July 1945: Pounds and Politics

In the last weeks of the war, Elmer and the Mink spent their days doing what they had been doing for the past fifteen months: slaking the American Navy’s seemingly endless thirst for fuel on the other side of the world. The ship passed a second month that July servicing ships off Morotai, an island that is now part of Indonesia. “No, Dad, our anchor isn’t stuck at this place. We have to move once in awhile or else the tin cans thrown over the side would fence us in. Ha! Ha!”

Although the Mink was no longer traveling around the region, Elmer was in good spirits on the Fourth of July that year. “Here goes again from that man,” he began, in reference to himself. “Seems as if I just finished a letter home and whats-up, but its [sic] time to write again. [It is] a good thing you all love me so much at home, or I’m afraid these letters would grow very boring. Ha! Ha!” He went on to talk about how many of correspondents thought he was “a pretty fair letter writer,” but that “the censor probably thinks different, or at least he gets plenty tired of going over my letters each week. Someone has to take the punishment for my letters, even if the people that receive them don’t complain.” In any case, he joked that a leave rotation would solve everyone’s problems. “Even the censor[‘s.] So much for idle chatter.”

LST’s at BLUE Beach, Morotai in September 1944. Wikicommons.

Yet in spite of his heightened spirits his parents were still going to be parents. His mother grew anxious after Elmer reported losing a few pounds. “Mom at times you’re a problem to me,” he wrote rather harshly on the 8th. “I casually mention that I lost a few pounds in a letter and right away you start worrying. What am I to do with you? I feel fine at all times and eat as much as I desire.” He then tried to explain the cause of his weight loss. “I’ve been in the tropics and heat for a good while and it don’t bother me. It’s only natural that you don’t eat any heavy meals here, mom, that is, all the time you don’t feel like eating a big meal.”

At the very least he was no less skinny than he was before, as he told to his father in that same letter. “I have a pretty good paunch as it is,” he reported. “Trouble with a ship is you are confined to such a small area most of the time, you don’t get enough exercise. You have your work and can keep busy, but really need more exercise. And the tropics aren’t exactly the type climate to inspire a man for exercising. Give me good old Missouri – four seasons – and a temperate climate.”

Elmer did not only discuss his weight with his parents. He and his dad continued to discuss In Fact, with Elmer articulating his own – and alluding to his father’s – political views throughout. That July, in fact, Elmer broached a subject that is still taboo today among many Americans: bigotry and race.

This is a brief, but wonderful documentary short about the Tuskegee Airmen

Historians since the George Floyd Protests began have been rightfully more attuned to biases in not only our nation’s history, but within our own work as well. This extends from our research and reading to what and how we teach our classes. It compels us to think about what antiracism means in our own daily lives, as well as what it means for our professional ones. This process of accountability applies to historical subjects as well, including my grandfather. However, anyone who undertakes the challenge of confronting their own privilege and bias today should be equally willing to witness and acknowledge that process as it plays out in the biographical record. If we are able to cut ourselves any slack after changing our hearts and our beliefs, we should do the same for the people about whom we write.

In that regard, then, my Grandpa is a case study in how Greatest Generation servicemen confronted their privilege in an era before the term had any academic cache. “Did you read the article about race, color, and religious prejudices the Army put out to its men,” he asked his dad on July 1st.

“It sure was good. And today the sermon at church was about being a good neighbor, and loving one[‘s] neighbors as thyself. There is no doubt that anyone prejudices against Jews or colored people or anything else is working against democracy and helping fascism. And at the same time its [sic] against the teaching of Jesus and any true religion. That writer Seldes is O.K. for my money.”

Elmer to his Parents, 1 July 1945

Of course, Elmer had prejudices of his own, the most conspicuous being his resentment toward Japan and Japanese people. His letters, while containing nothing out of the ordinary when compared to other white Naval personnel during the War, contained a torrent of Japanese stereotypes and slurs. He held this image of Japan in his mind possibly until the end of his life. And although he reserved more respect for other Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities, he sometimes commented on their skin, dress, and culture in his letters home.

That being said, Seldes’s columns were not universally embraced, and not everyone took them to heart as much as Elmer did. The American Armed Forces, despite a prohibition against discrimination by the Selective Service Act, were racially segregated during World War II. Even though Black units like the Tuskegee Airmen were well known for their bravery and skill, and less-famous units were instrumental in carrying out the D-Day Invasion and other critical tasks, their exploits did not translate into better rights for their families at home, or for their own rights upon their return. Within the branches themselves, many whites still treated people of color as second-class servicemen. The Roosevelt Administration and the Military attempted to combat some of these prejudices by writing and distributing pamphlets like the one Elmer apparently read while in Morotai, and by circulating training manuals. In many ways this was a prelude to President Truman’s decision to issue Executive Order 9981 almost exactly three years later, which desegregated the Armed Forces. While that decision shocked many whites, particularly Southerners in Truman’s own Democratic Party, the Army was clearly ahead of the curve in at least trying to anticipate the logistical and cultural effects of desegregation.

This is the first page of “Command of Negro Troops,” a training pamphlet released by the War Department in 1944. Although the text is riddled with bias and racist logic, it represents an attempt by the Army brass to ameliorate some of the pressures and injustices facing their Black soldiers. You can read the entire thing at the FDR Library.

This systemic segregation persisted, however, and was entrenched within military culture. This was evident on Elmer’s ships, where in the United States Navy African-Americans could only serve as stewards or mess attendants. On the Chew, for instance, Elmer served with a handful of stewards who were born and raised in Guam.* But by 1944, he and the rest of his crew no doubt had a great deal of contact with various other people from across Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, which may have introduced opportunities for Elmer to broaden the diversity of his social network.

In his Fourth of July letter, Elmer continued to talk politics, this time in the context of America’s democratic experiment.

“A lot has happened since the Declaration of Independence. A number of wars and much bloodshed to keep that declaration. And I think the country has gone a long way toward making it a real Declaration of Independence. All men created equal, and other individual rights were [a long] time in coming. Took almost a hundred years to finish slavery and when manufacturing developed more the working man was busy trying to get decent hours, wages, and working conditions. Yet it has been improving with the years and it is the best deal yet. Our country isn’t perfect, but it has the best chance of becoming as near perfect as possible, if the people want it that way. So much for that, I’ll be giving a speech soon.”

Elmer to his Parents, 4 July 1945

Afterwards, he mentioned that Harry Scott wrote him to let Elmer know he was also a fan of Seldes’s columns. “Glad he likes the paper,” Elmer noted, in reference to In Fact. “I think it is a good little news sheet.”

Elmer’s passion for politics brought him closer to his dad. It probably helped bring him closer to Rose as well, since she was also not afraid to express her opinion. “And you think another left hook from Rose will put me down for the count,” he told his dad. “She is the girl that can do it” However, he was no longer reserved in his letters about sharing his feelings about his blossoming romance. “Yes, mom, if I were [to] fall for a girl it is Rose,” he wrote on the 15th. “Someday she may be a new daughter for you. I’ve never asked a girl to wait for me before, but I did ask Rose to wait. I love her, Mom, and that’s all I can say.” He was thinking about finishing school, and he reiterated that “until this war is over and I get re-established we are just sweethearts.” But the decision had been made.

* I plan on researching these men over the next year and adding their story to those of Grandpa’s crew mates on the Chew.

June 1945: Hooked

A month after V-E Day, it was business as usual in the Pacific. The work to defeat Japan continued unabated, isolated from the celebrations and culminations unfolding a continent away in Europe. However, there were some signs that the final act was approaching. After three months of brutal, harrowing fighting on Okinawa, the Americans declared the island secure on June 22. “Okinawa is secure now,” he wrote on the 24th. “The Japs are taking a bigger beating every day, and here’s hoping it won’t be long now.”

Apart from Okinawa, there was little else that Elmer could say that month, either due to the censors or, more likely, the absence of anything noteworthy happening aboard the ship. There was news, however, both from the States and from Elmer himself.

The first piece of news was surprising, but not unwelcome: Shirley Ryder was engaged to a school teacher. “The girl didn’t waste any time,” he mused. He had heard the news from Bud Tanner, who was a mutual friend. “It is probably true,” he added, “because she mentioned having dates with a high school teacher at times. I never hear from her anymore.” Nonetheless, “I’m glad I told her not to regard our relationship too seriously. Maybe she was looking for an opportunity to say the same to me. I’m glad she is engaged and happy.” The news also seemed to validate Elmer’s approach to wartime courtship. “Evidently she was fond of this teacher all along. And it all goes to show I’m right in not getting too serious about any girls while I’m out here. It just don’t pay to take a chance.”

