The Morning When All Hell Broke Loose

The following is an excerpt from a book I am writing, tentatively entitled Salty Dog: A Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Journey through Letters and Memory, about Elmer Luckett and his experiences during the war. The writing is a bit rough still, since the manuscript is in development, but it is close to what his Pearl Harbor story will look like in the final product. This chapter, entitled “All Hell Broke Loose,” also includes the history of what led up to the attacks, as well as a discussion of their aftermath (including Japanese internment) in the United States. My end goal is to blend grandpa’s story with narrative history about the war itself. Anyway, please let me know what you think! – Matt

Sunday, December 7th was a workday for Elmer. After a week of patrolling the harbor entrance, the Chew pulled into port on Saturday, when it was then relieved by the Ward. The Chew dropped anchor in the northeast corner of the harbor, just a few hundred yards stern side from Battleship Row. Ford Island, with its support facilities and massive fuel tanks, lay just to the southwest. Surrounded by water, the only way to get to shore was to take a motorized whaleboat. Two crewmen operated the vessel: a seaman who steered the boat, and an engineer who operated the engine.

Elmer had engine duty that day.

Grandpa woke up early, rolled out of his cot, and got ready for work. Sunday mornings usually ran a bit slower – they were the perfect time to lollygag, eat a leisurely breakfast, and chat with friends. Elmer wrote several letters the previous evening, so he took the opportunity that morning to mail them before reporting to duty. He headed topside to where the mailbox was located. Bathed in crisp sunlight, the top deck of the Chew was already beginning to feel warm, despite it not even being 8am yet. This sort of weather would be unheard of back home for most of the sailors aboard, but in Hawaii the temperature only drops to the upper 60s at night, which makes the air cool for about five minutes before dawn. Then it starts start to feel muggy again, like a bathroom with no working fan after a steamy shower. After dropping off his letters, Elmer strolled over to the galley, which was also topside. He ran into Ossie there, who was about to eat, and the two friends began to chat. It was 7:55 in the morning, and the whale boat had not yet returned to the ship with all of the sailors and officers who had spent the previous night offboard. He described what happened next in an oral interview over 70 years later:

“And all of a sudden, [Ossie] said, ‘Look at all that smoke over at Ford Island.’ I looked over there and it was just about the time that I took a look, there it was. Planes started coming in over Battleship Row, the dive bombers hitting Battleship Row. Then, in the distance I could see the torpedo planes, torpedo bombers. They were coming in, and they’d just skim it over the water. And they were, like, lined up. They would drop their torpedoes and take off, one after another . . . Meanwhile, Ozzie and I, we were just standing there all shook. And I do remember saying to him, I said, ‘This means war.’ And then . . . the planes went by. You could see the red Rising Sun insignia on their wings.”

Elmer Luckett

He and Ossie stood there in shock for a few long moments and watched helplessly as Japanese torpedoes began slamming into the outboard battleships. “When the torpedoes hit, you see the plane drop the torpedo,” he later explained, “and then just a second or two later you’d see the battleship jump up from the impact of the torpedo hitting.”

Elmer might not have realized it at the time, but he was watching one of World War II’s many technical innovations being deployed for the first time. One of the reasons why so many Americans erred in believing that Pearl Harbor was safe from attack was that the water, which was only a few dozen feet deep, was too shallow for such an attack. Torpedoes are heavy things; lobbing one into the water from a speeding airplane is like driving a Ford F-150 at 60 miles per hour off a tall bluff into a river. Strategists believed, not without reason, that Japan’s torpedo bombers would not be able to harm any of the ships at Pearl. Unfortunately, Japanese planners realized this too, so they invented a new kind of torpedo with wooden fins. This new design made the weapons more buoyant, allowing them to quickly resurface and strike their targets without first hitting the seabed. The Battleships were sitting ducks.

