November 1942: Stateside

On October 31st, 1942, the Chew accompanied a small convey out of Honolulu and escorted it East. Eleven days later, the ship reached its destination: San Francisco. It was the first time Elmer and many of his shipmates had seen the North American mainland since they left for Hawaii nearly two years earlier.

No one knew how long they were going to be in town, but on the same token no one knew when they would be back on North American soil. Some of Elmer’s shipmates, including the Grossmans and Ozzie, immediately seized the opportunity to contact their parents. Elmer hesitated, however, believing that his parents would be heartbroken if they were to come out to San Francisco and arrive only after his ship had departed.

Elmer usually liked to send postcards back home of the places he visited, but for whatever reason I couldn’t find one of San Francisco. So here is a representative non-tinted postcard from the 1940s. “The Golden Gate Bridge connecting San Francisco and the Redwood Highway,” by photographer Alexander Zan #1532.

This point soon created minor controversy in Elmer’s family, since Jack and Harold Grossman’s mother, as well as Ozzie’s mother and wife, were all able to make the trip out to California to see them. Rose Luckett registered her disappointment with her baby boy. “As you say I should have contacted you as fast as possible,” he wrote. “But I was so doubtful as to what the future was, I hesitated.” Elmer did get to speak to his parents on the phone, however. The long-distance, wartime telephone call took three hours to connect, and the conversation itself only lasted for a few minutes. But it brought some relief after nearly two years of separation. While in town he also went to a photography studio to fulfill his mother’s request for a portrait.

Ironically enough, once Mrs. Grossman arrived with her daughter, Dot, Jack and Harold could not get off the ship for liberty. But Elmer was off that day, so he took their mom and sister out for lunch. “We talked about you and home, and everything in general,” he recalled in his letter. Mrs. Grossman also volunteered to deliver his photo to his mother. “[She] is taking some gifts home for me, also the two photos I had taken,” he wrote. “She sure is a swell person. They liked the photo very much. One is plain, the other tinted.” The Grossmans were on their way to visit family in Bakersfield, Elmer reported, but once they were back in Saint Louis they would deliver the photo to his parents. Later on he met Ozzie’s mother and wife as well.

Elmer did not just spend his time in San Francisco hanging out with his friends’ moms. “I’ve been having a very good time here,” he reported. “This town has everything in the line of entertainment and amusement that a person could want. I even did some dancing after being away from it for so long. Wish you could see the bridges they have here. You probably heard of them.” Elmer spared no expense during this “so-called vacation.” After spending nearly two years in Oahu or at sea, Elmer was excited to spend some time – and money – in a different place. The trip ended up costing approximately $130, he calculated the following month, “but it was worth every penny and more.” Ultimately, it was a “rather expensive vacation, but it’s our chance to have a good time.”

Elmer’s visit to the States coincided with an important milestone in the war: Operation Torch. On November 8th, 1942, American and other Allied forces landed at several points along the North African coast, thus starting on a long, circuitous path that would ultimately take them to Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and finally Germany itself. The United States Navy also won a major battle against the Japanese off the coast of Guadalcanal. The San Francisco Examiner headline the morning of November 17th read, “Japs Licked in Showdown, Lose 30 Ships, 30,000 Men!” As usual, though, Elmer was cautiously optimistic. “The news has been looking good over the past week,” he wrote, but “don’t get too optimistic.”

nov17 -
The front page of the San Francisco Examiner on November 17th. Elmer, a voracious news junkie, might have read this edition of the paper when he was in town.

After thirteen days in San Francisco, the Chew departed on its return trip to Pearl Harbor on Monday, November 23rd, just three days before Thanksgiving. As he digested his holiday meal (“roast turkey, sweet potatoes, Irish spuds, asparagus, dressing, soup, cranberry sauce, salad, pie, cake, coffee, candy, nuts, cigars, and cigarettes. My what a list!”) Elmer sat down to write his first post-San Francisco visit letter home to his parents. He was in a reflective mood:

Although things aren’t looking as bright as they could be, with the war etc., we do have so much to be thankful for today . . . good health, perfect family, and the consolation that our country is fighting on the right side for the right ideals. Not that all is perfect with US and our people, but we can’t doubt that our cause is a just one. Thankful to know, that in my own small way I’m making or help[ing make] our people safe in their homes – while all over the world so many innocent people must be destroyed in their homes. This is no speech, nor intended to be anything in that sense, but just a thought. [I] wonder how many people realize how fortunate they are today?”

