HESSTON, Kan. — A much older and landlocked group of “seagoing cowboys,” who first saw the wider world while caring for livestock aboard ships bound for post-World War II Europe, gathered for a reunion Aug. 31.
The attendees were volunteer cattlemen in the late 1940s — at the time fresh from high school or in college and looking for adventure. Today, the 14 men who gathered at Whitestone Mennonite Church were in their mid-80s and early 90s, now content to adventure by nostalgia.
“Just before we entered the English Channel, the captain was given charts to know where the mines were,” said Auston Heise of Kansas City about taking part in 1946.
After delivering 585 horses, the ship’s captain decided not to take on ballast. Heise said the much lighter ship was soon rocked by a storm near England with 91-mph winds.
“I remember the bow going under water and the propellers coming up out,” he said. “That was an interesting day.”
Hundreds of shiploads
The livestock initiative, born in 1943 out of the Marshall Plan’s goal of aiding Europe after World War II and preventing the spread of communism, worked to send 360 shiploads of pregnant livestock to Europe and other parts of the world from 1945 to 1947 in conjunction with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and the Church of the Brethren’s Heifer Project. The Brethren Service Committee recruited volunteers interested in non-military service opportunities.
About 7,000 people — many males as young as 16 from farming backgrounds — cared for hundreds of horses, cattle, mules and other livestock as Merchant Marines during two- to three-week voyages. Most shipments ended up in Poland, Germany, Italy or Greece, although some went to Belgium, China and Djibouti.
Much to learn
It was a significant education for many of the cowboys.
Richard Whitacre, who now lives in McPherson, signed up as an 18-year-old Elizabethtown (Pa.) College student to help care for 600-some cows and horses on the SS Virginia.
“It was a whole new experience for me because I didn’t grow up on a farm and had never been out of the country,” he said. “I had to stand watch looking for mines in the Mediterranean on the way to Greece.”
While on shore leave, some explored the canals of Venice, Italy, or the Acropolis in Greece. Some participants found their sea legs easily, while others were affected already while the ship was tied to the dock and spent the voyage seasick.
The young cattlemen witnessed the black market in action, watching sailors turn huge profits on cigarettes and sugar.
Ray Regier of Newton said even ordering a meal in the ship’s mess hall was a cross-cultural experience.
“The order got three times as long because they added so many swear words,” he said. “We heard some marvelous swearing.”
While several Mennonites took advantage of docking in Poland to visit the abandoned Danzig Mennonite Church to scavenge for souvenirs while on shore leave, many others went sightseeing on battlefields.
“These 16-year-olds were messing with stuff we probably shouldn’t have,” said Richard Siemens of North Newton, pointing out a large artillery shell he brought to the reunion. “The live explosives, they made them throw those overboard.”
The former warships didn’t need undue danger. Many were assembly-line Liberty and Victory class cargo vessels slapped together quickly by people desperate for work. Sailors told stories of some falling apart without the aid of torpedoes and bombs.
Such calamity did not befall those in attendance, who each recalled returning home with a high seas experience to shape the following seven or eight decades.
“The whole trip was really significant for me,” Whitacre said. “We came back from port safely, and I’m glad I could be part of the adventure.”