After a few minutes the captain sounded general quarters, and both he and Ossie sprung into action as their training kicked in. Elmer raced across the ship towards his duty station in the engine room. As he ran, bombs rained down upon the nearby battleships and torpedoes sliced through the shallow water towards their marks. Just before he reached the ladder, a deafening roar drowned out the distant booms and machine gun fire.

“Why, then the Arizona got hit with that explosion that … it was just a big ball of flames; [a] tremendous explosion.”

Elmer Luckett

A Japanese bomb tore through the Arizona’s decks and detonated its magazine, causing a massive explosion that tore the battleship apart. Hundreds of sailors and Marines died either instantly or over the next few minutes, many of whom were burned alive as nearly every surface of the ship caught fire. Witnesses later described dismembered body parts and twisted chunks of steel being blown away from the doomed ship and into the water by the blast. Overall, nearly half of the servicemen who died that day were aboard the Arizona. Elmer did not stick around to watch. If he did, it is a memory he never discussed.

After escaping the horrors above, Elmer quickly encountered chaos below. Many of the engineers were on liberty, and so several critical duty stations were unmanned.

“I remember they got a call down . . . about starting up the engine in the steering room. In the back, there was a separate engine that ran the steering mechanism that turned the rudder. Evidently, some of our guys were off on liberty . . . if they didn’t have duty, some of them had their wives over there in the naval housing projects. [Anyway], who[ever] was supposed to handle the steering engine wasn’t aboard.”

Elmer Luckett

The officer in charge ordered Elmer to go back and “get that steering engine running.” However, he had never even set foot in that room before. Once Elmer made it back there, he quickly figured out how to make it run. “I knew what the engines were,” he explained, “so I just went back there and I realized you’ve got to open the exhaust valve, you’ve got to open the drain valves and put the steam to it, and not too hard; just warm up the engine. Once you got it going, well, then it took over what it was supposed to do to move the rudder.” Soon the ship was underway.

Elmer worked four hours on and four hours off for the next three days. Since the Chew was constantly on the move after the bombs began to drop, the whale boat was not able to connect with the ship. He and the other engineers and fireman who had spent the night on the ship had to pull double-duty given the absence of so many crew members. However, this fate was nothing compared to that of the sailors and officers aboard the Arizona.

Although the Chew survived the attack unscathed, the gravity of the drama unfolding around them and their own ship’s uncertain fate weighed on everyone differently. Elmer noticed one coping mechanism as he rushed past the head towards the steering engine. “The toilet facilities . . . had, like, a big, long trench, a long metal thing, and the guys was sitting with each other,” he recalled. “There was a number of them in there, sitting there having bowel movements . . . I glanced in there. You know, the excitement, it just worked their bowel. But it didn’t bother me anyway.” The clinical term for this “excitement” is “acute stress reaction,” and one of the symptoms is sudden and urgent diarrhea. Yet Elmer’s coolness under fire could be misleading. According to Dr. Lawrence Knott, victims could also “[feel] emotionally numb and detached from others.”[i]

The Chew began pacing around the harbor, but it could not leave for several hours. Once the bombing started the battleship Nevada made a beeline for the harbor entrance. However, if the Nevada were to sink on the harbor’s narrow entrance channel, it would have effectively bottled up the surviving ships inside for months. The Japanese pilots soon recognized this and began gunning for the fleeing boat. Once the Nevada’s captain understood what was happening, he ordered his crew to intentionally run the ship aground. “After that happened,” according to Elmer, “I think they ordered that no ships were to try and leave Pearl Harbor until after the attack was over.” Between the Nevada’s self-sacrifice, Yamamoto’s decision to cancel a third wave of bombers, and the absence of three aircraft carriers, the Attack on Pearl Harbor was not the worst-case scenario it could have been. Elmer also pointed out that several targets in and around the harbor (which would have been likely hit during the third wave) were missed:

“The oil storage tanks were all above ground at that time. If they’d have put one or two bombs there, they’d have started that whole goddamn storage field on fire, and all the oil for the ships that they use for fuel would have had to have been shipped out for the West Coast. Meanwhile, there wouldn’t have been no way of getting fuel for Pearl. And another thing, they didn’t hit the dock facilities, the maintenance buildings. They had a machine shop there that could do big work on these battleships or any other ship. They didn’t try and bomb that.”

