January 1944: Shakedown

It was January 1944, and it seemed like everyone was nursing a cold. Elmer had the sniffles for the first week of the month, and Rose was sick as well. Elmer’s mother was so ill that she had to cancel her planned trip to Chicago to see her son Bud’s family. It wasn’t the Spanish Flu, but cold viruses easily made their way around the nation as millions of Americans swarmed around following the holidays.

Despite everyone being sick, bigger concerns were on the horizon. For one, Elmer was about to begin a new tour on a new ship – the U.S.S. Mink. He and his new crew-mates closed out their affairs at the Naval Station on January 4th, and were formally transferred to the ship on the 6th. Since the Mink was brand new, the job of getting it ready to sail was not unlike running a start-up: long hours, low pay, and a steep learning curve.

Well they are keeping me busy on the ship now. New men to teach and train, besides all the necessary adjustments and work besides. But a busy man is a happy man, and I’m interested in my work. Learning a new ship is like reading a book. You must start from the beginning. [There] are new types of machinery and different engineering plants on an auxiliary ship like this.

Elmer to his Parents, January 12, 1944

In other words, Elmer had to learn a whole new ship, and he only had a few weeks to do it. “The engines are reciprocating,” he explained in one of his letters, “and my experience has been on turbine jobs.”

Yet there were also benefits to the new posting:

The chow has been good on here. A small crew usually gets good food . . . [Also] when you want to rest or read in your spare time you have a private room practically because all four men are seldom in [the stateroom] at once . . . it is really nice. Our bunks have sheets and a regular bed cover of blue material. And the light is a spot light right over the head of the bunk. It’s really a luxury job. And that big locker is a treat after the foot lockers we used on the Chew.”

Elmer to his Parents, January 12, 1944

The Mink, originally named the Judah Touro, was built for the Merchant Marine. As a result, according to Elmer, “It has nicer accommodations than a regular Navy ship.” It had a smaller complement as well, which augmented the ship’s comforts while multiplying its crew’s responsibilities. “No doubt you are wondering why we are so busy aboard,” Elmer wrote his parents. “But with all the necessary engineering, food, and other supplies to brought in [with] only a small crew it explains why.” All the extra work cut into his liberty time, thus putting a damper on his social life. “So I haven’t had any dates with my women,” he wrote on the 16th. “Ha. Ha. I have so many.”

Given the size of the crew, it would be important for everyone to get along well and work together. Fortunately, that did not seem to be an issue. “We have a good bunch of fellows, and will make a good crew,” he wrote on the 16th. In particular he liked the ship’s newly installed officers, and looked forward to trying to impress them as he sought his next rating advancement. But the rest of the crew was swell as well. The men even started their own ship’s canteen, with Elmer and the others each kicking in $10. The store would sell “candy, toilet articles, and [fulfill] other needs,” he explained.

Elmer Luckett on the Mink’s deck, February 1945. Although Elmer was a Pearl Harbor survivor, he would see more action while on board the Mink in 1944 and 1945.

Mid-January was eventful. The new tanker embarked on a short shakedown cruise on the 7th, and then on the morning of the 9th the Mink was officially commissioned into the United States Navy’s Auxiliary Fleet. That same day Lt. William J. Meagher was formally installed as its captain.* Then for the next week and a half the Mink began to load up on provisions and prepare for a long cruise.

Elmer did not know, or could not divulge, where they were going. But he knew enough from his time on the Chew that he would no longer remain in regular contact with his friends and family in the States. He began to prepare his parents, who had grown used to Elmer being just a few hundred miles away and even seeing him now and then, for another extended absence. Part of this was his usual disclaimer that his letters would be fewer and farther between, and that “no news is good news.” But his pleas for his parents to keep a stiff upper lift carried even more urgency now, perhaps in light of one or several recent dinner table conversations at which his parents communicated to him just how worried they were while he was on the Chew. “Please keep those chins up for me – that is my biggest concern,” he urged in his letter on the 18th. “And you must carry on when times are trying. I know it is so easy for me to write that – and I understand it is so hard to do on your part. Because folks, what I’m fighting for is my future, family at home, and all that they stand for. So chins up.”

Elmer had also written two letters to Rose that month. In the first, dated January 1st, he wrote that he was “glad [she] enjoyed a Christmas at home” and briefly discussed his new ship, the Mink – but, tellingly, did not mention what kind of vessel it was.** He also continued to beseech Rose for her forgiveness after their Thanksgiving fight. “[I] don’t know where we go from here,” he wrote, “but it will be plenty far in my estimation.” Twelve days later, however, he seemed less certain. Rose was going to DC on the 16th, and his ship would disembark a few days later. Soon thousands of miles would separate the two. Like with his parents, he told her that his letter would be less frequent, but that it did not meant he was not thinking of her. “[Out here] all I have is my pin-up girls,” he wrote while still in New Orleans, “and they aren’t soft and warm to hold like you.” But while he was hopeful for more meetings and better times ahead, he also seemed to steel himself for the possibility of a more permanent separation. “[I] never will forget the good times we had. And if I ever ever did anything to make you angry I’m sorry and ask you to forget it. No one is perfect, and I’m no exception. Just a human being with normal reactions. I won’t forget you – and may that be a mutual feeling.”

