July 1944: A Leave Down Under

By July, the daily grind and the ongoing isolation began to wear down the Mink’s crew. So the ship’s officers cooked up some surprises for their men. “Yes sir,” Elmer wrote the day after the festivities, “we had a holiday routine yesterday – in short, just plain loafing. And for the first time in months we had some beer and Coca-Cola.” Since there were no stores nearby the men were limited to consuming whatever was aboard ship – or whatever they happened to catch fishing. “The way we are located without anywhere to go for buying beer or any other recreation makes it a little tough,” he wrote.”But through Navy Supply we may be able to get a few beers once in a while. They can’t forget morale, and it is a big point to consider.” The mess cooks prepared a feast for the crew, who also received souvenir menus to commemorate the occasion.

The Mink’s Fourth of July menu.

But giblet gravy and a round of cokes would only go so far to ameliorate the crew, which needed a break. Preferably in a place with bars that offered more than three beers. On July 9th, Elmer no longer needed to hint at a future liberty – he was now scheduled to have one.

“Now for my bit of good news,” he wrote his parents. “Due to the fact that our duty has been isolated from cities or places for liberty or recreation, they are sending a number of men at a time for ten days recreation leave in a swell country. I’ve always wanted to visit there.” Elmer’s hard work, good relationship with the officers aboard, previous bad luck with the V-12 program, and lengthy service prior to joining the Mink undoubtedly contributed to the decision to prioritize his leave over that of many of his crewmates. “I happen to be in the first group and we are due to leave soon.” He withdrew over $150 for the trip, which he viewed as “a chance to have a good time and spend some money . . . Don’t know if I’ll need it all, but I’m going to have a great time at all cost.” He continued to rationalize the vacation in his letter to his parents, but he knew it was not necessary to apologize for being young and wanting to have a good time after such a long period of labor at such a distance from the comforts of home. “[I] think I’ve earned a ‘blow out’ now, and I’m going to ‘paint the town red.'” He closed his July 9th letter, in a departure from his regular practice, with “I’m in good health and exceptionally good spirits.”

Later, in his interview, Grandpa indicated that he was in the second party to get to go to Australia, but he was still happy with that:

I was able to get into the second party. As the second class petty officer, I guess I had a little pull, more so than somebody that hasn’t been in it for long.

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

Naval censors prohibited him from giving out much information about his Australian whereabouts in his letters. Even though the country’s safety from invasion was virtually assured by 1943, the Japanese Navy continued to ply the waters north and east of the continent, and officials did not want American sailor mail falling into enemy hands. Australia was much like England at this point of the war: a large, Allied nation close to the theater of operations where men, equipment, and supplies could be marshaled for future attacks and where friendly combatants could go for a pleasant, mostly safe leave.

Elmer mailed this sheet home at the end of the month. Since censors banned servicemen from providing much in the way of specifics to their families back home – and were themselves often unclear about what could and could not be said – the Red Cross created “furlough letters” like the one above so that servicemen could say something fun about their trips.

Of course, “close” was a relative term. It took nearly a week for Elmer’s party to make the trip, during which time he was incommunicado and could not write letters. He talked about the trip during his oral interview:

Anyway, I had a chance to go down to Australia. To get down there, we had to wait until we could get some transportation. There was a refrigerated ship called the Mizar that came up from Australia. It brought up fresh provisions and stuff. It made trips between Australia, New Guinea, Milne Bay. So anyway. We got transportation on this refrigerated ship . . . it pulled into Brisbane and we got off there. But our R&R orders were for 10 days in Sydney. So anyway . . . we had to pay for our own transportation, because we wanted to get down to Sydney. But it wasn’t that expensive.

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

When he penned his next letter to his folks on July 18th, he was in Brisbane. “I believe it will be ok if I told you that my leave is somewhere in Australia,” he wrote. “Naturally I’m very excited and enjoying the experience of traveling and living in a new country for awhile.” Elmer raved about the favorable exchange rate, which went far for his and his mates. “Meals and living expenses are cheaper here than in the States. And I have ten days to spend a hundred and fifty dollars.”

Shortly after arriving he and his crewmates from the Mink took a train down to Sydney. He described the journey in his interview as well:

I guess one thing I noticed as we rode this train down to Sydney from Brisbane, if you look out the windows as you do aboard a train, you’d see these kangaroos jumping around. I thought that was kind of neat.

Elmer Luckett. Oral Interview

Elmer’s other letters offer some specifics: lodging with three other men in a flat was $1.50 a night, while “a meal with steak or meat in any form with vegetables and desert oranges [costs] about sixty cents a person in our money.” Public transit on the Tram cost as little as two American pennies a trip, which was fortuitous since there was much to do. “[We went to] the zoo, parks, buildings, and local nightclubs,” he wrote, “[and] I’ve met several nice girls at dances given by the Red Cross Service Club.” Overall, “the people treat us swell here, and it’s practically like our home country.”

One of the girls he met at the Red Cross dances was Rae Henry, a “very sweet girl” who lived in Sydney. Elmer dated her several times, and was even invited to her parents house for dinner twice. “We have been dancing, to the zoo, movies, and sightseeing. She is really a fine person.” On July 30th, Elmer, Rae, and another couple packed up a lunch and enjoyed a picnic at the beach.

Grandpa mentioned Rae during his interview:

I got acquainted with a gal down there. She worked there. Her name was Rae Henry, R-A-E Henry. I remember her well. So anyway, I got acquainted with her down there. Then, Lloyd Hill, he was an electrician on the Mink. He was pretty close buddies with me. He met another gal down there. She was a friend of Rae’s. So we made a few dates with them. We went to … what the hell was the name of it … beautiful animal park down there.*

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

Elmer did not forget his family back home during his leave. He sent his mother a birthday telegram and arranged for his sister to give her flowers on his behalf. He also mailed boomerangs to Bud and Irene, as well as a couple of “expensive” gifts to Shirley.

Elmer’s birthday telegram to his mother, which he sent from Australia.

Elmer roamed around some during his stay, visiting a couple of small towns in New South Wales and Queensland while also checking out the Blue Mountains. Once he arrived back in Sydney for the end of his leave, however, he was there to stay until their boat came to pick them up. Unfortunately, that would be several weeks away, forcing Elmer to remain in Australia indefinitely until then. On the one hand that was good news, since it meant more time on leave – and more dates with Rae. “It has been a wonderful leave here in Australia,” he wrote on July 31st. “I’ve had such good times and enjoyed myself. I feel like I can go back and get busy at my job and help finish this war.” On the other hand, Elmer was starting to run low on money, having only budgeted himself for ten days of expenses, travel, and souvenirs. All of his incoming mail was waiting for him back on the Mink, which meant that while Elmer was sending letters out, he was not receiving any in return. Soon the shoe would be on the other foot, and Elmer would be the one worrying about his folks after months of hearing no news from the home front.

*After some quick institutional Googling it seems that Grandpa meant the Taronga Zoological Park, since other popular zoos and animal parks in the area (e.g., Featherdale, WILD LIFE Sydney Zoo) did not open until long after World War II.

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