A Litany of Excuses

Hi folks,
There won’t be a Grandpa’s Letters post today or for the rest of the week. There are a few reasons for this. For one, I still feel like it is important for me to step aside and let other people talk at the moment. If you haven’t read them, I think Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both put out eloquent, essential statements supporting what the George Floyd protests are about (i.e., they’re not just about George Floyd). Of course, there are many others out there with important things to say as well. Since Grandpa’s Letters aren’t going anywhere, I’ll save them for a slightly quieter week.

In addition to that, I need to take a breather from my current pace. I wrote the last several entries during the first three weeks or so of the quarantine, back when no one knew what was happening and many of us were afraid to leave our homes. Now that we’ve settled somewhat into this new normal (I still miss escaping to the local coffee shop to read), I’ve been working on – and have now just about finished – a new online United States History since 1865 class that includes a lot of new programming and material (you can actually check out the syllabus here, which I’ve posted for students who cannot access it via the school). Between that and finishing the spring semester grading, I have not had a great deal of time to start the next big research portion of this project, which is the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Since I want to provide as much context as possible when I start going through those letters, I have a lot of reading to do in the weeks ahead.

Here’s what I have in mind: during the next two weeks I will post the August and September 1945 updates, along with a couple of other posts I’ve been working on. Then I will take a break from the Grandpa’s Letters for a few weeks (I have a lot of things to say about the move to online-only education and our rapidly expanding garden) and pick it back up after July 4th. At that point I will start posting Grandpa’s Letters updates regularly again, probably once a week, along with book reviews.

There’s one other really big reason for why I’m slowing it down . . . we’re approaching the end of the line! I only have 14 months’ worth of letters left until Elmer is mustered out and sent back home. I am sad that this journey is coming to its climax pretty soon and that much of the remaining work of finishing the book will be the usual solitary labor of historical research, writing, and editing. It may sound hackneyed by now, but it really has been a privilege getting to know my grandparents throughout this project.

I don’t want “Grandpa’s Letters” to be the last time I do this. I would like to keep this blog growing, and I already have a few “next project” ideas that I’m beginning to explore for early 2021. In the meantime, there is much to be excited about . . . for instance, I’m planning to celebrate the publication of Never Caught Twice with a lot of horse stealing stories, artifacts, and maybe even some videos. I am also going to try to contextualize it a bit with some Western history posts and book reviews. Stay tuned!

Finally, thank you as always for reading and for all the feedback you’ve given me over these past few months. I sincerely hope that you and your loved ones are staying safe and healthy, and that a better world for all of us is just around the corner.


In Light of Recent Events

Hi folks,
In general my policy is to keep this space – particularly the Grandpa’s Letters blog – as free from politics and current events as possible. As a historian, one of my goals is to tell stories that bring Americans together, while also telling the truth – however unsparing – about our past.

However, the protests and riots last few days demand that we all think about and contend with some harsh realities. Many of those realities are historically well-documented: that people of color and black men specifically face the disproportionate burden of aggressive and militarized policing in this country; that mass incarceration and “tough on crime” policies overwhelmingly affect people of color and poor Americans; and that eliminating racism is about more than just changing hearts and minds, it is about dismantling larger social, economic, and political structures (which we might not even be consciously aware of) that perpetuate inequality.

My heart goes out to George Floyd’s family, and to all of the families of those who have been killed under similar circumstances. And while I believe the time for change is long overdue, I am hopeful that peaceful protests, community activism, and growing public awareness of and engagement with these issues will make this particular event a watershed moment in the history of our country.

So, in lieu of one of my usual blog posts, I’m instead going to link to three pieces that I believe are particularly important for spaces like this, in which Democrats and Republicans and Independents and people of all shapes and stripes and colors (I hope) co-mingle out of a shared love for history. Please read and reflect, and, if you would like, leave a comment below.

“Op-Ed: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge,” Los Angeles Times, 30 May 2020. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of America’s most legendary sports figures, is also a fantastic writer. Please check out what he has to say about what’s happening.

Jim Bovard, “Cops Kill Because We Gave Them the Legal Framework to do it,” The American Conservative, 30 May 2020. So, now that we know what the problem is, what are some concrete steps for what to do next? Personally, I believe that police and criminal justice reform is one of the few bipartisan issues left. Both parties have an interest in demilitarizing police, minimizing the impact of law enforcement and law in general on our everyday lives, and keeping good people out of jail. Although there are naturally a wide range of solutions to this problem, I think this set of reforms as proposed by a prominent conservative publication are a great place to start thinking about them.

Kelly Vanessa Porter, “The Story of Doris Miller and What It Means to be An American Hero,” Medium.com, 22 May 2020. Finally, the story of Doris Miller is one I have not told on this blog, but this article does a far better job than I would have – and it is a great reminder for me that I need to include it in the book. It is also a reminder that even Miller, an American hero who died in the service of his country, still regularly battled racism at home in the country he was fighting to protect.

Finally, if anyone is looking for a concrete way to help without using their money to sanction or condone violence, consider donating to Campaign Zero. Their goal is to reduce and eventually eliminate police violence using smart public policy backed up by social science. You can donate here: https://www.paypal.me/campaignzero

As always, thank you for reading and for spending a few minutes of your time here today. Be safe and be well.


July 1944: A Leave Down Under

By July, the daily grind and the ongoing isolation began to wear down the Mink’s crew. So the ship’s officers cooked up some surprises for their men. “Yes sir,” Elmer wrote the day after the festivities, “we had a holiday routine yesterday – in short, just plain loafing. And for the first time in months we had some beer and Coca-Cola.” Since there were no stores nearby the men were limited to consuming whatever was aboard ship – or whatever they happened to catch fishing. “The way we are located without anywhere to go for buying beer or any other recreation makes it a little tough,” he wrote.”But through Navy Supply we may be able to get a few beers once in a while. They can’t forget morale, and it is a big point to consider.” The mess cooks prepared a feast for the crew, who also received souvenir menus to commemorate the occasion.

