Monday, May 18, 2009

A Tale of the Sea-Going Cowboy

I have written several articles for a small historical journal. I wrote a fairly lengthy biography of my paternal grandparents first, then I explored three generations of TCKs (third culture kids), and just this month, my third article for this journal was published.

It is the story of my maternal grandfather and his adventure as a sea-going cowboy. Since the article has now apperared, I can tell the highlights here, without detracting from the published version. Besides, the journal is not available on news stands, so I am not depriving the publishers of any income.

Here the story:

Right after World War II, my grandfather--or Pappap, as we all called him--volunteered to help rebuild Europe by taking a load of horses to Poland. World War II was incredibly destructive--some 50 million people were displaced through all the fighting. Not only that, but most farm animals had been killed--either as a result of combat, or to be eaten as food for the starving people.

The Allies, anticipating the eventual outcome of the war, got together and planned to rebuild Europe, including restocking farms. The United States took former ships used in battle, and converted them into animal transport ships. They had sailors to sail the ships, but they didn't have cattle hands or farmers to care for the animals.

The peace churches in the United States and Canada--for example Mennonites and Quakers--had won the right to provide service to the country that did NOT require a young man to join the military. One of those ways was farm service. So the United States' government approached the peace churches to help round up men to tend animals during the crossing of the Atlantic.

Here's what the advertisement said, in part:

"Two thousand men wanted to serve as livestock attendants on board ships carrying livestock to Europe to replace killed-off animals. Applicants must be able to work with animals, willing to do manual labor, and of good moral character. Men especially desired who will conduct themselves without reproach in foreign ports. Age 16-60. Trip takes 4 to 6 weeks. Pay $150.00 per trip."
My pappap was 59 years old when he answered this ad! I suspect part of his interest in going to Europe was the sheer adventure of it all. Perhaps another part of his motivation was the fact that his youngest son, my uncle Davey, volunteered to go--at age 18. I can almost hear my pappap saying: If Davey can do it. . .

The ship Pappap sailed on was named Mount Whitney. This was a large ship, with the capacity to transport 1400 animals: mostly horses, with a few heifers. The ship had a crew of 64 sailors, and 75 sea-going cowboys. Pappap was one of two men aged 59--the oldest on the ship.

Their destination was Poland. They sailed January of 1947 with their destination the Polish seaport of Gdansk. This city had been occupied by the Nazis, as had all Poland, but the S.S. made it their particular place. When the Allies advanced on the city, the S.S. troops defended it fiercely--so the Russians, who were the lead Allies, bombed the city almost into oblivion.

My pappap witnessed these scenes of destruction. Buildings were still lying in ruins, rubble everywhere. Orphans roamed the streets during the day, begging anyone for food. Women helped to clear piles of bricks, readying the place for rebuilding.

During their Atlantic crossing, on board ship, the sea-going cowboys tended the animals, feeding them, making sure the horses stayed on their feet in spite of heaving ocean swells. If an animal died, they winched it up with a pulley and heaved it overboard. Of course, there was the ever-present animal manure to clean out, which also got swept overboard.

Every day, sailors and sea-going cowboys alike were issued a carton of cigarettes. My grandfather was a non-smoker--and also a deeply grounded moral man. So he declined the cigarettes. He didn't realize, until he got to Poland, that cigarettes were valuable tender, used for trading on the black market. He regretted his stand--because he learned he could have traded cigarettes for food and clothing for poor Poles.

On the trip home, the ship put in at a harbor in Sweden to refuel. The winter was bitterly cold, and the ship ended up being icebound in the harbor for 7 weeks. So the journey, that the ad promised would take 6 weeks total, ended up taking much longer. He did not return home to Pennsylvania until the end of April.

It was the adventure of a lifetime for Pappap. He never again made any trip overseas--although he dearly wanted to. My earth-bound grandmother nixed any such idea.

