I was a little trepidatious about reading and writing about my grandparents’ love letters. Not enough to just file them away in a closet and give them to my more emotionally and generationally removed daughter, but enough so that these were the last items I started to scan and review for this project. I mean, who really wants to read about their grandfather seducing their grandmother?
However, as I start to read through this other correspondence, I begin to see another side to Elmer. He was dashing, flirty, persistent when appropriate, and apologetic when necessary. He was a man of the world, a person who had seen things and was going places. Elmer was a smooth letter writer: he knew the right things to say, and was prepossessed enough of his talents to be able to say them to several different bachelorettes at the same time.
One thing to keep in mind is that Elmer did not commit to Rose Schmid until early 1945. Until that point he maintained several different correspondences with several different women. In 1943 Elmer mostly wrote about another girlfriend, Shirley Ryder, in his letters to his parents. Although Ryder lived in Detroit during the war she seemed to be Elmer’s most frequent non-parental correspondent.
That is not to say that Elmer modulated his language or his aspirations in his letters to Rose. “Don’t give me that ‘girl in every port’ story,” he wrote at one point, responding to Rose’s charge (whether it was real or imagined by him) that he had a date waiting for him whenever he set foot on land. “You know what girl I’m interested in. And don’t ever forget it.” But he could also be solicitous, as when he not-so-casually mentioned his favorite card games. “Sometimes we will play ‘strip-poker,’ it is loads of fun. Did you ever play?”
Now you can imagine why I was so anxious to start this part of the project.
Anyway, it is not hard to imagine Elmer writing letters similar to the ones he sent Rose to other women throughout the War. However, I doubt whether any of these other letters still exist.* Eighty years is a long period of time: things get lost, things get thrown away, people move, people die, households downsize, attics and basements get cleaned out, floods and fires indiscriminately strike . . . letters usually only survive such a long period of time when they are well-cared for and set aside as treasured belongings. There is little reason to believe Elmer’s letters to other women would have survived their subsequent attachments to other men, particularly those resulting in marriage.
Elmer did not even keep all of his letters from Rose. His letters from her date start in 1944, and continue on through the end of the war and beyond. And we will get to those in due course . . . but just as he did not keep all of Rose’s letters, he also threw out virtually all of his letters from his other girlfriends. I have nothing from Pat, and only a short note or two from Shirley. It is clear that Elmer did not make an effort to start permanently holding onto Rose’s letters until he decided that he was willing to date her exclusively.
Perhaps it is telling then that most or all of Grandpa’s letters to Rose seem to be intact. By keeping his letters to her, even after she had moved from St. Louis to Washington, D.C. to work for the Navy Department, she may have known something that Elmer did not: that they were meant to be together.
*If anyone reading this blog happens to have any letters from Elmer Luckett, especially those addressed to a woman with whom he may have been romantically involved, I would love to hear from you!
That’s my dad, Steve, commenting on one of the non-Pearl Harbor-related stories my grandpa liked to tell about the War. My grandpa was never really much into guns, at least as far as I know, and my dad has a deadpan sense of humor. But to tell you the truth I never really thought of Elmer as the kind of guy to step onto a train, in uniform, like an Old West sheriff, with a .38 holstered to his hip.
But that’s what he did on Thursday, December 16th, 1943, during his brief tenure as a Master at Arms in New Orleans. On that day he was given a special assignment: take the train up to Shreveport, Louisiana, and bring back a deserter who was currently in police custody back to New Orleans for court martial. He hopped an overnight train that evening, with a pistol at his side and handcuffs in his pocket, and after a sleepless night he rolled into his destination. With the sun rising above the glimmering Red River, Elmer stepped out of the station and into the cool morning. Nervous about the task at hand, he began to walk straight ahead, resolved to complete his assignment and bring justice home.
OK, OK – I might be getting a little carried away here. I do study horse thieves, after all. As far as historical subjects go the stories I tell can get a bit animated at times.
