A Post about Pat

One of the more mysterious characters we’ve read about over the first two years of Elmer’s correspondence is his old flame, Pat. I had a great deal of difficulty locating her – mainly because I didn’t have a last name, and she doesn’t appear in some of the usual suspect places (Elmer’s Cleveland High School yearbook, his neighborhood according to 1940 census data, etc). However, Elmer’s December 27, 1942 letter to his parents contained two important clues: her last name (O’Donnell) and the date she was married (November 28th, 1942).

With that information on hand, it did not take long at all to find her. Doris Patricia (Pat) O’Donnell (born 1922 – two years younger than Elmer) married Ridgley Reichardt at the Trinity Evangelical Church (that should sound familiar – it is Elmer’s mother’s church) on November 28, 1942. Pat’s father, Cornelius E. O’Donnell, once worked as a printer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

A cursory newspaper search turned up a lot of information on Ridgley, who was by no means an inferior suitor. Reichardt was a champion speed skater, and by 1943 he and his bride were living in a beautiful house on Longfellow Boulevard. After the war he became a professional dog breeder and show judge. He and Pat won a Best of Breed award for one of their Golden Setters at the Heart of America All Breed Show in 1961.

I wondered whatever happened to Pat as I read through the first two years of grandpa’s letters, and in a strange way I kind of felt bad about Elmer turning her down in not the most gentle fashion nearly 80 years ago. Even though they continued to correspond with, I’m assuming, no hard feelings (she sent grandpa a nice wallet in the fall of 1942), I hoped that it all worked out for her.

As it turns out, it did. She and Ridgley both passed away in 2013 – just eight months apart – and left behind two daughters, three grandchildren, and as of 2013 eight great-grandchildren. They celebrated their 70th anniversary the previous year. If that isn’t a successful love story, then I don’t know what is. According to her obituary, “‘Pat’ enjoyed showing and raising Golden Setters and horseback riding.” It sounds to me like she fared pretty well after grandpa.

I won’t write much more about this because we are now starting to approach that line between historical research and infringing on a present-day family’s privacy. I debated whether or not to contact her descendants, but I opted not to subject them to some weird historian in California asking them about their mother’s or grandmother’s ex-boyfriend before meeting the man she would stay married to for over seventy years. Grandpa never mentioned her to me or to my dad (as far as I know), but in fairness he was twice-widowed and had a couple of long-term girlfriends before he himself passed away. His romantic history is much more convoluted, it would seem, and frankly it’s the sort of thing I never thought to ask him about.

But if one of her descendants ever comes to this blog post after doing a Google search on either Pat or Ridgley Reichardt, my question to them would be: did Patricia ever keep her letters from Elmer? If she did, does someone have them now? And if someone has them now . . .

Can I see them?

One of my favorite scenes from High Fidelity (2000). Later Rob tries to call Alison in an effort to find out why she broke up with him. He ends up speaking with her mother, who tells Rob that Alison and Kevin Bannister only ever dated one another, that they are now married, and that Allison had no other boyfriends. Rob, feeling vindicated that he was not at fault for the breakup then triumphantly exclaims, “Alison married Kevin!”
Alison married Kevin!

November 1942: Stateside

On October 31st, 1942, the Chew accompanied a small convey out of Honolulu and escorted it East. Eleven days later, the ship reached its destination: San Francisco. It was the first time Elmer and many of his shipmates had seen the North American mainland since they left for Hawaii nearly two years earlier.

No one knew how long they were going to be in town, but on the same token no one knew when they would be back on North American soil. Some of Elmer’s shipmates, including the Grossmans and Ozzie, immediately seized the opportunity to contact their parents. Elmer hesitated, however, believing that his parents would be heartbroken if they were to come out to San Francisco and arrive only after his ship had departed.

Elmer usually liked to send postcards back home of the places he visited, but for whatever reason I couldn’t find one of San Francisco. So here is a representative non-tinted postcard from the 1940s. “The Golden Gate Bridge connecting San Francisco and the Redwood Highway,” by photographer Alexander Zan #1532.