The Mink’s Fourth of July menu.

But giblet gravy and a round of cokes would only go so far to ameliorate the crew, which needed a break. Preferably in a place with bars that offered more than three beers. On July 9th, Elmer no longer needed to hint at a future liberty – he was now scheduled to have one.

“Now for my bit of good news,” he wrote his parents. “Due to the fact that our duty has been isolated from cities or places for liberty or recreation, they are sending a number of men at a time for ten days recreation leave in a swell country. I’ve always wanted to visit there.” Elmer’s hard work, good relationship with the officers aboard, previous bad luck with the V-12 program, and lengthy service prior to joining the Mink undoubtedly contributed to the decision to prioritize his leave over that of many of his crewmates. “I happen to be in the first group and we are due to leave soon.” He withdrew over $150 for the trip, which he viewed as “a chance to have a good time and spend some money . . . Don’t know if I’ll need it all, but I’m going to have a great time at all cost.” He continued to rationalize the vacation in his letter to his parents, but he knew it was not necessary to apologize for being young and wanting to have a good time after such a long period of labor at such a distance from the comforts of home. “[I] think I’ve earned a ‘blow out’ now, and I’m going to ‘paint the town red.'” He closed his July 9th letter, in a departure from his regular practice, with “I’m in good health and exceptionally good spirits.”

Later, in his interview, Grandpa indicated that he was in the second party to get to go to Australia, but he was still happy with that:

I was able to get into the second party. As the second class petty officer, I guess I had a little pull, more so than somebody that hasn’t been in it for long.

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

Naval censors prohibited him from giving out much information about his Australian whereabouts in his letters. Even though the country’s safety from invasion was virtually assured by 1943, the Japanese Navy continued to ply the waters north and east of the continent, and officials did not want American sailor mail falling into enemy hands. Australia was much like England at this point of the war: a large, Allied nation close to the theater of operations where men, equipment, and supplies could be marshaled for future attacks and where friendly combatants could go for a pleasant, mostly safe leave.

Elmer mailed this sheet home at the end of the month. Since censors banned servicemen from providing much in the way of specifics to their families back home – and were themselves often unclear about what could and could not be said – the Red Cross created “furlough letters” like the one above so that servicemen could say something fun about their trips.

Of course, “close” was a relative term. It took nearly a week for Elmer’s party to make the trip, during which time he was incommunicado and could not write letters. He talked about the trip during his oral interview:

Anyway, I had a chance to go down to Australia. To get down there, we had to wait until we could get some transportation. There was a refrigerated ship called the Mizar that came up from Australia. It brought up fresh provisions and stuff. It made trips between Australia, New Guinea, Milne Bay. So anyway. We got transportation on this refrigerated ship . . . it pulled into Brisbane and we got off there. But our R&R orders were for 10 days in Sydney. So anyway . . . we had to pay for our own transportation, because we wanted to get down to Sydney. But it wasn’t that expensive.

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

When he penned his next letter to his folks on July 18th, he was in Brisbane. “I believe it will be ok if I told you that my leave is somewhere in Australia,” he wrote. “Naturally I’m very excited and enjoying the experience of traveling and living in a new country for awhile.” Elmer raved about the favorable exchange rate, which went far for his and his mates. “Meals and living expenses are cheaper here than in the States. And I have ten days to spend a hundred and fifty dollars.”

Shortly after arriving he and his crewmates from the Mink took a train down to Sydney. He described the journey in his interview as well:

I guess one thing I noticed as we rode this train down to Sydney from Brisbane, if you look out the windows as you do aboard a train, you’d see these kangaroos jumping around. I thought that was kind of neat.

Elmer Luckett. Oral Interview

Elmer’s other letters offer some specifics: lodging with three other men in a flat was $1.50 a night, while “a meal with steak or meat in any form with vegetables and desert oranges [costs] about sixty cents a person in our money.” Public transit on the Tram cost as little as two American pennies a trip, which was fortuitous since there was much to do. “[We went to] the zoo, parks, buildings, and local nightclubs,” he wrote, “[and] I’ve met several nice girls at dances given by the Red Cross Service Club.” Overall, “the people treat us swell here, and it’s practically like our home country.”

One of the girls he met at the Red Cross dances was Rae Henry, a “very sweet girl” who lived in Sydney. Elmer dated her several times, and was even invited to her parents house for dinner twice. “We have been dancing, to the zoo, movies, and sightseeing. She is really a fine person.” On July 30th, Elmer, Rae, and another couple packed up a lunch and enjoyed a picnic at the beach.

Grandpa mentioned Rae during his interview:

I got acquainted with a gal down there. She worked there. Her name was Rae Henry, R-A-E Henry. I remember her well. So anyway, I got acquainted with her down there. Then, Lloyd Hill, he was an electrician on the Mink. He was pretty close buddies with me. He met another gal down there. She was a friend of Rae’s. So we made a few dates with them. We went to … what the hell was the name of it … beautiful animal park down there.*

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

Elmer did not forget his family back home during his leave. He sent his mother a birthday telegram and arranged for his sister to give her flowers on his behalf. He also mailed boomerangs to Bud and Irene, as well as a couple of “expensive” gifts to Shirley.

Elmer’s birthday telegram to his mother, which he sent from Australia.

Elmer roamed around some during his stay, visiting a couple of small towns in New South Wales and Queensland while also checking out the Blue Mountains. Once he arrived back in Sydney for the end of his leave, however, he was there to stay until their boat came to pick them up. Unfortunately, that would be several weeks away, forcing Elmer to remain in Australia indefinitely until then. On the one hand that was good news, since it meant more time on leave – and more dates with Rae. “It has been a wonderful leave here in Australia,” he wrote on July 31st. “I’ve had such good times and enjoyed myself. I feel like I can go back and get busy at my job and help finish this war.” On the other hand, Elmer was starting to run low on money, having only budgeted himself for ten days of expenses, travel, and souvenirs. All of his incoming mail was waiting for him back on the Mink, which meant that while Elmer was sending letters out, he was not receiving any in return. Soon the shoe would be on the other foot, and Elmer would be the one worrying about his folks after months of hearing no news from the home front.

