warsaw, Indiana U. S. A.

We are proud that the tradition of the struggle for freedom in the United States in which our Polish warriors took part, is still so deeply alive among the American Society as to express itself in giving the name of our city to an American City.

One of those warriors to whom Mayor Tolwinski refers was Tadeusz Kosciuszko, born in Poland in 1746. He came to America in 1776 to help during America’s war of independence, becoming a Brigadier General of the Continental Army. He remains to this day a symbol of Polish-American goodwill. A medal created on the bicentennial of Kosciuszko’s birth in 1946 was presented to Shultz on his second visit to Warsaw, Poland – a fitting tribute, as the city of Warsaw, Indiana, resides in Kosciusko County, named after the General. The medal now resides in the library of Manchester University [previously College] where Shultz spent so many years as librarian.

Kosciuszko medal awarded to L. W. Shultz. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Kosciuszko medal awarded to L. W. Shultz. Photo: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Heifer Project’s first shipment to Poland, Part II – seagoing cowboys experience Poland

The seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias, like almost all cowboys who went to Poland, were immediately struck by the devastation that surrounded them. “No one can imagine the damage until it is seen,” Pennsylvania cowboy Milt Lohr wrote in his diary, amazed that people still lived in the ruins, and others were still buried beneath them.

Four days after arriving, city welfare worker Anna Yawaska came to take two car loads of cowboys through the rubble to visit an orphanage with almost 700 children. “They range in age from 1 year to 14 years,” Lohr says. Some of the children entertained the cowboys with songs and recitations – all in Polish. “We didn’t understand a word,” says Lohr. Even so, the children captured the cowboys’ hearts.

Orphanage children entertain the cowboys of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias, Dec. 1945. Photo courtesy of the L. W. Shultz family.

Another day, on a trek into the country, Lohr and ten other cowboys happened onto a battlefield. “The trees were about all stripped of their limbs to a height of 40 to 50 feet,” Lohr says. The cowboys found foxholes, trenches, spent shells, German cannons, wrecked tanks, a destroyed barracks, and graves with German helmets on them. All reminders of a month-long battle only months earlier between the Germans and the Russians for control of the area.

Seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias explore a battlefield above Gdynia, Poland, December 1945. Photo courtesy of the L. W. Shultz family.

Lohr writes of meeting Americans who had gotten trapped in Poland at the beginning of the war. Like the man from Buffalo, New York, who had come over to settle an estate just before the war and hadn’t heard from his wife in the USA since 1942. And a mother and two daughters from Detroit, Michigan, who had the misfortune to be in Poland on a European tour in 1939 when Germany declared war there and couldn’t get home. They were a rich source of information for the cowboys.

While in port, Lohr records seeing several ships come in with Polish soldiers, refugees, and prisoners of war from such countries as England, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany. Cowboy supervisor Clifton Crouse wrote home of an English ship delivering 1100 Poles who had been in German slave labor. “We saw them going by the hundreds, taking their few belongings with them, on sleds, on their backs, trucks, etc. They looked happy, but I’m afraid they will be badly disappointed when they find out conditions.”

A German ship returning Polish refugees as seen by the cowboy crew from the S. S. Morgantown Victory, Jan. 4, 1946. Photo credit: Hugh Ehrman.

The highlight of the trip for Indiana cowboy Clarence Sink was a tour into the country to meet recipients of the Heifer Project animals they had delivered. “After traveling about 40 miles in the back of a truck,” he says, “we came to one village where they had a bobsled and team waiting to take us on. The first place we stopped was a typical little peasant hut. We stood and talked in the kitchen awhile and the lady of the house opened what we thought was the pantry door, and there in a little room was a fine Brown Swiss heifer that we had brought over from America. She was bedded down in deep straw and the family told us that they carried water to her. They stood with tears in their eyes because they were so appreciative.

