Summary: parents proud, sharing letters with others, friend updates, cigars, inflation, food in Hawaii
Summary: parents proud, sharing letters with others, friend updates, cigars, inflation, food in Hawaii
It’s almost back to school time! Whether you or your kids or grandkids are starting a new grade or a new school, this is a good moment to reflect on what our school and college experiences mean to us. This is especially true after the past year and a half of quarantine restrictions. Although we are not yet out of the woods (and if you are not vaccinated yet, please do so for your sake and for all those who cannot for whatever reason . . . like my four year old daughter!), I hope that we come closer to some kind of normalcy this next year.
For my part, I will be starting my MFT Counseling program at CSU-East Bay next week. I am both excited and nervous about being a grad student again . . . if memory serves, during my last go-around I could not wait to not be a student anymore! But this time feels different. It is also fitting that I end my registered student journey (one hopes, anyway) at a state college, given that I earned my Bachelors degree at Southeast Missouri State University. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s OK—it does not show up too often on the rankings lists. But it was a smart, affordable, and ultimately right choice for me and, I would guess, most of my friends as well, who have all gone on to do incredible things in their post-baccalaureate lives.
So, if you did not get into Harvard of Yale, or your parents cannot afford to sneak you into USC as a fake member of its rowing team, do not be dismayed. I received an excellent, memorable, and valuable education at Southeast Missouri State University, and I look forward to receiving one at CSU-East Bay as well. Go Redhawks, and go Pioneers!
Anyway, check out the following chapter I’ve written for my book, Grandpa’s Letters: A Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Journey in History and Memory. When my grandpa was selected to join the V-12 officers training program in 1943, the Navy decided to send him to Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College—now known as Southeast Missouri State University. This chapter describes his semester there, as related to his parents in his letters, and it also contains some thoughts of my own on how our experiences there intertwined. I think it shows just how powerful and profound the college experience can and should be.
Note that some of the prose matches the prose in earlier blog posts about the project. This is by design, since the book is largely based on these posts. But I hope this also gives you a sense on how I’m trying to make everything congeal into a larger, book-length narrative. As it continues to evolve I will keep adding things and taking other things away. But overall the final product will be much better—and less raw—than the posts themselves. Such is the nature of writing.
Please let me know what you think in the comments, or by sending me a message in the Contact page. The book is just about fully drafted, so I’m rapidly reaching the point where I can start sending it out to people and soliciting feedback. I’d love to know what you think!
Chapter 7, The College Try—Part I
Time flew. June arrived before anyone knew it, and Elmer’s 43 days were up. “That month at home was heaven,” he wrote his parents after arriving at San Diego on June 15th. “Mom dear, I sure miss that home cooking of yours. Our food is good, but it just don’t compare with yours.” Elmer’s train deposited him in San Diego several days early. What was in 1940 a sleepy if boisterous border town that happened to have a Naval base was by 1943 a large, bustling wartime port that happened to be near a major city. He spent his remaining days on leave with a couple of friends he made on the train west, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city before being shipped to Heaven Knows Where. While Elmer was on his way to start his officer training program, he had no idea where in the United States he would end up going. Texas? New York? Idaho? College students today have thousands of possible destinations to pick choose and can visualize where they will end up, but Elmer and other V-12 selectees had to wait on pins and needles for their school assignments without even knowing their destination’s time zone. But by the time he reported for duty on June 18, he received some unexpectedly good news: he would be soon be on a train back East. He would report to Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College to begin his V-12 program studies. It was only one hundred miles from home.
Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College (SMSTC) was located in Cape Girardeau, where it stretched across a series of forested, rolling hills overlooking the Mississippi River. It was an odd place for a Naval school, just as Cape Girardeau is an odd name for a town located approximately 500 miles from the nearest ocean. Yet Cape Girardeau itself rests just above the northernmost tip of the Mississippi Embayment, a massive alluvial region that is at least geologically a continuation of the Mississippi Delta. Over millions of years the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers carried sediment from the Ozark and Appalachian ranges down towards the Gulf, which during the Cretaceous Period extended all the way up to the Missouri bootheel. As the once-towering mountain ranges across eastern North America slowly crumbled away the river sediment continued to build up, adding new land over tens of millions of years that eventually became the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. By 1943 the Mississippi was much longer, and the rippled hills surrounding Cape Girardeau were now closer to the shores of Lake Michigan than they were to the sea. But Scott City, Cape’s southern neighbor, was once the maritime domain of sharks and plesiosaurs. The Navy was 65 million years too late.
While Cape Girardeau might not have been anywhere close to the sea, it was a classic river town. In many ways aesthetically similar to Hannibal, its more famous counterpart north of St. Louis, Mark Twain once complimented Cape’s “handsome appearance.” But unlike the more culturally Midwestern Hannibal, Cape’s location on what many Missourians would consider to be the state’s border between its Midwestern and Southern regions gives it a special flavor of its own. Residents prefer northern red brick buildings over plantation-style wooden frame homes, which do a better job of keeping the cold out. But at dinner time they will grab some gumbo or gator etouffee at Broussards, which keeps the heat inside. It is a bit isolated for a city east of the Great Plains: St. Louis is 100 miles to the north, and Memphis is twice as far to the south. The college’s nearest competitor, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, is an hour’s drive away on rural two-lane highways. Meanwhile, the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers make it hard to get anywhere else as they crash into one another south of Cairo. Both rivers elbow their way past Illinois and Kentucky while occasionally puffing out their chests like drunken revelers in the French Quarter. Even today ferries are the quickest and least circuitous way to get to many places on the other side of either river.
