Historian of the American West, Professor, and Documentarian
Author: Dr. Matt Luckett
I’m a historian and aspiring documentarian based in Orangevale, California. I teach history at Sierra College and coordinate the Masters in Humanities External Degree program at California State University Dominguez Hills. I also own 7 South Productions, which I established in 2018 as I began pursuing a new career in documentary film production.
Hi folks, Thank you for reading, commenting on, and following my blog over the past several months. I have really enjoyed sharing these letters with you and taking this opportunity to not only share this project with the public, but to hopefully honor my grandfather’s memory as well.
However, I need to take a few weeks off from the blog in order to make progress on some other projects. For one, I am scheduled to complete the copywriting and editing process for my forthcoming book Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing and Culture in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, which is due out sometime late this summer or early in the fall. So I will need to think about horse stealing again for a few more weeks while I complete this process with my publisher. I am also going to use this time to begin a major grant application for my documentary, Earthshaking. If I have any time left over after that, I am going to read a couple of books to review for this blog.
Therefore, this February I am going to take the month off from blogging and hand the reins over to my wife, JoAnna Wall. She is completing her PhD in history and studies the California missions. She also teaches world history at Sierra College. She has carte blanche to write about whatever she wants, so long as it is history-related somehow, and mind the store until I come back in March. Hopefully she will enjoy the experience enough to become a regular contributor here and, perhaps, eventually start her own blog.
Thanks again for reading, and I look forward to sharing more of these letters (we will start reading about 1943) and this project with you in March!
One of the more mysterious characters we’ve read about over the first two years of Elmer’s correspondence is his old flame, Pat. I had a great deal of difficulty locating her – mainly because I didn’t have a last name, and she doesn’t appear in some of the usual suspect places (Elmer’s Cleveland High School yearbook, his neighborhood according to 1940 census data, etc). However, Elmer’s December 27, 1942 letter to his parents contained two important clues: her last name (O’Donnell) and the date she was married (November 28th, 1942).
With that information on hand, it did not take long at all to find her. Doris Patricia (Pat) O’Donnell (born 1922 – two years younger than Elmer) married Ridgley Reichardt at the Trinity Evangelical Church (that should sound familiar – it is Elmer’s mother’s church) on November 28, 1942. Pat’s father, Cornelius E. O’Donnell, once worked as a printer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
A cursory newspaper search turned up a lot of information on Ridgley, who was by no means an inferior suitor. Reichardt was a champion speed skater, and by 1943 he and his bride were living in a beautiful house on Longfellow Boulevard. After the war he became a professional dog breeder and show judge. He and Pat won a Best of Breed award for one of their Golden Setters at the Heart of America All Breed Show in 1961.
I wondered whatever happened to Pat as I read through the first two years of grandpa’s letters, and in a strange way I kind of felt bad about Elmer turning her down in not the most gentle fashion nearly 80 years ago. Even though they continued to correspond with, I’m assuming, no hard feelings (she sent grandpa a nice wallet in the fall of 1942), I hoped that it all worked out for her.
As it turns out, it did. She and Ridgley both passed away in 2013 – just eight months apart – and left behind two daughters, three grandchildren, and as of 2013 eight great-grandchildren. They celebrated their 70th anniversary the previous year. If that isn’t a successful love story, then I don’t know what is. According to her obituary, “‘Pat’ enjoyed showing and raising Golden Setters and horseback riding.” It sounds to me like she fared pretty well after grandpa.
I won’t write much more about this because we are now starting to approach that line between historical research and infringing on a present-day family’s privacy. I debated whether or not to contact her descendants, but I opted not to subject them to some weird historian in California asking them about their mother’s or grandmother’s ex-boyfriend before meeting the man she would stay married to for over seventy years. Grandpa never mentioned her to me or to my dad (as far as I know), but in fairness he was twice-widowed and had a couple of long-term girlfriends before he himself passed away. His romantic history is much more convoluted, it would seem, and frankly it’s the sort of thing I never thought to ask him about.
But if one of her descendants ever comes to this blog post after doing a Google search on either Pat or Ridgley Reichardt, my question to them would be: did Patricia ever keep her letters from Elmer? If she did, does someone have them now? And if someone has them now . . .
Hi folks, If anyone is coming here from one of my classes (or if anyone else is curious about what I teach), I’ve updated my syllabi on the “Teaching” page, as well as the office hours I’m holding for Spring 2020. The office hours include Google Map applets showing where I’ll be, so please don’t be weird stalkers or anything like that.
I did not post anything here about the HUX program, which is the MA degree program I coordinate at California State University Dominguez Hills. If you have any questions about it, please reach me at my institutional email.