This point soon created minor controversy in Elmer’s family, since Jack and Harold Grossman’s mother, as well as Ozzie’s mother and wife, were all able to make the trip out to California to see them. Rose Luckett registered her disappointment with her baby boy. “As you say I should have contacted you as fast as possible,” he wrote. “But I was so doubtful as to what the future was, I hesitated.” Elmer did get to speak to his parents on the phone, however. The long-distance, wartime telephone call took three hours to connect, and the conversation itself only lasted for a few minutes. But it brought some relief after nearly two years of separation. While in town he also went to a photography studio to fulfill his mother’s request for a portrait.

Ironically enough, once Mrs. Grossman arrived with her daughter, Dot, Jack and Harold could not get off the ship for liberty. But Elmer was off that day, so he took their mom and sister out for lunch. “We talked about you and home, and everything in general,” he recalled in his letter. Mrs. Grossman also volunteered to deliver his photo to his mother. “[She] is taking some gifts home for me, also the two photos I had taken,” he wrote. “She sure is a swell person. They liked the photo very much. One is plain, the other tinted.” The Grossmans were on their way to visit family in Bakersfield, Elmer reported, but once they were back in Saint Louis they would deliver the photo to his parents. Later on he met Ozzie’s mother and wife as well.

Elmer did not just spend his time in San Francisco hanging out with his friends’ moms. “I’ve been having a very good time here,” he reported. “This town has everything in the line of entertainment and amusement that a person could want. I even did some dancing after being away from it for so long. Wish you could see the bridges they have here. You probably heard of them.” Elmer spared no expense during this “so-called vacation.” After spending nearly two years in Oahu or at sea, Elmer was excited to spend some time – and money – in a different place. The trip ended up costing approximately $130, he calculated the following month, “but it was worth every penny and more.” Ultimately, it was a “rather expensive vacation, but it’s our chance to have a good time.”

Elmer’s visit to the States coincided with an important milestone in the war: Operation Torch. On November 8th, 1942, American and other Allied forces landed at several points along the North African coast, thus starting on a long, circuitous path that would ultimately take them to Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and finally Germany itself. The United States Navy also won a major battle against the Japanese off the coast of Guadalcanal. The San Francisco Examiner headline the morning of November 17th read, “Japs Licked in Showdown, Lose 30 Ships, 30,000 Men!” As usual, though, Elmer was cautiously optimistic. “The news has been looking good over the past week,” he wrote, but “don’t get too optimistic.”

nov17 -
The front page of the San Francisco Examiner on November 17th. Elmer, a voracious news junkie, might have read this edition of the paper when he was in town.

After thirteen days in San Francisco, the Chew departed on its return trip to Pearl Harbor on Monday, November 23rd, just three days before Thanksgiving. As he digested his holiday meal (“roast turkey, sweet potatoes, Irish spuds, asparagus, dressing, soup, cranberry sauce, salad, pie, cake, coffee, candy, nuts, cigars, and cigarettes. My what a list!”) Elmer sat down to write his first post-San Francisco visit letter home to his parents. He was in a reflective mood:

Although things aren’t looking as bright as they could be, with the war etc., we do have so much to be thankful for today . . . good health, perfect family, and the consolation that our country is fighting on the right side for the right ideals. Not that all is perfect with US and our people, but we can’t doubt that our cause is a just one. Thankful to know, that in my own small way I’m making or help[ing make] our people safe in their homes – while all over the world so many innocent people must be destroyed in their homes. This is no speech, nor intended to be anything in that sense, but just a thought. [I] wonder how many people realize how fortunate they are today?”

Elmer Luckett to Mr. and Mrs. F. L. Luckett, 26 November 1942

I’m not sure what Elmer was referring to when he wrote that the United States isn’t “perfect.” While that is hardly an arguable statement (or, one would hope, a controversial one), it is a more critical opinion of America than either Elmer or many Americans in general were accustomed to offering during the war. There is no way of knowing if he was referring to the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans, the bullying of Latinx Angelenos by American servicemen that culminated in the Zoot Suit Riots, or anything else of that nature. I suppose that is a question I could have asked him during our interview, but I did not.