Elmer Luckett to Mr. and Mrs. F. L. Luckett, 26 November 1942

I’m not sure what Elmer was referring to when he wrote that the United States isn’t “perfect.” While that is hardly an arguable statement (or, one would hope, a controversial one), it is a more critical opinion of America than either Elmer or many Americans in general were accustomed to offering during the war. There is no way of knowing if he was referring to the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans, the bullying of Latinx Angelenos by American servicemen that culminated in the Zoot Suit Riots, or anything else of that nature. I suppose that is a question I could have asked him during our interview, but I did not.

At any rate, Grandpa thoroughly understood that, in spite of America’s flaws, it was on the right side of history in this conflict. Which, again, is a virtually inarguable proposition, at least as far as I am concerned.

San Francisco offered Elmer and his shipmates a much-needed break from the monotony of escort duty and life in wartime Hawaii. But it also reminded them of exactly what they were hoping to protect by fighting in the war.

September and October 1942: From Pollywog to Shellback

Life is full of transitions, transformations, and comings of age. During the early 1940s, as young men and women felt themselves rushing headlong into the responsibilities demanded by wartime America, millions made their own transformations by getting married, joining the service, or both. This included many of Elmer’s friends, classmates, and family members.

Elmer kept abreast of these reports from the States with a mix of wonder, surprise, humor, and maybe a twinge of sadness over not being present to watch these big life moments take place. His journey into war was both more and less dramatic than that of most American men – more dramatic in the sense that he was at Pearl Harbor the moment the bombs began to fall, and less given that he was a reservist called up for active duty during peace time. But the transition from summer to autumn brought some transformative moments in Elmer’s life as well, even if none of them involved wedding bells or answering Uncle Sam’s call during wartime. Together they seem to represent a clear before and after for Elmer, both personally and professionally, and in a very tangible way fulfill the desire he stated earlier in the year to become “more of a man” by the time he returned home.

The first transformative moment arrived when Elmer needed his timepiece to be fixed. He sent it to his parents in hopes that they could repair it as a Christmas present. It “probably needs a new face,” he advised his parents on September 6th. Evidently the job was prohibitively expensive, however, and therefore his mother made an executive decision back home: she traded it in towards a beautiful, top of the line, yellow gold watch. “The wrist watch arrived O.K., folks,” he wrote on September 17th. “Thanks a million, it’s sure a beauty.” Elmer continued to mention the watch in several later letters, gushing over how many compliments he received and how much it likely cost. It “sure looks expensive enough, and if I know mom it’s the best!” Although it could not wear it in the engine room for safety reasons, it became a fixture on his wrist during liberty time. It was a fancy, new adult watch for a recently minted adult. Given how fresh memories of the Depression were for most Americans, this piece of bling was no small thing.

This was the watch my great-grandmother bought Elmer in 1942. My dad inherited it after grandpa passed away. Photo by Phyllis Luckett.

The second big moment came on October 1st when Elmer was promoted to Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class, making him a petty officer aboard the Chew. The advancement came with a pay bump (now $115 a month), new uniform insignia, new duties, and a well-earned sense of accomplishment. “It is something I have worked and studied for during my time in the Navy . . . I know it will make you all happy and increase my prestige. Ha ha.” He was the first among his friends to make petty officer, and between that and the new watch Elmer carried a bit more authority and gravitas than before. He also made good on the Navy tradition of handing out cigars upon receiving a new rating, giving out two boxes worth to his shipmates after hearing the news.

