November 1944: Pet Theories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elmer Luckett to his parents, 7 November 1944

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 1944: The Fighting Mink

On December 27, Elmer sent his parents his latest – and last – Christmas menu from the Mink’s official holiday dinner. It contained the usual fare: roast turkey, candied sweet potatoes, blueberry pie, and of course cigarettes. “We had a lovely dinner,” Elmer wrote, “and it sure went over good. Enclosed you will find the menu.” But the paper he sent had an additional bonus as well. “Also on the menu is our ship’s insignia – note the mink with the boxing gloves. I thought it very good.”

The USS Mink’s insignia, which Mink commander W. J. Meagher included on the ship’s Christmas menu. Elmer Luckett Ephemera Collection.

The insignia was certainly appropriate, and well-earned, given the Mink’s activities over the past two and a half months. Like hundreds of other ships, Elmer’s tanker participated in both the reconquest of the Philippines and the largest naval encounter in world history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Although the Mink was not a warship, the massive armada that closed in upon America’s fallen colony in late 1944 would not have traveled far without extra diesel and gasoline fuel on hand, so it and other oil-bearing ships were there to keep the invasion vessels going. But it would not be easy going. The Japanese understood why the tankers were there and diverted some of their limited air resources to bomb them. They, probably more than anyone, understood the importance of having a reliable fuel supply.

The Mink spent the majority of October in New Guinea, where it discharged oil and gas in Humboldt Bay from the 1st through the 18th. Elmer’s letters during this time, like the Mink’s operations, were business as usual. He reported to his parents that he was still receiving backlogged mail from his Australia trip and hinted that he missed his latest squeeze, Rae. He described her a bit more for his folks: she was 26, had reddish-brown hair, and was 5’5. The description was not entirely flattering. “Not a beautiful girl,” he recalled, “but pleasant, nice disposition, and a lot of personality.” Overall, though, it appears that Rae’s inside beauty more than made up for her outward appearance. “You weren’t worried about me with those Aussie girls, were you Dad? Ha! Ha! You know I can take care of myself, but they aren’t hard to fall for.”

Shirley apparently took Elmer’s relationship with Rae about as seriously as Elmer himself:

“[Shirley] asked what power I had over women, because Rae wrote you a letter. Ha! Ha! She is a good kid and understands about me going out while on leave. And I’m glad she does because I’ve told her I write other girls also. But she was first on my list at all times. (now you’re probably jealous, mom – but you’re still my best girl.)”

Elmer Luckett to his Parents, 11 October 1944

While Elmer’s intercontinental correspondence with a growing list of ladies would soon require its own rolodex, the bonds he formed with his fellow servicemen were both enduring and elastic. However, they were also harder to maintain, since naval personnel tended to change addresses frequently as their assignments and whereabouts changed. He was thrilled when he received a postcard from Ozzie Gray, who was awaiting orders in New Jersey and would soon rejoin the war in the North Atlantic. His last letter to Gray, which he had addressed to the Chew, was returned to him via post. Besides Gray, Elmer regularly corresponded with his friends from his time on the Chew, who like him were themselves now stretched across the world, fighting a global war. But they would always share a common bond, a steely heritage forged via months of living on the blue water but baptized by a morning of fire. “Guess most of that old gang is gone by now,” he wrote wistfully on the 15th. “The good ‘ole Chew.”

Ever conscious of the censor’s requirements, Elmer filled his pages with topics he could talk about, like his living compartment. “Wish you could see our quarters,” he beamed. “We have a nice desk in our room. It folds up against the bulkhead when not in use . . . The bulkheads are light blue, overhead is white enamel, and the lockers and bunks a dark blue” He appreciated the set-up. “Most Navy ships don’t offer these accommodations . . . we can’t kick about conditions. Especially when you see how men live on the beach in this neck of the woods.”

Point of comparison to the Mink: Photo of USS Hornet (CV-12) enlisted bunks. Stan Shebs, 2005, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USS_Hornet_enlisted_bunks.jpg.

He also transacted the regular business of birthdays and holidays, mentioning that he purchased a stack of birthday cards in Australia to send out over the following months but could not find any for Christmas, which were not available yet. However, he did ask his folks what he should get them, and probably intended to have one of his siblings arrange to purchase the items on his behalf. He would certainly have the resources to make such arrangements: on October 8th he sent a $70 money order home to be deposited in to his account. Now that his leave was over he was back on the ship, flush with cash but with nowhere to spend it.

