April 1945: Warm Springs Eternal

Elmer began his Easter Sunday letter on April 1st, 1945 complaining that dehydrated eggs could not resurrect themselves into a hard-boiled form. “The hard-shell variety of ‘hen fruit’ has been rather rare aboard ship,” Elmer noted. “But when a few are available they sure hit the spot.” Yet it was not the absence of eggs alone that made the holiday lose its luster. “In short, no eggs, no rabbit, no new suit, no folks to be with, no Easter. But I’m in good health and I feel that you are all the same back home, so we can’t complain.”

The Mink left Mios Woendi almost as quickly as it arrived, and it once again hit the waves. The tanker largely ping-ponged around the Pacific at this point, supporting vessels in various ports of call recently reclaimed from the Japanese Empire. All that running around put a chokehold on the mail, which was already facing obstacles on its journey from the United States to the Pacific Theater. “I hope there is some mail coming along soon,” Elmer wrote on the 1st. “The tempo of war on all fronts has stepped up, and no doubt means of conveying our mail has been diverted to more essential needs. And due to our moving around other delays occur through redirecting and re-routing our mail. But I believe,” he added, “[that] they do their best under the circumstances.”

Grandpa had to wait for his mail, but he didn’t wait as long as others did. As it turns out, Elmer enjoyed expedited service since he paid for air mail. “Finally got [cousin] Bob’s letter,” he complained on April 22. “It was mailed in December.” Elmer blamed the slowness of the free “sailor mail” service, which provided mail service free-of-charge to American Naval personnel. “Free letters from servicemen out here take ages,” he explained. Naturally, it was a good thing that Elmer could afford such a service, but no doubt many men and women with families back home could not. “So I must tell Bob to use air mail only,” he sighed. “Sure glad his letter finally reached me.”

An American tank in Hamburg, 4 May 1945. The American attack began on April 18th. Incidentally, Elmer’s Aunt Frieda (Bob’s mother) was born in Hamburg on July 6, 1879.

For all the delays Elmer and his parents experienced with respect to the mail, he did not have to wait long to find out what his folks thought about his breakup. His mother was clearly disappointed, and apparently blamed herself for their separation. “Mom, dear, what am I going to do with you?” he wrote on the 8th. “Just because I wrote Shirley and expressed my views and my true feelings you start to think it is because I am afraid you don’t want me to marry. Mom, next month I will be twenty five years old, and you shouldn’t forget it.” Like a lot of unmarried adult children who field unsolicited questions from their parents about their domestic intentions, Elmer asserted that the matter was his to decide. “When I decide to get married and I probably will someday I hope my choice of a bride is favorable to you and Dad. But you should know when a person is really in love with another . . . no one’s opinion, not even the best folks in the world, is apt to change things.”

After reiterating much of what he had been saying for the past four years, he reminded his mom that she was off the hook for Shirley’s decision to break things off:

“I really didn’t know Shirley that well. And if she waited around until the war was over I would naturally assume an obligation. You know the old story, she waits around during her young years and I return with my mind changed – so I’m a heel. To avoid any misunderstanding I wrote my sentiments on the subject. Shirley don’t agree with me evidently. And mom, don’t worry about me on that account. I’ll get along o.k. You’re still my best girl. Keep that chin up for me.”

Elmer to his Parents, 8 April 1945

Rose, meanwhile, continued to write him in spite of his sentiments on the subject of marriage. “I usually write Rose once a week,” he noted to his folks, “sometimes twice. She is a sweet girl. Said she is practicing on my favorite meals, so she could fix me a super meal when I get home. I told her I like stewed chicken dumplings and stuffed green peppers.” He apologized for not introducing them to Rose when he had the chance. “I’m sorry I never got Rose to the house so you and Dad could meet her. She wants to meet you all when the opportunity is available. So much for my latest heart throb.”

