Ken Frantz will be present with me tomorrow at the Canterbury School Book Fair in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette tells his story in today’s paper.
March 3, 2016, marks the 70th anniversary of the first trip of the S. S. Woodstock Victory as a livestock carrier. The Woodstock Victory is the ship featured in my children’s picture book to be released March 31, so I wanted to celebrate this day with a special post about the ship.
On March 3, 1946, 762 bawling heifers, 8 bulls, and 89 mares left Newport News, Virginia, on the Woodstock Victory bound for Poland. Of those heifers, 230 were sent by the Heifer Project as gifts to the most needy of Poland’s farmers. The rest of the animals were sent by UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration). UNRRA’s recipients were required to pay in some form for their animals.
“Floating barns” is what one Amish seagoing cowboy called the livestock ships. The seagoing cowboy supervisor for this trip, Don Bortner, reported, “We loaded 8485 bales of hay, 1831 bales of straw, 1595 bags of dairy feed and 100 bags of oats.” And, like the cycle of life in any barn on land, the “floating barns” had their ups and downs for the animals. Two of the gift heifers died on the way, one of toxema from a calf not being born and one of pneumonia. Another, “Heifer bsc 3131,” writes Bortner, “was admitted to the Hospital in Hatch four on the nite of Mar. 7, the roughest nite on the trip. After sticking her all over with needles and shaving her side she finally give in and lay on her left side. Dr. Quartrup and Dr. Freidman with the assistance of many cowboys performed a Ceasarian Operation. Had this not been done the heifer would have died. . . . I think the vets did a wonderful job under many handicaps.”
Amish cowboy Melvin R. Yoder was on this trip. His story was reported by Elmer S. Yoder in the October 2002 issue of Stark County Mennonite & Amish Historical Society’s Heritage newsletter:
Melvin and three others were assigned 100 heifers on the second deck down. The 100 heifers were in a large section or “pen” on the floor.
The trip to Poland took about two weeks. He remembers the excitement among the sailors when Bishop’s Rock was sighted on the south coast of England and at the head of the English Channel. They observed the white cliffs of Dover and headed into the North Sea, which Melvin said was described to them as the graveyard of the ocean.
They sailed through the Kiel Canal and into the Baltic. Due to the danger of mines, the ship anchored at night and sailed only during daylight hours, with two minesweepers preceding it.
. . . . After the heifers and horses were unloaded the cattlemen were free to do some sightseeing. But the main sights he remembers and has photographs of are the destruction and devastation of the war. The ship was not carrying any cargo on the return trip. . . .they had very few, if any, chores. . . .
They used their non-sleeping time mainly to play cards. Melvin took with him a barbering outfit, even though he was a novice, and gave haircuts to cattlemen. He did not say how many or how much he charged.
Over the course of a year, the Woodstock Victory made a total of six livestock trips, five to Poland and the final trip in January 1947 to Greece. She transported a total of 2,447 mares, 1,583 heifers, and 15,000 chicks to Poland and 790 mules to Greece.
New Year’s Day seems a fitting time to announce the coming release of my picture book about a seagoing cowboy’s journey to Poland. The story has been beautifully illustrated by Claire Ewart and can now be pre-ordered at Brethren Press.
I will soon be launching an expanded and updated seagoing cowboys website that, besides the current historical materials, will include information about the book and my activities. This blog will continue with historical posts on the second and fourth Fridays, and I will be adding personal posts along the way about my own journey with the seagoing cowboys and Heifer International.
I invite you to journey with me in 2016. And please invite your friends to join the ride!
Happy New Year, dear readers!
One of the joys of my work is hearing from the children of seagoing cowboys about the significance of their father’s experience. I think Christmas Day is a fitting time for me to share a recent letter I received that has moved me deeply.
Dear Ms. Miller,
Enclosed with this letter, you will find mementos of a Seagoing Cowboy voyage to Poland and Denmark aboard the S.S. William S. Halsted in August of 1946. These relics belonged to our father, Homer J. Kopke of Cleveland, Ohio. Because our Pop was the one who took most of the pictures, there’s only one with him in it: In the group portrait of the Seagoing Cowboys along the rail of their ship, Pop is the second from the left in the back row. Pop didn’t leave behind any documentation to accompany these pictures and papers, but I’ll try to put them in context.
Unlike most (perhaps all) of the other Seagoing Cowboys, Pop was a combat veteran of World War II. He was in the United States Army from before Pearl Harbor until after the surrender of Japan in 1945. As a First Sergeant in the amphibious engineers, Pop served on the front lines of quite a few beachheads, notably along the north coast of New Guinea. One superior officer once described him as being, “The first one in and the last one out, with never a man left behind.”
As Allied troops began to prevail in the South Pacific, Pop recognized that his unit would eventually be called upon for the invasion of the Japanese homeland, and he told me once that he had fully expected to be killed in that effort. So when he came home after the war, it was with the realization that he had survived only because the war had ended abruptly with tens of thousands of Japanese civilians being incinerated in a few moments of horror at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I never knew how my father processed memories of the war in his own mind. But I think it will suffice to say that when one of his granddaughters wanted to interview him on his war experiences for a school project, all Pop could do was cry and tell her, “Don’t make me remember the things I’ve spent sixty years trying to forget.” Especially after he retired, in the weeks leading up to the annual anniversary of the first atomic blast, Pop would fold hundreds, if not thousands of the origami paper cranes that mourners always place at the Children’s Monument in Hiroshima. Pop’s Seagoing Cowboy expedition a year after the war may have been another way of processing his retrospections.