So here’s what Elmer wrote to his parents about the trip:
I left New Orleans on Thursday night, arriving at Shreveport Friday morning. Good traveling by Pullman Sleeper. Got to spend about four or five hours looking the town over. And left with my prisoner in the afternoon, and reached New Orleans late at night. The prisoner was just a kid about 17, who ran away for seventy some-odd days. Didn’t have any trouble at all. The trip was something new and I enjoyed it.
Far from being a hard-boiled, bayou-noir escapade, the scene somehow seemed so quintessentially grandpa: a leisurely trip, a nice breakfast, some exploration of the town, and a nice chat with a new friend. He even sent his parents a postcard in which he alludes to “picking something up.”
Yet it’s exactly this kind of adventure that I find so enrapturing about both these letters and my grandpa’s Naval career as a whole. Elmer’s War experience truly ran the gamut, from moments of sheer terror to peaceful evenings under the stars surrounded by hypnotic seas, from gunnery practice on Shell Beach and escorting prisoners in Louisiana to studying physics in Missouri. As historians we so often focus on those moments of terror, and perhaps rightfully so – it is important to write widely and often about Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and so many other moments of dramatic decision. But war was much more than those flashpoints. Sometimes it was getting to where you were going. Sometimes it was killing a few days before moving on to a new assignment in a distant corner of the world. And sometimes it was just sending one’s parents a quick postcard to let them know they’re OK.
As the United States once again learns what it is like to face a critical and existential crisis both at home and abroad, it would do us well in the future to not just remember the virus, the pandemic, the sick and the death, COVID-19’s domino impacts on our world, and its ability to creep into seemingly everything (like, admittedly, this blog), but also the time we spent at home with our families, the books and the Netflix, the walks and the bike rides and the spring gardens outside, the connections we made and remade over phones and chatlines, and the many little misadventures along the way. As we all push against the present and future darkness together, we cannot cede to it control of the past.
Anyway, I’d tell everyone to stay healthy, but since that is now a hackneyed saying, I’ll put it like this: try not to shoot your foot off.
Hi folks, So far I like taking a month-on, month-off approach to my posts about Elmer’s letters to his parents, so I think I am going hold off on talking about 1944 (which was a VERY eventful year for Elmer) for at least a couple of weeks. But in the meantime I have started scanning and reviewing my grandparents’ correspondence with each other, which starts in summer 1943 with Elmer’s letters to Rose and in summer 1944 with Rose’s letters to Elmer. The latter will be a nice change of pace, I am sure – while Elmer’s letters are observant and contemplative, Rose had a sharp wit and a more playful writing style. They wrote very different kinds of letters, but each kind is fantastic in its own way. For April, I have written four posts that chronicle the first few months of their courtship. Although I briefly introduce Rose here, I’ll save most of her story for when I begin discussing and analyzing her letters. And her story is extraordinary.
Although I will be writing about these letters well into the summer, there will be a few other things going on as well. Barring any COVID-19-related disruptions I am still expecting my forthcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, to be released this fall by the University of Nebraska Press. I will begin using this space this summer to promote that book as well as tell my grandpa’s story, so expect some weird pivoting between horse thieves and World War II sailors. But I have some fun things planned, including some interesting stories that did not make it into the book for one reason or another, so once again please stay tuned.
Some other notes:
In case you haven’t noticed, I have programmed the Grandpa’s Letters posts to drop on Monday and Thursday mornings at 10am Pacific Time. I will do the same for the above-mentioned posts coming up about other Grandpa’s Letters-related documents. Posts on other subjects (like this one) may pop up at other times during the week.
Once again, if you have not subscribed yet, please do so! It would be a big help to me, even if you sign up using a spam email account or something similar that you seldom check. But it’s also great for work accounts, because, let’s face it, sometimes you need a five minute break from the grind.
Thanks again for reading along, and please don’t hesitate to share any posts you like on social media to help me get the word out.
When Elmer arrived back in New Orleans after his Thanksgiving leave, he still had several weeks ahead of him in Louisiana before he would be able to join his new boat. But now work, training, and preparation, rather than bedrest, prevented him from more thoroughly enjoying the French Quarter and its many old buildings.
