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.

July 1941: Day Trips

Summers in Hawaii were hot, but so were the springs, falls, and winters. If anything set the season apart, it was the Chew crew’s determination to enjoy it. Elmer’s letters that July described the many kinds of recreation available on – and via – the ship, even as the boat continued to drill for a possible war. “All kinds of athletic equipment” were available to the crew, he wrote on the 9th, including “punching bags, boxing gloves, [and] hand balls.” The sailors even liked to skeet shoot off the Chew’s deck. In the evening, the officers played a phonograph for the crew “with all the popular songs” and showed movies on the deck. “[The officers] do all they can to make us happy and break the daily routine,” he wrote. “They are really swell.” If the Chew had a Captain Queeg, he must not have ever set foot in the engine room.

The officers also organized a recreational cruise to Hilo, a town located on the east coast of the Big Island. The trip included three days of liberty on the island, as well as two separate excursions to Hawaii National Park. “It was a swell cruise,” he reported to his folks. “[Hilo] was a nice town (people liked the sailors a lot – we practically had the whole town to ourselves as there were only two other ships there), whereas Honolulu is overflowing with gobs.*” The sailors were ferried around the island in station wagons, with eight men per car. Despite the cramped quarters, the payoff was grand: “We arrived at the park and saw all volcano craters, flows, and lava tubes. Sure was interesting.” Of course, no Elmer sightseeing report would be complete without an update on lunch: “ham and egg sandwiches, fruit and cake.” Once back in Hilo, Elmer and his friends knocked back a few beers and went to the movies. “Saw Jack Holt in The Great Swindle,” he announced.

Memorandum to all hands announcing the Chew’s cruise to Hilo.

The movies had become one of his favorite destinations in Honolulu. On July 2nd, he watched It All Came True, starring Humphrey Bogart, which he thought was “a pretty good show.” Two days later, they saw another one. But Elmer never mentioned the name of the flick, for once it let out something more exciting awaited him and his group of friends: the SS Lurline. The widely renowned passenger ship was docked at Honolulu for the afternoon, and it disgorged its many passengers onto the busy city streets. Elmer and his friends were allowed to board and check out the boat for themselves. “Sure was fun,” he recalled. “All the people were happy and wore flower leis around their necks.” When the ship departed, a large crowd gathered at the dock to wave goodbye, “just like in the movies.” But while sometimes life imitates art, there is no substitution in life for art. Elmer and his group spent the night at the Y in town, and then saw two more movies the next day. “We’re regular ‘show-bugs.’ Ha ha.”

The SS Lurline ferried passengers across the Pacific for decades, and was widely renown for its splendor and comfort. During the war, however, it traded its deep pocketed clientele for another kind of VIP passenger: U.S. troops.

Elmer’s descriptions of his many adventures that month jazzed up what had otherwise become a somewhat routine correspondence. His parents continued to emote their concerns about his service to him in their letters, and he responded by stating that it would “make [him] very unhappy” for him to learn they were worried. They also continued to send gifts back and forth – Elmer sent something to his mom for her birthday, and she in turn sent him a package containing “1 lb of tobacco, 2 boxes cigars, candy, soap, tooth powder, and shave lotion.” Perhaps one new dynamic emerged this month: Elmer and his family expressing their true feelings about his girlfriend, Pat. Apparently Bud and Elsie did so in one of their letters, prompting Elmer to reassure his mother that he was not offended. “I believe I said the same things about her myself,” he wrote, casting doubt on the future of their relationship.

In any case, his letters had grown slightly less frequent in light of the Chew’s constant sea duty. “Yes sir, this is a sea going son of a gun,” he wrote with pride. But the week-on, week-off neutrality zone rotations were phased out in favor of a more staggered schedule. Sometimes they would head out for a week, and at other times they would only head out for the day in order to practice torpedo runs in the waters surrounding the harbor entrance.

