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.
Guess what? Good news: my book is officially published!
If you’re interested in ordering a copy of Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890 (which you completely should) but don’t want to pay $65 for it (which I completely understand), now’s your chance to get it for 50% off!
While you’re there, please check out some of the University of Nebraska Press’s other new releases. As one might imagine, 2020 is a difficult year to promote new publications, which is typically done through in-person activities such as book signings and release parties. As one of the largest and most prestigious academic presses in the country, you’ll no doubt find plenty of great things to read, or perhaps the perfect Christmas gift for someone who already “has everything.” I’ve included links to three of the books I plan on buying myself using the same 50% off coupon code at checkout:
Also: if you are interested in ordering an autographed copy of my book, I can send you a signed hardback, along with a personalized note and a special gift, for $50 USD. That price includes all shipping and handling (I have to order it from the warehouse and then send it on to you) for all orders within the United States or Canada. It’s also cheaper than the current list price for the book. Give the gift of a brand new, autographed horse stealing history book to that person in your life who loves well-crafted historical monographs, Westerns, or the Great Plains in general.
If you are interested in ordering an autographed copy, please go to my Contact page and provide your name, email, and a comment indicating your interest and including any special instructions you have for the autograph, the personalized signature, or anything else, and I will respond as soon as I can.
Anyway . . . I think I’ve run out of things to promote! For now, at least.
In the meantime, have a safe, pleasant, and mildly cool autumn!
Elmer began his Easter Sunday letter on April 1st, 1945 complaining that dehydrated eggs could not resurrect themselves into a hard-boiled form. “The hard-shell variety of ‘hen fruit’ has been rather rare aboard ship,” Elmer noted. “But when a few are available they sure hit the spot.” Yet it was not the absence of eggs alone that made the holiday lose its luster. “In short, no eggs, no rabbit, no new suit, no folks to be with, no Easter. But I’m in good health and I feel that you are all the same back home, so we can’t complain.”
The Mink left Mios Woendi almost as quickly as it arrived, and it once again hit the waves. The tanker largely ping-ponged around the Pacific at this point, supporting vessels in various ports of call recently reclaimed from the Japanese Empire. All that running around put a chokehold on the mail, which was already facing obstacles on its journey from the United States to the Pacific Theater. “I hope there is some mail coming along soon,” Elmer wrote on the 1st. “The tempo of war on all fronts has stepped up, and no doubt means of conveying our mail has been diverted to more essential needs. And due to our moving around other delays occur through redirecting and re-routing our mail. But I believe,” he added, “[that] they do their best under the circumstances.”
Grandpa had to wait for his mail, but he didn’t wait as long as others did. As it turns out, Elmer enjoyed expedited service since he paid for air mail. “Finally got [cousin] Bob’s letter,” he complained on April 22. “It was mailed in December.” Elmer blamed the slowness of the free “sailor mail” service, which provided mail service free-of-charge to American Naval personnel. “Free letters from servicemen out here take ages,” he explained. Naturally, it was a good thing that Elmer could afford such a service, but no doubt many men and women with families back home could not. “So I must tell Bob to use air mail only,” he sighed. “Sure glad his letter finally reached me.”
For all the delays Elmer and his parents experienced with respect to the mail, he did not have to wait long to find out what his folks thought about his breakup. His mother was clearly disappointed, and apparently blamed herself for their separation. “Mom, dear, what am I going to do with you?” he wrote on the 8th. “Just because I wrote Shirley and expressed my views and my true feelings you start to think it is because I am afraid you don’t want me to marry. Mom, next month I will be twenty five years old, and you shouldn’t forget it.” Like a lot of unmarried adult children who field unsolicited questions from their parents about their domestic intentions, Elmer asserted that the matter was his to decide. “When I decide to get married and I probably will someday I hope my choice of a bride is favorable to you and Dad. But you should know when a person is really in love with another . . . no one’s opinion, not even the best folks in the world, is apt to change things.”
After reiterating much of what he had been saying for the past four years, he reminded his mom that she was off the hook for Shirley’s decision to break things off:
“I really didn’t know Shirley that well. And if she waited around until the war was over I would naturally assume an obligation. You know the old story, she waits around during her young years and I return with my mind changed – so I’m a heel. To avoid any misunderstanding I wrote my sentiments on the subject. Shirley don’t agree with me evidently. And mom, don’t worry about me on that account. I’ll get along o.k. You’re still my best girl. Keep that chin up for me.”
Elmer to his Parents, 8 April 1945
Rose, meanwhile, continued to write him in spite of his sentiments on the subject of marriage. “I usually write Rose once a week,” he noted to his folks, “sometimes twice. She is a sweet girl. Said she is practicing on my favorite meals, so she could fix me a super meal when I get home. I told her I like stewed chicken dumplings and stuffed green peppers.” He apologized for not introducing them to Rose when he had the chance. “I’m sorry I never got Rose to the house so you and Dad could meet her. She wants to meet you all when the opportunity is available. So much for my latest heart throb.”
Like most of his early-1945 correspondence to his parents, Elmer is largely catching up with family business, trying to console his mother over not being engaged yet, and trying to find new things to write about. But by now the novelty of Navy life was clearly gone. His sentences were shorter and more abrupt than in 1941. He also started to regularly omit the subject pronouns in his sentences (a phenomenon known as “conversational deletion”), which was an infrequent occurrence in his earlier writing. Linguist Andrew Weir argued in 2012 that this tendency (which he calls “left-edged deletion”) pops up more often in personal or intimate writings, including diaries and journals. This suggests that Elmer started viewing his letters to his parents less formally, as a pro forma exercise in keeping regular contact, as opposed to a medium for recording his thoughts and experiences. “Nothing new to speak of,” he wrote on April 8th. “Regular routine at sea. I’m on the 4-8 watch again, my favorite. Take care of yourselves and keep those chins up. Must write Rose a few lines today.” Maybe he finally reached the point where he really didn’t have anything new to say, after all.
Fortunately, current events would soon provide enough fodder for Elmer to sustain himself as he wrote his dispatches home. On Sunday, April 15th, Elmer attended church services on the beach. “Unusual for me to attend services on land,” he wrote, but like many other Americans across the world that morning Elmer had some things on his mind. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had only recently celebrated his fourth Inauguration, passed away at his “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia just three days earlier. Although many Americans today are familiar with FDR’s health troubles, the President took great pains to project an image of vitality and vigor to the nation as it fought a Depression and then a World War. Rarely seen publicly in a wheelchair and only 63 years old, his sudden death stunned millions of Americans on the eve of their hard-won but seemingly inevitable victory over Germany. “All over flags were flying at half-staff in respect to the death of our Commander in Chief and President,” Elmer wrote later that Sunday. “It was a shock to the world when the news was given out. I just couldn’t believe it at first.”
Elmer continued to reflect on the news. “He will go down in history as one of our greatest leaders, Dad. God knows I wish he could have been here to see our victory and help make the peace. Because our victory can’t be far off and at least he knew it too.” Although Elmer was from St. Louis, he was not familiar with the former Senator from Missouri and Vice President who suddenly inherited the highest office in the land. “I don’t know much about Truman,” he explained, “he has such a big job and responsibility to take over. May God give him the wisdom to carry on in our great leader’s foot-steps. My trust is still in God and that He will show His light and guidance to the man who will make our peace. May it be everlasting.” That trust had yet to be earned, however, at least according to Elmer’s letter a week later. “The Russians are entering Berlin now and let’s hope this will wind up the European mess soon. Sure wish F.D.R. was still running things but let’s all hope all will work out O.K.”