The Chew returned to Pearl Harbor on December 7th, a year to the day the war started. Much had changed since then. The United States had built up its armed forces and reorganized its economic, cultural, and social institutions around winning the war. Hawaii was effectively under military control. Allied armies were chasing Rommel across Africa, while the U.S. started its first major land campaign against the Japanese at Guadalcanal. With Midway won on the Pacific and Stalin on the offensive in Russia, the end of the beginning of World War II was at hand.
But one of the most inspiring differences could be seen at Pearl Harbor itself. Twelve months earlier the water was on fire; all eight of its battleships were sunk, sinking, or damaged; its air defenses were shattered; over 2,400 Americans were lost; and virtually everyone who had survived was shaken to the core. When the Chew arrived on December 7, 1942, however, the clinks and clanks of boats being repaired filled the air. The sound of hammers, drills, and saws rang out across the harbor in a steady, throbbing cacophony of noise. Within the first six months, the Navy resurrected five battleships and two cruisers from the harbor for repair, and divers busily patched what they could well into 1943.
One of the battleships under repair, the West Virginia, required an almost unfathomable amount of work. Eight torpedoes blasted its port side, and another one destroyed its propeller. Despite the incredible damage it incurred during the attack, a year later the salvage operation to bring it back to life was well underway. The Navy hoped to send it to Bremerton Yard near Seattle sometime in the new year in order to fix whatever they couldn’t mend at Pearl Harbor.
Just as the ships were being restored at breathtaking speed, Elmer noticed how quickly the hours were flying by for him as well. “The days pass so fast at sea it seems that one day is gone and another almost finished before noon,” he wrote on December 4th, when they were still three days out from Pearl, in the vast blue expanse of the Pacific. “This war will be a year old soon, and yet it seems like [it started] yesterday.”
The entire world seemed to be moving so fast. December 1942 brought some good, if anticlimactic news for Elmer: his old flame, Pat O’Donnell, was getting married. “She finally hooked a man,” he reported to his parents, who expressed no small amount of interest over the past two years in his seemingly on-again, off-again long-distance romance. Still, “it wasn’t a surprise to me.” Closer to home, Elmer learned that his sister Ruth had remarried her ex-husband, Rick. He seemed slightly annoyed by the recent developments (“she should know her own mind by now”), but he wished them success all the same.
There were new developments aboard the Chew as well. Since leaving California, the Chew’s commanders were breaking their engineers into new roles on the ship. With Ozzie and Herby attaining Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class as well, Elmer began learning an important job. “[I’m] taking over throttle watch for awhile,” he wrote. “Pretty important job, too, of course. I’m as proud as a kid with a new toy!” Later, he elaborated a bit on what this entailed. “The job has a big responsibility and the turbines that control the ‘screws’ are in my hands. So much for that.” Ozzie was helping him out as his oiler, but Elmer noted that his friend “will probably get a chance on the throttle soon.”
The new jobs were a big deal, but as the holidays approached there were few telltale signs that Christmas and New Years were just around the corner. “Almost time for Christmas festivities,” Elmer wrote on December 16th. “We’ll have a good dinner for sure. And that will be the biggest distinction between a regular day and Christmas day.” The meal, in fairness, was quite good. The captain even had color menus made, and Elmer mailed his to his parents. He also received a number of cards and some sweets, plus a money order and a Reader’s Digest subscription from his brother Bud and sister in law Elsie that month for the holidays, although one of the recurring themes in his correspondence that month is Elmer waiting for a five pound box of candy his mother sent.
But nice dinners and swell gifts were not enough to change the fact that Elmer was thousands of miles from home. There was no tree, no frost outside the window, and most importantly, no family. “Have you a tree this year, Mom?” he asked on Christmas Eve. “Remember how I always trimmed it each year. It seems so long ago. I know Christmas cannot be the same while we are apart, but make it a Merry Christmas just the same.” Elmer also thought of a popular Bing Crosby tune that was sweeping the country that month, a song that vividly illustrated for so many servicemen that year fighting in Africa and Oceania, as well as those training throughout the winter months in the South and Southwest, what they were missing that holiday season. “I wonder if you having a ‘white Christmas?’ Just like the song that is popular now.” And just like, he might have added, “the ones we used to know.”
By the end of the month, Elmer had received his five pound box of candy. He also received confirmation from his mother that she had finally received his photograph, which he had taken after his promotion and with his new watch on his left wrist. She might not have been thrilled with the mustache, but it may well have been the best Christmas present she could have wished for short of actually seeing her son.
And that wish, as it happens, would be fulfilled in 1943.