Pop was not usually sentimental about material things. When our parents downsized to a retirement center in their 80s, Mama kept her china figurines and her wedding dress, but Pop got rid of nearly everything of his that could have been considered a keepsake, including the army uniform that he had been wearing when he returned to his mother’s porch. So I think it’s especially significant that when he died at the age of 92, the man who had tried so hard to forget his young adult years still had the enclosed tattered documents and yellowed snapshots of the Seagoing Cowboys tucked into a corner of his dresser drawer.
To complete this picture, I should report that after Pop returned from his Seagoing Cowboy expedition, he volunteered to become a Christian missionary, but the Mission Board of his denomination rejected him because, at the age of 28, he was considered too old to start training. Instead, Pop went to college and got married. (My sisters and I are aware that we were born only because Harry Truman dropped the Bomb, and the Mission Board dropped the ball.) Pop graduated from seminary in 1951, and he was ordained as a minister in what later became the United Church of Christ.
I remember that when my sisters and I were little children in the town of Woodsfield, Ohio, there was a Sunday morning when two brown heifers were tethered on our parsonage lawn, where they were dedicated to God before they were trucked from our church to the Heifer Project dispatch center. And I remember that after we kids were long married, when we would visit our aging parents in Cleveland, their guest bedroom was always crowded with the cardboard cows and pigs and sheep that Pop hauled around to all kinds of presentations while he represented Heifer Project in northeast Ohio.
And now, just after the fifth anniversary of our Pop’s death, I’m putting his precious old snapshots and papers into a box and sending them to you, Ms. Miller. Frankly, it’s hard to let go of them, but I’ve scanned copies for my family, and we authorize you to hold the originals for your research, and to copy them as you see fit for any publications. When you’re finished with these items for your own purposes, we’ll appreciate it if you will do as you have suggested and donate the originals to the Brethren Historical Library and Archives — and perhaps you can place this letter with them.
With all that said, it seems appropriate to close this recital by remembering a verse from the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” that Pop requested for his funeral:
Cure Thy children’s warring madness,
Bend our pride to Thy control.
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.
On behalf of my sisters — and our Pop —
I thank you for preserving the stories of the Seagoing Cowboys.
Signed by Jonathan E. Kopke
As we consider the meaning of Christmas in this year of warring madness, may the words of Jonathan Kopke about his father’s experience be an inspiration to us all.
Christmas blessings, dear Reader,
Many a seagoing cowboy told me in an interview, “I was so seasick that at first I was afraid I was going to die, then I was so sick I was afraid I wouldn’t die.” I’ve since discovered this is a paraphrased Mark Twain quote, which the cowboys may have known or not known; but nevertheless, it was a very personal experience for many of the cowboys.
The Cleveland Clinic website tells us, “[Seasickness] happens when your brain receives conflicting messages about motion and your body’s position in space.” For preventing seasickness on a ship, they say, “When making reservations, choose a cabin in the middle of the ship and near the waterline. When on board, go up on deck and focus on the horizon.” As if!
The poor seagoing cowboys didn’t have such options. Their quarters were usually in the cabin under the gun deck at the back of their ship, where they would feel the ups and downs of the ship to the Nth degree. And many of the work stations were in lower holds.
Owen Schlabach pretty well sums up the cowboys’ experience in his account of his trip on the SS Mount Whitney to Poland in November 1946:
The ocean was nice and calm the first few days, then it started to get rough and shook the boat. Many of the boys got so seasick they could not do their work anymore, leaving only Bob Flick and me [to] care for ninety horses. Some were so sick they looked blue-greenish around the eyes, and got really thin because they could not eat. One time I saw one of the ministers sitting on top deck in a corner looking so sick I thought he was dead. After watching him for a while, I saw to my relief that he was still breathing a little. No one died on this trip, but some were so sick they wished they could.
In Newport News I met a man who was in the Army who said if I listened to him, I wouldn’t get sick. This sounded like music to me. I told him I would be glad to listen. He said on the ship we would have free choice of soda crackers, and if we would keep our stomachs full and wouldn’t drink anything, we should not get sick. It worked, and none of us five got sick.
Other cowboys had different remedies. Melvin Bradshaw, cowboy to Poland in May 1946 aboard the SS Carroll Victory, wrote:
I had never traveled before on the ocean and was a real landlubber. The beginning of the trip was rather mild but the stench in the lower decks from horses and their excretion made for rather poor sailing conditions for one inexperienced in sea travel. I found that the more marked movements of the ship up and down were not as bad as the swaying motion from side to side. When I felt that I was going to get sick I would lie on my back and look up through the opening in the upper decks. If I could lie still and see the sky my stomach would settle down.
Fred Teach, aboard the SS American Importer to Germany in 1953, noted in his journal, “I had a slight attack of indigestion today, ate cucumbers and peanuts. Feel fine now.” Nelson Heatwole said of his trip to Poland on the SS John Barton Payne in May 1946, “For 2 days I suffered from seasickness but managed to keep up my strength and do my work with the help of crackers, lemons and liquids and some assistance of other cowboys.”
Cowboy Carl Geisler offered this musing, printed in a March 1946 Civilian Public Service Bulletin. He later served as foreman on the SS Rock Springs Victory to Ethiopia in March 1947.
WAYS TO PREVENT SEASICKNESS
(“Cowboys” take note)
- Don’t eat before you leave.
- Eat lots before you leave.
- Get your sea legs early.
- Stay mid-ship as much as possible.
- Drink lemon juice–then it will taste the same both ways.
- Eat as much as you can before you leave–it will probably be the last time.
- Sea sickness is definitely not “just in your head.”
- Don’t use the rail–there is usually an up-draft on all sides of the ship.
- When you feel hair in your throat, swallow.
(In case the above methods do not prevent an attack, the best way of stopping it is to go lean up against a shade tree.)*
*Paraphrased quote of British comedian and writer Spike Milligan.