August 1945: A Time for Peace

“Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing? This time, it will swing us clean to oblivion.”

Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

The course of human history can change in a manner of nanoseconds. That is exactly what happened at 08:15 on the morning of August 6th, 1945, when the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The initial airburst created a fireball measuring over 100,000,000° Celsius, hot enough to flay the skin off the sun, and a blast wave capable of flattening everything from air to steel. The city was gone in under a minute. But the tens of thousands who died during those first few moments were the lucky ones. Thousands more died from radiation sickness in the following months, with some wandering miles from ground zero before finally succumbing to their wounds. The Hiroshima explosion might have lasted mere seconds, but its effects would last years. Then on August 9th, three days and half a breath later, the United States dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki. To make matters worse for the reeling Empire, the Soviets declared war that same day and invaded Manchuko. The writing was on the wall for Japan, which reluctantly began surrender talks with the Allies.

Just as Japan’s nightmare was beginning, the long slog of America’s Pacific War was finally coming to an end. It’s hard to fathom the immensity of this conflict, spread as it was over four years and 65 million square miles of ocean. If the war were a chess match, the board would have included four continents and 25,000 islands, and the United States would have started the game with a few pieces missing. But, finally, a checkmate was in sight. After the bombings, the Soviet invasion, the near-total destruction of Japanese infrastructure and production, and sinking morale, Japan was running out of moves.

Two aerial photos of atomic bomb mushroom clouds, over two Japanese cities in 1945. Wikicommons.

Elmer responded to these momentous events in a letter to his parents on August 12th. “The world has been shaking with news since I wrote home last Wednesday,” he reflected. “And in a matter of hours this war may come to an end – please God.” Elmer discussed how he and his shipmates responded to the news. “Since last Wednesday when news of our new atomic bomb came out, our whole ship has been tensed for all the news . . . I hope within the next twenty four hours that Japan will agree to our terms. They can’t hope for a better deal.”

Elmer quickly pivoted to the $64,000 question: if the war was about to end, then when would he be able to get home?

It will mean so much if the war ends. Of course, it may be months before I get my discharge. But with my time over-seas and length of service I should be eligible for discharge under any system of demobilization the Navy may use. I sure hope so! We will hope for the best. The main thing is to end the war, after the war is over we know it is only a matter of time before I will be coming home to stay. I’ve been thinking about you at home and somehow knowing how you must feel at this time. And I bet Rosie is plenty excited too.”

Elmer to his Parents, 12 August 1945

He also reflected on the new deus ex machina that brought the war to a climax so quickly, circumventing what many believed would be an inevitable – and bloody – invasion of the Japanese home islands. “It has all been so sudden that I can’t seem to believe it,” he wrote. “That bomb must be horrible.” Perhaps realizing right then what the existence of such a weapon might mean for the world, he reflected further on what the invention would mean for humanity. “Let’s hope and pray that new atomic bomb will be a symbol of everlasting peace in the future. God knows what the hell this world will see if another war comes with weapons like that . . . [The atomic bomb] can be a continuous reminder to people that another war will bring world destruction. Maybe in that way we can keep peace.”

This is what Elmer’s parents would have read on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Regardless of the political, military, or ethical implications of its use, the news must have come as a relief to millions of families like Elmer’s who feared what would happen if the U.S. were to invade Japan.

A few days later, Elmer continued to ponder the history being made right at that moment. “The news has kept us up and down concerning the Jap surrender business,” he wrote. “Most of us did not know how we stood in this war. And more rumors can be circulated! But it seems the Japs are finally surrendering and only certain formalities [remain] to be carried out in signing the surrender.” He wondered about what his friends and family in St. Louis were thinking. If anything could cut through the gooey heat of a Missouri summer, he suspected, it would be news of victory. “I try to imagine how all this news is effecting [sic] at home. No doubt many are getting drunk and raising hell,” he wrote, before adding a beat later that “we would if we could out here.” However, for the time being they still had work to do. “We are still at our jobs as usual. Waiting to see how the war’s end will effect [sic] us. It may be months before they start demobilizing. But you can only hope for the best.”

Elmer then wrote about his journey over the past four years. While the war had come to a horrible end for Japan, the engineer recalled that its beginning was just as jarring for the United States.

