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, First off, thank you to everyone who has reached out to me here, on Facebook, on Twitter, and offline to express their well wishes with respect to my post on Saturday about pursuing a Masters in Counseling. I cannot tell you how much it means to me, especially after months of waiting for admissions decisions, taking psychology prerequisite courses while teaching full-time, and wondering more than once what people would think once they learn about this shift in direction. At the very least, since beginning this process nearly a year ago, I have not yet felt like this has been a mistake. But all your kind words have alleviated much of my anxiety about this process, so thank you.
Of course, having the freedom and privilege to make such a professional change is no small thing in many places, and impossible in others. Here in the United States, both of these words have been hotly contested over the past year, from the George Floyd protests to the Capitol Insurrection and beyond. A lot of these conversations are not only necessary, but long overdue as Americans finally begin to reckon with a history that is far more complex and morally ambivalent than we’d probably like to believe. But I also believe that Memorial Day should cut through the noise and stand on its own merits as an opportunity to pay our respects and remember the hundreds of thousands of Americans who, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and even birthplace, gave their lives in defense of our country.
This is not to say that we cannot relax during a much-deserved day off, eat some barbecue, or enjoy a quiet morning bike ride with virtually no traffic (as I did). We certainly don’t need to spend the entire day flagellating ourselves in prayerful penance for the dead. But hopefully we can all find some way today to express our appreciation for those who made the ultimate sacrifice, including their families.
Talk to you again soon—I’ve missed this whole blogging thing—and take care.
Hi folks, I apologize for being so negligent over these past few months in writing or contributing to this blog. It’s been an interesting few months here in Orangevale, and for all of us I suppose. What’s up with you all? Well, on my end, let’s see . . . I built a fence, I lost a little weight, I was diagnosed with a hernia (the same kind my grandpa had!) and will need a surgery for it soon, I taught several classes, I took two more, I got vaccinated, and I turned 40. Clementine and I traveled to St. Louis for the first time in over a year, which was nice (my dad hadn’t seen his granddaughter since late 2019), and I made my first trip to LA since the pandemic started. Like everyone else, the pandemic has affected me in ways that I’ve barely even begun to appreciate. It has been both disruptive and transformative, scary yet hopeful, stultifying yet revelatory. But now that my wife and I are vaccinated, we are looking forward to hopefully enjoying some semi-normalcy in the hopefully not-too-distant future.
The pandemic and the quarantines have helped guide and inspire me to make some changes, however, beginning with this: starting next fall, I will be studying for my Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy Counseling at California State University East Bay. After I finished my PhD, I swore up and down that I was done with graduate school. A terminal degree is a terminal degree, after all. But I also told myself that if I ever did decide to go back to school, it would be to get a Masters in Counseling. That way I could maximize my opportunities in higher education administration, earn a degree that immediately qualifies me for a wide range of other jobs, and perhaps one day open my own private practice.
I promised myself (and my family) that if I were to get another gradate degree, the program would have to be nearby, convenient for working adults, affordable, and well-established. CSU East Bay checks all the boxes. It isn’t exactly down the street, but with classes meeting only two days a week I can commute via Amtrak and get some work done on the train. The program itself is well-regarded, so I feel like my cohort and I are in good hands going into the fall. And it is affordable, which means . . . no student loans! But even if I did have to take some out, the degree itself would cost considerably less than the new Subaru Forester I bought a few years (and have since paid off).
Regardless of the program’s good fit, I realize it is still a big leap. Yet it makes sense. On the one hand, although I was in no rush to do this before the Pandemic, the switch to online teaching forced me to reevaluate my career trajectory. For instance, what I missed the most about teaching in a traditional setting was the impromptu, one-on-one meetings I often had with students who wanted to talk about school, history, and whatever else. Moreover, I had the creeping feeling that my teaching load in the future will continue to be, one way or another, increasingly virtual. While I am reasonably well-versed in online teaching (I’ve been teaching online for years), I am happier in a classroom. History is a narrative art, and I prefer telling my stories in person. Finally, I do not want to spend the rest of my professional career teaching courses as an adjunct. Like many other contingent faculty over the past year, I’ve come to terms with the stark realities of the tenure-track job market and the demands of tenure-line labor. Not only is it exceedingly unlikely that I will get a tenure line job, but it is even less likely that I will get one in a place that I like more than where we are in Northern California, or that I would come to enjoy working 60 hours a week for not much more money in exchange for job security. If I’m stagnating as an adjunct and no longer interested in finding a tenure-line position, then I need to reconsider my path.
On the other hand, I am genuinely excited about becoming a therapist. I’ve always wanted to hang my shingle someplace and be my own boss. I’ve always wanted to have a career in which I am able to help people, but with more impact and immediacy than what I have as an instructor. And I’ve always believed that I do a better job of helping people find their best versions of themselves than of constantly fighting the worst versions of people. That might be a controversial declaration these days, given our nation’s deep cultural, racial, economic, and political divides, but I know where my strengths lie. As a therapist and as a member of my community, I believe I can make a tangible difference helping people becoming more accepting of themselves, and therefore by extension helping them become more accepting of others.
Since it’s Memorial Day weekend, it’s also a good time to mention that one of the populations I’m most interested in working with is veterans. We have a lot of veterans in my community, many of whom do not seek treatment for one reason or another for PTSD, depression, and other issues. I’ve posted on this blog before about Give an Hour, an organization that gives veterans, disaster victims, and other at-risk persons with free counseling while simultaneously destigmatizing mental illness in the community. I’ve been happy to donate to this organization and write about it here, but I want to play a more active role in this important effort. Unlike my grandpa, dad, and brother, I never served in the military, but I hope that by doing this I will be able to offer a different kind of service to my community and country.
As I prepare to go back to school (again!) and start my 40s as a college student, I hesitate to frame this next step as a decision to “leave academia.” Like so many other contingent faculty across the country who have already left or who are in the process of leaving academia, I am wary of spending the rest of my career teaching without a true professional home, or teaching for less money and nearly no security compared to my colleagues who have the same credentials I do. However, I still do want to teach, albeit less. I want to be able to teach because I decide to teach a class or two, not because I have to teach four or five.
I also want to continue to write and create. I loved writing my first book, I am enjoying the process of writing the second one even more, and I eventually want to write enough books of my own to fill a small satchel bag. Again, though, I want to want to write. I don’t want to have to write, if that makes any sense. And if I could make those things that I like—big writing projects, small teaching loads—orbit around a new professional home, my private practice, well . . . then I’d be living the dream. In any case, it will be interesting to see how my new professional path informs my historical scholarship. Considering that I’ve already been writing quite a bit about paranoia (e.g., vigilante responses to horse thieves, collective freak-outs over prophecized Midwestern earthquakes, etc), I believe my new intellectual curiosities will remap, rather than erase, my preexisting ones in novel and hopefully interesting ways.
More to come in this space, both with respect to my research/writing and to other things happening in my world. But for now, thank you all for coming here and for reading my little blog, and take care of yourselves!
You probably don’t need a reminder from me, but 2020 has been a tough year. As both a historian who values hindsight and as a human being who simply wants things to get better, I will hold off on judging this past year too harshly until I know what the coming year has in store. But I don’t think that most people are going to miss it.
Of course, this has not been a bad year for me professionally. Last month I became a published author when my book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890 was released by the University of Nebraska Press. Moreover, I finished telling my grandfather’s World War II service story, in blog form, only a few days earlier. Yet the latter news begs the question: what am I going to do now with this blog if I am not posting regular Grandpa’s Letters updates? After thinking through the possibilities over the past two months, I have made a couple of decisions with respect to my writing and research. I am excited about them, and both will mean more material for this website.
First, the pandemic and the constant disruptions to our lives that have resulted from it have reordered our daily priorities, and striking the right balance in this shifting landscape of daily routines can be tough. For instance, in my situation, not having the option to travel, go to restaurants or coffeeshops, or teach in a classroom has forced me to rethink how I spend my time and get my work done. It has also left me with a lot of energy that I usually expend in the classroom. As a result, over the past few months I’ve embraced cycling as an outlet for that energy, and as I gradually build better eating habits as well I’m definitely in better shape now than I was at the start of the pandemic. However, because of the demands of constantly having to create new online courses, I am not reading nearly as much as I would like.
Since I would like to hold myself accountable for my reading goals, remain engaged in my discipline, and continue working my way through the stack of books I have yet to open for my World War II research, I am going to start blogging history book reviews again. This time, however, I aim to review one book a week for the next year. I will select books that I plan on reading anyway for my book research, as well as other monographs that will help keep me current in the discipline. I am also including books on a wide variety of historical places, peoples, and periods throughout the world, given the frequency with which I teach world history at Sierra College. Out of those 52 books, I am breaking it up as follows: approximately 12 World War II books, plus ten on the American West, ten on other United States history topics, ten on world history subjects before 1500 CE, and ten on world history subjects after 1500 CE. If you have any suggestions for good books in any of these categories, particularly in world history (hardly my specialty), please leave me a comment!
Second, as you might have noticed, I have taken a little break from the Grandpa’s Letters project. I am still working on it and have no intention of not completing it—I took several little breaks with Never Caught Twice, and that was a much more ambitious project with respect to the research required—but between the election, the conclusion of the fall semester, course prep for the spring, and several house projects that need to get done, it has not been on my radar these past few weeks.
However, one reason why I needed a break was because I had hit a bit of a snag in my narrative. I wanted to better incorporate my grandmother’s letters into my Grandpa’s Letters manuscript, and I even planned on dedicating a whole chapter to her story. But her letters deserve more than that: they are funny, incisive, observant, and overall excellent pieces of writing. I feel like I would be doing her a disservice by spending so much time on my grandpa’s letters, as opposed to hers. Yet her letters are also a fundamentally different kind of source: there are fewer of them, they can be read in sequence and in their entirety, and they can provide a stand-alone narrative (unlike grandpa’s letters, which are exhaustive – and occasionally exhausting). Moreover, my grandmother’s story as a young Midwestern woman who moved to Washington, D.C. during the war to take a job as a civilian bureaucrat is less often represented in World War II literature. As unique as my grandfather’s story is, we have not yet spent nearly enough time listening to the women who helped win the war, both at home and overseas. Giving my grandma just one chapter would simply perpetuate the idea that my grandpa’s service, and thus his memory, was inherently more valuable.
