March 1945: Splitsville

“Thanks for the Memory” (1938) was one of the most iconic breakup songs of the WWII generation . . . it even won the Oscar for “Best Original Song”

If Elmer’s life during World War II was a season of The Bachelor, Shirley would have been one of the first contestants and probably the odds-on favorite for a marriage proposal at the end. But in the spring of 1945, Elmer’s main squeeze took herself out of the running. “Shirley and I are practically split up now,” he wrote rather abruptly on the 7th. “Perhaps I better explain the situation more thoroughly.”

The “situation” actually wasn’t that complicated: Elmer told Shirley, probably not for the first time, that he did not want to be exclusive. But Shirley, perhaps sensing that the end of the war was approaching, while also realizing that the last several years of courtship were not bringing the two any closer together, decided to break things off. Elmer was surprised by, though not necessarily broken up over, the news. “[We] never had a definite understanding between us,” he protested. “While I was home and saw her it was dates and a good time. She knew my intentions were not to marry anyone until after the war (this wasn’t meant just for her – it came up in conversation).” He further explained that he told her about his other romantic flings and pen pals, which based on previous letters probably did not come as much of a surprise to Shirley. But the sentence that might have cut the most, and was likely left unsaid over the past several years, was a buried lede: “To be fair with Shirley I wanted her to know that she meant very much to me and I liked her but just what I intended to do after the war was indefinite. In short, I didn’t want her to assume we would get engaged, married, or even go steady . . . but I was still willing to write her sweet letters for sweet letters, and after the war we would see what developed.”

Needless to say, this did not go over well. “Evidently Shirley felt hurt about it and didn’t think the same as I do. She said beings I didn’t want any obligations, and would be happier without any, perhaps we should forget each other.” Elmer seemed glad that, like with Pat a few years earlier, he was able to avoid dumping her. “I’m glad she thought it out and decided what she wanted.” He then essentially admitted that he was being unfair. “I admit my offer is selfish and and didn’t sound like I think much of her, but I’d sooner she know that now. I don’t expect any girl to wait around for me, and on my terms I guess they would be foolish to do so. Ha! Ha!”

Elmer’s letters to Rose sent mixed messages, suggesting that he wanted Rose to avoid dating other men while yet refusing to commit on his own.

The problem, though, is that if Elmer’s letters to Shirley were even remotely similar to those he sent to Rose, then one could not blame her for reading between the lines. Here’s one passage he wrote to Rose on November 21st, 1944:

“I feel at a disadvantage when it comes to expressing myself with pen and paper. My presence in your company would be a marvelous solution. But very impractical and highly impossible for some time. My problem, therefore, is to hold your interest (at 10,000 miles or so) and keep your mind off all the attractive males you must come in contact with time and time again. Yet, somehow, I feel that our memories of a wonderful past together carry weight in the matter. If only I could reaffirm myself your standing dear. Perhaps this separation, in its lonesome and trying way, is creating a better understanding. I sincerely hope so darling.”

Elmer to Rose, 21 November 1944

Throughout 1944 and into 1945, Elmer wrote his parents twice and Shirley at least once a week. He did not commit to writing Rose once a week until the fall of 1944, and even then Elmer made it known to his parents that his letters Shirley were his highest priority. But his letters to Rose are stacked with references to reconnecting after the war and to seeing where things go during peacetime. He is careful not to make any explicit promises, but we must remember that in 1945 sailors were only rarely able to telephone their loved ones. There was no email, no texts, no emojis, and certainly no Facebook relationship status. As anyone who has ever been in love can imagine, those early stages of a relationship are filled with a lot of recreational reading between the lines, and for couples during WWII the only way to do that across a long distance was to read and reread the letters they received from their sweetheart. Elmer probably felt – in fact, I’m positive that he genuinely believed – that his disclaimers were enough to signal his lack of interest in committing to any one woman during the war. But the “sweet letters” he sent mixed the message.