Machinist's Mate Rating Petty Officer 2nd Class

The final transformative moment occurred the second he and his ship passed the Equator on its way towards the Southern Hemisphere. Perhaps the best way to describe what happened next is to let Elmer do the writing:

[I] want to tell you about the initiation we were given at the time. Men or sailors that have crossed the “line” [are] known as “Shellbacks” (I’m one now). Sailors that never crossed the “line” are called Polly-wogs. Anyway, the Shellbacks give the Pollywogs the “works.” There were only about 20 Shellbacks aboard, but they really gave us the works. We were tried before a court of King Neptune . . . [and] by Davy Jones and his associates the Royal Family of the King. Words are difficult to express the entire ordeal and its details. Anyway, officers were no exception and they got the same treatment as the enlisted men . . . it so happened there weren’t any Shellbacks among the officers. It was a lot of fun and the initiation consisted of paddling (well done), followed by treatments from the Royal Doctor, Barber, Police, and all Shellbacks. Perhaps someday I will be able to tell you more of the details . . . we will get certificates for crossing the “line” and cards to prove we are “Shellbacks” now. I pity any “Pollywogs” if we cross the line again.

Elmer Luckett to Mr. and Mrs. E. L. Luckett, 19 October 1942

The Equatorial crossing ceremony and the fraternity of the Shellbacks goes back to at least the early 1500s, according to cultural anthropologist Carie Little Hersh. Its proliferation across the European navies and merchant marines corresponded with the Age of Discovery, during which over the next three centuries European merchants, navigators, explorers, conquistadors, missionaries, and naval personnel systematically sailed, mapped, and in many cases subjugated the indigenous nations adjacent to the high seas. Crossing the Equator was no small feat in this context, especially since it was often done while traveling to a more distant destination around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. Since the ceremony was in some ways meant to test the mettle of sailors during the early stages of a long voyage, the Equatorial crossing was a significant milestone and an excellent opportunity for such a rite of passage. Otherwise, untested sailors could present a liability during a real emergency.

Geography and meteorological hazards also made the crossing a particularly anxious time for sailors and captains alike. The Equator itself lay between the two circumferential “horse latitudes” bands at 30 degrees North and South, respectively, which allegedly received their name for the number of horses thrown overboard at these locations once the fresh water began to run dry and the animals began to die of thirst. Moreover, the Intertropical Convergence Zone, or the Doldrums, also threatened to becalm sailing ships and strand them for weeks or even months. This zone is roughly parallel to the Equator.

While the ceremony may seem anachronistic, especially given that it is still frequently held today, it carried a great deal of meaning for Elmer and his shipmates. Becoming a Shellback was, in many ways, tantamount to becoming a seasoned sailor. At the very least, the induction into what was for all intents and purposes an informal fraternal order signified to Elmer that he had passed an important milestone in his Naval career.

It was something that he was proud of for the rest of his life. I remember him showing me the card he received after the ceremony, which I scanned and uploaded below. It was one of his favorite stories from the War.

Research Trip

Hi folks,
Sorry for being tardy and not posting for a few days. I usually schedule all my posts well in advance, and I left this week free so that I could blog from the road. But if past experience is any guide, research trips are very busy affairs. I haven’t had much time to post since leaving town Monday, and even though I’ve thought of a lot of things to say this is the first chance I’ve had to write anything down.

I have been collecting research material for the Grandpa’s Letters project. Compared to my last major project (Never Caught Twice, which will be released this fall by the University of Nebraska Press), the research paradigm for this one is relatively easy. Rather than having to reconstruct the history of a notoriously under-reported and over-exaggerated crime across half a state and half a century, my current book’s source base is already well-established: my grandpa’s letters, along with my oral interview, other family documents, and several albums full of photographs. I also have my dad and Uncle Richard to fill in the gaps, which is a resource I did not have when investigating nineteenth-century horse stealing. This is a solid, if not excellent, foundation for a compelling historical narrative.

But this source set by itself isn’t enough. For one, I should have my grandfather’s official military personnel file from World War II. It contains a great deal of specific, well-documented information about every aspect of his service record. While getting that, I might as well get the service records of some of his friends on the Chew as well, so that I can give a broader perspective on St. Louis-area reservists before, during, and after the War. Speaking of the Chew, I should have more information on that as well, especially since Grandpa was barred from discussing his ship’s position and activities after the Pearl Harbor attack. I should also do the same thing with the Mink as well, Elmer’s ship from January 1944 until his discharge from the Navy in October 1945.