As it turns out, things worked out fine. “Well today has been confusing to say the least,” he wrote at the top of his letter of April 28th. “No doubt at home you are experiencing the same sensation. All sorts of news on Germany’s surrender, or reports to that effect have been coming in. But no official confirmation has been given by our capitol. I sure hope the Germans have given an unconditional surrender. But the fact remains Germany is licked without a doubt.”
Even Hitler knew by this point that all was lost. He shot himself two days later.
President Harry S Truman’s task in winning the European war was largely a fait accompli by the time FDR passed away. But he would have some decisions to make over the next few months as the American war machine turned its full attention towards Japan. Meanwhile, somewhere in the Pacific, another man from Missouri would have some decisions of his own to make as the Pacific War came to a climax. As Rose continued writing her letters, would Elmer assume an “obligation” to her once the War ended, or would he start to change his tune after four years of proud bachelorhood? He would not have much time to figure it out.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave so much of himself, and bravely fought through some tremendous physical battles, while serving his country. So too did Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away this past Friday. Her loss leaves a hole that will be impossible to fill, but her legacy as a champion of gender equality and as a legal, political, and even cultural leader will endure and echo for years to come. Today she gets the last word:
“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” – RBG
If Elmer’s life during World War II was a season of The Bachelor, Shirley would have been one of the first contestants and probably the odds-on favorite for a marriage proposal at the end. But in the spring of 1945, Elmer’s main squeeze took herself out of the running. “Shirley and I are practically split up now,” he wrote rather abruptly on the 7th. “Perhaps I better explain the situation more thoroughly.”
The “situation” actually wasn’t that complicated: Elmer told Shirley, probably not for the first time, that he did not want to be exclusive. But Shirley, perhaps sensing that the end of the war was approaching, while also realizing that the last several years of courtship were not bringing the two any closer together, decided to break things off. Elmer was surprised by, though not necessarily broken up over, the news. “[We] never had a definite understanding between us,” he protested. “While I was home and saw her it was dates and a good time. She knew my intentions were not to marry anyone until after the war (this wasn’t meant just for her – it came up in conversation).” He further explained that he told her about his other romantic flings and pen pals, which based on previous letters probably did not come as much of a surprise to Shirley. But the sentence that might have cut the most, and was likely left unsaid over the past several years, was a buried lede: “To be fair with Shirley I wanted her to know that she meant very much to me and I liked her but just what I intended to do after the war was indefinite. In short, I didn’t want her to assume we would get engaged, married, or even go steady . . . but I was still willing to write her sweet letters for sweet letters, and after the war we would see what developed.”
Needless to say, this did not go over well. “Evidently Shirley felt hurt about it and didn’t think the same as I do. She said beings I didn’t want any obligations, and would be happier without any, perhaps we should forget each other.” Elmer seemed glad that, like with Pat a few years earlier, he was able to avoid dumping her. “I’m glad she thought it out and decided what she wanted.” He then essentially admitted that he was being unfair. “I admit my offer is selfish and and didn’t sound like I think much of her, but I’d sooner she know that now. I don’t expect any girl to wait around for me, and on my terms I guess they would be foolish to do so. Ha! Ha!”
The problem, though, is that if Elmer’s letters to Shirley were even remotely similar to those he sent to Rose, then one could not blame her for reading between the lines. Here’s one passage he wrote to Rose on November 21st, 1944:
“I feel at a disadvantage when it comes to expressing myself with pen and paper. My presence in your company would be a marvelous solution. But very impractical and highly impossible for some time. My problem, therefore, is to hold your interest (at 10,000 miles or so) and keep your mind off all the attractive males you must come in contact with time and time again. Yet, somehow, I feel that our memories of a wonderful past together carry weight in the matter. If only I could reaffirm myself your standing dear. Perhaps this separation, in its lonesome and trying way, is creating a better understanding. I sincerely hope so darling.”
Elmer to Rose, 21 November 1944
Throughout 1944 and into 1945, Elmer wrote his parents twice and Shirley at least once a week. He did not commit to writing Rose once a week until the fall of 1944, and even then Elmer made it known to his parents that his letters Shirley were his highest priority. But his letters to Rose are stacked with references to reconnecting after the war and to seeing where things go during peacetime. He is careful not to make any explicit promises, but we must remember that in 1945 sailors were only rarely able to telephone their loved ones. There was no email, no texts, no emojis, and certainly no Facebook relationship status. As anyone who has ever been in love can imagine, those early stages of a relationship are filled with a lot of recreational reading between the lines, and for couples during WWII the only way to do that across a long distance was to read and reread the letters they received from their sweetheart. Elmer probably felt – in fact, I’m positive that he genuinely believed – that his disclaimers were enough to signal his lack of interest in committing to any one woman during the war. But the “sweet letters” he sent mixed the message.
It is also important to remember the social context of courtship during World War II. Men and women both put their lives on hold for several years as they worked and sacrificed their way toward victory. An unmarried woman Elmer’s age when the war started would have been 25 when it ended. Although there is nothing (or rather there should be nothing) unusual about that today, in 1940 the median age of first marriage for women was 21.5, while for men it was 24.3. In other words, once the war was over, Elmer was only beginning to reach the point in his life where the crescendo of social pressure for him to marry would begin to build to intolerable levels. Rose, meanwhile, regularly referred to herself in 1944 as being “old,” despite being six months younger than Elmer.
This social pressure, when coupled with lingering economic insecurity from the Great Depression and the simple fact that hundreds of thousands of marriageable men would die in the War, took its toll on Elmer’s romantic pen pals. Rose likely succeeded in ameliorating that pressure somewhat when she moved (escaped?) to Washington, D.C. to begin her Navy Department job, and since there was no reason for her to believe that Elmer would not return to St. Louis after the war her prospects for a more permanent relationship were good. But Shirley, who by 1944 was living in Michigan and writing letters to her sailor sweetheart for several years at that point, wanted a more definite outcome. Once it became clear that their future was muddled at best, she cut bait.
Meanwhile, Elmer’s own future became somewhat clearer, if for no other reason than through the process of elimination. “Rose has been very attentive to me in her letters, so I’ll still be busy writing her,” he wrote on the 7th. But then a couple of weeks later his tone changed. “I must write Rose this afternoon,” he announced on the 21st. “She is my ‘heart-throb’ now.” He added that he still planned on going to university and being a bachelor while in school, since single college students “have more fun.” However, Elmer began to see his future, as well as his past, through Rose-colored glasses. With just the slightest bit of hesitation, he told his parents that he didn’t “want to become infatuated with a girl, at least not seriously.” At this point, it seems, his infatuation – and his growing affection – for Rose were a foregone conclusion. It just wasn’t serious.
[Note: I have started writing a follow-up to this, entitled “A Post about Shirley.” Like I did with Pat, I tracked down Shirley and will provide a write-up about her and her life. Spoiler alert: Shirley, like Pat, had a “happy ending” after she broke things off with Elmer.]
Romantic drama notwithstanding, March was uneventful aboard and around the Mink. The soupy tropical air was just as hot and stifling as it was February, and like the previous month no fresh dangers from the air or the sea confronted the crew. Most of the news was happening elsewhere, even if it was somewhat distorted by the intense gravitational pull that men like Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur had on the American media: “Well, dad, I read what you had to say about Doug MacArthur,” Elmer replied on the 11th.