By October 15th his tone shifted slightly. He knew that he was about to leave again. He told his mother that he attended church that day aboard another boat, and he once again sent his usual disclaimer for those times when he knew he might be incommunicado: “I’m in shipshape and good spirits. Don’t forget if at any time my letters are late, no news is good news, and they may be a little longer reaching you . . . and I wanted to let you know now.” He wrote again the next day, indicating that it might be his last letter for a few weeks. He did not have much to say after the previous day’s letter, so he talked movies. “No, mom, I didn’t see Bing Crosby in Going My Way,” he replied in response to some question about the most commercially and critically successful film of 1944. “Our movies aren’t very new out here. But I see many that I haven’t seen before.” He mentioned that the crew did watch Dixie Dugan recently, which had come out the previous year.

Elmer, along with 200,000 other naval personnel, were about to move ever farther away from where all the good movies were made. Their next stop was the Japanese-occupied Philippines. The grand operation, codenamed King Two, was comparable only to the D-Day landings in Normandy in terms of both scale and self-satisfaction. In particular, General Douglas MacArthur was eager to fulfill his promise three years earlier to his men trapped on the archipelago behind enemy lines that he “shall return.” The successful liberation of the Philippines would also put an American wall between Japan and its oil supplies in the Dutch East Indies, finally cutting the island empire off from its remaining fuel reserves and potentially forcing a rapid conclusion to the war.

Episode 18 of the famous 1951 Crusade in the Pacific series covered MacArthur’s epic return to the Philippines. He splashed ashore Leyte Island on October 20th, 1944, only a short distance away from where the Mink would sail four days later.

As Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkade, commander of the Seventh Fleet, set up his chess board for the coming assault he had many assets at his disposal. The Mink was assigned to Task Force 77.7.2, which was a group of mostly service vessels under the command of Rear Admiral R. O. Glover. They were to support the Seventh Fleet in the coming battle to liberate the Philippines, starting with Leyte Island. The Task Force also included five other tankers, plus seven oilers, nine ammunition ships, three destroyer escorts, two hospital ships, and even a floating dry dock. While not as powerful, deadly, or sexy as the cruisers and destroyers that made up the primary Seventh Fleet combat units, the ships in the 77.7.2 service force symbolized America’s resourcefulness. After all, it was one thing to build carriers or battleships to keep pace with an enemy navy, but it was quite another to have enough material and industrial capacity left over to also build tankers, hospital ships, and a floating dry dock. The service fleet was both an integral part of American naval strategy in waters nearly seven thousand miles from the mainland United States, and an extravagance that the Japanese could ill-afford to duplicate for themselves.

On October 18th, at 5:12 in the morning, the Mink got underway for the Philippines. The rising sun was still below the horizon in the east, while in the west the Empire of the Rising Sun was retreating north towards the Japanese home islands. It was a six day sail until the task force arrived in San Pedro Bay; Elmer took the time to write some letters.

He penned one to his parents during the trip, on October 22nd. There wasn’t anything unusual about it – he told his dad that he probably wouldn’t be “kicked up” to a new rating anytime soon since enlisted men were getting fewer of them. “I’m not worrying about it,” he told his dad. “The main thing is to get this war over with.” He also wondered why Shirley Ruth and so many of his friends wanted to move to California. “Most people are taken by the beauty of the state at first,” Elmer mused. He had no way of knowing that someday a majority of his descendants would live there.

As Elmer finished his letter, the Mink glided across the sapphire ocean below. Other boats in the 7.7.2 task force could be seen in the distance. For the time being, the only dangers surrounding them were sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, and other wardens of the deep, and their appetites were easily drowned out by the rolling waves of the endless, unscathed sea.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur wades ashore during initial landings at Leyte, Philippine Islands on October 20th. U.S. Army Signal Corps officer Gaetano Faillace. Wikicommons.

The Mink arrived in San Pedro Bay at 10am on October 24th. The Japanese immediately began to attack the arriving task force from the air, which lay a protective smoke screen around the Mink and other auxiliary ships. By 1500 hours the smoke had cleared enough for the ships to proceed to their anchorage.

October 25th was a long day, starting with an air alert at 0715, followed by an all clear at 0930. But then two hours later the Mink officially joined the battle after a second air alert that morning sent the crew scrambling to general quarters. With its bow facing seaward, just before noon a crewman noticed a wave of incoming Japanese dive bombers just ahead and off to the starboard side. The planes took direct aim at the shore facilities then being built in order to support the invasion. Most were outside of the Mink’s reach, but whenever they wandered into the range of the Mink’s 3″ and 5″ guns they swung into action, and fired on the dive bombers as they screeched toward the ground. The guns lowered their angle of fire as they tracked the bombers downward. According to the subsequent action report the Mink’s 3″50 caliber gun scored one direct hit, and reported it as a “Sure” when they saw the bomber fall out of its dive and crash onto the beach. The air alerts continued throughout the rest of the day, and were punctuated by the occasional roar of the Mink’s anti-aircraft guns. The ship was not secured until 7pm that evening.

