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.

Advertisements

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.

 

Five Elizabethtown College students make 2nd UNRRA ship out, but arrive first in Greece

This post will set the record straight for a friendly little rivalry that has taken place through the years between the Manchester College students and the Elizabethtown College students who were on the first two UNRRA livestock ships to depart the United States the end of June 1945.

When I first talked with Gordon Bucher about his trip on the F. J. Luckenbach to Greece [see Jan. 23 post] that left New Orleans June 24, 1945, he wanted to know, “Wasn’t ours the first ship to leave the U. S.?” Having found the UNRRA records, I was able to tell him, “Yes.” The Elizabethtown cowboys who departed from Baltimore on the SS Virginian June 26, 1945, had always said they were on the first ship out. But diary accounts from the two trips and the UNRRA records show otherwise.

Turns out, it was an honest mistake on the part of the E-town cowboys, as even the media thought this to be the first shipment. The Baltimore Sun newspaper said on June 25, 1945:

GREECE CATTLE SAILS TODAY

UNRRA Shipment To Be First Consignment

     Laden with 704 head of dairy cattle and horses, the first consignment of such animals to be sent to a European country by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration the freighter Virginian will leave Baltimore today for Greece, where the livestock will be used in an agricultural rehabilitation program . . . .

The F. J. Luckenbach had already left New Orleans when this article went to press, and the Virginian didn’t leave port until a day after the article appeared, if the date typed under the article given to me is correct. Other media gave the same story, including the August 1945 Baltimore & Ohio Magazine:

First UNRRA Livestock Shipment for Europe Rides B&O

The article tells of the arrival to Baltimore on the B&O railway of 335 Brown Swiss bred heifers and twelve bulls and 357 light draft mares . It goes on to say:

This “first shipment” created a great deal of interest among the UNRRA people and various publicity agencies. The Coast Guard, Life, the Baltimore papers and the newsreel agencies all had photographers on the job . . . .

All of this while the Luckenbach was already on its way.

But alas, the Luckenbach was not to be the first to arrive in Greece. The Virginian, departing closer to Europe, arrived at its destination of Piraeus, Greece, the port for Athens, on Saturday, July 14, and gained the honor of delivering the first UNRRA heifers to Europe. The Luckenbach arrived in Patras, Greece, two days later on Monday, July 16.

First heifer to Greece.

A proud Greek poses with the first UNRRA heifer to put foot on European soil. Photo courtesy of Earl Holderman

Both crews were able to visit the Acropolis, via a short $5.00 taxi ride for the Virginian crew and a hair-raising bus ride across the Peloponnese peninsula for the Luckenbach crew that almost made them miss their ship home. [Look for this story in my next post.]

Virginian crew at the Acropolis.

Members of the Virginian crew at the Acropolis, July 15, 1945. Photo courtesy of Earl Holderman

After unloading in Greece, both ships also stopped in Naples to pick up U. S. soldiers who had fought in Europe during the war to take them home – 140 for the Virginian and 150 for the Luckenbach. The Luckenbach, however, arrived home first. Their entire cargo had been unloaded in Patras, after which they were ready to head back across the Atlantic; whereas the Virginian unloaded only part of its cargo in Piraeus and then had to travel further up around Greece to Salonika to unload the rest. Even with a stop at Béni Saf in Africa to pick up iron ore after picking up their soldiers in Naples, the Luckenbach had a considerable head start on the Virginian, arriving in New York City ten days ahead of them on August 10. They were met with a rousing welcome home for the soldiers on Staten Island complete with a WAC band playing the “Beer Barrel Polka” and a black band playing hot jazz, before finally docking in Jersey City. The Virginian delivered their soldiers to Newport News and finally docked in Brooklyn on August 20. No matter which ship they were on, the cowboys were glad to be back on U. S. soil.

Sources: Gordon Bucher’s unpublished journal and the report of the S.S. Virginian crew titled “Relief for Greece.”

Next post: Acropolis or bust! The hair-rising bus ride of the F. J. Luckenbach crew.