At any rate, Grandpa thoroughly understood that, in spite of America’s flaws, it was on the right side of history in this conflict. Which, again, is a virtually inarguable proposition, at least as far as I am concerned.

San Francisco offered Elmer and his shipmates a much-needed break from the monotony of escort duty and life in wartime Hawaii. But it also reminded them of exactly what they were hoping to protect by fighting in the war.

September and October 1942: From Pollywog to Shellback

Life is full of transitions, transformations, and comings of age. During the early 1940s, as young men and women felt themselves rushing headlong into the responsibilities demanded by wartime America, millions made their own transformations by getting married, joining the service, or both. This included many of Elmer’s friends, classmates, and family members.

Elmer kept abreast of these reports from the States with a mix of wonder, surprise, humor, and maybe a twinge of sadness over not being present to watch these big life moments take place. His journey into war was both more and less dramatic than that of most American men – more dramatic in the sense that he was at Pearl Harbor the moment the bombs began to fall, and less given that he was a reservist called up for active duty during peace time. But the transition from summer to autumn brought some transformative moments in Elmer’s life as well, even if none of them involved wedding bells or answering Uncle Sam’s call during wartime. Together they seem to represent a clear before and after for Elmer, both personally and professionally, and in a very tangible way fulfill the desire he stated earlier in the year to become “more of a man” by the time he returned home.

The first transformative moment arrived when Elmer needed his timepiece to be fixed. He sent it to his parents in hopes that they could repair it as a Christmas present. It “probably needs a new face,” he advised his parents on September 6th. Evidently the job was prohibitively expensive, however, and therefore his mother made an executive decision back home: she traded it in towards a beautiful, top of the line, yellow gold watch. “The wrist watch arrived O.K., folks,” he wrote on September 17th. “Thanks a million, it’s sure a beauty.” Elmer continued to mention the watch in several later letters, gushing over how many compliments he received and how much it likely cost. It “sure looks expensive enough, and if I know mom it’s the best!” Although it could not wear it in the engine room for safety reasons, it became a fixture on his wrist during liberty time. It was a fancy, new adult watch for a recently minted adult. Given how fresh memories of the Depression were for most Americans, this piece of bling was no small thing.

This was the watch my great-grandmother bought Elmer in 1942. My dad inherited it after grandpa passed away. Photo by Phyllis Luckett.

The second big moment came on October 1st when Elmer was promoted to Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class, making him a petty officer aboard the Chew. The advancement came with a pay bump (now $115 a month), new uniform insignia, new duties, and a well-earned sense of accomplishment. “It is something I have worked and studied for during my time in the Navy . . . I know it will make you all happy and increase my prestige. Ha ha.” He was the first among his friends to make petty officer, and between that and the new watch Elmer carried a bit more authority and gravitas than before. He also made good on the Navy tradition of handing out cigars upon receiving a new rating, giving out two boxes worth to his shipmates after hearing the news.

Machinist's Mate Rating Petty Officer 2nd Class

The final transformative moment occurred the second he and his ship passed the Equator on its way towards the Southern Hemisphere. Perhaps the best way to describe what happened next is to let Elmer do the writing:

[I] want to tell you about the initiation we were given at the time. Men or sailors that have crossed the “line” [are] known as “Shellbacks” (I’m one now). Sailors that never crossed the “line” are called Polly-wogs. Anyway, the Shellbacks give the Pollywogs the “works.” There were only about 20 Shellbacks aboard, but they really gave us the works. We were tried before a court of King Neptune . . . [and] by Davy Jones and his associates the Royal Family of the King. Words are difficult to express the entire ordeal and its details. Anyway, officers were no exception and they got the same treatment as the enlisted men . . . it so happened there weren’t any Shellbacks among the officers. It was a lot of fun and the initiation consisted of paddling (well done), followed by treatments from the Royal Doctor, Barber, Police, and all Shellbacks. Perhaps someday I will be able to tell you more of the details . . . we will get certificates for crossing the “line” and cards to prove we are “Shellbacks” now. I pity any “Pollywogs” if we cross the line again.

