May 1941: A Reversal of Fortunes

Before Americans really even began to realize it, the Great Depression was over. Times weren’t good, necessarily, but then again they were nowhere near as bad as they were a decade earlier. Jobs were less scarce than before, and all of Elmer’s friends back home seemed to be buying cars. His father was also working steady again. After years of struggling to put together enough work as a carpenter to feed his family and pay the rent, Forrest Luckett was finally able to string together enough work to put his money problems behind him.

Times were good enough that his family could send him a package of gifts for his birthday on May 7th, as well as a bundle of civilian clothes to help celebrate turning twenty-one. “Well, today I am a man,” he wrote when the big day arrived. “Or am I?”

Photo of the Luckett family.Taken c. 1928.
Photograph of grandpa’s family, taken c. 1928. Back row, from left to right: Forrest (father), Rose (mother), Bud (brother), Irene (sister). Front row: Elmer. Not pictured: Ruth (sister). [family photo]

But the “swell civilian outfit” he received was helpful for another reason: he didn’t want to have to buy another. No longer flush with extra mess hall earnings, Elmer’s third class Fireman pay rate didn’t do a whole lot for someone stationed in Hawai’i. He looked forward to receiving a promotion . . . and the corresponding pay bump, which “will be a big help.” But in the meantime, he economized by buying gifts for friends and family back home at the Y, while reducing the amount of money he mailed back to his parents. On May 18th, he apologized for only sending $7. “Don’t want to cut myself short,” he explained. “Things are so high out here.”

Oahu’s exorbitant prices were understandable, if not necessarily welcome. The problem is even worse today: insufficient housing stock, a growing population, a relatively small percentage of arable land, overstretched and crowded infrastructure, and the cost of importing much of its food and most of its manufactured items makes the Hawaiian dream a distant reality for most people.* But in 1940, these cost of living expenses only made it more difficult for servicemen and officers to stretch their salaries between themselves and their families. If anything, the sudden influx of Naval personnel who arrived at Pearl after President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor created a housing crisis almost overnight. Officers’ wives who followed their husbands to the islands often found themselves living in tiny, dingy apartments. Many questioned and lamented the decision to move the fleet’s headquarters to Oahu from San Diego, which was cheaper, larger, and much closer to friends and family across the United States. Elsewhere, civilian workers were feeling the pinch, and the dock workers at Pearl were about to begin striking for higher wages. “Everyone [is] as greedy as the devil,” Elmer wrote of their efforts (perhaps uncharitably, given his and his family’s own history as union members).

As Elmer struggled to stretch his pay in Hawaii and as the employment prospects began to improve in Saint Louis, he expressed no regrets over choosing to serve his country. But his parents, who had to sign Elmer’s paperwork in order for him to join the Naval Reserve, seemed to have their doubts. “My mother had signed for me reluctantly,” Elmer stated in an interview years later. But even after her youngest son had already found his sea legs in the Navy, she began second-guessing her decision to let him go in her letters. Elmer was annoyed, if not slightly indignant. “I told you how I felt about those papers you signed,” he wrote after the subject came up yet again that month, “so let’s hear no more about it.”

Forrest Luckett and his son, Elmer, wearing a U.S. Navy hat. C. 1925
Despite his parents’ concerns about joining the Reserves, there were early signs that Elmer may one day enlist in the Navy . . . [Family photo]

While economic concerns and past regrets were at the front of the Luckett family’s minds that spring, the possibility of a war looming on the horizon continued to lurk in the background. Elmer’s parents had good reasons to be concerned. The Navy, for its part, was not taking any chances. Grandpa reported on the various drills and exercises he, his ship, and the surrounding community were taking to protect themselves against an ominous if uncertain Japanese threat. On May 22, he described his spectacular view of Honolulu’s lights all turning off at once during a city-wide blackout, and mentioned his ship’s participation in a “sham battle” with other vessels which were tasked with trying to enter the Harbor. Later that month, the Chew spent three days at sea testing out its long-range gunnery. “Yes, sir,” he wrote, “never a dull moment.”

His destroyer was slowly but surely becoming one. But Elmer didn’t need a birthday to prove that he was all grown up.

Photograph of Elmer Luckett. Family photo, digitized by KSDK.
Elmer Luckett after enlisting in the Navy. [family photo, uploaded by KSDK – not sure where the original is . . .]

* I was offered a fantastic job at a school in Honolulu a few years ago. I really wanted to accept it . . . However, the salary would have made it difficult to move out there, enjoy the kind of life we were living in Los Angeles at the time, and still have enough money for my wife and I to travel back to the states and visit our families. I turned it down, even though I am still kicking myself for passing up an almost perfect job in an almost perfect location . . .

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