August 1941: Making the Cut

Elmer’s August 18th letter home contained two important pieces of news, neither of which might have seemed all that surprising to his doting parents: he officially received a Fireman 2nd Class rating, and he was not in love with his girlfriend, Pat.

On August 9th he took his two engineering exams, and despite receiving a 3.93 out of 4.0 grade on his training course he anxiously awaited the results. Eight other men in the broiler rooms applied for the new rating as well, including his buddies Ossie, Jim, and the Grossman brothers. Elmer fretted over the better than even odds. “[Nine] men are trying. They may only rate the five best . . . that’s the way the Navy works.” He also worried about whether or not his commanding officers recommended him for the promotion. “I believe I am well liked,” he wrote after the fact. “I always do my best.” At the very least, he was not cutthroat so as to want to see his friends fail. “I hope we all make it,” he wrote. When the results came in, Ossie and Jack Grossman both made the cut, but Jim and Harold Grossman did not. That, unfortunately, is just how the Navy works.

Elmer’s new rating was welcome news, particularly in light of his money situation. All the time he was spending dockside that August was cutting into his finances – less work meant more time, and more time on land meant more movies, beers, milkshakes, and sandwiches. But he didn’t just spend his money on himself. He also purchased a “Chinese kimono” for Pat with an embroidered dragon on the back. The robe cost $4.50, which is about $80 in 2019 dollars. “Next week I should get my raise” of about $5, he reported. “Hot dog.”

Grandpa did not specify why he bought Pat such a nice gift. It may have been out of loyalty, friendly affection, or as thanks for all the small gifts she sent him over the past few months. But his feelings towards her stopped short of love. “You know mom, I don’t know if Pat is the girl for me or not,” he wrote, perhaps not realizing that those words put together in a sentence usually meant the latter. “Not that I have anyone else in mind. She is a good kid and sends me books, candy, and is real sweet. But I am not sure I love her.” Elmer explained that he attached himself to her partly because his shipmates all seemed to have girls of their own. “I was never much of a ladies man,” he sheepishly admitted.

Elmer decided to let her down gently – perhaps too gently to make a clean break. He stopped writing her as often, and told his parents that he had made no promises to her about the future. But he also seemed to hope that Pat would end up pulling the trigger herself on their long distance courtship. “Pat goes out with fellows occasionally. Perhaps she will find someone else.” He then told his parents that he would continue responding to her letters, and that they did need “to tell Pat about this – just suit yourself about it.” In the words of future singer-songwriter Neil Sedaka, then a two-year old growing up in Brooklyn, “breaking up is hard to do.”

So far I have found very little information on Pat, apart from these letters. Perhaps someone reading this blog has more information . . . did Grandpa ever talk about his pre-Pearl Harbor girlfriend? Maybe his letters are sitting in a box somewhere in a St. Louis attic, gathering dust, sandwiched between or perhaps buried under a mound of artifacts from a more successful future courtship with another good kid. Or maybe she threw them into the fireplace.

I wonder if she kept the kimono.

Sad news and travel update

So, the only way I can keep up with this site is to write my posts in advance and program them to drop throughout the week. That includes my most recent post today about Saint Louis.

Unfortunately, since I wrote this we learned that my uncle, William Marion Smith of Barnhart, Missouri, passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Funeral arrangements have been made at the Kutis Funeral Home in Lemay for this coming Friday.

While professional commitments, family obligations, and (most recently) health problems in California have too often kept me from attending family funerals during the last several years, I do plan on attending this one.

If anyone needs any more information or needs to get in touch with me, please send me an email or get a hold of me through my contact page.

I am still planning on retrieving the aforementioned documents, but I will post about them probably next week sometime. In the meantime, if anyone would like to write a guest blog for Friday, please let me know and I will upload it. And please come back on Wednesday to read the latest post in my month-by-month series leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack. We’re up to August now…

Anyway, thanks for your understanding, and have a great week.

Best,
Matt

This Weekend: Going to St. Louis

On Thursday morning we are going to fly to Saint Louis for a few days, partly to make up for me not bringing our daughter there over the summer due to my health issues, and partly because autumn is probably the best (read: least miserable) time to visit Missouri. I say this with all the love in the world, but, between the freezing cold temperatures in the winter, the summer humidity, and the insane pollen counts in the spring, Saint Louis doesn’t leave many options for nice, comfortable, allergy-free weather.