Elmer Luckett to Mr. and Mrs. E. L. Luckett, 19 October 1942

The Equatorial crossing ceremony and the fraternity of the Shellbacks goes back to at least the early 1500s, according to cultural anthropologist Carie Little Hersh. Its proliferation across the European navies and merchant marines corresponded with the Age of Discovery, during which over the next three centuries European merchants, navigators, explorers, conquistadors, missionaries, and naval personnel systematically sailed, mapped, and in many cases subjugated the indigenous nations adjacent to the high seas. Crossing the Equator was no small feat in this context, especially since it was often done while traveling to a more distant destination around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. Since the ceremony was in some ways meant to test the mettle of sailors during the early stages of a long voyage, the Equatorial crossing was a significant milestone and an excellent opportunity for such a rite of passage. Otherwise, untested sailors could present a liability during a real emergency.

Geography and meteorological hazards also made the crossing a particularly anxious time for sailors and captains alike. The Equator itself lay between the two circumferential “horse latitudes” bands at 30 degrees North and South, respectively, which allegedly received their name for the number of horses thrown overboard at these locations once the fresh water began to run dry and the animals began to die of thirst. Moreover, the Intertropical Convergence Zone, or the Doldrums, also threatened to becalm sailing ships and strand them for weeks or even months. This zone is roughly parallel to the Equator.

While the ceremony may seem anachronistic, especially given that it is still frequently held today, it carried a great deal of meaning for Elmer and his shipmates. Becoming a Shellback was, in many ways, tantamount to becoming a seasoned sailor. At the very least, the induction into what was for all intents and purposes an informal fraternal order signified to Elmer that he had passed an important milestone in his Naval career.

It was something that he was proud of for the rest of his life. I remember him showing me the card he received after the ceremony, which I scanned and uploaded below. It was one of his favorite stories from the War.

Research Trip

Hi folks,
Sorry for being tardy and not posting for a few days. I usually schedule all my posts well in advance, and I left this week free so that I could blog from the road. But if past experience is any guide, research trips are very busy affairs. I haven’t had much time to post since leaving town Monday, and even though I’ve thought of a lot of things to say this is the first chance I’ve had to write anything down.

I have been collecting research material for the Grandpa’s Letters project. Compared to my last major project (Never Caught Twice, which will be released this fall by the University of Nebraska Press), the research paradigm for this one is relatively easy. Rather than having to reconstruct the history of a notoriously under-reported and over-exaggerated crime across half a state and half a century, my current book’s source base is already well-established: my grandpa’s letters, along with my oral interview, other family documents, and several albums full of photographs. I also have my dad and Uncle Richard to fill in the gaps, which is a resource I did not have when investigating nineteenth-century horse stealing. This is a solid, if not excellent, foundation for a compelling historical narrative.

But this source set by itself isn’t enough. For one, I should have my grandfather’s official military personnel file from World War II. It contains a great deal of specific, well-documented information about every aspect of his service record. While getting that, I might as well get the service records of some of his friends on the Chew as well, so that I can give a broader perspective on St. Louis-area reservists before, during, and after the War. Speaking of the Chew, I should have more information on that as well, especially since Grandpa was barred from discussing his ship’s position and activities after the Pearl Harbor attack. I should also do the same thing with the Mink as well, Elmer’s ship from January 1944 until his discharge from the Navy in October 1945.

That is what this trip was all about. On Tuesday I visited the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis and scanned my Grandpa’s service record. I also scanned several others, including a couple of people I’ve discussed before on this blog. This took more time than I thought since these were large files, and since I only allocated a day for this I barely beat the clock to finish the job before closing. But I found a lot of fascinating information . . . stay tuned.