Elmer spent the first four days of the month working at the Naval Air Station as a Master-at-Arms. While the rating itself has a long history and intensely professional tradition, his commanders at the barracks threw the relatively healthy and warm-bodied Elmer into what may be best described as a temp job. “My job as a Master-at-Arms is a snap,” he wrote. “A little walking here and there, and a night duty now and then. But we have a ‘pie truck’ (police wagon) for many jobs. And every night off except when you get the duty.”
On December 5th, he led a dozen other sailors assigned along with him to his new ship to gunnery school at Shell Beach. Located southeast of New Orleans on the south shore of Lake Borgne, the Anti-Aircraft Training School introduced students to the guns the Navy used to take down enemy aircraft. For six days, sailors assembled, reassembled, and learned the ins and outs of the Navy’s 20mm and 3-inch anti-aircraft guns. And then they learned how to shoot them. “Personally, I don’t think I’m much of a marksman,” he admitted to his parents, “but it’s all new and only practice makes perfect.” Sometimes the practice was enjoyable, especially with the 20mm guns. “It’s fun to feel that ‘baby’ spit hot steel and tracers from the muzzle,” he wrote, as if channeling Rambo. The 3″ gun was a little different, however. Elmer was “a little nervous” about firing it, but so were his crewmates. Overall, he believed that “we did fine [despite having] such little training.” When practicing their firing, they would train their guns at a “sleeve towed by an airplane.”
There was little else to hit in Shell Beach. “Well, here I am after three days of gunnery practice. What a life! What a place?” Tucked deep as it was within Louisiana’s bewildering maze of brackish swamps, canals, and rivers, the question mark after “place” seemed oddly appropriate. There were few towns or villages around the area, just the beasts of the bayou. “[There are] plenty of mosquitos, fog, and bugs and bunks with boards instead of springs,” Elmer complained. They also could not rate liberty or receive mail. Shell Beach was just a place to go and shoot guns for a few days.
Elmer did have one interesting encounter while at the gunnery school. There he met several Russian soldiers who, for one reason or another, were also there to learn about the Navy’s anti-aircraft guns.* Elmer got to know some of his allied comrades at the facility. “They are really big, husky boys,” he wrote his parents. “They like Americans and our movies, chow, and about everything. They can speak very little English, but [they] try so hard to learn more.”
Elmer was happy to return to the comforts of New Orleans on December 12th. On the 13th, he resumed his Master of Arms duties at the barracks.** But the most exciting news was that he finally had a new ship: the USS Mink (IX-123). The Mink was an Armadillo-class tanker that could store and deliver nearly 65,000 barrels of crude oil, aviation fuel, lubricant, or other essential materials. One of eighteen tankers of this class, the Mink helped the United States Navy build up its auxiliary fleet in advance of its planned invasions of the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. While the United States was inching closer to Japan proper, its ships and planes were also creeping farther away from established supply lines, thus necessitating the use of mobile tanker ships that could resupply other vessels on the open sea or while anchored offshore.
Elmer was excited about his new assignment, especially when he learned about the sleeping arrangements on the ship. “They say we have excellent living quarters [aboard the Mink],” he wrote on the 19th. “Four men to a compartment with big upright lockers and even reading lights on the bunks. Some job, eh dad?” He also geeked out over the ship itself, and recited the ship’s statistics to his father. “It is a big tanker, about 436 feet long by about 50 or 70 feet broad. Good duty. Weight or displacement about 14,000 tons.” Overall, the new ship pleased Elmer. “I’m well satisfied with the set up.”
But not every one was looking forward to serving aboard a tanker. Some of the senior officers on the Mink declined to attend its commissioning ceremony, thinking that it was a powder-puff assignment and that perhaps serving on the Mink was somehow an indictment of their courage or character. Elmer elaborated on this somewhat in his oral interview:
They had a regular commissioning ceremony [on the Mink.] I’ll never forget that. There was quite a few young guys that just came into the Navy boot camp . . . Anyway, two or three of them didn’t even show up for their commissioning date. They didn’t want to go do duty on a tanker.