Oh, how did these men come to be called sea-going cowboys? Simple. Each man was issued a Coast Guard certificate that allowed them to sail on U.S. ships into foreign ports. The certificate listed them as "cattlemen." However, the seasoned sailors on board all the ships cut through that nomenclature--and simply called them "cowboys." And, of course, since they went to sea, they became tagged as sea-going cowboys.
Photo credits:
1) my grandfather David Slagenweit--family photo
2) horses on shipboard--credit Lowell Hoover
3) Gdansk destruction--credit Everett Byer
4) Polish orphans--credit Everett Byer
5) dead horse overboard--credit Lowell Hoover


amarkonmywall said...

Sea-going Cowboys-even the notion makes me sort of sea-sick but THIS is an amazing piece of family history. I love this post, along with the photos. Thank you.

Anvilcloud said...

Very interesting KG.

Unknown said...

Very cool story! So cool that you know the story of this amazing adventure! Thanks for sharing it with us.

Beth said...

That is really interesting and well told. I was not aware of the cowboy seamen but think it is really fitting that the Peace Churches has a hand in re-building Europe with agriculture. Sort of like turning the weapons to plowshares. Very interesting, thank you so much for giving me something new to imagine.

Jayne said...

How fascinating Donna. So wonderful that you have so much documentation of his life and journey.

NCmountainwoman said...

Absolutely fascinating story. Yet another topic for me to research. Thanks for sharing the cowboy story.

Climenheise said...

I didn't know most of this. Now I'm really looking forward to getting the journal!

KGMom said...

Daryl--you didn't get your copy yet? I had some this past weekend. I gave Vaughn, Nevin & Leah each copies.
Sorry, I could have given you one.

Ruth said...

I have read many stories about this period of time, but have never heard of the efforts to restock farms. What an interesting account. It would be the basis of a very interesting book.

possumlady said...

Wow, how interesting. I never knew, but it makes perfect sense. Of course, looking at the photos made me feel bad for the now long dead horses having to keep their footing on the high seas.

Having relations on my mother's side almost wiped out in Poland during WWII, I'm grateful to know that the sea-going cowboys were there to help get them back on their feet.

Dog_geek said...

Great story - and what an experience that must have been!

RuthieJ said...

What an interesting story. Thanks for sharing this small part of your family history with us Donna.

Peggy said...

Hello, Donna,
I'm happy to see your article has been published! Congratulations! I'll look forward to a copy. Thanks for sharing your Pappap's story here! I'll put a link to it on my website when I work on the cowboy stories this summer. And to Ruth who commented on 5/20 - a book is in the works!

martha said...

My dad was a "cattleman" on the SS Cedar Rapids Victory that sailed in November 1946 with a shipment of livestock for Kalamata Greece. His US Merchant Mariner's Document gave him this title. I have been casual looking for more information via the internet since 2003. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has connections or information about this trip.

KGMom said...

Martha--there is a woman in Indiana who has done loads of research. You might try contacting her. Her name is Peggy Reiff Miller. Goggle her name and you will find a website that includes her email address.
Thanks for stopping by--and good luck finding info about your dad. It takes some digging!

Cheryl Bantz Westley said...

My 19 year old father was on the first ship to leave a U.S. port (New Orleans) on June 24, 1945. We grew up hearing the story of shoveling horse manure across the Atlantic and visiting Europe at the end of the war. This program delivered about 300,000 animals and sparked what is called Heifer International today.

Elinor DeWire said...

I really enjoyed your "Tale of a Sea-Going Cowboy." I'm working on a maritime book and could use some of the photos. Could you tell me how I might obtain the two that Lowell Hoover provided you? Thanks! (Connection: I see you're a Central PA person and adjunct. I went to Lock Haven State College beginning in 1971. I teach at Olympic College in WA. Small world!)

Elinor DeWire
Facebook Author Page at "Elinor DeWire, Author"

Elinor DeWire said...

I'm not sure my comment reached you about the Sea-Going Cowboy post. Would you let me know? If not, email me and I'll fill you in on my project. Thanks, Elinor DeWire