“The opinion [about General MacArthur] seems to be much the same wherever I’ve been around. A favorite nickname for him out here is ‘I Love a Parade MacArthur.’ Most people can’t help but admit he has been a great and capable general. He has proven that, it just seems like his name and words are the only force here in the Pacific according to the news. I agree that the Navy gets very little publicity compared to the Army. But the Navy is much harder on censorship I believe.”
Elmer to his Parents, 11 March 1945
Nevertheless, in spite of all the positive press being heaped upon the nation’s military leaders, the reports were indeed good. American troops crossed the Rhine on March 7th, and by the end of the month Iwo Jima was officially secure. There was also some good news on the Mink: Elmer’s initial $10 stake in the ship’s canteen had grown into a $31 share, tripling his original investment. The candy, cigars, and toiletries practically sold themselves.
While the men aboard the Mink did not have too many shore adventures in March, they did enjoy some changes of scenery. On the 15th the oiler sailed back to Leyte Island, where it refueled ships for the next several days. Then it departed again in order to return to the Dutch East Indies. On the morning of March 31st, the Mink anchored in Mios Woendi, an island south of Biak that was barely larger than the National Mall. It was not much of an improvement, but at least it was something different.
Even though the Mink would not see any more hostile action for the duration of the conflict, its service would not end until the war did. And in the meantime, the sea would be its home – and Elmer’s.
Hi folks, I just wanted to post a quick update on the fires up here, since people have been asking us all week about it . . .
First of all, we are OK. We’re tired of all the smoke, and all I want to do is go on a bike ride on a clear morning . . . but we are far from the flames, and for that we are extraordinarily grateful.
Secondly, although we are OK, a lot of people are not. The wildfires have already claimed several lives, and there is no telling what the long-term health effects will be for people in this state who have to work outside every day (e.g., people like my dad before he retired), breathing in toxic air and in some cases ash and burnt bits of grass and pine needles. I don’t get political on here too often, but please understand thatclimate change is real. We are the canary in the gold mine, and most (though certainly not all) of us in the Golden State feel in our bones that these megafires are only going to get bigger and consume more acreage, more towns, and more lives in the future. Although we are sad about the unfolding disaster now, we are even more distressed by what next year will bring, and the year after that.
I don’t have any solutions for this – I’m a historian, after all, and not a climatologist – but I do hope that we will collectively begin to take this more seriously. It is a more serious issue, frankly, than what most people on the left or the right have been obsessing over in recent months and years. This is our number one long-term threat, period. It will affect everyone and everything you and I care about and love, and most often in a negative way. So, I hope that we use this as a reason to begin making decisions, from the grocery store to the car dealership to the ballot box, that mitigate these dangers and buy our civilization the time it needs to engineer the total war response this problem deserves.
I love California. Where else in America can you visit a warm, sun-kissed beach in the morning and then drive to the mountains for some afternoon skiing? But this place that I’ve grown to love and think of as home is in real, existential danger. And if these massive fires don’t ring any alarm bells, then what will?
For now, at least, if you’re able and willing to lend a hand or donate some money to the dozens of communities under the gun right now, here is a great list of resources. Please do what you can. And remember: most of the towns that are most dramatically affected by these fires aren’t the large coastal urban centers, but small towns in outlying areas. Farming and logging communities are particularly prone to fire dangers, and although their work is essential to the American economy, they don’t have a lot of resources to rebuild on their own. Every little bit helps.
Anyway, I’ll jump off the soapbox for now . . . I’ve already written and scheduled Monday’s post on March 1945, and it’s a real doozy, so keep an eye out for that.
In the meantime, thanks as always for taking the time to read whatever I feel like writing on here. I appreciate all of you.
“Your boy is growing a bit weary of this mess. In fact, he’s damn tired of it.”
The four years and counting of active service were beginning to take their toll on Elmer, who started to lose his trademark optimism and buoyancy in his letters home. “I sure hope to get home sometime this year,” he wrote on February 21st. “Better still, if this war can end before next year.” Yet hope sprang eternal , especially with Elmer. “Well Dad the war news has been fine,” he wrote on the 1st. “[The] Russians are heading right for Berlin – and it shouldn’t be long now. I’ll be glad when Germany folds up so they can concentrate all our strength out here. I’m itching to get back in those civilian clothes. Gosh, I hope they still fit me.”
Although nothing short of Japan’s surrender would have cured Elmer’s blues, the interminably long delay in receiving mail did not help matters. “It’s been better than three weeks since we received mail,” Elmer wrote on February 1st. “[I] got tired of trying to guess when the mail will arrive,” he told his parents three days later. “I’m sure you are all well and OK at home. That’s my big concern. [I also] miss hearing from Shirley and my other fans.” But incoming correspondence did not only provide reading material – it also gave Elmer some things to discuss in his own letters. “I have a devil of a time finding something to write about.”
Yet Elmer knew that the delay was probably temporary. “I’ll probably get a truck-load to answer all at once,” he joked on the 4th. Indeed, that is exactly what happened. “Yes sir!” he exclaimed a week later. “The mail really hit home-plate today. And I find myself with forty three pieces of mail.” Among other things, Elmer finally received his Australia snapshots, as well as letters from his pen pals – platonic and otherwise. However, the words spilled out of him as he responded to his parents’ accumulated mail. “So you think I’m a chip off the old block,” he asked his dad,” – and concerning the girls too. You never told me you were a woman-killer, Dad, but I suspected it. I get along alright, but this duty out here cramps my style. Ha! Ha!” The mail did more than lift the crew’s spirits – it helped them see the light at the end of what had been an exceedingly dark tunnel. “But I have plenty of time to come yet, and it shouldn’t be too long now before I get the chance. This war is rapidly reaching the end of the line.”
The mail ship’s arrival was the biggest news in weeks, since the task force did not make a lot of news on its own. The Mink did not leave Lingayen Gulf that month – it was as stationary as a Circle K. Fewer ramblings meant even less to say in his letters home. “I haven’t had much chance of getting off the ship lately to look around,” he wrote on the 4th. “Once in awhile you get boat engineer duty and run around to different ships. But I like to adventure around on the beach when possible. That always helps break the monotony of being aboard the ship so much.” He made a similar lament at the end of the month. “It’s been a little monotonous aboard [the] ship lately. Wish we could get ashore for a change.”
With so little happening outside of the ship, and even fewer goings-on that would pass the censors, Elmer talked more about the movies that he and his shipmates watched aboard the Mink. “Just saw a movie before deciding to write a little,” Elmer explained on the 1st. “[The] Powers Girl was the name. Pretty good show.” Laster that month they watched Random Harvest and Janey. “I enjoyed seeing Random Heart again,” he wrote, implying that many of the movies were reruns. But they weren’t all winners. “We [saw] Knickerbocker Holiday with Nelson Eddy [this evening,]” he wrote on the 18th. The film indicted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, and accused the recently reelected President of promoting fascist policies. Elmer, a New Deal supporter until his dying day, was not impressed. “It was pretty much of a stinker. But it was better than nothing – I guess.”
Of course, there were worse places to be that month. On February 19th the Americans invaded Iwo Jima. Although Joe Rosenthal only had to wait four days in order for him to take his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” the seizure of Mount Suribachi only concluded the first phase of the fighting. Over the course of five weeks, nearly seven thousand Americans would die on the volcanic island, which itself was just six times larger than New York’s Central Park.