At least on a destroyer, like the Chew, ostensibly the primary function by definition was for it to destroy things, whether they be submarines, mines, or other ships. But while the Chew was certainly not representative of all destroyers in the Pacific Theater, it completed the war with only one Battle Star to its credit, which it had earned following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Like a boxer waiting for their next fight, the ship paced around the Pacific with her full compliment of deck guns, escorting numerous ships to safety but finding little danger on her own.
Meanwhile, the Mink, a glorified gas station with a rudder and a few anti-aircraft guns bolted onto the deck, spent less than two years refueling bigger, stronger, and faster ships that were on their way to the fighting. But tankers were major targets of opportunity for Japanese ships, airplanes, and kamikaze pilots, who only had to detonate the highly flammable fuel inside to destroy both the tanker and anything located in its vicinity, particularly other ships in the process of being refueled. By the time the Japanese surrendered, the Mink had earned three Battle Stars of her own. Elmer was there for all of them.
1944 was going to be a very different kind of year.
*If anyone has any information on Russian soldiers or sailors training on American military equipment, please let me know.
**Elmer had one especially interesting adventure as a Master of Arms which frankly deserves its own blog post. I will publish it in the coming days. Stay tuned!
Elmer had his hernia operation on October 27th. It did not take long for his mother to find out about it, and she expressed her disapproval for being kept in the dark in her November 2nd letter to Elmer. “Mom, I’m glad you know about my operation,” he wrote on November 5th. “I didn’t like to keep it secret from you, but it was for the best I’m sure.” He asked his mother to forgive both him and his dad for not informing her of it. He also complimented her detective skills for apparently learning about it before either he or his father said anything: “Mom sweets, I figured you would suspect something from my address using ‘dispensary.’ You’re a regular eagle eye.”
His mother forgave him quickly enough, and began peppering him with some medically specific questions, such as whether or not they gave him a generalized anesthetic. She also sent “a sweet poem” to Elmer, and asked her oldest son Bud to travel down from Chicago to New Orleans to visit him. Bud could not make the trip, and when Elmer found out about his mother’s request he wrote his brother to let him know he was off the hook and that Bud didn’t need to make the trip. Whatever her faults might have been, and in spite of Elmer’s sometimes dismissive language, Rose Luckett was an attentive, loving, generous, and empathetic mother to her four children.
Elmer’s surgery was a cinch, but the recovery required two weeks in bed. He could not get up for any reason (at one point he mentioned hating those “blasted bedpans”), and by the end of the second week he began to go stir crazy. “A bed is for rest, but after 2-3 weeks it becomes tiresome,” he philosophized shortly after leaving his. But Elmer made the best use of his time by reading voraciously and writing letters. He got to know his ward mates pretty well, as well as his physician, who seemed to take a shine to Elmer. The doctor sympathized with his recent disqualification from the V-12 program. Elmer wrote that he was a “very fine man.” He also wrote about a “sweet red-headed nurse who takes extra good care of me.” While this characterization leaves much to the imagination, a couple of lines later he mentioned that he thinks about her “like a sister.”
While in the hospital Elmer heard from several Navy friends. Ozzie reported that most of “the old gang” on the Chew had by then transferred to other ships or programs, and his college roommate Jim wrote the names of fourteen students in their cohort who had flunked on the envelope of his letter, which also contained his grades for the term. “Guess Jim wanted me to know who they were,” he wrote. Jim probably wanted Elmer to feel better after being disqualified from the V-12 program. But failing a vision test is nothing like failing a physics exam, and grandpa well understood the difference.
By November 11th, exactly twenty-five years to the day after an armistice between the Allied and Central Powers ended World War I, Elmer was up and ready to go back to war. He was allowed to exit his bed the previous day and was “surprised by how good [he] felt . . . of course, I’m taking it easy now, and I won’t be able to lick my weight in Japs yet. But it sure [is] good to be back in circulation again.” He was not yet “in circulation” just yet, strictly speaking – he had three more days of recovering at the hospital in front of him – but the only real question at that point was where he would end up once he was discharged.
