Clarksville Victory program coming up!

I’m looking forward to telling the story of the Clarksville Victory seagoing cowboys at the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center in Clarksville, TN, Thursday night!

The SS Clarksville Victory and Her Seagoing Cowboys: Healing the Wounds of War

March 16 @ 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Free to the public; does not include Museum admission | Turner Auditorium 

The SS Clarksville Victory, named after the city of Clarksville, Tennessee, made seven trips to Europe after World War II delivering livestock to Poland and Greece for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). In an illustrated talk, Peggy Reiff Miller will bring to life the story of the men, dubbed “seagoing cowboys,” who tended the animals on these voyages. Some of the first civilians to enter Europe after the war, their service helped to rebuild a broken world. 

Customs House Museum & Cultural Center
200 S 2nd St
Clarksville, TN 37040-3400

Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – A side trip to Iceland

Luke Bomberger, the likely holder of the record for most trips by a seagoing cowboy, sailed on the S.S. Mount Whitney on two of his nine trips – the Mount Whitney‘s first trip written about in my last three posts, and her second trip that immediately followed on September 1, 1946. This time, Luke’s father took a leave from his banking job and joined him.

Elam & Luke Bomberger aboard the S.S. Mount Whitney, September 1946

Elam Bomberger expected a short trip over and back, like the Mount Whitney‘s first trip. UNRRA, however, had different plans. After unloading their horses in Poland, UNRRA sent the Mount Whitney to Iceland to pick up ponies to take back to Poland, adding two-and-half weeks to the trip and an extended leave for Bomberger from his bank.

“This place is quite a contrast from Poland,” Elam says in a letter home. “The people are mostly blond, blue-eyed and look clean and very well dressed. There are no officers about the ship. One need not fear to be out after dark.”

Street scene in Reykjavík, Iceland, September 1946.

“Before the war people here were poor but the war changed things completely,” Bomberger says. “Today everybody has work at a high wage and everything you wish to buy is extremely high in price. . . . The business section of [Reykjavík] is old and the streets are narrow. They are filled with automobiles and drive on the left side of the street with much speed. . . . The newer section of the town has nice homes with lawns and flowers but no trees grow here. Can you imagine a country with high mountains and no trees?”

Stucco houses in Reykjavík, Iceland, September 1946.

Shipmate Harold Jennings notes in his diary on September 22, “We hit rather a dangerous time here.” The United States had occupied Iceland during World War II, and the Mount Whitney happened to be there while negotiations were underway between the United States and Iceland over the US desire to continue having a military base there. Elam Bomberger says, “The Communistic element is much opposed to it and they made an effort to break up the meetings.”

Jennings notes, “The Communists tore loose and want to chase the Americans out of Iceland. Boys that went to Red Cross were brought back in bus and told to stay on boat.” The US Army issued an order that “no one was allowed off ship,” in Bomberger’s words. On a brighter note, the Northern lights which he saw almost every night thrilled Harold Jennings.

Once the Icelandic ponies – which the Icelanders preferred to call horses – were loaded, the ship made its way back to Poland. Jennings says the ponies are “really gentle little animals.” Unfortunately, those gentle creatures would not see the light of day the rest of their lives after being put to work in Polish underground mines.

Icelandic ponies awaiting loading onto the S.S. Mount Whitney, Reykjavík, Iceland, September 1946.

The Mount Whitney‘s return to the US experienced another short delay leaving port in Poland. “Tugs pulled us out of dock at 2:00,” Jennings notes, “but some fifty feet of rope got tangled up in screw. Also we run aground trying to get that out. We’re now waiting for a diver to see what the damage is.”

A ship’s officer rides back up in the S.S. Mount Whitney bosun’s chair after inspecting the tangled rope, Nowy Port, Poland, October 1946.

All must have been okay, as the ship pulled out bright and early the next morning, and Elam Bomberger was finally on his way home.

All photos are still shots from Luke Bomberger’s movie footage of this voyage.