No one knew with certainty when the war was going to end, but most observers believed that 1945 was going to be the year when, at minimum, Germany surrendered. It was just a matter of time. Even though the Germans gave the Allies a run for their money in the Ardennes only weeks earlier, the Soviets in the East and the other Allies in the West were both juggernauts by this point, and the armies seemed to be in as much of a footrace with each other as they were against the Wehrmacht.
In the Pacific, meanwhile, the timeline was less certain. Although the liberation of the Philippines was rapidly progressing, and the vast majority of the Imperial Navy was dead in the water, Japan itself loomed ominously on the horizon.
For Elmer, another New Years at sea meant “just another night” aboard the Mink. But at least they got “a good dinner” out of it. And Elmer was no less hopeful that the war would soon end for him, too. “This year can make millions of people happy if it spells doom to our enemies,” he wrote on the 3rd. “Let’s pray this is the year for victory and the beginning of an everlasting peace.” The New Year also brought a significant milestone for the crew aboard the Mink: the ship’s first anniversary. “It’s done its little bit in that time toward fighting and operating against our enemy in the Pacific,” Elmer reflected. “May our ship and crew continue to operate in the same good fortune always and God grant us strength, courage, and protection.”
The Mink would once again do its little bit in this effort as the Allies closed in on the Island of Luzon and Manila, the territorial capital. On January 9th the American Sixth Army landed at Lingayen Gulf, establishing a beachhead where over 175,000 troops would land within the next few days. The Mink was reassigned to another auxiliary convoy, CTG 78.9, which contained dozens of other support vessels. Led by the destroyer escort U.S.S. Flusser, the convoy almost immediately hit resistance as it sailed through a tropical storm. According to the Mink‘s war diary, the ship “experienced some difficulty in taking position because of heavy rain squalls, this ship not being equipped with radar.”
The next two days were quiet as the convoy steamed west through the Bohol Sea and then north toward the Mindanao Strait. But on January 12, at 1310 a single kamikaze plane crashed into a ship 1500 yards astern from the Mink. According to the U.S. Navy’s Official Chronology, this might have been the LST-700, a tank landing ship. The plane caused some damage, but no casualties were reported. Later that evening, however, five Japanese additional kamikaze planes attacked the convoy in a coordinated strike. The ships were about 35 miles west of Subic Bay on Luzon, and were well within range of Japan’s rapidly diminishing air assets. Manila, which was still in Japanese hands, was only 90 miles to the east southeast. The planes attacked at 6:10pm, not long before sunset, and targeted the merchant vessels within the convoy. One pilot hit the USS Otis Skinner, but there were no casualties and the crew quickly put out the fire. Another ship in the convoy shot one of the planes down, while the other three pilots crashed into the ocean. Although the Mink fired upon the kamikazes, the shooting had no effect. According to the action report, “[Anti-aircraft] ineffective to this type of attack, unless a direct hit by a 3 [inch] or 5 [inch], none were observed; 20MM practically useless.” Even though only one of the five planes hit their mark, the situation was extraordinarily dangerous. Tankers like the Mink were sitting ducks. “[The] convoy held station,” the captain later reported, “as maneuverability is of no value in this case.”
The attack was mostly unsuccessful, but it spooked the task force as it finished its journey to the Lingayen Gulf. At 6:30 the next morning, about an hour before sunrise, the convoy shot at three approaching planes in the predawn twilight. After a couple of minutes, however, the observers were able to get a better look at the aircraft: they were American. Fortunately, none of the planes apparently suffered any damage, and the convoy itself was only about seven hours out from the Lingayen Gulf. Their arrival could not have come a moment too soon.
Elmer alluded to these events in his letter of the 14th. “We had a couple of diversions while at sea to break the routine. OH boy! But on the whole it was a pretty nice cruise.” But as usual, there was little he could say beyond that. “We can’t always write about what our part is in this show. But I’d say our ship and crew is doing alright.” Prohibited from revealing his location, he soon hinted at his growing worldliness. “I haven’t sailed seven seas yet, but a good five or six can be checked off the list.”
The Mink’s crew received virtually no mail after reaching the Lingayen Gulf, which was on the northwest coast of Luzon. Logistically, they were at the end of the Allies’ sprawling but not unlimited supply line. The Japanese Army lay between them and the eastern shore, and as they discovered on the 12th the sea lanes approaching the American beachhead on Luzon were often targeted by kamikaze pilots. Without any mail to respond to, Elmer devoted more space in his letters to describing various aspects of life aboard the ship. “This morning I had the four to eight auxiliary watch in the engine room,” he explained on the 28th. “An ‘auxiliary’ watch means tending the boiler and watching whatever machinery is in operation. That type of watch is maintained when the ship is not underway.” By contrast, “a watch underway with the main plant in operation is called a ‘steaming watch.’ Thought I would enlighten you with the nomenclature used by engineers. But I better not get started or I’ll forget to stop on that subject.”
He also talked about the films he had seen. Movies resumed aboard ship the previous month, and even though they were seldom new and not always good, they were very much appreciated. “Had another movie this evening,” Elmer wrote on the 6th. “Murder on the Waterfront. Some mystery! But it was something to see and even the bad movies go over big here.” Elmer explained that the movies were swapped regularly between ships, and that the studios provided the movies for free to the servicemen. “They help a lot and my hats off to the Motion Picture Industry for their contribution.” However, not all the movies were purely for entertainment. “Just finished seeing . . . They Come to Destroy America,” he announced on January 28th. “It was indirectly based on the capture of eight Nazi saboteurs in the U.S. Guess you could easily class it as a propaganda feature. But it is entertainment at least.”
The Mink did not see any more action during the war, but it soon begin a long tour up and down the Western Pacific, fueling the ships and boats and other craft that constituted the largest and most powerful surface fleet in human history. Yet between October 1944 and January 1945, the Mink shot down two planes and earned three Battle Stars as a result of its participation in the liberation of the Philippines. The Mink might not have been the fastest ship, or the best armed, but it unquestionably did “its little bit” in the war. And then some.
It is the day before Christmas and all through the ship not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse. (P.S. We don’t have any mice.)
Elmer Luckett to his Parents, 24 December 1944
December was a quiet month for the Mink and the rest of the 7.7.2 task force as they serviced the ships still anchored in San Pedro Bay. The war had shifted north, toward Mindanao, and the Japanese Navy’s losses during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October decisively ended its ability to defend the Empire, let alone hold its own against the American fleets that slowly encircled the bleeding nation like sharks. The dive bombers were now gone, and the remaining enemy ground units had retreated beyond the Leyte Valley. Most would not last the month.
As the cool and pleasant St. Louis autumn gave way to a frigid and dull winter, December made no impact on the temperature in the Leyte Gulf, which was always muggy and warm to hot. However, it did bring more rain. Cats and dogs worth. The mean monthly rainfall jumps from 6.84 inches in September to a whopping 15.2 inches, the highest average of the year. That’s about seven times what St. Louis gets in December, and almost twice what Phoenix receives all year. All that precipitation added up, making an already remote, dangerous location even more isolating. It “was such a nasty, rainy morning” on Sunday, December 17th that “most of our church crowd didn’t go to services.” Between the unrelenting heat and the sheets of rain, Missouri winter did not seem so bad after all. “Dad, it might sound funny to you,” Elmer wrote on the 27th, “but I’d like to be shoveling that four inches of snow you had. I miss that nasty old white substance. And I miss sleeping . . . with about five blankets.”
