Civilian Public Service Unit for Seagoing Cowboys

Sunday, May 15, is International Conscientious Objectors Day, so this is a fitting time to write about the special CPS Reserve Unit put together for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration’s seagoing cowboy program.

Civilian Public Service was an alternative service set up at the onset of World War II for men who could not conscientiously serve in the military. CPS camps were set up in which these men could do “work of national importance,” such as fighting forest fires, working in mental institutions, doing dairy testing, etc. These camps were administered by the Historic Peace Churches – the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites, and Society of Friends (Quakers).

CPSers Lowell Short, Emil Ropp, and Alfred Gross at work on the S. S. Queens Victory to Poland, June 1946.

CPSers Lowell Short, Emil Ropp, and Alfred Gross at work on the S. S. Queens Victory to Poland, June 1946. Photo courtesy of Emil Ropp.

As UNRRA’s livestock shipments increased at the end of 1945, the need for qualified cattle attendants also expanded. An agreement was reached with the Selective Service System of the U. S. Government to allow CPS men to leave their camps to join a CPS Reserve Unit and sign up to be seagoing cowboys under the direction of the Brethren Service Committee.

Over the course of the program, 366 CPSers took this option. Some made more than one trip before being discharged from CPS. While waiting for their next ship, they were offered employment in the relief work taking place at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Maryland, at the rate of $.50 per hour plus maintenance. For their UNRRA service, the CPSers received the regular rate of $150 per trip.

Seagoing cowboys at the Kalona (IA) Mennonite Church, May 3, 2016. Left to right, seated: Emil Ropp, Henry Mullett; standing: Levi Miller, Charles Silliman, Weldon Beach, Peggy Reiff Miller, Paul Walther, Wallace Fisher. Photo credit: Mary Lou Farmer.

Seagoing cowboys join me at the Kalona (IA) Mennonite Church, May 3, 2016. Left to right, seated: Emil Ropp, Henry Mullett; standing: Levi Miller, Charles Silliman, Weldon Beach, Peggy Reiff Miller, Paul Walther, Wallace Fisher. Photo credit: Mary Lou Farmer.

Last week, when I spoke at the Mennonite Historical Society of Iowa spring meeting in Kalona, Iowa, I had the opportunity to meet up with two of the CPS Reserve cowboys I had interviewed several years ago – Levi Miller and Emil Ropp. What a great night reconnecting with them and other cowboys I knew and meeting some for the first time! Their stories always add a special note to my programs.

Levi Miller's permission to leave his CPS camp to become a seagoing cowboy. Courtesy of Levi Miller.

Levi Miller’s permission to leave his CPS camp to become a seagoing cowboy. Courtesy of Levi Miller.

Levi Miller receives his orders to report for his CPS Reserve assignment. Courtesy of Levi Miller.

Levi Miller receives his orders to report for his CPS Reserve assignment. Courtesy of Levi Miller.


UNRRA and the Brethren Service Committee Partner Up

As World War II was ravaging Europe, a number of the allied nations hammered out a plan to help the devastated countries recover when the war ended. On November 9, 1943, forty-four nations, meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, chartered the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).

M.R. Zigler, Executive Secretary of the Brethren Service Committee

Brethren Service Committee Executive Secretary M.R. Zigler was a real mover and a shaker, destined for his time in history. Source unknown.

The Heifer Project of the Church of the Brethren Service Committee was already underway at that time. Heifers were being donated and raised for shipment to Spain (see last post), with growing interest in shipping to Belgium, as well. M.R. Zigler, the executive secretary of the Brethren Service Committee (BSC), lobbied UNRRA during its formative time to ship Heifer Project animals to Europe. But many UNRRA officials believed shipping livestock was too hazardous an undertaking. Meanwhile, the Heifer Project successfully made their first shipment of animals to Puerto Rico in May 1944.

A year later, in early May 1945 as the war in Europe was coming to an end, the Agricultural Rehabilitation Division of UNRRA finally obtained permission to ship livestock. A request had come in from the Near East Foundation for bulls for Greece to help rebuild their devastated dairy industry through artificial insemination. UNRRA called on M.R. Zigler for help, and Zigler called on Benjamin Bushong, a Brethren dairyman and cattle breeder from Pennsylvania.

Ben Bushong

Benjamin G. Bushong. Courtesy Mark Bushong.

The bull Parnassus in Greece.

The bull Parnassus being led to the Greek Orthodox bishop for blessing. Courtesy of United Nations Archives and Record Management Section.

Bushong located six purebred Brown Swiss bulls that fit the bill. Heifer Project paid for and donated the bulls for UNRRA to ship to Greece. The bulls left St. John’s, Canada, May 14, 1945, on the SS Boolongena. That same day, the Ag Rehab Division of UNRRA requisitioned 600 mares and 600 head of cattle to be prepared for shipment.

Ships were lined up. Feed was purchased. But UNRRA had a problem: where would they get the men to take care of the animals on the ships? The UNRRA Livestock Program Historical Report says,

[M]ost available manpower was either in defense work or in military service. Faced with the problem of a ship soon ready to sail, the BSC was asked to supply enough men for this first vessel. Since the constituency of the Church of the Brethren was of rural background, it was believed that enough men could be found who had farm deferments and thus would be available for this voyage. In a short time enough men had signified their availability to man several ships and thus the program of recruiting ‘sea-going cowboys’ was begun.

