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.

Cattle for Israel – Part III

The Levinson livestock trips were known by the Israel Cattle Breeder’s Association as “Operation Cattle and Draught Animals for Israel.” Living near the Mennonite community in Denbigh, Virginia, and being acquainted with the service of Mennonite seagoing cowboys for UNRRA, it was to the Mennonites the Levinson brothers appealed to find their cattle tenders for this operation.

Mennonite seagoing cowboys to Israel, June 1951. Photo courtesy of Virgil Stoltzfus.

A February 1959 letter from the Israel Cattle Breeder’s Association to Melvin Gingerich of the Mennonite Research Foundation praises the work of these young Mennonites:

As you may know, altogether some 15 ships with 12,000 cows, heifers, and calves and some 5,000 horses and mules have been bought and shipped to Israel in the years 1950/1953.

Having been in charge together with Mr. Ben Levinson of Williamsburg, Virginia, I must say that the help, eagerness and devotion of these boys was so high; that I’m sure was a big factor in the success of my mission.

I take this occasion to express on behalf of the Members of this Association our thanks to all that took part in the Operation.

I’m sorry that I can’t give you a list of the participants, but Mr. Ben Levinson might have those lists in his files, all I can say is that at least 100 boys of your church have taken part in this Operation, and they are all very fine cowmen.

May I add that the Operation as a whole has been very successful, the milk production in Israel since has gone up from 180 million pounds to 440 million, and the average per cow yearly production went up from 8,000 pounds to 11,000.

Yours very truly,
L.E. Shmaragd, Secretary

As to the value of these trips, Fred Gingerich called it “a wonderful broadening experience.” Bob Eshleman notes, “It increased my self confidence and self worth.” For Jim Rhodes, it was his first exposure to hunger. “I saw children in Turkey chasing each other and fighting over cast aside apple cores and other food scraps,” he says. And for Kenton Brubaker, it was an “introduction to the situation in Palestine. I witnessed the destruction of Arab homes in Haifa, the tension in Jerusalem. It gave me a base of contrast for two more recent visits to Israel and Bethlehem.” And several of these cowboys cited seeing the Holy Lands and the opportunity to walk where Jesus had walked.

Virgil Stoltzfus caring for heifers en route to Israel, June 1951. Photo courtesy of Virgil Stoltzfus.

War ruins in Haifa. Photo courtesy of Virgil Stoltzfus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Israel Cattle Breeder’s Letter from Melvin Gingerich files, Mennonite Church USA Archives. Edited. [Note that Melvin Gingerich researched the work of the Mennonite seagoing cowboys to Israel and was not one himself. He also had no relationship to Fred Gingerich.]