Shirley and “the school teacher,” Harry J. Prentis, who eventually became an administrator for Detroit Public Schools. Despite getting engaged so soon after breaking up with Elmer, the couple had a happy ending: in 2015 they celebrated their 70th anniversary with their three children, four grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Source: Hometownlife.com

Elmer then immediately turned his attention toward his current sweetheart. “Now with Rose, I think very much of her and think she is a sweet girl, but it would be foolish to get serious over it. Seems girls are all so impatient over and wanting to get engaged or married.” Elmer then recognized his own privilege to take his time making a decision: “I’m glad I’m a man, I’m not afraid of losing my charm before someone will have me. The longer I stay single the better chance I have of getting hooked. And this boy wants to have a little fun before he settles down.”

Elmer’s letter of the 24th went into a little more detail, and also stated more clearly his growing attachment to Rose:

“Mom, Shirley never said anything about us splitting up. Seems I never was sure about her and I didn’t want any hard feelings if I decided different later. And Rose was always writing me regular, I just felt she (Rose) was the right one. So after I wrote Shirley not to get serious, she answered back we should forget about it. I’m glad she is engaged to the teacher, that makes everybody happy. As far as getting a girl, I know several times I could have been hooked by a girl. But I wasn’t interested, too young and not ready. In my mind Rose is the finest girl I have ever considered for a sweetheart. And when the war is over and I get settled in again – if Rose is willing, she is my choice of the right girl.”

Elmer to his Parents, 24 June 1944

In short, Elmer had finally made his choice. “Maybe this will clear things up for you Mom,” he wrote a few lines later, perhaps unaware that he had not really been forthright about his intentions when writing to his mother until that moment. Only a few weeks earlier Elmer was telling his parents that he wanted to sow his wild oats after the war. Yet his breakup with Shirley probably communicated on some level to Elmer that while it might be convenient to string a line of eligible bachelorettes along until after the end of the War, there was always the possibility of a girl he really liked tiring of his behavior and moving on to someone else. Apparently he was willing to risk his relationship with Shirley in this way, but not with Rose.

While most World War II sailors had cause to be “really afraid” at one point or another, Dark Waters was one of the movies screened aboard the Mink in the summer of 1945.

Elmer’s letters – and Rose’s – comment directly on the state of their relationship, and on both fared individually during the war. They contain less information about his parents, however, since Elmer did not save any of their letters. However, they do contain some useful clues, as when Elmer reports that “Aunt Frieda told me to scold you Mom for standing her and the Davissons up when you were to go see Joan Meyer dance at high school.” While his aunt was clearly upset with her sister for not making the trip, Elmer suspected that her declining health might have been the cause. “I won’t scold you hard, mom, I guess you didn’t feel like going. Hope you were feeling OK anyway.” His mother also worried about whether or not Rose would like her. “Don’t worry [about it],” he wrote, noting that his other girlfriends enjoyed her company. “Jo Ann still asks about my sweet mother in her letters. She liked you a lot. Anyway, if they don’t like you or Dad they can forget me.” Meanwhile, Elmer commented more favorably about his father’s health. “June Tanner mentioned seeing you Dad – said you looked fine Skipper. Same good looking Dad of mine.” But he still worried. “I see you’re keeping busy, Dad” he noted on the 20th. “Plenty of rain now, so you keep working inside. It will be hot as blazes soon back home and I want you to take care of yourself.”

On the Mink, conditions were improving a bit. Beginning in April, the ship’s mess had managed to acquire a large enough supplier of eggs and butter to feed the crew an American-style breakfast twice a week. “Started off this morning with a good breakfast,” Elmer wrote on the 3rd. “Fresh fried eggs, bacon, pineapple juice and coffee, also toast and butter. Butter and eggs aren’t always available, but the last couple of months we’ve done pretty good with fresh eggs.” Whenever there were no eggs to be had, they could at least eat the hens. “We had fried chicken tonight,” he wrote on June 10th, “and ice cream for dessert.”

Elmer saw the Mink in a new light now as he familiarized himself with the rigors – and the benefits – of his CPO rank. On June 6 he spent some time discussing his new role. “Monday I took a group of the crew ashore for a recreational liberty. A chief is always put in charge of these parties,” he explained, “and we all take turns taking a group over each day.” In addition to that, “I don’t have to stand auxiliary watches in port anymore. But I have other jobs seeing that everything is running O.K. . . . I still have my watches to stand in the engine room when we are underway at sea.” On the 27th, Elmer joked about needing to take a shower after a long day at work in the engine room. “Got pretty dirty working around this morning. But even a chief [has to do] some work. Ha! Ha!”

Another picture of Elmer wearing his “Hand Me Down” CPO uniform. Luckett family collection.

Although Elmer’s days were filled with new responsibilities, his evenings presented more opportunities for relaxation and recreation. “Friday evening most of our gang of chiefs went to the CPO Club ashore,” he wrote on the 10th. “Had a nice time drinking a few beers and playing records on a phonograph. And it is nice to spend one or two evenings a week just shooting the breeze over a beer at the club.” Elmer was even impressed with the club’s furniture. “The stainless steel bar they have . . . is really nice, they handle the beer at the bar but the chiefs sit around at tables, no bar seats.” His letters this month also give us a sense of how his parents responded to the news of his promotion. “So you dashed over to Irene’s in the rain [to tell her the news]. I though you would spread the good word.”

Fortunately for Elmer’s mother, and for America, the rainy days were almost over, at least for the time being.

May 1945: Advancements

V-E Day did not bring the war to an end for the Allies in the Pacific Theater. But Germany’s surrender brought a sense of relief and joy, as well as a wave of sadness and mourning for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost their lives in western Europe, northern Africa, and the icy North Atlantic. “Well, folks, you have all heard the news and it is officially over in Europe,” Elmer wrote on May 9th, a day after Germany unconditionally surrendered. “We all knew it was going to happen, yet it comes as a big relief to know that Germany is out. And may God grant us a speedy victory over the Japs. It must not feel good to be a Jap, knowing the whole world is against you.” Elmer was pleased that the first, though not the “official,” instrument of surrender was signed on May 7th. “A very nice [birthday] present for me,” he wrote to his parents. “I couldn’t ask for much more.” Neither could President Truman, who was born on May 8th.

Elmer’s birthday talk that year reflected his improved morale. “At least we are making progress towards getting home,” he wrote on the 6th. “Each year I say, let’s hope next year we can be together for the occasion. It’s been a long time but I still have my faith – and endurance. So let’s hope again for next year.” He was even hopeful about being able to go home that year, at least once his 18 months at sea were up. At that point he would be eligible for rotational leave. “At least we know our time is put in,” he wrote after listing a litany of reasons why he might not go home until later that year or 1946, “and we are line to go back as soon as possible.”

V-E Day in Times Square. Corbis. From History.com.

Later in the month, Elmer reflected on his situation over the past few years, and concluded that the light was visible at the end of what had been an extraordinarily long tunnel. “I’ve been away and out here to much to let a little lonesomeness bother me,” he wrote on the 27th. “Because the end is in sight and it won’t be much longer. The days of 1942, ’43, and ’44 were much harder. We have the happier days to look forward to.” As reassuring as these words must have been to his parents, they must have also wondered just how much worse the earlier years had been, given how reluctant Elmer was to reveal his true mood to his parents. Then again, had Elmer “kicked” more about his circumstances in his letters home, his parents would have fared worse as a result – and he knew it. Parents don’t forfeit their parenthood when they send their sons and daughters off to war, but they lose most of their ability to act on their children’s behalf. For whatever criticisms one might have about Elmer’s almost cad-like writing habits toward his various romantic pen pals, he was a dutiful and loving son.

Elmer’s letters that May provide additional insight into both his reading habits and his political philosophy. “Dad,” he wrote on the 11th, “I sent in a subscription to a weekly newspaper called ‘In Fact.’ I also put in a subscription for you and Harry Scott. You should get it soon – let me know.” In Fact’s slogan, “An antidote for falsehood in the Daily Press,” reflected the career and reputation of its publisher, the well-known muckraker and rogue reporter George Seldes. The news sheet filled a gaping hole in the American information economy: the absence of an established, patriotic journalistic voice who nonetheless refused to echo government (or enemy) propaganda. Elmer, like many Americans both in the service and at home, enthusiastically supported the war effort while yet remaining skeptical of the now-censored press and wary of cherry-picked reports of Allied progress overseas. Seldes believed that Americans could handle the full, unvarnished truth. “I ran across the paper out here; rather a shipmate called my attention to it . . . I think it has a lot of good dope, maybe you will agree. Anyway, this fellow Seldes backs up all his news with facts and its good.”

