June, July, and August 1942: High Water Marks

Note: although the Battle of Coral Sea occurred in May, the shorter Midway-only newsreel on YouTube has an annoying watermark.

One of my clearest memories as a child of my grandfather is from when my brother and I were visiting him in 1993. He took us to Eiler Street and showed us his old house. I recall not expressing a great deal of interest in the aging brick building. Then he drove us a few blocks east to Bellerive Park. Perched along a small bluff about 70 feet or so above the Mississippi, visitors get a birds-eye view of the river from this small neighborhood pavilion. At the time I remembered visiting it once or twice when I was younger. But when we saw it that day, at the Great Flood of 1993’s destructive climax, the river looked to be just a few feet below the bluff’s summit. It rushed by like a raging torrent, carrying debris and tree branches and trees and chemicals and God knows what else on a runaway train to the Gulf.

I realized then that Grandpa didn’t take us down to see his old house that day, but to see the flood. Maybe on some level my grandpa liked seeing things like that. If that was the case then I cannot fault him for it, since I was just as entranced if not more watching the rampaging river rush by. Perhaps it runs in the family.

The Mississippi River, as seen from Bellerive Park. Author’s photo, taken in October 2019.

But during the summer of 1942, despite the epic battles being fought near the Midway Atoll and in the streets of Stalingrad, there was very little to write home about. From December 1940 through the spring of 1942, the vast majority of Elmer’s letters to his parents were at least two pages long. Many ran three or four. But between June 1st and August 31st, not one of Elmer’s twenty-five letters ran more than a single page. For one thing, Elmer had run out of topics to discuss, and much of his writing was in response to what his parents had told him in previous letters. Moreover, the things he could not talk about consumed more of his time, since by June the Chew was usually out at sea on escort duty.

Elmer could not even discuss in detail recent events of which both he and his parents were aware, since that information could be intercepted by the Japanese and used to confirm or disconfirm what they thought the Americans knew. In fact, he tried to tamp down expectations back home following the climactic American victory at the Battle of Midway. “This war is just starting on our part,” he wrote, “and it may last quite a while yet . . . I hope the public don’t get too optimistic about our recent successes and think victory is ‘in the bag.’ We should not underestimate our enemy.” Cautious optimism was certainly warranted during the early days of the war, especially after the crushing losses suffered at Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and elsewhere throughout the Pacific. But Midway shattered the Japanese Navy’s offensive capacity, and since the Empire lacked America’s cast industrial, mineral, and energy resources, the tide of the war effectively turned after that battle. Midway would later represent the high-water mark of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Elmer’s responses to news from home dominated these short letters. These reports included everything from his dad Forrest finally getting the tires he needed for his Victory to his sister Ruth divorcing her husband, Rick. Ruth sent a letter, her first since the start of the war, announcing the news to Elmer. “I hope that she is making out OK now that she out on her own,” he wrote. He also learned about a major flood hitting the St. Louis area that summer, during which the Missouri River crested at 35 feet. “Old Man River must be stepping out of bounds in many spots,” he wrote on August 3rd after receiving several snapshots of the flooding.

As an aside, the flood killed one man in Florissant and displaced several people and a number of cows in Saint Charles, but the flooding was limited compared to what was happening along the eastern seaboard, or to would come later along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The Missouri River actually crested one foot higher in similar flood events in 1943 and 1944, and in 1993 the Missouri reached 40 feet at the St. Charles riverfront. But the main difference between the World War II-era floods and the Great Flood of 1993 was development. Fifty years later, hundreds of thousands of new homes and hundreds of miles of additional levee squeezed the rivers through tighter channels, thus requiring less water to top the levees and inundate the surrounding areas. Now the floods displace people instead of livestock.

Ferguson subdivision, 1958
New home construction in Ferguson, Missouri, in 1958. Post-Dispatch file photo. Link: https://www.stltoday.com/news/archives/look-back-st-louis-suburbs-explode-after-world-war-ii/article_858a9508-e0e9-5f7c-99b0-e2dd293a7171.html

Ironically enough, the story of Saint Louis’s coming urban sprawl, the deterioration of its urban core, and the growing likelihood of destructive floods would be written once Elmer and the thousands of other regional servicemen came back from the war wanting to buy new homes. Despite Saint Louis City’s impending population decline, the bistate region’s economic power grew during World War II. “The old home town must be quite a manufacturing center in all ways now,” Grandpa wrote in June. The new factories and the post-war economic boom fueled the explosion of new suburbs in what had once been farmland.

Elmer wondered about all the changes back home during wartime, but he had already noticed two: more men were joining the service, and more couples were deciding to get married. “War usually provides a stimulant for marriage and makes ‘Kid Cupid’s’ job much easier,” Elmer observed. Pat later confirmed the absence of eligible bachelors in one of her letters, “According to Pat the number of young men still at home are rapidly declining. Maybe,” he mused, “that’s why she writes me, eh?” Elmer’s anxieties about a long distance wartime romance continued to dominate his thinking, however. “Ozzie misses his wife quite a bit,” he noted on July 30th, knowing there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Union Station in 1942 was a bustling travel hub for a growing city. In the years since suspending train service the building has been used as a hotel, a mall, and most recently an Aquarium. Photo by Grand Hall STL. URL: http://www.grandhall-stl.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/09/stationin1942.jpg

In some ways his sea duty had become as routine as his letters. “Well today is the 4th of July, but just another day to the working man.” He still enjoyed working in the engine room, and he had begun studying for his next rating advancement despite having no clear timetable for when he would be able to make it. At one point in July he expressed an interest in pursuing “aviation or aircraft mechanics,” but doubted he would ever get the opportunity.

Even off-board excursions had lost some of their luster. “Had a nice liberty the other day in town,” Elmer wrote on June 25th. “Although there isn’t much to do – you can usually see a good show, swim, play pool, or drink some appropriate refreshment. Of course there are dances around town, but I care very little for dancing. All in all, liberty’s a change, and a change makes variety, and ‘variety is the spice of life,’ or something.” Later, on July 8th: “Today was my liberty day . . . I just loafed around and took it easy.” Perhaps sensing a degree of fatigue and ennui aboard the Chew, the officers hosted a “beer party on the beach” later that month. The sailors “played ball, horseshoes, [drank] beer, and [had] plenty of eats. Sure had a good time and got a good sunburn.”

But there might have been a more practical reason as well: the Chew’s impending escort duty between Hawaii and Midway Island. “We will probably be at sea very much,” he warned his parents on August 5th. A week later, he indicated that “I don’t know how long it will be before you receive this letter, as you know there are no mailboxes at sea.” He then apologized for the infrequency of mail delivery on the ocean, and sweetly told his mother that “if thoughts could speak to you my voice would be heard every day.” By the end of August, though, his spirits cheered up a bit when the ship arrive at a different port, which might have been Midway Island. “A change of scenery always helps out a little.”

Like the cows in Saint Charles Elmer had all the water he could ever want, especially with his ship’s escort duty taking him farther and farther away from O’ahu. But he would get an even nicer change of scenery by the end of fall.

Next Entry:
September and October 1942: From Pollywog to Shellback

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