As soon as I was finished at the NPRC I had to Uber back to the airport to catch a flight to Baltimore, where I rented a car and drove to College Park, Maryland. Then on Wednesday I started collecting ship records at the National Archives facility at College Park. Like in St. Louis I’ve been scanning everything I can get my hands on, which is slightly more cumbersome here given that all scans have to have a declassification tag. That said, I’ve collected not only everything I could find on the Chew and the Mink, but after reading the other personnel files in St. Louis I decided to expand my strategy a bit and collect information on those ships on which Elmer’s friends on the Chew from St. Louis later served.

Although this is more work, I am really excited about where this is taking me . . . one of his friends participated in the invasion of Okinawa, while another one helped rescue sailors after the Frederick C. Davis, a destroyer, was sunk in the North Atlantic by a German U-Boat. Yet another served on a ship which played an important role in Operation Magic Carpet, the United States military’s massive post-war plan to bring hundreds of thousands of servicemen home in a matter of months. Of course this project will continue to revolve principally around my grandpa and his experience (which is exceptionally and uniquely well-documented given his letters), but my intention was always to bring other people into the story as well. I believe this is a great way to do just that.

I still have a few things to look for tomorrow, and I should have a few hours to spare. I hope to spend any extra time I have poking around some other collections and otherwise ensuring that this is the only trip out here I have to make for this book (as I promised my family . . . I visited the National Archives in DC several times for the first book). But so far this has been a successful trip.

Given both the blog and a history methods class I am teaching at Sacramento State this spring I may have more to say about both archival visits, what I found at each, and my strategy for tackling the archives. Since I will soon have to lecture my students about this very process it makes sense to start crystallizing my thoughts now while I’m in the trenches, so to speak.

Anyway, I need to get some other things done before I go to bed, but I will write again soon. In the meantime, here is an out-of-context page from grandpa’s service file at the NPRC in St. Louis. This is an important document, all things considered:

June, July, and August 1942: High Water Marks

Note: although the Battle of Coral Sea occurred in May, the shorter Midway-only newsreel on YouTube has an annoying watermark.

One of my clearest memories as a child of my grandfather is from when my brother and I were visiting him in 1993. He took us to Eiler Street and showed us his old house. I recall not expressing a great deal of interest in the aging brick building. Then he drove us a few blocks east to Bellerive Park. Perched along a small bluff about 70 feet or so above the Mississippi, visitors get a birds-eye view of the river from this small neighborhood pavilion. At the time I remembered visiting it once or twice when I was younger. But when we saw it that day, at the Great Flood of 1993’s destructive climax, the river looked to be just a few feet below the bluff’s summit. It rushed by like a raging torrent, carrying debris and tree branches and trees and chemicals and God knows what else on a runaway train to the Gulf.

I realized then that Grandpa didn’t take us down to see his old house that day, but to see the flood. Maybe on some level my grandpa liked seeing things like that. If that was the case then I cannot fault him for it, since I was just as entranced if not more watching the rampaging river rush by. Perhaps it runs in the family.

The Mississippi River, as seen from Bellerive Park. Author’s photo, taken in October 2019.

But during the summer of 1942, despite the epic battles being fought near the Midway Atoll and in the streets of Stalingrad, there was very little to write home about. From December 1940 through the spring of 1942, the vast majority of Elmer’s letters to his parents were at least two pages long. Many ran three or four. But between June 1st and August 31st, not one of Elmer’s twenty-five letters ran more than a single page. For one thing, Elmer had run out of topics to discuss, and much of his writing was in response to what his parents had told him in previous letters. Moreover, the things he could not talk about consumed more of his time, since by June the Chew was usually out at sea on escort duty.

