September 1945: “I am on my Way”

Even though Billie Joe Armstrong wrote this song about losing his father at the age of 10, the song has been reinterpreted in a variety of ways, including within its own music video.

After cruising around New Guinea and the Philippines throughout most of August, the Mink finally set anchor in Manila Harbor at the end of the month. It would spend the next several weeks there, fueling a wide variety of ships and smaller craft. “This bay is covered with ships of all descriptions,” Elmer wrote on September 9th. “Really a sight to see so many ships.”

Elmer was less than impressed with Manila. “There isn’t much to do around town after you’ve looked it over,” he wrote. “Plenty of liquor stores and places to dance, but the prices they charge are highway robbery. Everything you do or buy costs about three times what it is worth. Not much in supply and a lot of demand, so they really ask plenty for everything.” You can’t really blame the locals for trying. Business tanked during the Japanese occupation, which brought its own fresh set of horrors, and the sailors and Marines streaming ashore were often flush with cash. In addition to that, the Philippines faced the heavy task of rebuilding after over three years of brutal occupation. “[Manila] is in ruins,” he wrote on the 9th. “Not many buildings missed being shot up and bombed out. A city of ruins!” But the chow hound’s mind immediately turned to his stomach. “No good places to eat, except at the Red Cross or Army Snack Bars,” he opined. “You must be careful of the food and water you drink due to unsanitary conditions.”

Destruction at the Walled City (Intramuros district) of old Manila in May 1945 — after the Battle of Manila. Wikicommons.

Price gouging did not stop Elmer from buying some souvenirs for his loved ones, however. “I got Rosie a pair of wooden slippers, an oriental design and very fancy,” he admitted. “They cost six dollars.” Meanwhile, he was saving money from not buying gifts for – or writing – his other pen pal flames. “I don’t think [Rae] will write much more, if at all. She knows I am interested in someone at home. I don’t care much about writing other girls anyway; Rose is the one that counts.”

Elmer did not want to buy too many things in any case. He mailed his mother a package containing the sweater that Rae made him, some wool socks from Rose, and other odds and ends from his travels. He knew the trip home would be long, and it was not as if he could hop onto an airplane and take a nap while flying directly back to the states. The journey would be convoluted, involving boats, trains, and eleven time zones. And he would have his sea bag with him the whole way. On September 9th he also sent a $100 money order home, believing that he had enough cash and not wanting to risk losing it on his way home.

But Elmer knew that he might have to wait weeks, if not months, to go home. “With the war over and my duty done, I want to get back to civilian life. This waiting now will seem the longest because the war is over and everyone wants to get out. But I will try to be patient as always.” However, Elmer did not generally communicate his disappointments to his parents, which put Rose in the position of providing emotional support. “Rosie wrote a letter to cheer me up about not having enough points to get out,” he wrote on the 9th. “She said she will be waiting for me with open arms – and I know she will. I’m really in love with that girl and I have all the confidence and faith that she loves me as much as I do her. So much for my sugar.”

Elmer’s last letter came in this envelope. Notice the absence of a censorship stamp.

At the very least, while he waited Elmer would be able to write without fear of someone else reading his mail. “Don’t think I mentioned it yet, but our censorship of letters and packages has stopped. They just stopped it a couple of days ago. Really swell to write a private letter again.” Elmer then took the opportunity to talk a bit more about his ship, something he was not able to do earlier due to censorship and distance from home.

“Our ship is sort of a station tanker and we handle diesel fuel for all the diesel propelled craft,” he explained. “Mostly LST’s, LCI’s, LSM’s, and other types of amphibious ships. This has been our job for many months now. At first we carried high-octane gasoline while operating around New Guinea, Admiralties, and Biak; this was early in 1944 when things were a little hot down there. We also carried 80 or low octane gasline for awhile. High octane is for airplanes, and we supplied advance air fields with fuel. the low grade gas was usually for Army use. So much for an idea of our past work.

Elmer to his Parents, 9 September 1945

Elmer made one other note about their previous job, one which undoubtedly gave them pause when learning of Japanese kamikaze attacks on other tankers. “Personally I don’t like carrying gasoline of any grade, so I was pleased when it was changed to diesel fuel. The whole crew was pleased. Ha! Ha!”