Like most of his early-1945 correspondence to his parents, Elmer is largely catching up with family business, trying to console his mother over not being engaged yet, and trying to find new things to write about. But by now the novelty of Navy life was clearly gone. His sentences were shorter and more abrupt than in 1941. He also started to regularly omit the subject pronouns in his sentences (a phenomenon known as “conversational deletion”), which was an infrequent occurrence in his earlier writing. Linguist Andrew Weir argued in 2012 that this tendency (which he calls “left-edged deletion”) pops up more often in personal or intimate writings, including diaries and journals. This suggests that Elmer started viewing his letters to his parents less formally, as a pro forma exercise in keeping regular contact, as opposed to a medium for recording his thoughts and experiences. “Nothing new to speak of,” he wrote on April 8th. “Regular routine at sea. I’m on the 4-8 watch again, my favorite. Take care of yourselves and keep those chins up. Must write Rose a few lines today.” Maybe he finally reached the point where he really didn’t have anything new to say, after all.

Fortunately, current events would soon provide enough fodder for Elmer to sustain himself as he wrote his dispatches home. On Sunday, April 15th, Elmer attended church services on the beach. “Unusual for me to attend services on land,” he wrote, but like many other Americans across the world that morning Elmer had some things on his mind. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had only recently celebrated his fourth Inauguration, passed away at his “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia just three days earlier. Although many Americans today are familiar with FDR’s health troubles, the President took great pains to project an image of vitality and vigor to the nation as it fought a Depression and then a World War. Rarely seen publicly in a wheelchair and only 63 years old, his sudden death stunned millions of Americans on the eve of their hard-won but seemingly inevitable victory over Germany. “All over flags were flying at half-staff in respect to the death of our Commander in Chief and President,” Elmer wrote later that Sunday. “It was a shock to the world when the news was given out. I just couldn’t believe it at first.”

Newspapers across the country expressed shock over the President’s sudden death, as the San Francisco Chronicle does on this front page headline after the news broke.

Elmer continued to reflect on the news. “He will go down in history as one of our greatest leaders, Dad. God knows I wish he could have been here to see our victory and help make the peace. Because our victory can’t be far off and at least he knew it too.” Although Elmer was from St. Louis, he was not familiar with the former Senator from Missouri and Vice President who suddenly inherited the highest office in the land. “I don’t know much about Truman,” he explained, “he has such a big job and responsibility to take over. May God give him the wisdom to carry on in our great leader’s foot-steps. My trust is still in God and that He will show His light and guidance to the man who will make our peace. May it be everlasting.” That trust had yet to be earned, however, at least according to Elmer’s letter a week later. “The Russians are entering Berlin now and let’s hope this will wind up the European mess soon. Sure wish F.D.R. was still running things but let’s all hope all will work out O.K.”

As it turns out, things worked out fine. “Well today has been confusing to say the least,” he wrote at the top of his letter of April 28th. “No doubt at home you are experiencing the same sensation. All sorts of news on Germany’s surrender, or reports to that effect have been coming in. But no official confirmation has been given by our capitol. I sure hope the Germans have given an unconditional surrender. But the fact remains Germany is licked without a doubt.”

Even Hitler knew by this point that all was lost. He shot himself two days later.

President Harry S Truman’s task in winning the European war was largely a fait accompli by the time FDR passed away. But he would have some decisions to make over the next few months as the American war machine turned its full attention towards Japan. Meanwhile, somewhere in the Pacific, another man from Missouri would have some decisions of his own to make as the Pacific War came to a climax. As Rose continued writing her letters, would Elmer assume an “obligation” to her once the War ended, or would he start to change his tune after four years of proud bachelorhood? He would not have much time to figure it out.

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave so much of himself, and bravely fought through some tremendous physical battles, while serving his country. So too did Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away this past Friday. Her loss leaves a hole that will be impossible to fill, but her legacy as a champion of gender equality and as a legal, political, and even cultural leader will endure and echo for years to come. Today she gets the last word:

“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” – RBG

Another History Mystery (and a Happy Birthday to the Greatest Great-Grandma in the World)

Now that my classes are winding down I’m starting to work on the Grandpa’s Letters project again. But since I’m not sure how much longer I’m going to have unfettered access to Ancestrylibrary.com (i.e., institutional access without me having to personally subscribe to it) I’ve been filling out Grandpa’s genealogy on MacFamilyTree. It is a good way to lay out all of the evidence I’ve accumulated, retrace my steps, and document the connections I’ve made.