The New Orleans Naval Station was sort of a human clearinghouse for sailors. They came for training, medical care, and reassignment, and left with orders sending them to ships and stations throughout the world. One of Elmer’s friends in the hospital, Johnny, was shipped off to New York with orders almost as soon as he had recovered. After checking on his pending orders, all Elmer knew was that he would be assigned to a new ship to help run its engines as a Master Mechanic 2nd Class, his former rank on the Chew. He also learned that his ship would not be ready for several more weeks.
After a rigorous semester in Cape and a fortnight in bed, Elmer was ready to go back to sea. But he wanted to see his family one more time before shipping out again and rejoining the war. He told his parents he was optimistic he could get a leave on account of the fact that his new ship was not yet ready, but he also indicated that it was no sure thing. “I’ve been really fortunate to get home as much as I have the past year,” he wrote on the 14th. But his reasons did not necessarily involve eating more of his mother’s chicken and dumplings. “I would just like to get home and show you I am in shipshape again. They say to look at me you couldn’t tell I’ve been operated on. And I don’t feel like it.”
Elmer did not write another letter until December 2nd. Shortly after sending his parents his letter on the 14th, he received several days of leave and headed north to Saint Louis. He could then celebrate Thanksgiving with his family.
In many ways 1943 did not turn out the way he thought it would. But that year Elmer discovered, despite his recent setbacks, that he had much to be thankful for.
Leaf peepers like to spend their time and money visiting Vermont, but Cape Girardeau is every bit as nice when the leaves change. Flaming oranges, reds, and yellows polka dot the thick green forests across the Mississippi Valley, crowning the river bluffs with wreaths of gold and crimson. The region’s myriad apple trees sweeten the scene, and pumpkins are never hard to find. As the V-12 semester at Southeast began to wind down, Elmer welcomed the dipping temperatures. After spending two autumns in the tropics he was ready for cool nights and hot cider.
But he wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as he wanted on account of two health issues that had dogged him for the majority of the semester. The first was a hernia that, as far as Elmer could tell, he had suffered while completing one of the obstacle courses sometime during the first two weeks of the term. It pained him enough to limit his activity, but not enough to warrant taking him immediately out of school, so he gutted it out. His commanding officer allowed him to put the surgery off until after the semester concluded, since it would also require two weeks of subsequent bedrest. Doctor’s orders.
Elmer seemed to worry less about the operation than he did about worrying his mother. On one of his trips home he confided in his father, letting him know what happened and what he expected to happen next. With respect to everyone else, however, mum was the word. He even kept the news from Rose, and did not read her in until he wrote her on November 9th, after nearly two weeks in the hospital. “I kept my condition a secret from just about everyone because I didn’t want my mom to know,” he explained. “She is a very high-strung and emotional person.”
Yet Elmer could not hide what was, as far as the Navy was concerned, a much more damning problem, even if it was one that Elmer had dealt with for his entire life up until that point. On July 20, 1943, Elmer took an American Optical Company vision test. The test itself only became available in 1940, after Elmer enlisted. After reviewing the results, however, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery determined that Elmer had failed the assessment. They ruled that he had “slightly defective color perception” – it was defective enough to disqualify him from the V-12 program, but, evidently, not bad enough to discharge him. He was to return to active duty and could retain his previous rating.
Needless to say, the news disappointed Elmer, who apparently did not discover his condition or his fate until he received his transfer orders in mid-October. His letters up until that point make no mention of the results, and at several points in his letters to Rose he expressed his excitement over being done with “this term,” as opposed to school overall. There is no sense of impending finality in his letters. One letter is written in Cape; the next is a postcard from New Orleans.
He told me this story many years later, after two children and two marriages and half a lifetime. I don’t know if he regretted that decision or not, but clearly it wasn’t something he had power to change. And I know he knew that in spite of any lingering disappointment he may have had.
One time when I was a kid, I think I asked my mom about this. I wondered how grandpa could drive if he could not tell the difference between red and green. After all, what would happen at a traffic light? My mom told me that he had learned to know which light was illuminated, which after twenty-two years or driving is still something I could not tell you without looking at one. That made me admire him even more, I think. And while I am not privy to the optical demands of the World War II Naval officer corps Elmer’s color perception deficiency never seemed to hinder him in the engine room. But just as some bureaucrat in Washington D.C. endorsed his admission into the V-12 program and another had enough kindness to send Elmer to school a mere 100 miles from his parents, a third had apparently judged that Elmer could see well enough to run a ship engine but not well enough to supervise an engineer.