Thankfully, over the past month I have realized what I need to do: publish two books!
The Grandpa’s Letters book will be largely unchanged, though it will no longer include the planned chapter about my grandmother. As you’ve seen throughout my blog, this manuscript uses the 500+ letters my grandpa wrote to tell his story, but apart from a generous selection of quotations the book is mostly my own work. I base my story on his letters, but the book is not so much a published reader of his writing as it is a standalone historical narrative composed in my own voice and with the aid of hindsight and supplemental research. In other words, I treat his letters the same way in the book as I do in the blog.
I will not be doing something similar for my grandmother’s letters. Instead, I will publish them as a standalone letter collection. Tentatively, the project is entitled Miss Schmid Goes to Washington. Although I will compose a prologue, some chapter introductions, topical transitions, and an afterword, the bulk of the writing will be my grandmother’s. I believe that this is a fitting and logical way to divide their individual efforts and celebrate their separate wartime careers, while still playing to each letter collection’s strengths.
Starting this spring, I will start working on this project by posting a letter every week or two, along with some analysis by yours truly. In this way I hope to use the blog to get people excited about it while also writing much of the first draft in the process. My goal for 2021 is to finish both manuscript drafts by the end of the year.
Anyway, stay tuned in 2021 for book reviews, letters from my grandmother, and probably some additional essays if and when I feel like writing them. In the meantime, thank you so much for reading, and I hope that you and your loved ones have a safe, happy, and successful New Year!
Today is the 79th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. However, for many of us our minds are elsewhere this week as COVID continues to ravage the nation.
In fact, statistically we are well past the point where each day represents a larger death toll than that of some of the deadliest days of American history, including Pearl Harbor:
It’s not just Pearl Harbor, either. On December 2nd, more Americans died of COVID than from enemy fire during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. At least 53 days have been deadlier than April 15th, 1912, on which morning the Titanic sank. And if current trends continue, the IHME projects that the United States will hit 2,971 deaths on January 13, 2021, which would make it deadlier than any single day during the Civil War, with the exception of the Battle of Antietam.
While these numbers are accurate and striking, they need to be properly contextualized. When my grandpa woke up on the morning of December 7th, 1941, neither he nor anyone else under the Stars and Stripes knew that a war was going to break out before lunchtime. No one on the USS Arizona could have guessed that their ship would explode within a couple hours, bathing hundreds aboard in burning fuel and showering them with white hot shards of metal. None of the other American ships or planes or sailors or soldiers had that quiet Sunday circled on their calendars in bold red ink as a day that would live forever in infamy.
Meanwhile, thousands will die today, thousands more will die tomorrow, and thousands more the next day, and so on, and so on, and probably through Christmas. In all probability, the next few months will make clear that our annus horribilis did not begin on January 1st, 2020, but on St. Patrick’s Day. By the time we slice into our corned beef this coming spring, half a million Americans may be dead.
To be sure, no one, not even the most stubborn anti-maskers or the most oblivious and aggressive huggers, deserves to die from this awful disease. But it is certain that no one woke up this morning without having had the opportunity to learn about and understand the risks associated with contracting COVID. Many people, especially front-line health care workers, emergency responders, and even fast food and grocery workers, have little choice over whether or not they will contract it because their jobs put them into regular contact with those who already have it. For the rest of us, however, we knew what was coming, even if we did not want to acknowledge the coming tsunami of sickness. Imagine if FDR had know about the Japanese sneak attack all along (and to be clear, no, he did not), from the planning meetings that summer to the Task Force’s launch on November 26th. Would we have ever forgiven him for sitting idly by in the White House, thinking that sooner or later a stray sub or destroyer would happen upon the convoy and scare it away, like a spider retreating through a crack in the wall? Probably not.
But it’s a moot point. FDR did not see the attack coming, and while a few people in the War Department had their suspicions, the sailors, soldiers, and Marines in Hawaii were none the wiser. And even if they knew – some, like grandpa, suspected that a war was going to start soon, but assumed that both sides would have the common courtesy to declare it first – then what was their alternative? Should they desert and hide out someplace? Sleep with a gun under their pillow? Spend all their nights off-ship and on land? Not even that was a guarantee for safety – while most of the USS Arizona’s survivors spent the previous night in town or in the barracks on Ford Island, both men from the Chew who died had slept elsewhere and were caught in a bomb blast while trying to put out fires aboard the USS Pennsylvania. The common denominator for most of those who were caught by surprise that morning was that they chose to be there. While they did not sign their enlistment papers with the foreknowledge of this attack, they also knew that to some extent they did not know what they were signing up for, so to speak. Their oaths and their duty kept them where they least needed to be when the war broke out.
Another thought comes to mind when I reflect on another deadly day in American history that has been frequently invoked in comparison with the daily COVID death tolls: September 11th. When I compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor over a year ago, I argued that Americans more effectively (if not more equitably) processed their anger following the latter than they did after the former, and that as a result September 11th has festered like an open wound over the past two decades. Yet the most obvious trait that the two events have in common is also the most powerful: both days delivered nothing less than a sudden, profound, and existential shock to the American people that resulted in a wave of patriotic fervor and a newfound appreciation for the fact that no nation is immune to exogenous violence. While one could argue that both events represented the inevitable culmination of American diplomatic and military interventions elsewhere in the world, Americans writ large did not spend a great deal of time worrying about those policies or their repercussions in either case. As I argued last year, shock value does not merely characterize an event. It is foundational to understanding that event’s legacy and memory in history. After all, the JFK Assassination was also a shocking, transformative event whose effects continue to ripple into the present, but if judged by its death toll alone it would barely make the front page in many American newspapers in 1963, or even today.
COVID, on the other hand, is no longer shocking. It is more like a bad roommate than a late-night burglar: its presence does not come as a surprise. Instead, it malevolently leeches away our energy, health, and happiness, and makes us aware of its presence even when we are thinking about other things. COVID is simply exhausting. It is wearing away at us, and even though a vaccine may only be weeks away, each day until that happens is a challenging slog.
One of the benefits of writing is that it helps us work though what we are thinking. And as I look back on what I’ve written so far, it seems like what began as a post asking readers not to underestimate the Pearl Harbor attack with respect to daily death tolls is turning into something else: a plea to understand what we are going through now on its own terms. On the one hand, Pearl Harbor was a bad day in American history. An event that mostly occurred within the span of a couple of hours cast a long, dark shadow over the following years and decades. The death toll that day was certainly and inarguably tragic, but the costs were much higher. Tens of thousands of others were injured or scarred in less obvious ways, and countless Americans back home waited weeks with stones in their stomachs waiting for news about their loved ones. As for my grandfather, who could not simply unsee the Arizona exploding a few hundred yards away, memories of the attack stalked him for the rest of his life. This multifaceted and terrible toll transcends and multiplies exponentially the sorrowful calculus baked into that four-digit number we see in the above tweet.
On the other hand, the same logic applies to the drumbeat of COVID daily deaths we see in the newspapers. Too many Americans today continue to dismiss those numbers, playing fast and loose with peoples’ lives and their true impact on those around them by speciously seizing on arbitrary and misleading statistics, like the fact that it “only” kills 1% of infected victims, or that on most days heart disease kills more people. How inured are we to sickness and premature death to not empathize with the millions of people in our own country who not only grieve lost loved ones, but who in most cases did not get to say goodbye, or even bury them? What about the millions of others who recovered, but who are now facing the debilitating downstream effects of their COVID fight? How much shorter will their lives be as a result?
Yet because COVID is no longer a shock comparable to that of an enemy bombing or a terrorist attack or a mall shooting, its effects are muted in real time, even as our loved ones – or as we ourselves – suddenly join the ranks of the infected. Just today I learned that one of my students has it and one of my ex-girlfriends may have it, just as half of the State of California goes on stay-at-home lockdown as of early this morning. But apart from the hundreds of thousands who died and the millions more who suffer from its effects, there are the countless other downstream effects: businesses closed, weddings and graduations cancelled, children robbed of a year of their lives . . . it is impossible to quantify them.
So, on this Pearl Harbor anniversary day . . . don’t just remember the victims. Think about the fact that it is now 79 years later, and that we are still remembering the day itself. Think beyond the cumulative toll of all the lives lost that day . . . why was that event itself seared so terribly into our collective memory? And why are so many Americans today so oblivious to the gargantuan tragedy – not just the daily death counts, but *waves arms wildly in all directions* all of this – unfolding around us?
COVID does not make the Pearl Harbor attack any less tragic by comparison, nor is our collective remembrance of that day somehow unjustified if literally more people die today from COVID than from the actual event we are remembering. But both events are historically massive, albeit for different reasons: one killed a few and shocked many, while the other shocked few but killed a great many. Both count as transformative tragedies, yet only one was immediately and universally recognizable for its terribleness. Hopefully, as we reflect on the horrors of Pearl Harbor for the 79th year, more of us will begin to recognize, anticipate, and mourn the horrors of the other.
Thirty years ago, on December 2nd, 1990, a massive earthquake was supposed to strike the New Madrid Fault in southeastern Missouri. Iben Browning, a climatologist-turned-disaster prophet who some believed had successfully predicted the Loma Prieta Earthquake the previous year, stated that there was a 50% chance of a major earthquake hitting that day. Soon, David Steward, a seismologist at Southeast Missouri State University, told the press that the prediction needed to be taken seriously, and before long many in the media took his advice. When the sun dawned across the glimmering Mississippi and over the town of New Madrid on the morning of December 2nd, dozens of satellite trucks and hundreds of reporters and photographers stood around in the small community, waiting for the world to end.
I remember these events well. I was nine years old at the time, and I remember my parents dismissing the prediction while many of the other kids and parents in my suburban St. Louis community anxiously fretted and, in some cases, made plans to stay home from work or school that day. The school bus that morning was largely empty, I recall, and several kids I expected to see get on the bus at various stops were not present when we arrived.
For me, the prediction and the hysteria it caused was formative: it made me interested in how the public responds to imaginary events, and in some ways I think that experience later helped shape the way I write about horse thieves in Never Caught Twice. More directly, it inspired me to create a documentary based on the subject. We’ve conducted a handful of interviews thus far, and have produced a teaser video for the project:
For those of you who have been following or involved in this project . . . it is still happening! COVID-19 has slowed – actually, frozen – our fundraising efforts, and both Mario and I have been busy with competing projects this past year. We are hopeful that 2021 will be a safer year for the kind of in-person, less-socially distanced work that documentary production often requires. In the meantime, if you wish to support our work, you can follow our Facebook page, and if you have any stories you’d like to share about that day thirty years ago please Contact Me and tell me about it!