*After some quick institutional Googling it seems that Grandpa meant the Taronga Zoological Park, since other popular zoos and animal parks in the area (e.g., Featherdale, WILD LIFE Sydney Zoo) did not open until long after World War II.

Two Shipmates

Today is Memorial Day, and it is an even more somber holiday than usual: instead of attending backyard barbecues and opening swimming pools, many Americans continue to reel from the COVID-19 pandemic. The New York Times yesterday published a heart-stopping front page with the names of 1,000 people who have died from the disease in the past two months, and even as much of the country begins to reopen there are growing hotspots in various sections of the nation and the world. Although Memorial Day is about the countless Americans who have given their lives in the service of their country, our thoughts are not far from those who have recently fallen victim to this awful illness.

In any case, today I want to take the opportunity to highlight two men I have only recently started researching and writing about, not on here but in my actual Grandpa’s Letters manuscript draft: S2c Mathew Agola and F3c Clarence Wise. Both men were sailors aboard Elmer Luckett’s first ship, the Chew. Both men were from Saint Louis, Missouri. Both men knew my grandpa, as well as most of the other men aboard the ship. And both men died on the morning of December 7, 1941 during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Although the Chew was not hit that morning, both Agola and Wise had spent the previous night off ship. When the attack started, the men were effectively stranded ashore with no way of getting back to the destroyer. But instead of seeking safety elsewhere, they rushed towards the USS Pennsylvania, which was in dry dock and a sitting duck to Japanese dive bombers. They joined the small crew there as it worked furiously to put out several large fires. Tragically, however, Agola and Wise died when a bomb hit her deck.

Like thousands of others that day, Wise and Agola didn’t not wake up that morning thinking they were at war. In fact, it had only been just over a year since Clarence Alvin Wise passed the news that he was activated along to his parents, Robert and Virginia. Wise enlisted earlier than most of his shipmates: he swore his oath on March 16, 1939, the day after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. Yet despite the disastrous failure of France and Great Britain’s appeasement policy toward Adolf Hitler that Spring, war seemed a long way off for America, if not necessarily Europe. Back at home, Robert worked at Hobusch Cleaners on Big Bend Boulevard in Maplewood, while Virginia was a machine operator in a tobacco factory. The Wise family had recently moved out of their home on Blaine Avenue near Tower Grove Park and into Maplewood, a suburb just west of the Saint Louis City limits. Their new residence, three-bedroom wooden frame house on a quiet suburban street, afforded Robert, Virginia, Clarence, and Robert’s father Frederick some additional space. Although Wise did not continue his schooling past the ninth grade, on his enlistment application he stated that he was a mechanic. Before leaving for active duty, Clarence married his sweetheart, Margaret Sutton. Within a week he, Mathew, Elmer, and hundreds of other activated Saint Louisans were on a train heading west.

Unlike Clarence, who already had a job and a wife before getting called up, Mathew Agola was only 18. In fact, he was barely 17 when he signed up on July 20, 1940. His father, automotive machinist Peter Agola, authorized his son’s enlistment papers – a fact that evidently caused a rift between him and his wife, Rose. Like many members of his generation, Mathew represented the first generation of his family to be born in the United States. Both of his parents came from Italy. Mathew, however, was born in Saint Louis. Before his enlistment he attended school at St. Paul’s in Pine Lawn, which is near what is now Lambert International Airport west of the city.

After the Navy called Mathew up for active duty, the Agolas fretted over their son’s sudden departure and his – and the world’s – uncertain future. By August, his parents were at their wits end. Peter and Rose did not believe that Mathew would be away for so long. Frustrated, Peter wrote to Admiral Chester Nimitz – then the Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation – in August 1941 and implored him to send Mathew home on leave. “At that time [when I authorized his enlistment papers] I didn’t realize that he would be called for so long a period,” he wrote in his letter to the Admiral. “Since my son has been gone (since last December) my wife has been a nervous wreck and is always fussing with me, saying it is my fault that he is away from home. If this keeps on I believe I will be a nervous wreck myself.” His favor was for Mathew to be sent home “for awhile. I believe this will make my wife feel happier and better, and it would take me out of the doghouse. I will gladly pay his fare home from San Diego.” Despite Peter’s pleas, however, Nimitz sent a form letter back, suggesting that Mathew submit an official request for leave.

On December 17th, less than four months after Peter wrote his letter, and after ten interminably long days had passed since the Pearl Harbor attack, Mathew’s fate was finally known:

Mathew Agola personnel file, NARA NPRC, St. Louis, MO.

Mathew Agola would not make the trip back to Saint Louis until 1947, when his remains were transported to Jefferson Barracks Memorial Cemetery for burial. Meanwhile, Clarence Wise’s body was never found. Weeks later, and after a mountain of paperwork, his disappearance was officially ruled a death.

As I stated above, I’ve only recently begun researching these two men, and there is a great deal to say about both of them: their stories, their sacrifices, and the loved ones they left behind. But for now, here are two names to think about as we remember and honor the fallen on this Memorial Day.

Stay healthy, friends, and thanks as always for reading.


June 1944: The Invasion Prayer

The whole world watched on June 6th, 1944 as over 150,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy. It was the largest amphibious invasion in history, and the fate of the planet would be determined by its outcome.