Elmer Luckett

But near misses and silver linings did not matter to the hundreds of crewmembers entombed on the Arizona, or the thousands of others who died that day. For their families, who would not hear for days or weeks about the status of their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers, the damage was unimaginable.

Elmer’s shipmates Matthew Agola and Clarence Wise were among the dead. Both men spent the previous night away from the ship, and with no way of returning to the Chew that morning they rushed towards the USS Pennsylvania, which was in dry dock and easy prey for Japanese dive bombers. They died trying to rescue sailors from the Pennsylvania after it caught fire from several bomb blasts and two adjacent destroyers already engulfed in flames.

The Chew earned its spurs – and a Battle Star – for its actions that morning. The gun crew shot down one Japanese plane and damaged two others, and over the next three days the ship conducted anti-submarine patrols off the harbor entrance. “I think we made eight depth charge runs,” Elmer later stated. “We kind of figured we might have been successful with a couple of them. So who knows? It’s kind of hard to verify anything that you do with depth charges below the water.” Oil slicks suddenly rising to the surface were the usual telltale sign of a fallen sub, but only records of enemy communications or another submarine could confirm the kill. In fact, later investigations proved many of these reports to be erroneous or, at best, optimistic. According to the Navy, reports that the Chew destroyed as many as three submarines remain unconfirmed, and thus it has not been credited with any kills. At the very least, the Chew kept the Japanese submariners on their toes, which in turn helped keep the surviving Americans safe.

If the Japanese had attacked a day earlier, or if the Ward had departed a day later, the Chew might have fired what some historians believe was the first shot of the war. During the early morning hours of December 7th, the Ward spotted a Japanese submarine while patrolling the harbor entrance. Of course, the submarine had no legal or diplomatic reason to be in restricted American waters, so the Ward took aim and fired. The submarine sank, and the captain reported his engagement to the Pacific Fleet Command. Unfortunately for thousands of American servicemen at Pearl Harbor and the surrounding airfields, however, it was Sunday morning, and Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Husband Kimmel was in no hurry to relay his report up the chain of command. The Ward’s encounter could have contextualized a report later that morning from a radar station in north Oahu. The technician in charge radioed headquarters that a large formation of planes was inbound from the north, thus providing some warning to the island. Unfortunately, the Lieutenant in charge of the radar system insisted that the technician was looking at a formation of bombers due to arrive from the states, and no warning ever came.


[i] https://patient.info/mental-health/stress-management/acute-stress-reaction

Elmer Luckett on Pearl Harbor (excerpted from oral interview, recorded 12-31-14)

Hi folks,
Here’s an excerpt from my three-hour oral interview with grandpa, which I recorded on New Year’s Eve in 2014. This twenty-two minute excerpt corresponds to his discussion of the Pearl Harbor attack and its aftermath. As time goes by I will excerpt additional portions of the interview and post them here. If anyone would like a full copy of it please let me know.

Best,
Matt

December 2, 1941

This is the last letter I have before the Attack on Pearl Harbor. As Elmer indicates below, he is on patrol until December 6th, so it is likely that this is the last one that gets out.

My grandpa told me several times that he had a letter postmarked December 7th. Unfortunately, it is not part of the collection of letters I received. In any case, he would have written that letter on Saturday, December 6th, and as he told me in his oral interview he mailed them only a few minutes before the bombs started to fall.

Speaking of that interview, I will post the Pearl Harbor portion of it on Wednesday.