That is what this trip was all about. On Tuesday I visited the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis and scanned my Grandpa’s service record. I also scanned several others, including a couple of people I’ve discussed before on this blog. This took more time than I thought since these were large files, and since I only allocated a day for this I barely beat the clock to finish the job before closing. But I found a lot of fascinating information . . . stay tuned.

As soon as I was finished at the NPRC I had to Uber back to the airport to catch a flight to Baltimore, where I rented a car and drove to College Park, Maryland. Then on Wednesday I started collecting ship records at the National Archives facility at College Park. Like in St. Louis I’ve been scanning everything I can get my hands on, which is slightly more cumbersome here given that all scans have to have a declassification tag. That said, I’ve collected not only everything I could find on the Chew and the Mink, but after reading the other personnel files in St. Louis I decided to expand my strategy a bit and collect information on those ships on which Elmer’s friends on the Chew from St. Louis later served.

Although this is more work, I am really excited about where this is taking me . . . one of his friends participated in the invasion of Okinawa, while another one helped rescue sailors after the Frederick C. Davis, a destroyer, was sunk in the North Atlantic by a German U-Boat. Yet another served on a ship which played an important role in Operation Magic Carpet, the United States military’s massive post-war plan to bring hundreds of thousands of servicemen home in a matter of months. Of course this project will continue to revolve principally around my grandpa and his experience (which is exceptionally and uniquely well-documented given his letters), but my intention was always to bring other people into the story as well. I believe this is a great way to do just that.

I still have a few things to look for tomorrow, and I should have a few hours to spare. I hope to spend any extra time I have poking around some other collections and otherwise ensuring that this is the only trip out here I have to make for this book (as I promised my family . . . I visited the National Archives in DC several times for the first book). But so far this has been a successful trip.

Given both the blog and a history methods class I am teaching at Sacramento State this spring I may have more to say about both archival visits, what I found at each, and my strategy for tackling the archives. Since I will soon have to lecture my students about this very process it makes sense to start crystallizing my thoughts now while I’m in the trenches, so to speak.

Anyway, I need to get some other things done before I go to bed, but I will write again soon. In the meantime, here is an out-of-context page from grandpa’s service file at the NPRC in St. Louis. This is an important document, all things considered:

June, July, and August 1942: High Water Marks

Note: although the Battle of Coral Sea occurred in May, the shorter Midway-only newsreel on YouTube has an annoying watermark.

One of my clearest memories as a child of my grandfather is from when my brother and I were visiting him in 1993. He took us to Eiler Street and showed us his old house. I recall not expressing a great deal of interest in the aging brick building. Then he drove us a few blocks east to Bellerive Park. Perched along a small bluff about 70 feet or so above the Mississippi, visitors get a birds-eye view of the river from this small neighborhood pavilion. At the time I remembered visiting it once or twice when I was younger. But when we saw it that day, at the Great Flood of 1993’s destructive climax, the river looked to be just a few feet below the bluff’s summit. It rushed by like a raging torrent, carrying debris and tree branches and trees and chemicals and God knows what else on a runaway train to the Gulf.

I realized then that Grandpa didn’t take us down to see his old house that day, but to see the flood. Maybe on some level my grandpa liked seeing things like that. If that was the case then I cannot fault him for it, since I was just as entranced if not more watching the rampaging river rush by. Perhaps it runs in the family.

The Mississippi River, as seen from Bellerive Park. Author’s photo, taken in October 2019.

But during the summer of 1942, despite the epic battles being fought near the Midway Atoll and in the streets of Stalingrad, there was very little to write home about. From December 1940 through the spring of 1942, the vast majority of Elmer’s letters to his parents were at least two pages long. Many ran three or four. But between June 1st and August 31st, not one of Elmer’s twenty-five letters ran more than a single page. For one thing, Elmer had run out of topics to discuss, and much of his writing was in response to what his parents had told him in previous letters. Moreover, the things he could not talk about consumed more of his time, since by June the Chew was usually out at sea on escort duty.