The next day the Mink began dispensing diesel, gas, and lubricating oil to the surrounding armada. Meanwhile, as it discharged its precious cargo, it continued to discharge its guns. The crew fired on at least four dive bombers over the span of about 12 hours as columns of smoke billowed into the hot lead air over Leyte Gulf. Although it did not score any “sure” hits in its action report the ship was in the thick of the battle. “There were many planes,” the report noted, “therefore no accurate report can be submitted.” It fired nearly 400 rounds of 20mm ammunition at the passing planes, as well as 17 3″ and 5″ shells.

Two Coast Guard-manned LST’s open their great jaws in the surf that washes on Leyte Island beach, as soldiers strip down and build sandbag piers out to the ramps to speed up unloading operations. 1944. WikiCommons.

The 27th was quieter, but not without incident. The Mink fired at three Japanese plans flying across her stern toward the shore.

Elmer wrote his parents a letter that day. He didn’t let on that the Mink was in the thick of the war – not that he would have been allowed to do so at any rate. But he did talk about the Filipinos he and his crew-mates encountered over the last few days, even if he could not mention where they were or whether this group was different from the last one. “Got more Jap invasion money,” he reported. “Natives come out in their outrigger canoes and trade with us. They want cigarettes and old clothes for Jap money and bananas.” Later, Elmer directly alluded to the horrors that unfolded around him over the past few days: “Little incidents like these help break up the monotony and routine each day – we have had other things breaking the monotony, but I’ll tell you about that some other time.”

During the next several days, the Mink continued to fuel various craft while sounding out air alerts every few hours. One came at 9:20 in the evening on October 30th. The frequent alerts and the long-running battle in the skies above took their toll on the sailors there, both on the Mink and on other vessels. Nerves were on edge, tempers flared. In fact, the only time the Mink was hit came on October 31st, when a friendly 50 caliber shell hit the aft living compartment. No one was hurt and nothing was damaged, but it was certainly not the way anyone on board wanted to celebrate Halloween that year.

September 1944: The Dead Ones

The Mink dropped anchor in Biak’s Mokmer Harbor on September 2 and discharged diesel fuel there until the 5th. At some point during that time Elmer left the ship and went ashore. It had only been two weeks since the Americans won control of the island after a ferocious three-month long battle. It was then, almost three years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, that Grandpa finally caught up with the blood-edge of the sword of war. He never forgot what he saw:

At one time, we went to an island there and it was called Biak. That’s the only place I saw dead Japs . . . When we got ashore there, we was able to go to this cave. The Japs tended to hole up in caves a lot when they were on these islands. Anyway. They used flamethrowers to get them out of there. Anyway. I was able to go into this cave there and see a lot of dead Japs laying around, or the good ones, the dead ones. Well, anyway, I remember that. That’s the only time I had occasion to see dead Japanese. That was on the island of Biak, B-I-A-K. Anyway. I remember that.”

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

Even the engine room aboard a tanker could not completely insulate Elmer from the horrors of war.

Anyway, the shock of seeing dead Japanese soldiers did not prevent Elmer from thinking more about life after the service, which increasingly appeared to be a not-so-distant possibility. “The war news is really great and the end is in sight,” he wrote. “If the pace keeps up the same it shouldn’t be long.” He told his parents he missed them greatly, and told them they “had so much to look forward to when [he comes] ‘marching home.'” He also mused about possibly going to school after the War, although he wasn’t “crossing bridges” quite yet. Such things would have to wait until the killing stopped.

Elmer continued to work through the stack of correspondence he received while in Australia. Four of the letters were from Rose Schmid. However, she was not yet at the top of his call sheet. His response on September 2nd treated her almost as if he were a call center employee apologizing to a customer for having to listen to four minutes of ambient telephone music. “I know you will understand why I am late in answering,” he wrote. “All the mail piled up on the ship during our absence. And sugar, I have more than fifty letters to answer. Of course, in many cases like yours, I must answer several letters with just one from me.” With the apologies out of the way, he threw in some lighthearted humor to smooth things over: “I’m still snowed under, darling. Don’t you feel for me? Poor me.”