However, the day trips out to sea for shooting fake subs and clay pigeons would soon be put on hold. “[The Chew] is supposed to go in the Navy Yard for two months,” he reported. “Our ship is to be overhauled completely . . . we’ll probably get tired of it after so much sea duty, but a change won’t be bad to take. You won’t have to worry about me being at sea then.” While August could make no promises about milder weather, it certainly did seem to mark the end of the summer.

* “Gob” is slang for a sailor

June 1941: Tiger Sharks and Thank You Notes

Elmer spent the majority of the month at sea, so he had fewer opportunities to write his folks. Not that he had a great deal to say, anyway. “There really isn’t much to write about this time,” he wrote apologetically. “Our duty is the same, and not much to speak of.” His writer’s block appeared to be contagious as well. “Ozzie is writing a few lines also, he is sitting next to me. He doesn’t know what to say either.” His time at sea was not entirely uneventful. In the next paragraph, Elmer recounts spotting various kinds of marine life. “Ozzie and I saw a tiger shark this morning,” he wrote. It is “the most fierce of sharks.” They also watched “flying fish and porpoises” on the trip.

Thank you’s dominated his letters. His mother continued to send him candy. His sister Irene shipped him cookies, which “sure [were] good” despite being delivered a month late. “That happens every once and a while by parcel post,” he offered.” Thanks a million, sis.” He also sent home three Father’s Day cards, as thanks for “being such a swell dad!”

One reason for the lack of commentary was both straightforward and inevitable: after six months, life in the Navy was becoming routine. Elmer stressed in his letters that he still missed his home and his family: “I’m not kicking [out of the Navy] but a home with mom and dad suits me any time.” He also continued to reassure them that he was OK, “safe and shipshape.”

However, he did not fail to mention that he was studying for his new rating, and that the pay increase would be substantial. Compared to his pay in the Navy, “when you stop to think about it I wasn’t doing all that well at home.” Similar economic circumstances drove thousands of men from across the United States to join the Navy during the 1930s and early 40s: the promise of paid room and board, adventure and excitement on the government’s dime, and pay on top of all that. It was a great deal, at least for the time being.

Image result for invasion russia honolulu newspaper
Half a world away, Hawaiians read with foreboding – and maybe a silver lining’s worth of hope – about Hitler’s invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941.

Yet his June letters sounded more ominous notes about the waters ahead. For one thing, the Navy announced it would begin censoring sailors’ mail. Elmer explained that he would have to be careful about what he could say, and that he would no longer be able to describe the ship’s activities, location, or other details that could be intercepted by a potential enemy. He also responded to Hitler’s invasion of Russia that month. “I think Germany has bit off too much time,” he wrote his father. “At least I hope so.”

But Elmer, ever the optimist, expressed no regrets. “It is such a beautiful day today,” he wrote on June 15th. “The waiting room [at the Y] is open around the front and the sun is beating down on the palm trees. A cool breeze is drifting through here and it is refreshing. Gee, it is great to be alive.” Regardless of what was happening elsewhere in a world gone mad, it was a lovely afternoon in Hawaii, and Elmer was determined to enjoy it.

Longer letters were nice, but as far as his parents were concerned, that is all he needed to say.

No Brochures: The Camp Grant Massacre in Local Memory

I was in Tucson last weekend with my family for the Arizona Wildcats football game. My father in law is an alum, and each Fall I watch a game with him in the alumni box. I’m not necessarily a Wildcats fan (not that the Bruins are doing much these days, despite finally beating Stanford this weekend), but the food is good and the company is better.

Anyway, we had most of a day to kill in Tuscon, and one of the things I was interested in doing was going to the site of the Camp Grant Massacre. Located 59 miles north of Tuscon, this location was where on April 30, 1871 a group of Tohono O’odham warriors, Mexican civilians, and six Americans killed 144 Aravaipa Apaches. Without going into too much detail about what led to this brutal event (for those who are interested, I highly recommend Karl Jacoby’s wonderful – if haunting – account, of the massacre, Shadows at Dawn), it was a fairly significant event in the history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

What was really surprising to me, though, is that there is no monument. No park, no commemorative plaque, not even a roadside marker. Nothing. Just desert.

