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.
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Elmer quickly found himself busy once classes started on July 6th. “Same routine,” he wrote two weeks later. “Exercise, chow, classes, chow, exercise, classes, study, chow, study, and then sleep. What a day!”
His mornings started at 6am, when he would get up and begin his physical drilling. He was not used to the frequent and intense training, and although he often complained about it in his uncensored letters home, he did not question its necessity. “I’m tired,” he reported on July 12th after finishing his workout for the day, “but this is good for me.” Several days later he elaborated: “my physical drills tightened my muscles up and made me stiff – especially in the stomach. But it proves that it is doing good.” On the 21st he told his parents he was “wore out” after completing the obstacle course. “It’s a killer,” he wrote.
By 8am he was in class. For the next nine hours it was coursework, study time, and more physical education. He was enrolled in seven classes: Physics, American History, Naval History, American Literature, Physical Education, Engineering Drawing, and Psychology. Of all those subjects, “Physics seems to be the toughest subject for all the fellows.” He apparently held his own, though – on the 28th he learned that he had passed his first exam, “but not with a high grade.”
The V-12 Program worked Elmer to the bone, but there was a silver lining to his new posting: “they really can serve chow here.” The food on campus was “the closest to home cooking I have ever had,” he reported, and the chicken dinner he had on the Fourth of July was “perfect.” In addition, the dorms were a nice change of pace after spending two and a half years on a cramped ship. “The lounge has really nice over-stuffed divans, chairs, a radio, and such lovely carpets, drapes, etc. It really is swell here, folks.”
But the best part was the people. He became close friends with Hal Spiner, a fellow Cleveland High School graduate and a fellow resident in his dorm. On July 16th he interrupted a letter home by announcing that Hal had walked in and asked him to go out; when he picked it up the next day he described a double-date with Hal and two local girls, Ruthie and Hettie Jean, who worked as waitresses on campus. They drove up to Cape Rock, which apparently was just as frequented by couples in the 1940s as it was in the early aughts. But he quickly added, probably to short-circuit any worrying, that Cape Rock was also “the spot where some frenchmen landed back in 1733.” He was taking American history, after all.
Evenings were just as busy as the days. Elmer and his classmates visited the Rainbow Room, a local bar, and attended a dance held by the school. But the nights were hot in other ways as well. “Even at night you perspire a great deal,” Elmer wrote of the summer heat in Cape. “Boy is it hot here . . . [it] makes it hard to write as my arm keeps floating away in a pool of sweat.”
Elmer enjoyed spending some of his weekends in Cape, but he did make an effort to go home occasionally. Usually his visits were brief: he would take a bus up to Saint Louis early Saturday evening and head back Sunday afternoon. The visits were not long, but they were pleasant. “Good to be home,” he wrote after a visit. “The good old home-cooked food hit the spot.” Although he could not make it up for his mother’s birthday – they spoke on the phone instead – he tried to coordinate one visit with his brother Bud and his family visiting from Chicago. And Elmer took advantage of that most hallowed and time-honored tradition among college students: bringing the laundry home over the weekend. After one visit his mother had shipped him his uniform, which she had generously cleaned and pressed for him. It’s “in perfect shape” he announced – “‘just like taking it out of a drawer.’ Thanks, you’re a dear.”
Elmer had one other reason to visit home as well. At the end of the month, he announced his intention to visit. But he would not spend a great deal of time at home that Saturday evening – he had a date. With Rose.
A few weeks ago I started going through some of my grandfather’s papers again. It’s been a slow, plodding effort – not all of it is that interesting, and I stay pretty busy both professionally and at home with my family – so I’ve tackled it in fits and spurts. This particular time I was going through a large envelope with “Matt + Dave” written in sharpie on the front (Dave is my younger brother). When I opened it a museum of our childhood tumbled out: old theater programs, photos, and even a hand-drawn Christmas book I wrote and “published” (at a Kinkos) when I was 8. I had forgotten that it existed.