Despite being landlocked, SMSTC was well-equipped to host one of the Navy’s 131 V-12 programs during World War II. It also needed the business. School enrollments plummeted during the months following the Pearl Harbor attack, as enlistments and the draft snatched bodies out of dorm rooms and classroom seats in universities across America. The V-12 program, in addition to supplying the Navy with college-educated officers and providing its swelling ranks of enlisted men with a new opportunity for advancement, threw a lifeline to colleges like SMSTC. Instead of waiting out the war with reduced enrollments and endowments that nearly vanished during the Depression, these schools served as satellite Annapolises and extension West Points. Since most of the classes offered in the program were general education courses, as well as physical and leadership training, the V-12 schools provided both experience and facilities. No ocean required.
At least SMSTC looked the part. The Teacher’s College spread across a wooded hill northwest of downtown Cape Girardeau. Its dormitories crowded along Henderson Ave, just east of Capaha Park and on the western edge of today’s campus. The college’s flagship building, Academic Hall, was perched upon the highest of these knolls. The building’s milquetoast name does not do its architecture justice. A neoclassical behemoth built in 1906 from limestone and capped with a copper dome, Academic Hall looms like a stately courthouse over the rest of the campus and the surrounding town. While figuratively it was an ivory tower, the dome itself was made of thinly hammered copper.
On June 26th, Elmer hopped a train from the Pacific to the Mississippi for the second time in as many months. After four days, Grandpa arrived in Cape Girardeau, Missouri at 3:15 in the morning. The moon was only a sliver in the sky, and the disembarking passengers immediately found themselves surrounded by pitch black floodwaters. Cape Girardeau’s railroad is so close to the Mississippi that it practically kisses the riverbank. “The train tracks had about a foot of water over them,” he reported the next day, “but all was well.” Elmer and the other arrivals grabbed their bags, splashed across the submerged platform, and ducked into cabs for the short ride to campus. They only had a couple of hours to sleep before reporting in at 8:30 that morning. But despite the inauspicious beginning, Elmer was excited to start. “I like it here and this is really an opportunity to attend college first class,” he reported. “I think we will be able to get home over weekends once we settle down.”
Elmer quickly found himself busy once classes started on July 6th. “Same routine,” he wrote two weeks later. “Exercise, chow, classes, chow, exercise, classes, study, chow, study, and then sleep. What a day!” His mornings started at 6am, which began with physical drilling. He was not used to the frequent and intense training. “I’m tired,” he reported on July 12th after finishing his workout for the day, “but this is good for me.” Several days later he elaborated: “my physical drills tightened my muscles up and made me stiff – especially in the stomach. But it proves that it is doing good.” On the 21st he told his parents he was “wore out” after completing the obstacle course. “It’s a killer,” he wrote. By 8am he was in class. For the next nine hours it was coursework, study time, and more physical education. He enrolled in seven classes: Physics, American History, Naval History, American Literature, Physical Education, Engineering Drawing, and Psychology. Of all those subjects, “Physics seems to be the toughest subject for all the fellows.” He held his own, though – on the 28th he learned that he had passed his first exam, “but not with a high grade.”
The V-12 Program worked Elmer to the bone, but there were rewards to his new posting: “they really can serve chow here.” The food on campus was “the closest to home cooking I have ever had,” he reported, and the chicken dinner he had on the Fourth of July was “perfect.” In addition, the dorms were a nice change of pace after spending two and a half years on a cramped ship. “The lounge has really nice over-stuffed divans, chairs, a radio, and such lovely carpets, drapes, etc,” he noted. “It really is swell here, folks.” But the best part was the people. He became close friends with Hal Spiner, a fellow Cleveland High School graduate and a fellow resident in his dorm. On July 16th he interrupted a letter home by announcing that Hal had walked in and asked him to go out; when he picked it up the next day he described a double-date with Hal and two local girls, Ruthie and Hettie Jean, who worked as waitresses on campus. They drove up to Cape Rock, which was just as popular among couples in the 1940s as it was sixty years later. But he quickly added, probably to short-circuit any worrying, that Cape Rock was also “the spot where some frenchmen landed back in 1733.” He was taking American history, after all.
Evenings were just as busy as the days. Elmer and his classmates visited the Rainbow Room, a local bar, and attended a dance held by the school. But the nights were hot in other ways as well. “Even at night you perspire a great deal,” Elmer wrote of the summer heat in Cape. As all longtime Missourians know, the state’s weather is in a perennial crossfire between Gulf of Mexico heat waves and Hudson Bay cold snaps, but Cape is noticeably closer to the former than St. Louis. “Boy is it hot here . . . [it] makes it hard to write as my arm keeps floating away in a pool of sweat.”
Elmer enjoyed spending some of his weekends in Cape, but he did try to go home regularly. Usually his visits were brief and hurried: he would take a bus up to Saint Louis early Saturday evening, stay the night, and head back Sunday afternoon. The trips were short but pleasant. “Good to be home,” he wrote after a visit. “The good old home-cooked food hit the spot.” Although he could not make it up for his mother’s birthday on July 24 – they spoke on the phone instead – he tried to coordinate one visit with his brother Bud and his family visiting from Chicago. And while Elmer did not get to experience the Animal House lifestyle while on campus, he did take advantage of that most hallowed and time-honored tradition among college students: bringing the laundry home over the weekend. After one visit his mother had shipped him his uniform, which she had generously cleaned and pressed for him. It’s “in perfect shape” he announced – “‘just like taking it out of a drawer.’ Thanks, you’re a dear.” Elmer enjoyed seeing his parents and getting his laundry done, but had had one other reason to visit home as well. At the end of July, he announced his intention to visit. But he did not plan to spend a great deal of time at home that Saturday evening – he had a date. With Rose.
Back at Cape his studies went well, though his course load was heavy enough to cause considerable and daily stress. Physics continued to be the worst culprit, though he had begun showing improvement in that class as well. On September 1st he reported earning an 80% on his latest physics exam, which was a marked improvement over the 55s and 60s he usually received. He excelled in his other courses, and even ranked 2nd in his psychology class.
