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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