In a world before 24-hour cable news, people everywhere were glued to their radios as they scanned the newest newspaper editions for updates. Specifics were hard to come by, for obvious reasons – press censorship, operational secrecy, and technological limitations prevented the kind of play-by-play coverage Americans received when watching the invasions of Iraq near-real time in 1991 and later in 2003. With so much uncertainty, people filled the pins and needles hours with talk, conjecture, work, and prayer. In an extra-long Presidency full of memorable speeches, one of FDR’s most poignant and impactful was his invasion prayer, which he read aloud on the radio. Given the magnitude of the undertaking in western Europe, the prayer was six minute long, and took up large swaths of front page invasion coverage, like in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch below:

Elmer, who was not much of a churchgoer before, during, or after the War, followed the President’s lead in praying for “a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.” He reacted to the news in a June 8th letter to his parents, specifically addressing his thoughts to his dad (even though his mother was undoubtedly just as invested in the breaking news as her husband). “Well Dad, the news came out the other day about out invasion of France. And it is what the world’s been waiting for. A cause to rejoice and mostly one for prayer. So many men involved and as always many must be lost to this world. God grant that our men may have a speedy victory with a minimum of bloodshed.” Elmer also wrote that he believed “our cause is surely a just one” and that “this is the beginning of the end for Hitler and all he stands for.” He concluded his letter with a little added flourish to his usual “chins up!” plea: “But now you must keep those chins up with faith and courage. That’s how I want to think of you.”

Elmer’s mother, who would not receive this letter until much later, was not mollified and apparently feared that her son was involved or otherwise subject to the invasion’s downstream effects. “You shouldn’t be uneasy about me due to the invasion of France,” he wrote imploringly. “Our soldiers are the boys that must do their job now. So you just keep your spirits up because it can’t last much longer.” Elmer’s other letters late in June seem to reflect his newfound optimism. Anxious prayers over the fate of the invasion gave way to pronouncements over Germany’s all-but-certain defeat. Like many other at the time, Grandpa seemed to embrace hopeful predictions that the war would be over within a year or less, even as the Allied solders then in France slowly hacked their way through Normandy’s Panzer-infested hedgerows. “Surely the Japs and the Nazi’s realize it is a matter of time,” he mused on the 25th. Of course, as events in the spring and summer of 1945 would show, realizing that a war’s outcome was inevitable was not the same thing as having the courage, wherewithal, or support to actually do something about ending it.

For once, Elmer’s almost rote claims that there was no news to report seemed in retrospect true. The Mink was still in Seeadler Harbor, everyone was still do their jobs, and there was still nothing to do on shore. On the 25th he reported seeing and enjoying A Lady Takes a Chance, but there was little else worth noting. Most of the discussion revolved around the folks back at home: Shirley Ryder enjoyed the compact his mother bought her on his behalf for her birthday on the 22nd; Rose Schmid received a promotion at work; his friend from back home, Legs, was now in India; and Bud Tanner bought his father’s old house on Itaska Street. But Grandpa did an enticing update at the end of the month: “[I have] hopes for some decent liberty and recreation soon.” After nearly half a year at sea or in anchorage outside of undeveloped ports, Elmer was looking forward to a break. Even if the end of the war was on the horizon.

John Wayne and Jean Arthur starred in A Lady Takes a Chance (1943). It was Elmer’s second time watching it.

In the weeks and months following D-Day the world appeared to be moving once again. Lives put on hold for years at a time would soon resume. He maintained to both his mother and to his sister Irene that he was happy to remain a bachelor for the duration of the War, but civilian life would bring new opportunities for social – and permanent – companionship. “[Just] wait till I get back and round up all my women,” Elmer wrote teasingly to his sister. But if his letters to Rose and his experience with Pat were any indication, he would ultimately have to disappoint some – or all – of his suitorettes. That would not be easy.

As it turned out, D-Day was the beginning of the end of the European War. A lot of hard fighting awaited the Allies in the months ahead, but fears that the Americans, British, and Canadians would be hurled back into the sea quickly dissipated. The eastward tide was inexorable, relentless, and it would not stop until it reached the heart of Germany.

Meanwhile, in the Pacific, many future mini-D-Days were to come as the United States hopped closer and closer to the crown jewel of Japan’s island empire, Honshu. Yet one key climactic moment, the request of the Philippines, was now on the horizon that summer. Like with D-Day, that battle would be an all-hands-on-deck situation, and the Mink would play a role as well.

May 1944: Birthdays and Barracudas

The Mink would spend the next several months in Seeadler Harbor. Elmer discussed his ship’s role in our interview:

The Admiralty Islands, it had a wonderful gulf or a bay in there where ships could come in. Basically, we pulled into the Admiralty Islands there. There was this big body of water, and we dropped a hook there, and they were building a big naval base, a naval or Air Force base on one of these islands there, and they didn’t have the storage facilities for the gasoline ready. So we were more or less a filling station.

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

The Mink’s war diary that May tells a similar story:

As the Mink continued to fill up barges and ships, its crew had to find ways to fill their free time. Unfortunately, the Admiralty Islands offered little in the way of entertainment. The Mink’s very presence there as a “filling station” speaks volumes about the lack of development. Thus there were no bars, no restaurants, and no movie theaters on shore. Elmer lamented the absence of entertainment on the island and told Rose that he had only consumed two beers in the past four months. “What I need is a long, slow drink fest for a few days,” he wrote. He also missed the companionship of women. “Glad to hear you have been a good girl,” he told Rose. “And I can honestly say I have too – damn it! Darling, you know it is a false story about sailors having a girl in every port (some ports don’t have girls – unless you go native.)” His attitudes towards the isle’s indigenous inhabitants notwithstanding (who had ample opportunity to form own opinions about their various occupiers), there was literally no town within hundreds of miles to paint red. “No, I can’t tell you where I am now. The censor is very strict,” he told Rose in closing, “but I’m very lonesome and there is no place to go for a liberty. So you can figure out this isn’t paradise.”

While Elmer and no doubt many of his crewmates missed the social scene back in the States, they were resourceful enough to make their own fun. The ship played a movie on most evenings, and on May 31st Elmer reported seeing a boxing exhibition in a nearby Army camp. “Several of us fellows had a new form of entertainment,” he told his parents. “The captain, engineering officer, and about five of the crew went over and saw a boxing exhibition . . . had a good number of matches and we yelled like ‘hell.’ Later in the evening we had a movie aboard ship . . . [we also] have a good show [tonight], Clark Gable and Lana Turner in ‘Somewhere I’ll Find You.'” Moreover, while Elmer was not much of a salt water fisherman, some of the guys on the Mink were. “Some of the men had good luck in fishing and we had two good fresh fish meals aboard ship. Engineering officer caught a 30 lb. barracuda, and others caught quite a few 8-12 lb. jack fish. The best fish I have eaten in ages – tender and few bones. They make regular steaks.”