In Fact was an “antidote to falsehood,” but it was also notable for its stance against fascism. From Archive.org.

Elmer also started to warm to his new Commander-in-Chief. “Yes, Dad, Truman may make a good President,” he wrote on the 11th. “I believe in giving him a chance.” Of course, he and millions of others continued to mourn FDR. “Losing Roosevelt was a great loss, you and I agree he was a great man.” But with the war nearly won, it was time to look towards the future, and Elmer understood – as Truman did – that America’s leadership would be even more critical in the months and years to follow. “Let’s pray that the world’s great powers can work in harmony and establish a league or something to maintain peace in this world.”

While Elmer’s support of Truman was still somewhat guarded, he was far less restrained now when discussing Rose with his parents. No longer just another romantic pen pal, his letters devoted more space to her than they have towards any woman since, and possibly including, Pat. “I did get two lovely letters from Rose,” he pined on the 16th. “She is such a sweet girl; writes the best letters of any girl that ever wrote me. Sensible and intelligent.” He continued piling on the compliments, and even noted the deal that they had made: she would not cut her hair, which he liked long, in exchange for him not shaving his mustache. “That will be easy,” he added, “because that’s your same wish Mom.” A few days later he was more self-reflective. “Mom I believe I always thought most of Rose even when I went with Shirley,” he admitted, perhaps more to himself than anyone.

He related how he recently revealed one of his romantic secrets to his new girlfriend when she told him how bad she felt about not being in St. Louis for the recent birth of a nephew, who then died only a few days later. The entire family was crushed, and with three of her brothers away fighting overseas she felt guilty about not being there. “I told Rose she was the only girl I had a picture of on my bureau at home. And how you had to watch and put it away in case another girl called. She got a good laugh out of it.” He then asked his mother to keep it there, regardless of who called on them. “You’re safe now, mom.” For her part, his mother tried to alleviate the pressure somewhat, perhaps sensing that her son was finally lovestruck and did not need any additional prompting. “Well mom, if I’m not [really] a bachelor until I’m 30, [then] I’ve got a good way to go yet. Ha! Ha!” While Elmer discussed his feelings with his mother, he tried to rationalize his changing views when talking to his father. “Guess Dad is right,” he offered on the 23rd, “I need not worry about some gal hooking me. There will be plenty of women to extra women to go around after the war. And I have my Rose waiting, and my best girl will always be at home.”

Elmer’s growing commitment to Rose did not only affect his letters home to his parents. Even after his breakup with Shirley Elmer still had an extensive collection of written wartime romances, some of which had likely not yet been concluded. This could theoretically complicate matters with Rose, as when one of his flames, Hettie Jean, moved to Washington D.C. to start a new civil service job. “I don’t suppose Rose or Hettie Jean will meet each other in Washington,” he wondered. “I’m not worried about it.”

Elmer wearing a Chief’s khakis. Luckett family photo.

Rose was not the only one to receive a promotion that month. Elmer received some unexpected news that May: he earned an advancement to Chief Machinist Mate. He was now a Chief Petty Officer, and would finish the war – and his service – with that rank. However, he was not able to tell his parents about it until the end of May. Here is his explanation why:

There is a little story to the deal. Our ship already had its quota for CMMs, and my rate had to go through a lot of official channels before they could advance me. Last March I took my exam for chief and made a 3.8 score. Very good! And in April the Chief Engineer sent a letter out with the Captain’s recommendation for my advancement. In April I just finished one year as MM1/c, but in most cases you must be MM1/c for eighteen months before being advanced to chief. But my record was very good, good marks all along, and I have quite a bit of sea duty, so the Engineering Officer and Captain thought I was an exception to the rule and recommended me . . . It took quite awhile for any action on the letter they sent in, but Monday my rate came in approved . . . and that’s my good news.

Elmer to his Parents, 30 May 1945

Being a Chief Petty Officer had its privileges. “My pay jumps $15 a month,” he wrote, “and I get a $250 clothing allowance for my new type uniforms. Of course while I’m out here I won’t need anything but a couple of hats and some khaki or grey shirts and trousers.” He planned on getting a blue uniform in the states, and in the meantime keeping “about one hundred and fifty aboard shop in case I ever get a leave.” His pay that month, with the clothing allowance, was $346. “Nice piece of cash,” he remarked.

Elmer and his pals on the Mink. The man on the front left may be holding a Japanese skull. Elmer referenced this when he mentions in his 5/23/1945 letter that “several fellows got some skulls at one spot we were at, but I didn’t care to mess with one.” Luckett family photo.

Apart from the pay, there were other fringe benefits, like being able to visit the CPO club on the beach. “Last night I went over with our chiefs and did some celebrating. They have a nice bar and tables around and you can enjoy drinking your beer. The prestige and privileges of a chief aren’t hard to take.” They were also exclusive: in order to get into the club, he had to borrow some khakis and a hat from his crew-mates. One privilege that didn’t require dressing up was him being able to sleep in an extra half hour each morning. “7:30 instead of 7:00,” he wrote. “So much for that.”

Elmer was not the only one passing out cigars: another one of his buddies made chief that month as well, and his close friend Lloyd Hill did so in April. “We have eleven chiefs aboard now,” he remarked. “Pretty good bunch of fellows.” Meanwhile, as the number of chiefs aboard swelled aboard the Mink, the Pacific overall seemed to be more crowded all of a sudden, especially with Germany’s collapse and the impending push to finish the job in Japan. “Got a card from Warrant Machinist Damian, he’s the former chief that wrote me from Florida (on the Chew you remember),” Elmer wrote as he closed his letter of the 11th. “He is in the Pacific now and I’m on the lookout for him. All the people I know out here – surely I should meet someone soon. Ha! Ha!” He would get his wish . . . by the end of the summer Elmer would end up hanging out on the other side of the world with someone whose travels intersected with his own: his future brother-in-law.

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April 1945: Warm Springs Eternal

Elmer began his Easter Sunday letter on April 1st, 1945 complaining that dehydrated eggs could not resurrect themselves into a hard-boiled form. “The hard-shell variety of ‘hen fruit’ has been rather rare aboard ship,” Elmer noted. “But when a few are available they sure hit the spot.” Yet it was not the absence of eggs alone that made the holiday lose its luster. “In short, no eggs, no rabbit, no new suit, no folks to be with, no Easter. But I’m in good health and I feel that you are all the same back home, so we can’t complain.”

The Mink left Mios Woendi almost as quickly as it arrived, and it once again hit the waves. The tanker largely ping-ponged around the Pacific at this point, supporting vessels in various ports of call recently reclaimed from the Japanese Empire. All that running around put a chokehold on the mail, which was already facing obstacles on its journey from the United States to the Pacific Theater. “I hope there is some mail coming along soon,” Elmer wrote on the 1st. “The tempo of war on all fronts has stepped up, and no doubt means of conveying our mail has been diverted to more essential needs. And due to our moving around other delays occur through redirecting and re-routing our mail. But I believe,” he added, “[that] they do their best under the circumstances.”

Grandpa had to wait for his mail, but he didn’t wait as long as others did. As it turns out, Elmer enjoyed expedited service since he paid for air mail. “Finally got [cousin] Bob’s letter,” he complained on April 22. “It was mailed in December.” Elmer blamed the slowness of the free “sailor mail” service, which provided mail service free-of-charge to American Naval personnel. “Free letters from servicemen out here take ages,” he explained. Naturally, it was a good thing that Elmer could afford such a service, but no doubt many men and women with families back home could not. “So I must tell Bob to use air mail only,” he sighed. “Sure glad his letter finally reached me.”

An American tank in Hamburg, 4 May 1945. The American attack began on April 18th. Incidentally, Elmer’s Aunt Frieda (Bob’s mother) was born in Hamburg on July 6, 1879.

For all the delays Elmer and his parents experienced with respect to the mail, he did not have to wait long to find out what his folks thought about his breakup. His mother was clearly disappointed, and apparently blamed herself for their separation. “Mom, dear, what am I going to do with you?” he wrote on the 8th. “Just because I wrote Shirley and expressed my views and my true feelings you start to think it is because I am afraid you don’t want me to marry. Mom, next month I will be twenty five years old, and you shouldn’t forget it.” Like a lot of unmarried adult children who field unsolicited questions from their parents about their domestic intentions, Elmer asserted that the matter was his to decide. “When I decide to get married and I probably will someday I hope my choice of a bride is favorable to you and Dad. But you should know when a person is really in love with another . . . no one’s opinion, not even the best folks in the world, is apt to change things.”

