March 1944: The Filling Station

“It’s been a long voyage . . .in fact, the longest I’ve ever made. And the sight of land will be a pleasure for us all.”

The long voyage across the Pacific took its toll on Elmer and the rest of the crew aboard the Mink. Grandpa spent his time reading “a number of good novels,” but beyond that there was little to do – or little of interest to note. “Wish there was something to write about,” he wrote. “What I would like to write about isn’t permissible, so I have little choice.” But the communication lull worked both ways as well. Elmer did not receive a single letter during the month he was at sea transiting the Pacific Ocean. “I’m going to be glad to hear that all is well at home,” he wrote on the 8th. He had not heard from his parents since leaving Panama on February 7th. He hoped that everything was OK.

The difficulties extended to other areas as well. “We ran out of candy” at the ship store, he lamented at one point. “A hardship for us all. Ha. Ha. [And] my exact brand of soap isn’t accessible, either. So much for that.” Nonetheless, Elmer’s set-up aboard the ship eased the passage of time and distance. “The little conveniences we have aboard help out in the long run.”

On March 11th the Mink anchored in Milne Bay, officially ending its long trip across the Pacific. “Well, it sure felt good to put my feet on solid ground again,” he wrote the next day. “But my happiest joy was to get some mail.” He received seven letters from his parents, five from Shirley, and several more from a variety of other correspondents. However, disappointingly, Elmer did not receive any from Rose.

HMAS Leeuwin berthed at the Marine Wharf in Alotau within Milne Bay. Australian Navy Daily.

Elmer understood that just as he had gone so long without receiving a letter, his parents were also sore to hear from him as well. “I realize at the time I’m writing now you are probably wondering and hoping to hear from me,” he wrote. Unfortunately, there was little he could do – large swaths of New Guinea were still occupied by the enemy, and a telegram home simply was not in the cards. His letter on the 12th would have to do the job of letting his family know that he was safe. “Wish I could tell you where we are now. It is a new place on my list of stops. That’s all I can say about it.”

He might have told them about the paradox that was New Guinea in 1944: a remote island teeming with thousands of Allied and Axis soldiers, sailors, Marines, and flyboys; a damp, cloud-enshrouded jungle pockmarked with bomb craters and spewing clouds of fiery smoke; and a peaceful, sapphire blue ocean brimming with life, including some of the world’s most vivid and important marine biodiversity, yet awash in premature, artificial death. It was not so long ago that New Guinea’s interior was a blank spot on European maps, a place where there be dragons. But then energetic efforts to colonize the island began in the 1880s, and within sixty years dragons of an entirely different sort (specifically the de Havilland DH.84 Dragon) began flying between the colony’s many remote airstrips. By early 1944 it was the center of gravity for the entire Pacific War. Accordingly, Elmer could have also tried to tell his parents about what he knew about the upcoming drive up the New Guinea coast toward the Philippines, and his ship’s role in resupplying vessels and planes with critical deliveries of fuel, aviation gasoline, and lubricant. Instead, he told his mother he would like her to send more cigars and that he was eligible for a Good Conduct Medal.

Map of the last campaign on New Guinea, which consisted of a series of landings along the northern coast.

Elmer was quite busy with this hidden work after the Mink arrived in New Guinea. On the 13th the tanker began sailing toward Lae, where on March 17th the Mink spent the next four days “discharging cargo gasoline and fuel to various YO’s [self-propelled fuel barges], and harbor and district craft.” From March 21st through the 24th it did the same thing in Langemak Harbor, near Finschhafen. Elmer later described the Mink’s role in his oral interview over 70 years later:

After we checked into Milne Bay, we started making short trips around New Guinea. We went up to some ports. I recall the name of Lae, L-A-E, Buna, B-U-N-A, Finschhafen. These were places where they had army bases or air bases and they needed the fuel. But these bases didn’t have the facilities for storing fuel. So we would go up there where they could reach us with a barge. They’d come out with a barge, and they would load the gasoline aboard the barge. Then, they would take off and go back. We more or less played fill-up-the-filling-stations.

Elmer Luckett Oral Interview

Some hints do emerge in his correspondence of how he spent his free time. “We are having a lot of swimming parties and it is about the best and coolest sport for this climate,” he mentioned on March 20th. “Sometimes I take a dip twice a day.” Beyond that, he had “very little” liberty ashore apart from “sightseeing and talking with the servicemen there.” There was plenty of natural sightseeing to do in the region, and Elmer recalled walking around and exploring his surroundings some. He and his crewmates also tried fishing in various bays along the coast, but they did “not [have] much luck.” Beyond that, Milne Bay, Lae, Buna, and other military sites were not built for tourism, but for defeating Japan and for keeping Papua’s provincial capital, Port Moresby, safe. But overall liberty in New Guinea was a far cry from liberty in Hawaii.

Elmer had caught up on over a month’s worth of letters by the 23rd, but within three days he had another bundle to read. Several additional letters from his parents were among them, including at least one with some worrying language from his mother. “Mom dear, you seemed uneasy about me in these last letters,” he wrote, “no doubt because my letters haven’t arrived yet. But when my letters start coming you will pep up, I’m sure.”

Although Elmer once again complained of having nothing to write on the 26th, he was in a reflective mood. “This ship has pretty good duty,” he maintained, “and it’s not bad at all. Of course, I’ll always like a destroyer for a fast and steady duty. But living conditions are so much better on here that I’m rather spoiled now.” He also thought about the beginning of spring back home, and the tropical heat was no doubt a constant and unpleasant reminder that there are places where the seasons never really change. “Well dad, you mentioned the first robin you saw this year. And it sounds good to me, and I wish we could watch the first signs of spring appear together. It is just another thing we have to look forward to. And a sight to behold in a world of peace and security.”

By the end of March the Mink was in Lae, en route to the Admiralty Islands. There was still no word from Rose.

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.

April 1944: The Merry-Go-Round

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