December 1943: A Master at Arms

When Elmer arrived back in New Orleans after his Thanksgiving leave, he still had several weeks ahead of him in Louisiana before he would be able to join his new boat. But now work, training, and preparation, rather than bedrest, prevented him from more thoroughly enjoying the French Quarter and its many old buildings.

Elmer spent the first four days of the month working at the Naval Air Station as a Master-at-Arms. While the rating itself has a long history and intensely professional tradition, his commanders at the barracks threw the relatively healthy and warm-bodied Elmer into what may be best described as a temp job. “My job as a Master-at-Arms is a snap,” he wrote. “A little walking here and there, and a night duty now and then. But we have a ‘pie truck’ (police wagon) for many jobs. And every night off except when you get the duty.”

On December 5th, he led a dozen other sailors assigned along with him to his new ship to gunnery school at Shell Beach. Located southeast of New Orleans on the south shore of Lake Borgne, the Anti-Aircraft Training School introduced students to the guns the Navy used to take down enemy aircraft. For six days, sailors assembled, reassembled, and learned the ins and outs of the Navy’s 20mm and 3-inch anti-aircraft guns. And then they learned how to shoot them. “Personally, I don’t think I’m much of a marksman,” he admitted to his parents, “but it’s all new and only practice makes perfect.” Sometimes the practice was enjoyable, especially with the 20mm guns. “It’s fun to feel that ‘baby’ spit hot steel and tracers from the muzzle,” he wrote, as if channeling Rambo. The 3″ gun was a little different, however. Elmer was “a little nervous” about firing it, but so were his crewmates. Overall, he believed that “we did fine [despite having] such little training.” When practicing their firing, they would train their guns at a “sleeve towed by an airplane.”

A Royal Navy 20mm Oerlikon gunner at his gun mount aboard the Dido-class cruiser HMS Dido in 1942, which is the same year when the United States Navy began ordering and installing Oerlikon guns for use on its vessels. The Mink was equipped with eight of these cannons.

There was little else to hit in Shell Beach. “Well, here I am after three days of gunnery practice. What a life! What a place?” Tucked deep as it was within Louisiana’s bewildering maze of brackish swamps, canals, and rivers, the question mark after “place” seemed oddly appropriate. There were few towns or villages around the area, just the beasts of the bayou. “[There are] plenty of mosquitos, fog, and bugs and bunks with boards instead of springs,” Elmer complained. They also could not rate liberty or receive mail. Shell Beach was just a place to go and shoot guns for a few days.

Elmer did have one interesting encounter while at the gunnery school. There he met several Russian soldiers who, for one reason or another, were also there to learn about the Navy’s anti-aircraft guns.* Elmer got to know some of his allied comrades at the facility. “They are really big, husky boys,” he wrote his parents. “They like Americans and our movies, chow, and about everything. They can speak very little English, but [they] try so hard to learn more.”

Elmer was happy to return to the comforts of New Orleans on December 12th. On the 13th, he resumed his Master of Arms duties at the barracks.** But the most exciting news was that he finally had a new ship: the USS Mink (IX-123). The Mink was an Armadillo-class tanker that could store and deliver nearly 65,000 barrels of crude oil, aviation fuel, lubricant, or other essential materials. One of eighteen tankers of this class, the Mink helped the United States Navy build up its auxiliary fleet in advance of its planned invasions of the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. While the United States was inching closer to Japan proper, its ships and planes were also creeping farther away from established supply lines, thus necessitating the use of mobile tanker ships that could resupply other vessels on the open sea or while anchored offshore.

The Judah Touro, an Armadillo-class tanker, was launched in New Orleans on December 4th. After New Year’s it was transferred to the United State Navy, commissioned for service, and renamed the Mink. Source: Tuoro Infirmary, New Orleans.

Elmer was excited about his new assignment, especially when he learned about the sleeping arrangements on the ship. “They say we have excellent living quarters [aboard the Mink],” he wrote on the 19th. “Four men to a compartment with big upright lockers and even reading lights on the bunks. Some job, eh dad?” He also geeked out over the ship itself, and recited the ship’s statistics to his father. “It is a big tanker, about 436 feet long by about 50 or 70 feet broad. Good duty. Weight or displacement about 14,000 tons.” Overall, the new ship pleased Elmer. “I’m well satisfied with the set up.”