Sometimes that routine was interrupted, like when the students who waited his table had left for a short summer break (the new girls were “not as good as the old ones” he uncharitably announced on August 14th), or when he made trips up to Saint Louis to see his folks. Before leaving he’d request his favorite foods, including chicken and dumplings on two occasions, plus pie for desert. The following month he received a visit from Bud Tanner, who traveled down to Cape to see his old friend. They hit the town and saw the sights, including Cape Rock.
Every now and then Elmer’s letters offer refractive clues about what his parents were thinking at the time. Forrest Luckett complained that White Castle hamburgers had declined in quality since the start of the war (“this war has effected [sic] everything, no doubt,” Elmer replied blandly), and kept Elmer up to date on a recent workplace injury. Meanwhile his mother asked if Elmer’s chaplain friend on campus drank at all (“every now and then”), and bombarded him with questions about Miss Bedford, an art professor who often hosted Elmer and some of his friends for dinner and card games. She frequently appeared in his letters, but mostly on account of her hospitality and her prowess in the kitchen.
While his love for Miss Bedford was clearly platonic, he continued to flirt with a revolving cast of women throughout the country. Shirley Ryder wrote him from Michigan and Rose Schmid announced that she would be moving to Washington, D.C. to work for the Navy Department. In the meantime, Elmer dated a couple of girls in Cape as well. As always, his mother was still his “number one girl.”
The pace of this routine – classes, drills, nights on the town, alternating weekends in Saint Louis – make these letters seem more perfunctory than usual. As almost anyone who is or has ever been busy will attest, there is both more going on and less to talk about. But there are thoughts and feelings sprinkled here and there. For instance, on September 16th Elmer expresses his gratitude that he had restarted his college career later on (“This college life is really OK and I feel it is doing me much more good than if I would have just continued a complete college program after high school”). Although gap years were not yet invented and would have certainly not been filled with surprise air raids by design, Elmer clearly benefited from the time off from school. But he was also sentimental about some of his relationship prospects, particularly Rose Schmid, who while traveling to California for a week while on vacation did not write to him. And Elmer, despite his long bachelor call sheet, noticed the lack of mail from her.
In any case, time flew by, and for the time being Elmer was in a great place. “Everything’s shipshape,” he reported, despite being hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean-going vessel.
To be Continued: Part II posts next Tuesday!
Sorry for being tardy and not posting for a few days. I usually schedule all my posts well in advance, and I left this week free so that I could blog from the road. But if past experience is any guide, research trips are very busy affairs. I haven’t had much time to post since leaving town Monday, and even though I’ve thought of a lot of things to say this is the first chance I’ve had to write anything down.
I have been collecting research material for the Grandpa’s Letters project. Compared to my last major project (Never Caught Twice, which will be released this fall by the University of Nebraska Press), the research paradigm for this one is relatively easy. Rather than having to reconstruct the history of a notoriously under-reported and over-exaggerated crime across half a state and half a century, my current book’s source base is already well-established: my grandpa’s letters, along with my oral interview, other family documents, and several albums full of photographs. I also have my dad and Uncle Richard to fill in the gaps, which is a resource I did not have when investigating nineteenth-century horse stealing. This is a solid, if not excellent, foundation for a compelling historical narrative.
But this source set by itself isn’t enough. For one, I should have my grandfather’s official military personnel file from World War II. It contains a great deal of specific, well-documented information about every aspect of his service record. While getting that, I might as well get the service records of some of his friends on the Chew as well, so that I can give a broader perspective on St. Louis-area reservists before, during, and after the War. Speaking of the Chew, I should have more information on that as well, especially since Grandpa was barred from discussing his ship’s position and activities after the Pearl Harbor attack. I should also do the same thing with the Mink as well, Elmer’s ship from January 1944 until his discharge from the Navy in October 1945.
That is what this trip was all about. On Tuesday I visited the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis and scanned my Grandpa’s service record. I also scanned several others, including a couple of people I’ve discussed before on this blog. This took more time than I thought since these were large files, and since I only allocated a day for this I barely beat the clock to finish the job before closing. But I found a lot of fascinating information . . . stay tuned.
As soon as I was finished at the NPRC I had to Uber back to the airport to catch a flight to Baltimore, where I rented a car and drove to College Park, Maryland. Then on Wednesday I started collecting ship records at the National Archives facility at College Park. Like in St. Louis I’ve been scanning everything I can get my hands on, which is slightly more cumbersome here given that all scans have to have a declassification tag. That said, I’ve collected not only everything I could find on the Chew and the Mink, but after reading the other personnel files in St. Louis I decided to expand my strategy a bit and collect information on those ships on which Elmer’s friends on the Chew from St. Louis later served.
Although this is more work, I am really excited about where this is taking me . . . one of his friends participated in the invasion of Okinawa, while another one helped rescue sailors after the Frederick C. Davis, a destroyer, was sunk in the North Atlantic by a German U-Boat. Yet another served on a ship which played an important role in Operation Magic Carpet, the United States military’s massive post-war plan to bring hundreds of thousands of servicemen home in a matter of months. Of course this project will continue to revolve principally around my grandpa and his experience (which is exceptionally and uniquely well-documented given his letters), but my intention was always to bring other people into the story as well. I believe this is a great way to do just that.
I still have a few things to look for tomorrow, and I should have a few hours to spare. I hope to spend any extra time I have poking around some other collections and otherwise ensuring that this is the only trip out here I have to make for this book (as I promised my family . . . I visited the National Archives in DC several times for the first book). But so far this has been a successful trip.
Given both the blog and a history methods class I am teaching at Sacramento State this spring I may have more to say about both archival visits, what I found at each, and my strategy for tackling the archives. Since I will soon have to lecture my students about this very process it makes sense to start crystallizing my thoughts now while I’m in the trenches, so to speak.