After reiterating much of what he had been saying for the past four years, he reminded his mom that she was off the hook for Shirley’s decision to break things off:

“I really didn’t know Shirley that well. And if she waited around until the war was over I would naturally assume an obligation. You know the old story, she waits around during her young years and I return with my mind changed – so I’m a heel. To avoid any misunderstanding I wrote my sentiments on the subject. Shirley don’t agree with me evidently. And mom, don’t worry about me on that account. I’ll get along o.k. You’re still my best girl. Keep that chin up for me.”

Elmer to his Parents, 8 April 1945

Rose, meanwhile, continued to write him in spite of his sentiments on the subject of marriage. “I usually write Rose once a week,” he noted to his folks, “sometimes twice. She is a sweet girl. Said she is practicing on my favorite meals, so she could fix me a super meal when I get home. I told her I like stewed chicken dumplings and stuffed green peppers.” He apologized for not introducing them to Rose when he had the chance. “I’m sorry I never got Rose to the house so you and Dad could meet her. She wants to meet you all when the opportunity is available. So much for my latest heart throb.”

Like most of his early-1945 correspondence to his parents, Elmer is largely catching up with family business, trying to console his mother over not being engaged yet, and trying to find new things to write about. But by now the novelty of Navy life was clearly gone. His sentences were shorter and more abrupt than in 1941. He also started to regularly omit the subject pronouns in his sentences (a phenomenon known as “conversational deletion”), which was an infrequent occurrence in his earlier writing. Linguist Andrew Weir argued in 2012 that this tendency (which he calls “left-edged deletion”) pops up more often in personal or intimate writings, including diaries and journals. This suggests that Elmer started viewing his letters to his parents less formally, as a pro forma exercise in keeping regular contact, as opposed to a medium for recording his thoughts and experiences. “Nothing new to speak of,” he wrote on April 8th. “Regular routine at sea. I’m on the 4-8 watch again, my favorite. Take care of yourselves and keep those chins up. Must write Rose a few lines today.” Maybe he finally reached the point where he really didn’t have anything new to say, after all.

Fortunately, current events would soon provide enough fodder for Elmer to sustain himself as he wrote his dispatches home. On Sunday, April 15th, Elmer attended church services on the beach. “Unusual for me to attend services on land,” he wrote, but like many other Americans across the world that morning Elmer had some things on his mind. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had only recently celebrated his fourth Inauguration, passed away at his “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia just three days earlier. Although many Americans today are familiar with FDR’s health troubles, the President took great pains to project an image of vitality and vigor to the nation as it fought a Depression and then a World War. Rarely seen publicly in a wheelchair and only 63 years old, his sudden death stunned millions of Americans on the eve of their hard-won but seemingly inevitable victory over Germany. “All over flags were flying at half-staff in respect to the death of our Commander in Chief and President,” Elmer wrote later that Sunday. “It was a shock to the world when the news was given out. I just couldn’t believe it at first.”

Newspapers across the country expressed shock over the President’s sudden death, as the San Francisco Chronicle does on this front page headline after the news broke.

Elmer continued to reflect on the news. “He will go down in history as one of our greatest leaders, Dad. God knows I wish he could have been here to see our victory and help make the peace. Because our victory can’t be far off and at least he knew it too.” Although Elmer was from St. Louis, he was not familiar with the former Senator from Missouri and Vice President who suddenly inherited the highest office in the land. “I don’t know much about Truman,” he explained, “he has such a big job and responsibility to take over. May God give him the wisdom to carry on in our great leader’s foot-steps. My trust is still in God and that He will show His light and guidance to the man who will make our peace. May it be everlasting.” That trust had yet to be earned, however, at least according to Elmer’s letter a week later. “The Russians are entering Berlin now and let’s hope this will wind up the European mess soon. Sure wish F.D.R. was still running things but let’s all hope all will work out O.K.”

As it turns out, things worked out fine. “Well today has been confusing to say the least,” he wrote at the top of his letter of April 28th. “No doubt at home you are experiencing the same sensation. All sorts of news on Germany’s surrender, or reports to that effect have been coming in. But no official confirmation has been given by our capitol. I sure hope the Germans have given an unconditional surrender. But the fact remains Germany is licked without a doubt.”

Even Hitler knew by this point that all was lost. He shot himself two days later.

President Harry S Truman’s task in winning the European war was largely a fait accompli by the time FDR passed away. But he would have some decisions to make over the next few months as the American war machine turned its full attention towards Japan. Meanwhile, somewhere in the Pacific, another man from Missouri would have some decisions of his own to make as the Pacific War came to a climax. As Rose continued writing her letters, would Elmer assume an “obligation” to her once the War ended, or would he start to change his tune after four years of proud bachelorhood? He would not have much time to figure it out.

Image result for text break symbol glyph

Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave so much of himself, and bravely fought through some tremendous physical battles, while serving his country. So too did Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away this past Friday. Her loss leaves a hole that will be impossible to fill, but her legacy as a champion of gender equality and as a legal, political, and even cultural leader will endure and echo for years to come. Today she gets the last word:

“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” – RBG

March 1945: Splitsville

“Thanks for the Memory” (1938) was one of the most iconic breakup songs of the WWII generation . . . it even won the Oscar for “Best Original Song”

If Elmer’s life during World War II was a season of The Bachelor, Shirley would have been one of the first contestants and probably the odds-on favorite for a marriage proposal at the end. But in the spring of 1945, Elmer’s main squeeze took herself out of the running. “Shirley and I are practically split up now,” he wrote rather abruptly on the 7th. “Perhaps I better explain the situation more thoroughly.”

The “situation” actually wasn’t that complicated: Elmer told Shirley, probably not for the first time, that he did not want to be exclusive. But Shirley, perhaps sensing that the end of the war was approaching, while also realizing that the last several years of courtship were not bringing the two any closer together, decided to break things off. Elmer was surprised by, though not necessarily broken up over, the news. “[We] never had a definite understanding between us,” he protested. “While I was home and saw her it was dates and a good time. She knew my intentions were not to marry anyone until after the war (this wasn’t meant just for her – it came up in conversation).” He further explained that he told her about his other romantic flings and pen pals, which based on previous letters probably did not come as much of a surprise to Shirley. But the sentence that might have cut the most, and was likely left unsaid over the past several years, was a buried lede: “To be fair with Shirley I wanted her to know that she meant very much to me and I liked her but just what I intended to do after the war was indefinite. In short, I didn’t want her to assume we would get engaged, married, or even go steady . . . but I was still willing to write her sweet letters for sweet letters, and after the war we would see what developed.”

Needless to say, this did not go over well. “Evidently Shirley felt hurt about it and didn’t think the same as I do. She said beings I didn’t want any obligations, and would be happier without any, perhaps we should forget each other.” Elmer seemed glad that, like with Pat a few years earlier, he was able to avoid dumping her. “I’m glad she thought it out and decided what she wanted.” He then essentially admitted that he was being unfair. “I admit my offer is selfish and and didn’t sound like I think much of her, but I’d sooner she know that now. I don’t expect any girl to wait around for me, and on my terms I guess they would be foolish to do so. Ha! Ha!”

Elmer’s letters to Rose sent mixed messages, suggesting that he wanted Rose to avoid dating other men while yet refusing to commit on his own.

The problem, though, is that if Elmer’s letters to Shirley were even remotely similar to those he sent to Rose, then one could not blame her for reading between the lines. Here’s one passage he wrote to Rose on November 21st, 1944:

“I feel at a disadvantage when it comes to expressing myself with pen and paper. My presence in your company would be a marvelous solution. But very impractical and highly impossible for some time. My problem, therefore, is to hold your interest (at 10,000 miles or so) and keep your mind off all the attractive males you must come in contact with time and time again. Yet, somehow, I feel that our memories of a wonderful past together carry weight in the matter. If only I could reaffirm myself your standing dear. Perhaps this separation, in its lonesome and trying way, is creating a better understanding. I sincerely hope so darling.”