November 1941: The Year with Two Thanksgivings

Abraham Lincoln’s decision to enshrine the last Thursday of each November as a day of national Thanksgiving in 1863 was tantamount to a Papal Bull. It immediately rendered null and void dozens of various local “Thanksgiving” observances across the country and replaced them with a single federal holiday. Lincoln also imbued the peculiar American holiday tradition with a profound, and timely, raison d’etre: Thanksgiving was to be a day when the nation’s families could give thanks for the blessings in their lives. Even when the smoke emanating from the ground at Gettysburg and other recently-hallowed places made these good fortunes – and the mounting Union dead – hard to count, the entire point of the day was to scrounge together a good meal, say a prayer of thanks, and enjoy it with loved ones. It was a beautifully simple and welcome concept, and a new holiday tradition was born out of the ravages of war.

Then FDR almost screwed it all up.

In 1939, Roosevelt asked Congress to change Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November. That month in particular had five Thursdays, which meant that after Americans gobbled down their turkey on the 30th they would only have 24 shopping days before Christmas. America’s economic recovery was still on fragile footing, and a shortened holiday season threatened to undercut it. But instead of extending Christmas, the decision instead created confusion. Some families embraced the newly decreed day, while others clung to the traditional date. A Great Schism appeared on American calendars, forcing families to negotiate among themselves the timing of their annual meal.

Partisanship often dictated the choice. The third Thursday of the became known as “Franksgiving,” while the last Thursday would often be referred to as “Republican Thanksgiving.” But this division only worsened the holiday’s reputation for bringing long-simmering disagreements between family members to the surface.

FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt enjoying some turkey on Franksgiving in 1941.

By 1941, Americans were ready to demand a solution to the growing Thanksgiving crisis. They took their concerns to Congress, which on October 6th passed a resolution establishing the last Thursday of the November as the official date. However, the Senate objected, noting that some Novembers (like that of 1939) had five Thursdays. It responded with an amendment revising the changed date to the fourth Thursday of the month. The House ultimately accepted this revision, but in true Congressional fashion the new language took several weeks to make its rounds back through Capital Hill and then onto Roosevelt’s desk. The bill was finally signed on December 26th, the day after Christmas, thus rendering the issue moot for the year. It also resulted in an interesting piece of trivia: for the second time, Thanksgiving was born during a time of war.

Elmer, his family, and Uncle Sam all seemed to agree that the official date of Thursday, November 20th, was good enough for them. “Well, another Thanksgiving has arrived,” he wrote that evening. “Although we are not united physically, know our thoughts are the same today. But we are all well and getting along fine and that is something to be thankful for . . . there are so many things to be thankful for that it could fill a book. So we can’t complain. Can we?” Elmer certainly didn’t criticize the food. “After eating such a swell dinner today I find it hard to complain about anything.” He and his shipmates enjoyed quite a spread: “turkey, chicken, tomato soup, mashed potatoes, asparagus, gravy, cranberry sauce, olives, pickles, lemonade, bread, crackers, followed by apple pie and ice cream and candy . . . it’s funny, I don’t feel hungry now. Ha ha.”

Elmer had many reasons to give thanks. Of course, he and everyone else at Pearl were thankful for the fact that they could enjoy Thanksgiving, if not with their families, then at least with the knowledge that their nation was at peace. But many if not most probably realized that it would be the last peaceful Thanksgiving for some time. Negotiations with the Japanese had broken down, leaving unresolved the question of where Japan would get its oil in light of the American embargo and the U.S. demand that the Empire cease its imperialistic war in China. Only war or an unlikely diplomatic surrender by either side could resolve the impasse. And storm clouds continued to gather over the Atlantic as well. After all, the wanton and unrepentant sinking of American ships going to or returning from England had already compelled the United States to join one World War. Despite the consternation of the America First crowd, it seemed increasingly apparent that the United States could not sit on the sidelines forever.

For the time being, however, America was an oasis of peace in a world riven by war. And while most of the world’s navies continued to battle one another on the high seas, American Destroyers like the Chew and the Ward could take pleasure cruises to tropical islands. The Chew embarked on its second recreational trip that year in November when it steamed towards Molokai for Armistice Day. “I believe everyone had a good time at Kaunakakai,” Elmer reported on the 13th. When they arrived on Monday, November 10th “the whole town was there on the dock to meet [them].” On Tuesday morning about two dozen members of the crew participated in a parade through the town. It “was very good for a small parade. We . . . marched first, behind us followed the towns division of National Guard, American Legion, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, etc.” Afterwards they gathered for a “town meeting,” at which several speeches were delivered in commemoration of Armistice Day, while “local groups of the town sang, danced, and entertained us.”