Unfortunately, the letter’s tone did not improve after that. Since Elmer and Rose were not exclusive, Grandpa felt no need to censor himself. “I met a girl named Lorraine Henry [in Australia] . . . She was my steady girl, and we enjoyed everything together: dances, movies, picnics, dinner, and sight-seeing. She didn’t smoke or drink. Of course, I drank enough for the both of us.” And in case this story was not enough to dissuade Rose from feeling attached to him, Elmer stated his feelings more explicitly on the next page. “Be a good girl and remember I was just a fling.”

Elmer brought back several souvenir postcard sets back from Australia, including this one from Sydney.

Rose’s next letter must have hit its mark, since Elmer struck a much warmer tone on the 12th. “Words seem so inadequate when I write you, Rose; [I] wish I could be with you because action speaks louder than words . . . but I must console myself with the good war news and hope that a speedy victory will bring us together soon. You are a regular ‘doubting Thomas’ or the female counter-part, and probably won’t believe me. But I miss you very much.” After some more romantic talk, he segued back to his usual request in his letters up until this point: that Rose send him more pictures of herself. However, his overall thinking was not so crass. Rose enchanted him – she required some effort on his part. The cut of his jib and his uniform just would not cut it with her. “As ignorant as I am regarding the ‘ways of women’ (as you put it), I’m anxious to learn more. Maybe, I could understand you better, sweets. You have me baffled in a number of ways.”

Having already mailed his rather curt letter of the 2nd, he needed his latest reply to really shine. He assured Rose that she was still “on [his] mind” while in Australia: “I got a number of match folders for you while there . . . Do you want me to mail them or just keep them until later?” He also heaped on the charm: “Oh honey, to have you in my arms again (this is torture being away.) . . . miss you and love you. Elmer.” After signing the letter, the urgency he felt to rescue his soon-to-be floundering romance compelled him to go ahead and mail the souvenir gifts with that letter. After all, he said it himself: actions speak louder than words, and the match books he sent spoke volumes.

Meanwhile, his letters home to his parents revealed that the summer months had brought some improvements aboard the ship, most notably the availability of beer. Sailors could buy bottles for fifteen cents, and the ship was “well-stocked” with a variety of lagers. “Well, they just passed around the beer and I dashed over and drew mine also,” he announced to his parents in real time on the 27th. “Ah, it’s nice and cold. So I’ll be able to finish this letter between sips at the bottle. It’s Rainier Beer, from Frisco.” The ship store also had cigars and candy – two essential items for Elmer.

Although known principally as a Seattle beer, Rainier maintained a brewery in San Francisco as well.

Elmer and the rest of the crew kept busy watching movies, enjoying the weather, and collecting sea shells. Beach-combing and jewelry making became unexpectedly popular hobbies aboard the Mink. “I usually read [or] work at my sea-shells,” he told his parents on the 27th. “[I] collected some nice ones and cured them.” Elmer then added a parenthetical (and slightly macabre) explanation that was quintessential Grandpa: ” [seashells] have a small animal growing in them, something like a snail, and you must dry them out and remove the corpse.” As unromantic as his explanation was, it suggests that Missourians did not have a great deal of knowledge about the inner workings of seashells, even though Elmer and the crew clearly still believed that they would make fine (and cheap) gifts for folks back home. “Most of the fellows make bracelets out of them – and they’re really nice. I’m making one for Shirley. And will make some more later and send them home.”

In his last letter of the month, written on September 30th, Elmer complained about Australian writing (“Rae hasn’t a very good hand at penmanship,” he wrote. “In fact, I think it is an Aussie characteristic, judging by the letters other fellows get from Aussie girls”), congratulated his cousin Bob on entering the Navy, and thanked his mother for sending him foot powder. He also announced an important, and imminent, milestone: “It is Saturday evening, and another week and month gone. And I start on my fifth year in the Navy tomorrow. But enough for that.”

Elmer was dismissive of the anniversary that day, but his fifth year would be his last, most eventful, and most dangerous during his time in the service. And when he returned home just over a year later from the war, he would bring a bundle of letters back with him. Bafflement gave way to love, and suddenly the future appeared far more certain.

What a difference twelve months can make.

While we are on the subject of the future, this will be the last Grandpa’s Letters blog post for a little bit. There is only one year left of correspondence to cover, but it is consequential: the Battle of Leyte Gulf, kamikaze attacks, Elmer’s rapidly growing correspondence with and decision to commit to Rose, his reaction to V-E and V-J Days, and his long journey home are all in the posts ahead. Since the vast majority of my Elmer-Rose correspondence was written in 1945, I will have a lot more prep work to do for the last several posts than before. Stay tuned . . . and thanks for reading!

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!

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Elmer Luckett and the Shreveport Kid

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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.

