October 1944: The Fighting Mink

On December 27, Elmer sent his parents his latest – and last – Christmas menu from the Mink’s official holiday dinner. It contained the usual fare: roast turkey, candied sweet potatoes, blueberry pie, and of course cigarettes. “We had a lovely dinner,” Elmer wrote, “and it sure went over good. Enclosed you will find the menu.” But the paper he sent had an additional bonus as well. “Also on the menu is our ship’s insignia – note the mink with the boxing gloves. I thought it very good.”

The USS Mink’s insignia, which Mink commander W. J. Meagher included on the ship’s Christmas menu. Elmer Luckett Ephemera Collection.

The insignia was certainly appropriate, and well-earned, given the Mink’s activities over the past two and a half months. Like hundreds of other ships, Elmer’s tanker participated in both the reconquest of the Philippines and the largest naval encounter in world history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Although the Mink was not a warship, the massive armada that closed in upon America’s fallen colony in late 1944 would not have traveled far without extra diesel and gasoline fuel on hand, so it and other oil-bearing ships were there to keep the invasion vessels going. But it would not be easy going. The Japanese understood why the tankers were there and diverted some of their limited air resources to bomb them. They, probably more than anyone, understood the importance of having a reliable fuel supply.

The Mink spent the majority of October in New Guinea, where it discharged oil and gas in Humboldt Bay from the 1st through the 18th. Elmer’s letters during this time, like the Mink’s operations, were business as usual. He reported to his parents that he was still receiving backlogged mail from his Australia trip and hinted that he missed his latest squeeze, Rae. He described her a bit more for his folks: she was 26, had reddish-brown hair, and was 5’5. The description was not entirely flattering. “Not a beautiful girl,” he recalled, “but pleasant, nice disposition, and a lot of personality.” Overall, though, it appears that Rae’s inside beauty more than made up for her outward appearance. “You weren’t worried about me with those Aussie girls, were you Dad? Ha! Ha! You know I can take care of myself, but they aren’t hard to fall for.”

Shirley apparently took Elmer’s relationship with Rae about as seriously as Elmer himself:

“[Shirley] asked what power I had over women, because Rae wrote you a letter. Ha! Ha! She is a good kid and understands about me going out while on leave. And I’m glad she does because I’ve told her I write other girls also. But she was first on my list at all times. (now you’re probably jealous, mom – but you’re still my best girl.)”

Elmer Luckett to his Parents, 11 October 1944

While Elmer’s intercontinental correspondence with a growing list of ladies would soon require its own rolodex, the bonds he formed with his fellow servicemen were both enduring and elastic. However, they were also harder to maintain, since naval personnel tended to change addresses frequently as their assignments and whereabouts changed. He was thrilled when he received a postcard from Ozzie Gray, who was awaiting orders in New Jersey and would soon rejoin the war in the North Atlantic. His last letter to Gray, which he had addressed to the Chew, was returned to him via post. Besides Gray, Elmer regularly corresponded with his friends from his time on the Chew, who like him were themselves now stretched across the world, fighting a global war. But they would always share a common bond, a steely heritage forged via months of living on the blue water but baptized by a morning of fire. “Guess most of that old gang is gone by now,” he wrote wistfully on the 15th. “The good ‘ole Chew.”

Ever conscious of the censor’s requirements, Elmer filled his pages with topics he could talk about, like his living compartment. “Wish you could see our quarters,” he beamed. “We have a nice desk in our room. It folds up against the bulkhead when not in use . . . The bulkheads are light blue, overhead is white enamel, and the lockers and bunks a dark blue” He appreciated the set-up. “Most Navy ships don’t offer these accommodations . . . we can’t kick about conditions. Especially when you see how men live on the beach in this neck of the woods.”

Point of comparison to the Mink: Photo of USS Hornet (CV-12) enlisted bunks. Stan Shebs, 2005, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USS_Hornet_enlisted_bunks.jpg.

He also transacted the regular business of birthdays and holidays, mentioning that he purchased a stack of birthday cards in Australia to send out over the following months but could not find any for Christmas, which were not available yet. However, he did ask his folks what he should get them, and probably intended to have one of his siblings arrange to purchase the items on his behalf. He would certainly have the resources to make such arrangements: on October 8th he sent a $70 money order home to be deposited in to his account. Now that his leave was over he was back on the ship, flush with cash but with nowhere to spend it.

By October 15th his tone shifted slightly. He knew that he was about to leave again. He told his mother that he attended church that day aboard another boat, and he once again sent his usual disclaimer for those times when he knew he might be incommunicado: “I’m in shipshape and good spirits. Don’t forget if at any time my letters are late, no news is good news, and they may be a little longer reaching you . . . and I wanted to let you know now.” He wrote again the next day, indicating that it might be his last letter for a few weeks. He did not have much to say after the previous day’s letter, so he talked movies. “No, mom, I didn’t see Bing Crosby in Going My Way,” he replied in response to some question about the most commercially and critically successful film of 1944. “Our movies aren’t very new out here. But I see many that I haven’t seen before.” He mentioned that the crew did watch Dixie Dugan recently, which had come out the previous year.

Elmer, along with 200,000 other naval personnel, were about to move ever farther away from where all the good movies were made. Their next stop was the Japanese-occupied Philippines. The grand operation, codenamed King Two, was comparable only to the D-Day landings in Normandy in terms of both scale and self-satisfaction. In particular, General Douglas MacArthur was eager to fulfill his promise three years earlier to his men trapped on the archipelago behind enemy lines that he “shall return.” The successful liberation of the Philippines would also put an American wall between Japan and its oil supplies in the Dutch East Indies, finally cutting the island empire off from its remaining fuel reserves and potentially forcing a rapid conclusion to the war.