 

Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney: Ship Breaks Records

Mount Whitney is not only the name of the highest mountain in the United States, it is the name of the largest and fastest of the ships used by UNRRA for transporting livestock in 1946. A C4-S-A4 type ship, she rolled off the line of the Kaiser shipyard in Vancouver, Washington, February 21, 1946, and was converted in Boston for carrying cattle. She made her first voyage as a livestock ship for UNRRA July 28, 1946.

The S.S. Mount Whitney ready to load in Newport News, VA, July 26, 1946. Photo by James Brunk.

According to seagoing cowboy Luke Bomberger, the ship measured 522 feet long and 72 feet across. “This is a pretty wide ship,” he said, “and we therefore had a double row of stalls on each of the port and starboard sides,” instead of the normal row of single stalls on Victory and Liberty ships. The Mount Whitney stalls could accommodate 1500 horses, about double the capacity of the Victory ships and four to five times that of Liberty ships.

The Times-Herald newspaper of Newport News, Virginia, gave considerable attention to this maiden livestock voyage of the Mount Whitney. On July 25, the paper reported the loading of the ship would be delayed for degaussing work, a demagnetizing procedure to help ships be less susceptible to Nazi magnetic mines still floating in the waters. The next day’s paper reported on the loading of a “tremendous amount” of feed:

Fifteen hundred head of horses can’t live as cheaply as one, not by a long sight. . . . Now being taken on at Pier 5 are the following items: 1,200,000 pounds of hay, 89 tons of oats and a large quantity of bran.

Hay being loaded on the S.S. Mount Whitney on a later trip. Photo by Wilbert Zahl.

Bags of oats ready to be loaded on the S.S. Mount Whitney on a later trip. Photo by Wilbert Zahl.

On July 29, the paper reported on the Mount Whitney‘s departure from the Terminal Stockyards at noon the day before:

A quick trip to Poland is in prospect as the Mount Whitney has a top speed of 20 knots. . . .
The ship already has shattered two records – in the amount of livestock taken on board and the number of livestock handlers carried on the trip to care for the animals. Eighty such workers are on the ship, while the average UNRRA craft requires only from 32 to 35.

48 of the 80 seagoing cowboys on the S.S. Mount Whitney, August 1946. Photo courtesy of Levi Miller.

Aside from seasickness and complaints about the food, the 80 seagoing cowboys enjoyed a fairly uneventful trip across the Atlantic. Being a larger vessel, the ship did not take the usual route to Poland through the Kiel Canal. She traveled up around Scotland and Denmark to the Baltic Sea, arriving in Nowy Port, Poland, August 8.

“How changed everything is!” noted cowboy foreman Leonard Vaughn, who had made earlier trips to Poland. “The ruins are being cleared away. There is rebuilding. There aren’t the crowds of dirty children.” Luke Bomberger, having been to Poland in November 1945 and April 1946, made a similar observation. Nevertheless, cowboy crew members had some hair-raising experiences while there.

~to be continued

 

Victory Ships Get New Life

I have much to be thankful for during this Thanksgiving season. Next to a loving and supportive family, at the top of the list are faithful readers like you and meaningful work. And in the realm of the latter, exciting things have been happening the past several months.

The end of July, I received an email that added a new thread to my already multifaceted seagoing cowboy research. Michael Delaware, host of the podcast “Tales of Southwest Michigan’s Past,” contacted me. He told me Battle Creek’s Mayor had just received a letter that day from the US Maritime Administration saying that they would like to donate the bell from the SS Battle Creek Victory to the Battle Creek Regional History Museum. Michael, a member of the museum’s board, had found a photo of the ship on my blog and wanted whatever information I could give him about the ship.

The SS Battle Creek Victory docked in Greece, July 1946. Photo by Wayne Silvius.

As it turns out, the museum received both the bell and the wheel from the ship. These artifacts were unveiled in a ceremony at the museum on November 12.

Then in early September, I received an email from Frank Lott, the Executive Director of the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center in Clarksville, Tennessee. He was seeking information on the SS Clarksville Victory and had also found my blog in his search.

SS Clarksville Victory after delivering horses to Poland, January 1946. Photo by Paul Bucher.