Elmer could not even discuss in detail recent events of which both he and his parents were aware, since that information could be intercepted by the Japanese and used to confirm or disconfirm what they thought the Americans knew. In fact, he tried to tamp down expectations back home following the climactic American victory at the Battle of Midway. “This war is just starting on our part,” he wrote, “and it may last quite a while yet . . . I hope the public don’t get too optimistic about our recent successes and think victory is ‘in the bag.’ We should not underestimate our enemy.” Cautious optimism was certainly warranted during the early days of the war, especially after the crushing losses suffered at Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and elsewhere throughout the Pacific. But Midway shattered the Japanese Navy’s offensive capacity, and since the Empire lacked America’s cast industrial, mineral, and energy resources, the tide of the war effectively turned after that battle. Midway would later represent the high-water mark of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Elmer’s responses to news from home dominated these short letters. These reports included everything from his dad Forrest finally getting the tires he needed for his Victory to his sister Ruth divorcing her husband, Rick. Ruth sent a letter, her first since the start of the war, announcing the news to Elmer. “I hope that she is making out OK now that she out on her own,” he wrote. He also learned about a major flood hitting the St. Louis area that summer, during which the Missouri River crested at 35 feet. “Old Man River must be stepping out of bounds in many spots,” he wrote on August 3rd after receiving several snapshots of the flooding.

As an aside, the flood killed one man in Florissant and displaced several people and a number of cows in Saint Charles, but the flooding was limited compared to what was happening along the eastern seaboard, or to would come later along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The Missouri River actually crested one foot higher in similar flood events in 1943 and 1944, and in 1993 the Missouri reached 40 feet at the St. Charles riverfront. But the main difference between the World War II-era floods and the Great Flood of 1993 was development. Fifty years later, hundreds of thousands of new homes and hundreds of miles of additional levee squeezed the rivers through tighter channels, thus requiring less water to top the levees and inundate the surrounding areas. Now the floods displace people instead of livestock.

Ferguson subdivision, 1958
New home construction in Ferguson, Missouri, in 1958. Post-Dispatch file photo. Link:

Ironically enough, the story of Saint Louis’s coming urban sprawl, the deterioration of its urban core, and the growing likelihood of destructive floods would be written once Elmer and the thousands of other regional servicemen came back from the war wanting to buy new homes. Despite Saint Louis City’s impending population decline, the bistate region’s economic power grew during World War II. “The old home town must be quite a manufacturing center in all ways now,” Grandpa wrote in June. The new factories and the post-war economic boom fueled the explosion of new suburbs in what had once been farmland.

Elmer wondered about all the changes back home during wartime, but he had already noticed two: more men were joining the service, and more couples were deciding to get married. “War usually provides a stimulant for marriage and makes ‘Kid Cupid’s’ job much easier,” Elmer observed. Pat later confirmed the absence of eligible bachelors in one of her letters, “According to Pat the number of young men still at home are rapidly declining. Maybe,” he mused, “that’s why she writes me, eh?” Elmer’s anxieties about a long distance wartime romance continued to dominate his thinking, however. “Ozzie misses his wife quite a bit,” he noted on July 30th, knowing there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Union Station in 1942 was a bustling travel hub for a growing city. In the years since suspending train service the building has been used as a hotel, a mall, and most recently an Aquarium. Photo by Grand Hall STL. URL:

In some ways his sea duty had become as routine as his letters. “Well today is the 4th of July, but just another day to the working man.” He still enjoyed working in the engine room, and he had begun studying for his next rating advancement despite having no clear timetable for when he would be able to make it. At one point in July he expressed an interest in pursuing “aviation or aircraft mechanics,” but doubted he would ever get the opportunity.

Even off-board excursions had lost some of their luster. “Had a nice liberty the other day in town,” Elmer wrote on June 25th. “Although there isn’t much to do – you can usually see a good show, swim, play pool, or drink some appropriate refreshment. Of course there are dances around town, but I care very little for dancing. All in all, liberty’s a change, and a change makes variety, and ‘variety is the spice of life,’ or something.” Later, on July 8th: “Today was my liberty day . . . I just loafed around and took it easy.” Perhaps sensing a degree of fatigue and ennui aboard the Chew, the officers hosted a “beer party on the beach” later that month. The sailors “played ball, horseshoes, [drank] beer, and [had] plenty of eats. Sure had a good time and got a good sunburn.”