But not every one was looking forward to serving aboard a tanker. Some of the senior officers on the Mink declined to attend its commissioning ceremony, thinking that it was a powder-puff assignment and that perhaps serving on the Mink was somehow an indictment of their courage or character. Elmer elaborated on this somewhat in his oral interview:

They had a regular commissioning ceremony [on the Mink.] I’ll never forget that. There was quite a few young guys that just came into the Navy boot camp . . . Anyway, two or three of them didn’t even show up for their commissioning date. They didn’t want to go do duty on a tanker.

Elmer Luckett

At least on a destroyer, like the Chew, ostensibly the primary function by definition was for it to destroy things, whether they be submarines, mines, or other ships. But while the Chew was certainly not representative of all destroyers in the Pacific Theater, it completed the war with only one Battle Star to its credit, which it had earned following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Like a boxer waiting for their next fight, the ship paced around the Pacific with her full compliment of deck guns, escorting numerous ships to safety but finding little danger on her own.

Meanwhile, the Mink, a glorified gas station with a rudder and a few anti-aircraft guns bolted onto the deck, spent less than two years refueling bigger, stronger, and faster ships that were on their way to the fighting. But tankers were major targets of opportunity for Japanese ships, airplanes, and kamikaze pilots, who only had to detonate the highly flammable fuel inside to destroy both the tanker and anything located in its vicinity, particularly other ships in the process of being refueled. By the time the Japanese surrendered, the Mink had earned three Battle Stars of her own. Elmer was there for all of them.

1944 was going to be a very different kind of year.

The USS Porcupine (IX-126), filled with aviation fuel, is struck by a kamikaze plane on 30 December 1944, off White Beach, Mangarin Bay, Leyte, in the Philippines. The Porcupine, like the Mink, was an Armadillo-class tanker.

Despite serving on a tanker, seven of her crewmen never made it home.

*If anyone has any information on Russian soldiers or sailors training on American military equipment, please let me know.

**Elmer had one especially interesting adventure as a Master of Arms which frankly deserves its own blog post. I will publish it in the coming days. Stay tuned!

November 1942: Stateside

On October 31st, 1942, the Chew accompanied a small convey out of Honolulu and escorted it East. Eleven days later, the ship reached its destination: San Francisco. It was the first time Elmer and many of his shipmates had seen the North American mainland since they left for Hawaii nearly two years earlier.

No one knew how long they were going to be in town, but on the same token no one knew when they would be back on North American soil. Some of Elmer’s shipmates, including the Grossmans and Ozzie, immediately seized the opportunity to contact their parents. Elmer hesitated, however, believing that his parents would be heartbroken if they were to come out to San Francisco and arrive only after his ship had departed.

Elmer usually liked to send postcards back home of the places he visited, but for whatever reason I couldn’t find one of San Francisco. So here is a representative non-tinted postcard from the 1940s. “The Golden Gate Bridge connecting San Francisco and the Redwood Highway,” by photographer Alexander Zan #1532.

This point soon created minor controversy in Elmer’s family, since Jack and Harold Grossman’s mother, as well as Ozzie’s mother and wife, were all able to make the trip out to California to see them. Rose Luckett registered her disappointment with her baby boy. “As you say I should have contacted you as fast as possible,” he wrote. “But I was so doubtful as to what the future was, I hesitated.” Elmer did get to speak to his parents on the phone, however. The long-distance, wartime telephone call took three hours to connect, and the conversation itself only lasted for a few minutes. But it brought some relief after nearly two years of separation. While in town he also went to a photography studio to fulfill his mother’s request for a portrait.

Ironically enough, once Mrs. Grossman arrived with her daughter, Dot, Jack and Harold could not get off the ship for liberty. But Elmer was off that day, so he took their mom and sister out for lunch. “We talked about you and home, and everything in general,” he recalled in his letter. Mrs. Grossman also volunteered to deliver his photo to his mother. “[She] is taking some gifts home for me, also the two photos I had taken,” he wrote. “She sure is a swell person. They liked the photo very much. One is plain, the other tinted.” The Grossmans were on their way to visit family in Bakersfield, Elmer reported, but once they were back in Saint Louis they would deliver the photo to his parents. Later on he met Ozzie’s mother and wife as well.