The Mink completed its shakedown maneuvers off Sabine Pass on January 21st, and then proceeded to Beaumont, Texas to fill its capacious cargo tanks with fuel. It would be their last few days in the continental United States for the duration of the war. Elmer received a liberty and “had a good time.” But before they knew it they were back on the ship, and on January 25th the Mink entered the Gulf of Mexico via Sabine Pass and began sailing toward a distant war and an uncertain future.

Elmer sent this souvenir folder full of postcards to his parents while on liberty in Beaumont, Texas. He would not return to the mainland United States until after the War.

Elmer was surprised at having never really lost his sea legs. “Some of the boys were sea sick – I know how they feel. But I’ve been going like an old salt.” Old familiarities on the Chew carried over onto the Mink, including the dilution of time. The days turned as quickly as the nautical miles. “I have to look at a calendar to see what day it is,” he remarked. But he noticed differences as well, such as his surroundings. “We are on the Gulf of Mexico,” he wrote while on the shakedown cruise from New Orleans to Beaumont, “and the sea is as calm as a mill pond. And [it] has a nice cool green color.” Despite not having yet traveled that far on the new ship he already felt as though he was “getting back in the routine of sea life, or is it life at sea[?] Ha. Ha.”

As the Mink sailed toward the Caribbean Sea that winter, the flames of war continued to burn in Europe, Asia, and in the Pacific. But the Allies could almost feel, as if watching a very long movie, that the climax was finally approaching. In England, millions of soldiers crowded into the island in preparation for the largest amphibious invasion in human history against perhaps the most deeply entrenched enemy in recorded memory. In Italy, the bloody stalemate near Monte Cassino continued in spite of the Allied landings at Anzio four days earlier, offering a grim preview of what awaited Allied forces in Normandy and beyond. Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the United States lost six thousand men in a pyrrhic victory at Tarawa. Few believed that the fierce Japanese resistance encountered at a small central Pacific atoll would not be exponentially larger and more deadly within the larger pieces of real estate eyed by the Americans, including the Philippines. Of course, when 1944 came to an end the Allies had a knife to Germany’s throat, and they were well-prepared to finish the job in Japan shortly after dispatching Hitler. But the start of the year seemed less pre-determined. In January, the United States was staring squarely at the outer razor edges of two formidable and sprawling Axis Empires, both of which afflicted the opposite ends of Eurasia like an incurable contagion.

The whole world had a cold that year. But a cure was coming.

*In the December 1943 post I wrote that this ceremony happened in December. Apparently Grandpa and I both made dating errors – he misdated his January 9th letter to his parents (it was dated “December 13th, 1944” on the top), and I failed to corroborate the information. He later explained his “silly” error to his parents, who apparently began to worry about their son’s safety and whereabouts. As for me, all errors are my own, and I apologize for the mix-up. It won’t be the last. – M.L.

**It would be premature to assume anything about whatever negative feelings Elmer may have had about his ship, especially since he was so clearly happy with the accommodations and the food on board. He never seemed to waver from his belief that he had a job to do and that he would do it to the best of his ability. However, he was also savvy enough to know what to say and what not to say to his girlfriends, and his station aboard a tanker might have carried less social cache. There is evidence in letters later that year that Rose still does not know any details about the Mink. This does not appear to be an oversight on Elmer’s part or an omission mandated by Naval censors, since Elmer described in some detail the ship, its role, and its engines to his father. At any rate, this is a thread I’d like to pull some more as I start to put together what 1944 looked like using two sets of letters, rather than just one.

Needless to say, one of the points that I plan on making in the book is that tankers were often targeted by Japanese ships, thus proving that duty on those ships was inarguably dangerous and no less “masculine” or essential as service aboard the ships of the line. I also show that the tankers themselves often deployed their anti-aircraft armament against Japanese planes (and took many of them down), and that the tankers themselves were logistically vital and militarily indispensable to the United States Navy’s operations in and around the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and the Japanese archipelago itself.

This post is part of “Grandpa’s Letters,” a blog series that delves into my grandfather Elmer Luckett’s experiences during World War II. It is based on over 500 letters that he wrote during the War, which I inherited from him after he passed. For more information on this series, including a complete list of posts (with links), please visit the Grandpa’s Letters Homepage.

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4 thoughts on “January 1944: Shakedown

  1. Absolutely brilliant. The way in which you’ve written is compelling and takes me away to another time.

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