Episode 18 of the famous 1951 Crusade in the Pacific series covered MacArthur’s epic return to the Philippines. He splashed ashore Leyte Island on October 20th, 1944, only a short distance away from where the Mink would sail four days later.

As Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkade, commander of the Seventh Fleet, set up his chess board for the coming assault he had many assets at his disposal. The Mink was assigned to Task Force 77.7.2, which was a group of mostly service vessels under the command of Rear Admiral R. O. Glover. They were to support the Seventh Fleet in the coming battle to liberate the Philippines, starting with Leyte Island. The Task Force also included five other tankers, plus seven oilers, nine ammunition ships, three destroyer escorts, two hospital ships, and even a floating dry dock. While not as powerful, deadly, or sexy as the cruisers and destroyers that made up the primary Seventh Fleet combat units, the ships in the 77.7.2 service force symbolized America’s resourcefulness. After all, it was one thing to build carriers or battleships to keep pace with an enemy navy, but it was quite another to have enough material and industrial capacity left over to also build tankers, hospital ships, and a floating dry dock. The service fleet was both an integral part of American naval strategy in waters nearly seven thousand miles from the mainland United States, and an extravagance that the Japanese could ill-afford to duplicate for themselves.

On October 18th, at 5:12 in the morning, the Mink got underway for the Philippines. The rising sun was still below the horizon in the east, while in the west the Empire of the Rising Sun was retreating north towards the Japanese home islands. It was a six day sail until the task force arrived in San Pedro Bay; Elmer took the time to write some letters.

He penned one to his parents during the trip, on October 22nd. There wasn’t anything unusual about it – he told his dad that he probably wouldn’t be “kicked up” to a new rating anytime soon since enlisted men were getting fewer of them. “I’m not worrying about it,” he told his dad. “The main thing is to get this war over with.” He also wondered why Shirley Ruth and so many of his friends wanted to move to California. “Most people are taken by the beauty of the state at first,” Elmer mused. He had no way of knowing that someday a majority of his descendants would live there.

As Elmer finished his letter, the Mink glided across the sapphire ocean below. Other boats in the 7.7.2 task force could be seen in the distance. For the time being, the only dangers surrounding them were sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, and other wardens of the deep, and their appetites were easily drowned out by the rolling waves of the endless, unscathed sea.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur wades ashore during initial landings at Leyte, Philippine Islands on October 20th. U.S. Army Signal Corps officer Gaetano Faillace. Wikicommons.

The Mink arrived in San Pedro Bay at 10am on October 24th. The Japanese immediately began to attack the arriving task force from the air, which lay a protective smoke screen around the Mink and other auxiliary ships. By 1500 hours the smoke had cleared enough for the ships to proceed to their anchorage.

October 25th was a long day, starting with an air alert at 0715, followed by an all clear at 0930. But then two hours later the Mink officially joined the battle after a second air alert that morning sent the crew scrambling to general quarters. With its bow facing seaward, just before noon a crewman noticed a wave of incoming Japanese dive bombers just ahead and off to the starboard side. The planes took direct aim at the shore facilities then being built in order to support the invasion. Most were outside of the Mink’s reach, but whenever they wandered into the range of the Mink’s 3″ and 5″ guns they swung into action, and fired on the dive bombers as they screeched toward the ground. The guns lowered their angle of fire as they tracked the bombers downward. According to the subsequent action report the Mink’s 3″50 caliber gun scored one direct hit, and reported it as a “Sure” when they saw the bomber fall out of its dive and crash onto the beach. The air alerts continued throughout the rest of the day, and were punctuated by the occasional roar of the Mink’s anti-aircraft guns. The ship was not secured until 7pm that evening.

The next day the Mink began dispensing diesel, gas, and lubricating oil to the surrounding armada. Meanwhile, as it discharged its precious cargo, it continued to discharge its guns. The crew fired on at least four dive bombers over the span of about 12 hours as columns of smoke billowed into the hot lead air over Leyte Gulf. Although it did not score any “sure” hits in its action report the ship was in the thick of the battle. “There were many planes,” the report noted, “therefore no accurate report can be submitted.” It fired nearly 400 rounds of 20mm ammunition at the passing planes, as well as 17 3″ and 5″ shells.

Two Coast Guard-manned LST’s open their great jaws in the surf that washes on Leyte Island beach, as soldiers strip down and build sandbag piers out to the ramps to speed up unloading operations. 1944. WikiCommons.

The 27th was quieter, but not without incident. The Mink fired at three Japanese plans flying across her stern toward the shore.

Elmer wrote his parents a letter that day. He didn’t let on that the Mink was in the thick of the war – not that he would have been allowed to do so at any rate. But he did talk about the Filipinos he and his crew-mates encountered over the last few days, even if he could not mention where they were or whether this group was different from the last one. “Got more Jap invasion money,” he reported. “Natives come out in their outrigger canoes and trade with us. They want cigarettes and old clothes for Jap money and bananas.” Later, Elmer directly alluded to the horrors that unfolded around him over the past few days: “Little incidents like these help break up the monotony and routine each day – we have had other things breaking the monotony, but I’ll tell you about that some other time.”

During the next several days, the Mink continued to fuel various craft while sounding out air alerts every few hours. One came at 9:20 in the evening on October 30th. The frequent alerts and the long-running battle in the skies above took their toll on the sailors there, both on the Mink and on other vessels. Nerves were on edge, tempers flared. In fact, the only time the Mink was hit came on October 31st, when a friendly 50 caliber shell hit the aft living compartment. No one was hurt and nothing was damaged, but it was certainly not the way anyone on board wanted to celebrate Halloween that year.

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