Some of my grandpa’s genealogy is settled fact. The Lucketts have a long history in North America that dates back to before the Revolutionary War. There is even a “Luckett Hill,” which is a small cemetery plot full of our fore-bearers on a wooden knoll in Lincoln County. However, we know much less about my Elmer’s mother’s line. When I asked my Grandpa during his oral interview whether or not it was true that his mother was German, here was his response:

Yeah, her name was Schroeder, S-C-H-R-O-E-D-E-R, Schroeder. Yeah. Now, Rose Phillippine … And the thing that got me, I later on found that Rose Phillippine was a Saint in the Catholic church. But I kind of wondered whether my mother could have been from a family that was Catholic. But she was born … my mother was born in this country. But her family was from Germany, her mother and dad and her sister. And her mother and dad died, evidently, when she was quite young. And my sister, Frieda … or her sister, Frieda, more or less raised her. She was a few years older than my mother, and they were the only two children there.

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

There is a lot to unpack here, but what strikes me the most was his uncertainty about his own mother’s origins. He and his family were close to Aunt Frieda and her kids, and Grandpa wrote them all frequently during his time in the service. However, it was almost as if their family history began Ex nihilo in Saint Louis. Rose, who was born only a couple of years after her parents and sister arrived in the United States, only knew Missouri. And despite being born in Hamburg and having German as her native language, Frieda had few memories of her own of her homeland. Unfortunately, the death of their parents made it nearly impossible for them to learn much else about their origins.

Not surprisingly, circumstances such as these make it difficult to pin down her own family line. After all, Schroeder is a common name, and ship logs and Ellis Island registers are full of Schroeders traveling to America on a one-way trip. But researching a genealogical mystery is like tugging on a sweater thread: the more you pull at it, the more it unravels. With that in mind, the best place to start is not with Rose herself, since she was born in St. Louis, but with her sister Frieda.

Who was Aunt Frieda? She married several times, which makes things a little more complicated, but once we learn what names she has and at what times she had them it is fairly easy to reconstruct her documentary history on Ancestry.com. For instance, when she passed away her full legal name was Frieda Albina Aschenbrenner. With that information in mind we can look up her Social Security application and her death certificate.

This is the text record of Aunt Frieda’s Social Security application. I photographed the copy I printed out a while back along with the original annotations I made on it. Note the misspelled last name. Despite that discrepancy the rest of the information (birthday, given name, parents’ names, birth country) corresponds with information elsewhere.

Taken together, her Social Security application and her death certificate corroborate one another. They also provide or confirm some vital facts, specifically her birth date (July 6, 1879) and her country of origin (Germany). But while her death certificate lists her parents names as “unknown,” her Social Security application (which she completed herself – she obviously could not fill out her own death certificate!) lists them as Charles Schroeder and Anna “Wonnerrow.”

These documents from near the end of Aunt Frieda’s life tell us much about her, but what about those documents from the beginning? Armed with her full name, her birthdate, and her country of origin, I started to hunt down her birth certificate. Thanks to the magic of Ancestry.com, it did not take me long:

Frieda Schroeder’s birth certificate. From Ancestry.com. Hamburg, Germany, Births, 1874-1901 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.

Although the document is in German, Ancestry.com translates the particulars (since these are standard forms there is not a lot of extraneous context that prevents the site from automatically generating translations of these documents). It shows that Frieda Alwine Sofie Johanna Schroeder was born on July 6, 1879, in Hamburg, Germany to Anna and Friedrich Carl Schroeder. This is almost certainly Aunt Frieda’s birth certificate.

So now the question is, who was Anna Schroeder? For that we need to search Ancestry.com’s German language documents for information using both her married name and her maiden name (Wonnerrow, or some variation thereof).

One possible candidate is Anna Christina Elisabeth Wohrenow. She was born on August 19th, 1849, in or near Blücher, a village located about 60 miles southeast of Hamburg in the Mecklenburg region. She was baptized four days later at the Evangelische Kirche Blücher, or the Blücher Evangelistic Lutheran Church. The baptismal document lists her parents as Johann Heinrich Friedrich Reinke and Cathar Elisabeth Wohnerow. The baby received her mother’s family name, however, since the parents were not married. Thus Anna’s birth was categorized by the church as being Uneheliche, or illegitimate.

Anna Wohrenow’s 1849 baptismal record from Germany.