Elmer did not just spend his time in San Francisco hanging out with his friends’ moms. “I’ve been having a very good time here,” he reported. “This town has everything in the line of entertainment and amusement that a person could want. I even did some dancing after being away from it for so long. Wish you could see the bridges they have here. You probably heard of them.” Elmer spared no expense during this “so-called vacation.” After spending nearly two years in Oahu or at sea, Elmer was excited to spend some time – and money – in a different place. The trip ended up costing approximately $130, he calculated the following month, “but it was worth every penny and more.” Ultimately, it was a “rather expensive vacation, but it’s our chance to have a good time.”

Elmer’s visit to the States coincided with an important milestone in the war: Operation Torch. On November 8th, 1942, American and other Allied forces landed at several points along the North African coast, thus starting on a long, circuitous path that would ultimately take them to Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and finally Germany itself. The United States Navy also won a major battle against the Japanese off the coast of Guadalcanal. The San Francisco Examiner headline the morning of November 17th read, “Japs Licked in Showdown, Lose 30 Ships, 30,000 Men!” As usual, though, Elmer was cautiously optimistic. “The news has been looking good over the past week,” he wrote, but “don’t get too optimistic.”

nov17 -
The front page of the San Francisco Examiner on November 17th. Elmer, a voracious news junkie, might have read this edition of the paper when he was in town.

After thirteen days in San Francisco, the Chew departed on its return trip to Pearl Harbor on Monday, November 23rd, just three days before Thanksgiving. As he digested his holiday meal (“roast turkey, sweet potatoes, Irish spuds, asparagus, dressing, soup, cranberry sauce, salad, pie, cake, coffee, candy, nuts, cigars, and cigarettes. My what a list!”) Elmer sat down to write his first post-San Francisco visit letter home to his parents. He was in a reflective mood:

Although things aren’t looking as bright as they could be, with the war etc., we do have so much to be thankful for today . . . good health, perfect family, and the consolation that our country is fighting on the right side for the right ideals. Not that all is perfect with US and our people, but we can’t doubt that our cause is a just one. Thankful to know, that in my own small way I’m making or help[ing make] our people safe in their homes – while all over the world so many innocent people must be destroyed in their homes. This is no speech, nor intended to be anything in that sense, but just a thought. [I] wonder how many people realize how fortunate they are today?”

Elmer Luckett to Mr. and Mrs. F. L. Luckett, 26 November 1942

I’m not sure what Elmer was referring to when he wrote that the United States isn’t “perfect.” While that is hardly an arguable statement (or, one would hope, a controversial one), it is a more critical opinion of America than either Elmer or many Americans in general were accustomed to offering during the war. There is no way of knowing if he was referring to the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans, the bullying of Latinx Angelenos by American servicemen that culminated in the Zoot Suit Riots, or anything else of that nature. I suppose that is a question I could have asked him during our interview, but I did not.

At any rate, Grandpa thoroughly understood that, in spite of America’s flaws, it was on the right side of history in this conflict. Which, again, is a virtually inarguable proposition, at least as far as I am concerned.

San Francisco offered Elmer and his shipmates a much-needed break from the monotony of escort duty and life in wartime Hawaii. But it also reminded them of exactly what they were hoping to protect by fighting in the war.

Research Trip

Hi folks,
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:

Book Review: Pearl Harbor

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.

What I’m Reading: The Greatest Generation

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.

Image result for the greatest generation

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.

October 1941: Our Boys in Blue

By October, as the Chew underwent the final stages of its rehabilitation, the World War I-era destroyer began to look more distinctive, more modern. Elmer related what he could to his parents back home. She “looks like a new ship,” he reported on October 19th. Much of the machinery was updated or replaced, while the old paint on the hull was painstakingly removed with pneumatic chisels so that the ship could be repainted. The entire crew was involved in the former effort. “It is one of those dirty jobs that just has to be done,” he lamented. By the time the crew moved back into the ship at the end of the month, it had new “tables, chairs, fans,” and other comforts. Even the mattresses were deep cleaned and repacked. Overall, the overhaul was “an experience in itself,” and throughout the process Elmer learned what he could.