Another item was a program for my undergraduate commencement ceremony. I was annoyed at having only made cum laude with my 3.7 GPA. If only I hadn’t gotten those two Cs in French, I kept telling myself . . . but when I peeked at the program my grandpa saved he had circled my name, and in margin he wrote “cum laude = with honors!!!” It was both touching and telling that he felt the need to look it up. Maybe I should have been more proud of myself, or, at the very least, more willing to acknowledge his own pride in that accomplishment.
I had graduated cum laude from Southeast Missouri State University in 2003 with my BA in history. That was the same school, since renamed, that my grandpa attended for the V-12 Program sixty years earlier. But due to circumstances beyond his control, my grandpa never finished. I knew the honors distinction made him proud, but I wonder how much his own history in Cape influenced his thinking on the matter.
Although my grandpa didn’t choose Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College (the Navy chose it for him), I had known for a long time that I wanted to go to SEMO. I went to the campus several times for Model UN competitions, and although I was also accepted into Mizzou I opted to attend a smaller college, one where I could get to know most of my professors and never feel physically lost. The surrounding town is like that as well – then and now, Cape Girardeau is big enough for students to enjoy a few beers while watching the barges float past, but too small for a pub crawl.
Cape is a classic river town, and its location on what many Missourians would consider to be the state’s border between its Midwestern and Southern regions gives it a special flavor of its own. Residents prefer northern red brick buildings over plantation-style wooden frame homes, which do a better job of keeping the cold out. But at dinner time they’ll grab some gumbo or gator etouffee at Broussards, which keeps the heat inside. It is also isolated for a city in the Midwest: St. Louis is 100 miles to the north, Memphis is twice as far to the south. For me, going to a school located 90 minutes from where I grew up turned out to be a wise decision: it ensured easy access to home while giving me the chance to find my own path away from it.
I spent most of my weekends in Cape, but sometimes the nightlife was lacking (apart from the usual – and frequent – house parties). At least the Illinois side of the river had the Little Vegas Strip in East Cape Girardeau. Anchored by the Purple Crackle, a “supper club” which regularly featured big bands, for generations it was the place for students to go on a Friday night. But there was a rub: the Cape Girardeau Bridge, which was long, narrow, frightening under even the best of circumstances, and utterly terrifying under the worst. Cars passing each other only had a few feet of clearance on either side (the road was only twenty feet wide), so each party going east across the river to visit the Crackle had to come back with at least one driver who was sober enough to safely make the trip back west. That wasn’t always a sure thing.*
Decades later, after dinner one Sunday evening my grandpa asked me if the Crackle was still there. I quickly glanced at him and we shared a knowing look, hopefully without my mother noticing.
As I go through his letters from Cape, I notice other little things that tied our experiences together: afternoons at Capaha Park, evenings at Cape Rock, cool nights spent smoking under the stars, hot days spent seeking relief from the sultry Gulf heat that somehow always stretched its way up the Mississippi. When he first mentions Cheney Hall a rush of memories come flooding back, reminding me of all those times I’d walk from Cheney back to Towers late at night after seeing my girlfriend, passing the blinking power plant and the brooding soccer fields, hearing nothing but the tinnitus-like ringing of Missouri insects screaming from the trees and soft winds blowing a long arc from the Rockies all the way to the Atlantic. If it was really late – or less early in the morning – I could hear the first songbirds serenade each other from the Spanish oaks and sweet gum trees. Sometimes I would stand outside of Towers after an almost all-nighter, cool in the crisp predawn air, smoking a cheap cigar and listening to the robins and brown thrashers start their days. I wish I had thought to talk to my grandpa about these things, because I know he would be immediately transported to Cape with me.