Elmer to Rose, 21 November 1944

Throughout 1944 and into 1945, Elmer wrote his parents twice and Shirley at least once a week. He did not commit to writing Rose once a week until the fall of 1944, and even then Elmer made it known to his parents that his letters Shirley were his highest priority. But his letters to Rose are stacked with references to reconnecting after the war and to seeing where things go during peacetime. He is careful not to make any explicit promises, but we must remember that in 1945 sailors were only rarely able to telephone their loved ones. There was no email, no texts, no emojis, and certainly no Facebook relationship status. As anyone who has ever been in love can imagine, those early stages of a relationship are filled with a lot of recreational reading between the lines, and for couples during WWII the only way to do that across a long distance was to read and reread the letters they received from their sweetheart. Elmer probably felt – in fact, I’m positive that he genuinely believed – that his disclaimers were enough to signal his lack of interest in committing to any one woman during the war. But the “sweet letters” he sent mixed the message.

It is also important to remember the social context of courtship during World War II. Men and women both put their lives on hold for several years as they worked and sacrificed their way toward victory. An unmarried woman Elmer’s age when the war started would have been 25 when it ended. Although there is nothing (or rather there should be nothing) unusual about that today, in 1940 the median age of first marriage for women was 21.5, while for men it was 24.3. In other words, once the war was over, Elmer was only beginning to reach the point in his life where the crescendo of social pressure for him to marry would begin to build to intolerable levels. Rose, meanwhile, regularly referred to herself in 1944 as being “old,” despite being six months younger than Elmer.

This social pressure, when coupled with lingering economic insecurity from the Great Depression and the simple fact that hundreds of thousands of marriageable men would die in the War, took its toll on Elmer’s romantic pen pals. Rose likely succeeded in ameliorating that pressure somewhat when she moved (escaped?) to Washington, D.C. to begin her Navy Department job, and since there was no reason for her to believe that Elmer would not return to St. Louis after the war her prospects for a more permanent relationship were good. But Shirley, who by 1944 was living in Michigan and writing letters to her sailor sweetheart for several years at that point, wanted a more definite outcome. Once it became clear that their future was muddled at best, she cut bait.

The “129 Ways To Get a Husband” article from a 1958 issue of McCalls has become something of a meme in recent months, but it does speak to a broader truth: that young American women faced enormous social, economic, political, and cultural pressure to find a husband.

Meanwhile, Elmer’s own future became somewhat clearer, if for no other reason than through the process of elimination. “Rose has been very attentive to me in her letters, so I’ll still be busy writing her,” he wrote on the 7th. But then a couple of weeks later his tone changed. “I must write Rose this afternoon,” he announced on the 21st. “She is my ‘heart-throb’ now.” He added that he still planned on going to university and being a bachelor while in school, since single college students “have more fun.” However, Elmer began to see his future, as well as his past, through Rose-colored glasses. With just the slightest bit of hesitation, he told his parents that he didn’t “want to become infatuated with a girl, at least not seriously.” At this point, it seems, his infatuation – and his growing affection – for Rose were a foregone conclusion. It just wasn’t serious.

Yet.

[Note: I have started writing a follow-up to this, entitled “A Post about Shirley.” Like I did with Pat, I tracked down Shirley and will provide a write-up about her and her life. Spoiler alert: Shirley, like Pat, had a “happy ending” after she broke things off with Elmer.]

The American wartime press salivated over MacArthur’s career, which was both intrinsically inspiring and cultivated to maximize propaganda value. This image of MacArthur on the cover of Destiny magazine in 1942 embodies the image that journalists often exhibited to Americans.

Romantic drama notwithstanding, March was uneventful aboard and around the Mink. The soupy tropical air was just as hot and stifling as it was February, and like the previous month no fresh dangers from the air or the sea confronted the crew. Most of the news was happening elsewhere, even if it was somewhat distorted by the intense gravitational pull that men like Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur had on the American media: “Well, dad, I read what you had to say about Doug MacArthur,” Elmer replied on the 11th.

“The opinion [about General MacArthur] seems to be much the same wherever I’ve been around. A favorite nickname for him out here is ‘I Love a Parade MacArthur.’ Most people can’t help but admit he has been a great and capable general. He has proven that, it just seems like his name and words are the only force here in the Pacific according to the news. I agree that the Navy gets very little publicity compared to the Army. But the Navy is much harder on censorship I believe.”

Elmer to his Parents, 11 March 1945

Nevertheless, in spite of all the positive press being heaped upon the nation’s military leaders, the reports were indeed good. American troops crossed the Rhine on March 7th, and by the end of the month Iwo Jima was officially secure. There was also some good news on the Mink: Elmer’s initial $10 stake in the ship’s canteen had grown into a $31 share, tripling his original investment. The candy, cigars, and toiletries practically sold themselves.

While the men aboard the Mink did not have too many shore adventures in March, they did enjoy some changes of scenery. On the 15th the oiler sailed back to Leyte Island, where it refueled ships for the next several days. Then it departed again in order to return to the Dutch East Indies. On the morning of March 31st, the Mink anchored in Mios Woendi, an island south of Biak that was barely larger than the National Mall. It was not much of an improvement, but at least it was something different.

Even though the Mink would not see any more hostile action for the duration of the conflict, its service would not end until the war did. And in the meantime, the sea would be its home – and Elmer’s.

Sandpaper Skies and Climate Change

Hi folks,
I just wanted to post a quick update on the fires up here, since people have been asking us all week about it . . .

First of all, we are OK. We’re tired of all the smoke, and all I want to do is go on a bike ride on a clear morning . . . but we are far from the flames, and for that we are extraordinarily grateful.

Secondly, although we are OK, a lot of people are not. The wildfires have already claimed several lives, and there is no telling what the long-term health effects will be for people in this state who have to work outside every day (e.g., people like my dad before he retired), breathing in toxic air and in some cases ash and burnt bits of grass and pine needles. I don’t get political on here too often, but please understand that climate change is real. We are the canary in the gold mine, and most (though certainly not all) of us in the Golden State feel in our bones that these megafires are only going to get bigger and consume more acreage, more towns, and more lives in the future. Although we are sad about the unfolding disaster now, we are even more distressed by what next year will bring, and the year after that.

I don’t have any solutions for this – I’m a historian, after all, and not a climatologist – but I do hope that we will collectively begin to take this more seriously. It is a more serious issue, frankly, than what most people on the left or the right have been obsessing over in recent months and years. This is our number one long-term threat, period. It will affect everyone and everything you and I care about and love, and most often in a negative way. So, I hope that we use this as a reason to begin making decisions, from the grocery store to the car dealership to the ballot box, that mitigate these dangers and buy our civilization the time it needs to engineer the total war response this problem deserves.

Our backyard about ten minutes ago. We haven’t had a blue sky here in Orangevale in over two weeks.

I love California. Where else in America can you visit a warm, sun-kissed beach in the morning and then drive to the mountains for some afternoon skiing? But this place that I’ve grown to love and think of as home is in real, existential danger. And if these massive fires don’t ring any alarm bells, then what will?

For now, at least, if you’re able and willing to lend a hand or donate some money to the dozens of communities under the gun right now, here is a great list of resources. Please do what you can. And remember: most of the towns that are most dramatically affected by these fires aren’t the large coastal urban centers, but small towns in outlying areas. Farming and logging communities are particularly prone to fire dangers, and although their work is essential to the American economy, they don’t have a lot of resources to rebuild on their own. Every little bit helps.

Anyway, I’ll jump off the soapbox for now . . . I’ve already written and scheduled Monday’s post on March 1945, and it’s a real doozy, so keep an eye out for that.

In the meantime, thanks as always for taking the time to read whatever I feel like writing on here. I appreciate all of you.

– Matt

February 1945: Mail Call

“Your boy is growing a bit weary of this mess. In fact, he’s damn tired of it.”

The four years and counting of active service were beginning to take their toll on Elmer, who started to lose his trademark optimism and buoyancy in his letters home. “I sure hope to get home sometime this year,” he wrote on February 21st. “Better still, if this war can end before next year.” Yet hope sprang eternal , especially with Elmer. “Well Dad the war news has been fine,” he wrote on the 1st. “[The] Russians are heading right for Berlin – and it shouldn’t be long now. I’ll be glad when Germany folds up so they can concentrate all our strength out here. I’m itching to get back in those civilian clothes. Gosh, I hope they still fit me.”

Although nothing short of Japan’s surrender would have cured Elmer’s blues, the interminably long delay in receiving mail did not help matters. “It’s been better than three weeks since we received mail,” Elmer wrote on February 1st. “[I] got tired of trying to guess when the mail will arrive,” he told his parents three days later. “I’m sure you are all well and OK at home. That’s my big concern. [I also] miss hearing from Shirley and my other fans.” But incoming correspondence did not only provide reading material – it also gave Elmer some things to discuss in his own letters. “I have a devil of a time finding something to write about.”