“The climax of the whole day’s trip came about three o’clock in the afternoon,” Sink says, “when the people prepared a meal for us in one of the homes. Many of the people of the village had gathered.” Spokesmen for both groups exchanged meaningful greetings. “Then we sang and had grace for the meal of milk and eggs.” It was “a very sacrificial meal,” Sink says. Likely especially so, because this was an added event; the celebration meant for this crew of cowboys was mistakenly given earlier to the crew of the S.S. Mexican, in port delivering UNRRA animals at the same time.

Of the trip as a whole, Sink concludes, “It is our conviction that the Heifer Project has been successful not only because we have sent them cows but also because we took them our love and concern. We ate with them in their homes and we sang and prayed together. Missions of this nature will go a long way in hastening the day when we shall be brothers indeed.”

Heifer Project’s first shipment to Poland, Part I

Severely crippled by World War II, Poland became the third European country to receive animals from the Heifer Project. Between November 1945 and August 1948, Heifer made seven shipments to Poland sending 1038 head of cattle and 45 horses. [See the story of the S. S. WIlliam S. Halsted here.] Shipments ceased when Russia achieved a firm grip on Poland. After the fall of Communism in the late 1980s, Heifer resumed assistance to farmers there for a number of years.

Less than a month after V-E Day, the Heifer Project Committee was already laying plans for shipping to Poland. Their June 3, 1945, minutes recorded a vote that “We make shipment of animals, not to exceed 150, to Poland through UNRRA to be distributed by National Cooperatives, unless a better way is found.” Target date for the shipment was July 15.

With so many pieces of the shipping puzzle to be put together, however, it wasn’t until November 10 that the S. S. Santiago Iglesias pulled away from Pier 6 in Baltimore, Maryland, with 18 seagoing cowboys, 150 Heifer Project dairy cattle, and another 223 UNRRA cattle on board. Besides the bedding and feed for the animals, cowboy Milt Lohr reports that the ship also carried a cargo of 1189 drums of lard, 12,274 cases of soap, 3,371 tons of fertilizer, 12,560 drums of diesel oil, and 1,215 drums of fish oil. Relief packages from Polish officials who met the ship in Baltimore added to the cargo, as well.

Unidentified newspaper article from Clifton Crouse album. Courtesy of Merle Crouse.

On arrival in Poland November 28, the plight of the people soon became evident. “As we entered Danzig,” reports cowboy Clarence Sink, “we beheld a once large beautiful city now laying in ruins, ninety percent destroyed. . . .The unloading barns had all been destroyed, so our cattle were swung ashore and turned loose along the street. All of the feed was also swung ashore. . . .Early the next morning, about fifty people gathered and we were told that these people had walked in as far as fifty miles, from various villages, after these cattle. The Secretary of Agriculture from Warsaw was there and had charge of the distributions and all these cattle were driven, on foot, to the rural communities. [Read the story of one of those recipients here.]

Dairy cattle being unloaded from the S. S. Santiago Iglesias in Nowy Port, Poland, November 1945. UNRRA photo.

Damaged warehouses and the litter of battle are grim reminders of the war as cattle leave the docks for Polish farms whose dairy cattle were destroyed during the fighting. UNRRA photo.

“Our unloading was slow,” Sink says, “because the men were so weak, physically, that they could only work an hour or so of their eight hour shift. The Commander of the Port, who was in charge of War Shipping, informed us that all of the dock workers had been living on less than half the required diet for body sustenance for over six years.” Cowboy supervisor Clifton Crouse told his family the stevedores were so hungry that they emptied five drums of lard, a handful at a time, putting it in their pockets.

Because of the slowness of unloading the ship, this crew of seagoing cowboys had three weeks to absorb the sights, sounds, and smells of postwar Poland. More on their experiences in the next two posts.

These Polish farmers and the guard were delighted to find 14 unexpected calves born on the Santiago Iglesias at sea. UNRRA photo.