At any rate, I am looking forward to visiting with family, eating toasted ravioli, and getting some work done on this project. Specifically, on Friday I will visit the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in northern St. Louis County. This is where you would want to go to get the personnel records for anyone who served in the Armed Forces during World War II. In fact, it is as far as I know the ONLY place to go – this is the federal repository for these records. I’m bringing with me a short list of people to look up, including grandpa (of course), my grandmother (who worked for the government during the war), and several of my grandpa’s shipmates.

The NPRC campus in St. Louis, Missouri

This will be my first visit to the NPRC, but a great deal of my horse theft research comes from the National Archives headquarters in Washington D.C. Although the security protocols for getting in and out can be intimidating at first (and the guards are seldom enthusiastic when explaining it for the hundredth time each day), the National Archives is on the whole a fantastic place to conduct historical research. They employ a small army of technicians whose job it is to help you find precisely what you are looking for, and unlike in many archival reading rooms researchers are allowed to use cameras to photograph and scan their documents (I did this liberally – rather than relocate to D.C. for a few months and read everything on site I photoscanned several thousand pages of reports and correspondence for my book and reviewed the material at home on an iPad).

I plan on posting a quick update this Friday on what I find in my grandpa’s service record, and if there are any interesting images or photographs inside I may include them here as well (note: most National Archives materials are publicly owned and thus public domain for copyright purposes). In the meantime, if you or someone you know is interested in looking up a World War II veteran’s record, please check out their website: https://www.archives.gov/personnel-records-center.

If you don’t live in or plan on visiting St. Louis any time soon, you can ask the NPRC to look it up for you and send you the file directly (for a fee, of course). But some federal privacy law caveats apply: only veterans who died or were discharged prior to 1957 can be looked up without having to obtain special permission from the service-member or their next of kin, and medical records are explicitly excluded from these personnel files. Also, having the service number handy would be enormously helpful when locating the veteran’s file. However, since it was a unique identifier the military used it in a lot of different records, which makes finding it fairly easy. I found all the relevant service numbers using Ancestry.com. If you enter your relative’s full name, birth date, and hometown, you should have no problem finding a muster log or some other document that contains their service number.

Besides that, I intend to take a little tour of my grandpa’s old neighborhood (Carondolet) and hope that inspiration strikes hard enough for me to hole up somewhere for a couple of hours and write. After all, this is where grandpa’s story begins, and it is also where the first chapter of my book will take place.

Eiler Street in St. Louis. This is where Elmer lived prior to enlisting in the Navy Reserve.

What I’m Reading: The Battle of Leyte Gulf

At some point I had to start going through relevant military and academic histories of World War II, and although I still have a stack of Pearl Harbor books to review I wanted a change of pace this week. But a change of pace is not always a respite, and The Battle of Leyte Gulf: The Last Fleet Action is the perfect example of a book my graduate adviser would tell me to “read instrumentally.” In other words, get what you need and then get out.

Image result for the battle of leyte gulf the last fleet action

This is not to say that H. P. Willmott’s authoritative and exhaustive account of the largest naval battle in world history is not worth checking out if you are interested in the intricacies of the various actions that made up the larger battle, the decision-making process of both the Japanese and American admiralties, or the overall effect that these actions had on the prosecution of the war. This is nothing if not competent, well-researched monograph.

But the larger problem here – and I admit that I have spoiled myself thus far with my reading list for this project, which is due both to my non-expertise in this subject and the wealth of fantastic, infectiously readable books about World War II – is that this book’s thesis and chronology is so intricately crafted that it is difficult to follow the overall narrative. In short, it is very dense. From what I gather, the Battle of Leyte Gulf represented the best possible long-odds outcomes for the Japanese Navy, which after the Battle of the Philippine Sea had only 80 or so fleet ships left and a menu of even worse strategic options for defending itself. The Japanese chose to engage the Americans in a decisive battle for the Philippines, believing it offered the best chance at stemming America’s advances in the west-central Pacific, whereas the Americans had both strategic and historical reasons (i.e., McArthur’s promise to “return”) for targeting the archipelago.