Image result for molokai pineapple
Pineapple fields on Molokai

Elmer and his friends took the opportunity to explore the island. The residents “chiefly raise pineapples for Del Monte,” he recalled. He “saw acre after acre of pineapple[s under cultivation.] He also checked out a leper colony on the island, “which was a sight to see. Of course we saw it from a great height. It is like a finger of the island, being isolated by a huge cliff.” Later they watched a football game between the Army and a team of locals from the island. The Army won.

However, as was often the case for Fireman 2nd Class Luckett, the real highlight of the day was dinner, which seemed to resemble the following week’s Thanksgiving feast. “We had a turkey dinner aboard our ship,” he wrote, followed by drinks later that evening and some “chicken and hamburgers.”

Indeed, there was much to be thankful for that month, enough to fill a book and two Thanksgiving holidays. But the general feeling would change dramatically by Christmas.

~

On a personal note, this year I am thankful for a great many things, including the opportunity to start this blog and to begin working on this project. It has already proven to be a fascinating journey, and really it is only beginning. Thank you for reading along, for subscribing and commenting, and for your encouragement over the last couple of months as I’ve worked to get this project off the ground.

I hope that everyone has a happy Thanksgiving, and safe travels to all who are traveling over the holiday weekend. And remember: cranberry sauce from a can is not cranberry sauce. Fortunately, it only takes a few minutes to make the real thing.

Thanks for reading!

– Matt

Image result for happy thanksgiving

Conversion Experience

After spending more time than I care to admit searching for software for my old Ion Video to PC converter hardware, I caved and bought a new Roxio VHS to DVD 3 conversion kit. It was $40 at Best Buy. So far it is worth the purchase – the software is more intuitive, the resolution is superior, and the setup is streamlined.

Like many children of the 80s, I grew up watching movies taped onto dozens upon dozens of VHS cassettes. Some were recorded from HBO and basic cable, but the really interesting ones in my opinion were the ones we taped from the broadcast stations. These movies contain commercial breaks, which provide a fascinating snapshot into the 90s and not a small amount of nostalgia. In addition to these films we have several home movies, including this gem from 1988 . . .

I am in this one, of course – I was seven at the time – and so is the rest of my family. I digitized this and the rest of of our home movies a few years ago, and if you are a member of the Smith Family you can check out a few others I’ve uploaded. Just go to the Smith Family Videos YouTube channel.

Anyway, I’ve recently started converting some of the movies as well. Obviously the vast majority of these films are better viewed on DVD, Blu Ray, Amazon Prime, or virtually any other platform created during the last twenty years. But I have selected a handful of tapes to convert that meet one of the following criteria: 1) they’re sufficiently rare or unavailable to stream, 2) the movies were filmed during a specific period of time (e.g. the Flood of 93, Desert Storm) and thus have commercials or evening news updates of historical value, or 3) I have seen the movie enough times to be able to play and ignore it as I write.

Right now I am copying Stephen King’s The Langoliers, which is a solid Made-for-TV miniseries from 1995. Most of the films I choose, however, are in the third category – movies like The Wizard and Major League. So it is easy enough now to open the VHS-conversion movie in QuickTime on my iMac, place a shrunk-down window in the corner of my screen, and then work on whatever it is I have been trying to avoid (like writing this Monday blog post . . .). It’s weirdly comforting to have movies like this on while I work. I will maybe look at the screen only once or twice while getting things done, whereas if the movies are not playing I am more liable to be distracted by Facebook and other things. Soon I will have a nice little rotation of movies ready to go for those late nights.