An agreement was worked out between UNRRA and the Brethren Service Committee that the BSC would recruit the estimated 8,000 cattle tenders UNRRA would need for its projected shipments; in return, UNRRA would provide free shipping for the Heifer Project animals sent on UNRRA ships. By the end of the program less than two years later, about 7,000 men and boys ages 16 to 72 had served as seagoing cowboys on UNRRA’s 360 livestock shipments. They accompanied some 300,000 animals to Europe and China, of which 4,000 were from the Heifer Project.

You might wonder, why on earth did a church organization take on such a monumental task for a non-church agency? UNRRA’s historical report says,

The Church of the Brethren was and is actively interested in dynamic Christianity. The willingness to provide men for the first ships was due to a realization of an urgent need in a justifiable project which was in critical circumstances. However, the contracting for 8,000 men was based on broader and perhaps more fundamental reasons. First of all was the belief that the livestock program was one which was extremely significant for the rebuilding of war devastated countries. Because of the rural background, the denomination could use some of its abilities in this unusual work. It was also believed that for many such a trip would be an unusually broadening and educational experience which would express itself in an increased interest in the relief program, a better understanding of the effects of war on the lives of people, an active desire to build a better world. These may have been idealistic motivations but numerous examples can now be cited to prove the justification of such reasoning.”

And my interviews of well over 150 of these men bear this statement out.

Next post: Cowboys at sea and abroad on Thanksgiving

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

Join me on my seagoing cowboy journey!

Seagoing Cowboys!

The term itself makes one curious, draws one in. Who were they? What did they do? My own curiosity began with an envelope of my grandfather’s photos given to me by my father after my grandpa died. Growing up in the Church of the Brethren, I knew about seagoing cowboys; but I didn’t know my Grandpa Abe had been one of them. In September 1946, at age 49, he sailed to Poland on the SS Pierre Victory with a load of 774 horses. This shipment was part of a program run by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to help countries devastated by World War II recover and rebuild.

Seagoing Cowboy Abraham Reiff

Grandpa Abe and fellow cowboys on the SS Pierre Victory, October 1946

The story hiding in grandpa’s photos meshed with a growing interest I had in writing a young adult novel. What a great topic! I thought. I could write about the journey of a young seagoing cowboy to Poland. Little did I know what a journey the pursuit of this project would become for me!

My curiosity led me to a former pastor, Rev. Al Guyer, who I knew had been a seagoing cowboy to Poland. Maybe I could learn from him what Grandpa’s trip might have been like, I thought.

Al’s story drew me in.

Seagoing Cowboys leave home

Al Guyer and Jack Baker prepare to leave home for the journey of a life time in November 1945.  Source: Albert Guyer

That interview was in January 2002, right before our family moved from Maryland to Northern Indiana, smack dab in the middle of seagoing cowboy country where the story of the related Heifer Project, today’s Heifer International, began. My passion for the story grew with every cowboy I interviewed and I’ve been uncovering, documenting, writing, and speaking about this little-known history ever since. It turned out to be a much larger story than I had anticipated, taking me all across the country to interview cowboys and visit various archives, including those of the United Nations, Heifer International, the Church of the Brethren, and the Mennonites.

Peggy Reiff Miller researching seagoing cowboy history

Digging for information in the Heifer International archives.

Most recently, my research has taken me to Germany and Poland where I was able to see where the seagoing cowboys had been and meet recipients of animals delivered in 1945 to Poland and in 1950 to Germany.

Peggy Reiff Miller meets with Reichswald settlers in Germany who received heifers from the Heifer Project.

In September 2013, I met with 11 Reichswald settler families in Germany who received heifers in 1950 from the Heifer Project. My interpreter and friend Ingrid Marx is on my right. Photo credit: Hannelore Erkens


Peggy Reiff Miller meets with the Stanislaw Debert family in Pruszcz Gdanski, Poland.

I had a joyous meeting with the Stanislaw Debert family in Pruszcz Gdanski, Poland, in October 2013. Stanislaw received a heifer from the Heifer Project and two horses from UNRRA in late 1945. Photo credit: Magda Starega

So what about my novel?

Finding Charity, which has long since been drafted and gone through three major revisions, is resting. Along the way, I realized it was a nonfiction book about the seagoing cowboys that was needed and wanted by the cowboys, as well as a book about the beginnings of the Heifer Project. So that has become my priority. I have a children’s picture book, Grandpa Was a Seagoing Cowboy, under contract with Brethren Press; and I’ll keep you posted on its progress. But for now, the point I’m at is sifting through a roomful of accumulated research materials to find the stories for my nonfiction books.

Peggy Reiff Miller's office

Lots and lots of files to process!

l’ll be sharing pieces of this history here as I go. I hope you’ll join me on my journey.

[My intention is to post every second and fourth Friday or Saturday. I invite you to become a regular follower.]