Regardless of the changes in his and his ship’s jobs over the past year and a half, one thing was clear by September 12: his job was almost done. The Navy decided to grant credit for overseas service, which raised Elmer’s point total to 55. This qualified him for a discharge. “Of course,” he noted, “until they release me from the ship to return to the states, it may take awhile. But according to the plan I should get out within the next four months. Some of the fellows with enough points will leave soon. But they can’t take everyone, because some must be relieved before they can leave the ship. So we will hope for the best.”

His situation was clearer by the 16th. All rotation leaves were canceled, and servicemen with 18 months of continuous overseas service (like Elmer) who were eligible for discharge were to be simply relieved instead. “Sure glad I have enough points to get out,” he wrote. “I feel fairly sure that I will be off the ship in another month. May be sooner, but it’s hard to figure just how fast they will get men aboard for our relief. So we will hope for the best. Chins up!”

Veterans aboard the USS Enterprise, which carried over 1100 men back to the States from the Pacific Theater. Wikicommons.

Turns out it would be sooner. “I hav some good news I feel sure will interest you,” he wrote on the 20th. “Yesterday evening four new engineers reported aboard ship. And they will permit the relief of men eligible for discharge. At present four of our old gang of engineers have enough points for discharge . . . I am at the top of the list.” His Chief Engineer told him that he would be able to leave “by the middle of next week.” At that point, “I should be transferred to the shore station here, probably Cavite, in a week’s time. Of course, how long I must wait around for transportation to the states is another question. But there is a lot of shipping coming and going all the time, so it shouldn’t take long. How’s that for good news? I’m as happy as a lark.”

Elmer laid out his communication plan for the journey home.

“When I leave the ship I will write and tell you so. You can stop writing me then because all the while I am traveling back I will not get mail. And it will only be sent home again after I leave. I will keep writing as much as possible. When I hit the states I will send a wire or call home. I promised to call Rose or send her a wire also. You can tell all the folks at home I’ve quit writing as of now, that is, Aunt Frieda, Chick, Jeanette, and the others. The only ones I will write are Rose and my Mom and Dad. So much for letter writing.”

Elmer to his Parents, 20 September 1945

He talked over some of the other implications of his leaving so quickly. “Mom, you won’t have to send me any more Christmas packages,” he pointed out. “This year it will be Xmas together, God willing. That will be a wonderful feeling.” He also sent a few reflective words to his father. “Yes Dad, so much has happened the past years . . . it will be so good to get home and see you all again. And settle down as a civilian. We can talk again, Dad. I’m so tired of writing letters.”

He still had a couple more to write. On the 23rd he mentioned having to “break in” the new engineers, and predicted he would be able to leave in “3 or 4 days.” He also discussed how much he enjoyed spending time with his future brother in law, Dan, who was about to leave for Tokyo the following day. And he commented on the rain in Manila: “This is the rainy season in the Philippines . . . I’ve never seen so damn much rain.”

His September 25th letter was shorter. Elmer was busy packing. “Tomorrow morning I will leave the ship and begin the long voyage and journey home.” He informed his parents that he had to wait at Cavite for a ride back to the States. “Just how long that will take is hard to predict,” he admitted. “But I will get back as soon as they can get me there. You can stop writing me letters now.”

Elmer’s last letter is below. It was postmarked September 28th, 1945, and mailed from the Cavite Naval Station:

Just a few lines before I leave to go aboard ship. Only have time for a few lines now. Big rush here. It may be two weeks or more before you hear from me. But I am on my way. Don’t worry about me. That’s all for now.

Your loving son,
Elmer
Hugs and Kisses

P.S. They are really rushing us to the states. Hot Dog!

Elmer to his Parents, 28 September 1945

That’s the last letter Elmer wrote his parents during his Naval service. During our interview, we spent some time talking about his adventures on the journey back. I may write about those for the book. But for now, this seems like a fitting place to close.

He arrived back in St. Louis on October 27th, and received his official discharge on the 29th. After nearly five years of duty, Elmer’s job finally came to an end. He was home.

Elmer’s last letter home.