Elmer Luckett aboard the Mink, February 1945. Family photo.

Yet Elmer knew that the delay was probably temporary. “I’ll probably get a truck-load to answer all at once,” he joked on the 4th. Indeed, that is exactly what happened. “Yes sir!” he exclaimed a week later. “The mail really hit home-plate today. And I find myself with forty three pieces of mail.” Among other things, Elmer finally received his Australia snapshots, as well as letters from his pen pals – platonic and otherwise. However, the words spilled out of him as he responded to his parents’ accumulated mail. “So you think I’m a chip off the old block,” he asked his dad,” – and concerning the girls too. You never told me you were a woman-killer, Dad, but I suspected it. I get along alright, but this duty out here cramps my style. Ha! Ha!” The mail did more than lift the crew’s spirits – it helped them see the light at the end of what had been an exceedingly dark tunnel. “But I have plenty of time to come yet, and it shouldn’t be too long now before I get the chance. This war is rapidly reaching the end of the line.”

The mail ship’s arrival was the biggest news in weeks, since the task force did not make a lot of news on its own. The Mink did not leave Lingayen Gulf that month – it was as stationary as a Circle K. Fewer ramblings meant even less to say in his letters home. “I haven’t had much chance of getting off the ship lately to look around,” he wrote on the 4th. “Once in awhile you get boat engineer duty and run around to different ships. But I like to adventure around on the beach when possible. That always helps break the monotony of being aboard the ship so much.” He made a similar lament at the end of the month. “It’s been a little monotonous aboard [the] ship lately. Wish we could get ashore for a change.”

With so little happening outside of the ship, and even fewer goings-on that would pass the censors, Elmer talked more about the movies that he and his shipmates watched aboard the Mink. “Just saw a movie before deciding to write a little,” Elmer explained on the 1st. “[The] Powers Girl was the name. Pretty good show.” Laster that month they watched Random Harvest and Janey. “I enjoyed seeing Random Heart again,” he wrote, implying that many of the movies were reruns. But they weren’t all winners. “We [saw] Knickerbocker Holiday with Nelson Eddy [this evening,]” he wrote on the 18th. The film indicted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, and accused the recently reelected President of promoting fascist policies. Elmer, a New Deal supporter until his dying day, was not impressed. “It was pretty much of a stinker. But it was better than nothing – I guess.”

Although the New Deal has earned plaudits from generations of Americans and historians, not all contemporaries supported it. The Knickerbocker Holiday is one of many movies, books, and other cultural artifacts that strongly criticized FDR’s reforms during the 1930s.

Of course, there were worse places to be that month. On February 19th the Americans invaded Iwo Jima. Although Joe Rosenthal only had to wait four days in order for him to take his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” the seizure of Mount Suribachi only concluded the first phase of the fighting. Over the course of five weeks, nearly seven thousand Americans would die on the volcanic island, which itself was just six times larger than New York’s Central Park.

January 1945: Diversions

No one knew with certainty when the war was going to end, but most observers believed that 1945 was going to be the year when, at minimum, Germany surrendered. It was just a matter of time. Even though the Germans gave the Allies a run for their money in the Ardennes only weeks earlier, the Soviets in the East and the other Allies in the West were both juggernauts by this point, and the armies seemed to be in as much of a footrace with each other as they were against the Wehrmacht.

In the Pacific, meanwhile, the timeline was less certain. Although the liberation of the Philippines was rapidly progressing, and the vast majority of the Imperial Navy was dead in the water, Japan itself loomed ominously on the horizon.

For Elmer, another New Years at sea meant “just another night” aboard the Mink. But at least they got “a good dinner” out of it. And Elmer was no less hopeful that the war would soon end for him, too. “This year can make millions of people happy if it spells doom to our enemies,” he wrote on the 3rd. “Let’s pray this is the year for victory and the beginning of an everlasting peace.” The New Year also brought a significant milestone for the crew aboard the Mink: the ship’s first anniversary. “It’s done its little bit in that time toward fighting and operating against our enemy in the Pacific,” Elmer reflected. “May our ship and crew continue to operate in the same good fortune always and God grant us strength, courage, and protection.”

Anti-aircraft fire from ships of the U.S. Navy task force in Lingayen Gulf, Luzon. Taken from USS Boise (CL-47) on 10 January 1945 (80-G-304355).

The Mink would once again do its little bit in this effort as the Allies closed in on the Island of Luzon and Manila, the territorial capital. On January 9th the American Sixth Army landed at Lingayen Gulf, establishing a beachhead where over 175,000 troops would land within the next few days. The Mink was reassigned to another auxiliary convoy, CTG 78.9, which contained dozens of other support vessels. Led by the destroyer escort U.S.S. Flusser, the convoy almost immediately hit resistance as it sailed through a tropical storm. According to the Mink‘s war diary, the ship “experienced some difficulty in taking position because of heavy rain squalls, this ship not being equipped with radar.”

The next two days were quiet as the convoy steamed west through the Bohol Sea and then north toward the Mindanao Strait. But on January 12, at 1310 a single kamikaze plane crashed into a ship 1500 yards astern from the Mink. According to the U.S. Navy’s Official Chronology, this might have been the LST-700, a tank landing ship. The plane caused some damage, but no casualties were reported. Later that evening, however, five Japanese additional kamikaze planes attacked the convoy in a coordinated strike. The ships were about 35 miles west of Subic Bay on Luzon, and were well within range of Japan’s rapidly diminishing air assets. Manila, which was still in Japanese hands, was only 90 miles to the east southeast. The planes attacked at 6:10pm, not long before sunset, and targeted the merchant vessels within the convoy. One pilot hit the USS Otis Skinner, but there were no casualties and the crew quickly put out the fire. Another ship in the convoy shot one of the planes down, while the other three pilots crashed into the ocean. Although the Mink fired upon the kamikazes, the shooting had no effect. According to the action report, “[Anti-aircraft] ineffective to this type of attack, unless a direct hit by a 3 [inch] or 5 [inch], none were observed; 20MM practically useless.” Even though only one of the five planes hit their mark, the situation was extraordinarily dangerous. Tankers like the Mink were sitting ducks. “[The] convoy held station,” the captain later reported, “as maneuverability is of no value in this case.”

USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) hit by two Kamikazes in 30 seconds on 11 May 1945 off Kyushu. Dead-372. Wounded-264., 1943 – 1958″, from Archival Research Catalog.

The attack was mostly unsuccessful, but it spooked the task force as it finished its journey to the Lingayen Gulf. At 6:30 the next morning, about an hour before sunrise, the convoy shot at three approaching planes in the predawn twilight. After a couple of minutes, however, the observers were able to get a better look at the aircraft: they were American. Fortunately, none of the planes apparently suffered any damage, and the convoy itself was only about seven hours out from the Lingayen Gulf. Their arrival could not have come a moment too soon.

Elmer alluded to these events in his letter of the 14th. “We had a couple of diversions while at sea to break the routine. OH boy! But on the whole it was a pretty nice cruise.” But as usual, there was little he could say beyond that. “We can’t always write about what our part is in this show. But I’d say our ship and crew is doing alright.” Prohibited from revealing his location, he soon hinted at his growing worldliness. “I haven’t sailed seven seas yet, but a good five or six can be checked off the list.”

The Mink’s crew received virtually no mail after reaching the Lingayen Gulf, which was on the northwest coast of Luzon. Logistically, they were at the end of the Allies’ sprawling but not unlimited supply line. The Japanese Army lay between them and the eastern shore, and as they discovered on the 12th the sea lanes approaching the American beachhead on Luzon were often targeted by kamikaze pilots. Without any mail to respond to, Elmer devoted more space in his letters to describing various aspects of life aboard the ship. “This morning I had the four to eight auxiliary watch in the engine room,” he explained on the 28th. “An ‘auxiliary’ watch means tending the boiler and watching whatever machinery is in operation. That type of watch is maintained when the ship is not underway.” By contrast, “a watch underway with the main plant in operation is called a ‘steaming watch.’ Thought I would enlighten you with the nomenclature used by engineers. But I better not get started or I’ll forget to stop on that subject.”

Have 45 minutes to spare? Watch Murder on the Waterfront, a not-so-classic murder mystery . . .