What do Olympic pole-vault champion Bob Richards, author of Sophie’s Choice William Styron, and Harvard theologian Harvey Cox have in common?

If you guessed they were all seagoing cowboys, you are right! They were three of the nearly 7,000 adventurous souls who took time out of their lives to tend livestock sent on ships to Europe after World War II for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the Heifer Project.

Bob Richards was 19 and a pre-ministerial student at Bridgewater College when he responded to the first round of calls for men to serve as cattle attendants for UNRRA. He sailed on the second UNRRA livestock ship to depart – the SS Virginian, leaving Baltimore for Greece on June 26, 1945.

Seagoing cowboy crew of the SS Virginian

The seagoing cowboy crew of the SS Virginian gathered at the Baltimore Church of the Brethren. Photo courtesy of Jerry Lefever.

Richards served as assistant editor for a report made by the cattlemen of this trip titled “Relief for Greece.” The report says that he gave the message at the cowboy crew’s second Sunday worship service on board. His topic: “You are the Light of the World.” Richards went on to become a minister in the Church of the Brethren for a time and taught religion classes at LaVerne College in California, while at the same time keeping up his pole-vault training and winning gold medals in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics.

William Styron signed up as a seagoing cowboy on an impulse the summer of 1946, according to his biographer James L. W. West III in William Styron, A Life. After three years of college and a short U.S. Marine Corps stint at the end of World War II, Styron wanted a summer break. He was staying with his parents in Newport News, Virginia, and was looking for a way to pass the time while waiting to participate in the prestigious two-week Bread Loaf writer’s conference that August. “Perhaps, he thought, he might do some seafaring,” West writes. And seafaring he did! Aboard the SS Cedar Rapids Victory that left Newport News July 10, 1946, bound for Trieste, Italy.

William Styron's card from the seagoing cowboy card file.

William Styron’s card from the seagoing cowboy card file. Photo courtesy of Heifer International.

A dock worker strike in Trieste gave Styron the gift of added time abroad. He later drew on his time there to write “A Moment in Trieste,” a sketch that was published in 1948 in American Vanguard, a collection of pieces by “young American authors on the verge of professional recognition” edited by Don M. Wolfe. Biographer West tells me in an email that “late in his career, William Styron thought about basing a novel on his Cedar Rapids voyage. It was to be a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist, with experience as a Marine in WWII, encountered new experiences….” Sadly for us, that novel never got written. Styron died in 2006.

That same summer, 17-year-old Harvey Cox of Malvern, Pennsylvania, was looking for adventure between his junior and senior years of high school. He found it on the SS Robert W. Hart. Cox devotes an entire chapter to this voyage in Just As I Am, his book about his faith journey. The Hart left Baltimore June 28, 1946, headed for Gdansk, Poland.

Harvey Cox is second from the right in the front row of this seagoing cowboy crew photo on the SS Robert W. Hart. Photo courtesy of Richard Musselman family.

Harvey Cox is second from the right in the front row of this seagoing cowboy crew photo on the SS Robert W. Hart. Photo courtesy of Richard Musselman family.

A harrowing experience with a supervisor and a lacerating horse bite didn’t dampen Cox’s enthusiasm. He writes, “Everyday at sea I leaped out of bed when the bell rang at five; I was thousands of miles from Malvern; I was doing something important; I was becoming an adult.” Witnessing the vast devastation in Poland with its lingering acrid smells and seeing the war’s effects on the people, especially the children, made Cox more introspective on the way back across the Atlantic.

Cleaning up Gdansk, Poland, summer 1946.

Women at work cleaning up the rubble in Gdansk, Poland, July 1946. Photo credit: Richard Musselman, crew mate of Harvey Cox.

He writes, “As the long, empty days passed, I became aware of a conviction growing inside me that there could not be another war. It just was not worth it.” And he concludes, “A youthful adventure…had unexpectedly become a faith journey.” Cox went on to become a professor of theology at Harvard University and a peace activist.

Next post: Heifer Project’s first seagoing cowboy