His museum had recently been gifted the hull plate from the ship named after their city. This artifact was unveiled at an appreciation event for the museum’s benefactors on November 5.

On October 10, my Google alert picked up an article in the Carroll, Iowa, newspaper about the town having received the hull plate from the SS Carroll Victory, on which I recently did a series of posts.

SS Carroll Victory at anchor, Spring 1947. © Charles Lord.

I realized that something was happening here! I contacted the Maritime Administration to see what other of UNRRA’s livestock ships might have had artifacts that were sent to their namesake cities or universities. Turns out there are seven more. Plus additional ships whose artifacts have not yet been sent. Maritime Administration’s curator Dan Roberts tells me that MARAD has artifacts from 90 Victory ships. Of those, about 18 had served as UNRRA livestock ships. They also have artifacts from seven Liberty ships used by UNRRA’s livestock program.

The Maritime Administration’s distribution program opens up a new arena in which to share the little-known seagoing cowboy history. Michael Delaware invited me to join him on a podcast this month talking about the Battle Creek Victory (I’ll send out the link when it goes live), with plans for an in-person program at the museum in the coming year. And Frank Lott has invited me to speak at the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center in February or March. I’m excited about these new opportunities to share the seagoing cowboy story. Details will be posted on my http://www.seagoingcowboys.com events page when available.

Another aspect of this history I’m learning about through these contacts is the naming and launching of the Victory ships. I’ll write about that in my next post.

In case you missed it, here’s a previous post from 2015 on the ships UNRRA used for their livestock program.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving weekend!
Peggy

How a novel turned into a blog

This will be a more personal post. At my presentations, I am often asked how I got into this seagoing cowboy history. So today, I’ll share that story with you.

It all started with an envelope of my Grandpa Abe’s photos my father gave me some years after grandpa died.
Turns out, Grandpa Abe had been a seagoing cowboy, accompanying a load of horses to Poland the end of September 1946.

I grew up in the Church of the Brethren, the denomination responsible for recruiting all of the livestock tenders for UNRRA’s shipments of farm animals to Europe after World War II. From my youth magazines, I knew about these “seagoing cowboys.” But I DIDN’T know that my grandpa had been one of them. He never talked about it with us grandkids, and we never knew to ask. I knew there were a couple of Polish dolls in grandpa’s attic where we grandkids often played, but I didn’t make the connection until seeing his photos.

After receiving that envelope of photos, I got curious about what grandpa’s trip may have been like. So in January 2002, I interviewed a man from our church, Al Guyer, who I knew had been a seagoing cowboy to Poland. The end of that year, I signed up for a book writing course through the Institute of Children’s Literature to write a young adult novel. Grandpa’s photos and stories of Al Guyer’s eventful trip kept beckoning to me, and I thought, what a great topic! The trip of a 16-year-old seagoing cowboy to Poland! My instructor agreed. The topic was “something new and different under the sun,” she said. Being historical fiction, it would require a great deal of research, so I sought out more seagoing cowboys to interview.

Interviewing J. O. Yoder about his trip to Poland on the S. S. Clarksville Victory in December 1945.

One cowboy led to another, and another, and another. And their stories were so fascinating and compelling that I was hooked! It didn’t take long to realize that this was a rich history, just hiding away in people’s minds, and drawers, and attics, and my mission changed to that of documenting this little-known, not-to-be-forgotten history of how men of all stripes delivered hope to a war-torn world. I’ve been at it for twenty years now, accumulating a sizable archive of cowboy photos and stories too significant to just sit on my shelves.

In 2007, I created a DVD documentary photostory, A Tribute to the Seagoing Cowboys, which I took on a Tribute Tour around the country meeting more cowboys and gathering their stories.

Meeting and hearing from seagoing cowboys at Brethren Village retirement community in Lititz, PA, April 14, 2009.

I started my seagoing cowboys website in 2008, and what a game changer that was! I began to get requests for information of all types related to this history from as far away as Poland, Germany, Finland, and Japan. Inadvertently, I had become the recognized “expert” on the seagoing cowboys and the related history of the Heifer Project.