The ironic thing about COVID’s impact on our production schedule, however, is that in many ways I believe this film would have been a warning against the kind of conspiratorial, unobjective thinking that has led to the pandemic becoming so severe in the first place. The year 1990 offers some critical and timely lessons in how to respond to “fake news,” as it were, and perhaps that term would be a particularly apt way to describe the overall panic surrounding Iben Browning’s infamous prediction.
Lesson Number 1: Don’t just listen to what one scientist says. Listen to what most scientists say. If you are not a scientist yourself, you should defer to the consensus.
A few months before the predicted earthquake along the New Madrid Fault was to occur, NBC aired a prime time, made-for-TV disaster film entitled The Big One, starring Joanna Kerns (the mom on Growing Pains). In it, Kearns plays a seismologist whose warnings about a coming quake are all but ignored.
A similar trope persists in other disaster movies: some lone scientist predicts disaster, no one takes them seriously, and then a bigger-than-they-feared disaster suddenly strikes.
While it may be a stretch to say that movies like The Big One have sewn doubt among the American public about what the consensus of scientific experts has to say about a topic – just look at the role social media has played in generating mistrust towards vaccinations – it is emblematic of the larger problem.
Most people are not scientists, and even scientists are usually limited to being an expert in one or maybe two fields. This means that the rest of us are reliant on what the community of experts says. In 1990, social media did not exist and web browsing was in its infancy, but the hysteria surrounding Browning’s prediction provides a case study in how it only takes a couple of trusted “authorities” on a subject (Stewart and Browning) to undermine the cacophony of thousands of other scientists stating the opposite.
Fast forward to 2020, when Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist, became President Trump’s primary advisor on the COVID-19 response. Although not a trained epidemiologist, his pronouncements on the inefficacy of mask-wearing undermined the efforts of countless doctors and scientists to encourage broad use of facial masks and social distancing.
Lesson Number 2: If it bleeds, it leads. News organizations are bound by ethical conventions to report the truth, but they are still the gatekeepers of content. And those content decisions are not always made in the public’s best interest.
One of the things we’ve discovered with our documentary research is how reckless some media organizations were when covering this story. They would continually quote either Browning or Stewart, followed by one or two scientists peaching caution, and then conclude that the matter was unsettled. This phenomenon is called “false equivalence.” It happens when the opinion shared by a small but vocal minority of an expert community is treated with the same amount of deference as the much larger scientific consensus.
Of course, there is nothing new about this. Check out the segment from FOX 2 St. Louis below, which concludes that “St. Louis could be severely damaged [while] Memphis could be wiped out” in the event that a major earthquake strikes. The tone throughout is slightly ominous. What is interesting, however, is that most of the images used in the segment come from Northwestern geology professor Seth Stein’s book Disaster Deferred, in which his principal thesis is that the fears of a New Madrid earthquake are actually overstated and present little reason for residents of the region to worry.
More recently, news organizations have spent a great deal of time and attention covering small anti-mask protests across the nation, while devoting comparatively fewer resources to covering the 270,000 Americans who died of COVID since March, the 86,000 patients currently hospitalized with it, and the countless physicians and nurses who care for them.
Lesson Number 3: The scariest threats are often not the worst, and the worst threats are often not the scariest.
There is no doubt that a major earthquake along the New Madrid Fault would be devastating to the region. Two major metropolitan areas, St. Louis and Memphis, would be directly in its crosshairs, and if reports from the 1811 and 1812 Earthquakes are any indication, then a repeat event on the fault would do a lot more than collapse chimneys in Cincinnati and ring church bells in Boston.
However, as someone who not only grew up in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, but who then spent nine years living in Los Angeles (including 7 years in an apartment that sat literally 100 feet from an active, if minor, fault line), I don’t believe that the risk of an earthquake should prevent me or anyone else from living someplace. If an earthquake along an established fault is going to happen, it’s going to happen. The only thing I can really do about that is prepare: make an emergency supply kit, map out a safety plan for me and my family, and take proactive steps to ensure that furniture is affixed to wall and small objects won’t fall on me or anyone else in my household.
Yet the New Madrid earthquake prediction inspired many people to act more rashly in response. As mentioned above, many folks stayed home from work or school. A small number even left the region, according to sociologist John Farley in Earthquake Fears, Predictions, and preparations in Mid-America. Just as the hype over the prediction drew dozens of media organizations to New Madrid, the same hysteria caused others to run for their lives.
Was their response warranted in retrospect? Certainly not. But it is equally true that St. Louisans have also underestimated other dangers. Just two and a half years later, the Great Flood of 1993 killed dozens across the region and displaced thousands. Later, in 2011, a tornado struck Joplin, Missouri, killing a staggering 161 people and shocking a region that had long treated tornado warnings with a mix of humor, annoyance, and complacency. More recently, as of this writing, COVID has killed at least 4,183 Missourians, including over 1,000 in St. Louis County. While that might seem like a drop in the statistical bucket, St. Louis County has 19 municipalities with populations of 1,000 people or less. Imagine an entire neighborhood just disappearing.
Yet COVID, unlike earthquakes, does not inspire the same kind of dread in most people, especially after nine months of living through a global pandemic. We are all tired and anxious to get back to our routines, to reunite with family and friends, to go to bars and concerts and restaurants again, to travel and take cruises and visit beaches and take so many other things for granted again. And last week, many Americans let their guard down for a day and traveled to see loved ones for Thanksgiving.
My intent here is not to shame people for their decisions this holiday season. This is hard on all of us, and as someone who feels a special urgency at the moment to go and see his family in St. Louis for the holidays, I understand as well as most the cost-benefit analysis involved. But there’s a broader point here that is worth underscoring: 30 years ago, on December 3rd, everyone knew the danger had passed. Kids went back to school, parents went back to work, and journalists found something new to write about after the earth remained still.
We don’t have anything like that with COVID. There won’t be a single day when we all wake up to realize together and at once that the danger has passed. But until then, there will be many dangerous days ahead. And the Mississippi River, with its cold, gray waters and short, rippling waves, will continue to plow quietly southward towards the Gulf, oblivious to the silent, invisible virus that surrounds it on all sides.
I recently had the honor and privilege of talking about Grandpa’s Letters with Dr. Samantha Cutrara on her Imagining a New We video series. During the show we chatted about Veteran’s Day (or Remembrance Day in Canada), the advantages of using family letters in a history classroom, and the joys of writing.
In addition to discussing the letters, I also mentioned a few additional sources that I use to add context and detail to Grandpa’s Naval career. Unlike the letters, which are not only a treasure trove but a treasure in their own right, many people know that a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent served in World War II, but they have few documents or heirlooms to reveal more. This is particularly true for servicemen who died or went missing in action, and for countless others whose letters, journals, or other artifacts were lost, destroyed, or discarded for one reason or another. Where would these people start their historical journey of learning more about a loved one in the service if that loved one left little evidence of their service behind?
Well, consider this a down payment on what I hope will become a separate chapter in my book. Here are explanations and links to (most) of the sources I mentioned in the video, along with some information on where to get them and how to use them. Note that while these are Navy sources, other branches of the service were similarly dedicated to ample and redundant record-keeping (my horse stealing book, in fact, relies heavily on Army sources).
Personnel records are the most fundamental source to acquire in your journey. Get these first. They contain essential documents for each service member, including enlistment paperwork and exams, orders, various commendations and citations, and discharge papers. Most if not all vital data points can be found here.
Right now these papers are hard to get. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis contains virtually all of these files, and under ordinary circumstances researchers have the option of either making arrangements with the NPRC directly and visiting the site in person to review requested documents, or they can order a digital scan of the file. However, due to COVID the facility shut down during the spring and summer, and is only now beginning a phased reopening process. There will likely be a substantial backlog of requests once it is fully reopen, so I would personally wait (and, incidentally, I will wait because I still have additional requests of my own) until the COVID crisis has passed to make an inquiry.
Here’s a screenshot of one of the pages from Grandpa’s file. Please note that while I have digitized the entire thing, I will not post it anywhere. This is because these files contain a lot of sensitive and personal data, up to and including physical examination reports. Also bear in mind that I am photo-scanning this manually. Since most of it is bound together I am holding it open with one hand (very gingerly, so as not to damage it), while photographing it with the other. It doesn’t produce publishable files, but it gets the job done (pro-tip: bring a tripod, plus extra batteries and a larger-than-you-need memory card).
One thing to note: the term of service for the requested person needs to have ended before 1957, or else federal privacy laws prohibit accessing the record without additional permissions and documentations.
Personnel records are fantastic sources for filling out your loved one’s biography, but what about their ship (if they were in the Navy)? Ship records are fantastic for understanding the setting, as well as whatever actions in which your loved one was involved. When combined with personnel records, any existing oral or written reminiscences from the crew, and secondary sources, you can get an excellent idea of exactly what transpired on and around the ship.
Deck logs are probably the most data rich source of information about ships, their crews, and almost every other conceivable variable. You can track things like temperature and wind speed, the ship’s geographic location throughout the day, and even the amount of ice cream consumed aboard. For instance, check out this page from the Chew’s deck log on December 7th, 1941:
This page tells us a story: the Chew’s Sunday morning started out like any other, with the ship taking aboard ten gallons of milk and 4 1/2 gallons of ice cream. But then at 7:57am everything changed, and suddenly the crew found itself in the middle of a war. Deck logs contain narratives of all the major stuff happening on board, as well as much of the minutia. They also contain information about the weather, the location, and other details. If you want to picture what it felt like in Pearl Harbor immediately before the attack started, check out the following table in the Chew’s deck log:
For instance, the barometric pressure hovered just above 30 inches (Hg) for most of the morning . . . until 8am, that is, when it was broken by gunfire.
These records can be found at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Learning how to request, access, use, and photograph takes a little bit of time, so if you go be ready to give yourself a few hours to learn the ropes and request the documents (and be careful not to schedule a plane trip immediately after working hours, like I did back in January), plus a few more hours to review and possibly photograph them for future use. If you cannot make the trip yourself, you can hire a freelance researcher to request and photograph the files for you. It will cost a little money, of course, but if you are only requesting a few things it is a lot cheaper to do this than to travel to Maryland for two or three nights. Also, because of COVID and the NARA closures these folks are hurting right now . . . they can use your business!