Frieda’s documents virtually prove that Anna Schroeder was her mother. For one, Frieda’s Social Security application lists “Anna Wonnerrow” as her mother, Germany as her country of origin, and July 6th, 1879 as her birthdate. These details can also be found on her German birth certificate from Hamburg, which also includes her father’s full name in German (Friedrich Carl Heinrich Johann Schroeder).

The original Blücher Evangelistic Church was replaced by this newer building in 1875, about 25 years after Anna Wohrenow’s baptism.

As for her sister (and my great-grandmother) Rose, we can also cross-reference her Missouri birth registry record with her death certificate, which both state that she was born in St. Louis on July 24, 1887. The former document also lists Anna Schroeder as her mother, although curiously the death certificate lacks any information about her parents at all (was Forrest Luckett too distraught to provide this information, or was it possible that he didn’t know?)

Now that we’ve tracked down Anna Schroeder, we can fill in some of the missing pieces and prove that she was Rose and Frieda’s mother, that she was the same Anna Wohnerow born in Germany, and that she did not live long after her youngest daughter’s birth. To do that, we can look at her death certificate. It contains several important pieces of corroborating information: she was born in Germany, had lived in St. Louis for ten years (which suggests she arrived in 1885), and resided at 2430 Lemp Ave. It also reveals a somewhat morbid fact: she was 45 years, eight months, and one day old when she passed away. Since the death certificate states that Schroeder died on Saturday, April 20, 1895, where would 45 years, eight months, and a day place her birthday? August 19, 1849.

That’s the same date listed on her baptismal record.

Anna Schroeder’s burial certificate.

There is still much to learn about Rose’s little family. Who was Charles (or Carl, or Friedrich) Schroeder? When did they come to America? What happened to Rose and Frieda between 1895 (when their mom died) and 1898 (when Frieda married Max Meinelt and established a new household that included young Rose)? So far the answers are elusive, at least on Ancestry.com. Once the COVID-19 emergency lifts and we’re all able to freely travel again, I think the next step would be to go to St. Louis and do some detective work there. One place I would like to visit is Anna Schroeder’s grave in St. Matthews Cemetery, just off Morganford Road. Are there any other Schroeders buried nearby? The cemetery isn’t mapped, so I will need to visit the place myself (or perhaps get a family member to do it? . . .)

I don’t really know how much of this will go into the book. What I do know, though, is that I did not learn about the Schroeders growing up. Nor did my dad, so far as I can tell. I don’t even think my grandpa knew all that much about his mother’s family. Yet when Anna Wohrenow came to the United States with her daughter, it was surely a fresh start. She would no longer be an Uneheliche in Mecklenberg, a notoriously conservative corner of the reich, and her children would go on to live comfortable, productive, and successful lives.

However, most of the family history stories I heard growing up revolved around Seneca Luckett, my great-great grandfather, and his ancestors in Missouri, Kentucky, and Virginia. We would even make the occasional family pilgrimage to Luckett Hill. It was great to learn about these ancestors who tilled the soil under our feet and whose early wanderings across the continent followed Daniel Boone across the Cumberland Gap over 240 years ago. But now that I know that six of my great-great grandparents were born in Germany, I am curious to learn more about them as well. I’m even thinking about flying to Hamburg so that I can visit Anna’s birthplace, and lay my eyes on the foundations of the church where she was baptized some 170 years ago.

That trip will have to wait, though, just like all the other ones I plan to take (thanks, COVID-19!) In the meantime, I’ll continue tumbling down Ancestry.com’s endless warren of genealogical rabbit holes searching for more distant German relatives.

Of course, there is one last piece of business: today is my Great-Grandmother Rose’s birthday. She was born 133 years ago. And while it would be unrealistic to expect that she would still be around after all that time to celebrate, her death on March 7, 1946 at the age of 58 ensured that she would not be alive to meet Elmer’s children. In fact, Elmer had only been home from the war for five months when his mother fell ill and died of a pulmonary embolism. Sadly, it is clear from his letters that he thought the world of his mother, and losing her after being gone for nearly five years while serving in the Navy must have been a crushing blow.

Anyway, as Elmer might say, happy birthday to the greatest Great-Grandma in the world!

My Grandpa Elmer Luckett and my Great-Grandmother Rose out on the town. Shopping maybe?

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.

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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.

Next Entry:
July 1941: Day Trips

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