My novel did get drafted and revised, and revised, and revised, but never published. Instead, it sort of morphed into my children’s picture book The Seagoing Cowboy. In the summer of 2014, while that book was in the works, I decided the best way to get more of this history out into the world was to start a blog. And I’ve been at it ever since.

 

The Longest Ride – Part XI: Homeward Bound!

Good news awaited the cowboy crew of the S. S. Carroll Victory when they pulled into port at Piraeus, Greece, March 7, 1947, with their 277 South African horses and 278 mules. “The UNRRA man here says there won’t be another trip back to South Africa,” Charlie Lord wrote his wife. “I think its probably because of the poor quality of horses. Of our last load 150 have died they say. Also because the Agriculture branch of UNRRA may fold any day, was supposed to on March 1. The last order the Captain has is to come straight to the States.”

During the short stay in Piraeus to unload the horses and manure, Lord had one more wish on this third stop in Greece. He and two other cowboys went to the UNRRA office to inquire. “I asked about how we could get two boxes of BSC relief food past customs and they told me. Then I asked if I could get to an UNRRA horse anywhere near Athens and take pictures of it and the family that owned it. After considerable telephoning, they found where some horses were. The UNRRA official took the 3 of us out to a jeep, he and his driver drove us over the most pilled and bumpy roads I have ever seen out to a little town. There we found a horse in a stable. The man brought it out.” Lord took pictures to his heart’s content of the horse and family, the woman and girls running a loom and spinning wheel in their home, and another UNRRA horse coming back from plowing.

Greek farmer with his UNRRA horse. March 1947. © Charles Lord

Greek farmer’s family in their work room. March 1947. © Charles Lord

“I feel I’ve covered the field now,” Lord said. “I’m finished with Athens.”

By March 10, the ship was on its way home, but a pleasure trip it was not. While in the Mediterranean, the cowboys were tasked with the job of cleaning the livestock holds – twice, as the first day’s work didn’t pass the Chief Steward’s inspection.

Cowboys at work cleaning the stalls on the S. S. Carroll Victory, March 1947. © Charles Lord

Approaching Gibraltar, Lord wrote, “Everyone is getting a little bit excited about our approaching Atlantic passage to the wonderful States. This has been a very long trip, even for regular seamen, and merchant marines.” Uncooperative weather, however, stretched a trip across the Atlantic that took ten days on the trip over to thirteen on the way home. The ship ran into gale force winds most of the way across, slowing it down considerably.

On March 22, Lord’s shipmate Maynard Garber noted in his journal, “The wind is blowing at a mighty gale and waves 75 [feet] high appear like mountains when we go down with a 40 degree angle. The ship is pitching like a seesaw so our speed is cut down to 10 knots or else the ship would break up. We still have 1250 miles yet to go.”

“Prow of Carroll Victory up after it just smacked its nose down into a big one,” Lord notes. “White caps show wind was over 50 mph. Sometimes it was 70. We were on edge of hurricane.” © Charles Lord

Lord noted, “Like the old Model T, we travel further up and down than we do ahead. . . . Richter said he had a book on the side of his bed. It was rather weird to see the book rise from the bed, sit in mid-air, then fall on the floor.” After a particularly rough night, Lord said, “About 1:30 this morning this old tub really bounced. All the light bulbs on the fan tail [quarters] screwed out from vibration during the night and broke on the floor. . . . It took me a long time to get to sleep, what with sliding one way and then the other on my sheet.”

Course of the moon on a rough night, taken with the camera held solid to the ship with the lens open. © Charles Lord

Weather wasn’t the crew’s only problem. On leaving Gibraltar May 15, Lord had noted, “Our food supplies are getting low. We’ve been out of butter for about 4 days. They say we have 200 lbs of flour left, enough for about 6 days.” By the 19th, he wrote, “The whole ship is on bread rationing. Yesterday we got 2 slices of bread per meal. Today it was 1 slice per meal.” March 25, three days before reaching New York, Lord said, “We haven’t had any white bread for 2 days, flour is all gone. Had corn bread for lunch that had cereal or something in it, too. Only powdered eggs yesterday and today. Our food is running out. They say that yesterday the captain said, ‘Full speed ahead. We’d just as well drown as starve to death.” Neither was their fate. On March 28 the S. S. Carroll Victory safely reached New York.