Anyway, I need to get some other things done before I go to bed, but I will write again soon. In the meantime, here is an out-of-context page from grandpa’s service file at the NPRC in St. Louis. This is an important document, all things considered:
I apologize for not posting any book reviews for a while. The end of the fall semester is usually tough sledding, especially when one’s family spends their Thanksgiving in the Sierras during a winter storm. But I certainly did not improve matters when I chose my next book: a thick, authoritative, and in every conceivable way complete history of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Author Craig Nelson’s appropriately-named Pearl Harbor: from Infamy to Greatness charts the history of the attack from the beginning . . . in fact, the book covers the 1869 Meiji Restoration in Japan and the original settlement of Hawai’i by Polynesian seafarers. The tome continues in thorough, if sometimes tedious detail. While this is not necessarily bad, the publisher’s curious selection of a small typeface for the book makes each already-long chapter look deceptively short. I have a fair amount of practice reading history books, and frankly this one took me a while.
Organizationally the book is divided into three parts. Part I, “The Roads to War,” explores the various historical, political, geopolitical, and cultural factors that put Japan and the United States on a collision course. While this narrative is thickly told and makes no attempt to spare any details, Nelson does a fantastic job of highlighting some of the fulcrum points leading to the Japanese attack. He convincingly argues that it could have prevented at several different points, including in early December when FDR made a last-minute appeal to Emperor Hirohito himself. Nelson does not pull any punches when describing either Japanese complicity in attacking Hawai’i or the complete and utter unwillingness among Americans to anticipate or prevent such an attack, but he does provide essential contest and nuance when discussing both. Not surprisingly, the lead-up to war was complicated: Japanese Army hardliners won out over the objections of the Navy and civilian authorities, while FDR’s full embargo of oil to Japan backed the expansionist nation into a corner. Few people on either side seemed to want a war. But war is what they got, especially when Japan famously underestimated the American response to the raid on Pearl Harbor.
Part II (“Strike!”) covers the raid itself, providing a minute-by-minute account of the hostilities. Nelson does an admirable job of covering the devastation wrought outside the especially infamous explosion on the Arizona, including a chapter on the raids against Wheeler, Hickham, and other Oahu airfields. Two chapters on the two successive waves to hit the harbor tell in detail what happened to the Pennsylvania (in dry dock), the Utah (anchored on the opposite shore of Ford Island), the Nevada (which beached itself after failing to escape the harbor through its narrow entrance channel) and various other battleships, cruisers, and destroyers that suffered damage or were destroyed. This is the meat of the book for Pearl Harbor history aficionados, and they will not be disappointed by the detail or the energetic prose.
Finally, Part III tells two different stories in three chapters: the Doolittle Raid and the public memory of Pearl Harbor after the war. Chapter Eleven, “Vengeance,” provides an excellent history of the Doolittle Raid, and the next chapter cleverly intertwines a summary of how the Pacific War was won with the stories of the Doolittle Raider POWs in Japanese custody for the duration of the conflict (or, in three cases, until they were executed).
Nelson’s Pearl Harbor is a sweeping, even-handed history of a complicated, yet critically important event in American history. It largely avoids the triumphalist rhetoric of less-reflective World War II books (like The Greatest Generation), but Nelson does argue that Pearl Harbor not only awakened Americans to the dangers of fascism, but that it helped steer the course for its postwar contributions to world peace. Of course that last point is debatable, but given the last few centuries of western history 75 years without a World War III is certainly an achievement. And that achievement would not have been possible without America’s military might, economic dominance, and diplomatic acumen.
I think I am going to write a separate post on how this book (and, if I’m being honest, This American Life) has made me rethink the contours of this project somewhat. That will come probably early next week. Meanwhile, if you were to purchase only one book on Pearl Harbor and had enough free time to soak up an exhaustive, single-volume account of the attack, its origins, and its consequences, then I cannot recommend this book enough.
As if our political differences were not enough, the last few months of 2019 have reintroduced inter-generational conflict into the culture wars. This time the insults come with a new menu of pejoratives, including “OK Boomer” and “Karens” in reference to Gen-Xers. Meanwhile, Generation Z begins to find its voice as my own micro-generation, the Xennials, struggles to break free from what we see as the narrow-mindedness of GenX and the Millennials’ over-dependence on technology. These divisions are somewhat arbitrary and are mainly cultural constructs, but they sure do feel real. I still get defensive whenever people call me a Millennial, even though I technically am one.
As I read Tom Brokaw’s seminal The Greatest Generation, however, I get the sense that just about everyone – including the Greatest Generation folks themselves – understood this cohort to be both above the generational fray and also deserving of their superlative epithet. In effect, that is Brokaw’s thesis – this generation was, quite literally, the greatest. All us whippersnappers should learn something from these folks and try to be less disappointing.
Let’s address that claim in a moment. First, the book itself is extraordinary: it is comprised of dozens of stories from those who served during World War II. From the men who stormed the beaches at Normandy to the women who assisted the Joint Chiefs of Staff in DC, Brokaw casts a wide net and defines the word “service” broadly – and rightfully so. He interviews Japanese internees and African American men and women who served their country despite their nation’s scorn, as well as mechanics, Presidents, and everyone in between. Readers come away with a sense of just how much work, blood, and sacrifice this conflict required. Although the United States was separated from most of the fighting by two vast oceans, Brokaw shows how every nook and cranny of the nation was affected by the conflict. Its urgency was both pervasive and universally compelling, and winning this war was existentially vital to virtually all Americans. It is hard to imagine such a mentality now, but Brokaw manages to convey the mindset through his stories and his brisk prose style.
However, as one might imagine, the book sometimes devolves into hero worship. All of the stories are framed in terms of personal sacrifice, and many of the chapters end with a lament of one sort or another, often about how things in general have changed in the decades since the war. Some complain about “kids these days,” citing how things were “before the war” and what not. Sometimes Brokaw even gets in on the action, asserting at one point that Catholic kids back in the 30s would have been slapped around by their nuns and then by their parents if they had the temerity to complain, but with barely concealed approval. While Brokaw is savvy enough to argue that much of this generation’s good qualities can be attributed to environmental circumstance – namely being raised during an era when good old fashioned family values, Depression-era frugality, and wartime sacrifice were tattooed onto everyones’ conscience – his narrative often circles back to the inherent goodness of the people who served their country during the War. And as a historian I get hives at the mere thought that some special, indefinable quality somehow made anyone born between Armistice Day and Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic superior to all who came before or since. After all, even Greatest Generation Americans were human . . . they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else.