Despite these commonalities, many things have changed since then. When I attended Southeast Missouri State University from 1999 to 2003, Cheney Hall was the oldest and most highly desired dormitory on campus. It is a gorgeous building, and its rooms have beautiful wood floors and classic radiators. But like all older things, it was not always so. Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College constructed Cheney Hall in 1939 with funding from the Works Progress Administration, so by the time Elmer arrived on campus in 1943 it was actually one of the newest buildings on campus. Meanwhile, Elmer’s dorm, Leming Hall, was already a couple of generations old, having been built in 1905. It was used for seventy years, setting the scene for generations of students’ memories. But while this spot lived on in my grandpa’s recollection of the campus, the building that came after that – the University Center, built in 1975 – became a special place for his grandson in turn. I spent a lot of time there: club meetings (does anyone reading this remember Circle of the Blessed Moon? I do . . .), my first student conference, BBQ sandwiches in the cafeteria . . . so many things come to mind. The buildings were different but the geographic coordinates were exactly the same.
It’s been almost 17 years since I graduated college, and the memories return in fragments. There are fuzzy mental snapshots of reading history books, looking at microfilm, taking notes, talking to professors, buzzing around Carnahan Hall, making friends, eating burgers and omelettes in the cafeteria . . . typical college stuff. But my mind also plays 4K videos me of going to New York on a Greyhound with my best friend, falling in love for the first time, watching 9/11 unfold on a break room TV screen at work, reading Hunter S. Thompson while sitting next to the river as it rolled forever by, racing down two lane roads in old cars covered in band stickers and then drunkenly eating pancakes with groggy truckers at the Scott City Huddle House . . . College was such an indispensably formative time for me that I cannot imagine who I would be without it. Meanwhile, the four years I spent at Southeast were the only frame of reference I have for my grandpa, whose own four formative years were mostly spent aboard Naval ships in war zones. But his residency in Cape Girardeau at least offers an intersection, a shared place, a series of moments that spanned decades of time.
I may have been the one to graduate cum laude, but my grandpa left college with honors as well. While mine were published in a commencement program, his were emblazoned on his uniform. And I know he knew that, but I hope he also knew that I know that as well.
* The old Cape Bridge closed about six months after I graduated in 2003 and was replaced by the much larger, safer, and more architecturally stunning Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge. It was demolished the following year.
Elmer did not write his parents another letter until June 18th. He did not have to: at 2:15 PM on May 11th, Grandpa arrived at Saint Louis Union Station. His parents were waiting.
After such a long absence, Elmer really enjoyed being back home with his family. His mother cooked his favorite meals, he and his father discussed politics in the den, and old friends and family popped in and out of 550 Eiler Street to visit. His friend Bud Tanner loaned him a late-model Ford to use during his time back in Saint Louis, so he was able to get around town as well.
Needless to say, this 43-day leave represents a 43-day gap in his letters. Since many of the specifics that inform this narrative come from his letters (which, of course, he did not need to write – he and his parents were under the same roof) and his service record, we don’t have a great deal of additional information. However, Grandpa did talk about this trip back home during his oral interview. Here is what he said about it:
So, actually, I got off of the Chew in Seattle, and I took a train home, and stayed at home here for the delayed order’s time. That’s when I met Rose, while I was home. Actually ended up going with some gal here, and she was committed to somebody or engaged. Anyway . . . I went downtown and met her at her lunch. She worked at Gaylord Container. Anyway . . . I guess the most important thing I did on the 43-day delayed order.
Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview, December 31, 2014
We will learn a lot more about Rose Schmid in the coming weeks and months.
She was my grandmother.
Time flies. June came before he knew it, and his 43 days were up.
“That month at home was heaven,” he wrote his parents after arriving at San Diego on the 15th. “Mom dear, I sure miss that home cooking of yours. Our food is good, but it just don’t compare with yours.”
His train deposited him in San Diego early. Once again, he had several days to kill in California. He spent them with a couple of friends he made on the train west. And by the time he reported for duty on June 18, he received some unexpectedly good news: he would be attending the Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College in Cape Girardeau.
Like many Saint Louisans, Elmer did not know much about the city, which he spelled “Cape Guardeau” (though he did add to his parents, rather sheepishly, that he “spelled wrong, I think – but you know where I mean – don’t you?”). He also did not know quite where it was, suggesting to his parents that “It shouldn’t be more than 300 miles from home,” even though the town is only about 100 miles south-southeast of downtown St. Louis. But he would get to know it soon.
