February and March 1942: Making the Best out of a Bad Situation

“Happiness,” Elmer philosophized in late March, “is just a mental adjustment to the surrounding conditions and circumstances.” While more and more of his friends and acquaintances from back home enlisted (“the ‘corner’ [where we all hung out] must be rather dead now with most of the fellas going into the service,” Elmer remarked), the winter pall began to lift across Missouri as the first spring buds furtively popped out of skeletal twigs. Just a few blocks east of the Luckett residence on Eiler Street, the Mississippi began to shimmer again with the sun finally breaking through the seasonal gloom. Despite the war’s metaphorical storm clouds, blue skies would soon reign over Saint Louis.

As Easter approached, Elmer’s mother took the opportunity to send her son another gift box for the holiday. The egg was “beautiful and delicious,” Elmer wrote, and the “cigars are good and fresh.” The egg was so large that he ended up sharing most of it with his shipmates.

For most Americans, the World War II story in Hawaii begins and ends with the attack on Pearl Harbor. For the servicemen stationed in the Territory and for its 420,000 residents, however, the air raid’s effects continued to ripple throughout the archipelago over the next several years. For one thing FDR declared martial law there, and a series of military governors ran the territory until 1944. They suspended habeas corpus, censored all written communication, and effectively ran Hawaii as an occupied area. In early March, Elmer reported that the military government rationed gasoline on the island, but not sugar, and that the authorities set prices on all goods and services. Apparently these controls, combined with the near complete absence of tourists, had a pronounced effect on the quality of food in Honolulu. “A meal in town is rather expensive and doesn’t compare to our ‘chow’ in quality or quantity,” he reported.

Image result for rations 1942
This cartoon responds to the addition of rubber in 1942 to the list of items being rationed, which included sugar. Elmer’s letters to his parents frequently discuss the effects of rationing on his family’s household. The gasoline ration hit his father, who worked throughout town as a carpenter, the hardest.

One of the silver linings of martial law, at least for the servicemen, was the sudden affordability of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Renowned as one of the premiere and most luxurious lodgings on Waikiki, if not the entire island, the Royal Hawaiian blended the island’s regal, monarchical origins with the cultural and economic promises of American imperialism. One of Elmer’s favorite hangout spots before the War, it was too exclusive for most sailors who wanted a room to spend the night, with rates ranging between $20 and $50 a night (approximately $330 to $850 in 2020 – compare that to a night at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, which goes for about $715). Once the war started and the tourist trade ended, however, the military took over the hotel and began offering rooms to sailors – for twenty-five cents a night. “That expensive hotel is at our disposal,” Elmer wrote, thus beginning a months-long quest to stay at the hotel. A few rooms were available every night to sailors, but the Chew did not receive too many allocations – likely due to it being more or less permanently stationed at Pearl, whereas visiting ships brought thousands of liberty-starved seamen. “I was in hopes of going [there,]” he wrote on March 7th, “but didn’t get to make it yet. Perhaps I can make it at the next opportunity.”

The United States Treasury Department issued separate currency for the Hawaii Territory after the Pearl Harbor attack. My grandpa photocopied one of the bills and placed it in his Navy scrapbook. The annotations are his.

The Chew’s proximity to Oahu notwithstanding, Elmer certainly deserved his chance to stay at a fancy Waikiki hotel. That February his near-constant studying paid off when he earned a new rating as Fireman First Class. In addition to another pay bump, Elmer was proud of having achieved this rating advancement at what was by Naval regulation the earliest available opportunity. “Many men spend four years in the Navy,” he later remarked, “and never do better than [Fireman First Class].” It only took Elmer fourteen months.

Once the Chew had a full compliment again following the attack Elmer had plenty of time to study. “I spend a lot of time reading,” he wrote in March. “Most of my time is spent standing in watches, reading, or studying. And arguing about the war.” He regularly listened to radio reports about fighting in the Pacific and throughout the world. “Dad, I bet you listen to all the news broadcasts too,” he wrote on February 18th. “I remember how we used to discuss them together in the living room. I sure miss our chats – don’t you?”

While Elmer found something akin to the spirited discussions he had with his father in their living room on the Chew, back home his parents ameliorated their anxiety by bragging about their son’s accomplishments. In early March they sent Elmer a clipping from the Post-Dispatch announcing the rating advancements earned by Saint Louis sailors. Elmer’s name was on the list. His letters were also becoming something of a regular report for their neighbors. “Mom, I don’t mind if you read let other people read my letters,” he assured her on March 10th. “Especially when they pay you such nice compliments about them.” Rose likely brought his letters with her when she visited the Grossmans’ that month. The war was bringing people together not just nationally, but locally as well.

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