Reflections on the life of seagoing cowboy Homer J. Kopke

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.

Homer Kopke's seagoing cowboy crew, August 1946. Photo courtesy of the Homer Kopke family.

Homer Kopke’s seagoing cowboy crew, August 1946.
Photo courtesy of the Homer Kopke family.

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,

Peggy

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Trials of the S.S. William S. Halsted, Part III

After enduring storms at sea, the William S. Halsted delivers its goods to Poland and faces yet more trials, as Robert Ebey reports:

December 10 – – – [This morning] we visited Danzig which is about 90% destroyed….

Ruins of Danzig

Peggy Reiff Miller collection, courtesy of Ray Zook

The Polish Department of Agriculture sent a truck at 1:00 p.m. to take us on a tour of Danzig, Gydinia and Sopot where we were guests for a fine banquet. Even a band was there and played many selections including Yankee Doodle.

Tugs rescue William S. Halsted

It took two tugboats to dislodge the William S. Halsted after running aground in the channel outside of Novy Port. Photo credit: Robert Ebey

December 11 – – – We weighed anchor and headed for Copenhagen, Denmark. As we were leaving the Polish ship channel leading to the Bay of Danzig, the Halsted ran aground. Two powerful tugboats were sent for and an hour later our ship was freed.

December 19 – – – ….our last day in Copenhagen and six of us took a train ride to a small town outside the big city. We visited a grade school and a cooperative farm. Now that the 6000 tons of coal are unloaded, we are heading for Sweden to take on a cargo of 4000 tons of paper pulp to be taken to Boston, Massachusetts.

Icebreaker leads the way.

An icebreaker leads the way for the William S. Halsted into the Angerman River in Sweden. A ferry had just crossed the river creating another path across. Photo credit: Robert Ebey

December 23 – – – Arrived in Harnosand, Sweden, at the mouth of the Angerman River. We are about 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It is WINTER! As soon as an icebreaker arrived, we started up the Angerman River….About twenty miles upriver we reached the town of Waija. The paper pulp was brought to our ship on barges towed by tugboats….

December 24 – – – By noon the last of the 700 tons of paper pulp is in the holds and again the icebreaker leads us, this time down the river.

December 27-28 – – – We are at Iggesund and take on 1200 tons of paper pulp. Shore looks so inviting, but we have no way of getting there.

December 29-January 4 – – – Our final stop in Sweden. 2100 tons of paper pulp are loaded. Luckily, we are at a regular dock so we can come and go as we wish.

January 1 [1947] – – – We attend a New Year’s evening service in the Swedish Lutheran Church in Ljusne, a town about three miles from our ship….

January 3 – – – The ladies of the Ljusne Lutheran Church in our honor prepared a truly delicious evening meal. The children sang several carols in Swedish and we did so in English….

January 4 – – – At 8:30 a.m. our anchor is raised and we are on our way home.

January 6 – – – Copenhagen Harbor again. We anchored for just a few hours to take on water, vegetables, fresh meat and milk.

January 7 – – – We are in the North Sea and are experiencing a very severe blizzard. Visibility is nearly zero. Our fog horn blows constantly at regular intervals. We just missed another tanker. We don’t need another experience like that. This is by far the roughest water of the trip. In spite of the one inch ledge all around our table the dishes crash to the floor time and time again. Ray Zook and Bob Ebey are again the only ones to escape seasickness. The ship rocks over so far we cannot sleep. We need to hang on to keep from rolling off our bunks.

Ice on William S. Halsted

Ice coats the William S. Halsted after sailing through two snow storms. Photo credit: Robert Ebey

January 17 – – – Another severe snow storm has made walking on deck very difficult and hazardous. Our captain has ordered us to walk back and forth only for meals.

January 19 – – – At last the ocean has calmed down. We can now be out on deck at any time. The bow is covered with thick ice.

January 23 – – – Docked in Boston at 10:00 a.m….

January 24 – – – HOME AT LAST! Three and a half months away from home on a six weeks leave of absence.

 

Next post: The vessels used: Liberty and Victory ships converted into livestock carriers

 

Trials of the S.S. William S. Halsted, Part II

We resume Robert Ebey’s account of the 1946 voyage of the SS. William S. Halsted, repaired and reloaded after its collision with the Esso Camden.

November 19 – – – At last we again get underway at 12:40 p.m. The day is bright and sunny. Beautiful!

Sunshine in the Gulf Stream.

Cowboys soak up the sun. Photo credit: Robert Ebey.

November 21-22 – – – The Gulf Stream brings warm summerlike weather.

Storm on the Atlantic

Waves toss the William S. Halsted around on the Atlantic Ocean. Photo credit: Robert Ebey

November 23 – – – Storm at sea! Our neat piles of hay and straw topple over creating a grand mess. No cattle are injured, but two are perched on top of the toppled bales and are about eight feet above the floor. They had no other place they could go and their stalls were full of the toppled bales. Very extensive damage was done to the stalls on deck. Only Ray Zook and Bob Ebey escaped seasickness.