Elmer could not even discuss in detail recent events of which both he and his parents were aware, since that information could be intercepted by the Japanese and used to confirm or disconfirm what they thought the Americans knew. In fact, he tried to tamp down expectations back home following the climactic American victory at the Battle of Midway. “This war is just starting on our part,” he wrote, “and it may last quite a while yet . . . I hope the public don’t get too optimistic about our recent successes and think victory is ‘in the bag.’ We should not underestimate our enemy.” Cautious optimism was certainly warranted during the early days of the war, especially after the crushing losses suffered at Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and elsewhere throughout the Pacific. But Midway shattered the Japanese Navy’s offensive capacity, and since the Empire lacked America’s cast industrial, mineral, and energy resources, the tide of the war effectively turned after that battle. Midway would later represent the high-water mark of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Elmer’s responses to news from home dominated these short letters. These reports included everything from his dad Forrest finally getting the tires he needed for his Victory to his sister Ruth divorcing her husband, Rick. Ruth sent a letter, her first since the start of the war, announcing the news to Elmer. “I hope that she is making out OK now that she out on her own,” he wrote. He also learned about a major flood hitting the St. Louis area that summer, during which the Missouri River crested at 35 feet. “Old Man River must be stepping out of bounds in many spots,” he wrote on August 3rd after receiving several snapshots of the flooding.

As an aside, the flood killed one man in Florissant and displaced several people and a number of cows in Saint Charles, but the flooding was limited compared to what was happening along the eastern seaboard, or to would come later along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The Missouri River actually crested one foot higher in similar flood events in 1943 and 1944, and in 1993 the Missouri reached 40 feet at the St. Charles riverfront. But the main difference between the World War II-era floods and the Great Flood of 1993 was development. Fifty years later, hundreds of thousands of new homes and hundreds of miles of additional levee squeezed the rivers through tighter channels, thus requiring less water to top the levees and inundate the surrounding areas. Now the floods displace people instead of livestock.

Ferguson subdivision, 1958
New home construction in Ferguson, Missouri, in 1958. Post-Dispatch file photo. Link: https://www.stltoday.com/news/archives/look-back-st-louis-suburbs-explode-after-world-war-ii/article_858a9508-e0e9-5f7c-99b0-e2dd293a7171.html

Ironically enough, the story of Saint Louis’s coming urban sprawl, the deterioration of its urban core, and the growing likelihood of destructive floods would be written once Elmer and the thousands of other regional servicemen came back from the war wanting to buy new homes. Despite Saint Louis City’s impending population decline, the bistate region’s economic power grew during World War II. “The old home town must be quite a manufacturing center in all ways now,” Grandpa wrote in June. The new factories and the post-war economic boom fueled the explosion of new suburbs in what had once been farmland.

Elmer wondered about all the changes back home during wartime, but he had already noticed two: more men were joining the service, and more couples were deciding to get married. “War usually provides a stimulant for marriage and makes ‘Kid Cupid’s’ job much easier,” Elmer observed. Pat later confirmed the absence of eligible bachelors in one of her letters, “According to Pat the number of young men still at home are rapidly declining. Maybe,” he mused, “that’s why she writes me, eh?” Elmer’s anxieties about a long distance wartime romance continued to dominate his thinking, however. “Ozzie misses his wife quite a bit,” he noted on July 30th, knowing there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Union Station in 1942 was a bustling travel hub for a growing city. In the years since suspending train service the building has been used as a hotel, a mall, and most recently an Aquarium. Photo by Grand Hall STL. URL: http://www.grandhall-stl.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/09/stationin1942.jpg

In some ways his sea duty had become as routine as his letters. “Well today is the 4th of July, but just another day to the working man.” He still enjoyed working in the engine room, and he had begun studying for his next rating advancement despite having no clear timetable for when he would be able to make it. At one point in July he expressed an interest in pursuing “aviation or aircraft mechanics,” but doubted he would ever get the opportunity.