On October 31st, 1942, the Chew accompanied a small convey out of Honolulu and escorted it East. Eleven days later, the ship reached its destination: San Francisco. It was the first time Elmer and many of his shipmates had seen the North American mainland since they left for Hawaii nearly two years earlier.
No one knew how long they were going to be in town, but on the same token no one knew when they would be back on North American soil. Some of Elmer’s shipmates, including the Grossmans and Ozzie, immediately seized the opportunity to contact their parents. Elmer hesitated, however, believing that his parents would be heartbroken if they were to come out to San Francisco and arrive only after his ship had departed.
This point soon created minor controversy in Elmer’s family, since Jack and Harold Grossman’s mother, as well as Ozzie’s mother and wife, were all able to make the trip out to California to see them. Rose Luckett registered her disappointment with her baby boy. “As you say I should have contacted you as fast as possible,” he wrote. “But I was so doubtful as to what the future was, I hesitated.” Elmer did get to speak to his parents on the phone, however. The long-distance, wartime telephone call took three hours to connect, and the conversation itself only lasted for a few minutes. But it brought some relief after nearly two years of separation. While in town he also went to a photography studio to fulfill his mother’s request for a portrait.
Ironically enough, once Mrs. Grossman arrived with her daughter, Dot, Jack and Harold could not get off the ship for liberty. But Elmer was off that day, so he took their mom and sister out for lunch. “We talked about you and home, and everything in general,” he recalled in his letter. Mrs. Grossman also volunteered to deliver his photo to his mother. “[She] is taking some gifts home for me, also the two photos I had taken,” he wrote. “She sure is a swell person. They liked the photo very much. One is plain, the other tinted.” The Grossmans were on their way to visit family in Bakersfield, Elmer reported, but once they were back in Saint Louis they would deliver the photo to his parents. Later on he met Ozzie’s mother and wife as well.
Elmer did not just spend his time in San Francisco hanging out with his friends’ moms. “I’ve been having a very good time here,” he reported. “This town has everything in the line of entertainment and amusement that a person could want. I even did some dancing after being away from it for so long. Wish you could see the bridges they have here. You probably heard of them.” Elmer spared no expense during this “so-called vacation.” After spending nearly two years in Oahu or at sea, Elmer was excited to spend some time – and money – in a different place. The trip ended up costing approximately $130, he calculated the following month, “but it was worth every penny and more.” Ultimately, it was a “rather expensive vacation, but it’s our chance to have a good time.”
Elmer’s visit to the States coincided with an important milestone in the war: Operation Torch. On November 8th, 1942, American and other Allied forces landed at several points along the North African coast, thus starting on a long, circuitous path that would ultimately take them to Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and finally Germany itself. The United States Navy also won a major battle against the Japanese off the coast of Guadalcanal. The San Francisco Examiner headline the morning of November 17th read, “Japs Licked in Showdown, Lose 30 Ships, 30,000 Men!” As usual, though, Elmer was cautiously optimistic. “The news has been looking good over the past week,” he wrote, but “don’t get too optimistic.”
After thirteen days in San Francisco, the Chew departed on its return trip to Pearl Harbor on Monday, November 23rd, just three days before Thanksgiving. As he digested his holiday meal (“roast turkey, sweet potatoes, Irish spuds, asparagus, dressing, soup, cranberry sauce, salad, pie, cake, coffee, candy, nuts, cigars, and cigarettes. My what a list!”) Elmer sat down to write his first post-San Francisco visit letter home to his parents. He was in a reflective mood:
Although things aren’t looking as bright as they could be, with the war etc., we do have so much to be thankful for today . . . good health, perfect family, and the consolation that our country is fighting on the right side for the right ideals. Not that all is perfect with US and our people, but we can’t doubt that our cause is a just one. Thankful to know, that in my own small way I’m making or help[ing make] our people safe in their homes – while all over the world so many innocent people must be destroyed in their homes. This is no speech, nor intended to be anything in that sense, but just a thought. [I] wonder how many people realize how fortunate they are today?”
Elmer Luckett to Mr. and Mrs. F. L. Luckett, 26 November 1942
I’m not sure what Elmer was referring to when he wrote that the United States isn’t “perfect.” While that is hardly an arguable statement (or, one would hope, a controversial one), it is a more critical opinion of America than either Elmer or many Americans in general were accustomed to offering during the war. There is no way of knowing if he was referring to the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans, the bullying of Latinx Angelenos by American servicemen that culminated in the Zoot Suit Riots, or anything else of that nature. I suppose that is a question I could have asked him during our interview, but I did not.
At any rate, Grandpa thoroughly understood that, in spite of America’s flaws, it was on the right side of history in this conflict. Which, again, is a virtually inarguable proposition, at least as far as I am concerned.