Approaching New York City, March 28, 1947. © Charles Lord

Garber noted, “Today at noon we at last saw the Statue of Liberty. It was foggy so we were close before we saw it. This afternoon we dropped anchor out in bay and will be on the boat until the customs have cleared us.

The S. S. Carroll Victory outside New York City, March 1947, soon to be retired as a livestock ship and move on to further adventures. © Charles Lord

Garber concludes his journal: “Thus after 143 days on ship, we spent 89 days on the sea, 54 days ashore and 46 days at work.”

On the inside cover he quoted this Walt Whitman poem:

The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.

And so the seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Carroll Victory had.

The seagoing cowboy crew and Captain of the S. S. Carroll Victory, March 1947. Photo by Paul Beard.

The Longest Ride – Part VI: Exploring Segregated Pre-Apartheid South Africa

The Brethren Service Committee accepted the job of recruiting UNRRA’s cattle tenders with the motivation of providing “an unusually broadening and educational experience” for the men who served. The S. S. Carroll Victory‘s stop in Durban, South Africa, to pick up horses for Greece in December 1946 most certainly provided that opportunity for Charlie Lord. His eight days in Durban gave him a window into the racial situation in South Africa that led to the creation of the “Apartheid” laws and system only months later in 1948.

Durban, South Africa, December 1946. Photo by Paul Beard.

On his first full day in port, Lord looked up two fellow Quakers who helped arrange some visits for the Carroll Victory seagoing cowboys. The first tour took them to the McCord Hospital for Natives, located, not without objection, in the fashionable white Berea section of Durban. “Twenty-one cattlemen took the bus,” Lord said. “We rode thru miles of a beautiful city. . . .They have 325 beds, are forced to turn away people all the time. Short of money, help and equipment. Very, very interesting!”

Children at the McCord Hospital for Natives, Durban, South Africa, December 1946. © Charles Lord

That evening, Lord went with one of his Quaker contacts to a meeting of the Joint Council of Europeans and Natives to hear Mr. Barrett, the Chief Magistrate of Durban, speak. “His talk was interesting,” Lord said, “but the discussion afterwards was much much more fascinating. Intelligent natives really put Barrett on the spot. He was obviously on the defensive all the time. After the meeting ended, several cattlemen talked with 3 or 4 of the Negroes for about half an hour, and learned an awful lot.”

The next day, Lord and some other cowboys spent time with Lord’s other Quaker contact. “Maurice told us the origin and nature of the Indian problem in S. Africa,” Lord said, “the background of the present Passive Resistance movement. We all found it fascinating.

“When we first arrived I wondered why everything is marked European or non-European, why they divided it that way. I can understand now. That is the easiest way to separate the white from all the other groups when you have four distinct castes. They are:
–White European – about 25% of the Union of SA maybe
–Indian – 20% or less of Natal [the province where Durban is located] (not the Union)
–Native – 50 to 75% in both Natal and the whole Union
–Colored – small % of mulattos
The Indian men tend to be intelligent, good businessmen, but women uneducated. Many of the men own shops, make lots of money, which is probably one of the reasons for white hatred of them – economic.”

The next afternoon, cameras in tow, Lord set out on his own to explore the Indian quarter. He fortunately was taken under the wings of a couple of honest young Indian men who took him around. “Without them I would have been sunk,” Lord said, “might even have been in real danger.” The men took him through the Indian and native barracks, separated by a wire fence and built and owned by the city of Durban for city employees. “Some of them are very bad,” Lord said, “but many are quite nice. The native barracks were significantly better constructed and planned than the Indian ones.”

Native barracks, Durban, South Africa, December 1946. © Charles Lord

Barracks in the Indian quarter, Durban, South Africa, December 1946. © Charles Lord.

