UNRRA & Private Relief

Austrian boy awaits milk from UnicefWhen the war ended, the struggle to simply survive continued for many in the war torn areas. American farmers were critical in the effort to feed them. It took a massive program, first through private and then multinational groups, to keep millions alive.

At the end of the war, farms in Europe were in terrible shape. In the Netherlands, for example, dikes that had been built over the centuries to produce land that could grow crops had been destroyed by the war. Tanks and hundreds of thousands of troops had fought for each inch of territory from France, through Germany and Italy, through Poland and eastern Europe all the way to Moscow. Soldiers trying to feed themselves had slaughtered every cow, horse, chicken and turkey they could find. Livestock herds did not exist in Europe. In addition, for six years, nothing had been done to preserve or rebuild the fertility of the soil. And unlike the period after the First World War, farmers in 1946 had grown to rely on machines in agriculture. Tractors in Europe had been destroyed and no new ones were being built, yet.

The situation in Japan was as bad as Europe. As the war progressed, the U.S. successfully blockaded Japan preventing the importation of food supplies from the Empire’s agricultural colonies. In the summer of 1945, the aptly-named Operation Starvation was imposed by the Americans. Food was so scarce that Japanese government officials called on civilians to collect 2.5 million bushels of acorns to be converted into eating material. The average Japanese civilian had to survive on only 1,680 calories a day – about 78 percent of the minimum required for health and physical performance. Agricultural experts predicted there would be over seven million deaths by starvation if Japan had stayed in the war through 1946.

Market Day 1948The postwar relief efforts actually began even before the war started. A young man, Dan West, was a relief worker during the Spanish Civil War for the Church of the Brethren, one of the historic peace churches. He was handing out limited supplies of powdered milk to starving children. There was never enough milk, and he was forced to decide who would live and who would die. Those who were too sick to make it didn’t get the milk.

Dan West somehow came up with the notion that if he could get dairy heifers to Spain, rather than powdered milk, there would be a continuing supply of milk. When he got back home to Goshen, Indiana, he got together a committee of other Brethren and formed “Heifers for Relief.” Heifers were key to the effort because these are young female cows that have not yet been bred. West proposed collecting heifers from farmers willing to donate, breeding them, and then shipping the pregnant cows to Europe and other regions so that they could become the basis of new livestock herds. The people who got the heifers would be encouraged to give one of their offspring to a neighbor.

The idea caught on.

In 1944, the first shipment of 17 heifers left York, Pennsylvania, for Puerto Rico, one of the few places it was relatively safe to ship to. Other shipments followed, and the organization grew into today’s Heifer International.

At about the same time, the nations allied with the U.S. began to plan for the relief of areas that were beginning to be liberated from Axis control. As early as 1942, 26 nations joined in a “Declaration of the United Nations” pledging themselves to continue a joint war effort and not to make peace separately. As the United Nations developed, one of the new first tasks was to form UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

UNRRA borrowed heavily from the ideas of the Heifer Project. Using funds from 52 nations, UNRRA bought heifers, horses and other livestock, mostly from U.S. farmers. In addition, the Church of the Brethren and other religious groups got their members to donate thousands of head. Old Liberty and Victory ships that carried arms across the Atlantic during the war were converted to carry livestock. And UNRRA hired many of the Brethren who were working on the Heifer Project to administer their efforts.

Livestock attendants aboardBut someone had to take care of the animals during their long voyage across the sea. So, in 1945, the Brethren Service Committee placed ads in newspapers across the country. UNRRA had contracted with the service arm of the Church of the Brethren to supply attendants for the livestock. In return, UNRRA agreed to ship free of charge heifers that the Brethren Committee had collected. Here’s what the ad said:

“Two thousand men wanted to serve as livestock attendants on board UNRRA 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. Apply Brethren Service Committee, New Windsor, Maryland.”

Eventually, UNRRA was also put in charge of administering $4 billion in aid and relocating seven million refugees and displaced persons. China, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, Poland, the Ukraine and Yugoslavia were the chief beneficiaries of UNRRA aid.

In 1947, UNRRA suddenly discontinued operations in Europe, making the need for the Marshall Plan even greater. Eventually, UNRRA programs evolved into today’s UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and UNICEF (UN Children’s Fund).

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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