Next Entry:
December 1942: Dreaming of a White Christmas

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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.

Next Entry:
November 1941: The Year with Two Thanksgivings

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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

An Interior Border Love Song

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. 

Kansas from a car window, 1995. Photo by M. Luckett.

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!

Front Range, Colorado Springs, 1995. Photo by M. Luckett.

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. 

Selfie from one of my more recent journeys (2016) through the Great Plains. Taken at the 100th Meridian line in Cozad, Nebraska. Photo by M. Luckett

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.

Welcome sign at the Grant County, Nebraska border. Grant County is unapologetically and unambiguously ranching country. Photo by M. Luckett

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.

Art by H.M. Wilder from the eBook THE VOYAGE OF THE RATTLETRAP by Hayden Carruth. Taken from https://equinequickresponse.wordpress.com/2013/12/25/the-anti-horse-thief-association-circa-1863-1939/

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. 

Anti-horse Thief Associations were typically governed by constitutions and other documents. Some even filed articles of incorporation. From Kansas Historical Society (https://www.kshs.org/km/items/view/226300)

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)
Weeds standing shoulder-high (through the window)
Ferris wheel is rusting off in the distance
At the hundredth meridian
Where the Great Plains begin

The Tragically Hip, “At the Hundredth Meridian”

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. 

The giant cow outside the Sirloin Stockade in Abilene, Kansas. Photo by M. Luckett
When I was 14 I thought that this was hilarious for some reason. And considering how expensive film was back then, I guess it still is. Photo by M. Luckett.

August 1941: Making the Cut

Elmer’s August 18th letter home contained two important pieces of news, neither of which might have seemed all that surprising to his doting parents: he officially received a Fireman 2nd Class rating, and he was not in love with his girlfriend, Pat.

On August 9th he took his two engineering exams, and despite receiving a 3.93 out of 4.0 grade on his training course he anxiously awaited the results. Eight other men in the broiler rooms applied for the new rating as well, including his buddies Ossie, Jim, and the Grossman brothers. Elmer fretted over the better than even odds. “[Nine] men are trying. They may only rate the five best . . . that’s the way the Navy works.” He also worried about whether or not his commanding officers recommended him for the promotion. “I believe I am well liked,” he wrote after the fact. “I always do my best.” At the very least, he was not cutthroat so as to want to see his friends fail. “I hope we all make it,” he wrote. When the results came in, Ossie and Jack Grossman both made the cut, but Jim and Harold Grossman did not. That, unfortunately, is just how the Navy works.

Elmer’s new rating was welcome news, particularly in light of his money situation. All the time he was spending dockside that August was cutting into his finances – less work meant more time, and more time on land meant more movies, beers, milkshakes, and sandwiches. But he didn’t just spend his money on himself. He also purchased a “Chinese kimono” for Pat with an embroidered dragon on the back. The robe cost $4.50, which is about $80 in 2019 dollars. “Next week I should get my raise” of about $5, he reported. “Hot dog.”

Grandpa did not specify why he bought Pat such a nice gift. It may have been out of loyalty, friendly affection, or as thanks for all the small gifts she sent him over the past few months. But his feelings towards her stopped short of love. “You know mom, I don’t know if Pat is the girl for me or not,” he wrote, perhaps not realizing that those words put together in a sentence usually meant the latter. “Not that I have anyone else in mind. She is a good kid and sends me books, candy, and is real sweet. But I am not sure I love her.” Elmer explained that he attached himself to her partly because his shipmates all seemed to have girls of their own. “I was never much of a ladies man,” he sheepishly admitted.

Elmer decided to let her down gently – perhaps too gently to make a clean break. He stopped writing her as often, and told his parents that he had made no promises to her about the future. But he also seemed to hope that Pat would end up pulling the trigger herself on their long distance courtship. “Pat goes out with fellows occasionally. Perhaps she will find someone else.” He then told his parents that he would continue responding to her letters, and that they did need “to tell Pat about this – just suit yourself about it.” In the words of future singer-songwriter Neil Sedaka, then a two-year old growing up in Brooklyn, “breaking up is hard to do.”

So far I have found very little information on Pat, apart from these letters. Perhaps someone reading this blog has more information . . . did Grandpa ever talk about his pre-Pearl Harbor girlfriend? Maybe his letters are sitting in a box somewhere in a St. Louis attic, gathering dust, sandwiched between or perhaps buried under a mound of artifacts from a more successful future courtship with another good kid. Or maybe she threw them into the fireplace.

I wonder if she kept the kimono.

Next Entry:
September 1941: More of this World

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