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.

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.

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.
ibiblio.org
, 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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