San Francisco offered Elmer and his shipmates a much-needed break from the monotony of escort duty and life in wartime Hawaii. But it also reminded them of exactly what they were hoping to protect by fighting in the war.
Life is full of transitions, transformations, and comings of age. During the early 1940s, as young men and women felt themselves rushing headlong into the responsibilities demanded by wartime America, millions made their own transformations by getting married, joining the service, or both. This included many of Elmer’s friends, classmates, and family members.
Elmer kept abreast of these reports from the States with a mix of wonder, surprise, humor, and maybe a twinge of sadness over not being present to watch these big life moments take place. His journey into war was both more and less dramatic than that of most American men – more dramatic in the sense that he was at Pearl Harbor the moment the bombs began to fall, and less given that he was a reservist called up for active duty during peace time. But the transition from summer to autumn brought some transformative moments in Elmer’s life as well, even if none of them involved wedding bells or answering Uncle Sam’s call during wartime. Together they seem to represent a clear before and after for Elmer, both personally and professionally, and in a very tangible way fulfill the desire he stated earlier in the year to become “more of a man” by the time he returned home.
The first transformative moment arrived when Elmer needed his timepiece to be fixed. He sent it to his parents in hopes that they could repair it as a Christmas present. It “probably needs a new face,” he advised his parents on September 6th. Evidently the job was prohibitively expensive, however, and therefore his mother made an executive decision back home: she traded it in towards a beautiful, top of the line, yellow gold watch. “The wrist watch arrived O.K., folks,” he wrote on September 17th. “Thanks a million, it’s sure a beauty.” Elmer continued to mention the watch in several later letters, gushing over how many compliments he received and how much it likely cost. It “sure looks expensive enough, and if I know mom it’s the best!” Although it could not wear it in the engine room for safety reasons, it became a fixture on his wrist during liberty time. It was a fancy, new adult watch for a recently minted adult. Given how fresh memories of the Depression were for most Americans, this piece of bling was no small thing.
The second big moment came on October 1st when Elmer was promoted to Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class, making him a petty officer aboard the Chew. The advancement came with a pay bump (now $115 a month), new uniform insignia, new duties, and a well-earned sense of accomplishment. “It is something I have worked and studied for during my time in the Navy . . . I know it will make you all happy and increase my prestige. Ha ha.” He was the first among his friends to make petty officer, and between that and the new watch Elmer carried a bit more authority and gravitas than before. He also made good on the Navy tradition of handing out cigars upon receiving a new rating, giving out two boxes worth to his shipmates after hearing the news.
The final transformative moment occurred the second he and his ship passed the Equator on its way towards the Southern Hemisphere. Perhaps the best way to describe what happened next is to let Elmer do the writing:
[I] want to tell you about the initiation we were given at the time. Men or sailors that have crossed the “line” [are] known as “Shellbacks” (I’m one now). Sailors that never crossed the “line” are called Polly-wogs. Anyway, the Shellbacks give the Pollywogs the “works.” There were only about 20 Shellbacks aboard, but they really gave us the works. We were tried before a court of King Neptune . . . [and] by Davy Jones and his associates the Royal Family of the King. Words are difficult to express the entire ordeal and its details. Anyway, officers were no exception and they got the same treatment as the enlisted men . . . it so happened there weren’t any Shellbacks among the officers. It was a lot of fun and the initiation consisted of paddling (well done), followed by treatments from the Royal Doctor, Barber, Police, and all Shellbacks. Perhaps someday I will be able to tell you more of the details . . . we will get certificates for crossing the “line” and cards to prove we are “Shellbacks” now. I pity any “Pollywogs” if we cross the line again.
Elmer Luckett to Mr. and Mrs. E. L. Luckett, 19 October 1942
The Equatorial crossing ceremony and the fraternity of the Shellbacks goes back to at least the early 1500s, according to cultural anthropologist Carie Little Hersh. Its proliferation across the European navies and merchant marines corresponded with the Age of Discovery, during which over the next three centuries European merchants, navigators, explorers, conquistadors, missionaries, and naval personnel systematically sailed, mapped, and in many cases subjugated the indigenous nations adjacent to the high seas. Crossing the Equator was no small feat in this context, especially since it was often done while traveling to a more distant destination around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. Since the ceremony was in some ways meant to test the mettle of sailors during the early stages of a long voyage, the Equatorial crossing was a significant milestone and an excellent opportunity for such a rite of passage. Otherwise, untested sailors could present a liability during a real emergency.