On June 26th, Elmer took a train from the Pacific to the Mississippi for the second time in as many months. Four days later, Grandpa arrived in Cape Girardeau, Missouri at 3:15 in the morning. The moon was only a sliver in the sky, and the disembarking passengers immediately found themselves surrounded by pitch black floodwaters. Cape Girardeau’s railroad is so close to the Mississippi that it practically hugs the riverbank. “The train tracks had about a foot of water over them,” he reported the next day, “but all was well.” Elmer and the other arrivals grabbed their bags, splashed across the submerged platform, and hopped a ride to the campus, which was located on a slight hill overlooking the river about a mile away. They only had a couple of hours to sleep before reporting in at 8:30 that morning.
Fortunately, the excitement of the moment quickly replaced the fatigue. “I like it here and this is really an opportunity to attend college first class,” he reported. “I think we will be able to get home over weekends once we settle down.” Despite not having known much about his new city only a week earlier, he was more than ready to trade engineering on the Pacific Ocean for college studies alongside the Mississippi River.
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Elmer had another surprise in store for his family.
As the United States dove headlong into the biggest war in human history, its Navy began to grow dramatically in size. Despite the losses suffered during the Pearl Harbor attack, America was primed and ready to build thousands of ships and enlist millions of men for sea duty. However, leaders were harder to come by, and the Navy and the Army both needed more commissioned officers. Colleges, for that matter, needed students. The Navy responded by establishing the V-12 program in 1943, which sent 125,000 men to 131 colleges across the United States for technical, academic, and leadership training. Once they had a BA in hand, they would be as qualified as their Annapolis-trained brethren.
Although many of the cadets for the program were selected from graduating high school seniors, active Navy personnel were allowed to apply as well, so long as they were under the age of 23 and unmarried. Destroyer COs were allowed to recommend two men – a seaman and an engineer – to join and receive a free college education, courtesy of the United States Navy. Needless to say the program was competitive, which is why Elmer was thrilled when the Captain endorsed his application on April 25th to represent the engineers aboard the Chew.
Elmer was indeed “well qualified” for the program. In addition to progressing through the fireman ranks faster than his shipmates and performing well on the advancement tests, he attended St. Louis Junior College for a year prior to the war, where he majored in chemistry. Before that he had graduated from Cleveland High School in 1938 with honors. The V-12 program was made for candidates like Elmer: Navy sailors and engineers who possessed an acumen for their work and showed enough promise to become commissioned officers.
Although the program would take these men out of the war for a couple of years and station them in the relative safety and comfort of America’s college towns, it was not a typical university experience. According to one historian of the program, “V-12 participants were required to carry 17 credit hours and nine and one-half hours of physical training each week. Study was year-round, three terms of four months each. The number of terms for a trainee depended on his previous college background, if any, and his course of study” (Caroline Alison, “V-12: The College Navy Training Program”). Today in higher education we would call this an “accelerated program,” which is designed to pack as many units and courses into as short of time as possible in order to minimize time to degree. Naturally, this was an important consideration during the war – after all, the program would not be much use if the Navy ran out of officers before its candidates started to graduate, or if the students took so long to graduate that the war would be over before they left.
Elmer was excited and ready to embrace new opportunities and new adventures. Once the ship reached Washington State, Elmer was given 43 days of leave and ordered to report to the Naval Training Station in San Diego afterwards, where he would then be transferred to his new school.
Elmer left the Chew for the last time on May 7. It was his birthday. He then began the four-day long rail journey home to see his parents for the first time in two and a half years. It was worth the wait.
The United States had been at war with the Axis Powers for over a year, yet it felt as though Americans were only getting started. The first half of 1942 brought a series of disappointing setbacks across the Pacific as Japan gobbled up as much of Oceania as it could. The Battle of Midway put a stop to that, at least for the time being, but even though the Americans had eviscerated Japan’s carrier-based offensive air-power it still faced the foreboding challenge of invading a vast Empire some ten million square miles in size. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, American forces had not yet challenged the Wehrmacht, though their time would come soon enough.