The conquest of the Philippines was rapid enough to make the Battle of Leyte Gulf seem less dramatic when compared to Midway, Guadalcanal, and Operation Overlord in France. Yet Willmott makes a convincing case for why the battle was more important than usually realized. For one, it was the last major fleet action, featuring the last direct exchange between battleships AND the last direct engagement between aircraft carriers. In many ways it was the last major naval battle, period. Secondly, the direct consequence of the battle was the destruction of Japan’s ability to escort merchant and service vessels, which became sitting ducks in the months ahead. This helped the United States strangle Japanese supply lines, which, had it not been for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, may well have starved out the Japanese people before any planned invasion of the home islands. Finally, the limited but successful use of kamikaze pilots flying their fuel-laden planes into American ships created a tactical silver lining after the battle, which led to the Japanese employing far more kamikaze sorties during later battles, including Okinawa.

In any case, I am still reading this book – instrumentally, of course – and while it is an excellent reference point for my chapter on Leyte Gulf (which Elmer did participate in, as the USS Mink shot down at least two kamikaze planes), it isn’t something I plan on taking to the beach. But like I said, that does not make it any less valuable . . . if you want an intricate, detailed account of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, this is the book for you.

July 1941: Day Trips

Summers in Hawaii were hot, but so were the springs, falls, and winters. If anything set the season apart, it was the Chew crew’s determination to enjoy it. Elmer’s letters that July described the many kinds of recreation available on – and via – the ship, even as the boat continued to drill for a possible war. “All kinds of athletic equipment” were available to the crew, he wrote on the 9th, including “punching bags, boxing gloves, [and] hand balls.” The sailors even liked to skeet shoot off the Chew’s deck. In the evening, the officers played a phonograph for the crew “with all the popular songs” and showed movies on the deck. “[The officers] do all they can to make us happy and break the daily routine,” he wrote. “They are really swell.” If the Chew had a Captain Queeg, he must not have ever set foot in the engine room.

The officers also organized a recreational cruise to Hilo, a town located on the east coast of the Big Island. The trip included three days of liberty on the island, as well as two separate excursions to Hawaii National Park. “It was a swell cruise,” he reported to his folks. “[Hilo] was a nice town (people liked the sailors a lot – we practically had the whole town to ourselves as there were only two other ships there), whereas Honolulu is overflowing with gobs.*” The sailors were ferried around the island in station wagons, with eight men per car. Despite the cramped quarters, the payoff was grand: “We arrived at the park and saw all volcano craters, flows, and lava tubes. Sure was interesting.” Of course, no Elmer sightseeing report would be complete without an update on lunch: “ham and egg sandwiches, fruit and cake.” Once back in Hilo, Elmer and his friends knocked back a few beers and went to the movies. “Saw Jack Holt in The Great Swindle,” he announced.

Memorandum to all hands announcing the Chew’s cruise to Hilo.

The movies had become one of his favorite destinations in Honolulu. On July 2nd, he watched It All Came True, starring Humphrey Bogart, which he thought was “a pretty good show.” Two days later, they saw another one. But Elmer never mentioned the name of the flick, for once it let out something more exciting awaited him and his group of friends: the SS Lurline. The widely renowned passenger ship was docked at Honolulu for the afternoon, and it disgorged its many passengers onto the busy city streets. Elmer and his friends were allowed to board and check out the boat for themselves. “Sure was fun,” he recalled. “All the people were happy and wore flower leis around their necks.” When the ship departed, a large crowd gathered at the dock to wave goodbye, “just like in the movies.” But while sometimes life imitates art, there is no substitution in life for art. Elmer and his group spent the night at the Y in town, and then saw two more movies the next day. “We’re regular ‘show-bugs.’ Ha ha.”

The SS Lurline ferried passengers across the Pacific for decades, and was widely renown for its splendor and comfort. During the war, however, it traded its deep pocketed clientele for another kind of VIP passenger: U.S. troops.

Elmer’s descriptions of his many adventures that month jazzed up what had otherwise become a somewhat routine correspondence. His parents continued to emote their concerns about his service to him in their letters, and he responded by stating that it would “make [him] very unhappy” for him to learn they were worried. They also continued to send gifts back and forth – Elmer sent something to his mom for her birthday, and she in turn sent him a package containing “1 lb of tobacco, 2 boxes cigars, candy, soap, tooth powder, and shave lotion.” Perhaps one new dynamic emerged this month: Elmer and his family expressing their true feelings about his girlfriend, Pat. Apparently Bud and Elsie did so in one of their letters, prompting Elmer to reassure his mother that he was not offended. “I believe I said the same things about her myself,” he wrote, casting doubt on the future of their relationship.