He also talked about the films he had seen. Movies resumed aboard ship the previous month, and even though they were seldom new and not always good, they were very much appreciated. “Had another movie this evening,” Elmer wrote on the 6th. “Murder on the Waterfront. Some mystery! But it was something to see and even the bad movies go over big here.” Elmer explained that the movies were swapped regularly between ships, and that the studios provided the movies for free to the servicemen. “They help a lot and my hats off to the Motion Picture Industry for their contribution.” However, not all the movies were purely for entertainment. “Just finished seeing . . . They Come to Destroy America,” he announced on January 28th. “It was indirectly based on the capture of eight Nazi saboteurs in the U.S. Guess you could easily class it as a propaganda feature. But it is entertainment at least.”

The Mink did not see any more action during the war, but it soon begin a long tour up and down the Western Pacific, fueling the ships and boats and other craft that constituted the largest and most powerful surface fleet in human history. Yet between October 1944 and January 1945, the Mink shot down two planes and earned three Battle Stars as a result of its participation in the liberation of the Philippines. The Mink might not have been the fastest ship, or the best armed, but it unquestionably did “its little bit” in the war. And then some.

December 1944: “Christmas is for the Kids”

It is the day before Christmas and all through the ship not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse. (P.S. We don’t have any mice.)

Elmer Luckett to his Parents, 24 December 1944

December was a quiet month for the Mink and the rest of the 7.7.2 task force as they serviced the ships still anchored in San Pedro Bay. The war had shifted north, toward Mindanao, and the Japanese Navy’s losses during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October decisively ended its ability to defend the Empire, let alone hold its own against the American fleets that slowly encircled the bleeding nation like sharks. The dive bombers were now gone, and the remaining enemy ground units had retreated beyond the Leyte Valley. Most would not last the month.

As the cool and pleasant St. Louis autumn gave way to a frigid and dull winter, December made no impact on the temperature in the Leyte Gulf, which was always muggy and warm to hot. However, it did bring more rain. Cats and dogs worth. The mean monthly rainfall jumps from 6.84 inches in September to a whopping 15.2 inches, the highest average of the year. That’s about seven times what St. Louis gets in December, and almost twice what Phoenix receives all year. All that precipitation added up, making an already remote, dangerous location even more isolating. It “was such a nasty, rainy morning” on Sunday, December 17th that “most of our church crowd didn’t go to services.” Between the unrelenting heat and the sheets of rain, Missouri winter did not seem so bad after all. “Dad, it might sound funny to you,” Elmer wrote on the 27th, “but I’d like to be shoveling that four inches of snow you had. I miss that nasty old white substance. And I miss sleeping . . . with about five blankets.”

Christmas 1944 was especially difficult for many Americans, as it was the first and only holiday season to take place between the D-Day invasion and V-E Day. These 101st Airborne officers ate Christmas dinner in Bastogne, Belgium, while under German siege during the Battle of the Bulge. Photo taken 12/25/1944. Photo and caption from https://unwritten-record.blogs.archives.gov/2016/12/19/christmas-in-wartime-battle-of-the-bulge/

Elmer’s December 1944 letters dwelled more heavily on the holidays and on Christmas than during any of the previous years he was overseas, including 1941. It may be that because the war seemed to be so close to being over, yet so interminably long, Elmer was tired of spending his Christmases in warm, humid climates. “Today is an anniversary to me,” he announced on the 17th, “exactly four years ago I left home on active duty. How time flies. Its [sic] been a long time.” He was not especially looking forward to his fifth Christmas in a row away from home. “I like to see Christmas pass fast when I’m away,” he told his parents on the 20th. By the 24th, he was a bit more willing to engage with the topic at hand. “Tomorrow is Christmas, and I’ll be thinking of you all at home,” he wrote. “We will be united in thought and spirit and to compensate for being away I like to think that my Christmas away is helping to make for more merry and peaceful times [in the future.]” He was more than excited for those times to arrive. “When I do get home for Christmas,” he wrote, “I’ll be like a kid seeing his first Xmas.”

Yet monsoonal weather and major wars could not completely put a damper on the holiday spirit. “[We] have a nice Xmas dinner menu prepared for us,” he declared, “and it is the traditional dinner. Turkey with all the trimmings.” And then there were gifts . . . lots and lots of gifts. His mother, his sister Irene, and his Aunt Frieda sent him two large boxes containing imported cigars, a new pipe, tobacco, candy, nuts, over a dozen socks. They packed the gifts in bright wrapping paper, and unlike many of Elmer’s crewmates’ packages they arrived in good shape. “You should see how some fellows get packages,” he told his mom on the 20th. “Some are so bad they must be discarded. but yours have been fine so far (my mom looks out for me).” His mom was not the only person to successfully ship him a Christmas gift, however. Bud Tanner mailed him a box of 50 cigars, Shirley sent a package containing cigars and candy, and his brother Bud renewed his Reader’s Digest subscription.

Christmas dinners were elaborate affairs in the British as well as in the American Navy. The Captain of HMS MALAYA helping himself to plum pudding during Christmas dinner at Scapa Flow, 25 December 1942. A-13566. Admiralty Official Collection. Imperial War Museum.

While Elmer wanted to return the generosity, he was unable to go holiday shopping or even buy Christmas cards while in San Pedro harbor. So he asked his mother to help. On Wednesday, December 6th Elmer mailed his parents two $10 money orders, which given the difficulty of paying sailors who were on a boat in a war zone was about all the money he had left. He asked that his parents use one to buy themselves “something nice” for Christmas, and the other one to be used on gifts for his nieces and nephews. “Christmas is for the kids,” he remarked. By the following Sunday, however, he had finally received his pay and sent another two money orders: one for $30, and another for $100. The $30 was to buy additional gifts.

Although Elmer did not lose his Christmas spirit, he was increasingly losing his patience with his – and the world’s – situation. “The war news is favorable all around, but our enemies don’t know when to quit it seems,” he lamented on the 10th. “How can you show any mercy when they will stop for nothing. Must we beat them down on their knees[?]” A few days later he discussed how much he missed driving. “Out here you can settle by taking the motor boat out for a spin. Acting as a boat engineer. Gets you off the ship and breaks the monotony a little.” But there were other aspects of having a car and being able to drive that he missed as well. After explaining why he missed his rained-out church services on the 17th, he quipped about not needing them anyway. “Not much chance at me being anything but good out here. Ha! Ha!”

When movie nights resumed aboard the Mink that December, one of the films shown was My Favorite Wife. Perhaps it struck a chord with Elmer, who was then courting at least three women on two different continents.

Elmer’s love life by correspondence remained just as muddled then as it had throughout the year. He regularly wrote Rose, Rae, and several other girls. At the end of 1944, however, Shirley seemed to have a slight edge over the competition. “I think very much of Shirley,” he told his parents on the 27th. “She is a good kid.” In fact, Shirley had sent his mother a scarf and his father a tie for Christmas, so they wanted to know what to buy her in return. “I know she will be pleased with whatever you get her,” he assured them. In the meantime, Elmer continued to write Shirley once a week, at minimum, and earlier in the month he referred to her as “my Shirley.” However, Elmer clearly did not want his parents to spend an arm and a leg on a present in return. He was still unwilling to commit. “Until the time when this war is over I don’t want to get serious over any girl. If Shirley still cares for me at that time, we will see what the future brings.” By late 1944 Elmer was not just worried about the war, which was coming to a close, intruding on a young marriage. It was no longer a question of how long would the war last, but of what would come next after serving three and a half years overseas on deployment. “I don’t intend to rush home and get married to anyone,” he warned, “it will take me awhile to readjust and re-establish myself.”

Elmer was also ready to dispense with his maternal flattery:

Mom, no matter what girl gets me in the end, your place in my heart can never be replaced. The love you have for mother and father is one kind, the love for a girl to be your wife, companion and mother of your children is another . . . I’m glad I’ve had this time and experience to become more mature. I hope it will help me choose the right girl for a life-partner. My ideas on the subject have changed since I was a youth of 20.

Elmer Luckett to his Parents, 27 December 1944

Grandpa was wise to wait. After all, you would probably not be reading this if he had not. But there are other reasons to believe that Elmer’s years spent on ships in the middle of the Pacific had afforded him the opportunity to figure out exactly what it was he wanted in life and in a life partner. Once he did choose someone to wed, it was for keeps.

And he made that choice a lot sooner than he thought possible: in early 1945.

November 1944: Pet Theories

The Mink remained in San Pedro Bay throughout November, where it continued to refuel ships as part of the 77.7.2 Task Force. On the 9th it replenished its own cargo with 277,788 gallons of diesel and 152,587 gallons of bunker fuel from the USS Suamico (AO-49), a fleet oiler capable of holding 30 times the amount of fluid it discharged to the Mink. Both were important, if differently sized, links in the distribution chain that made a mostly amphibious invasion on the far side of the Pacific possible.

