On February 3rd the Mink pulled into Cristobal, a port on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal Zone. The crew had two nights to rest, mail letters, and paint the town red. Elmer “had some liberty” while there and, as he told his parents, “I enjoyed myself very much.” But he could not tell them much more, including where they happened to be in the world. I didn’t hear many stories about Panama when I was a kid, nor did he say much about it during our oral interview. But Elmer doubtlessly enjoyed a bottle of Balboa, Panama’s national beer, while in town, and hopefully an order of ropa vieja.
Two days later, Elmer and the rest of the crew got to experience the region’s most well-known landmark: the Panama Canal. Over a hundred years later it remains one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels. While the Panamanian isthmus may seem narrow on a map it is still a forty-mile crossing through steep mountains and dense jungle. In spite of these obstacles the canal was wide enough to accommodate tankers like the Mink and other massive seafaring vessels, although the U.S. Navy refused to build any ships too large to squeeze through it until it launched its first Midway-class aircraft carriers in 1945. Even Fitzcarraldo would be impressed.
Nonetheless, the Panama Canal was not a racetrack. It took the Mink nearly nine hours to make the trip.
After a sixteen-hour layover in Balboa, the Mink set sail for Milne Bay on the island of New Guinea on February 7th. The trip took over a month to complete. With arrival at their destination planned for sometime in mid-March, the crew settled in for a long, lonely passage across the South Pacific.
Elmer’s letters over the next few weeks reflect both the length of his transit and the constraints imposed on his letter writing by the Naval censors. “There isn’t a thing new to write about,” he scribbled on the 14th, “but I’ve been confronted by this situation before.” Two weeks and no stops later, he had a growing stack of unmailed letters. He apologized to his parents for his silence, which he knew would be deafening. But he put a positive spin on his isolation: “it has been ideal sailing, and the days pass rapidly.”
Elmer could not talk about where he had been or where he was going, so he wrote about life aboard the ship. “The routine of watch standing or everyday duty grows monotonous in a way,” he reflected on the 28th. “But it is broken by reading a good book, or watching an educational movie (shown occasionally to the crew.)” In addition to reading he also began studying assiduously for his Master Mechanic First Class rating, and bragged about his new sun tan from spending hours topside on watch. However, he also complained about the “unbearable” heat in the engine room, though he still appeared to prefer the equatorial heat over the winter cold. “[I] don’t know how I’ll ever get used to winter weather again,” he mused on the 1st. Overall, he observed that “the sea duty is coming back to me very well, and this baby rides better than a destroyer.”
The Mink had other advantages for well: “it is not so crowded compared to a destroyer,” he pointed out on the 5th. He later noted that there was more than sufficient water for showers, which was a “treat” after working long hours in the engine room. But on the whole, he told his parents that they could “see it is not much of an ordeal to send so much time at sea. Yes sir, chicken every Sunday – and pie a-la-mode. It is really tough – Ha. Ha.”
Elmer wrote a bunch of other letters that February as well, but only one was addressed to Rose. He told her that he was happy she was acclimating so well to D.C., and mentioned that he would “like to see you and Anne walking the streets with you and your road map. Keep it up kid, you’ll make a good dry-land navigator.” But he seemed less spirited in reference to himself. “As for me I’m a lonely fellow at sea. No news to write about in that respect. Just a routine day to day existence. But I have my memories.”
The ship did not move as fast as a destroyer, but it made good time. By March 3rd, it had crossed what is now the International Date Line about 250 miles south of Tonga. The Mink very nearly leapfrogged Leap Day that year. But horological oddities quickly gave way to geographic realities as they approached the front lines of the Pacific War. As muggy as the air was already, the ambient temperature was about to get a lot hotter.
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.