Elmer’s December 1944 letters dwelled more heavily on the holidays and on Christmas than during any of the previous years he was overseas, including 1941. It may be that because the war seemed to be so close to being over, yet so interminably long, Elmer was tired of spending his Christmases in warm, humid climates. “Today is an anniversary to me,” he announced on the 17th, “exactly four years ago I left home on active duty. How time flies. Its [sic] been a long time.” He was not especially looking forward to his fifth Christmas in a row away from home. “I like to see Christmas pass fast when I’m away,” he told his parents on the 20th. By the 24th, he was a bit more willing to engage with the topic at hand. “Tomorrow is Christmas, and I’ll be thinking of you all at home,” he wrote. “We will be united in thought and spirit and to compensate for being away I like to think that my Christmas away is helping to make for more merry and peaceful times [in the future.]” He was more than excited for those times to arrive. “When I do get home for Christmas,” he wrote, “I’ll be like a kid seeing his first Xmas.”
Yet monsoonal weather and major wars could not completely put a damper on the holiday spirit. “[We] have a nice Xmas dinner menu prepared for us,” he declared, “and it is the traditional dinner. Turkey with all the trimmings.” And then there were gifts . . . lots and lots of gifts. His mother, his sister Irene, and his Aunt Frieda sent him two large boxes containing imported cigars, a new pipe, tobacco, candy, nuts, over a dozen socks. They packed the gifts in bright wrapping paper, and unlike many of Elmer’s crewmates’ packages they arrived in good shape. “You should see how some fellows get packages,” he told his mom on the 20th. “Some are so bad they must be discarded. but yours have been fine so far (my mom looks out for me).” His mom was not the only person to successfully ship him a Christmas gift, however. Bud Tanner mailed him a box of 50 cigars, Shirley sent a package containing cigars and candy, and his brother Bud renewed his Reader’s Digest subscription.
While Elmer wanted to return the generosity, he was unable to go holiday shopping or even buy Christmas cards while in San Pedro harbor. So he asked his mother to help. On Wednesday, December 6th Elmer mailed his parents two $10 money orders, which given the difficulty of paying sailors who were on a boat in a war zone was about all the money he had left. He asked that his parents use one to buy themselves “something nice” for Christmas, and the other one to be used on gifts for his nieces and nephews. “Christmas is for the kids,” he remarked. By the following Sunday, however, he had finally received his pay and sent another two money orders: one for $30, and another for $100. The $30 was to buy additional gifts.
Although Elmer did not lose his Christmas spirit, he was increasingly losing his patience with his – and the world’s – situation. “The war news is favorable all around, but our enemies don’t know when to quit it seems,” he lamented on the 10th. “How can you show any mercy when they will stop for nothing. Must we beat them down on their knees[?]” A few days later he discussed how much he missed driving. “Out here you can settle by taking the motor boat out for a spin. Acting as a boat engineer. Gets you off the ship and breaks the monotony a little.” But there were other aspects of having a car and being able to drive that he missed as well. After explaining why he missed his rained-out church services on the 17th, he quipped about not needing them anyway. “Not much chance at me being anything but good out here. Ha! Ha!”
Elmer’s love life by correspondence remained just as muddled then as it had throughout the year. He regularly wrote Rose, Rae, and several other girls. At the end of 1944, however, Shirley seemed to have a slight edge over the competition. “I think very much of Shirley,” he told his parents on the 27th. “She is a good kid.” In fact, Shirley had sent his mother a scarf and his father a tie for Christmas, so they wanted to know what to buy her in return. “I know she will be pleased with whatever you get her,” he assured them. In the meantime, Elmer continued to write Shirley once a week, at minimum, and earlier in the month he referred to her as “my Shirley.” However, Elmer clearly did not want his parents to spend an arm and a leg on a present in return. He was still unwilling to commit. “Until the time when this war is over I don’t want to get serious over any girl. If Shirley still cares for me at that time, we will see what the future brings.” By late 1944 Elmer was not just worried about the war, which was coming to a close, intruding on a young marriage. It was no longer a question of how long would the war last, but of what would come next after serving three and a half years overseas on deployment. “I don’t intend to rush home and get married to anyone,” he warned, “it will take me awhile to readjust and re-establish myself.”
Elmer was also ready to dispense with his maternal flattery:
Mom, no matter what girl gets me in the end, your place in my heart can never be replaced. The love you have for mother and father is one kind, the love for a girl to be your wife, companion and mother of your children is another . . . I’m glad I’ve had this time and experience to become more mature. I hope it will help me choose the right girl for a life-partner. My ideas on the subject have changed since I was a youth of 20.
Elmer Luckett to his Parents, 27 December 1944
Grandpa was wise to wait. After all, you would probably not be reading this if he had not. But there are other reasons to believe that Elmer’s years spent on ships in the middle of the Pacific had afforded him the opportunity to figure out exactly what it was he wanted in life and in a life partner. Once he did choose someone to wed, it was for keeps.
And he made that choice a lot sooner than he thought possible: in early 1945.
The Mink remained in San Pedro Bay throughout November, where it continued to refuel ships as part of the 77.7.2 Task Force. On the 9th it replenished its own cargo with 277,788 gallons of diesel and 152,587 gallons of bunker fuel from the USS Suamico (AO-49), a fleet oiler capable of holding 30 times the amount of fluid it discharged to the Mink. Both were important, if differently sized, links in the distribution chain that made a mostly amphibious invasion on the far side of the Pacific possible.
The surface to air combat continued weeks after the initial landings on Leyte Island. On November 12th, 24th, and 28th the ship’s gunnery crew opened fire on passing enemy aircraft as they attempted to bomb the shore installations on Leyte Island. But just after noon on the 27th a Japanese bomber targeted the Mink itself while it was at anchor, strafing the ship as it approached the tanker’s port side. After flying within a few hundred feet of the Mink the plane reversed course and banged a U-turn away from the ship. Meanwhile the Mink’s 3″50 cannon jammed up, which its crew tried to clear out by using a short cartridge case to discharge the shell that had lodged inside the gun. The hero of the day, however, was the Oerlikon 20mm antiaircraft cannon. The gunner who manned the comparatively ancient yet ubiquitous 20mm cannon shot down the bomber from about 1000 yards as it streaked away. No one on board the ship was injured, and the ship notched its second kill.
Elmer’s letters were mum about the operation – loose lips sink ships, after all – but on November 7th the Naval censors gave the men permission to mention the invasion and their whereabouts. Apparently the first thing Elmer did after receiving this news was sit down and write a letter about it. “Have a little news I can reveal now, so I’ll write a few lines this afternoon. It’s only Tuesday, and my regular writing day is tomorrow, but here it goes. Our ship participated in the operation and invasion of Leyte in the Philippine Island group.” Elmer noted that his parents had probably read about it and stated that he was proud of his ship’s crew for their work. He also hoped that the news would not come as too much of a shock. “I wouldn’t write this news if I figured it would cause you to be more uneasy and worried. I want you to know that we are doing our share.” Elmer also went into a few specifics about what he and his crew mates had seen over the past two weeks. “We have seen quite a bit of action in air raids. Our ship has shot down a Jap plane already. It’s really a sight,” he added somewhat ghoulishly, “to see those sons-of-heaven go down in flames.”