Geography and meteorological hazards also made the crossing a particularly anxious time for sailors and captains alike. The Equator itself lay between the two circumferential “horse latitudes” bands at 30 degrees North and South, respectively, which allegedly received their name for the number of horses thrown overboard at these locations once the fresh water began to run dry and the animals began to die of thirst. Moreover, the Intertropical Convergence Zone, or the Doldrums, also threatened to becalm sailing ships and strand them for weeks or even months. This zone is roughly parallel to the Equator.
While the ceremony may seem anachronistic, especially given that it is still frequently held today, it carried a great deal of meaning for Elmer and his shipmates. Becoming a Shellback was, in many ways, tantamount to becoming a seasoned sailor. At the very least, the induction into what was for all intents and purposes an informal fraternal order signified to Elmer that he had passed an important milestone in his Naval career.
It was something that he was proud of for the rest of his life. I remember him showing me the card he received after the ceremony, which I scanned and uploaded below. It was one of his favorite stories from the War.
Hi folks, Sorry for being tardy and not posting for a few days. I usually schedule all my posts well in advance, and I left this week free so that I could blog from the road. But if past experience is any guide, research trips are very busy affairs. I haven’t had much time to post since leaving town Monday, and even though I’ve thought of a lot of things to say this is the first chance I’ve had to write anything down.
I have been collecting research material for the Grandpa’s Letters project. Compared to my last major project (Never Caught Twice, which will be released this fall by the University of Nebraska Press), the research paradigm for this one is relatively easy. Rather than having to reconstruct the history of a notoriously under-reported and over-exaggerated crime across half a state and half a century, my current book’s source base is already well-established: my grandpa’s letters, along with my oral interview, other family documents, and several albums full of photographs. I also have my dad and Uncle Richard to fill in the gaps, which is a resource I did not have when investigating nineteenth-century horse stealing. This is a solid, if not excellent, foundation for a compelling historical narrative.
But this source set by itself isn’t enough. For one, I should have my grandfather’s official military personnel file from World War II. It contains a great deal of specific, well-documented information about every aspect of his service record. While getting that, I might as well get the service records of some of his friends on the Chew as well, so that I can give a broader perspective on St. Louis-area reservists before, during, and after the War. Speaking of the Chew, I should have more information on that as well, especially since Grandpa was barred from discussing his ship’s position and activities after the Pearl Harbor attack. I should also do the same thing with the Mink as well, Elmer’s ship from January 1944 until his discharge from the Navy in October 1945.
That is what this trip was all about. On Tuesday I visited the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis and scanned my Grandpa’s service record. I also scanned several others, including a couple of people I’ve discussed before on this blog. This took more time than I thought since these were large files, and since I only allocated a day for this I barely beat the clock to finish the job before closing. But I found a lot of fascinating information . . . stay tuned.
As soon as I was finished at the NPRC I had to Uber back to the airport to catch a flight to Baltimore, where I rented a car and drove to College Park, Maryland. Then on Wednesday I started collecting ship records at the National Archives facility at College Park. Like in St. Louis I’ve been scanning everything I can get my hands on, which is slightly more cumbersome here given that all scans have to have a declassification tag. That said, I’ve collected not only everything I could find on the Chew and the Mink, but after reading the other personnel files in St. Louis I decided to expand my strategy a bit and collect information on those ships on which Elmer’s friends on the Chew from St. Louis later served.
Although this is more work, I am really excited about where this is taking me . . . one of his friends participated in the invasion of Okinawa, while another one helped rescue sailors after the Frederick C. Davis, a destroyer, was sunk in the North Atlantic by a German U-Boat. Yet another served on a ship which played an important role in Operation Magic Carpet, the United States military’s massive post-war plan to bring hundreds of thousands of servicemen home in a matter of months. Of course this project will continue to revolve principally around my grandpa and his experience (which is exceptionally and uniquely well-documented given his letters), but my intention was always to bring other people into the story as well. I believe this is a great way to do just that.
I still have a few things to look for tomorrow, and I should have a few hours to spare. I hope to spend any extra time I have poking around some other collections and otherwise ensuring that this is the only trip out here I have to make for this book (as I promised my family . . . I visited the National Archives in DC several times for the first book). But so far this has been a successful trip.
Given both the blog and a history methods class I am teaching at Sacramento State this spring I may have more to say about both archival visits, what I found at each, and my strategy for tackling the archives. Since I will soon have to lecture my students about this very process it makes sense to start crystallizing my thoughts now while I’m in the trenches, so to speak.
Anyway, I need to get some other things done before I go to bed, but I will write again soon. In the meantime, here is an out-of-context page from grandpa’s service file at the NPRC in St. Louis. This is an important document, all things considered: