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!

“Love and Things:” Rose’s First Letter to Elmer

Rose’s letter from May 15, 1944 wasn’t the first one she wrote, but it is the first one we have and was probably the first one he kept, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

If Elmer’s letters are effusive and sometimes lusty, Rose’s were coy and self-deprecating. She had a dry wit and a tendency to tease (“Please pardon the scratching out, I am lounging on the bunk in The Hatch and I am getting very lazy,” she wrote, possibly in reference to their earlier jokes about Elmer’s long hernia recovery), yet her letters are carpeted with a soft sincerity. She responded to Elmer’s queries about not having received any letters from her by telling him that she did, in fact, write him; that the mails were slow; and that she would “go see my friend the Admiral and give him a piece of my mind and yours too if you want me.”

The Jefferson Memorial and the Cherry Blossoms, April 1944. Photo by R. Schmid.

They traded news about their promotions. Rose told Elmer “how wonderful you are getting your first class stripe,” and then announced that she herself received a higher rating at the Navy Department. She wrote about life with her best friend and roommate, Anne, and told him that with all the food preparation she had been doing that she was “getting to be a wonderful cook, if I do say so myself. I baked an apple pie the other day and it’s all gone. I also baked a ham and I fried a chicken all by myself. I hope I am not making you hungry.” She also passed along the news that her brother Danny had joined the Navy (“because of me, he says. Isn’t that sweet of him?”), and apologized for only having pictures of cherry blossoms in DC on account of her not having her own camera (though she further chided him, “Don’t you know there is a war going on and film is very, very scarce.”)

But the highlight of the letter came on page three, which . . . well, maybe it would be better to read it yourself:

Right afterwards she used the poem to segue into a difficult subject: “Did you like it? I hope so because I have a confession to make. I lost the heart off of [the bracelet that you gave me].” She explained how it got lost, and then added, “I am trying to get one like it and I won’t rest until I do. Am I forgiven? I hope so.”

She concludes by telling him that Anne asked to tell him, “hello, be a good boy, and come home safely.” Rose then added, “She usually isn’t that sloppy but I have to humor her since her operation.” She signed off, “Love and things, Rose,” followed by a row of X’s.

I don’t really have a hard-hitting historical analysis for this letter. To be perfectly honest, it just makes me wish that I could have had the opportunity to meet her.

“My Dearest Elmer:” Grandma’s Letters to Grandpa

As has been pointed out several times in this blog, Elmer did not save many of the letters he received during the war. So far as I can tell none of the letters written by his parents have survived, nor did virtually any of the letters written by his girlfriends or pals in the service. Elmer usually destroyed them after a certain period of time, in part because he had very limited storage space to keep hundreds of letters filed away for future preservation. Of course, I would have loved it if he would have bundled them up in a box and mailed them to his parents, but what can you do?

Anyway, the only collection of letters I have that were written to him by other people were penned by Rose Schmid, my grandmother. Grandpa did not save a lot of these letters, either: only a few exist from 1944 (I have many more from 1945), and these were filed by month in labeled envelopes later one, probably because grandpa threw out the original envelopes. The first of these letters is dated May 15, 1944.

Like with my Elmer’s letters to Rose I will mostly integrate Rose’s letters to Elmer into the blog narrative. But I plan on spending a lot more time researching her life, her job, and her background, and then integrating these topics fully into the book. Yet this is going to be much more challenging that my research on Elmer, aided as it is by hundreds of letters, an oral interview, conversations with my father and uncle, and the privilege of knowing my grandpa for nearly 37 years before he passed away. By contrast, my grandmother Rose passed away in 1979, less than two years before I was born.

I never did hear a lot about my grandmother growing up. My mom never met her, and my dad isn’t exactly the loquacious type. Meanwhile, my grandpa remarried not too long after Rose’s death, and the policy when I was a kid was that his wife was to be called “Grandma Margaret,” and Rose “Grandma Rose.” But Margaret had grandchildren of her own, and of my maternal grandmother’s 19 grandkids my brother and I were the babies, so we always felt like we received extra-special attention despite her living nearly 600 miles away.

I’ve always been curious about Grandma Rose, though, and while growing up I always felt she was in some way looking after me and my brother. I heard that she had a wicked sense of humor, loved Johnny Cash, and called her beef stew recipe “Cowboy Stew” in an attempt to get my dad and uncle to eat it (my mother always used that name as well, though I suspect my own Frozen-obsessed daughter will insist on something like “Princess Stew” instead).

Needless to say, I am excited to start reading her letters, because in a way this will be my opportunity to get to know her. Which is fantastic, because, honestly, she seemed pretty cool.

As Ever: Elmer’s Letters to Rose (December 1943)

Despite being able to spend Thanksgiving at home with his family, Elmer’s holiday was overshadowed by developments in his love life. He and Rose had their first fight.

Both parted ways in a huff, and no one blinked for two weeks afterwards. Then Rose broke the silence with a letter. Grandpa did not keep it, as far as I could tell – I have not processed any of Rose’s letters yet beyond arranging them chronologically by envelope, so it could be buried someplace within that pile – so I don’t know what she said. But Elmer’s letter in response is revealing:

Believe me, it was very good to hear from you again. Rose, I am all kinds of a silly, stupid proud jack-ass. Yes, I was very much angry at you for what happened at your house. And you hit it on the head when you said it was ‘silly pride’ – and mostly on my part. Perhaps in a way you were a little to blame, but I owe you the apology, dear. Do you think we can both forget it ever happened? And pick up where we left off.”

Elmer Luckett to Rose Schmid, 14 December 1943

Elmer continued by telling Rose that he was “tempted to call [her] several times, but was too bull-headed,” and that he regretted not meeting her brother, Ray, who was in town for the holidays as well.

Without knowing what precipitated the fight (perhaps that is something my dad or uncle could shed some light on?), there were other issues that may have set the stage for a confrontation. One potential problem may have been Elmer’s visit with Shirley Ryder, who was apparently also competing for Elmer’s affections. Shirley visited St. Louis with her parents over Thanksgiving, and during that time they went out. Her parents wrote his parents on November 30th, thanking them for their hospitality and noting that Elmer and Shirley appeared to have fun together. In his December 2nd letter home, Elmer alluded to his active social calendar during his previous leave, which may have included other dates or outings that could be mistaken for dates: “I bum around so much that you saw little of me. But you understand.”

Elmer’s ambivalence about Rose moving to Washington, D.C. to accept her new Navy Department job may have been another factor. While he was clearly happy for and proud of Rose for making such a big decision, he also worried about what would happen once she was even farther removed from him. Whenever Elmer would make it back to St. Louis Rose would no longer be there waiting for him. This surely came as a disappointment. One passage in his November 9th letter to Rose seems to hint at these various feelings:

Well honey, you are going to work for the Navy. You sounded very happy and well-pleased, and I’m happy for you also. That gives us another interest in common, sugar. I know you will be doing well. You had me worried about going to California, and then you start heading East. You will be on your own, honey, so be careful and good. Perhaps I didn’t show it very well, but I couldn’t ever see you any other way than a quiet, respectable young lady.So much for that, darling.”

Elmer Luckett to Rose Schmid, 9 November 1943

In other words, Elmer was happy that she was going on her own adventure and that she would be representing the Navy, but he also worried that her independence as well as her new address would distance them. He was also apparently concerned about her non-exclusivity – a courtesy he was not yet willing to show himself – and couched those anxieties in his remark about her respectability.

Rose (2nd from the right) and three friends posing in front of the US Capitol building. Rose’s pictures from DC radiate with warmth and confidence, demonstrating clearly that her time in Washington was well-spent.

While there is a great deal to parse here with respect to both Elmer and Rose’s gender expectations and role-playing, for the present it may suffice to say that his letter on December 14th was a sweet mea culpa (if not entirely an admission of guilt on his part). At the very least he sweated the past few weeks out. “You signed, ‘as ever, Rose,'” he pointed out at the end of his letter. “That means you haven’t changed [your feelings] in regards to me.”

Rose wrote him back, and Elmer penned his reply on the 22nd. “So you are getting ‘salty’ now,” he teased at one point. But he didn’t tease too much. “No doubt I’ll be thinking of the evenings you were in my arms.”

The New Year brought uncertainty for the couple and their future, even as both Elmer and Rose prepared to embark on new wartime adventures. They would see very little of one another until after the end of the war – indeed, they would be on near opposite sides of the globe. But the letters continued to fly, and they must have been pretty good: by early 1945, as the end of the war approached, Elmer began to close his correspondences with his other bachelorette pen pals. He had made his choice. And Rose seemingly knew the outcome all along.

Note: From now on I am going to combine the two correspondences – Elmer’s letters to his parents and those letters he wrote to Rose – in order to craft a more cohesive narrative. At some point in the next month or two I will post separately about Rose and her own letter-writing style, but I will integrate her letters into the narrative as well.

Happily ever after: Elmer and Rose after the War

Next Entry:
January 1944: Shakedown

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“Be frank with me:” Elmer’s Letters to Rose (August – November 1943)

During the next several months Elmer and Rose saw a lot of each other, at least given their distance from another and Grandpa’s service obligations. As mentioned in a previous blog, Elmer did not have a lot of time to spend in St. Louis when visiting, so he would take the bus to the city on Saturday and return promptly on Sunday afternoon. After eating dinner with his folks, he would head out to go meet Rose, who was usually out and about with her friend Dot Wehking and Dot’s boyfriend, Marty. Elmer also received two longer leaves during this period – one after his studies ended in October, and another in November that coincided with Thanksgiving – which provided the young couple with more opportunities to get to know each other.

But during the long weeks of waiting in between dates Rose and Elmer used letters to communicate. Elmer told her about school and his experiences in Cape. Rose told him about a trip she took to visit Pasadena, California. Elmer teased Rose about her handwriting, and in November Rose teased Elmer about writing his letters in bed (she apologized and wrote that she had no idea, but he laughed it off). They also passed specific requests to one another – Elmer badgered her about a picture she mentioned of her wearing a sarong (she repeatedly refused to mail it to him), and Rose asked Elmer for matchbooks from New Orleans to add to her collection.

This may have been the sarong picture to which Elmer was referring in multiple letters.

As all couples in the process of getting to know one another do, they shared their interests and dislikes. Both claimed that history was their favorite subject. Both apparently hated taking the train through Kansas (“I didn’t think much of Kansas, either,” Elmer opined. “It’s entirely too flat and not enough trees to suit me.”) Both enjoyed poker and pinochle and photography.

Beyond that, there is not much to say about these letters. They illuminate a budding, but not yet blossoming, romance. There is teasing and flirting, but not a great deal of intimacy. He still saved those words and feelings for his parents, even though he was not always forthcoming with them. And there is another issue, of course: I only have one side of the letter exchange, at least for this time period. I’m really excited to read Elmer and Rose’s letters to one another together, side by side.

In any case, more serious matters soon intruded. Elmer told Rose about his hernia surgery via post two weeks after it happened. Rose announced to Elmer that she accepted a job offer to work for the Department of the Navy in Washington, D.C. They continued to flirt and show their affection for one another, but with Elmer’s uncertainty about where he would end up after being released from the V-12 program and Rose’s upcoming move to the East Coast it was clear that there were a number of elephants in the room. Some of these issues likely came to a head while Elmer was in St. Louis for Thanksgiving.

Their date that weekend did not end well.

Next Entry:
As Ever: Elmer’s Letters to Rose (December 1943)

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“The Fellow with the Blue Suit:” Elmer’s Letters to Rose (July 1943)

“Remember me – the fellow with the ‘blue suit?'”

Elmer wrote his first letter to Rose less than a day after arriving in Cape Girardeau. He had not heard from her since sending her a postcard ten days earlier, although he had spent four days in the interim on a train from California to Missouri. He once again apologized for getting sick on their most recent date. “I don’t understand what happened to me, but it sure did.” Alcohol may have played a part: “Don’t think that I drank enough to warrant such a result. But so much for that.”

The fellow in the blue suit.

With that business out of the way he quickly pivoted to his other agenda items: asking whether Rose had “[taken] care of the swim trunks” someone had placed in his bag “by error,” stating that their snapshots had turned out “very well” (he enclosed a couple), and that he was already busy getting situated down in Cape Girardeau.

He also asked her out. Anticipating the possibility of going home for the weekend, he wanted to know if they could “go on dates” when he was in town. “Needless to say I enjoyed your company and think we had great times together. Don’t you?” He wanted a prompt answer, even if that answer was “no.” “Be sure and write me a letter very soon,” he urged, “and give your reaction to my suggestion. You can be frank.”

Apparently he received a favorable response, although Rose was evidently worried that she hadn’t written him sooner. “You said you thought I was angry with because you didn’t write sooner. How could I get angry with such a cute trick and good sport as you are. But I hope you write me very much in the future.” Rose also sent some snapshots in return from their outings together, and Elmer responded by sending her his negatives. “I intended to write you sooner but work on my studies is monopolizing my time.”

Elmer’s tendency to repeat or reference what his correspondents wrote in previous letters gives us some sense of what they had to say. Rose was not only worried about not having written him sooner, but also about whether or not her writing was up to snuff. “Your letter was very good honey,” he wrote reassuringly, “and no excuses about how bad you think it is. I’ll be the judge.” She also told Elmer that she and several friends had been rolling bandages for the Red Cross. He applauded her effort, but also indicated that he “would love to see you in your little outfit.”

Rose standing outside of her house in Washington, D.C., in 1944. Earlier that year she moved to DC to start a job with the Navy Department.

Elmer’s next letter on July 23rd was slightly less dismissive of Rose, who sincerely wanted to contribute to the war effort. “Say, you really are doing your part in this war,” he exclaimed after learning about her second blood donation. “You deserve a big kiss.” But then Elmer echoed Rose’s preference for a particular school subject. “So history is your favorite study also,” he wrote. “I took all the history I could at high school.”

Grandpa wrote one last letter than month – a short note on the 29th announcing his intention to go to St. Louis that weekend, and announcing his hope that they would be able to get together that Saturday night.

As it turns out, she was free, and they had a great time.

Next Entry:
“Be frank with me:” Elmer’s Letters to Rose (August – November 1943)

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“Just a few lines to a very swell girl:” The First Letters to Grandma

I was a little trepidatious about reading and writing about my grandparents’ love letters. Not enough to just file them away in a closet and give them to my more emotionally and generationally removed daughter, but enough so that these were the last items I started to scan and review for this project. I mean, who really wants to read about their grandfather seducing their grandmother?

However, as I start to read through this other correspondence, I begin to see another side to Elmer. He was dashing, flirty, persistent when appropriate, and apologetic when necessary. He was a man of the world, a person who had seen things and was going places. Elmer was a smooth letter writer: he knew the right things to say, and was prepossessed enough of his talents to be able to say them to several different bachelorettes at the same time.

One thing to keep in mind is that Elmer did not commit to Rose Schmid until early 1945. Until that point he maintained several different correspondences with several different women. In 1943 Elmer mostly wrote about another girlfriend, Shirley Ryder, in his letters to his parents. Although Ryder lived in Detroit during the war she seemed to be Elmer’s most frequent non-parental correspondent.

That is not to say that Elmer modulated his language or his aspirations in his letters to Rose. “Don’t give me that ‘girl in every port’ story,” he wrote at one point, responding to Rose’s charge (whether it was real or imagined by him) that he had a date waiting for him whenever he set foot on land. “You know what girl I’m interested in. And don’t ever forget it.” But he could also be solicitous, as when he not-so-casually mentioned his favorite card games. “Sometimes we will play ‘strip-poker,’ it is loads of fun. Did you ever play?”

Now you can imagine why I was so anxious to start this part of the project.

A photograph of Elmer and Rose from early in their courtship.

Anyway, it is not hard to imagine Elmer writing letters similar to the ones he sent Rose to other women throughout the War. However, I doubt whether any of these other letters still exist.* Eighty years is a long period of time: things get lost, things get thrown away, people move, people die, households downsize, attics and basements get cleaned out, floods and fires indiscriminately strike . . . letters usually only survive such a long period of time when they are well-cared for and set aside as treasured belongings. There is little reason to believe Elmer’s letters to other women would have survived their subsequent attachments to other men, particularly those resulting in marriage.

Elmer did not even keep all of his letters from Rose. His letters from her date start in 1944, and continue on through the end of the war and beyond. And we will get to those in due course . . . but just as he did not keep all of Rose’s letters, he also threw out virtually all of his letters from his other girlfriends. I have nothing from Pat, and only a short note or two from Shirley. It is clear that Elmer did not make an effort to start permanently holding onto Rose’s letters until he decided that he was willing to date her exclusively.

Perhaps it is telling then that most or all of Grandpa’s letters to Rose seem to be intact. By keeping his letters to her, even after she had moved from St. Louis to Washington, D.C. to work for the Navy Department, she may have known something that Elmer did not: that they were meant to be together.

*If anyone reading this blog happens to have any letters from Elmer Luckett, especially those addressed to a woman with whom he may have been romantically involved, I would love to hear from you!

Next Entry:
“The Fellow with the Blue Suit:” Elmer’s Letters to Rose (July 1943)

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