Elmer’s letter was not entirely full of bravado. “Guess you wonder if I am scared or worried,” he wrote. “To be frank I was a little scared at first – you know I haven’t been bombed for some time. And everyone gets a little uneasy when it’s coming in ‘hot.’ But we are regular veterans now and it’s just another job. Don’t let your imagination go to work and worry about things that aren’t as bad as they sound.”
Indeed, no one on the Mink was harmed during these incidents, which is more than what sailors on some adjacent ships could say (e.g., the U.S.S. Panda, the Mink’s sister ship, shot down five planes that month, but Japanese pilots also successfully strafed the ship, injuring eight). But the crew faced a variety of other hazards this month. On November 8th a typhoon hit the Philippines, forcing the ship to “steam dead slow ahead” in order to relieve the tension on the anchor chain caused by the storm surge and the 80 mile per hour winds. It was the second storm to hit since their arrival. “We did witness a typhoon some time ago,” Elmer wrote in reference to the first storm, “and it is something to behold. Often seen movies showing such a storm and wondered how one really looked . . . everything worked out OK.” Later, two days after second the gale, the U.S.S. Quapaw hit the Mink on its port side, just below the main deck. No injuries were reported, but the damaged ship immediately proceeded to an open berth. As the ship was being repaired it continued to fuel other ships and, on certain days, fire upon attacking Japanese aircraft.
Despite the occasional flashes of war, storms, and colliding ships, Elmer and his crew mates found things to do, despite the temporary moratorium on ship movies due to the unstable military situation. Trading with the locals became one favorite pastime:
The natives I talked about trading with are Filipinos from villages around here. Most have been educated somewhat in speaking English and we get a lot of stories from them. They are hard up for clothes and trade us mats, knives, and bananas for old dungarees and shirts. The money I sent home already is Jap invasion money bills used by Japs to buy food and stuff from the Filipinos. Many of the Filipinos hide out in the hills. The Jap money wasn’t any good to them because they couldn’t use it for anything. Japs had nothing to sell in return. Makes a good souvenir anyway.
Elmer Luckett to his parents, 7 November 1944
The crew did not only acquire mats and fruit from the Filipinos and other islanders, but animals as well. “Don’t know if I told you about our pets aboard ship,” he wrote on the 29th. We have a little monkey with a stub tail . . . and she is quite a show climbing around in the ship’s riggings. She has been spoiled by the executive officer and will hardly go to another person aboard.” In addition, “we had another monkey but the fellows that owned it traded it for a baby kangaroo. They are called ‘wallaby’s’ as they are a smaller species of the kangaroo family.” Both animals were originally purchased with a few articles of clothing, but the wallaby came from another ship, whose crewmen swapped it for the other monkey aboard the Mink. “So much for our little friends.”
While the trade in exotic animals helped compensate for the lack of ship movies, it still left a lot of unfilled hours during the day. Elmer filled them by being proactive in the engine room and curious in the library. “Been keeping busy with little jobs around the engine room,” he wrote on the 29th. “You can generally find something that should be done. That is, if you can muster up enough ambition to do it.” Beyond that, one finds “their diversions in reading, writing, and conversation. We have some dandy library books now, and I’ve been going at them whenever possible.” Incoming letters were his favorite reading material, however. He would grow annoyed whenever his correspondents seem to lag in their writing. He was especially anxious to learn about his sister Irene’s new baby, his niece Ruth Ann. “Still waiting to hear about Irene and the blessed event,” he wrote on the 19th. “Hope everything was OK. My next batch of mail should have the news.”
The extended time at sea was beginning to get to Elmer. He started attending church services whenever he could, for one thing – although he told his parents that he attended for spiritual reasons (which might have been true, given the war unfolding around him), he made no secret of the fact that the boat trip to the hosting ship was pleasant and cool. The different surroundings helped stave off any cabin fever. By the middle of November the situation had cooled enough for Elmer and some friends to leave the ship. “Got a chance to make a boat trip ashore and and see how the people live in their villages. And did a little sightseeing.” Their experience was instructive. “The same day I went to the largest city on an island near us [Tacloban]. We didn’t stay very long but we got a glimpse of the place. The stores had little or nothing to offer for sale. And it reminded me of a rural small town in a bad run-down condition.”
Elmer was heartened by recent developments overseas and at home. The Philippine liberation was progressing rapidly, Allied forces were racing across western Europe, and talk of “finishing” the war began to replace the more guarded discourse over “winning” it. The groundswell of good news was enough to carry President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to victory on November 7th, earning him an unprecedented fourth term. “Well Dad,” Elmer reflected on the 12th, “the election is all over now and F.D.R. will be in to finish this war and help make the peace. May it come to a speedy finish followed by a lasting peace.”
Despite Elmer’s optimism that the war would end within the next few months he was slightly more pessimistic about his chances of getting home any time soon. “It’s been a year since I’ve seen you all. A long time. I hope that this war is over before my eighteen months are up.” Elmer then explained the Rotation Plan for granting sailors regular (if infrequent) leave. “The idea (and hope of every man over-seas) is that after 18 months oversea’s you back home for a leave. It’s called the rotation plan. Too bad they didn’t think about it before I put 30 months overseas last time. Guess the patriotic service before the war don’t count.” At any rate, “if the war’s not over by next July we all ‘hope’ for a leave back home. That finishes 18 months.” He then added, “one happy thought is that its [sic] always possible the ship may go back to the U.S. for some reason or another, and that would be fine. All this adds up to my pet theory, you never know where you stand while in the Navy.”
Later that month, as the holiday season began, Elmer sounded a little less ebullient. “Thanksgiving Day is tomorrow,” he wrote on the 29th. “One of them was a week ago. One F.D.R. or Roosevelt Thanksgiving, the other the traditional one. Guess it doesn’t make a difference either way.” While Elmer and his crew mates succeeded in making the Mink more homelike over the past few months, no amount of fresh paint or hot chow would change the fact that home was on the other side of a planet rocked by war.
Well, folks, I’m back . . . as in, back on Twitter. You can follow me at @luckettdr. I’m not going to sweat out my follower count too much – I like being able to opine freely, and lately that has been on politics – but I am trying to make an effort to bring more research-relevant content to my timeline. For my purposes, that means searching for tweets about horse stealing.
And after a couple of days doing just that I realized pretty quickly that there is a gaping hole in my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890. Although I talk at length about horse stealing in Nebraska, including its status in the penal code, I don’t mention similar or comparable laws in Texas. While that makes sense, obviously, given the title, the myth that horse thieves were lawfully hanged in Texas remains strong:
This one is my favorite:
My guess is . . . no, I don’t think anyone should be worried about being hanged for horse stealing. This is not to say that horse stealing is not still a problem (because it is), and the fact that people are bringing up hanging at all when referencing modern horse thieves speaks both to the gravity of the problem and the power of the myth itself. But is it actually a myth, or can horse thieves face the death penalty in Texas still?
Let’s find out!
The first thing we need to do is research what the laws in Texas actually were and read what they said about horse stealing. Since we are looking for a Texas state law, and Texas state laws were published, all we need to do in theory is consult the Texas penal code. The earliest digitized copy of Texas criminal law currently available through the Texas Law Library is the 1879 Penal Code of the State of Texas. Passed by the legislature on February 21, 1879, the code superseded preexisting Texas law and exhaustively laid out what was against the law in Texas, and what the prescribed penalty should be for each offense. Since this is a text-searchable PDF, all we need to do is hit Ctrl-F and search for “horse” until we get to the appropriate law.
