December 1944: “Christmas is for the Kids”

It is the day before Christmas and all through the ship not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse. (P.S. We don’t have any mice.)

Elmer Luckett to his Parents, 24 December 1944

December was a quiet month for the Mink and the rest of the 7.7.2 task force as they serviced the ships still anchored in San Pedro Bay. The war had shifted north, toward Mindanao, and the Japanese Navy’s losses during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October decisively ended its ability to defend the Empire, let alone hold its own against the American fleets that slowly encircled the bleeding nation like sharks. The dive bombers were now gone, and the remaining enemy ground units had retreated beyond the Leyte Valley. Most would not last the month.

As the cool and pleasant St. Louis autumn gave way to a frigid and dull winter, December made no impact on the temperature in the Leyte Gulf, which was always muggy and warm to hot. However, it did bring more rain. Cats and dogs worth. The mean monthly rainfall jumps from 6.84 inches in September to a whopping 15.2 inches, the highest average of the year. That’s about seven times what St. Louis gets in December, and almost twice what Phoenix receives all year. All that precipitation added up, making an already remote, dangerous location even more isolating. It “was such a nasty, rainy morning” on Sunday, December 17th that “most of our church crowd didn’t go to services.” Between the unrelenting heat and the sheets of rain, Missouri winter did not seem so bad after all. “Dad, it might sound funny to you,” Elmer wrote on the 27th, “but I’d like to be shoveling that four inches of snow you had. I miss that nasty old white substance. And I miss sleeping . . . with about five blankets.”

Christmas 1944 was especially difficult for many Americans, as it was the first and only holiday season to take place between the D-Day invasion and V-E Day. These 101st Airborne officers ate Christmas dinner in Bastogne, Belgium, while under German siege during the Battle of the Bulge. Photo taken 12/25/1944. Photo and caption from https://unwritten-record.blogs.archives.gov/2016/12/19/christmas-in-wartime-battle-of-the-bulge/

Elmer’s December 1944 letters dwelled more heavily on the holidays and on Christmas than during any of the previous years he was overseas, including 1941. It may be that because the war seemed to be so close to being over, yet so interminably long, Elmer was tired of spending his Christmases in warm, humid climates. “Today is an anniversary to me,” he announced on the 17th, “exactly four years ago I left home on active duty. How time flies. Its [sic] been a long time.” He was not especially looking forward to his fifth Christmas in a row away from home. “I like to see Christmas pass fast when I’m away,” he told his parents on the 20th. By the 24th, he was a bit more willing to engage with the topic at hand. “Tomorrow is Christmas, and I’ll be thinking of you all at home,” he wrote. “We will be united in thought and spirit and to compensate for being away I like to think that my Christmas away is helping to make for more merry and peaceful times [in the future.]” He was more than excited for those times to arrive. “When I do get home for Christmas,” he wrote, “I’ll be like a kid seeing his first Xmas.”

Yet monsoonal weather and major wars could not completely put a damper on the holiday spirit. “[We] have a nice Xmas dinner menu prepared for us,” he declared, “and it is the traditional dinner. Turkey with all the trimmings.” And then there were gifts . . . lots and lots of gifts. His mother, his sister Irene, and his Aunt Frieda sent him two large boxes containing imported cigars, a new pipe, tobacco, candy, nuts, over a dozen socks. They packed the gifts in bright wrapping paper, and unlike many of Elmer’s crewmates’ packages they arrived in good shape. “You should see how some fellows get packages,” he told his mom on the 20th. “Some are so bad they must be discarded. but yours have been fine so far (my mom looks out for me).” His mom was not the only person to successfully ship him a Christmas gift, however. Bud Tanner mailed him a box of 50 cigars, Shirley sent a package containing cigars and candy, and his brother Bud renewed his Reader’s Digest subscription.

Christmas dinners were elaborate affairs in the British as well as in the American Navy. The Captain of HMS MALAYA helping himself to plum pudding during Christmas dinner at Scapa Flow, 25 December 1942. A-13566. Admiralty Official Collection. Imperial War Museum.

While Elmer wanted to return the generosity, he was unable to go holiday shopping or even buy Christmas cards while in San Pedro harbor. So he asked his mother to help. On Wednesday, December 6th Elmer mailed his parents two $10 money orders, which given the difficulty of paying sailors who were on a boat in a war zone was about all the money he had left. He asked that his parents use one to buy themselves “something nice” for Christmas, and the other one to be used on gifts for his nieces and nephews. “Christmas is for the kids,” he remarked. By the following Sunday, however, he had finally received his pay and sent another two money orders: one for $30, and another for $100. The $30 was to buy additional gifts.

Although Elmer did not lose his Christmas spirit, he was increasingly losing his patience with his – and the world’s – situation. “The war news is favorable all around, but our enemies don’t know when to quit it seems,” he lamented on the 10th. “How can you show any mercy when they will stop for nothing. Must we beat them down on their knees[?]” A few days later he discussed how much he missed driving. “Out here you can settle by taking the motor boat out for a spin. Acting as a boat engineer. Gets you off the ship and breaks the monotony a little.” But there were other aspects of having a car and being able to drive that he missed as well. After explaining why he missed his rained-out church services on the 17th, he quipped about not needing them anyway. “Not much chance at me being anything but good out here. Ha! Ha!”

When movie nights resumed aboard the Mink that December, one of the films shown was My Favorite Wife. Perhaps it struck a chord with Elmer, who was then courting at least three women on two different continents.

Elmer’s love life by correspondence remained just as muddled then as it had throughout the year. He regularly wrote Rose, Rae, and several other girls. At the end of 1944, however, Shirley seemed to have a slight edge over the competition. “I think very much of Shirley,” he told his parents on the 27th. “She is a good kid.” In fact, Shirley had sent his mother a scarf and his father a tie for Christmas, so they wanted to know what to buy her in return. “I know she will be pleased with whatever you get her,” he assured them. In the meantime, Elmer continued to write Shirley once a week, at minimum, and earlier in the month he referred to her as “my Shirley.” However, Elmer clearly did not want his parents to spend an arm and a leg on a present in return. He was still unwilling to commit. “Until the time when this war is over I don’t want to get serious over any girl. If Shirley still cares for me at that time, we will see what the future brings.” By late 1944 Elmer was not just worried about the war, which was coming to a close, intruding on a young marriage. It was no longer a question of how long would the war last, but of what would come next after serving three and a half years overseas on deployment. “I don’t intend to rush home and get married to anyone,” he warned, “it will take me awhile to readjust and re-establish myself.”

Elmer was also ready to dispense with his maternal flattery:

Mom, no matter what girl gets me in the end, your place in my heart can never be replaced. The love you have for mother and father is one kind, the love for a girl to be your wife, companion and mother of your children is another . . . I’m glad I’ve had this time and experience to become more mature. I hope it will help me choose the right girl for a life-partner. My ideas on the subject have changed since I was a youth of 20.

Elmer Luckett to his Parents, 27 December 1944

Grandpa was wise to wait. After all, you would probably not be reading this if he had not. But there are other reasons to believe that Elmer’s years spent on ships in the middle of the Pacific had afforded him the opportunity to figure out exactly what it was he wanted in life and in a life partner. Once he did choose someone to wed, it was for keeps.

And he made that choice a lot sooner than he thought possible: in early 1945.

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