This criticism should not imply that the “Greatest Generation” was not great, or that its members did not deserve such high praise. After all, I am writing a book that, if I’m being honest about this project, is going to heap a great deal of praise on my WWII-veteran grandfather. Much of that praise, though probably not all of it, will be warranted. But the difference between history and hagiography bears consideration: the former explains, the latter venerates.
Perhaps in some ways the “Greatest Generation” motif is the logical result of our very opposite view of Nazis, who are and who remain (at least for most of us who don’t lead sad lives complaining about girls on the dark web in our mothers’ basements) history’s greatest villains. Certainly no other generation of wartime opponents is more deserving of everlasting contempt than the Nazis. It makes sense, then, that only an incorruptible and selfless Greatest Generation could beat a Third Reich with no moral scruples and a nine-year head start. I don’t believe this means we need to abandon our judgments about Nazis and start saying nice things about them*, but we should remind ourselves that just as there were probably some bad Americans who fought the good fight, there were probably also Germans who made terrible mistakes out of self-preservation and cowardice.
In any case, I don’t believe that this book’s epilogue has been written yet. At some point humanity is going to have to contend with the consequences of climate change, and the longer we all collectively wait, the worse it is going to be for our future selves and our descendants. It already seems increasingly unlikely that my daughter will ever see a glacier south of the Arctic Circle, enjoy a river cruise through the Amazonian rainforest, or visit Manhattan’s Battery Park without scuba gear. She is going to have to deal with some stuff, while all the Boomers and Karens and Oregon Trail-obsessed Xennials decompose in cemeteries that should probably be trees and homes. I don’t envy her, and for that same reason I don’t envy the Greatest Generation. They did what they had to do for their country and for freedom, without complaint, and without expectation of reward, and we will forever be in their debt. Accordingly, at some point climate change will stop being something we “should” act on, and will quickly and inexorably morph into something that requires action and mobilization if we are to survive. I hope that Generation Z and whatever-letter-we’re-up-to-now generation my daughter belongs to rises to the challenge, because folks my age and above sure aren’t. And when they do, I hope some future Tom Brokaw writes a fawning book about them, too.
If I’m alive to see it, I promise I won’t argue, and will quietly go back to dying of dysentery in Oregon Trail for the 10-millionth time. Meanwhile, if anyone today is looking for an instructive or inspirational example of what an entire generation is capable of when they collectively put their minds towards doing something, this book will do the trick.
*The Autobahn, a Nazi Germany invention, is the only thing I can think of . . . but it is significant enough that I immediately thought of it. Since I enjoy driving fast when trying to cross vast stretches of nowhere, I admit to my shame that I am thankful for this one silver lining.
We are now nearing the end of our month-by-month letter analysis series. In fact, next Wednesday’s post on November 1941 (just in time for Thanksgiving!) will be the last for a while.
I am going to change things up a bit for December: instead of posting my writing based on the letters, I am going to post the December 1941 letters themselves, on the days when they were written (e.g., a December 17th letter will be posted on December 17th). On the morning of December 7th I will post an excerpt from my book project in which I describe the attack on Pearl Harbor and Elmer’s recollections from that day. Later in the month (after Christmas sometime) I will write a December 1941 post reflecting on the attack and on the days that followed, and on the 31st I will post about Grandpa’s 1941 Near Year’s celebration in San Diego, which was eventful and interesting for a number of reasons.
I am still working out how to approach this material in the new year. I plan on immediately diving into Elmer’s 1942 correspondence, but the pacing will be different because his letters following the attack on Pearl Harbor are much shorter. This is not for want of things to talk about, but because Naval censors took seriously the old warning, “loose lips sink ships.” Then sometime around Valentine’s Day I will begin introducing you all to a tranche of letters I have barely even touched yet: Elmer’s love letters to his future wife, Rose, and the letters he received from her in turn.
In addition to all that, I hope to have news to report about my forthcoming book on horse stealing, including cover art, during the first few months of the year. This summer I will begin to pivot more towards that project as its release date gets closer. I also hope to have some exciting updates about my documentary project, Earthshaking.
In the meantime, my winter break is coming up, and I am very much looking forward to having some time to catch up on project reading and also crank out some writing for this manuscript. That means more book reviews are coming.
Thanks for your patience . . . and thank you as always for reading!
Between travel and midterms grading I will not be able to post a book review this week. Instead, I have posted the talk that I gave a few weeks ago at the Western History Association Conference in Las Vegas. It was for a panel discussion of Jon Lauck’s The Interior Borderlands: Regional Identity in the Midwest and Great Plains, for which I contributed a chapter (you can check out the book on Amazon or at the Center for Great Plains Studies Online Shop). I hope that no one minds the gratuitous references to early 90s music or cow butts. Have a great weekend! – Matt
This past summer marked the 25th anniversary of the album Purple by Stone Temple Pilots. This was one of the cornerstone albums of my youth, so I’ve been thinking it about it some over the past few months. My favorite track on the album, and probably one of the most popular songs from the 90s overall, is “Interstate Love Song.” While the lyrics themselves are about, according to Scott Weiland, “honesty, lack of honesty, and . . . heroin],” the song’s title in my fourteen-year old brain became associated with . . . well, the Interstate. And the specific image it brings to mind for me is from a road trip my family took in the spring of 1995. My brother and I piled into the backseat of my parent’s Ford Escort – not the best car choice in the world for a family with two teenage boys, but it wasn’t my call – and we drove from our home in St. Louis to Colorado Springs. I had never traveled west of Springfield, Missouri before that trip, and I’d never seen what folks in the West would call “mountains.”