If you want to skip the searching, you can find the relevant statute on page 97, in Title XVII, Chapter 11:
“If any person shall steal any horse, ass or mule, he shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary not less than five nor more than fifteen years.”
Here’s a screenshot of the law:
Notice that the punishment for stealing cattle was two to five years in jail, as opposed to between five and fifteen. Cattle were valuable in Texas, but apart from commodity production and pulling draft they had little utility. The difference in punishment between the two underscores how important horses really were, even if horse thieves did not necessarily face the death penalty for their crimes.
This seems pretty conclusive, right? It would be, except for the fact that the above law is from 1879. Texas established its independence from Mexico over three decades earlier, and the United States annexed it in 1845. Needless to say, a lot of violence occurred in Texas during the preceding thirty years: the Texas Revolution, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, a generation of warfare against the Comanches, and the explosion of Texas cattle ranching across the Plains. Wouldn’t it be more likely for horse stealing to be a capital crime during this era, as opposed to 1879, when things presumably cooled down a little bit in the Lone Star State?
Once again, it does not take long to find out what the punishment for horse stealing was in Texas in 1856:
“Article 765. If any person shall steal any horse, gelding, mare, colt, ass, or mule, he shall be punished, by confinement in the Penitentiary, not less than two, nor more than seven years.” Here is a screenshot of the law from the book itself:
One difference that should immediately stand out is that the punishment for horse stealing was actually more severe in 1879 than it was in 1856. Why was that? There are a lot of reasons for this (I talk about them in the book, of course), but one important factor bears mentioning here: horses were more valuable after the Civil War than before. The massive herds of mustangs were declining or moving north, growing ranches required enormous numbers of horses for their remudas, and urbanization elsewhere pulled horses out of rural markets. There was more competition for horses during the late 1870s, and as demand and prices for horses rose so, too, did their role in society. They were used for transportation, plowing, pulling draft, and countless other applications. This made them more ubiquitous and more essential to everyday life.
Yet despite their critical role horses were subject to a host of maladies, from epizootics to snake bites to lighting strikes to old age. They were expensive and virtually uninsurable, and people without the funds to buy multiple horses often overused the ones they had, leading them to age rapidly. Thus, of all the possible problems to plague horse owners, horse thieves shouldered much of the burden, as they were easily scapegoated and could presumably be controlled more easily with threats and punishments than lighting strikes or poisonous snakes.
Naturally, one possible punishment for horse stealing was hanging, and the popular mythology around hanging horse thieves was just as strong in the late-1870s as it is now. The question of whether or not vigilantes frequently hanged horse thieves in Texas is a separate question that deserves a separate answer, but if we assume that it was a strong possibility, then the harsher punishment prescription in 1879 makes a lot of sense. Texas levied five to fifteen year prison sentences against horse thieves not only in order to disincentivize the stealing of an incredibly valuable and uniquely indispensable form of property, but also in order to convince would-be vigilantes that the state was serious about punishing horse thieves.
This post just scratches the surface of what I’ve come to believe is a fascinating, multilayered story about horse theft and its vastly unappreciated and misunderstood role in shaping our laws, politics, culture, and history. It is a story I try to tell in my book. And even though my focus is on Nebraska, there are a LOT of parallels here between Texas and Nebraska law with respect to how they contend with horse stealing.
In the meantime, though, it seems as though our mystery is solved: horse stealing is not, and so far as I can tell never was, a hanging offense in the Lone Star State. Case closed.
Now comes the hard part: convincing everyone on Twitter.
On December 27, Elmer sent his parents his latest – and last – Christmas menu from the Mink’s official holiday dinner. It contained the usual fare: roast turkey, candied sweet potatoes, blueberry pie, and of course cigarettes. “We had a lovely dinner,” Elmer wrote, “and it sure went over good. Enclosed you will find the menu.” But the paper he sent had an additional bonus as well. “Also on the menu is our ship’s insignia – note the mink with the boxing gloves. I thought it very good.”
The insignia was certainly appropriate, and well-earned, given the Mink’s activities over the past two and a half months. Like hundreds of other ships, Elmer’s tanker participated in both the reconquest of the Philippines and the largest naval encounter in world history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Although the Mink was not a warship, the massive armada that closed in upon America’s fallen colony in late 1944 would not have traveled far without extra diesel and gasoline fuel on hand, so it and other oil-bearing ships were there to keep the invasion vessels going. But it would not be easy going. The Japanese understood why the tankers were there and diverted some of their limited air resources to bomb them. They, probably more than anyone, understood the importance of having a reliable fuel supply.
The Mink spent the majority of October in New Guinea, where it discharged oil and gas in Humboldt Bay from the 1st through the 18th. Elmer’s letters during this time, like the Mink’s operations, were business as usual. He reported to his parents that he was still receiving backlogged mail from his Australia trip and hinted that he missed his latest squeeze, Rae. He described her a bit more for his folks: she was 26, had reddish-brown hair, and was 5’5. The description was not entirely flattering. “Not a beautiful girl,” he recalled, “but pleasant, nice disposition, and a lot of personality.” Overall, though, it appears that Rae’s inside beauty more than made up for her outward appearance. “You weren’t worried about me with those Aussie girls, were you Dad? Ha! Ha! You know I can take care of myself, but they aren’t hard to fall for.”
Shirley apparently took Elmer’s relationship with Rae about as seriously as Elmer himself:
“[Shirley] asked what power I had over women, because Rae wrote you a letter. Ha! Ha! She is a good kid and understands about me going out while on leave. And I’m glad she does because I’ve told her I write other girls also. But she was first on my list at all times. (now you’re probably jealous, mom – but you’re still my best girl.)”
Elmer Luckett to his Parents, 11 October 1944
While Elmer’s intercontinental correspondence with a growing list of ladies would soon require its own rolodex, the bonds he formed with his fellow servicemen were both enduring and elastic. However, they were also harder to maintain, since naval personnel tended to change addresses frequently as their assignments and whereabouts changed. He was thrilled when he received a postcard from Ozzie Gray, who was awaiting orders in New Jersey and would soon rejoin the war in the North Atlantic. His last letter to Gray, which he had addressed to the Chew, was returned to him via post. Besides Gray, Elmer regularly corresponded with his friends from his time on the Chew, who like him were themselves now stretched across the world, fighting a global war. But they would always share a common bond, a steely heritage forged via months of living on the blue water but baptized by a morning of fire. “Guess most of that old gang is gone by now,” he wrote wistfully on the 15th. “The good ‘ole Chew.”
Ever conscious of the censor’s requirements, Elmer filled his pages with topics he could talk about, like his living compartment. “Wish you could see our quarters,” he beamed. “We have a nice desk in our room. It folds up against the bulkhead when not in use . . . The bulkheads are light blue, overhead is white enamel, and the lockers and bunks a dark blue” He appreciated the set-up. “Most Navy ships don’t offer these accommodations . . . we can’t kick about conditions. Especially when you see how men live on the beach in this neck of the woods.”