The crew aboard the Mink regularly watched movies in the evening. This was the offering on the night od May 31, 1944.

While boxing matches and impromptu fish frys helped make up for the lack of bars and hangouts on shore, they did little to compensate for Elmer’s fourth consecutive birthday away from home. He made the best of it, of course – “I certainly have birthdays in the most unexpected places,” he wrote on the 9th, two days after turning 24. But “the sooner I can be home for a birthday, the better I’ll like it.” Although his mother and sister Irene both sent him cigars and other gifts, he could not send a thank you card in return since there were no stores nearby. “I’m in no position to send a card or token of my appreciation,” he wrote apologetically. But he implored his parents to understand: “All the little things you and dad did for me are remembered.”

May was full of other insufficiently acknowledged birthdays, including his brother Bud’s, although the 36-year old father and breadwinner probably could not have asked for much more after his draft was deferred until September. Still, he was sad that he could not send a card, especially since he got one from Bud – with a three dollar American Express money order. But since there was nowhere to cash it in the area he sent it to his parents along with more of his pay that he could not spend. He also wanted to send a card to his nephew, Davy – “they probably think I forgot them. But I certainly did not.”

Even if Manus Island happened to have a Hallmark Store someplace, it was unlikely that the cards would have reached their recipients in time. Throughout the month Elmer, Rose, and his parents all pointed out the slowness and irregularity of the mails when receiving letters written on non-sequential dates. This created a lot of confusion when responding to letters – in particular, Elmer’s parents seemed to get letters written in early April before letters written in late March. It also made his mother incredibly anxious. “I try my best to write you and [Shirley] at least twice a week,” he told his mother.

Yet despite Seeadler Harbor’s distance from everything he ever knew and the vast sea that separated him from home, Elmer did get his letters in bunches “like bananas.” They were his lifeblood, his connection to the world back home. He joked about having to keep up with the replies, but the letters kept him busy. He also passed his time with novels and movies. And as per usual, Elmer liked to talk about the food. On the 31st he had “baked ham, mashed potatoes, peas, beets, ice-cold lemonade, apple turn-overs, and butterscotch ice cream.” In another letter, he acknowledged that “we are fed pretty good – I’ve been fortunate in landing ships with good chow.” Rose definitely scored some points in is book when she described how much he was improving as a cook. “Rose is still in Washington working for the Navy,” he told his mother. “She and a girlfriend have an apartment. She promises to prepare a dandy meal for me when possible either there or in St. Louis. She is a pretty fine girl.”

Home-cooked meals and birthdays at home would have been paradise. But those blessings would have to wait.

“Love and Things:” Rose’s First Letter to Elmer

Rose’s letter from May 15, 1944 wasn’t the first one she wrote, but it is the first one we have and was probably the first one he kept, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

If Elmer’s letters are effusive and sometimes lusty, Rose’s were coy and self-deprecating. She had a dry wit and a tendency to tease (“Please pardon the scratching out, I am lounging on the bunk in The Hatch and I am getting very lazy,” she wrote, possibly in reference to their earlier jokes about Elmer’s long hernia recovery), yet her letters are carpeted with a soft sincerity. She responded to Elmer’s queries about not having received any letters from her by telling him that she did, in fact, write him; that the mails were slow; and that she would “go see my friend the Admiral and give him a piece of my mind and yours too if you want me.”

The Jefferson Memorial and the Cherry Blossoms, April 1944. Photo by R. Schmid.

They traded news about their promotions. Rose told Elmer “how wonderful you are getting your first class stripe,” and then announced that she herself received a higher rating at the Navy Department. She wrote about life with her best friend and roommate, Anne, and told him that with all the food preparation she had been doing that she was “getting to be a wonderful cook, if I do say so myself. I baked an apple pie the other day and it’s all gone. I also baked a ham and I fried a chicken all by myself. I hope I am not making you hungry.” She also passed along the news that her brother Danny had joined the Navy (“because of me, he says. Isn’t that sweet of him?”), and apologized for only having pictures of cherry blossoms in DC on account of her not having her own camera (though she further chided him, “Don’t you know there is a war going on and film is very, very scarce.”)

But the highlight of the letter came on page three, which . . . well, maybe it would be better to read it yourself:

Right afterwards she used the poem to segue into a difficult subject: “Did you like it? I hope so because I have a confession to make. I lost the heart off of [the bracelet that you gave me].” She explained how it got lost, and then added, “I am trying to get one like it and I won’t rest until I do. Am I forgiven? I hope so.”

She concludes by telling him that Anne asked to tell him, “hello, be a good boy, and come home safely.” Rose then added, “She usually isn’t that sloppy but I have to humor her since her operation.” She signed off, “Love and things, Rose,” followed by a row of X’s.

I don’t really have a hard-hitting historical analysis for this letter. To be perfectly honest, it just makes me wish that I could have had the opportunity to meet her.

“My Dearest Elmer:” Grandma’s Letters to Grandpa

As has been pointed out several times in this blog, Elmer did not save many of the letters he received during the war. So far as I can tell none of the letters written by his parents have survived, nor did virtually any of the letters written by his girlfriends or pals in the service. Elmer usually destroyed them after a certain period of time, in part because he had very limited storage space to keep hundreds of letters filed away for future preservation. Of course, I would have loved it if he would have bundled them up in a box and mailed them to his parents, but what can you do?

Anyway, the only collection of letters I have that were written to him by other people were penned by Rose Schmid, my grandmother. Grandpa did not save a lot of these letters, either: only a few exist from 1944 (I have many more from 1945), and these were filed by month in labeled envelopes later one, probably because grandpa threw out the original envelopes. The first of these letters is dated May 15, 1944.

