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 – TrĂ³caire / 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.