But there might have been a more practical reason as well: the Chew’s impending escort duty between Hawaii and Midway Island. “We will probably be at sea very much,” he warned his parents on August 5th. A week later, he indicated that “I don’t know how long it will be before you receive this letter, as you know there are no mailboxes at sea.” He then apologized for the infrequency of mail delivery on the ocean, and sweetly told his mother that “if thoughts could speak to you my voice would be heard every day.” By the end of August, though, his spirits cheered up a bit when the ship arrive at a different port, which might have been Midway Island. “A change of scenery always helps out a little.”

Like the cows in Saint Charles Elmer had all the water he could ever want, especially with his ship’s escort duty taking him farther and farther away from O’ahu. But he would get an even nicer change of scenery by the end of fall.

May 1942: The Royal Treatment

Lt. Edward “Butch” O’Hare was one of the early heroes of World War II. On February 20th, 1942, as a formation of nine Japanese Mitsubishi G4M Betty bombers approached the Lexington, O’Hare single-handedly shot down three planes and damaged three more while piloting his F4F Wildcat. His actions potentially saved the Lexington carrier from disaster. Two months after his heroics O’Hare traveled back to the States and received the Medal of Honor. During this trip he returned to his hometown, Saint Louis, and on April 25th the city threw him a parade.

1942: Parade for Edward O'Hare -
Front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 25 April 1942.

Aunt Frieda sent Elmer some newspaper clippings describing the festivities and celebrating O’Hare’s achievements. He was not impressed. “I see . . . that Lt. O’Hare the Navy flyer got a very warm reception in Saint Louis,” he wrote on May 6th. “He did a good piece of work, but it seems to me that ceremonies were a little strong for one man, considering all the other good flyers that are also doing their job. Typical attitude of the American public in general.”

At first blush this might seem like a jealous response, but it was no secret that O’Hare did not seek the extra attention. He reportedly wanted to return to his ship so that he could go back to the work of defeating Japan. In fairness to the American public, though, good news was a precious commodity during the early months of the war. Pearl Harbor stung in part because the Navy and Army were so ill-prepared to beat back the Japanese planes attacking them, and O’Hare more closely represented the image of steely courage under fire that Americans wanted to associate with their armed forces. In any case, while Elmer and O’Hare had radically different jobs, both men humbly took their duty to the Navy and their country seriously.

“Royal Hawaiian Hotel Postcard,” National Archives, ID #: WEB14230-2014

While ticker-tape parades for a single flyer might sound excessive to sailors, they did not reject other creature comforts when offered. For instance, Elmer finally got to stay at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel for his birthday on May 7th. After spending the day “play[ing] ping-pong (table tennis) at the U.S.O.” and drinking “a few cold ‘beverages’ at the local spots,” he and his shipmate Johnny checked into the iconic Waikiki Beach hotel. They were treated to a free turkey dinner (“a real meal,” a Elmer put it), a movie, and an ice cream sundae at the bar before “turning in on that thick inner spring mattress bed.” He and Johnny shared a double room, which before Pearl Harbor would have cost $22 for the night. The pair only paid fifty cents, however, “for linen and laundry change.” Despite needing to get an early start in the morning for duty, Elmer declared that “it was a memorable birthday for me. I wish I could describe how beautiful the hotel and the surrounding scenery is, but take my word, it was beautiful!”

Elmer deserved a memorable birthday, but he also needed the good night’s rest provided by the hotel’s premium mattresses. On the 22nd he admitted to his folks that he wasn’t getting enough sleep. The long hours on watch and in the engine rooms were taking their toll on the engineering crew. The ship was spending more time at sea as well, and later that month the Chew began escorting other vessels between Oahu and the other Hawaiian islands. Still, as usual, Elmer characterized himself as being “in the best of health and spirits,” and approached the discomfort poetically: “All in all we can’t complain. Good chow and bunk – lot of time on the water and lack of sleep at times . . . the roll and rock of the ship, the hum of the turbine, and steam heat on my face are part of the job. Of course,” he added somewhat cryptically, “there are other parts I can’t go into right now.”