The surface to air combat continued weeks after the initial landings on Leyte Island. On November 12th, 24th, and 28th the ship’s gunnery crew opened fire on passing enemy aircraft as they attempted to bomb the shore installations on Leyte Island. But just after noon on the 27th a Japanese bomber targeted the Mink itself while it was at anchor, strafing the ship as it approached the tanker’s port side. After flying within a few hundred feet of the Mink the plane reversed course and banged a U-turn away from the ship. Meanwhile the Mink’s 3″50 cannon jammed up, which its crew tried to clear out by using a short cartridge case to discharge the shell that had lodged inside the gun. The hero of the day, however, was the Oerlikon 20mm antiaircraft cannon. The gunner who manned the comparatively ancient yet ubiquitous 20mm cannon shot down the bomber from about 1000 yards as it streaked away. No one on board the ship was injured, and the ship notched its second kill.

Elmer’s letters were mum about the operation – loose lips sink ships, after all – but on November 7th the Naval censors gave the men permission to mention the invasion and their whereabouts. Apparently the first thing Elmer did after receiving this news was sit down and write a letter about it. “Have a little news I can reveal now, so I’ll write a few lines this afternoon. It’s only Tuesday, and my regular writing day is tomorrow, but here it goes. Our ship participated in the operation and invasion of Leyte in the Philippine Island group.” Elmer noted that his parents had probably read about it and stated that he was proud of his ship’s crew for their work. He also hoped that the news would not come as too much of a shock. “I wouldn’t write this news if I figured it would cause you to be more uneasy and worried. I want you to know that we are doing our share.” Elmer also went into a few specifics about what he and his crew mates had seen over the past two weeks. “We have seen quite a bit of action in air raids. Our ship has shot down a Jap plane already. It’s really a sight,” he added somewhat ghoulishly, “to see those sons-of-heaven go down in flames.”

Elmer sitting on the deck of the Mink, which was usually covered with barrels. Elmer Luckett Collection.

Elmer’s letter was not entirely full of bravado. “Guess you wonder if I am scared or worried,” he wrote. “To be frank I was a little scared at first – you know I haven’t been bombed for some time. And everyone gets a little uneasy when it’s coming in ‘hot.’ But we are regular veterans now and it’s just another job. Don’t let your imagination go to work and worry about things that aren’t as bad as they sound.”

Indeed, no one on the Mink was harmed during these incidents, which is more than what sailors on some adjacent ships could say (e.g., the U.S.S. Panda, the Mink’s sister ship, shot down five planes that month, but Japanese pilots also successfully strafed the ship, injuring eight). But the crew faced a variety of other hazards this month. On November 8th a typhoon hit the Philippines, forcing the ship to “steam dead slow ahead” in order to relieve the tension on the anchor chain caused by the storm surge and the 80 mile per hour winds. It was the second storm to hit since their arrival. “We did witness a typhoon some time ago,” Elmer wrote in reference to the first storm, “and it is something to behold. Often seen movies showing such a storm and wondered how one really looked . . . everything worked out OK.” Later, two days after second the gale, the U.S.S. Quapaw hit the Mink on its port side, just below the main deck. No injuries were reported, but the damaged ship immediately proceeded to an open berth. As the ship was being repaired it continued to fuel other ships and, on certain days, fire upon attacking Japanese aircraft.

The Leyte Gulf has had more than its share of storms. Super Typhoon Yolanda made landfall just south of Tacloban City, Leyte Island on November 7, 2013. The storm killed 6,352 people, with over 1,700 still missing. Photo: Eoghan Rice – Trócaire / Caritas, Wikicommons.

Despite the occasional flashes of war, storms, and colliding ships, Elmer and his crew mates found things to do, despite the temporary moratorium on ship movies due to the unstable military situation. Trading with the locals became one favorite pastime:

The natives I talked about trading with are Filipinos from villages around here. Most have been educated somewhat in speaking English and we get a lot of stories from them. They are hard up for clothes and trade us mats, knives, and bananas for old dungarees and shirts. The money I sent home already is Jap invasion money bills used by Japs to buy food and stuff from the Filipinos. Many of the Filipinos hide out in the hills. The Jap money wasn’t any good to them because they couldn’t use it for anything. Japs had nothing to sell in return. Makes a good souvenir anyway.

Elmer Luckett to his parents, 7 November 1944

The crew did not only acquire mats and fruit from the Filipinos and other islanders, but animals as well. “Don’t know if I told you about our pets aboard ship,” he wrote on the 29th. We have a little monkey with a stub tail . . . and she is quite a show climbing around in the ship’s riggings. She has been spoiled by the executive officer and will hardly go to another person aboard.” In addition, “we had another monkey but the fellows that owned it traded it for a baby kangaroo. They are called ‘wallaby’s’ as they are a smaller species of the kangaroo family.” Both animals were originally purchased with a few articles of clothing, but the wallaby came from another ship, whose crewmen swapped it for the other monkey aboard the Mink. “So much for our little friends.”

A blurry shot of Elmer riding a bull while smoking during one of his shore excursions. Elmer Luckett Collection.

While the trade in exotic animals helped compensate for the lack of ship movies, it still left a lot of unfilled hours during the day. Elmer filled them by being proactive in the engine room and curious in the library. “Been keeping busy with little jobs around the engine room,” he wrote on the 29th. “You can generally find something that should be done. That is, if you can muster up enough ambition to do it.” Beyond that, one finds “their diversions in reading, writing, and conversation. We have some dandy library books now, and I’ve been going at them whenever possible.” Incoming letters were his favorite reading material, however. He would grow annoyed whenever his correspondents seem to lag in their writing. He was especially anxious to learn about his sister Irene’s new baby, his niece Ruth Ann. “Still waiting to hear about Irene and the blessed event,” he wrote on the 19th. “Hope everything was OK. My next batch of mail should have the news.”

The extended time at sea was beginning to get to Elmer. He started attending church services whenever he could, for one thing – although he told his parents that he attended for spiritual reasons (which might have been true, given the war unfolding around him), he made no secret of the fact that the boat trip to the hosting ship was pleasant and cool. The different surroundings helped stave off any cabin fever. By the middle of November the situation had cooled enough for Elmer and some friends to leave the ship. “Got a chance to make a boat trip ashore and and see how the people live in their villages. And did a little sightseeing.” Their experience was instructive. “The same day I went to the largest city on an island near us [Tacloban]. We didn’t stay very long but we got a glimpse of the place. The stores had little or nothing to offer for sale. And it reminded me of a rural small town in a bad run-down condition.”

Elmer was heartened by recent developments overseas and at home. The Philippine liberation was progressing rapidly, Allied forces were racing across western Europe, and talk of “finishing” the war began to replace the more guarded discourse over “winning” it. The groundswell of good news was enough to carry President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to victory on November 7th, earning him an unprecedented fourth term. “Well Dad,” Elmer reflected on the 12th, “the election is all over now and F.D.R. will be in to finish this war and help make the peace. May it come to a speedy finish followed by a lasting peace.”

1944, like 2020, was an election year, and FDR’s campaign urged voters to choose him for a fourth term in order to finish the war. Unfortunately, even though his pitch worked, he died 82 days after Inauguration Day.

Despite Elmer’s optimism that the war would end within the next few months he was slightly more pessimistic about his chances of getting home any time soon. “It’s been a year since I’ve seen you all. A long time. I hope that this war is over before my eighteen months are up.” Elmer then explained the Rotation Plan for granting sailors regular (if infrequent) leave. “The idea (and hope of every man over-seas) is that after 18 months oversea’s you back home for a leave. It’s called the rotation plan. Too bad they didn’t think about it before I put 30 months overseas last time. Guess the patriotic service before the war don’t count.” At any rate, “if the war’s not over by next July we all ‘hope’ for a leave back home. That finishes 18 months.” He then added, “one happy thought is that its [sic] always possible the ship may go back to the U.S. for some reason or another, and that would be fine. All this adds up to my pet theory, you never know where you stand while in the Navy.”

Later that month, as the holiday season began, Elmer sounded a little less ebullient. “Thanksgiving Day is tomorrow,” he wrote on the 29th. “One of them was a week ago. One F.D.R. or Roosevelt Thanksgiving, the other the traditional one. Guess it doesn’t make a difference either way.” While Elmer and his crew mates succeeded in making the Mink more homelike over the past few months, no amount of fresh paint or hot chow would change the fact that home was on the other side of a planet rocked by war.