He also transacted the regular business of birthdays and holidays, mentioning that he purchased a stack of birthday cards in Australia to send out over the following months but could not find any for Christmas, which were not available yet. However, he did ask his folks what he should get them, and probably intended to have one of his siblings arrange to purchase the items on his behalf. He would certainly have the resources to make such arrangements: on October 8th he sent a $70 money order home to be deposited in to his account. Now that his leave was over he was back on the ship, flush with cash but with nowhere to spend it.
By October 15th his tone shifted slightly. He knew that he was about to leave again. He told his mother that he attended church that day aboard another boat, and he once again sent his usual disclaimer for those times when he knew he might be incommunicado: “I’m in shipshape and good spirits. Don’t forget if at any time my letters are late, no news is good news, and they may be a little longer reaching you . . . and I wanted to let you know now.” He wrote again the next day, indicating that it might be his last letter for a few weeks. He did not have much to say after the previous day’s letter, so he talked movies. “No, mom, I didn’t see Bing Crosby in Going My Way,” he replied in response to some question about the most commercially and critically successful film of 1944. “Our movies aren’t very new out here. But I see many that I haven’t seen before.” He mentioned that the crew did watch Dixie Dugan recently, which had come out the previous year.
Elmer, along with 200,000 other naval personnel, were about to move ever farther away from where all the good movies were made. Their next stop was the Japanese-occupied Philippines. The grand operation, codenamed King Two, was comparable only to the D-Day landings in Normandy in terms of both scale and self-satisfaction. In particular, General Douglas MacArthur was eager to fulfill his promise three years earlier to his men trapped on the archipelago behind enemy lines that he “shall return.” The successful liberation of the Philippines would also put an American wall between Japan and its oil supplies in the Dutch East Indies, finally cutting the island empire off from its remaining fuel reserves and potentially forcing a rapid conclusion to the war.
As Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkade, commander of the Seventh Fleet, set up his chess board for the coming assault he had many assets at his disposal. The Mink was assigned to Task Force 77.7.2, which was a group of mostly service vessels under the command of Rear Admiral R. O. Glover. They were to support the Seventh Fleet in the coming battle to liberate the Philippines, starting with Leyte Island. The Task Force also included five other tankers, plus seven oilers, nine ammunition ships, three destroyer escorts, two hospital ships, and even a floating dry dock. While not as powerful, deadly, or sexy as the cruisers and destroyers that made up the primary Seventh Fleet combat units, the ships in the 77.7.2 service force symbolized America’s resourcefulness. After all, it was one thing to build carriers or battleships to keep pace with an enemy navy, but it was quite another to have enough material and industrial capacity left over to also build tankers, hospital ships, and a floating dry dock. The service fleet was both an integral part of American naval strategy in waters nearly seven thousand miles from the mainland United States, and an extravagance that the Japanese could ill-afford to duplicate for themselves.
On October 18th, at 5:12 in the morning, the Mink got underway for the Philippines. The rising sun was still below the horizon in the east, while in the west the Empire of the Rising Sun was retreating north towards the Japanese home islands. It was a six day sail until the task force arrived in San Pedro Bay; Elmer took the time to write some letters.
He penned one to his parents during the trip, on October 22nd. There wasn’t anything unusual about it – he told his dad that he probably wouldn’t be “kicked up” to a new rating anytime soon since enlisted men were getting fewer of them. “I’m not worrying about it,” he told his dad. “The main thing is to get this war over with.” He also wondered why Shirley Ruth and so many of his friends wanted to move to California. “Most people are taken by the beauty of the state at first,” Elmer mused. He had no way of knowing that someday a majority of his descendants would live there.
As Elmer finished his letter, the Mink glided across the sapphire ocean below. Other boats in the 7.7.2 task force could be seen in the distance. For the time being, the only dangers surrounding them were sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, and other wardens of the deep, and their appetites were easily drowned out by the rolling waves of the endless, unscathed sea.
The Mink arrived in San Pedro Bay at 10am on October 24th. The Japanese immediately began to attack the arriving task force from the air, which lay a protective smoke screen around the Mink and other auxiliary ships. By 1500 hours the smoke had cleared enough for the ships to proceed to their anchorage.
October 25th was a long day, starting with an air alert at 0715, followed by an all clear at 0930. But then two hours later the Mink officially joined the battle after a second air alert that morning sent the crew scrambling to general quarters. With its bow facing seaward, just before noon a crewman noticed a wave of incoming Japanese dive bombers just ahead and off to the starboard side. The planes took direct aim at the shore facilities then being built in order to support the invasion. Most were outside of the Mink’s reach, but whenever they wandered into the range of the Mink’s 3″ and 5″ guns they swung into action, and fired on the dive bombers as they screeched toward the ground. The guns lowered their angle of fire as they tracked the bombers downward. According to the subsequent action report the Mink’s 3″50 caliber gun scored one direct hit, and reported it as a “Sure” when they saw the bomber fall out of its dive and crash onto the beach. The air alerts continued throughout the rest of the day, and were punctuated by the occasional roar of the Mink’s anti-aircraft guns. The ship was not secured until 7pm that evening.
The next day the Mink began dispensing diesel, gas, and lubricating oil to the surrounding armada. Meanwhile, as it discharged its precious cargo, it continued to discharge its guns. The crew fired on at least four dive bombers over the span of about 12 hours as columns of smoke billowed into the hot lead air over Leyte Gulf. Although it did not score any “sure” hits in its action report the ship was in the thick of the battle. “There were many planes,” the report noted, “therefore no accurate report can be submitted.” It fired nearly 400 rounds of 20mm ammunition at the passing planes, as well as 17 3″ and 5″ shells.
The 27th was quieter, but not without incident. The Mink fired at three Japanese plans flying across her stern toward the shore.
Elmer wrote his parents a letter that day. He didn’t let on that the Mink was in the thick of the war – not that he would have been allowed to do so at any rate. But he did talk about the Filipinos he and his crew-mates encountered over the last few days, even if he could not mention where they were or whether this group was different from the last one. “Got more Jap invasion money,” he reported. “Natives come out in their outrigger canoes and trade with us. They want cigarettes and old clothes for Jap money and bananas.” Later, Elmer directly alluded to the horrors that unfolded around him over the past few days: “Little incidents like these help break up the monotony and routine each day – we have had other things breaking the monotony, but I’ll tell you about that some other time.”
During the next several days, the Mink continued to fuel various craft while sounding out air alerts every few hours. One came at 9:20 in the evening on October 30th. The frequent alerts and the long-running battle in the skies above took their toll on the sailors there, both on the Mink and on other vessels. Nerves were on edge, tempers flared. In fact, the only time the Mink was hit came on October 31st, when a friendly 50 caliber shell hit the aft living compartment. No one was hurt and nothing was damaged, but it was certainly not the way anyone on board wanted to celebrate Halloween that year.
I am excited to announce that the Grandpa’s Letters series will resume next Monday, August 10th, at 10am Pacific Time with my “October 1944” entry. I will then post weekly updates every Monday, with the “finale” post scheduled to drop on November 30th (a week before Pearl Harbor Day).
Although my summer work duties have been time intensive, a big part of the reason for the delay up to this point has been strategic: with my book release coming up this November and a growing slate of promotional opportunities between now and then, I’ve been waiting for the right time to start writing and posting about the last year of my grandpa’s service. And I promise you, it is one hell of a story.
In addition to the weekly updates, I am still planning on posting some cool horse thief-related stuff over the next few months, including some images from the book. Those posts will come primarily on Thursdays.
Anyway . . . Thanks for your patience, and thank you always for reading!