Like the deck logs, the war diaries can be found at the NARA facility in College Park, Maryland. Unlike the deck logs, war diaries are much shorter, more compact documents that communicate a brief day to day log of where a ship has been and what it did on any given day. They contain a lot less information overall, but they also contain just enough. If you just want information on where a ship was and what it was doing, ask for the war diaries. If you want as much information as possible, use the war diary for context and the deck log for everything else.
Here’s a page from the USS Mink’s war diary from October 1944. Notice how the ship relates a series of geographic coordinates for several days, and then finds itself in action on October 24th:
The Mink was part of a task force that set sail for the Philippines. Once it got there it would play a role in the largest naval battle in human history: the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
One good thing about the war diaries is that many, if not most of them are available online. In fact, the above-cited war diary for the Mink (10/1 – 10/31 1944) can be found here: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/78665385
It might take a while to figure out what you want and where it is located, but once you spend a little time noodling around with it you will find what you need. Just be patient: NARA has literally millions of records, so if it feels like you are looking for a needle in a haystack, it is because you are! But NARA also employs a lot of people whose jobs revolve around helping the public find what they need, so be sure to ask for help if you need it.
The last type of document I mentioned is the action report, which is an official report following any kind of naval engagement. Action reports flush out many of the details that are missing from war diaries, but are specific to the engagements themselves. They chronicle what guns were used, how much ammunition was expended, what they were targeting, etc. You could write action sequences based on these reports. Here is an excerpt from one from the Mink in January 1945, which related what occurred when a kamikaze attack targeted the Mink’s convoy while en route to Lingayen Gulf:
The action reports are physically long and thus difficult to present digitally, but this snapshot gives you a sense of how detailed they are. If you want to see the whole thing, you can see it online. Like the war diaries, many (though not all) action reports have been digitized by NARA and can be found on their website. Here’s the link to the one above: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/139885506
I was very lucky to inherit so many letters from my Grandpa. Not only did those letters survive intact and in great (i.e., readable) shape, but Grandpa was an intelligent commentator and a lucid writer. It’s rare to find a correspondence trove in which the letters appear with great frequency, regularity, over a long period of time, with readable writing, and with so many things to say. My Grandpa might not have realized it, but he had the soul of a historian.
That being said, World War II – and modern wars in general – are richly detailed affairs, with a lot of granular and unit-level reporting. Most veterans have detailed files, even if they are not yet publicly available, and for most of them you can get information on where and how they served, what they saw, and where they fit into the overall scheme of things. In other words, you don’t need a box full of letters to find a lot of this stuff out . . . just a bit of shoe leather and some resourceful online searching will get you there. Hopefully for those of you with WWII American Navy veterans in your family, the above resources will help you find more information.
And as I state in the interview, World War II is rapidly disappearing from living memory. Of the 16 million men and women who served in the war, only about 325,000 are still alive today. If you know one of them, please reach out to them and ask if they are willing to share their story with you. They might not, and that is OK, but if they do then all you need is a smart phone with a recording app. For more information on conducting oral history interviews, check out UCLA’s Center for Oral History page on the subject. I trained there while in grad school, and they know what they are doing.
A couple of other things: I’ve heard from family members of a few of Elmer’s shipmates on the Chew and the Mink. If someone you loved was on either of these ships during the war, please feel free to reach out to me on my Contact page! I would love to talk to you sometime and, if you’d like, interview you for my book project. Although my grandpa’s story is at the center of this narrative, I want to also use the opportunity to talk about the other men who served on these ships. Neither the Chew (a destroyer) nor the Mink (a Liberty Ship tanker) are frequently mentioned in the annals of World War II Naval history, yet the war would not have been won without their efforts and sacrifices, nor those of thousands of other ships that have not yet had movies made about them.
Also, thanks again to Dr. Samantha Cutrara for inviting me onto her show to talk about my project. Please check out her YouTube channel for more interviews with scholars, teachers, artists, and others across both Canada and the United States.
Finally, today is Veteran’s Day here in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada. It is November 11th in both countries because 102 years ago, on November 11, 1918, the Allied and Central Powers agreed to an Armistice which ended World War I. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that November 11, 1919 would “be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations” every year on that date henceforth. So while it is entirely appropriate and highly encouraged to thank the millions of Americans today who have given their service to our country, do not forget that we share these burdens with Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and other allies over the past century and more whose own veterans have fought alongside Americans for the free peoples of the world.
And if you are in a giving mood and would like to more than just saying “thank you” to veterans on social media, consider giving some money to a charity that serves veterans and their families. There are many charities out there that do this, but my favorite is Give an Hour. It raises money for mental health counseling and therapy for veterans, as well as victims of disasters. Help make this vital care available to the people who need it while destigmatizing mental health care by making a gift today: https://giveanhour.org
OK . . . that’s all. Thanks for reading all the way to the end! I’m going to take a week or two off, then I will post a couple of stories about Grandpa’s time in the Philippines, including the story of how he met my great Uncle Danny . . . in Manila. I’m going to shoot for posting that one on Thanksgiving.
After cruising around New Guinea and the Philippines throughout most of August, the Mink finally set anchor in Manila Harbor at the end of the month. It would spend the next several weeks there, fueling a wide variety of ships and smaller craft. “This bay is covered with ships of all descriptions,” Elmer wrote on September 9th. “Really a sight to see so many ships.”
Elmer was less than impressed with Manila. “There isn’t much to do around town after you’ve looked it over,” he wrote. “Plenty of liquor stores and places to dance, but the prices they charge are highway robbery. Everything you do or buy costs about three times what it is worth. Not much in supply and a lot of demand, so they really ask plenty for everything.” You can’t really blame the locals for trying. Business tanked during the Japanese occupation, which brought its own fresh set of horrors, and the sailors and Marines streaming ashore were often flush with cash. In addition to that, the Philippines faced the heavy task of rebuilding after over three years of brutal occupation. “[Manila] is in ruins,” he wrote on the 9th. “Not many buildings missed being shot up and bombed out. A city of ruins!” But the chow hound’s mind immediately turned to his stomach. “No good places to eat, except at the Red Cross or Army Snack Bars,” he opined. “You must be careful of the food and water you drink due to unsanitary conditions.”
Price gouging did not stop Elmer from buying some souvenirs for his loved ones, however. “I got Rosie a pair of wooden slippers, an oriental design and very fancy,” he admitted. “They cost six dollars.” Meanwhile, he was saving money from not buying gifts for – or writing – his other pen pal flames. “I don’t think [Rae] will write much more, if at all. She knows I am interested in someone at home. I don’t care much about writing other girls anyway; Rose is the one that counts.”
Elmer did not want to buy too many things in any case. He mailed his mother a package containing the sweater that Rae made him, some wool socks from Rose, and other odds and ends from his travels. He knew the trip home would be long, and it was not as if he could hop onto an airplane and take a nap while flying directly back to the states. The journey would be convoluted, involving boats, trains, and eleven time zones. And he would have his sea bag with him the whole way. On September 9th he also sent a $100 money order home, believing that he had enough cash and not wanting to risk losing it on his way home.
But Elmer knew that he might have to wait weeks, if not months, to go home. “With the war over and my duty done, I want to get back to civilian life. This waiting now will seem the longest because the war is over and everyone wants to get out. But I will try to be patient as always.” However, Elmer did not generally communicate his disappointments to his parents, which put Rose in the position of providing emotional support. “Rosie wrote a letter to cheer me up about not having enough points to get out,” he wrote on the 9th. “She said she will be waiting for me with open arms – and I know she will. I’m really in love with that girl and I have all the confidence and faith that she loves me as much as I do her. So much for my sugar.”
At the very least, while he waited Elmer would be able to write without fear of someone else reading his mail. “Don’t think I mentioned it yet, but our censorship of letters and packages has stopped. They just stopped it a couple of days ago. Really swell to write a private letter again.” Elmer then took the opportunity to talk a bit more about his ship, something he was not able to do earlier due to censorship and distance from home.
“Our ship is sort of a station tanker and we handle diesel fuel for all the diesel propelled craft,” he explained. “Mostly LST’s, LCI’s, LSM’s, and other types of amphibious ships. This has been our job for many months now. At first we carried high-octane gasoline while operating around New Guinea, Admiralties, and Biak; this was early in 1944 when things were a little hot down there. We also carried 80 or low octane gasline for awhile. High octane is for airplanes, and we supplied advance air fields with fuel. the low grade gas was usually for Army use. So much for an idea of our past work.
Elmer to his Parents, 9 September 1945
Elmer made one other note about their previous job, one which undoubtedly gave them pause when learning of Japanese kamikaze attacks on other tankers. “Personally I don’t like carrying gasoline of any grade, so I was pleased when it was changed to diesel fuel. The whole crew was pleased. Ha! Ha!”
Regardless of the changes in his and his ship’s jobs over the past year and a half, one thing was clear by September 12: his job was almost done. The Navy decided to grant credit for overseas service, which raised Elmer’s point total to 55. This qualified him for a discharge. “Of course,” he noted, “until they release me from the ship to return to the states, it may take awhile. But according to the plan I should get out within the next four months. Some of the fellows with enough points will leave soon. But they can’t take everyone, because some must be relieved before they can leave the ship. So we will hope for the best.”
His situation was clearer by the 16th. All rotation leaves were canceled, and servicemen with 18 months of continuous overseas service (like Elmer) who were eligible for discharge were to be simply relieved instead. “Sure glad I have enough points to get out,” he wrote. “I feel fairly sure that I will be off the ship in another month. May be sooner, but it’s hard to figure just how fast they will get men aboard for our relief. So we will hope for the best. Chins up!”
Turns out it would be sooner. “I hav some good news I feel sure will interest you,” he wrote on the 20th. “Yesterday evening four new engineers reported aboard ship. And they will permit the relief of men eligible for discharge. At present four of our old gang of engineers have enough points for discharge . . . I am at the top of the list.” His Chief Engineer told him that he would be able to leave “by the middle of next week.” At that point, “I should be transferred to the shore station here, probably Cavite, in a week’s time. Of course, how long I must wait around for transportation to the states is another question. But there is a lot of shipping coming and going all the time, so it shouldn’t take long. How’s that for good news? I’m as happy as a lark.”