Even off-board excursions had lost some of their luster. “Had a nice liberty the other day in town,” Elmer wrote on June 25th. “Although there isn’t much to do – you can usually see a good show, swim, play pool, or drink some appropriate refreshment. Of course there are dances around town, but I care very little for dancing. All in all, liberty’s a change, and a change makes variety, and ‘variety is the spice of life,’ or something.” Later, on July 8th: “Today was my liberty day . . . I just loafed around and took it easy.” Perhaps sensing a degree of fatigue and ennui aboard the Chew, the officers hosted a “beer party on the beach” later that month. The sailors “played ball, horseshoes, [drank] beer, and [had] plenty of eats. Sure had a good time and got a good sunburn.”

But there might have been a more practical reason as well: the Chew’s impending escort duty between Hawaii and Midway Island. “We will probably be at sea very much,” he warned his parents on August 5th. A week later, he indicated that “I don’t know how long it will be before you receive this letter, as you know there are no mailboxes at sea.” He then apologized for the infrequency of mail delivery on the ocean, and sweetly told his mother that “if thoughts could speak to you my voice would be heard every day.” By the end of August, though, his spirits cheered up a bit when the ship arrive at a different port, which might have been Midway Island. “A change of scenery always helps out a little.”

Like the cows in Saint Charles Elmer had all the water he could ever want, especially with his ship’s escort duty taking him farther and farther away from O’ahu. But he would get an even nicer change of scenery by the end of fall.

April 1942: Message Received

“Japan has had a taste of bombing, too – only a taste.”

Grandpa didn’t say anything more about the Doolittle Raid, in which sixteen B-25s pulled off one of the most daring and consequential air raids in aviation history. Perhaps he did not know what he could and could not say about the raid to his parents. Or maybe he simply didn’t need to: newspapers across the country screamed headlines of the April 18th raid, and Elmer no doubt heard about it on the radio off Oahu. Either way, both the Lucketts and the rest of America were encouraged and emboldened by the attack, which lifted the Allies’ spirits after months of losing ground (so to speak) on the Pacific. “Something tells me the future looks brighter for the good old USA,” he wrote on April 30th. “So keep your spirits up.”

Chins and spirits had been difficult things to lift in past weeks. In late March the Navy’s postal system slowed to a crawl. Letters that usually took a few days to make it to or arrive from the states now came two or three weeks late. On April 8th Elmer complained that he had not received a letter from his parents since March 22nd. On the 12th he wrote again, stating that still no letters had arrived, and that while other shipmates were having the same problem, he was beginning to worry. Finally on the 17th he received four letters from his parents at once, dated between March 26th and April 7th. “It was a relief for me,” Elmer admitted. On April 30th he received another tranche of letters from his parents, as well as some delayed correspondence from family and friends. “My letters have been coming in like bananas.”

Unfortunately, his parents were having the same problem. They hadn’t received any of his since late March, either. “Mom,” he wrote, “it makes me feel bad to know you worry so much when letters are late.”

Part of the problem might have been the uptick in sailor mail and packages in advance of Easter, which fell on April 5th that year. Elmer’s mother sent him an Easter egg cake, and several people shipped him cookies. His shipmates were receiving care packages as well. In return, Elmer sent his folks an Easter card, a money order, a war bond, and his May 7th birthday wish list: slippers and Red Dot cigars.

Image result for red dot cigars
One of Elmer’s favorite cigar brands.

Elmer also received a steady stream of letters from young women. Irene Sykes, Shirley Ryder, and Dorothy Wekking wrote him “every few weeks.” Pat had recently stopped writing him, mainly because Elmer once again stopped responding to her letters. In fairness, he had a lot of correspondence to answer, which promoted him to reassure his worried mother. “I’m not much for reading the Bible or religious literature,” he wrote, “but I do nothing that I am ashamed of.” In spite of Elmer’s aversion to such things, his father announced that he was going to send his son some Christian Science materials, presumably before Elmer could have had a chance to finish reading the New Testament his mother’s pastor sent him weeks earlier.