Lord’s “good-will ambassadors” took him into Indian homes, to a Hindu temple, and into an off-the-beaten-path basement pool hall, all the while explaining to Lord Indian customs and grievances. When back uptown, reminiscent of his experience in Virginia, Lord noted, “We couldn’t go in a restaurant to eat together. I bought a sack of candy and shared it with them.”

Another full day followed, with a regular bus tour for the cowboys into Zululand and the Valley of a Thousand Hills, a place where they could not have gone on their own. “You have to have a pass to enter the territory,” Lord said.

Cooke’s Tour Bus in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, South Africa, December 17, 1946. Photo by Paul Beard.

“We saw lots of wonderful photographic material but breezed right past most of it. We did stop at one native village, fairly typical I guess, except for commercialization.”

Zula huts in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, South Africa, December 17, 1946. The white-walled hut is the Chief’s. © Charles Lord.

A tall Zulu lad, December 17, 1946, Valley of a Thousand Hills, South Africa. © Charles Lord.

Lord’s stop in Durban was rounded out by viewing movies taken by a friend of one of his Quaker contacts showing “extraordinary” footage of Indian yearly festival customs, native war dances, and native religious ceremonies, capped off with “quite a discussion on politics” with a young Afrikaner of Dutch descent who was there.

Lord’s eight days in Durban had indeed provided a truly “educational and broadening experience”.

~ to be continued

Once again, my deep appreciation to Charlie Lord for granting me permission to share his photos and accounts from his letters.

Oceans of Possibilities: Turning Swords into Plowshares

If you missed my program for the Indian Valley Public Library last week and would like to see it, you can tune in to the 56-minute recording here. I talk about the ways in which the seagoing cowboys and the Heifer Project contributed to building peace after World War II. Enjoy!

~Peggy

The Longest Ride – Part I: A Man with a Mission

The longest UNRRA livestock trip of which I am aware lasted five months. The 32 seagoing cowboys who signed on to the S. S. Carroll Victory in November 1946 were aware that the ship would take horses to Greece and then go down to South Africa to pick up more horses to take back to Greece, and possibly repeat the trip to South Africa, which it did. I have a number of accounts of this trip and will share their stories over the next several posts.

S. S. Carroll Victory, photo © Charles Lord

Charlie Lord signed on to the Carroll Victory at age 26 with a mission in mind: documenting the trip photographically for publication. Lord had spent three-and-a-half years in Civilian Public Service during World War II, serving part of that time at the Philadelphia State Mental Hospital at Byberry. In May 1946, Life magazine had published some of Lord’s photographs, taken on the sly, of the horrendous conditions and treatment of the mentally ill. These images shocked the country and gave impetus to a reform movement for more humane treatment of mentally ill persons. Lord knew that UNRRA seagoing cowboy crews were often interracial, following the success of the experimental interracial crew during the summer; so this time around, in the age of Jim Crow, Lord hoped to capture a story of an interracial seagoing cowboy crew working together in harmony.

Lord wrote a postcard to his wife September 26 after arriving at the Naval Landing Building in Norfolk, Virginia, to get his seaman’s papers. What he saw in Virginia troubled him. “The segregation burns me up,” he told her. “It cuts my heart every time I step on a street-car, bus, or ferry and see a little sign ‘Segregation of Races,’ a synopsis of laws of Va. as effective June 11, 1946 etc. Every motorman is a deputy sheriff in case of trouble!”

A maritime strike kept Lord waiting a month in Newport News, Virginia, before he was able to sign on to a ship. He took advantage of the time to take photos of the Terminal Stockyards where the livestock were collected, inspected, and culled and photos of the Brethren Service Center office.

Horses awaiting shipment at the Terminal Stockyards in Newport News, Virginia, October 1946. Photo © Charles Lord.

“I talked with the fellows at BSC office about the article for Life,” he told his wife. “They are quite interested and will give me full cooperation. They think UNRRA will too.”