Limited access roads? To what I assumed would be a park?

In recent years there has been a great deal of controversy over Confederate monuments and whether or not they should be removed. While I don’t intend to weigh in on that specific issue here, one of the comments often made in defense of keeping Confederate monuments is that by losing them we risk forgetting our history. I don’t agree with that argument (I’m an historian, after all – I am literally paid to make people learn and hopefully not forget history), but it does bring up an interesting point: do we risk forgetting about tragic events if we don’t memorialize them in any way?

I think we do.

How many folks in Tuscon know about this attack? Not many, I’d wager. Yet there they are, sixty miles from what could be a fantastic opportunity for local students and others to learn about the US-Mexico borderlands, regional indigenous groups, and frontier violence . . . and there is nothing.

For a good template for what is possible, one might check out the Massacre Canyon Monument in Trenton, Nebraska, where as many as 100 Pawnees were killed by the Lakota as they hunted bison in the Republican River Valley on August 5, 1873. I discuss this event in my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing and Culture in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890.

Despite its isolation (it is VERY far from virtually everywhere), the monument is respectful, informative, and an enduring tribute to the men, women, and children who died that day.

While it is disappointing to learn that there is no similar monument for the Camp Grant Massacre, it is never too late to build one. And for those who defend existing monuments to more controversial figures, it is never too late to reevaluate their ability to not only teach us about the past, but to inspire us to be better in the future.

[Note: I realized that I promised a blog about why non-academics should attend academic history conferences. Let’s, uh, put a pin on that . . . not that I don’t stand by this sentiment, but I had a number of conversations this past weekend about the present and future direction of the WHA, and about some of the rival organizations out there that are currently attracting more members, that compel me to think about the matter some. Stay tuned . . . I do plan on talking about this at some point. – ML]

[Monday, 10/21 update: I should never try to update and edit a post after a couple pints of Guinness in a casino bar. Lesson learned. – ML]

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It’s fun to stay at the Honolulu YMCA

For sailors and soldiers stationed on Oahu, the local YMCA offered a comfortable home base away from, well . . . base.

Grandpa’s box of war documents did not just contain letters. Hidden among the many other pieces of ephemera, I found a well-worn YMCA map and brochure. According to his letters Elmer visited the facility often, and the document lists many potential reasons for why he and others frequented the place: “The popular ‘Navy Y’ [is] the club, meeting place, and recreation center for thousands of men from the [Navy] Yard and the ships afloat.” The Y featured “a 700-seat auditorium” with “four free shows and three paid programs . . . [a] week,” as well as a “cool, spacious lobby with many table and small games.” It also contained “quiet writing and study rooms,” which is what Elmer must have been utilizing when penning his March 8th, 1941 letter. “The fellas” he came to town with that day “went on to a show,” he wrote, “but I decided to write you and Pat here at the ‘Y.'”

The Y provided essential services as well, including a small bank, a money order wire counter, two chapels, and even a “curio shop” for “the economical purchase of souvenirs and gifts.” Getting there was easy as well, and no hitchhiking was necessary: a one-way bus ticket from Navy Yard to the Y was 20 cents, and a taxi (which could be divvied up) cost a quarter. The brochure even contained a complete map of the island of Oahu, showing the locations of the various bases, attractions, and even what beaches were safe for swimming.

In any event, the YMCA was a cheap, pleasant place to spend one’s liberty, and Elmer frequently found himself there when in town.

What I’m Reading: Brothers Down

One thing I’d like to start doing in this space is to spend some time writing about the books I am using in my research. While admittedly my research interest in my Grandpa’s Letters project is a bit less academically trenchant than my work on horse thieves, it does give me the opportunity to read some great books about World War II, the Navy, and the wider world he inhabited.

Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizona by [Borneman, Walter R.]

Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizona is historian Walter R. Borneman’s most recent book, having come out earlier this year. It is the tale of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona, as told from the perspective of the thirty-eight pairs (and in some cases trios) of brothers who served together on that ill-fated ship. Of those thirty-eight sets, only one pair of brothers both survived, and only twelve other men among the others avoided death that day.