Indeed, Elmer did have it better than many others. On November 26th, 1943, Lieutenant Commander O’Hare’s F6F disappeared during a nighttime mission over the Pacific Ocean. The Navy reported him Missing in Action. After a year of waiting and hoping, the United States government declared him deceased and released his Medal of Honor and other decorations to his wife, Rita.

April 1942: Message Received

“Japan has had a taste of bombing, too – only a taste.”

Grandpa didn’t say anything more about the Doolittle Raid, in which sixteen B-25s pulled off one of the most daring and consequential air raids in aviation history. Perhaps he did not know what he could and could not say about the raid to his parents. Or maybe he simply didn’t need to: newspapers across the country screamed headlines of the April 18th raid, and Elmer no doubt heard about it on the radio off Oahu. Either way, both the Lucketts and the rest of America were encouraged and emboldened by the attack, which lifted the Allies’ spirits after months of losing ground (so to speak) on the Pacific. “Something tells me the future looks brighter for the good old USA,” he wrote on April 30th. “So keep your spirits up.”

Chins and spirits had been difficult things to lift in past weeks. In late March the Navy’s postal system slowed to a crawl. Letters that usually took a few days to make it to or arrive from the states now came two or three weeks late. On April 8th Elmer complained that he had not received a letter from his parents since March 22nd. On the 12th he wrote again, stating that still no letters had arrived, and that while other shipmates were having the same problem, he was beginning to worry. Finally on the 17th he received four letters from his parents at once, dated between March 26th and April 7th. “It was a relief for me,” Elmer admitted. On April 30th he received another tranche of letters from his parents, as well as some delayed correspondence from family and friends. “My letters have been coming in like bananas.”

Unfortunately, his parents were having the same problem. They hadn’t received any of his since late March, either. “Mom,” he wrote, “it makes me feel bad to know you worry so much when letters are late.”

Part of the problem might have been the uptick in sailor mail and packages in advance of Easter, which fell on April 5th that year. Elmer’s mother sent him an Easter egg cake, and several people shipped him cookies. His shipmates were receiving care packages as well. In return, Elmer sent his folks an Easter card, a money order, a war bond, and his May 7th birthday wish list: slippers and Red Dot cigars.

Image result for red dot cigars
One of Elmer’s favorite cigar brands.

Elmer also received a steady stream of letters from young women. Irene Sykes, Shirley Ryder, and Dorothy Wekking wrote him “every few weeks.” Pat had recently stopped writing him, mainly because Elmer once again stopped responding to her letters. In fairness, he had a lot of correspondence to answer, which promoted him to reassure his worried mother. “I’m not much for reading the Bible or religious literature,” he wrote, “but I do nothing that I am ashamed of.” In spite of Elmer’s aversion to such things, his father announced that he was going to send his son some Christian Science materials, presumably before Elmer could have had a chance to finish reading the New Testament his mother’s pastor sent him weeks earlier.

While Elmer did not necessarily find comfort in religion, he took his self-improvement seriously. At the end of the month he wrote that he was looking forward to coming home and visiting with his parents, but he hoped that he would be “more of a man” than “the boy who left a good home.” Nevertheless, he confessed that he did not regret joining the Navy, and that in spite of him now being in the middle of a war he believed that the experience would shape him in a positive way.

Of course, there was always a risk involved when serving in the Navy during a war. But Elmer wanted his parents to not spend their time worrying about it, and instead embrace his hope for a brighter future. And thanks to the Doolittle Raiders, that future seemed a little more likely than before.

February and March 1942: Making the Best out of a Bad Situation

“Happiness,” Elmer philosophized in late March, “is just a mental adjustment to the surrounding conditions and circumstances.” While more and more of his friends and acquaintances from back home enlisted (“the ‘corner’ [where we all hung out] must be rather dead now with most of the fellas going into the service,” Elmer remarked), the winter pall began to lift across Missouri as the first spring buds furtively popped out of skeletal twigs. Just a few blocks east of the Luckett residence on Eiler Street, the Mississippi began to shimmer again with the sun finally breaking through the seasonal gloom. Despite the war’s metaphorical storm clouds, blue skies would soon reign over Saint Louis.