Meeting Heifer Project and UNRRA recipients in Poland, Part III–Stanislaw, 2013

My two amazing Polish contacts, Magda and Grace whom we met in my last post, had one surprise after another for me during my short visit to Poland the first of October 2013. Before leaving home, I had sent Magda a list of the recipients of Heifer Project’s first shipment to Poland that I had found in one of my rummaging trips to the Heifer International archives, hoping that some of those recipients or their descendants could be found. This was the shipment of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias from my March 11 post.

Heifers off-loaded from the Sangiago Iglesias await distribution to Polish farmers, November 1945. Photo credit: UNRRA.

Heifers off-loaded from the Santiago Iglesias await distribution to Polish farmers, November 1945. Photo credit: UNRRA.

The list I sent Magda included the names and towns of the recipient farmers and tag numbers of the heifers. Grace, being Catholic and living near those communities, went to each village and posted the names of the recipients from that village in their Catholic Church. And she found one of the men! Stanislaw Debert.

Source: Heifer International.

Source: Heifer International.

Magda Starega talks with Stanislaw Debert about his experience receiving a heifer and an UNRRA horse in 1945. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller

Magda Starega talks with Stanislaw Debert about his experience receiving a heifer and UNRRA goods in 1945. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Stanislaw was 89, soon to be 90, when I met him, and I had a delightful visit with him, his wife, and a daughter; and with Magda interpreting for me, I was able to hear Stanislaw’s story.

After WWII, Europe was a mass of shifting populations as country borders and control of countries changed. As we have seen in previous posts, people of German heritage living in eastern European countries were sent back to Germany, no matter how many generations they had lived in the east. Before the war, the area of Poland around Gdansk had been part of Germany, so the Germans had to flee when it was given back to Poland. Stanislaw, on the other hand, fled, from his home in one part of Poland to Gdansk. He had been a combatant for the Polish Army during the war. He said he left his city of Kielce clinging to the roof of a train with only the clothes on his back. Stanislaw and his wife and small child were resettled, then, in one of the abandoned houses outside of Gdansk on 50 hectares (123 acres) to start their new life in the fall of 1945.

They were lucky to receive a house. “We invited five other families to live there,” Stanislaw said. “There was nothing there to eat when we arrived. No fruits. No vegetables. It was cold, and we were sick all the time.” The heifer they received from the Heifer Project, along with two horses and food goods from UNRRA, helped them survive.

“Our heifer was very skinny when we got her, but after a couple of months, she fattened up. We kept her in the house to keep her safe from the Russians,” he said. “They were stealing cows for meat.”

Stanislaw said the Polish government determined who would receive a horse or cow. “We milled grain for flour and fed the cow the leavings. Our cow gave great milk,” he said. “The cream was so thick you could cut it like butter. She was our only cow for five years until she got sick. We had to kill her. The children cried.” With tears in his eyes, he said, “That was a sad time.”

Stanislaw's daughter shows us one of Stanislaw's awards for the studs he raised on his farm. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Stanislaw’s daughter shows us one of Stanislaw’s awards for the studs he raised on his farm. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Stanislaw eventually turned his farm into an award-winning stud farm. Today his grandson runs the farm, which has doubled in size but, to Stanislaw’s chagrine, no longer has horses. Only grain, which worries Stanislaw.

When it came time for Magda, Grace, and me to leave, Stanislaw said, “I didn’t expect so many emotions today that someone would find us on a list in America and remember us so many years later.” He wanted to know, “How can I thank the people for this gift of a heifer?” I told him, “You just did. I will see that your thanks get passed on.”

What a joyous day for Stanislaw, his wife, and daughter and myself remembering the importance of a gifted heifer. Photo credit: Magda Starega.

What a joyous day for Stanislaw, his wife, and daughter and myself remembering the importance of a gifted heifer. Photo credit: Magda Starega.

Multiply these stories of recipients in Germany and Poland over and over again, and you can see the impact the work of the seagoing cowboys in delivering these animals has had in helping to rebuild a broken world.

