December 1942: Dreaming of a White Christmas

According to Wikipedia, Big Crosby’s “White Christmas” is the best-selling single of all-time, with over 50 million records sold across the world. It resonated with Americans on multiple levels during the 1942 Christmas season, with so many young American men off fighting in the War.

The Chew returned to Pearl Harbor on December 7th, a year to the day the war started. Much had changed since then. The United States had built up its armed forces and reorganized its economic, cultural, and social institutions around winning the war. Hawaii was effectively under military control. Allied armies were chasing Rommel across Africa, while the U.S. started its first major land campaign against the Japanese at Guadalcanal. With Midway won on the Pacific and Stalin on the offensive in Russia, the end of the beginning of World War II was at hand.

But one of the most inspiring differences could be seen at Pearl Harbor itself. Twelve months earlier the water was on fire; all eight of its battleships were sunk, sinking, or damaged; its air defenses were shattered; over 2,400 Americans were lost; and virtually everyone who had survived was shaken to the core. When the Chew arrived on December 7, 1942, however, the clinks and clanks of boats being repaired filled the air. The sound of hammers, drills, and saws rang out across the harbor in a steady, throbbing cacophony of noise. Within the first six months, the Navy resurrected five battleships and two cruisers from the harbor for repair, and divers busily patched what they could well into 1943.

One of the battleships under repair, the West Virginia, required an almost unfathomable amount of work. Eight torpedoes blasted its port side, and another one destroyed its propeller. Despite the incredible damage it incurred during the attack, a year later the salvage operation to bring it back to life was well underway. The Navy hoped to send it to Bremerton Yard near Seattle sometime in the new year in order to fix whatever they couldn’t mend at Pearl Harbor.

In drydock at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, 10 June 1942, for repair of damage suffered in the 7 December 1941 Japanese air raid. She had entered the drydock on the previous day. Note large patch on her hull amidships, fouling on her hull, and large armor belt. Photographed by Bouchard. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Just as the ships were being restored at breathtaking speed, Elmer noticed how quickly the hours were flying by for him as well. “The days pass so fast at sea it seems that one day is gone and another almost finished before noon,” he wrote on December 4th, when they were still three days out from Pearl, in the vast blue expanse of the Pacific. “This war will be a year old soon, and yet it seems like [it started] yesterday.”

The entire world seemed to be moving so fast. December 1942 brought some good, if anticlimactic news for Elmer: his old flame, Pat O’Donnell, was getting married. “She finally hooked a man,” he reported to his parents, who expressed no small amount of interest over the past two years in his seemingly on-again, off-again long-distance romance. Still, “it wasn’t a surprise to me.” Closer to home, Elmer learned that his sister Ruth had remarried her ex-husband, Rick. He seemed slightly annoyed by the recent developments (“she should know her own mind by now”), but he wished them success all the same.

There were new developments aboard the Chew as well. Since leaving California, the Chew’s commanders were breaking their engineers into new roles on the ship. With Ozzie and Herby attaining Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class as well, Elmer began learning an important job. “[I’m] taking over throttle watch for awhile,” he wrote. “Pretty important job, too, of course. I’m as proud as a kid with a new toy!” Later, he elaborated a bit on what this entailed. “The job has a big responsibility and the turbines that control the ‘screws’ are in my hands. So much for that.” Ozzie was helping him out as his oiler, but Elmer noted that his friend “will probably get a chance on the throttle soon.”

The new jobs were a big deal, but as the holidays approached there were few telltale signs that Christmas and New Years were just around the corner. “Almost time for Christmas festivities,” Elmer wrote on December 16th. “We’ll have a good dinner for sure. And that will be the biggest distinction between a regular day and Christmas day.” The meal, in fairness, was quite good. The captain even had color menus made, and Elmer mailed his to his parents. He also received a number of cards and some sweets, plus a money order and a Reader’s Digest subscription from his brother Bud and sister in law Elsie that month for the holidays, although one of the recurring themes in his correspondence that month is Elmer waiting for a five pound box of candy his mother sent.

But nice dinners and swell gifts were not enough to change the fact that Elmer was thousands of miles from home. There was no tree, no frost outside the window, and most importantly, no family. “Have you a tree this year, Mom?” he asked on Christmas Eve. “Remember how I always trimmed it each year. It seems so long ago. I know Christmas cannot be the same while we are apart, but make it a Merry Christmas just the same.” Elmer also thought of a popular Bing Crosby tune that was sweeping the country that month, a song that vividly illustrated for so many servicemen that year fighting in Africa and Oceania, as well as those training throughout the winter months in the South and Southwest, what they were missing that holiday season. “I wonder if you having a ‘white Christmas?’ Just like the song that is popular now.” And just like, he might have added, “the ones we used to know.”

By the end of the month, Elmer had received his five pound box of candy. He also received confirmation from his mother that she had finally received his photograph, which he had taken after his promotion and with his new watch on his left wrist. She might not have been thrilled with the mustache, but it may well have been the best Christmas present she could have wished for short of actually seeing her son.

And that wish, as it happens, would be fulfilled in 1943.

This is the picture Elmer Luckett took during the fall of 1942, presumably while in San Francisco, and sent to his mother for Christmas. The original is black and white, but he had this copy tinted. Note the watch on his left wrist and his Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class insignia. He received the battle star for his service during the attack at Pearl Harbor.

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