But while only a few members of the Arizona’s complement survived – most of whom happened to have spent the night elsewhere, thus avoiding the ship’s fate altogether that morning – their stories live on. Borneman interviewed the survivors and their families, as well as the families of the deceased, many of whom shared their letters and other mementos and stories of their departed fathers, brothers, and uncles. The author did a remarkable job not only collecting all of these different stories, but of also weaving them together throughout the book. It’s a master class on historiographical resourcefulness: it is much easier to go to an archive than it is to hunt down families whose loved ones died the better part of a century ago under sudden, violent, and tragic circumstances.

Organizationally the book is divided into three parts: the history of the Arizona and its crew before the attack, the attack itself, and the days and years following December 7th. Borneman revels in details throughout this narrative: explaining who these men were, where they grew up, the kinds of trouble they got into as kids, the reasons why they joined the Navy during peacetime, etc. Some of their stories were not unlike Grandpa’s – they sent money home each month and wrote as often as they could. But grandpa’s story diverged when he was assigned to a ship that, for the most part, survived the day relatively unscathed. Anyway, these stories give names and life to the list of names on the wall at the Arizona Memorial.

The book was a quick read, at least for me. It would have been quicker if not for some filler towards the middle – Borneman takes pains to describe the college football games being played on December 6th and the hot songs of the day, apropos of nothing. However, for the most part the story is well-written, accessible, and at certain points action-driven. The last two chapters of the book were especially poignant, and one many wish to have a box of tissues or a handkerchief available.

This was a valuable first book to read on the subject of Pearl Harbor. Borneman is a more than capable historian, and this entry will serve as a touchstone for me going forward. But more importantly, it is a fantastic model for how to research and write the stories of World War II servicemen. It is sensitive, contemplative, thorough in its chasing down of narrative strands and family leads, and exquisitely well-written. His use of the brother pairings was an excellent choice, both in terms of creating a broad yet narrow set of subjects for the book (the Arizona’s compliment was over 1,500, which is a lot of individual stories) while also facilitating its research (pairs of brothers mean multiple families to consult, which creates larger pools of historical information as family members tell stories about their uncles as well as their fathers or grandfathers). His approach works very well.

Overall, I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona, or well-crafted history book in general.

Do you have any books you’d like to recommend? Have you read this one? Share your thoughts in a comment!

Dollars and Cents

I’m running behind on my research and writing during the past couple of weeks. Everyone in our house but the dog has been sick for much of that time, and unfortunately the dog is not able to cook us food or clean the house. We’re all on the mend and feeling much better, but needless to say it’s been a drag.

Eddie: “Sorry, I don’t know how to use the stove. Also that would be a very bad idea.”

As I start building up some more material to write about (currently going through the April 1941 letters), I’ll post a couple of quick blog posts about interesting topics that may not necessarily justify a longer discussion.

For example . . . think about two things most people possess today: food and photographs. Food is expensive, while photographs, thanks to smart phones, are virtually free. In fact, we now live in the age of the “food selfie,”
in which folks order exotic or elaborate meals while traveling, and then upload pictures of the spread and of themselves to social media.

In 1941, however, those price points were reversed . . . on March 8th Elmer described a meal that he had purchased in Honolulu to his parents, which included the following fare:

  • Pineapple cocktail
  • Pork chops
  • French-fried potatoes
  • Lima Beans
  • Apple pie and ice cream

How much did all that sumptuous food cost? 45 cents!

However, Elmer’s parents requested that he send a photo of himself back to Saint Louis. They wanted to see for themselves how he was doing. Since Instagram would not be invented for another 75 years or so, Elmer had to go into town and order portrait photographs. This required an appointment with a photographer (booked in advance), plus about two weeks for development.

He ordered six 4×3″ pictures. The cost? Four dollars.

That’s a lot of pork chops and ice cream.

If you could buy any meal you wanted for less than a dollar, what would it be? Please leave a comment and let us know!

Image result for 1940s diner public domain