This is not the end of his documentary record. My files are full of wedding invitations, postcards, a smattering of letters across the decades, and other pieces of paper that neither he nor Rose threw away. This is also not the end of his story, since the last chapter of the book I’m writing will cover Elmer’s journey after the war and how his Pearl Harbor experience shaped that.

However, these boxes of letters . . . these were a gift. When Grandpa first told me that he was going to leave them to me, I felt a little confused and maybe even slightly annoyed at having to take care of them. When I received them after he died, I was working on other things and reluctant to begin going through them. Once I started working on them, I was motivated by the idea that I was doing something historically cool (I still think that, actually). But over the last few months of reading through them, I’ve realized that they have a much deeper significance for me.

I knew my grandpa for 36 years, which I realize is a blessing for most people. Yet I never really knew him. We did not talk all that often, apart from us updating each other on our lives, and that oral interview was probably the longest we had ever talked. So these letters were a window into the life of a man whose universes and multitudes, to borrow from Walt Whitman, were always kept pretty close to the vest. I saw bits and pieces of myself in these letters, as well as bits and pieces of my dad, my uncle, and my brother (all Navy veterans, incidentally). But I also saw a lot of him: his willpower, his commitment to service, his idealism, his passion for adventure, and his love for home and family.

My grandpa was the quintessential Taurus: he enjoyed the beauty of the world, but he preferred the warmth of home even more. It was also funny to read about his appetite, which even in his last years was never easily satisfied (“Good supper, Phil!” he’d tell his daughter in law during his last years). And I have barely started going through my grandmother Rose’s letters – not because I haven’t had the time, but because I don’t really want to rush the job. I never had the chance to meet her, so I am looking forward to getting to know her. And I sincerely hope, if she was still around, that she would have been proud of me.

Anyway, if this blog/book does anything, I hope that it tells a much more multifaceted story about my grandpa’s war experience than most of us ever knew. He mentioned Leyte Gulf a few times, and talked a little about the vision test that booted him out of the V-12 Program, but for most people (including me) his story began and ended with the Attack on Pearl Harbor. Indeed, that’s the story people wanted, including the news organizations that would show up and interview him each year on the anniversary. Which was great, by the way – he loved the attention and never tired of telling the story. But his experience, which spanned the entirety of America’s involvement in the war, was so much more. It is a war story, a narrative about personal growth, and a romance as compelling as any you would see in one of the movies he had watched on the deck of the Mink.

As this narrative becomes a book, I hope to do it justice. But it is important to note: these letters, with all of their ups and downs, ARE his story. It is a lot more than Pearl Harbor. And yet, somehow, it is also a lot less. That’s what makes his experience so relatable.

These monthly letter posts have reached their conclusion, but please stick around. There is still a lot of work to do, and I hope to share it with you as I make progress on this project. So stay tuned . . . you haven’t heard the last of Elmer Luckett. And that’s, I think, how he would have wanted it.

Thanks for reading.

– Matt

Relearning How to Teach (and How to Speak)

Hi folks,
Sorry about the lack of posts this past week. One reason is because I’ve been busy with the three courses I’m teaching this summer, as well as spending time with visiting family. Another reason is that I received the proofs for my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, and I need to review every word of it to make sure that the printer has correctly set the type (which looks gorgeous, by the way).

But a third reason is algorithmic: suddenly, due to both changing accounting measures at WordPress and Google Analytics, as well as too-rosy-to-be-true assumptions on my part, my day to day site traffic plunged this week from what I thought was a few hundred views a day to about a dozen. While that realization this week did not necessarily cause me to not want to blog anymore – after all, I’m not doing this to be a social media influencer or a professional blogger, but to give my actual writing and teaching work a virtual home base for both new and existing readers of my work – it has reduced the urgency I feel to produce filler content when not blogging about my Grandpa’s Letters (which, as mentioned elsewhere here, is the basis of my current book project).

I say that partly in exasperation over the sheer amount of work it takes to obtain a blogging audience, but also because I want to say a couple of things about online teaching, and while this might not be one of those promised album reviews this blog is the best place for me to do it.