It is also important to remember the social context of courtship during World War II. Men and women both put their lives on hold for several years as they worked and sacrificed their way toward victory. An unmarried woman Elmer’s age when the war started would have been 25 when it ended. Although there is nothing (or rather there should be nothing) unusual about that today, in 1940 the median age of first marriage for women was 21.5, while for men it was 24.3. In other words, once the war was over, Elmer was only beginning to reach the point in his life where the crescendo of social pressure for him to marry would begin to build to intolerable levels. Rose, meanwhile, regularly referred to herself in 1944 as being “old,” despite being six months younger than Elmer.

This social pressure, when coupled with lingering economic insecurity from the Great Depression and the simple fact that hundreds of thousands of marriageable men would die in the War, took its toll on Elmer’s romantic pen pals. Rose likely succeeded in ameliorating that pressure somewhat when she moved (escaped?) to Washington, D.C. to begin her Navy Department job, and since there was no reason for her to believe that Elmer would not return to St. Louis after the war her prospects for a more permanent relationship were good. But Shirley, who by 1944 was living in Michigan and writing letters to her sailor sweetheart for several years at that point, wanted a more definite outcome. Once it became clear that their future was muddled at best, she cut bait.

The “129 Ways To Get a Husband” article from a 1958 issue of McCalls has become something of a meme in recent months, but it does speak to a broader truth: that young American women faced enormous social, economic, political, and cultural pressure to find a husband.

Meanwhile, Elmer’s own future became somewhat clearer, if for no other reason than through the process of elimination. “Rose has been very attentive to me in her letters, so I’ll still be busy writing her,” he wrote on the 7th. But then a couple of weeks later his tone changed. “I must write Rose this afternoon,” he announced on the 21st. “She is my ‘heart-throb’ now.” He added that he still planned on going to university and being a bachelor while in school, since single college students “have more fun.” However, Elmer began to see his future, as well as his past, through Rose-colored glasses. With just the slightest bit of hesitation, he told his parents that he didn’t “want to become infatuated with a girl, at least not seriously.” At this point, it seems, his infatuation – and his growing affection – for Rose were a foregone conclusion. It just wasn’t serious.

Yet.

[Note: I have started writing a follow-up to this, entitled “A Post about Shirley.” Like I did with Pat, I tracked down Shirley and will provide a write-up about her and her life. Spoiler alert: Shirley, like Pat, had a “happy ending” after she broke things off with Elmer.]

The American wartime press salivated over MacArthur’s career, which was both intrinsically inspiring and cultivated to maximize propaganda value. This image of MacArthur on the cover of Destiny magazine in 1942 embodies the image that journalists often exhibited to Americans.

Romantic drama notwithstanding, March was uneventful aboard and around the Mink. The soupy tropical air was just as hot and stifling as it was February, and like the previous month no fresh dangers from the air or the sea confronted the crew. Most of the news was happening elsewhere, even if it was somewhat distorted by the intense gravitational pull that men like Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur had on the American media: “Well, dad, I read what you had to say about Doug MacArthur,” Elmer replied on the 11th.

“The opinion [about General MacArthur] seems to be much the same wherever I’ve been around. A favorite nickname for him out here is ‘I Love a Parade MacArthur.’ Most people can’t help but admit he has been a great and capable general. He has proven that, it just seems like his name and words are the only force here in the Pacific according to the news. I agree that the Navy gets very little publicity compared to the Army. But the Navy is much harder on censorship I believe.”

Elmer to his Parents, 11 March 1945

Nevertheless, in spite of all the positive press being heaped upon the nation’s military leaders, the reports were indeed good. American troops crossed the Rhine on March 7th, and by the end of the month Iwo Jima was officially secure. There was also some good news on the Mink: Elmer’s initial $10 stake in the ship’s canteen had grown into a $31 share, tripling his original investment. The candy, cigars, and toiletries practically sold themselves.

While the men aboard the Mink did not have too many shore adventures in March, they did enjoy some changes of scenery. On the 15th the oiler sailed back to Leyte Island, where it refueled ships for the next several days. Then it departed again in order to return to the Dutch East Indies. On the morning of March 31st, the Mink anchored in Mios Woendi, an island south of Biak that was barely larger than the National Mall. It was not much of an improvement, but at least it was something different.

Even though the Mink would not see any more hostile action for the duration of the conflict, its service would not end until the war did. And in the meantime, the sea would be its home – and Elmer’s.

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