This tool has one more benefit: it helps me covert tapes containing movies, interviews, news reports, and other videos relating to Dr. Iben Browning’s ill-fated 1990 New Madrid earthquake prediction. As many of you know, I am working on a documentary, entitled Earthshaking, that explores the prediction and the mass hysteria surrounding it. Given the time period, much of the material we are seeking is only available on VHS. Check out this earthquake preparedness video below, which was produced by Southeast Missouri State University in order to raise awareness among its students about the possibility of a major quake striking the region:

This is the Reefer Madness of earthquake disaster videos . . . enjoy!

My parents are planning on getting rid of their VHS tapes. I cannot say I blame them. It’s so easy nowadays to stream films on demand, or to order 4K Blu Rays on Amazon. That’s probably why my folks let me take their VHS player to California with me, which is the first one I have owned since I sold my last one in 2005.

But I wonder how many VHS tapes out there contain videos that cannot be replaced or that have not yet been digitized. Many of these are still sitting in libraries, Goodwill stores, landfills . . . or perhaps you own a few yourself. If so, then what are you waiting for? They are not getting younger, and every year that passes, the tapes continue to degrade further. Digitize the ones you want to keep, or that might otherwise be irreplaceable. If you don’t want to do it yourself, there are plenty of services that will do it for you, including Legacy Box. But if you’re like me and you’d rather do it yourself, well . . . you cannot go wrong with the Roxio kit at Best Buy.

What I’m Reading: The Greatest Generation

As if our political differences were not enough, the last few months of 2019 have reintroduced inter-generational conflict into the culture wars. This time the insults come with a new menu of pejoratives, including “OK Boomer” and “Karens” in reference to Gen-Xers. Meanwhile, Generation Z begins to find its voice as my own micro-generation, the Xennials, struggles to break free from what we see as the narrow-mindedness of GenX and the Millennials’ over-dependence on technology. These divisions are somewhat arbitrary and are mainly cultural constructs, but they sure do feel real. I still get defensive whenever people call me a Millennial, even though I technically am one.

Image result for the greatest generation

As I read Tom Brokaw’s seminal The Greatest Generation, however, I get the sense that just about everyone – including the Greatest Generation folks themselves – understood this cohort to be both above the generational fray and also deserving of their superlative epithet. In effect, that is Brokaw’s thesis – this generation was, quite literally, the greatest. All us whippersnappers should learn something from these folks and try to be less disappointing.

Let’s address that claim in a moment. First, the book itself is extraordinary: it is comprised of dozens of stories from those who served during World War II. From the men who stormed the beaches at Normandy to the women who assisted the Joint Chiefs of Staff in DC, Brokaw casts a wide net and defines the word “service” broadly – and rightfully so. He interviews Japanese internees and African American men and women who served their country despite their nation’s scorn, as well as mechanics, Presidents, and everyone in between. Readers come away with a sense of just how much work, blood, and sacrifice this conflict required. Although the United States was separated from most of the fighting by two vast oceans, Brokaw shows how every nook and cranny of the nation was affected by the conflict. Its urgency was both pervasive and universally compelling, and winning this war was existentially vital to virtually all Americans. It is hard to imagine such a mentality now, but Brokaw manages to convey the mindset through his stories and his brisk prose style.

However, as one might imagine, the book sometimes devolves into hero worship. All of the stories are framed in terms of personal sacrifice, and many of the chapters end with a lament of one sort or another, often about how things in general have changed in the decades since the war. Some complain about “kids these days,” citing how things were “before the war” and what not. Sometimes Brokaw even gets in on the action, asserting at one point that Catholic kids back in the 30s would have been slapped around by their nuns and then by their parents if they had the temerity to complain, but with barely concealed approval. While Brokaw is savvy enough to argue that much of this generation’s good qualities can be attributed to environmental circumstance – namely being raised during an era when good old fashioned family values, Depression-era frugality, and wartime sacrifice were tattooed onto everyones’ conscience – his narrative often circles back to the inherent goodness of the people who served their country during the War. And as a historian I get hives at the mere thought that some special, indefinable quality somehow made anyone born between Armistice Day and Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic superior to all who came before or since. After all, even Greatest Generation Americans were human . . . they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else.