As Easter approached, Elmer’s mother took the opportunity to send her son another gift box for the holiday. The egg was “beautiful and delicious,” Elmer wrote, and the “cigars are good and fresh.” The egg was so large that he ended up sharing most of it with his shipmates.

For most Americans, the World War II story in Hawaii begins and ends with the attack on Pearl Harbor. For the servicemen stationed in the Territory and for its 420,000 residents, however, the air raid’s effects continued to ripple throughout the archipelago over the next several years. For one thing FDR declared martial law there, and a series of military governors ran the territory until 1944. They suspended habeas corpus, censored all written communication, and effectively ran Hawaii as an occupied area. In early March, Elmer reported that the military government rationed gasoline on the island, but not sugar, and that the authorities set prices on all goods and services. Apparently these controls, combined with the near complete absence of tourists, had a pronounced effect on the quality of food in Honolulu. “A meal in town is rather expensive and doesn’t compare to our ‘chow’ in quality or quantity,” he reported.

Image result for rations 1942
This cartoon responds to the addition of rubber in 1942 to the list of items being rationed, which included sugar. Elmer’s letters to his parents frequently discuss the effects of rationing on his family’s household. The gasoline ration hit his father, who worked throughout town as a carpenter, the hardest.

One of the silver linings of martial law, at least for the servicemen, was the sudden affordability of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Renowned as one of the premiere and most luxurious lodgings on Waikiki, if not the entire island, the Royal Hawaiian blended the island’s regal, monarchical origins with the cultural and economic promises of American imperialism. One of Elmer’s favorite hangout spots before the War, it was too exclusive for most sailors who wanted a room to spend the night, with rates ranging between $20 and $50 a night (approximately $330 to $850 in 2020 – compare that to a night at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, which goes for about $715). Once the war started and the tourist trade ended, however, the military took over the hotel and began offering rooms to sailors – for twenty-five cents a night. “That expensive hotel is at our disposal,” Elmer wrote, thus beginning a months-long quest to stay at the hotel. A few rooms were available every night to sailors, but the Chew did not receive too many allocations – likely due to it being more or less permanently stationed at Pearl, whereas visiting ships brought thousands of liberty-starved seamen. “I was in hopes of going [there,]” he wrote on March 7th, “but didn’t get to make it yet. Perhaps I can make it at the next opportunity.”

The United States Treasury Department issued separate currency for the Hawaii Territory after the Pearl Harbor attack. My grandpa photocopied one of the bills and placed it in his Navy scrapbook. The annotations are his.

The Chew’s proximity to Oahu notwithstanding, Elmer certainly deserved his chance to stay at a fancy Waikiki hotel. That February his near-constant studying paid off when he earned a new rating as Fireman First Class. In addition to another pay bump, Elmer was proud of having achieved this rating advancement at what was by Naval regulation the earliest available opportunity. “Many men spend four years in the Navy,” he later remarked, “and never do better than [Fireman First Class].” It only took Elmer fourteen months.

Once the Chew had a full compliment again following the attack Elmer had plenty of time to study. “I spend a lot of time reading,” he wrote in March. “Most of my time is spent standing in watches, reading, or studying. And arguing about the war.” He regularly listened to radio reports about fighting in the Pacific and throughout the world. “Dad, I bet you listen to all the news broadcasts too,” he wrote on February 18th. “I remember how we used to discuss them together in the living room. I sure miss our chats – don’t you?”

While Elmer found something akin to the spirited discussions he had with his father in their living room on the Chew, back home his parents ameliorated their anxiety by bragging about their son’s accomplishments. In early March they sent Elmer a clipping from the Post-Dispatch announcing the rating advancements earned by Saint Louis sailors. Elmer’s name was on the list. His letters were also becoming something of a regular report for their neighbors. “Mom, I don’t mind if you read let other people read my letters,” he assured her on March 10th. “Especially when they pay you such nice compliments about them.” Rose likely brought his letters with her when she visited the Grossmans’ that month. The war was bringing people together not just nationally, but locally as well.