Recollections and Reflections: Bill Albrecht’s Service Adventure

Bill Albrecht began attending FMC in the late 1950s when he was an intern at Marion County General Hospital. He and his wife, Mary, raised their five children in Indianapolis and were very active members of FMC for decades until 1996 when they started attending Shalom. Grace (Albrecht) Rhine is their second daughter. She and her husband, Carl, live in Indianapolis and attend Shalom. Grace retired from nursing in 2016 to have more time to be with her family, including elderly parents and parents by marriage as well as spending time with her three young granddaughters.

Bill Albrecht is fourth from left.

It was the winter of 1947 when my father, Bill Albrecht, stood on the windy seaside dock in Newport News, Virginia, waiting to embark on the adventure of his young life. At 20 years old, he had graduated from high school and was working on his family’s dairy farm by day; by night, he caught and loaded chickens into coops for transport to the poultry markets in Chicago and Detroit. Ready for more than this, and with his experience in caring for animals, he signed up with Brethren Church Service and The United Nations Relief Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) as a seagoing cowboy.

In Bill’s memoir, “Recollections and Reflections,” he writes that after World War II many countries in Europe faced the long process of rebuilding all that was lost. In addition to the loss of human lives, many animals died as well. In order to help those experiencing great losses, UNRRA provided ships, which were operated by the Merchant Marine, and sent supplies across the Atlantic Ocean. Brethren Church Service supplied animals to be shipped. Most of the animals being shipped were young female cows, or heifers. This was known as the Heifer Project although sometimes the animals being shipped were horses or mules. This was the forerunner of Heifer International which exists today. As the animals would need to fed, watered and cared for during their overseas voyage, Brethren Church Service enlisted the help of farmers, usually young men, to tend to the animals. Bill, excited at the opportunity for both service and a new adventure, signed up with a friend from Forks Mennonite Church where they both attended. The term “Seagoing Cowboy” is a term that was used later; at the time of Bill’s service they were called “Cattleman” or “Cowboys.”

The two men boarded a Greyhound bus and reported to the Brethren Service Center in Newport News where they were processed at the Coast Guard Center and became official members of the Merchant Marine, classification: Cattleman. Bill waited three weeks in Newport News before shipping out. During the day, he and his friend watched the animals being loaded onto ships, hoisted by a crane in a sling. In the evening, they ate and slept at the Catholic Maritime Club that provided room and board. The sleeping quarters were simply rows and rows of cots without dividers. The club was full of sailors… and sailor talk.  This was an eye-opening experience and a sharp contrast to life on the farm in Middlebury, Indiana.  

When the wait was finally over, Bill boarded the Woodstock Victory along with the captain, crew, and 900 mules, all bound for Greece. They sailed out of the harbor in the evening just before dusk. His work assignment was Hold Number Two on the top level of the ship. There were four men assigned to care for 100 mules in this hold, each given a specific assignment of 25 mules to feed and water and, of course, to muck out the areas where the mules were standing. All the manure was kept in the hold and later was unloaded in Greece to be used for fertilizer. Mules and horses should sleep standing as they might get pneumonia if they lie down for more than a short time. Bill was diligent to watch for any of his mules that attempted to lie down to sleep, quickly rousing them when they did. In Hold Number Two, no mules got pneumonia; out of the 900 mules on board, only four mules were lost to pneumonia.

The first night of sailing in the Chesapeake Bay was smooth and easy. The next morning, the ship started its gentle roll, back and forth. The sun was barely up that morning before Bill found himself hanging over the rail, seasick. He was so sick that all he could do was lie in the feed alley of the mule hold and heave. The three other men assigned in his hold took care of his animals until he was on his feet again.

It took eight days to cross the Atlantic Ocean.  Each day, after tending to the mules, there was free time on the main deck, watching the porpoises, leaping and playing by the ship for hours. The young cattlemen were careful not to get in the way of the Boatswain or other members of the deck crew; they were never allowed on the other decks where the officers stood. After eight days, they sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar. Bill remembers a bright sun and a blue sky on that day of pleasant sailing into the Mediterranean Sea. At dawn, on the 13th day after leaving port in Newport News, they docked into Patras, Greece, their final destination.

As four days were needed for the ship’s crew to unload the several hundred mules, the seagoing cowboys were free to explore. Bill writes “We explored the streets of Patras and did some shopping. I remember a group of us Mennonite guys going to a restaurant and everyone was ordering coffee. The waiter seemed to be upset that no one was ordering alcoholic beverages. I’m sure he wondered what a strange bunch of American sailors this was.” Before heading back to sea, there were more wonders waiting for these seagoing cowboys – drinking thick, muddy coffee in a tiny little cup, hiking in low mountain areas while gazing at snow-capped peaks, taking a bus to Athens to see Mars Hill where Paul preached, and touring the ancient ruins of Acropolis. 

When they returned to port and headed back to the United States, the primary job of the cowboys was to clean up the mule stalls and prepare for the next round of cargo. Once again, Bill was seasick. However, this was a small thing next to the hurricane that the ship encountered 500 miles off the coast of New York City. Although all ships were to be out of the hurricane zone, the ship’s Second Mate was drunk and navigated the ship into the middle of the hurricane storm, kicking up 60-foot waves that towered 30 feet over the main deck. Bill describes that the ship “bobbed like a cork on a churning sea.” 

As he lay in his bunk at the height of the storm, he closely watched a large gauge tilt 45 degrees one way, roll and then tilt 45 degrees the other way, and each time wondered if the next time the ship would right itself or capsize. After the hurricane was over, Bill writes that “a sailor who had been on the sea for seventeen years…told us he had never been in anything like this. We heard later there was a fire in the galley and the cook was crying that we were all going to die together. We could have sunk to the bottom of the sea but by the Grace of God we made it to shore.”

Sometime, after returning home in late February 1947, my dad re-committed his life to following Jesus. He joined MCC in Mexico in 1949 serving as an ambulance driver and orderly in a hospital in Cuauhtémoc which inspired him to eventually become a physician. He continued his life of service as a doctor for the steel mill workers in Gary, Indiana, as an anesthesiologist at Marion County General Hospital, now known as Eskenazi Hospital and as well-respected professor to medical students. 

If you are interested in reading Bill’s entire memoir, “Recollections and Reflections”, he still has copies available. Please contact Bill at email hidden; JavaScript is required and we will be sure to get the book to you!