This criticism should not imply that the “Greatest Generation” was not great, or that its members did not deserve such high praise. After all, I am writing a book that, if I’m being honest about this project, is going to heap a great deal of praise on my WWII-veteran grandfather. Much of that praise, though probably not all of it, will be warranted. But the difference between history and hagiography bears consideration: the former explains, the latter venerates.

Perhaps in some ways the “Greatest Generation” motif is the logical result of our very opposite view of Nazis, who are and who remain (at least for most of us who don’t lead sad lives complaining about girls on the dark web in our mothers’ basements) history’s greatest villains. Certainly no other generation of wartime opponents is more deserving of everlasting contempt than the Nazis. It makes sense, then, that only an incorruptible and selfless Greatest Generation could beat a Third Reich with no moral scruples and a nine-year head start. I don’t believe this means we need to abandon our judgments about Nazis and start saying nice things about them*, but we should remind ourselves that just as there were probably some bad Americans who fought the good fight, there were probably also Germans who made terrible mistakes out of self-preservation and cowardice.

In any case, I don’t believe that this book’s epilogue has been written yet. At some point humanity is going to have to contend with the consequences of climate change, and the longer we all collectively wait, the worse it is going to be for our future selves and our descendants. It already seems increasingly unlikely that my daughter will ever see a glacier south of the Arctic Circle, enjoy a river cruise through the Amazonian rainforest, or visit Manhattan’s Battery Park without scuba gear. She is going to have to deal with some stuff, while all the Boomers and Karens and Oregon Trail-obsessed Xennials decompose in cemeteries that should probably be trees and homes. I don’t envy her, and for that same reason I don’t envy the Greatest Generation. They did what they had to do for their country and for freedom, without complaint, and without expectation of reward, and we will forever be in their debt. Accordingly, at some point climate change will stop being something we “should” act on, and will quickly and inexorably morph into something that requires action and mobilization if we are to survive. I hope that Generation Z and whatever-letter-we’re-up-to-now generation my daughter belongs to rises to the challenge, because folks my age and above sure aren’t. And when they do, I hope some future Tom Brokaw writes a fawning book about them, too.

If I’m alive to see it, I promise I won’t argue, and will quietly go back to dying of dysentery in Oregon Trail for the 10-millionth time. Meanwhile, if anyone today is looking for an instructive or inspirational example of what an entire generation is capable of when they collectively put their minds towards doing something, this book will do the trick.

*The Autobahn, a Nazi Germany invention, is the only thing I can think of . . . but it is significant enough that I immediately thought of it. Since I enjoy driving fast when trying to cross vast stretches of nowhere, I admit to my shame that I am thankful for this one silver lining.

October 1941: Our Boys in Blue

By October, as the Chew underwent the final stages of its rehabilitation, the World War I-era destroyer began to look more distinctive, more modern. Elmer related what he could to his parents back home. She “looks like a new ship,” he reported on October 19th. Much of the machinery was updated or replaced, while the old paint on the hull was painstakingly removed with pneumatic chisels so that the ship could be repainted. The entire crew was involved in the former effort. “It is one of those dirty jobs that just has to be done,” he lamented. By the time the crew moved back into the ship at the end of the month, it had new “tables, chairs, fans,” and other comforts. Even the mattresses were deep cleaned and repacked. Overall, the overhaul was “an experience in itself,” and throughout the process Elmer learned what he could.