Like with my Elmer’s letters to Rose I will mostly integrate Rose’s letters to Elmer into the blog narrative. But I plan on spending a lot more time researching her life, her job, and her background, and then integrating these topics fully into the book. Yet this is going to be much more challenging that my research on Elmer, aided as it is by hundreds of letters, an oral interview, conversations with my father and uncle, and the privilege of knowing my grandpa for nearly 37 years before he passed away. By contrast, my grandmother Rose passed away in 1979, less than two years before I was born.

I never did hear a lot about my grandmother growing up. My mom never met her, and my dad isn’t exactly the loquacious type. Meanwhile, my grandpa remarried not too long after Rose’s death, and the policy when I was a kid was that his wife was to be called “Grandma Margaret,” and Rose “Grandma Rose.” But Margaret had grandchildren of her own, and of my maternal grandmother’s 19 grandkids my brother and I were the babies, so we always felt like we received extra-special attention despite her living nearly 600 miles away.

I’ve always been curious about Grandma Rose, though, and while growing up I always felt she was in some way looking after me and my brother. I heard that she had a wicked sense of humor, loved Johnny Cash, and called her beef stew recipe “Cowboy Stew” in an attempt to get my dad and uncle to eat it (my mother always used that name as well, though I suspect my own Frozen-obsessed daughter will insist on something like “Princess Stew” instead).

Needless to say, I am excited to start reading her letters, because in a way this will be my opportunity to get to know her. Which is fantastic, because, honestly, she seemed pretty cool.

Midwest Book Awards Finalist!

Hi folks,

Exciting news: The Interior Borderlands: Regional Identity in the Midwest and Great Plains is a finalist in the “History-General” category for the 2020 Midwest Book Awards. Edited by Jon K. Lauck, the book attempts to answer the question of where the Great Plains begins – and where does the Midwest end – with twenty different essays, plus a preface by Harry F. Thompson and an introduction by Lauck. I contributed one of the essays, which is entitled “’Nebraska Is, at Least, Not a Desert:’ Land Sales, False Promises, and Real Estate Borderlands on the Great Plains.” But don’t just buy it for that – this is a phenomenal volume from front to cover. Each author puts their own spin on the question, and together they present a dynamic and compelling vision of an often misunderstood and frequently forgotten region.

For more information, see the press release below. And congrats to Jon K. Lauck for putting together such a wonderful collection!

The Interior Borderlands: Regional Identity in the Midwest and Great Plains, edited by Jon K. Lauck, was named a finalist in the History-General category of the 30th annual Midwest Book Awards. The awards program, which is organized by the Midwest Independent Publishers Association, recognizes quality in independent publishing in the Midwest.

The book is a collection of 20 essays plus a preface, “West from Here,” and introduction, “Crossing the Line: In Search of the Midwest/Great Plains Borderlands” by the publisher and editor, respectively. Contributors teach at colleges and universities in California, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and France.

John Wunder, of the University of Nebraska, calls this book “special” and notes that it “rivals any and all other North American regional writings. Don’t miss it!”  Western historian Richard W. Etulain says this collection “provides another notable contribution to our burgeoning understanding of the American Midwest” and is “a strong source for all readers.”

The 30th annual Midwest Book Awards was open to books published and copyrighted in 2019 in MiPA’s 12-state Midwestern region: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

This year’s competition garnered 221 entries in 31 categories, which were judged by a panel of 99 librarians and booksellers from every state in MiPA’s 12-state Midwestern region.

Typically an awards gala is held every year in Minneapolis to announce the winners, but this year, due to travel and shelter-in-place restrictions from Covid-19, winners will be announced during a free, online watch party on Facebook set for June 27 at 7pm CDT, with book prizes for attendees and a special segment by independent booksellers throughout the Midwest on how to support them at this time.

“Although we were disappointed to cancel our gala this year, we are excited for the potential to attract a larger audience who can help make this a truly regional event that celebrates Midwestern publishing,” said Jennifer Baum, chair of the Midwest Book Awards.

For a complete list of finalists, visit www.mipa.org/midwest-book-awards. Follow @MIPAMidwestBookAwards on Facebook for updates on how to join the event on June 27.

The Midwest Book Awards, which began in 1989, is organized by the Midwest Independent Publishers Association (MiPA). Founded in 1984, MiPA exists today as a vibrant professional nonprofit association that serves the Midwest independent publishing community through education, networking, and peer recognition.

April 1944: The Merry-Go-Round

On April 1st the Mink got under way with the U.S.S. San Pedro and the rest of its convoy and sailed toward Seeadler Harbor in the Admiralty Islands. The harbor was located on the north side of Manus Island, which at that moment was a war zone. However, the Mink was busy as ever supplying “various ships and craft.” She started to run low on supplies by the middle of the month, and on April 21st the Mink was on the receiving end of the supply chain when the USS Platte, a Cimmaron-class oiler, transferred 281,060 gallons of diesel, 323,098 gallons of aviation gasoline, and 199 drums of lubricating oil to the smaller tanker. Then it spent the next week dispensing its diesel, gas, and oil to even smaller ships around the harbor. The supply circle continued on and on, round and round. Only victory would end the cycle.

But in spite of the fighting, the Allies maintained solid control of the water and the air, and Seeadler Harbor was safe from encroachment. Safe enough, in fact, that pent-up sailors could go ashore and stretch their legs. “Shore parties now are for recreation, such as swimming and sightseeing,” he wrote on April 19th.

Beyond that, though, the Admiralty Islands were just as bereft of recreation as the Papua Peninsula. “Money is no object out here, you just cannot spend it,” he complained. He apologized for the lack of a birthday card and gift for his father and for not sending Easter cards. He did report to his mother, however, that he had attended Easter services aboard another ship, since there were no churches in the area. Meanwhile, in his letter to Rose, he bemoaned the absence of other types of establishments. “I’m due to go out and raise one-hell of a good time. But how long before I have the opportunity no one knows. Nothing would be better than to go out on a good bender with you.” At the very least, he was all set on cigars for “months.” The ship canteen restocked its supply at one of the ports, while his mother and Shirley Ryder both sent him a box. “Nothing like a good book and a cigar to curl up with,” he mused.