Anyway, while my parents kept scanning the radio dial for the strongest oldies stations, I fortunately had a Walkman, and a mix tape I made from the radio which had, among other tracks, “Interstate Love Song.” And now, as I think back on that song, and as much as that song and that album for me provided the soundtrack for my early teenage years, the first and last image that comes into my mind when I hear it today is this: the flat, level horizon of the west Kansas prairie along Interstate 70. And me thinking that, somewhere between Topeka and Hays, we had entered someplace new. The rolling hills of Missouri and eastern Kansas were gone. The trees were gone. The curves in the road were gone. And I remember just staring at that distant green horizon, knowing but not quite understanding either the song lyrics or the fact that we had left the Midwest and had entered the Great Plains.
This nebulous, invisible border between the two stands in stark contrast to what we found when we arrived in Colorado: the Rocky Mountains rising abruptly and sharply from the prairies below. Flying over the Front Range, you can even see the sudden uplift of the first foothills beginning in peoples’ backyards!
But for most people traveling east to west, the eastern border of the Plains is less perceptible. It was even less so for the hundreds of thousands of migrants who made the trip on foot, on wagons, or on horseback. The border was experienced and usually noticed after the fact: alkali water, less interesting terrain, less shade, different animals, taller grass, even more annoying insects. Trail diaries and memoirs are a fantastic resource for getting a sense of where migrants believed this border lay. Of course, these recollections lack the specificity and certainly of Stephen Long’s 1820 expedition report in which he infamously characterized Nebraska as a “Great Desert,” or John Wesley Powell’s claim in 1878 that the 100th Meridian provides a clean and intuitive border between the arid Plains and the more agriculturally suitable Midwest. Many Western Historians – including me – have satisfied ourselves with these so-called official explanations, and have used them to frame both contemporary experiences as well as our own, making them more intelligible and perhaps less surreal. But trail diaries and official reports both lack a broader, dynamic sense of not only where this so-called border lies, but how it changes over time, and how the ecological, agricultural, and geographic borderland it anchors between the two regions affects the evolution and development of communities, institutions, language, and even the stories we tell about how we won the West.
This book, Interior Borderlands, goes a long way in expanding the ways in which we think about this border by treating it as a borderland zone in its own right. And borderland zones are both fascinating and essential in that they force us to think critically and creatively about how borders and transitional zones affect historical change. This book and the breadth of ways in which its authors approach and treat both the border’s definitions and its impact on surrounding peoples, cultures, and economies has already influenced at least one historian’s approach to the middle border: my own.
Of course, credit for this change lies outside of my own contribution to the volume. The chapter I included for this book utilizes several advertising tracts I found at the Huntington while researching my book on horse stealing in Nebraska These brochures were created by ranch and railroad companies trying to sell off their massive Great Plains land holdings. These tracts were fascinating, providing a wide variety of exaggerations and distortions about the arability of the lands for sale. Yet unlike Scott Weiland in “Interstate Love Song,” who expresses genuine remorse for misleading his girlfriend about his heroin habit, these pamphlets almost exulted in their lies. As a result, the growing desperation and hyperbole that characterized land sales in western Nebraska created a kind of real estate borderland there, where the aridity of the climate in that region forced sellers to either oversell the land’s benefits or, in the case of some less unscrupulous sellers, propose practical solutions to maximize profit, like growing alfalfa or supporting bonded irrigation districts.
But while I confess to using some of my unused dissertation research for this chapter, once this book came out earlier this year it spurred me to think differently about my research on horse stealing in western Nebraska along the 100th Meridian. Specifically, it helped me recognize a fact that has eluded me for ten years: that the interior border between the Plains and the Midwest not only affects the distribution of stock grower associations and anti-horse thief associations, but the absence of the latter west of that border dramatically impacts how farmers view the morality and necessity of violent vigilantism.
Stock grower organizations brought self-imposed regulation to the once wild-and-wooly range where ranchers could steal from one another, but could not chase rustlers far beyond their own territory. Unlike the homesteaders and settlers who employed vigilante rhetoric to make up for the perceived inadequacies of law enforcement, ranchers relied on an individualistic, libertarian ethos and rhetoric that fought federal range regulation on the one hand, while promoting advances in veterinary science on the other. Much of this stemmed from the ranchers’ original goal of banding together and busting up the gangs of horse thieves and cattle rustlers that once preyed on their ranches.
While the inspiration for stock-grower associations came from Texas and Mexico, farmers’ organized responses to horse stealing could be found further east. After the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of farmers across the Midwest joined local, state, and even national anti-horse-thief societies. Similar in organization to stock-grower associations, these groups usually collected dues for income, relied on an executive committee to disseminate stolen horse information and pursue thieves, and often filed articles of incorporation and formally adopted constitutions with county and state authorities.
Unlike their western counterparts, however, anti-horse-thief associations borrowed heavily from the Freemasons. Members usually gathered in secret and often incorporated rituals into their meetings. These societies grew quickly and over a wide area because anti-horse-thief societies were a tailor-made response to horse stealing. They channeled the concerns of worried farmers across the Midwest, alleviated anxieties over inefficacious law enforcement, and in general expressed the precariousness of the postbellum agricultural economy.
Despite the popularity of anti-horse thief societies across the Midwest, western Nebraskans expressed little enthusiasm for the idea. This was likely because the conditions that made homesteading in western Nebraska so difficult overall—namely poor rainfall—prompted many sodbusters to leave the state before they had firmed up their land patents. Farmers often moved into and out of townships, creating demographic and population turnover and resulting in the more economically successful and socially connected people in most communities throughout the region being ranchers, not farmers. Homesteaders in Nebraska had common cause with one another, but because too few people stayed on their claims long enough to build stable communities they could not effectively direct their anxieties into productive group-building. This explains why stock-growers’ associations were the primary organizational tool in the region for combatting rustlers and horse thieves, as well as why homesteaders and other farmers in western Nebraska often embraced violent solutions and rhetoric when dealing with horse thieves.