As exciting as these upgrades were to the young men living on an old ship, Elmer did not relish a return to patrol duty. “I would like to go somewhere else for a change,” he wrote on the 11th. “You know a place becomes stale after you see all the sights and places. I have seen most of the places of interest.” Elmer was not alone in his boredom. After several months in paradise, many sailors began to yearn for the comforts of the mainland. Honolulu in 1941 was still a small city, with 180,000 people to Saint Louis’s 820,000. In terms of size it was like Worcester, Massachusetts, but with beaches and nicer weather. It was also expensive, with many of the restaurants and shopping destinations well outside of the Fireman 2nd Class’s budget. Even haircuts were four times as much in town than they were at Pearl, he complained at one point. It should come as no surprise why Elmer spent so much of his time at the Y.

Elmer also attributed his ennui to itchy feet. “The old urge to move and see more of the sights on this Earth has got me,” he reported to his parents. After all, the desire to see the world was one of the reasons why he joined the Naval Reserve in the first place. But Honolulu was smaller than the hometown he had left. Pearl was smaller still: an island within an island. It was time to venture forth and see more of what the world had to offer.

Yet for the time being, Hawai’i was also one of the safest places in the world. Much of the planet was engulfed in war as China and the Soviet Union fought for their right to exist, while Nazi boots kicked up dust as far west as the Bay of Biscay and as far east as the Black Sea. The Third Reich took an increasingly aggressive approach to American merchant and Naval traffic on the North Atlantic as well, (correctly) ascertaining that Roosevelt’s actions belied his supposed neutrality. On the morning of October 17th, 1941, Americans woke up to the news that a German U-Boat fired a torpedo at the U.S.S. Kearny, a Clemson-class destroyer, in the North Atlantic. The explosion killed eleven sailors, rattling the nation and heightening fears that war was imminent.

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Kearny (DD-432) following the repair of her torpedo damage in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts (USA), on 31 March 1942. USN – Official U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships photo 19-N-28745 available at Destroyerhistory.org

The scare was not lost on Grandpa. In his October 29th letter to his parents, Elmer Luckett put on a brave face for his folks. “We have little to worry about,” he assured them. “Our duty don’t [sic] take us from Pearl Harbor. And you know Pearl Harbor is the strongest naval base in the Pacific – probably in the world. So don’t let the newspaper stories worry you folks.” For his part, Luckett told his parents he was unafraid. “I wouldn’t mind” being in the Atlantic, he told them. “I am a fatalist in that sense, if a thing is going to happen nothing can stop it. People take a chance every time they cross the street. There is no use to worry about such things.”

These sentiments were easier to express when the action was taking place nearly ten thousand miles way. However, the immediacy of the dangers surrounding the United States Navy might have contributed to his decision to send his parents a poem, “Our Boys in Blue.” Although the work shares the same name as a World War I-era tune, the lines bear little resemblance to one another. Whatever its origins, the poem might have been distributed to the sailors aboard the Chew during the Navy Day ceremonies on October 27th.

Of course, Elmer’s parents certainly did not need to be reminded that “these boys in blue, they’re very much worth while.” They wrote him regularly, and that month they also sent him a box of cigars, while his sister Irene mailed him cookies and candy. As he wrote his letter on the 26th, he reported that he was smoking one of the Chicago MC cigars they had mailed him, and “as they say in the Navy, ‘it’s right on,’ meaning its swell. Thanks again folks.”

But the poem also warned that “when dangers [sic] threatens, may I say (and it’s more apparent every day), they stand first, in blue or white, to adjust and make it right.” Perhaps this was the main message Elmer wanted to impart to his parents: that while the world’s troubles were beginning to close in, he and his shipmates were prepared to meet those challenges and dangers head on. His parents might worry about his safety, but they need not concern themselves with his preparedness.

Sure enough, on October 31st, just as millions of American kids were dressing up as ghosts and witches for Halloween, and as the Chew finished its own costume changes in advance of its service in a second World War, one hundred boys in blue died when a U-Boat torpedo attacked another ship, the USS Reuben James. This time the vessel sank into the cold depths of the Atlantic. Only 44 survived.

Like the Chew, the Reuben James was also a Wilkes-class destroyer from World War I. But no new paint job could save it from its fate.

“Our Boys in Blue,” a poem Elmer mailed to his parents on October 29th, 1941.