First of all, teaching on Zoom in my office is more difficult and much less fulfilling than teaching in a classroom. It’s easy to understand the “less fulfilling” part: I am a bit of a ham when I’m in front of an audience (a few of you may remember me “acting” in my high school’s plays during the late 90s), and even on days when I don’t feeling like teaching a class for whatever reason the time seems to speed by when I’m in a classroom. I love the energy, the forced extroversion for an hour and a half, the campus atmosphere. I love the libraries, the manicured lawns, the trees when they explode pink and green during the spring and burn crimson and yellow in the fall. I love the ritual of grabbing a pre-class coffee, and I love it when students approach me on campus with a question or a comment. I miss all that. There’s nothing Zoom or Canvas or any other online intermediary can do to make those things better, unless they combine their AI and invent a vaccine for this ghastly disease.

Then there’s the job itself. I love telling stories. I’m thrilled that I have found a way to make it my job to tell stories. Have you ever watched Moana? In some ways I believe the historian’s job is not unlike that of Moana’s grandmother: she is both an educator and a keeper of the island’s lore and legends. She is the keeper of the island’s past and its secrets. She knows where the skeletons – and the boats – are buried. But she also loves the island and its people. History is not just a growing collection of books and vast archival holdings. It is tactile, visual (hence the debate over statues), and interpersonal. Human connection and lived experience are history’s emulsifiers. Unfortunately, these things are largely if not wholly absent on Zoom. If history was born around a campfire, it will someday die on a closed browser tab.

If you’re a Moana fan, there’s a ton of backstory in the deleted scenes . . .

Of course, Zoom and other intermediaries are necessary at the moment, especially given the sudden rise in new COVID-19 cases throughout the United States, including here in California. And we are all learning how to navigate these new challenges throughout the world of education . . . in fact, my grievances hardly compare to those who are now tasked with teaching Kindergarten and First Grade online. But those challenges do seem to exist across the board, including for those of us who already have some online teaching experience (like me).

One of those challenges is my tendency to say “um” a lot. Weirdly enough, this is something I don’t do in class, since part of my theater and speech training was to excise such filler words from my vocabulary when speaking to an audience. However, when speaking on Zoom, I am sitting down and talking to a webcam, which is not even close to being the same thing. Suddenly, my lectures are full of “um”s, whereas when standing up and giving a lecture I will typically pause when I am thinking and, if necessary, fill the time with a sip of coffee (another great reason to bring coffee to class!).

In an effort to make my lectures more accessible, I started taking the sound files and mixing them into podcast episodes. That way students can listen to their lectures on the go or while doing other things. While this was a good idea, I think, the execution sounds very different in that I realized just how many filler words I use now:

17B Lecture Series, Episode 10: World War II Horse Thief Historian

The 17B Lecture Series is a repository of my summer 17B Zoom lectures for my HIST 17B: United States History from 1865 to the present. In this episode we review WWII and I defend my native son attachment to Harry S Truman. Note: all episodes are labeled "explicit," not because there is an overabundance of cursing, but because a curse word does sometimes slip out every now and then.
  1. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 10: World War II
  2. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 9: The New Deal
  3. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 8: The Roaring 20s and the Beginning of the Depression
  4. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 7: World War I
  5. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 6: Progressive Era

Practice will make perfect, and now that I am aware of the problem it is something I can begin to work on. One thing that I think will help: I just bought a nice, entry-level microphone for my broadcasts. It is not unobtrustive . . . like many broadcast mics it is inconveniently large. But I hope that, in addition to dramatically improving my sound quality, it will also trick my brain into believing that I’m actually behind a podium, and not my desk.

Speaking of my desk, I built the top out of oak and attached it to a standing desk base. Maybe my lectures would be a good time to dispense with the desk chair and start standing again.

In any event, although the podcast is a fun way to distribute lecture content, I’m not a podcaster at heart. Unlike with my recent blog analytics, I won’t be bothered by the fact that I can count the number of downloads on one hand. I can’t, ummm, imagine having to do one of those podcasts, ummm, regularly, you know? But my new microphone does look pretty cool.

One corner of my table-sized desk, complete with a picture of my kid manhandling my guitar, a Buffalo Bill mug with a bunch of pens and probably more scissors than I need, a set of horse coasters I bought in Kentucky (where else?), and my new Blue Yeti microphone. And yes, I need to clean my desk.