Elmer laid out his communication plan for the journey home.
“When I leave the ship I will write and tell you so. You can stop writing me then because all the while I am traveling back I will not get mail. And it will only be sent home again after I leave. I will keep writing as much as possible. When I hit the states I will send a wire or call home. I promised to call Rose or send her a wire also. You can tell all the folks at home I’ve quit writing as of now, that is, Aunt Frieda, Chick, Jeanette, and the others. The only ones I will write are Rose and my Mom and Dad. So much for letter writing.”
Elmer to his Parents, 20 September 1945
He talked over some of the other implications of his leaving so quickly. “Mom, you won’t have to send me any more Christmas packages,” he pointed out. “This year it will be Xmas together, God willing. That will be a wonderful feeling.” He also sent a few reflective words to his father. “Yes Dad, so much has happened the past years . . . it will be so good to get home and see you all again. And settle down as a civilian. We can talk again, Dad. I’m so tired of writing letters.”
He still had a couple more to write. On the 23rd he mentioned having to “break in” the new engineers, and predicted he would be able to leave in “3 or 4 days.” He also discussed how much he enjoyed spending time with his future brother in law, Dan, who was about to leave for Tokyo the following day. And he commented on the rain in Manila: “This is the rainy season in the Philippines . . . I’ve never seen so damn much rain.”
His September 25th letter was shorter. Elmer was busy packing. “Tomorrow morning I will leave the ship and begin the long voyage and journey home.” He informed his parents that he had to wait at Cavite for a ride back to the States. “Just how long that will take is hard to predict,” he admitted. “But I will get back as soon as they can get me there. You can stop writing me letters now.”
Elmer’s last letter is below. It was postmarked September 28th, 1945, and mailed from the Cavite Naval Station:
Just a few lines before I leave to go aboard ship. Only have time for a few lines now. Big rush here. It may be two weeks or more before you hear from me. But I am on my way. Don’t worry about me. That’s all for now.
Your loving son, Elmer Hugs and Kisses
P.S. They are really rushing us to the states. Hot Dog!
Elmer to his Parents, 28 September 1945
That’s the last letter Elmer wrote his parents during his Naval service. During our interview, we spent some time talking about his adventures on the journey back. I may write about those for the book. But for now, this seems like a fitting place to close.
He arrived back in St. Louis on October 27th, and received his official discharge on the 29th. After nearly five years of duty, Elmer’s job finally came to an end. He was home.
This is not the end of his documentary record. My files are full of wedding invitations, postcards, a smattering of letters across the decades, and other pieces of paper that neither he nor Rose threw away. This is also not the end of his story, since the last chapter of the book I’m writing will cover Elmer’s journey after the war and how his Pearl Harbor experience shaped that.
However, these boxes of letters . . . these were a gift. When Grandpa first told me that he was going to leave them to me, I felt a little confused and maybe even slightly annoyed at having to take care of them. When I received them after he died, I was working on other things and reluctant to begin going through them. Once I started working on them, I was motivated by the idea that I was doing something historically cool (I still think that, actually). But over the last few months of reading through them, I’ve realized that they have a much deeper significance for me.
I knew my grandpa for 36 years, which I realize is a blessing for most people. Yet I never really knew him. We did not talk all that often, apart from us updating each other on our lives, and that oral interview was probably the longest we had ever talked. So these letters were a window into the life of a man whose universes and multitudes, to borrow from Walt Whitman, were always kept pretty close to the vest. I saw bits and pieces of myself in these letters, as well as bits and pieces of my dad, my uncle, and my brother (all Navy veterans, incidentally). But I also saw a lot of him: his willpower, his commitment to service, his idealism, his passion for adventure, and his love for home and family.
My grandpa was the quintessential Taurus: he enjoyed the beauty of the world, but he preferred the warmth of home even more. It was also funny to read about his appetite, which even in his last years was never easily satisfied (“Good supper, Phil!” he’d tell his daughter in law during his last years). And I have barely started going through my grandmother Rose’s letters – not because I haven’t had the time, but because I don’t really want to rush the job. I never had the chance to meet her, so I am looking forward to getting to know her. And I sincerely hope, if she was still around, that she would have been proud of me.
Anyway, if this blog/book does anything, I hope that it tells a much more multifaceted story about my grandpa’s war experience than most of us ever knew. He mentioned Leyte Gulf a few times, and talked a little about the vision test that booted him out of the V-12 Program, but for most people (including me) his story began and ended with the Attack on Pearl Harbor. Indeed, that’s the story people wanted, including the news organizations that would show up and interview him each year on the anniversary. Which was great, by the way – he loved the attention and never tired of telling the story. But his experience, which spanned the entirety of America’s involvement in the war, was so much more. It is a war story, a narrative about personal growth, and a romance as compelling as any you would see in one of the movies he had watched on the deck of the Mink.
As this narrative becomes a book, I hope to do it justice. But it is important to note: these letters, with all of their ups and downs, ARE his story. It is a lot more than Pearl Harbor. And yet, somehow, it is also a lot less. That’s what makes his experience so relatable.
These monthly letter posts have reached their conclusion, but please stick around. There is still a lot of work to do, and I hope to share it with you as I make progress on this project. So stay tuned . . . you haven’t heard the last of Elmer Luckett. And that’s, I think, how he would have wanted it.
I delivered this paper on October 17, 2020 at the online Western History Association Conference. Parts of it were taken from my Marquette University MA Thesis, which is entitled “In the Name of the Law: The Pine Bluff Detective Association and the Anti-Horse Thief Movement, 1885-1916” (2005).
This conference paper brings my research on extralegal responses to horse stealing full circle: it started with anti-horse thief associations in Wisconsin, and culminated most recently in my book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890. I don’t know if or when I will continue working on this subject (I have some ideas), but for now this feels like a good way to put a pin in it.
In the popular mind, vigilantism is most often associated with the frontier. One might think of Montana and California, where angry lynch mobs often wielded the hangman’s noose and where the lines between civil and legal authority were visibly blurred. Even though vigilante groups have appeared throughout the United States, some of the most spectacular – and memorable – movements have associated vigilantism with the San Francisco Committee of 1856, the Montana vigilant societies in 1864, and the Nebraska Niobrara during the 1880s. However, throughout the mid to late-nineteenth century, the vast majority of vigilante organizations never tied a noose or fired a shot. These groups, known as anti-horse thief associations, could be found throughout the Midwest, from Ohio all the way to eastern Nebraska. But for some reason these organizations, much like the rain, seemed to dry up at the 100th Meridian.
In my book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, I discuss the role that vigilantism played in local efforts to mitigate horse theft. I argue that while there was relatively little vigilante activity directed against horse thieves in the area, homesteaders, small ranchers, and newspaper editors often invoked the threat of lynching as “the old system of justice” for dealing with thieves. They did this because a dearth of law enforcement, the sheer financial and utilitarian value of horses, and the almost non-existent borrowing market for acquiring new ones rendered them vulnerable to theft. Horse thieves became a bogeyman for all their problems as a result, and by the time people started stealing cars instead the horse thief figure had already entered Western mythology as a villain who, in the words of Nellie Snyder Yost, was “never caught twice.”
In this context, I wondered about the absence of anti-horse thief societies from Western Nebraska. They seemed ubiquitous farther east, and the loss of a horse was magnified on the Plains by the sod, aridity, long travel distances, and lack of cash, so why aren’t there more in that region? To answer this question, look to the Pine Bluff Detective Association, which was an anti-horse thief association based in Pine Bluff, Wisconsin.
Pine Bluff was (and remains) a small hamlet about ten miles west of Madison. It was, in many ways, an idyllic, tranquil farm community. Industrious farmers made up the majority of the population and the town itself had a relatively low crime rate among its own citizenry. These conditions, however, did not guarantee citizens’ safety. For one, gangs of criminals were notorious for stealing horses in one community and then bringing them to another state for sale. Their actions precipitated an endless series of crime waves throughout the country that resulted in rising tensions among potential victims. Horse stealing was particularly feared – horses were essentially the most valuable pieces of property that farmers owned, with the exception of their house and land, and the horse market was so large and diverse that, depending on the time and place of the sale, thieves could usually sell their stolen goods for a high price. Fortunately for horse thieves, the high number of horses in agricultural areas such as Pine Bluff offered a steady supply.
In the spring of 1885, several horses were stolen in Middleton, a village between Pine Bluff and Madison. A series of thefts elsewhere in the area prompted Sheriff William Pierstorff to call for local communities to “organize for their own protection” in May. Apparently, the call was heeded. As panic began to grow within the farming communities of Dane County, the citizens of Pine Bluff and the surrounding villages united in June to form an anti-horse thief society, the Pine Bluff Detective Association. Anti-horse thief societies were generally nonviolent organizations that attempted to protect members’ property by facilitating local law enforcement and creating a “neighborhood watch” of sorts. “The people have become excited over the matter,” wrote William Dunn, the Pine Bluff correspondent for the Madison Democrat who would eventually become a member himself. He predicted, “Societies will be formed in nearly every town in this part of the county.” He also warned, “Suspicious characters traveling about will be roughly handled.” Although nobody from Pine Bluff seemed to have been directly affected by the outbreak of horse thefts, locals were already willing to mobilize and intimidate “suspicious characters” with vague threats.
What is more surprising is that these organizations were a common occurrence throughout the nation, especially the Midwest. Richard Maxwell Brown has hypothesized that hundreds of thousands of men and women were members of these societies during the latter half of the nineteenth century in an area stretching from Texas to the Great Lakes.
Before proceeding with the discussion of the P.B.D.A., however, it would be helpful to further frame it within the context of vigilantism. Consideration should be given to Wisconsin during the late nineteenth-century – was it a hotbed of vigilantism or a relatively quiet area? Although far from quiet, it was generally stable. Initially settled in the 1830s and granted statehood in 1848, Wisconsin had long ceased to be a frontier by 1880. In fact, in Brown’s lengthy catalog of the hundreds of known vigilante movements that have occurred throughout the United States, only one from Wisconsin made the list: the La Crosse Vigilance Committee of 1857, a short-lived organization created by the local population to help control a prostitution ring and other vices. Ultimately, an angry mob ended up burning down a local bordello. However, on the whole, Wisconsinites only lynched six men between 1882 and 1968, all of whom were white.