For Elmer and the rest of the men aboard the Chew, calm seas returned soon after the storms of December 7th had moved on. Throughout most of the year, the ship stuck to its rounds off the Oahu coast. On some nights, only the moon illuminated the warm gray ship as it skulked across the sea, while on others only the dark shadows of mountains in the distance could blot out the impossibly thick carpet of stars overhead. Elmer loved nights like this while he was on watch, nights occupied only by the sound of the sea, the wind, and the heavens. On nights like those, the war raging around the world might as well have been on a different planet.
Overall, 1942 had been an exercise in duty, diligence, and patience as the destroyer busily escorted other ships around the Hawaiian Archipelago and sometimes beyond. Apart from a few possible submarine encounters, however, the year was relatively uneventful.
Of course, “uneventful” was not a bad state of affairs in wartime. There were far worse places to be than on a well-armed ship whose larder regularly stocked ice cream. But Elmer had spent the last two years of his life aboard the Chew, and he began to yearn for a change of scenery. “Right now a pleasant Spring would seem grand to me,” Elmer wrote on March 21st. “I can’t help but thinking how good it would be to experience the warm days of Spring (and the green covering the trees) . . . at sea it is a vast ‘blue’ – sky and water.”
These were slow news months aboard the Chew. Elmer reported missing his mother’s chicken dumplings and noted that his friends were razzing him about his “soup strainer.” On March 2nd Elmer reported having paid $59.00 to settle his income tax bill. “No doubt that every dollar is needed,” he wrote approvingly.
One interesting development arrived from back home: Keep Klean, his former employer in St. Louis, folded in late 1942 . . . not for want of business, but because most of its employees enlisted. Any business that principally employed young men, from Major League Baseball teams to auto detailing companies, struggled to stay open during the war. The American economy began to experience a problem it had not known for well over a decade: labor shortages. Of course, one positive aspect of this was near-full employment for women and the opening of skilled labor and technical positions formerly reserved for men. Perhaps the closure of companies like Keep Klean had less to do with the unavailability of men to do the work and more to do with the fact that both men and women had more important jobs to fill in a total war economy. Besides, car seat covers for new automobiles became unnecessary once the car companies themselves started making jeeps instead.
As usual, Elmer interspersed the “usual dope” on movies he saw and letters he received with his thoughts about the War. He was more cogent and perceptive than most people twice his age. “Yes, the war has made many economic and industrial changes for rich and otherwise,” he wrote on March 8th. “[It] Created new businesses, ruined old ones, shifted manpower to and fro; giving people more wages with which to buy nothing; and effecting [sic] all for better or for worse. But I believe the people realize it is the only way for total war. And we will win this war!”
April 1943 represents Elmer’s least prolific letter-writing month of the War thus far. As many as five days passed without a letter, which was unusual for him. The Chew was busy that month, and busy months had the dual effect of providing less time for letter-writing and, given the long list of banned discussion topics, simultaneously robbed him of things he could say. “This is another one of my short letters dear,” he wrote apologetically on April 27th, “but you said they are always ‘short but sweet’ so that makes me feel better.”
However, Grandpa believed that chattier times lay ahead. On April 27th he dropped a hint regarding his future plans: “I may have a surprise to tell you about in the near future.” While Elmer teased his parents, the Chew was just a few hundred miles southwest of the Olympic Peninsula as it cruised towards the States. Within a couple of days, new mountains appeared in the distance. Unlike the craggy volcanic summits in Hawaii, these peaks crowded together in an ancient, misty huddle. Their secrets were well-kept. The air around the ship had grown cooler, the skies were like a gray-scale print.
The Chew steamed into the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, bound for the Bremerton Ship Yard west of Seattle. Once it docked, Grandpa could begin to enjoy his first extended time off in nearly two and a half years. He had not written his parents since April 27, but on May 8th he sent his parents a telegram whose seven words were more exciting than a hundred letters:
“ARRIVE HOME NEXT WEEK ON LEAVE. ELMER” He had forty-two days off.