Seagoing Cowboys

Rudy Potochnik

Shipping surplus American horses to a war-torn, devastated Europe seemed like a fitting occupation to a war objector. It was l945. I had just been released after over 4 years in Conscientious Objector (C.O.) camps. A failed marriage left me with no obligations except to continue to serve in a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation (UNRRA) project.

UNRRA’s purpose was to take the large surplus of horses in the U.S. and bring them to farmers in Europe. Their livestock had been virtually wiped out by six years of warfare. American farmers were converting from horse power to tractor power as rapidly as American industry could produce the tractors.

Recruiting personnel for tending the horses in transit from U.S. ports to various European ports in Greece, Germany and Poland was taken on by the Brethren Service Committee(B.S.C.). The Social Service arm of the Church of the Brethren had been operating the C.O. camps during the war. It was natural the B.S.C. should recruit many of the "cowboys" from recently released C.O.’s.

Transport of the horses was via Liberty and Victory ships under the War Shipping Administration. These ships were no longer needed to ship war material. The ships were refitted with wood timber stanchions and corrals on three levels of decks. The average shipload would carry some 550 head of horses.

The horses were shipped by rail to Newport News, Virginia by buyers who were paying $50 per head. Horses came from all sections of the U.S. They were quarantined at Newport News for several weeks. There they were treated for ailments such as shipping fever before being sent abroad. Newport News had stockyards that could handle several thousand horses.

One by one horses were loaded in a box chute, 8’ x 3’ x 8’ high with a door at either end. The box was lifted by the ship’s cargo booms from dockside, then lowered through the hatches into the different levels of holds. The horses were outfitted with a tope halter before being loaded so they could more easily be maneuvered to their respective corrals and tied to the heavy timber corrals.

The cowboy crew consisted of one supervisor, one foreman two veterinarians and thirty cow hands. The crew’s function was to feed and water the horses and provide clean straw bedding twice each day. The veterinarians cared for sick or injured horses.

The average sea voyage took six to ten days. depending on the port destination, speed of ship (Liberty’s was slower than Victory’s) and the weather. Winter passage on the North Atlantic was often very rough. The horses didn’t seem to be bothered by sea sickness as were the cowboys. Some of the men would feel perfectly fine topside in the fresh ocean breezes. When they climbed down the ladders into the holds and inhaled the warm, moist stable smells, the malady came on again.

When we arrived at our destination, the foreign longshoremen proceeded to unload the horses one by one via the box chutes. They also removed the manure and bedding to be used as fertilizer, which were also in short supply.

"Cowboys" usually were given four to five days leave to tour the war torn European towns and cities. The big incentive in recruiting them was the ocean voyage to foreign countries and the sum of $50 for three to four weeks of their time. Most of the small town Midwest farm boys found the foreign cruise ship experience pleasant, especially after having spent two or three years in Forest Service camps planting trees, fighting forest fires and other alternative service projects.

This project provided the United Nations with a clear demonstration of humanitarian relief to poor European farmers who needed this horsepower to bring their fields back into production to feed the hungry in Europe. Horses were by far the bulk of the shipments, although dairy cattle and chickens were included later. The program lasted about eighteen months.

The Brethren Service Committee, on its own, embarked on a worldwide livestock shipping program to third world countries. It was called Heifers for Relief. It had the unique feature of requiring the recipient of a springing heifer to give the first offspring to a fellow countryman. This multiplying affect for relief was the novel idea of Dan West, a dedicated humanitarian. Dan gave substance to his Peace testimony, truly a great man, promoting a way to perpetuate gifts of animals to those in need, continued and broadened efforts of the Brethren Service Committee and the United Nations.

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from Roots and Fruits, a publication of the Stanislaus Peace-Life Center

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