Despite these occurrences there was a much larger trend towards nonviolent, supplemental law enforcement in Wisconsin during the 1880s. Not only were horses extraordinarily valuable, but police were not yet technologically or institutionally able to proactively protect private property or investigate theft with forensic methods. This put the onus of private property protection on the private parties themselves. Between 1880 and 1890, anti-horse thief societies were founded in Waukesha (1881), Fulton (1884), Dayton (1884), Beloit (1887), Racine (1889), and Rock County (1890). Meanwhile, detective associations were founded in Dodge County (1881), Whitewater (1885), Palmyra (1888), and Ashland (1889). The Whitewater and Beloit societies had memberships numbering nearly 200, and the Ashland society published a polite, if stern, letter for a local murder suspect to leave the county. These, in fact, were only the larger societies and the ones that managed to file articles of incorporation, a procedure which actually gave these organizations the right to exercise constabulary powers and make arrests.
For the PBDA, historians can review its constitution and meeting record book at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. Aside from the standard executive committee – president, vice president, secretary and treasurer – it also allowed for the creation of a vigilance committee. This was the enforcement arm of the organization, and could be called upon in an emergency to assemble and hunt for any suspected thieves. However, the size of the organization probably allowed a great deal of informality among the members. If there was a situation, it was probably expected that most members would come to the aid of the victim and search for the thieves. At any rate, the vigilance committee and the president were responsible for the conduct of any searches. In 1887, a measure was passed allowing officers to draw $2 a day for expenses when conducting a search.
The members themselves reflected the diversity of the community’s social and economic strata. The P.B.D.A.’s first president, James Quigley, was born in Ireland in 1846. He settled in Springfield as a young man and learned the carpenter trade. His family, the Quigleys, were known at the Fourth of July picnic games for their brawn, which may or may not have helped James Quigley obtain his office as the leader of a vigilante group. He owned a farm of about 200 acres and had a wife with 2 children. However, he died in 1890 of appendicitis and was succeeded by James Bonner in 1891. Matt Anderson was perhaps the most prominent man to join the society. He served as a state assemblyman in 1871 and was a state senator from 1879- 1883. He owned a substantial dairy farm and, as mentioned above, retired fairly wealthy. Another prominent member was the Rev. Joseph Hausner, the pastor at St. Mary’s from 1905 until 1917. The latest in a long line of German priests dating back to the first mass at Johann Kalscheur’s home in 1852, Hausner continued to help hold his ethnically divided parish together. William Dunn had very positive things to say about him: “He was a good preacher . . . I can never forget his kindly Christian character and his exemplary life as a priest.” Like his predecessors, Hausner continued to help promote good relations in the community by refusing to condemn Protestantism, and he helped build a $5,000 parochial school during his first few years in the parish.
It is interesting that Hausner joined the P.B.D.A., especially since he did not hold property in the area or operate a farm. However, it is conceivable that he did so to promote crime awareness or facilitate, perhaps even join, what was at time a social organization. By promoting crime awareness, it is clear that his presence further distanced the organization from violence. Perhaps more importantly, priests in small villages such as Pine Bluff were active in building good community relations and promoting organizations that enabled farmers to get together with one another and socialize.
The most important source of information about the members comes from William Dunn, who wrote a memoir of his life in Pine Bluff. At 80, Dunn remembered a great deal about his past. Curiously, though, he mentions nothing of the P.B.D.A., despite describing the work of local pickpockets on three different occasions. Why wouldn’t he – or anyone else – have any reason not to mention or at least remember such a group, especially since it was clear that they were not a secret society? It is conceivable that it simply was not a big deal in the minds of the members.
This hypothesis is especially interesting in light of the apparent inactivity of the organization. There is no record of the P.B.D.A. doing anything other than issuing a couple of $25 rewards in two separate years. For one thing, dairy farmers were exceedingly busy people. Add on the burdens of having a family, participating in church, and having other social, civic, and recreational preoccupations, one may ask just where the dairy farmers would have found the time to make patrols and hunt down criminals. The annual meetings did not meet their quota during certain years. This possible lack of interest may be related to the fact that there is no known evidence of any manhunts or captures during the society’s 31-year existence. It seems as though the executive board had little more to do than pass bylaws and call meetings.
This would all be irrelevant if their organization was something more than a sleight of hand trick to make gangs of horse thieves think that the countryside was more mobilized than otherwise thought. That’s what many locals later believed, anyway – according to a reporter who interviewed the P.B.D.A.’s only surviving member in the 1950s: “it is possible that the knowledge of such a body was enough to put the quietus on horse and cattle stealing.” Since horse thieves were well aware of what vigilance societies were capable of once riled up – note Dunn’s remark that “the people have become excited over the matter” – it would have served the P.B.D.A. well to have only created a caricature of vigilance, if not an actual instrument of such. Their use of rewards for the capture of thieves might have reinforced this system, though it is not known why the two rewards issued by the society were given.
Caricature or not, it lasted for 31 years. Towards the end of that span, it ceased to be useful, although it did amass 67 members by 1916. In the twentieth century, the organization often met at a tavern in Pine Bluff, in a building known for its entertainments as well as its political assemblies. There is not a whole lot to say about the organization between 1890 and 1916, although the seeds of its dissolution were sewn well before the turn of the century. By 1916, most of the founding members were either dead or too old to participate. The need for anti-horse thief societies had passed, as had their founders.
When I first researched the Pine Bluff Detective Association some 15 years ago for my MA, I gave the organization the benefit of the doubt. I was reluctant to accept that the group was more of a social organization than a neighborhood watch. And my research on horse stealing in Western Nebraska bolstered, if anything, the notion that horses were important enough to late-nineteenth century Americans that they felt the need to protect them by any means necessary. But something stands out for me now that did not stand out nearly as conspicuously 15 years ago: Pine Bluff was, by all indications, a stable community. People raised their families there, and now many of their descendants continue to live in the immediate area. Dunn, Quigley, and Anderson were invested in this place. So too was the priest, Hausner, who likely would not have joined an organization whose members intended to murder wrongdoers.
The comparative rarity of lynchings in Wisconsin in some ways justifies the idea that most anti-horse thief societies were non-violent. After all, it makes sense to think that a well-organized and disciplined group of community watchers could successfully reduce crime to a point where it would no longer justify more rash vigilante action. But perhaps it’s actually the opposite: maybe the large number of thriving, longstanding anti-horse thief societies actually led to fewer lynchings. The history of vigilante violence elsewhere in the country seems to suggest this. Southern lynchings were a byproduct of white terrorism, not vigilantism, while farther west the largest vigilante movements occurred in relatively new communities with immature and graft-prone civil institutions. Anti-horse thief societies in this respect may actually act as emotional sponges, places where horse owners could express their fears and organize an active response to a disastrous outcome, like the loss of a horse, that would otherwise lie beyond their ability to act. In other words, rage does not necessarily lead to helplessness, but helplessness can easily lead to rage. Anti-horse thief organizations may have preempted that rage by giving an outlet to that helplessness. They might have even facilitated community organization, thereby promoting stability and peace. The fact that many other anti-horse thief societies were modeled after the Freemasons, with initiation rites and sacred insignia, suggests as much.
More research on these groups as community organizations, rather than as vigilante sleeper cells, is needed. In the meantime, my more recent research on western Nebraska can provide a brief counter-example. In this region, stockman’s associations, rather than anti-horse thief associations, were the primary organizational tool for locals wishing to combat horse and other livestock theft. These organizations were primarily formed and controlled by ranchers who not only excluded but sometimes acted in concert against Homesteaders, farmers, and small-herd owners. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association’s involvement in the Johnson County War is surely the famous and most notorious example, of this. But we see similar machinations within the Northwest Nebraska Stockman’s Association, a smaller, regional cattlemen’s association based in Hyannis. Not only did the organization preclude farmers, but one of its executive members, Perry Yeast, was accused of running a rustling operation in the early 1890s and later convicted of fencing public lands in the early twentieth-century. Local homesteaders, meanwhile, had a much more difficult time in western Nebraska proving their claims and creating economically viable farms than farmers further to the east. Many left within five or ten years. Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers both chronicle the instability of these farming communities on the Great Plains, and a growing historical literature, including David Wishart’s masterful Last Days of the Rainbelt, is deepening our awareness of what can only be described as a failed frontier.
The farmers who persisted did so in spite of these circumstances. And those who did seldom prospered. Communities, rather than building up and out, instead came and went. Civil institutions remained immature. Neighbors who could be relied upon to help in times of crisis might leave at the drop of a hat. Yet the need to protect their animals remained. If anything, the lack of generational wealth and only moderately rising property values magnified the losses farmers incurred whenever their horses were stolen. In this socially dystopian landscape, farmers organizations like the Anti-Horse Thief Association could not thrive. Instead, farmers felt their feels with little support, little help, and few people to whom they could complain at the local tavern.
When we imagine vigilante organizations, we tend to think of the ones with the highest body counts. Yet quantitatively they were in the minority. Most organizations might not have even been organizations at all. They were groups where, in the evening, after the many tasks of the day had been concluded, farmers could sit and commune over their anxieties which never seemed to go away. They could aggressively make plans against actionable threats that jeopardized their lives and communities, like horse thieves, while raging against those threats that – like locusts, drought, bad weather, railroads – only demonstrated their helplessness in the face of unending economic precarity and danger. By turning their helplessness into rage, and then their rage into bonding, they could learn how to explode.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
In the last weeks of the war, Elmer and the Mink spent their days doing what they had been doing for the past fifteen months: slaking the American Navy’s seemingly endless thirst for fuel on the other side of the world. The ship passed a second month that July servicing ships off Morotai, an island that is now part of Indonesia. “No, Dad, our anchor isn’t stuck at this place. We have to move once in awhile or else the tin cans thrown over the side would fence us in. Ha! Ha!”
Although the Mink was no longer traveling around the region, Elmer was in good spirits on the Fourth of July that year. “Here goes again from that man,” he began, in reference to himself. “Seems as if I just finished a letter home and whats-up, but its [sic] time to write again. [It is] a good thing you all love me so much at home, or I’m afraid these letters would grow very boring. Ha! Ha!” He went on to talk about how many of correspondents thought he was “a pretty fair letter writer,” but that “the censor probably thinks different, or at least he gets plenty tired of going over my letters each week. Someone has to take the punishment for my letters, even if the people that receive them don’t complain.” In any case, he joked that a leave rotation would solve everyone’s problems. “Even the censor[‘s.] So much for idle chatter.”