First wave onto Los Negros, Admiralty Islands.
, originally from U.S. Army Center of Military History

If Elmer was in a place where he’d be able to spend money, he would have had a lot more of it to spare. On April 1st, he was advanced to a new rating: Machinist’s Mate 1st class. The promotion meant a $22.50 monthly pay increase. On April 3rd he decided to mail his parents a $75 money order, with the usual direction that it be used to supply any needs unmet by his father’s stochastic work flow. He also asked his dad to buy a gift for himself with the money.

But not only was Elmer in a place where he could not spend money – he could not receive much mail, either. The Mink’s presence in Seeadler Harbor and indeed the very raison d’etre for its existence was so that it could extend America’s supply chain to the far end of the world. The mails faced similar constraints and challenges, and letters seemed to come in only fits and spurts. On the 8th he complained that he could send mail but not receive it, but by the end of the month the situation had improved somewhat. It “made me very happy” when more mail arrived on the 25th, he wrote. But the letters he received were written in March, before his letter announcing that he was OK after his long trans-Pacific crossing had made it back to St. Louis. “[Your] letters of early March made me feel sort of bad, because I know how much you wanted to hear from me, and it was a long time. But your letter of the end of the month made me feel so much better.”

Arial view, ships in Seeadler Harbor, c. 1945. U.S. Navy photo [1] in Chapter XVII: Logistic Support at Seeadler and at Sea – Service Unit at Seeadler–Oilers with the Fast Carrier Group–Ammunition, Smoke, Water, Provisions, Salvage in Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil by Rear Adm. Worrall Reed Carter

Elmer’s letters that month were comparatively sparse – he only wrote six, and they mainly contained family information and gossip. But there is a clue that he may have told his father where he and his ship were located. As mentioned in a previous post, Elmer alluded to a “system” that he and his father developed, possibly to subvert the censoring of information. Anyway, on April 8th he wrote the following for his father: “Sure hard to write when I haven’t any letters to answer at present, I’m on the ‘little end of the horn.'” His remark about “the little end of the horn” is idiomatically similar to “come out on the little end of the horn,” which means “to fail in an undertaking; especially, to fail after one has bragged about a result that promised large returns.” But Elmer’s letter contains no hint of failure – as usual, his writing is breezy, contemplative, and at times ingratiating, but they were almost unfailingly positive. Perhaps he was referring to a musical instrument, like a trumpet or a saxophone, in which he could play music but not hear it. However, he could also be referring to his present position at the end of the crescent-shaped (and vaguely horn-shaped) Bismarck archipelago.

Of course, that is pure speculation . . . but it isn’t as though this is the first blog in history to do that.

The Bismarck Archipelago refers to the islands surrounding the Bismarck Sea, beginning with New Britain and circling counter-clockwise to Manus Island and the other Admiralty Islands.

At the very least, he did offer one direct clue when he remarked that, “You probably have plenty of rain at home. Can’t say that we find it too dry here.”

But, as Grandpa would often say, so much for that.

In addition to his six letters to his parents, he only wrote one to Rose. He had not heard from her since Valentine’s Day and needled her about the lack of correspondence. “A letter would be more than welcome,” he wrote, although he did reiterate the same concerns he had about mail delivery in the South Pacific that he had previously expressed to his parents. “Let me know about the ‘Merry-Go-Round’ or life as it effects [sic] you in Washington . . . after all, you aren’t censored, and you can write me the low-down.”

He seemed ambivalent about their chances, writing at one point that he was glad they had remained “best of friends” despite “some early trials and tribulations,” but then towards the end of the letter he asked her for some additional photos. “Your snapshots are becoming ragged from handling,” he wrote before signing off.

Definitely so much for that.

This post is part of “Grandpa’s Letters,” a blog series that delves into my grandfather Elmer Luckett’s experiences during World War II. It is based on over 500 letters that he wrote during the War, which I inherited from him after he passed. For more information on this series, including a complete list of posts (with links), please visit the Grandpa’s Letters Homepage.

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Happy 100!

Today’s the big day: Grandpa would have turned 100 years old this morning.

Oddly enough, after writing some 40,000 words about my grandpa thus far for this blog, I’m not sure what to say about it. I’m sad that he did not live to see it, but I’m also happy and grateful that he had so many good years on this planet and that he lived long enough to meet his great-granddaughter. I’m thankful for all the time I got to spend with him, for him trusting me to tell his incredible story, and for all of you who have taken an interest in it. I’m relieved that he is no longer in pain, and that he is somewhere out there with Rose.

I guess that’s the thing about birthdays for people who are no longer with us. They are no longer about helping someone celebrate their life, or about being special for one day in a world that most often does not acknowledge that you are the star of your own show. Instead they are about celebrating that person’s memory and the hole their departure leaves in one’s life. Perhaps that makes them more meaningful, since their birthdays now have outsized importance to the people who loved them. And while our departed loved ones are no longer here to blow out the candles, that does not mean the rest of us cannot eat cake.

Anyway, what did grandpa mean to you? For those who knew him, do you have any stories you’d like to share? For those who did not, is there anything about his experiences thus far illustrated in the blog that resonate in particular with you? Please leave a comment below!

And since I’m offering little else of substance today, here is a list of other things that turned 100 this year, including the Nineteenth Amendment, the NFL, and Rubbermaid.

It seems like just yesterday, doesn’t it?

Elmer Luckett playing with his two grandsons sometime in the early 80s.

March 1944: The Filling Station

“It’s been a long voyage . . .in fact, the longest I’ve ever made. And the sight of land will be a pleasure for us all.”