While Elmer did not necessarily find comfort in religion, he took his self-improvement seriously. At the end of the month he wrote that he was looking forward to coming home and visiting with his parents, but he hoped that he would be “more of a man” than “the boy who left a good home.” Nevertheless, he confessed that he did not regret joining the Navy, and that in spite of him now being in the middle of a war he believed that the experience would shape him in a positive way.

Of course, there was always a risk involved when serving in the Navy during a war. But Elmer wanted his parents to not spend their time worrying about it, and instead embrace his hope for a brighter future. And thanks to the Doolittle Raiders, that future seemed a little more likely than before.

January 1942: Adjusting to a New Reality

Published in the Los Angeles Times, 1 January 1942 (Posted by GreenTentacle, https://imgur.com/gallery/35PER)

One month removed from the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, Elmer and the thousands of other surviving sailors continued to cope not only with their injuries, shock, and anger, but also a very different reality. Hawaii at peacetime was warm, pleasant, and inviting. Sometimes it could be boring, expensive, and placid, but considering everything that was happening in Europe, Asia, Africa, and on the North Atlantic, it was the warmest part of the luckiest country on Earth. With the start of the New Year, however, wartime rules were now firmly in place. Cruises beyond Oahu often led to dangerous encounters with the enemy, while on the island the soldiers and sailors warily stood guard against a possible Japanese invasion.

Yet the New Year also offered some rays of hope. One positive development was the reopening of lines of communication between servicemen and their families back home. It was now possible to renew pre-war correspondences on at least a semi-regular basis. “Yes, we were right in the middle of the air raid on the 7th of December,” Elmer reported to his parents over a month later. “It is a scene I will never forget. Our anti-aircraft guns and machine guns were extremely accurate.” Elmer began hearing from other family members, friends, and acquaintances as well. Even Pat began writing him friendly letters.

One note in particular brightened Grandpa’s day. When family friend Harry Scott wrote to Elmer, he recalled how happy Forrest was when he came by to report that his son was safe after the bombing. “It made me feel good to know that,” he admitted when relaying to his father what Harry had told him.

Not all mail services were timely or reliable. Elmer had to wait nearly two months for his “Christmas box,” which contained candy, cigars, pipe tobacco, socks, and other gifts. By the time Elmer had received it his parents had already sent him another one. But Elmer was still able to reliably send money home, which was particularly important following the wartime raise he and the rest of the Navy’s sailors received retroactive to the morning of December 7th. On January 20th he sent his parents a $75 money order (which would be worth over $1,100 in 2019), and he promised to send monthly $30 allotments in the future.

Elmer also decided to earmark some of his wartime windfall towards an upgraded life insurance policy, which was now worth $7,000 (about $100,000 today). Despite being in the “best of spirits” Grandpa understood that the Pacific was a much more dangerous place to be than it had been just a month earlier. But morbid practicality did not dampen his otherwise optimistic outlook. “The Japanese are finding out that Americans are hard fighters,” he declared. They were a “little different than unarmed Chinese troops they have been slaughtering for years.” In another letter, he admitted that the war might take some time to win. “I hope we can lick those Japs as soon as possible. It might take a little while . . . [but] ultimate victory is inevitable.”

Part of Elmer’s job while writing these letters, as we will see, was to maintain parental morale back home. “Keep those chins up!” he declared with regularity. He also warned them against believing rumors or sensationalist reports in the press. “Dad, you and mom shouldn’t pay attention to the rumors and all the newspaper reports you read. The Navy gives out very little news and it is through official sources only.” But Elmer’s letters, vital as they were in assuring his parents that he was still alive, was not enough. Mr. and Mrs. Luckett quickly found a community of other parents whose sons were off fighting in the war. His mother Rose joined the local Navy Mother’s Club and gave a speech at the Trinity Church on South Grand, while both parents called on and received visits from Elmer’s friends and his shipmates’ families.

Everyone had their part to play, but no one had to play it alone.

The Chew, Elmer’s home for over two years, including all of 1942. I have no information about who took this photohtaph or when, but I found this copy it in my grandfather’s Navy scrapbook.