At any rate, in spite of both my own participation in this project and this book’s influence on my own work since it came out, I don’t really believe that the book satisfactorily answers its own question of where this middle border lies. But I don’t think it needs too. Perhaps the interior border is, above all else, impressionistic, biographical, even visceral. The very amorphousness of it demands that we interpret it experientially, though the prism of our own stories and aspirations, which in turn gives it power. It’s why the legendary Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip’s aptly-named song “At the Hundredth Meridian” conjures up such vivid imagery in its lyrics:
Driving down a corduroy road (crashing through the window)The Tragically Hip, “At the Hundredth Meridian”
Weeds standing shoulder-high (through the window)
Ferris wheel is rusting off in the distance
At the hundredth meridian
Where the Great Plains begin
And it’s probably why “Interstate Love Song” resonates with me so many years later. Not because of the topical appropriateness of the lyrics I heard through my headphones, but because of the strange, sublime, incomprehensible, and unforgettable beauty of what I was seeing for the first time outside my car window.
I was in Tucson last weekend with my family for the Arizona Wildcats football game. My father in law is an alum, and each Fall I watch a game with him in the alumni box. I’m not necessarily a Wildcats fan (not that the Bruins are doing much these days, despite finally beating Stanford this weekend), but the food is good and the company is better.
Anyway, we had most of a day to kill in Tuscon, and one of the things I was interested in doing was going to the site of the Camp Grant Massacre. Located 59 miles north of Tuscon, this location was where on April 30, 1871 a group of Tohono O’odham warriors, Mexican civilians, and six Americans killed 144 Aravaipa Apaches. Without going into too much detail about what led to this brutal event (for those who are interested, I highly recommend Karl Jacoby’s wonderful – if haunting – account, of the massacre, Shadows at Dawn), it was a fairly significant event in the history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.
What was really surprising to me, though, is that there is no monument. No park, no commemorative plaque, not even a roadside marker. Nothing. Just desert.
In recent years there has been a great deal of controversy over Confederate monuments and whether or not they should be removed. While I don’t intend to weigh in on that specific issue here, one of the comments often made in defense of keeping Confederate monuments is that by losing them we risk forgetting our history. I don’t agree with that argument (I’m an historian, after all – I am literally paid to make people learn and hopefully not forget history), but it does bring up an interesting point: do we risk forgetting about tragic events if we don’t memorialize them in any way?
I think we do.
How many folks in Tuscon know about this attack? Not many, I’d wager. Yet there they are, sixty miles from what could be a fantastic opportunity for local students and others to learn about the US-Mexico borderlands, regional indigenous groups, and frontier violence . . . and there is nothing.
For a good template for what is possible, one might check out the Massacre Canyon Monument in Trenton, Nebraska, where as many as 100 Pawnees were killed by the Lakota as they hunted bison in the Republican River Valley on August 5, 1873. I discuss this event in my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing and Culture in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890.
Despite its isolation (it is VERY far from virtually everywhere), the monument is respectful, informative, and an enduring tribute to the men, women, and children who died that day.
While it is disappointing to learn that there is no similar monument for the Camp Grant Massacre, it is never too late to build one. And for those who defend existing monuments to more controversial figures, it is never too late to reevaluate their ability to not only teach us about the past, but to inspire us to be better in the future.
[Note: I realized that I promised a blog about why non-academics should attend academic history conferences. Let’s, uh, put a pin on that . . . not that I don’t stand by this sentiment, but I had a number of conversations this past weekend about the present and future direction of the WHA, and about some of the rival organizations out there that are currently attracting more members, that compel me to think about the matter some. Stay tuned . . . I do plan on talking about this at some point. – ML]
[Monday, 10/21 update: I should never try to update and edit a post after a couple pints of Guinness in a casino bar. Lesson learned. – ML]
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For sailors and soldiers stationed on Oahu, the local YMCA offered a comfortable home base away from, well . . . base.
Grandpa’s box of war documents did not just contain letters. Hidden among the many other pieces of ephemera, I found a well-worn YMCA map and brochure. According to his letters Elmer visited the facility often, and the document lists many potential reasons for why he and others frequented the place: “The popular ‘Navy Y’ [is] the club, meeting place, and recreation center for thousands of men from the [Navy] Yard and the ships afloat.” The Y featured “a 700-seat auditorium” with “four free shows and three paid programs . . . [a] week,” as well as a “cool, spacious lobby with many table and small games.” It also contained “quiet writing and study rooms,” which is what Elmer must have been utilizing when penning his March 8th, 1941 letter. “The fellas” he came to town with that day “went on to a show,” he wrote, “but I decided to write you and Pat here at the ‘Y.'”
The Y provided essential services as well, including a small bank, a money order wire counter, two chapels, and even a “curio shop” for “the economical purchase of souvenirs and gifts.” Getting there was easy as well, and no hitchhiking was necessary: a one-way bus ticket from Navy Yard to the Y was 20 cents, and a taxi (which could be divvied up) cost a quarter. The brochure even contained a complete map of the island of Oahu, showing the locations of the various bases, attractions, and even what beaches were safe for swimming.
In any event, the YMCA was a cheap, pleasant place to spend one’s liberty, and Elmer frequently found himself there when in town.
One thing I’d like to start doing in this space is to spend some time writing about the books I am using in my research. While admittedly my research interest in my Grandpa’s Letters project is a bit less academically trenchant than my work on horse thieves, it does give me the opportunity to read some great books about World War II, the Navy, and the wider world he inhabited.
Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizona is historian Walter R. Borneman’s most recent book, having come out earlier this year. It is the tale of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona, as told from the perspective of the thirty-eight pairs (and in some cases trios) of brothers who served together on that ill-fated ship. Of those thirty-eight sets, only one pair of brothers both survived, and only twelve other men among the others avoided death that day.