In any case, his letters had grown slightly less frequent in light of the Chew’s constant sea duty. “Yes sir, this is a sea going son of a gun,” he wrote with pride. But the week-on, week-off neutrality zone rotations were phased out in favor of a more staggered schedule. Sometimes they would head out for a week, and at other times they would only head out for the day in order to practice torpedo runs in the waters surrounding the harbor entrance.

However, the day trips out to sea for shooting fake subs and clay pigeons would soon be put on hold. “[The Chew] is supposed to go in the Navy Yard for two months,” he reported. “Our ship is to be overhauled completely . . . we’ll probably get tired of it after so much sea duty, but a change won’t be bad to take. You won’t have to worry about me being at sea then.” While August could make no promises about milder weather, it certainly did seem to mark the end of the summer.

* “Gob” is slang for a sailor

Win a box of persimmon cookies!

Hi folks,

It’s one month until Thanksgiving. I don’t know about you, but I am already looking forward to large quantities of pumpkin pie and plates piled high with turkey, stuffing, and cranberry relish sandwiches. Of course, I am looking forward to time with my family as well, but what can I say . . . I’m pretty excited about the food. 🙂

This blog is partly to blame for that. In every other letter Elmer is thanking his parents and sisters for sending him food. They ship him everything from cigars and nuts to candy and even cookies. Although the cookies have to travel 5,000 miles to get to him, he doesn’t seem to mind . . . nor do his hungry shipmates.

Anyway, I have a lot to be thankful for this year, but I’d your help with one last item to add to my list of blessings: 100 followers by Thanksgiving. I am going on a full-court press to publicize this blog and bring attention to this project during the lead-up to the Pearl Harbor anniversary on December 7th, but those efforts will stand a much better chance of being successful if my number of blog followers is in the triple digits.

If you enjoy reading this, please consider sharing one of my posts on Facebook, or encouraging a friend or co-worker to check it out. Please also feel free to comment on and like the posts . . . all these things might seem small, but they really help me out.

And to move things along . . . I’m going to hold a little contest. Anyone who follows (or who has already followed) my blog by 11:59pm Pacific Time on Friday, November 22nd will be eligible to receive a box of homemade persimmon cookies, along with a nice handwritten card. All you have to do is forward your subscription confirmation email to lucketthistory at gmail dot com. Please put “Persimmon cookies” in the subject heading. I will choose the winning email at random, bake and ship the cookies on Monday, and pay for whatever delivery method gets them to the winner’s address by Wednesday evening.*

Persimmon cookies are the perfect Thanksgiving Day snack, and are fantastic for long waits in line at Best Buy the next morning.

If you don’t like persimmons, let me know and I’ll make chocolate chip cookies instead. Or oatmeal raisin. Or just send me a recipe . . .

Image result for persimmon cookies
Persimmon cookies, made fresh and delivered right to your door from Northern California!

Anyway, thank you all for your support . . . and good luck!

Matt

* I cannot guarantee Wednesday evening delivery for international (non-US) addresses, but I am more than happy to ship cookies to the winner regardless of where they live in the world. It may just take a little while longer.

In the news: Sunken Japanese Carriers found near Midway

Last week, an undersea exploration venture founded by Microsoft’s Paul Allen succeeded in locating the Kaga and the Akagi, two of the four carriers sunk by United States aircraft during the climactic Battle of Midway in June 1942. Located by scientists aboard the research vessel Petrel, these wrecks represent an extraordinarily important find for historians, and provide some closure for the families of those men who are entombed with the ships.

Japanese Navy Aircraft Carrier Kaga.jpg
The Kaga. Notice how the smokestack is pointed down towards the water.

The Kaga, incidentally, is the first sunken Japanese carrier to be discovered after the war.

Not only does this come as good news for researchers, but it is certainly a promising development for the makers of Midway, Roland Emmerich’s upcoming film about the battle.

For more information on this story, check out the Washington Post article here.