Seagoing cowboys in line for assignment to a ship, October 1946. Photo © Charles Lord.

When shipping resumed, Lord had a choice between a ship headed for Poland or a ship going to Greece and South Africa – a choice he had to make before knowing the racial makeup of the cowboy crew. He chose the longer trip. “I hope it is the wisest course,” he told his wife. “It will lose much of its significance if the interracial angle falls through. . . . I should be able to get 2 or 3 stories out of the trip, one using pictures only of Greece and back for a typical trip, one using all pictures for an amazing trip and a very non-typical one, and one emphasizing the interracial aspect for Look or Ebony perhaps. It seems an opportunity impossible to pass up. It is almost the first and last time a person can make such a trip without paying a lot for it probably.”

From the album of fellow cowboy and photographer Paul Beard, courtesy of Heifer International.

“This trip means endless photographic opportunities, but alas, that means endless film. . . . I will be in Greece 3 different times for several days each time, at two ports in Africa with a chance to spend a few days ashore, each time we’ll go through Suez Canal, along Egypt, and when loaded, we may even go around Cape Horn and up western coast clear around Africa to save horses from the terrific heat of the Suez. The water temperature itself gets up to 90º they say.”

Next post: Life on board

Cattle tender histories intertwine

The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration’s livestock program is thought by some to be the largest effort of shipping animals overseas in world history. In the two years between June 1945 and April 1947, they had shipped a total of 369,048 draft and food-producing animals from the Western Hemisphere to Europe and a few other locations to help countries recover from World War II. This included, by UNRRA’s count, 174,202 horses, 28,976 mules, 36,199 cattle, and 129,671 other types of farm animals to Europe and a few other countries. There was another time in history, however, which out-paced UNRRA’s efforts – the difference between the two being that UNRRA’s mission helped heal the wounds of war, the other helped create them.

UNRRA heifers ready to ship out of Newport News, Virginia, June 1946. Photo: Lyle Chambers

Three decades before UNRRA’s “seagoing cowboys” came into being, cattle tenders would have been required to care for the hundreds of thousands of horses and mules shipped from the United States to serve as beasts of burden and transport in World War I. According to the International Museum of the Horse, “In the four years of the war, the United States exported nearly a million horses to Europe. This seriously depleted the number of horses in America. When the American Expeditionary Force entered the war, it took with it an additional 182,000 horses. Of these, 60,000 were killed and only a scant 200 were returned to the United States. In spite of the innovations of World War I, one reality remained the same; the horse was the innocent victim.”

World War I war horses. Signal Corps photo.

Large numbers of mules also found themselves on ships to Europe. The United States World War One Centennial Commission  notes, “The 1922 British War Office report on statistics of the Great War states that 275,097 mules were purchased from North America.” One large Missouri firm, Guyton and Harrington, contracted with the British army for horses and mules. According to author Michael Price, they alone “sold 180,000 mules to the British army from 1914-1918. . . . They also sold 170,000 horses to the British.”

Mule at use in World War II. Photo: Army Pictorial Service.

Some of the horses and mules used by the U. S. Army were bred and trained at the Army Quartermaster Remount Depot at Fort Reno in Oklahoma. When World War II rolled around with its advances in war machinery, horses and mules were no longer needed to the extent they were in World War I. After being decommissioned in 1948, the depot at Fort Reno was reactivated in 1952 to prepare horses and mules for export to Turkey. One of UNRRA’s former livestock ships, the S. S. Calvin Victory, now decommissioned and renamed the S. S. Columbia Heights, became the transport vehicle to take the animals across the ocean.

Todd Blomerth tells the story on his blog “Todd’s Historical Writings” of one of the young Army officers, William Pharr “Billy” Stromberg, involved with three of these shipments to Turkey. The Columbia Heights was in use during that same time period for the Levinson Brothers livestock trips to Israel which carried many a Mennonite seagoing cowboy to the Holy Lands. Interesting how histories intertwine!

Mennonite seagoing cowboys on the S. S. Columbia Heights, June 1951. Photo courtesy of Virgil Stoltzfus.