Waves damage cattle shed.

Waves tear apart cattle sheds on the William S. Halsted. Photo credit: Robert Ebey

December 1 – – – Another terrible storm. A giant wave broke the outside wall of the cattle stalls. Twenty upright 2 by 4’s (spaced two feet apart) in a row were broken.

December 3 – – – In the English Channel all day.

December 7 – – – We reached the Copenhagen, Denmark, Harbor and anchored for 24 hours. We took on fresh vegetables, milk and water.

December 9 – – – We reached Nova Port, Poland….

Entering Nowy Port, Poland.

A tugboat pulls the William S. Halsted into the waterway at Nowy Port, Poland, December 9, 1946. Peggy Reiff Miller collection, courtesy of Ray Zook.

Next post: Trials of the S.S. William S. Halsted, Part III

Trials of the S.S. William S. Halsted, Part I

Thank you, readers, for your patience! After a grueling month of moving, house closings, etc., I’m in and loving my new office space and am excited to be back at work! Now, the promised story on the trials of the SS William S. Halsted.

Robert Ebey

Robert Ebey on the William S. Halsted, November 1946. Photo credit: Ray Zook

Seagoing Cowboy Robert Ebey has left a gem of a record of this November 1946 journey in his mimeographed booklet “A Trip to Poland with Brethren Service Heifers.” Ebey begins with a summary of the trip, which I share with you now in three parts.

Part I

September – – – Granted six weeks leave of absence from the Woodland, Michigan, Church of the Brethren pastorate to go to Europe with one of the shipments of heifers for relief….None of the heifers we were to take had been purchased by UNRRA. All had been donated by the churches of America and by such groups as Lions, Rotary, Kiwanis, etc. Because of this, we had a picked crew. The New Windsor, Maryland, Heifer Shipment Office sent word that the shipment was ready to go but was being delayed by a Maritime strike. We were to be ready to leave home on 24 hours notice.

October 10 (noon) – – – I received a telegram indicating that the strike was “just over” so I should leave at once.

October 11 – – – I got on the train and headed for Baltimore, Maryland.

October 12-30 – – – The Maritime strike continued. Each morning and evening the news reported, “We expect settlement within the next few hours.”

November 1 – – – The strike is over. We got on board the William S. Halsted and immediately began bedding down the stalls and distributing watering pails, brackets and garden hoses.

Loading heifers, 1946

Heifers are guided into the “flying stall” to be lifted aboard the William S. Halsted. Photo credit: Robert Ebey.

Flying stall lifts heifer on ship.

The “flying stall” lifts heifers onto the William S. Halsted. Photo credit: Robert Ebey.

November 2 – – – Cattle loading started early and was completed by 3:30 p.m. The anchor was raised at 8:20 p.m. And we were finally on our way.

 

 

 

Shortly after 11:00 p.m., we felt a terrific bump to our ship. We learned we had crashed into the Esso Camden, a Standard Oil tanker laden with aviation gasoline. Both ships were set on fire by the explosion. Our fire was very insignificant just a few scorched cows and a few bales of hay. The Esso Camden soon had the help of some fire boats, but still burned out of control for several hours.

Esso Camden catches fire

Courtesy of Robert Ebey.

November 3-5 – – – Our ship returned to the Baltimore Harbor, but we were not allowed to leave the ship until the insurance men completed their investigations.

Damage to William S. Halsted.

Seagoing cowboys survey the damage to their ship, the William S. Halsted, November 1946. Peggy Reiff Miller collection, courtesy of Ray Zook.

November 6 – – – The cattle were unloaded and placed in the Baltimore stockyards. We “sea-going cowboys” were given lodging in the Anchorage YMCA and $2.50 per day for meals….

November 7-15 – – – The William S. Halsted is in drydock while repairs are made.

November 16-18 – – – We are back on board the Halsted. Fuel oil, water are loaded. At 7:30 p.m., November 18, the cattle loading again begins.

Next post: The Trials of the William S. Halsted, Part II

Thanksgiving at Sea: Two Cowboys, Two Outcomes

Seagoing Cowboys eat well on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving dinner for the SS William S. Halsted crew. Source: Ray Zook album.

 

Nov. 28, 1946

Thanksgiving day at sea. Time changed again. Saw the most beautiful sunrise I ever saw….We hoist more hay for foredeck and then the dinner. Too much turkey, trimmings, 4 kinds of pie, ice cream & all. Didn’t eat any supper, had my orange, apple & nuts left from dinner & ate a candy bar….

Willard Sellers’ diary entry, SS William S. Halsted on the Atlantic Ocean en route to Poland

 

Nov. 28, 1946

This is Thanksgiving day. Sure feel bad. Can’t eat. Forced myself to eat and then vomited. Feel a little better. Went to bed early. Slept fairly well.”

Ernest Hoover’s diary entry, SS. Beloit Victory, one day out of Newport News en route to Poland

 

Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers! May your dinner sit well with you.

Tomorrow: Two more Cowboy Thanksgiving stories