Anyhow, once classes ended on October 15th, Elmer had a few extra days to visit his family in St. Louis. He then boarded a train south towards New Orleans, where he was to be operated on before resting for two weeks and awaiting orders that would presumably send him to a new ship. When he arrived on October 26th, his autumn was officially over. There were no more fall colors, such as they were, or cool breezes to be had. He sent his parents a postcard and a letter shortly before undergoing the knife.
He did not have much to say when he wrote a more substantial note later that day. “Didn’t see much of New Orleans yet, it is an old city. I noticed how old so many buildings were as we traveled from the Union Station to the Naval Station.”
He sent his next letter on October 30th. “Hi you dad! Still at the job. Had that little matter taken care of that we talked about at home. Everything is fine and working out swell. Thought you would like to know.”
Father and son kept mother in the dark about Elmer’s condition. But Rose Luckett, who may well have been “high strung and emotional,” was by no means dumb. She wondered what the word “dispensary” meant when she saw it on Elmer’s new mailing address.
Within a month of arriving in Cape Girardeau, Elmer had established a routine. Sleep. Chow. Exercise. Class. Rinse. Repeat.
His studies went well, though his course load was heavy enough to cause considerable and daily stress. Physics continued to be the worst culprit, though he had begun showing improvement in that class as well. On September 1st he reported receiving an 80% on his latest physics exam, which was a marked improvement over the 55%s and 60%s he usually got. He excelled in his other courses, and even ranked 2nd in his psychology class.
Sometimes that routine was interrupted, like when the students who waited his table had left for a short summer break (the new girls were “not as good as the old ones” he uncharitably announced on August 14th), or when he made trips up to Saint Louis to see his folks. Before leaving he’d request his favorite foods, including chicken and dumplings on two occasions, plus pie for desert. The following month he received a visit from Bud Tanner, who traveled down to Cape to see his old friend. They hit the town and saw the sights, including Cape Rock.
Every now and then Elmer’s letters offer refractive clues about what his parents were thinking at the time. Forrest Luckett complained that White Castle hamburgers had declined in quality since the start of the war (“this war has effected [sic] everything, no doubt,” Elmer replied blandly), and kept Elmer up to date on a recent workplace injury. Meanwhile his mother asked if Elmer’s chaplain friend on campus drank at all (“every now and then”), and bombarded him with questions about Miss Bedford, an art professor who often hosted Elmer and some of his friends for dinner and card games. She frequently appeared in his letters, but mostly on account of her hospitality and her prowess in the kitchen.
While his love for Miss Bedford was clearly platonic, he continued to date a revolving cast of women throughout the country. Shirley Ryder wrote him from Michigan and Rose Schmid announced that she would be moving to Washington,. D.C. to work for the Navy Department. In the meantime Elmer dated a couple of girls in Cape as well. Of course, his mother was still his “number one girl.”
The pace of this routine – classes, drills, nights on the town, alternating weekends in Saint Louis – make these letters seem more perfunctory than usual. As almost anyone who is or has ever been busy will attest, there is both more going on and also less to talk about. But there are a few thoughts and feelings here and there. For instance, on September 16th Elmer expresses his gratitude that he had restarted his college career later on (“This college life is really OK and I feel it is doing me much more good than if I would have just continued a complete college program after high school). Although gap years were not yet invented, and would have certainly not been filled with attacking Japanese planes by design, Elmer clearly benefited from the time off from school. But he was also sentimental about some of his relationship prospects, particularly Rose Schmid, who while traveling to California for a week while on vacation did not write to him. And Elmer, despite his long bachelor call sheet, noticed the lack of mail from her.
In any case, time flew by, and for the time being Elmer was in a great place. “Everything’s shipshape,” he report, despite being hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean-going vessel.