But while only a few members of the Arizona’s complement survived – most of whom happened to have spent the night elsewhere, thus avoiding the ship’s fate altogether that morning – their stories live on. Borneman interviewed the survivors and their families, as well as the families of the deceased, many of whom shared their letters and other mementos and stories of their departed fathers, brothers, and uncles. The author did a remarkable job not only collecting all of these different stories, but of also weaving them together throughout the book. It’s a master class on historiographical resourcefulness: it is much easier to go to an archive than it is to hunt down families whose loved ones died the better part of a century ago under sudden, violent, and tragic circumstances.
Organizationally the book is divided into three parts: the history of the Arizona and its crew before the attack, the attack itself, and the days and years following December 7th. Borneman revels in details throughout this narrative: explaining who these men were, where they grew up, the kinds of trouble they got into as kids, the reasons why they joined the Navy during peacetime, etc. Some of their stories were not unlike Grandpa’s – they sent money home each month and wrote as often as they could. But grandpa’s story diverged when he was assigned to a ship that, for the most part, survived the day relatively unscathed. Anyway, these stories give names and life to the list of names on the wall at the Arizona Memorial.
The book was a quick read, at least for me. It would have been quicker if not for some filler towards the middle – Borneman takes pains to describe the college football games being played on December 6th and the hot songs of the day, apropos of nothing. However, for the most part the story is well-written, accessible, and at certain points action-driven. The last two chapters of the book were especially poignant, and one many wish to have a box of tissues or a handkerchief available.
This was a valuable first book to read on the subject of Pearl Harbor. Borneman is a more than capable historian, and this entry will serve as a touchstone for me going forward. But more importantly, it is a fantastic model for how to research and write the stories of World War II servicemen. It is sensitive, contemplative, thorough in its chasing down of narrative strands and family leads, and exquisitely well-written. His use of the brother pairings was an excellent choice, both in terms of creating a broad yet narrow set of subjects for the book (the Arizona’s compliment was over 1,500, which is a lot of individual stories) while also facilitating its research (pairs of brothers mean multiple families to consult, which creates larger pools of historical information as family members tell stories about their uncles as well as their fathers or grandfathers). His approach works very well.
Overall, I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona, or well-crafted history book in general.
Do you have any books you’d like to recommend? Have you read this one? Share your thoughts in a comment!
I’m running behind on my research and writing during the past couple of weeks. Everyone in our house but the dog has been sick for much of that time, and unfortunately the dog is not able to cook us food or clean the house. We’re all on the mend and feeling much better, but needless to say it’s been a drag.
As I start building up some more material to write about (currently going through the April 1941 letters), I’ll post a couple of quick blog posts about interesting topics that may not necessarily justify a longer discussion.
For example . . . think about two things most people possess today: food and photographs. Food is expensive, while photographs, thanks to smart phones, are virtually free. In fact, we now live in the age of the “food selfie,”
in which folks order exotic or elaborate meals while traveling, and then upload pictures of the spread and of themselves to social media.
In 1941, however, those price points were reversed . . . on March 8th Elmer described a meal that he had purchased in Honolulu to his parents, which included the following fare:
How much did all that sumptuous food cost? 45 cents!
However, Elmer’s parents requested that he send a photo of himself back to Saint Louis. They wanted to see for themselves how he was doing. Since Instagram would not be invented for another 75 years or so, Elmer had to go into town and order portrait photographs. This required an appointment with a photographer (booked in advance), plus about two weeks for development.
He ordered six 4×3″ pictures. The cost? Four dollars.
That’s a lot of pork chops and ice cream.
If you could buy any meal you wanted for less than a dollar, what would it be? Please leave a comment and let us know!
By early March 1941, Elmer was beginning to get acclimated to his new surroundings: the Chew, Pearl Harbor, the Neutrality Zone, Honolulu, and Waikiki Beach. “I feel fine,” he wrote in a letter to his brother Bud and his family, “[and I] really have a swell sun tan.”
Although still on mess duty, Grandpa did not mind starting his Naval career in the Chew’s kitchen. “I am glad I got mess cook first,” he reported to his parents. “It will be over soon[,] then I can dive right in and learn all about running this destroyer. The other fellows will all have to take their mess cook duty in turn. Every man in the Navy has [to do it.]” Mess duty had its advantages as well. “The ‘chow’ is plenty good, too. You can eat as much as you want. Ice cream every day,” he wrote on January 25th. It was also financially lucrative, with mess cooks earning an extra $5 a month in pay plus whatever was in the mess tip jar. Elmer sent his extra earnings home each month. On March 1st, he informed his parents that he was sending them $20, but that they should not worry about him keeping enough for himself. Between that and the $6 he had won in a card game the past week, Elmer was flush with walking around money (“I am a careful gambler,” he wrote reassuringly).
Outside of the mess kitchen, Elmer was also getting to know the wider world on and beyond the base. On March 1st Elmer described the overall organization of the 80th Destroyer Division, which was made up of the Chew, the Schely, the Allen, and the Ward. The four ships shared patrol duties through the Hawai’ian neutrality zone, which included searching for hostile ships and submarines, performing battle drills, and ensuring the safety of Pearl Harbor and its many inhabitants. He told his parents that they would soon embark on a ten day patrol cruise and that they shouldn’t expect any letters during that time. With all of the patrolling, “[I am] getting to be a salty sailor.”
Despite the cruises, Elmer was also getting to know and enjoy Oahu. In Honolulu he frequented the YMCA and enjoyed going to the movies, while at Waikiki he and his pals “really had a swell time. Swimming and surf boat riding. Boy is that the life! We all had a good time.” Although the beach was a ways away from town, he had no problems hitchhiking. “It is easy to catch a ride. A sailor in uniform gets a ride very easy.”
In any case, Elmer’s mess duty was scheduled to end on April 1st, and a brand new set of experiences would begin. He would then have a little over eight months to learn as much as he could about “running this destroyer” before he, his shipmates, and the rest of the country found themselves smack dab in the middle of a war.