Yet in spite of his heightened spirits his parents were still going to be parents. His mother grew anxious after Elmer reported losing a few pounds. “Mom at times you’re a problem to me,” he wrote rather harshly on the 8th. “I casually mention that I lost a few pounds in a letter and right away you start worrying. What am I to do with you? I feel fine at all times and eat as much as I desire.” He then tried to explain the cause of his weight loss. “I’ve been in the tropics and heat for a good while and it don’t bother me. It’s only natural that you don’t eat any heavy meals here, mom, that is, all the time you don’t feel like eating a big meal.”
At the very least he was no less skinny than he was before, as he told to his father in that same letter. “I have a pretty good paunch as it is,” he reported. “Trouble with a ship is you are confined to such a small area most of the time, you don’t get enough exercise. You have your work and can keep busy, but really need more exercise. And the tropics aren’t exactly the type climate to inspire a man for exercising. Give me good old Missouri – four seasons – and a temperate climate.”
Elmer did not only discuss his weight with his parents. He and his dad continued to discuss In Fact, with Elmer articulating his own – and alluding to his father’s – political views throughout. That July, in fact, Elmer broached a subject that is still taboo today among many Americans: bigotry and race.
Historians since the George Floyd Protests began have been rightfully more attuned to biases in not only our nation’s history, but within our own work as well. This extends from our research and reading to what and how we teach our classes. It compels us to think about what antiracism means in our own daily lives, as well as what it means for our professional ones. This process of accountability applies to historical subjects as well, including my grandfather. However, anyone who undertakes the challenge of confronting their own privilege and bias today should be equally willing to witness and acknowledge that process as it plays out in the biographical record. If we are able to cut ourselves any slack after changing our hearts and our beliefs, we should do the same for the people about whom we write.
In that regard, then, my Grandpa is a case study in how Greatest Generation servicemen confronted their privilege in an era before the term had any academic cache. “Did you read the article about race, color, and religious prejudices the Army put out to its men,” he asked his dad on July 1st.
“It sure was good. And today the sermon at church was about being a good neighbor, and loving one[‘s] neighbors as thyself. There is no doubt that anyone prejudices against Jews or colored people or anything else is working against democracy and helping fascism. And at the same time its [sic] against the teaching of Jesus and any true religion. That writer Seldes is O.K. for my money.”
Elmer to his Parents, 1 July 1945
Of course, Elmer had prejudices of his own, the most conspicuous being his resentment toward Japan and Japanese people. His letters, while containing nothing out of the ordinary when compared to other white Naval personnel during the War, contained a torrent of Japanese stereotypes and slurs. He held this image of Japan in his mind possibly until the end of his life. And although he reserved more respect for other Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities, he sometimes commented on their skin, dress, and culture in his letters home.
That being said, Seldes’s columns were not universally embraced, and not everyone took them to heart as much as Elmer did. The American Armed Forces, despite a prohibition against discrimination by the Selective Service Act, were racially segregated during World War II. Even though Black units like the Tuskegee Airmen were well known for their bravery and skill, and less-famous units were instrumental in carrying out the D-Day Invasion and other critical tasks, their exploits did not translate into better rights for their families at home, or for their own rights upon their return. Within the branches themselves, many whites still treated people of color as second-class servicemen. The Roosevelt Administration and the Military attempted to combat some of these prejudices by writing and distributing pamphlets like the one Elmer apparently read while in Morotai, and by circulating training manuals. In many ways this was a prelude to President Truman’s decision to issue Executive Order 9981 almost exactly three years later, which desegregated the Armed Forces. While that decision shocked many whites, particularly Southerners in Truman’s own Democratic Party, the Army was clearly ahead of the curve in at least trying to anticipate the logistical and cultural effects of desegregation.
This systemic segregation persisted, however, and was entrenched within military culture. This was evident on Elmer’s ships, where in the United States Navy African-Americans could only serve as stewards or mess attendants. On the Chew, for instance, Elmer served with a handful of stewards who were born and raised in Guam.* But by 1944, he and the rest of his crew no doubt had a great deal of contact with various other people from across Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, which may have introduced opportunities for Elmer to broaden the diversity of his social network.
In his Fourth of July letter, Elmer continued to talk politics, this time in the context of America’s democratic experiment.
“A lot has happened since the Declaration of Independence. A number of wars and much bloodshed to keep that declaration. And I think the country has gone a long way toward making it a real Declaration of Independence. All men created equal, and other individual rights were [a long] time in coming. Took almost a hundred years to finish slavery and when manufacturing developed more the working man was busy trying to get decent hours, wages, and working conditions. Yet it has been improving with the years and it is the best deal yet. Our country isn’t perfect, but it has the best chance of becoming as near perfect as possible, if the people want it that way. So much for that, I’ll be giving a speech soon.”
Elmer to his Parents, 4 July 1945
Afterwards, he mentioned that Harry Scott wrote him to let Elmer know he was also a fan of Seldes’s columns. “Glad he likes the paper,” Elmer noted, in reference to In Fact. “I think it is a good little news sheet.”
Elmer’s passion for politics brought him closer to his dad. It probably helped bring him closer to Rose as well, since she was also not afraid to express her opinion. “And you think another left hook from Rose will put me down for the count,” he told his dad. “She is the girl that can do it” However, he was no longer reserved in his letters about sharing his feelings about his blossoming romance. “Yes, mom, if I were [to] fall for a girl it is Rose,” he wrote on the 15th. “Someday she may be a new daughter for you. I’ve never asked a girl to wait for me before, but I did ask Rose to wait. I love her, Mom, and that’s all I can say.” He was thinking about finishing school, and he reiterated that “until this war is over and I get re-established we are just sweethearts.” But the decision had been made.
* I plan on researching these men over the next year and adding their story to those of Grandpa’s crew mates on the Chew.
A month after V-E Day, it was business as usual in the Pacific. The work to defeat Japan continued unabated, isolated from the celebrations and culminations unfolding a continent away in Europe. However, there were some signs that the final act was approaching. After three months of brutal, harrowing fighting on Okinawa, the Americans declared the island secure on June 22. “Okinawa is secure now,” he wrote on the 24th. “The Japs are taking a bigger beating every day, and here’s hoping it won’t be long now.”
Apart from Okinawa, there was little else that Elmer could say that month, either due to the censors or, more likely, the absence of anything noteworthy happening aboard the ship. There was news, however, both from the States and from Elmer himself.
The first piece of news was surprising, but not unwelcome: Shirley Ryder was engaged to a school teacher. “The girl didn’t waste any time,” he mused. He had heard the news from Bud Tanner, who was a mutual friend. “It is probably true,” he added, “because she mentioned having dates with a high school teacher at times. I never hear from her anymore.” Nonetheless, “I’m glad I told her not to regard our relationship too seriously. Maybe she was looking for an opportunity to say the same to me. I’m glad she is engaged and happy.” The news also seemed to validate Elmer’s approach to wartime courtship. “Evidently she was fond of this teacher all along. And it all goes to show I’m right in not getting too serious about any girls while I’m out here. It just don’t pay to take a chance.”
Elmer then immediately turned his attention toward his current sweetheart. “Now with Rose, I think very much of her and think she is a sweet girl, but it would be foolish to get serious over it. Seems girls are all so impatient over and wanting to get engaged or married.” Elmer then recognized his own privilege to take his time making a decision: “I’m glad I’m a man, I’m not afraid of losing my charm before someone will have me. The longer I stay single the better chance I have of getting hooked. And this boy wants to have a little fun before he settles down.”
Elmer’s letter of the 24th went into a little more detail, and also stated more clearly his growing attachment to Rose:
“Mom, Shirley never said anything about us splitting up. Seems I never was sure about her and I didn’t want any hard feelings if I decided different later. And Rose was always writing me regular, I just felt she (Rose) was the right one. So after I wrote Shirley not to get serious, she answered back we should forget about it. I’m glad she is engaged to the teacher, that makes everybody happy. As far as getting a girl, I know several times I could have been hooked by a girl. But I wasn’t interested, too young and not ready. In my mind Rose is the finest girl I have ever considered for a sweetheart. And when the war is over and I get settled in again – if Rose is willing, she is my choice of the right girl.”
Elmer to his Parents, 24 June 1944
In short, Elmer had finally made his choice. “Maybe this will clear things up for you Mom,” he wrote a few lines later, perhaps unaware that he had not really been forthright about his intentions when writing to his mother until that moment. Only a few weeks earlier Elmer was telling his parents that he wanted to sow his wild oats after the war. Yet his breakup with Shirley probably communicated on some level to Elmer that while it might be convenient to string a line of eligible bachelorettes along until after the end of the War, there was always the possibility of a girl he really liked tiring of his behavior and moving on to someone else. Apparently he was willing to risk his relationship with Shirley in this way, but not with Rose.
Elmer’s letters – and Rose’s – comment directly on the state of their relationship, and on both fared individually during the war. They contain less information about his parents, however, since Elmer did not save any of their letters. However, they do contain some useful clues, as when Elmer reports that “Aunt Frieda told me to scold you Mom for standing her and the Davissons up when you were to go see Joan Meyer dance at high school.” While his aunt was clearly upset with her sister for not making the trip, Elmer suspected that her declining health might have been the cause. “I won’t scold you hard, mom, I guess you didn’t feel like going. Hope you were feeling OK anyway.” His mother also worried about whether or not Rose would like her. “Don’t worry [about it],” he wrote, noting that his other girlfriends enjoyed her company. “Jo Ann still asks about my sweet mother in her letters. She liked you a lot. Anyway, if they don’t like you or Dad they can forget me.” Meanwhile, Elmer commented more favorably about his father’s health. “June Tanner mentioned seeing you Dad – said you looked fine Skipper. Same good looking Dad of mine.” But he still worried. “I see you’re keeping busy, Dad” he noted on the 20th. “Plenty of rain now, so you keep working inside. It will be hot as blazes soon back home and I want you to take care of yourself.”