Meeting Heifer Recipients in Poland, Part I–Suchy Dab, 1945

This post begins a series of three stories about meeting Heifer Project and UNRRA recipients in Poland. Our first story takes us all the way back to November 1945 and the UNRRA and Heifer Project trip of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias, just seven months after fighting ceased in Europe. This was the third shipment to Poland made by UNRRA and the first by the Heifer Project .

The S. S. Santiago Iglesias awaits loading in Baltimore, MD, November 1945

The S. S. Santiago Iglesias awaits loading in Baltimore, MD, November 1945. Photo courtesy of Clifton Crouse family.

The ship left Baltimore Nov 19, 1945, with 150 Heifer Project animals on board and another 225 UNRRA heifers. The S. S. Santiago Iglesias docked in Nowy Port, Poland, outside of Gdansk. The sights that met the seagoing cowboys when they arrived were ones of utter devastation. The war had left Gdansk and the surrounding area in ruins. And the cowboys, their work being finished, were free to explore.

The village of Suchy Dab gave a warm welcome to the seagoing cowboys they thought had delivered their animals. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

The village of Suchy Dab gave a warm welcome to the seagoing cowboys they thought had delivered their animals. UNRRA photo.

The Heifer Project animals were unloaded and distributed in the village of Suchy Dab, some 20 miles outside the city, to pre-selected farmers who had no cow. The village put on a celebration to thank the cowboys for bringing them these heifers.

One of the cowboy leaders for this trip of the S. S. Santiago Iglesias was L. W. Shultz, who was the administrator of Camp Alexander Mack (IN) and first chairman of the Brethren Service Committee. Church of the Brethren pastor Ross Noffsinger was a cowboy crew leader on another ship carrying only UNRRA animals, the S. S. Mexican, which left Baltimore for Poland three days before the Santiago Iglesias. So these two ships were both docked in Nowy Port at the same time.

L. W. Shultz with his guide in Warsaw, where he delivered a check from the city of Warsaw, Indiana, to the mayor of Warsaw, Poland. Photo courtesy of the family of L. W. Shultz.

L. W. Shultz with his guide in Warsaw, where he delivered a check from the city of Warsaw, Indiana, to the mayor of Warsaw, Poland. Photo courtesy of the family of L. W. Shultz.

When the truck came to pick up the cowboy crew from the Santiago Iglesias to take them to Suchy Dab for this celebration, L. W. Shultz was away from the ship tending to business in Warsaw; and somehow it happened that the crew of the S.S. Mexican, which had not delivered any Heifer Project animals, got picked up instead of L.W.’s crew. This mistake led to a memorable event for S. S. Mexican cowboy Al Guyer, who was the very first seagoing cowboy that I interviewed, in February 2002. He recalls:

It was over Thanksgiving time, and it was starting to get pretty cold, but they took all the cattlemen out to the country where the cows were given to the farmers, and the farmers had us all together in a great big community building, I guess it was, where they had a banquet for us. And the banquet consisted of some dry fish and little round cakes of some kind, and some brown bread, I think they had, and some vodka. And then they had the children there, and they sang to us. And, oh, how they expressed their real joy in receiving the animals! And then they had kind of a service of friendship where they used salt and bread, and they gave speeches, and there was an interpreter, and our leader, Ross Noffsinger, responded. Of course, it was all done in Polish, and I don’t remember the words to it, except I knew it was an expression of their friendship and thanks for the animals.

The crew of the S. S. Mexican, November 1945.

The crew of the S. S. Mexican, November 1945. Photo courtesy of Clarence Reeser.

And so it was that this crew of the S. S. Mexican received the ceremony of bread and salt, the Polish traditional expression of hospitality, that was intended for the Santiago Iglesias crew. You can imagine L. W. Shultz’s response when he returned to his ship and found out his crew had not been the one taken for the celebration! He quickly arranged for a second celebration for his crew.

Knowing all this history, this town was on my list of places I wanted to find when I traveled to Poland in 2013. More about that in Part II.