“My biggest hope when this war started at Pearl Harbor was to live and see it end. May sound funny, but it looked so bad at first for us that I didn’t want to die for fear that I wouldn’t know who won the war in the end. Now when I look back over the three years and eight months of this war, it is amazing to realize how much has been accomplished. I know you will feel more relieved and have more peace of mind about me since the war is ending (I’ll feel a little better too. Ha! Ha!) But I feel that my chances for an early discharge are very good. And before you know it I’ll be back home as a ‘Joe Civilian.'”

Elmer to his Parents, 15 August 1945

Elmer’s emotions continued to pour out as he segued to talking about his love life. Although Elmer had already told his parents that he had settled on Rose, he did not mention wanting to marry her until August 15 – the formal Japanese surrender date. “Mom,” he wrote reassuringly, “I know you will like Rosie very much. Sometime in the future I hope to marry her.” This must have come as a surprise to his parents, considering the speed with which this long-distance romance seemed to crystallize. But Elmer assured his parents that he no longer had any qualms about his future with her. “I suppose there comes a time to every man,” he noted, “when he feels that the right girl has been found. It is hard to explain, yet it is an understanding and inner feeling that you have the girl to make you a real wife.” After years of trying to convince his parents that he was too young to get married, Elmer now worried that they did not think him old enough. “To you, I am still your baby. Always will be I guess. But I am actually twenty-five you know. And I’m glad I’ve waited this long before getting serious . . . I have changed my ideas about women so much since I left home . . . in fact, I feel matured beyond my years.” This was no doubt true, as Elmer by that point had spent nearly his entire post-adolescent life in the service. He had seen war first-hand, traveled across two oceans and three continents, and had achieved one of the highest ratings he could get as an enlisted reservist. He was entitled to make this decision for himself.

It is hard to know what his parents had to say about this turn of events, given the fact that Elmer never saved any of their letters. Based on what we can surmise from his correspondence, it seems that they were likely thrown for a loop by his whirlwind romance with Rose, and they might have pushed back on that some in their letters. They might have reminded him at one point that he was still young and still at war – precisely the same point Elmer made himself repeatedly over the past four years, ever since his ill-fated courtship with Pat O’Donnell in 1941. His mother sensed a change in Elmer’s descriptions of Rose, however, which is already discernible just by reading his increasingly long discussions of her and their relationship. She expressed anxiety over whether or not Rose would like her, which is something that Elmer had not commented on in earlier letters with respect to her meeting other girlfriends. His father, meanwhile, seemed to play the Devil’s Advocate (as fathers are wont to do – mine still does!). Knowing his son’s intention over the past four years was to wait to marry until after being mustered out likely made him write a letter to Elmer asking him to clarify his reasons for committing to Rose. This was a reasonable response, to be sure, but since Elmer was 10,000 miles away it may have seemed less reasonable when reading his father’s questions without the benefit of answering them in person.

Elmer sensed something was off when he wrote his parents about the matter in July. He decided to clear the air:

“Guess I sound like I’m going to dash right home and get married,” he wrote, maybe a bit defensively. “But that is not my intention at all. Mom, you said something about Rose expecting a ring. She didn’t say a word about being engaged. I asked her to wait for me and she said she would. But I told her later that we would be engaged when I got home. So the ring will come then. But until I go home and reestablish myself I won’t get married. That may take a year or more. Whether to go to school or to get a job is something I must decide when I get back home. Then I can see how the situation stands. If I was home I could explain myself better, but I think you understand how I feel. And we will have a lot of time to talk things over.”

Elmer to his Parents, 15 August 1945

By the end of the month, Elmer had heard Rose’s account of her meeting with his parents. She had since quit her job in the Navy Department to move back to Saint Louis, so she was free to call on her prospective in-laws. “I told Rose what a fine Mom and Dad I had and she agrees with me a hundred percent. I know she was very happy and pleased to meet you both, I know by the way she writes.” He was a little nervous about how they responded, however. “You didn’t have much to say about Rosie, Dad. But I know you have faith in me and my judgment. As you said, it is how I feel toward Rosie.” In the final analysis, though, regardless of what his parents thought, he knew it was his decision.

“Naturally, I don’t expect you to know and understand her as I do on your first meeting. And I am the one in love with her. I’ve never felt this way about any other girl, and perhaps you don’t understand the way I feel. But in some way, maybe instinct or insight, I am sure that Rose is the girl I want for a wife someday. I won’t try to explain ‘love,’ too many think they can or have failed trying. As I have faith in you, as my mother and father, I have this faith and trust in a girl I want to have for a life partner. I believe this is very necessary. And I know I am right.”

Elmer to his Parents, 29 August 1945

If his parents had any remaining doubts up until that point, that paragraph must have extinguished them. After all, the most frequently described characteristic of love is its very indescribability. Elmer’s trajectory over the past four years may seem personally and intimately familiar to many readers: from being resolutely and vocally opposed to marriage for one reason or another, to announcing one’s engagement. It is not so much that Elmer or anyone else renounces the argument that they should wait, but that the eventually find the person for whom they were waiting in the first place.

A soldier’s 1944–45 Welcome Home Guide to Camp Patrick HenryVirginia. The end of the war created a massive logistical challenge for the United States military, particularly the Navy: getting millions of fighting men and women back home. Wikicommons.

When not discussing his love life, Elmer continued to write about the ship’s morale as the surrender rumors turned into news reports. The crew was preoccupied with when they would be discharged and sent home. “All you hear out here is ‘points,’ ‘points,’ and more ‘points,'” he wrote on August 22nd. “Everyone wants to get out and get home.” The United States Armed Forces introduced a Points system that summer in order to prioritize who would go home first, and who would have to stay behind for a while. Disassembling a victorious military in peacetime was like surfacing after a deep sea dive – doing so without slowly depressurizing would be catastrophic. “You just can’t jump off all the ships and leave them set,” he wrote. “It will take time to demobilize.” There was also some suspicion that Japan’s surrender entreaties were not made in good faith, with Elmer at point calling Japan “a sneaky damn outfit” as negotiations between the Empire and the Americans continued at a slower-than-desired pace.

For the Mink’s part, all of the American ships on the far side of the Pacific still had to get home. If all of the oilers and tankers disappeared, they would be stranded without fuel. Yet Elmer was high on the priority list: he had 40 1/2 points. Discharge required 44. “Considering my age (only 25) and the fact that I’m not married or having a dependent, I stand pretty high,” he noted. “Of course, it is because of my long service. But many married men aboard in their middle thirties have no more points than I do. And young fellows in their teens don’t have half as many points. So I won’t complain about the deal.”

Apparently his family back home was more than aware of the Points system – they were also crunching the numbers. It became something of a game for loved ones to correctly reckon the government’s math, and Elmer’s family sent their guesses to their man on the Mink. Most of them were a bit optimistic. “Looks like brother Bud is the only one at home that figured my points out right,” Elmer announced, as if he were emceeing a pub trivia night. “At least, he figured I didn’t have enough, and that’s right.” but Elmer did have some good news to report on August 29th. “We heard that in the near future the Navy was going to allow more points to men who that have done over-seas duty,” he wrote. “Just how many points hasn’t been announced yet, but it would only take three or four to bring my score up to 44 points. If the Navy is going to demobilize a million or more men within the next year, I feel sure within six months I should be getting out.”

Nonetheless, he looked forward to going home. He declined to send a money order home that month, informing his parents that he might need it for a leave home if the opportunity arose. On the 29th he asked his parents to stop sending him packages, telling them, “I can get all the things I need out here, or else it can wait till I get to the states (I’m hoping it won’t be too long).” As August turned into September, he believed that sooner would be better than later for a break from the tropical heat:

It’s been pretty damn hot lately – but its always hot or hotter. Back home it will be September soon and autumn [is] just around the corner. Leaves falling and weather comfortable for a sweater or a jacket. I’ve said it before and I say it again, give me four seasons a year.”

Elmer to his Parents 25 August 1945

The seasons were indeed changing, even in the sultry Pacific. As summer turned to fall elsewhere, the vaporizing heat of atomic fire would soon lead to the slow, frozen chill of a new Cold War, once again wrapping the world in a fresh set of anxieties. But for Elmer, his service would soon be over. He would celebrate Halloween in St. Louis that year, enjoying the crisp fall breeze and the hot apple cider, dressed as a civilian.

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