On the Mink, conditions were improving a bit. Beginning in April, the ship’s mess had managed to acquire a large enough supplier of eggs and butter to feed the crew an American-style breakfast twice a week. “Started off this morning with a good breakfast,” Elmer wrote on the 3rd. “Fresh fried eggs, bacon, pineapple juice and coffee, also toast and butter. Butter and eggs aren’t always available, but the last couple of months we’ve done pretty good with fresh eggs.” Whenever there were no eggs to be had, they could at least eat the hens. “We had fried chicken tonight,” he wrote on June 10th, “and ice cream for dessert.”
Elmer saw the Mink in a new light now as he familiarized himself with the rigors – and the benefits – of his CPO rank. On June 6 he spent some time discussing his new role. “Monday I took a group of the crew ashore for a recreational liberty. A chief is always put in charge of these parties,” he explained, “and we all take turns taking a group over each day.” In addition to that, “I don’t have to stand auxiliary watches in port anymore. But I have other jobs seeing that everything is running O.K. . . . I still have my watches to stand in the engine room when we are underway at sea.” On the 27th, Elmer joked about needing to take a shower after a long day at work in the engine room. “Got pretty dirty working around this morning. But even a chief [has to do] some work. Ha! Ha!”
Although Elmer’s days were filled with new responsibilities, his evenings presented more opportunities for relaxation and recreation. “Friday evening most of our gang of chiefs went to the CPO Club ashore,” he wrote on the 10th. “Had a nice time drinking a few beers and playing records on a phonograph. And it is nice to spend one or two evenings a week just shooting the breeze over a beer at the club.” Elmer was even impressed with the club’s furniture. “The stainless steel bar they have . . . is really nice, they handle the beer at the bar but the chiefs sit around at tables, no bar seats.” His letters this month also give us a sense of how his parents responded to the news of his promotion. “So you dashed over to Irene’s in the rain [to tell her the news]. I though you would spread the good word.”
Fortunately for Elmer’s mother, and for America, the rainy days were almost over, at least for the time being.
V-E Day did not bring the war to an end for the Allies in the Pacific Theater. But Germany’s surrender brought a sense of relief and joy, as well as a wave of sadness and mourning for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost their lives in western Europe, northern Africa, and the icy North Atlantic. “Well, folks, you have all heard the news and it is officially over in Europe,” Elmer wrote on May 9th, a day after Germany unconditionally surrendered. “We all knew it was going to happen, yet it comes as a big relief to know that Germany is out. And may God grant us a speedy victory over the Japs. It must not feel good to be a Jap, knowing the whole world is against you.” Elmer was pleased that the first, though not the “official,” instrument of surrender was signed on May 7th. “A very nice [birthday] present for me,” he wrote to his parents. “I couldn’t ask for much more.” Neither could President Truman, who was born on May 8th.
Elmer’s birthday talk that year reflected his improved morale. “At least we are making progress towards getting home,” he wrote on the 6th. “Each year I say, let’s hope next year we can be together for the occasion. It’s been a long time but I still have my faith – and endurance. So let’s hope again for next year.” He was even hopeful about being able to go home that year, at least once his 18 months at sea were up. At that point he would be eligible for rotational leave. “At least we know our time is put in,” he wrote after listing a litany of reasons why he might not go home until later that year or 1946, “and we are line to go back as soon as possible.”
Later in the month, Elmer reflected on his situation over the past few years, and concluded that the light was visible at the end of what had been an extraordinarily long tunnel. “I’ve been away and out here to much to let a little lonesomeness bother me,” he wrote on the 27th. “Because the end is in sight and it won’t be much longer. The days of 1942, ’43, and ’44 were much harder. We have the happier days to look forward to.” As reassuring as these words must have been to his parents, they must have also wondered just how much worse the earlier years had been, given how reluctant Elmer was to reveal his true mood to his parents. Then again, had Elmer “kicked” more about his circumstances in his letters home, his parents would have fared worse as a result – and he knew it. Parents don’t forfeit their parenthood when they send their sons and daughters off to war, but they lose most of their ability to act on their children’s behalf. For whatever criticisms one might have about Elmer’s almost cad-like writing habits toward his various romantic pen pals, he was a dutiful and loving son.
Elmer’s letters that May provide additional insight into both his reading habits and his political philosophy. “Dad,” he wrote on the 11th, “I sent in a subscription to a weekly newspaper called ‘In Fact.’ I also put in a subscription for you and Harry Scott. You should get it soon – let me know.” In Fact’s slogan, “An antidote for falsehood in the Daily Press,” reflected the career and reputation of its publisher, the well-known muckraker and rogue reporter George Seldes. The news sheet filled a gaping hole in the American information economy: the absence of an established, patriotic journalistic voice who nonetheless refused to echo government (or enemy) propaganda. Elmer, like many Americans both in the service and at home, enthusiastically supported the war effort while yet remaining skeptical of the now-censored press and wary of cherry-picked reports of Allied progress overseas. Seldes believed that Americans could handle the full, unvarnished truth. “I ran across the paper out here; rather a shipmate called my attention to it . . . I think it has a lot of good dope, maybe you will agree. Anyway, this fellow Seldes backs up all his news with facts and its good.”
Elmer also started to warm to his new Commander-in-Chief. “Yes, Dad, Truman may make a good President,” he wrote on the 11th. “I believe in giving him a chance.” Of course, he and millions of others continued to mourn FDR. “Losing Roosevelt was a great loss, you and I agree he was a great man.” But with the war nearly won, it was time to look towards the future, and Elmer understood – as Truman did – that America’s leadership would be even more critical in the months and years to follow. “Let’s pray that the world’s great powers can work in harmony and establish a league or something to maintain peace in this world.”
While Elmer’s support of Truman was still somewhat guarded, he was far less restrained now when discussing Rose with his parents. No longer just another romantic pen pal, his letters devoted more space to her than they have towards any woman since, and possibly including, Pat. “I did get two lovely letters from Rose,” he pined on the 16th. “She is such a sweet girl; writes the best letters of any girl that ever wrote me. Sensible and intelligent.” He continued piling on the compliments, and even noted the deal that they had made: she would not cut her hair, which he liked long, in exchange for him not shaving his mustache. “That will be easy,” he added, “because that’s your same wish Mom.” A few days later he was more self-reflective. “Mom I believe I always thought most of Rose even when I went with Shirley,” he admitted, perhaps more to himself than anyone.
He related how he recently revealed one of his romantic secrets to his new girlfriend when she told him how bad she felt about not being in St. Louis for the recent birth of a nephew, who then died only a few days later. The entire family was crushed, and with three of her brothers away fighting overseas she felt guilty about not being there. “I told Rose she was the only girl I had a picture of on my bureau at home. And how you had to watch and put it away in case another girl called. She got a good laugh out of it.” He then asked his mother to keep it there, regardless of who called on them. “You’re safe now, mom.” For her part, his mother tried to alleviate the pressure somewhat, perhaps sensing that her son was finally lovestruck and did not need any additional prompting. “Well mom, if I’m not [really] a bachelor until I’m 30, [then] I’ve got a good way to go yet. Ha! Ha!” While Elmer discussed his feelings with his mother, he tried to rationalize his changing views when talking to his father. “Guess Dad is right,” he offered on the 23rd, “I need not worry about some gal hooking me. There will be plenty of women to extra women to go around after the war. And I have my Rose waiting, and my best girl will always be at home.”
Elmer’s growing commitment to Rose did not only affect his letters home to his parents. Even after his breakup with Shirley Elmer still had an extensive collection of written wartime romances, some of which had likely not yet been concluded. This could theoretically complicate matters with Rose, as when one of his flames, Hettie Jean, moved to Washington D.C. to start a new civil service job. “I don’t suppose Rose or Hettie Jean will meet each other in Washington,” he wondered. “I’m not worried about it.”
Rose was not the only one to receive a promotion that month. Elmer received some unexpected news that May: he earned an advancement to Chief Machinist Mate. He was now a Chief Petty Officer, and would finish the war – and his service – with that rank. However, he was not able to tell his parents about it until the end of May. Here is his explanation why:
There is a little story to the deal. Our ship already had its quota for CMMs, and my rate had to go through a lot of official channels before they could advance me. Last March I took my exam for chief and made a 3.8 score. Very good! And in April the Chief Engineer sent a letter out with the Captain’s recommendation for my advancement. In April I just finished one year as MM1/c, but in most cases you must be MM1/c for eighteen months before being advanced to chief. But my record was very good, good marks all along, and I have quite a bit of sea duty, so the Engineering Officer and Captain thought I was an exception to the rule and recommended me . . . It took quite awhile for any action on the letter they sent in, but Monday my rate came in approved . . . and that’s my good news.
Elmer to his Parents, 30 May 1945
Being a Chief Petty Officer had its privileges. “My pay jumps $15 a month,” he wrote, “and I get a $250 clothing allowance for my new type uniforms. Of course while I’m out here I won’t need anything but a couple of hats and some khaki or grey shirts and trousers.” He planned on getting a blue uniform in the states, and in the meantime keeping “about one hundred and fifty aboard shop in case I ever get a leave.” His pay that month, with the clothing allowance, was $346. “Nice piece of cash,” he remarked.
Apart from the pay, there were other fringe benefits, like being able to visit the CPO club on the beach. “Last night I went over with our chiefs and did some celebrating. They have a nice bar and tables around and you can enjoy drinking your beer. The prestige and privileges of a chief aren’t hard to take.” They were also exclusive: in order to get into the club, he had to borrow some khakis and a hat from his crew-mates. One privilege that didn’t require dressing up was him being able to sleep in an extra half hour each morning. “7:30 instead of 7:00,” he wrote. “So much for that.”
Elmer was not the only one passing out cigars: another one of his buddies made chief that month as well, and his close friend Lloyd Hill did so in April. “We have eleven chiefs aboard now,” he remarked. “Pretty good bunch of fellows.” Meanwhile, as the number of chiefs aboard swelled aboard the Mink, the Pacific overall seemed to be more crowded all of a sudden, especially with Germany’s collapse and the impending push to finish the job in Japan. “Got a card from Warrant Machinist Damian, he’s the former chief that wrote me from Florida (on the Chew you remember),” Elmer wrote as he closed his letter of the 11th. “He is in the Pacific now and I’m on the lookout for him. All the people I know out here – surely I should meet someone soon. Ha! Ha!” He would get his wish . . . by the end of the summer Elmer would end up hanging out on the other side of the world with someone whose travels intersected with his own: his future brother-in-law.