As exciting as these upgrades were to the young men living on an old ship, Elmer did not relish a return to patrol duty. “I would like to go somewhere else for a change,” he wrote on the 11th. “You know a place becomes stale after you see all the sights and places. I have seen most of the places of interest.” Elmer was not alone in his boredom. After several months in paradise, many sailors began to yearn for the comforts of the mainland. Honolulu in 1941 was still a small city, with 180,000 people to Saint Louis’s 820,000. In terms of size it was like Worcester, Massachusetts, but with beaches and nicer weather. It was also expensive, with many of the restaurants and shopping destinations well outside of the Fireman 2nd Class’s budget. Even haircuts were four times as much in town than they were at Pearl, he complained at one point. It should come as no surprise why Elmer spent so much of his time at the Y.

Elmer also attributed his ennui to itchy feet. “The old urge to move and see more of the sights on this Earth has got me,” he reported to his parents. After all, the desire to see the world was one of the reasons why he joined the Naval Reserve in the first place. But Honolulu was smaller than the hometown he had left. Pearl was smaller still: an island within an island. It was time to venture forth and see more of what the world had to offer.

Yet for the time being, Hawai’i was also one of the safest places in the world. Much of the planet was engulfed in war as China and the Soviet Union fought for their right to exist, while Nazi boots kicked up dust as far west as the Bay of Biscay and as far east as the Black Sea. The Third Reich took an increasingly aggressive approach to American merchant and Naval traffic on the North Atlantic as well, (correctly) ascertaining that Roosevelt’s actions belied his supposed neutrality. On the morning of October 17th, 1941, Americans woke up to the news that a German U-Boat fired a torpedo at the U.S.S. Kearny, a Clemson-class destroyer, in the North Atlantic. The explosion killed eleven sailors, rattling the nation and heightening fears that war was imminent.

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Kearny (DD-432) following the repair of her torpedo damage in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts (USA), on 31 March 1942. USN – Official U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships photo 19-N-28745 available at Destroyerhistory.org

The scare was not lost on Grandpa. In his October 29th letter to his parents, Elmer Luckett put on a brave face for his folks. “We have little to worry about,” he assured them. “Our duty don’t [sic] take us from Pearl Harbor. And you know Pearl Harbor is the strongest naval base in the Pacific – probably in the world. So don’t let the newspaper stories worry you folks.” For his part, Luckett told his parents he was unafraid. “I wouldn’t mind” being in the Atlantic, he told them. “I am a fatalist in that sense, if a thing is going to happen nothing can stop it. People take a chance every time they cross the street. There is no use to worry about such things.”

These sentiments were easier to express when the action was taking place nearly ten thousand miles way. However, the immediacy of the dangers surrounding the United States Navy might have contributed to his decision to send his parents a poem, “Our Boys in Blue.” Although the work shares the same name as a World War I-era tune, the lines bear little resemblance to one another. Whatever its origins, the poem might have been distributed to the sailors aboard the Chew during the Navy Day ceremonies on October 27th.

Of course, Elmer’s parents certainly did not need to be reminded that “these boys in blue, they’re very much worth while.” They wrote him regularly, and that month they also sent him a box of cigars, while his sister Irene mailed him cookies and candy. As he wrote his letter on the 26th, he reported that he was smoking one of the Chicago MC cigars they had mailed him, and “as they say in the Navy, ‘it’s right on,’ meaning its swell. Thanks again folks.”

But the poem also warned that “when dangers [sic] threatens, may I say (and it’s more apparent every day), they stand first, in blue or white, to adjust and make it right.” Perhaps this was the main message Elmer wanted to impart to his parents: that while the world’s troubles were beginning to close in, he and his shipmates were prepared to meet those challenges and dangers head on. His parents might worry about his safety, but they need not concern themselves with his preparedness.

Sure enough, on October 31st, just as millions of American kids were dressing up as ghosts and witches for Halloween, and as the Chew finished its own costume changes in advance of its service in a second World War, one hundred boys in blue died when a U-Boat torpedo attacked another ship, the USS Reuben James. This time the vessel sank into the cold depths of the Atlantic. Only 44 survived.

Like the Chew, the Reuben James was also a Wilkes-class destroyer from World War I. But no new paint job could save it from its fate.

“Our Boys in Blue,” a poem Elmer mailed to his parents on October 29th, 1941.

The Plan for December and Beyond

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!

Best,
Matt