The long voyage across the Pacific took its toll on Elmer and the rest of the crew aboard the Mink. Grandpa spent his time reading “a number of good novels,” but beyond that there was little to do – or little of interest to note. “Wish there was something to write about,” he wrote. “What I would like to write about isn’t permissible, so I have little choice.” But the communication lull worked both ways as well. Elmer did not receive a single letter during the month he was at sea transiting the Pacific Ocean. “I’m going to be glad to hear that all is well at home,” he wrote on the 8th. He had not heard from his parents since leaving Panama on February 7th. He hoped that everything was OK.

The difficulties extended to other areas as well. “We ran out of candy” at the ship store, he lamented at one point. “A hardship for us all. Ha. Ha. [And] my exact brand of soap isn’t accessible, either. So much for that.” Nonetheless, Elmer’s set-up aboard the ship eased the passage of time and distance. “The little conveniences we have aboard help out in the long run.”

On March 11th the Mink anchored in Milne Bay, officially ending its long trip across the Pacific. “Well, it sure felt good to put my feet on solid ground again,” he wrote the next day. “But my happiest joy was to get some mail.” He received seven letters from his parents, five from Shirley, and several more from a variety of other correspondents. However, disappointingly, Elmer did not receive any from Rose.

HMAS Leeuwin berthed at the Marine Wharf in Alotau within Milne Bay. Australian Navy Daily.

Elmer understood that just as he had gone so long without receiving a letter, his parents were also sore to hear from him as well. “I realize at the time I’m writing now you are probably wondering and hoping to hear from me,” he wrote. Unfortunately, there was little he could do – large swaths of New Guinea were still occupied by the enemy, and a telegram home simply was not in the cards. His letter on the 12th would have to do the job of letting his family know that he was safe. “Wish I could tell you where we are now. It is a new place on my list of stops. That’s all I can say about it.”

He might have told them about the paradox that was New Guinea in 1944: a remote island teeming with thousands of Allied and Axis soldiers, sailors, Marines, and flyboys; a damp, cloud-enshrouded jungle pockmarked with bomb craters and spewing clouds of fiery smoke; and a peaceful, sapphire blue ocean brimming with life, including some of the world’s most vivid and important marine biodiversity, yet awash in premature, artificial death. It was not so long ago that New Guinea’s interior was a blank spot on European maps, a place where there be dragons. But then energetic efforts to colonize the island began in the 1880s, and within sixty years dragons of an entirely different sort (specifically the de Havilland DH.84 Dragon) began flying between the colony’s many remote airstrips. By early 1944 it was the center of gravity for the entire Pacific War. Accordingly, Elmer could have also tried to tell his parents about what he knew about the upcoming drive up the New Guinea coast toward the Philippines, and his ship’s role in resupplying vessels and planes with critical deliveries of fuel, aviation gasoline, and lubricant. Instead, he told his mother he would like her to send more cigars and that he was eligible for a Good Conduct Medal.

Map of the last campaign on New Guinea, which consisted of a series of landings along the northern coast.

Elmer was quite busy with this hidden work after the Mink arrived in New Guinea. On the 13th the tanker began sailing toward Lae, where on March 17th the Mink spent the next four days “discharging cargo gasoline and fuel to various YO’s [self-propelled fuel barges], and harbor and district craft.” From March 21st through the 24th it did the same thing in Langemak Harbor, near Finschhafen. Elmer later described the Mink’s role in his oral interview over 70 years later:

After we checked into Milne Bay, we started making short trips around New Guinea. We went up to some ports. I recall the name of Lae, L-A-E, Buna, B-U-N-A, Finschhafen. These were places where they had army bases or air bases and they needed the fuel. But these bases didn’t have the facilities for storing fuel. So we would go up there where they could reach us with a barge. They’d come out with a barge, and they would load the gasoline aboard the barge. Then, they would take off and go back. We more or less played fill-up-the-filling-stations.

Elmer Luckett Oral Interview

Some hints do emerge in his correspondence of how he spent his free time. “We are having a lot of swimming parties and it is about the best and coolest sport for this climate,” he mentioned on March 20th. “Sometimes I take a dip twice a day.” Beyond that, he had “very little” liberty ashore apart from “sightseeing and talking with the servicemen there.” There was plenty of natural sightseeing to do in the region, and Elmer recalled walking around and exploring his surroundings some. He and his crewmates also tried fishing in various bays along the coast, but they did “not [have] much luck.” Beyond that, Milne Bay, Lae, Buna, and other military sites were not built for tourism, but for defeating Japan and for keeping Papua’s provincial capital, Port Moresby, safe. But overall liberty in New Guinea was a far cry from liberty in Hawaii.

Elmer had caught up on over a month’s worth of letters by the 23rd, but within three days he had another bundle to read. Several additional letters from his parents were among them, including at least one with some worrying language from his mother. “Mom dear, you seemed uneasy about me in these last letters,” he wrote, “no doubt because my letters haven’t arrived yet. But when my letters start coming you will pep up, I’m sure.”

Although Elmer once again complained of having nothing to write on the 26th, he was in a reflective mood. “This ship has pretty good duty,” he maintained, “and it’s not bad at all. Of course, I’ll always like a destroyer for a fast and steady duty. But living conditions are so much better on here that I’m rather spoiled now.” He also thought about the beginning of spring back home, and the tropical heat was no doubt a constant and unpleasant reminder that there are places where the seasons never really change. “Well dad, you mentioned the first robin you saw this year. And it sounds good to me, and I wish we could watch the first signs of spring appear together. It is just another thing we have to look forward to. And a sight to behold in a world of peace and security.”

By the end of March the Mink was in Lae, en route to the Admiralty Islands. There was still no word from Rose.

This post is part of “Grandpa’s Letters,” a blog series that delves into my grandfather Elmer Luckett’s experiences during World War II. It is based on over 500 letters that he wrote during the War, which I inherited from him after he passed. For more information on this series, including a complete list of posts (with links), please visit the Grandpa’s Letters Homepage.

April 1944: The Merry-Go-Round

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