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.

History Mystery: Where did my Great-Grandmother Go to Church?

Some of you might already know the answer to this question, but when it’s 10 in the evening and you find a reference that needs chasing, you don’t wait around for people to wake up. I spent at least an hour trying to figure this out, and the next morning I realized that this would be a great opportunity to shed a bit of light on one of my favorite parts of the job: finding out difficult to track pieces of information and unveiling whole new worlds in the past.

Yet this is also one of the least appreciated aspects of researching and writing history. In my forthcoming horse stealing book there are countless little questions like this one, each of which required hours and in some cases days of research and oftentimes a special trip to a library or archive. Sometimes all I have to show for it in the final product is a single sentence or endnote. It could be said that a history book is less of a rabbit hole and more of a warren excavated out of many overlapping and knotted-together rabbit holes.

The Question: Where did Rose Luckett (my great-grandmother) go to church?

The Context: in his December 6th letter to his mother, Elmer mentioned that “Reverend Stock” of the “Trinity Church” sent him a New Testament Bible. He was not, by his own admission, much of a church-goer himself, but he greatly appreciated the gesture. As it happened, he wrote this letter the day before the air raid on Pearl Harbor and was topside mailing it when the bombs began to fall. Considering that he was not strafed by a Zero during these opening moments of the war, some greater force was certainly looking out for him.

The Relevance: I am writing a chapter about Grandpa’s neighborhood during the 1920s and 1930s and, more broadly, community life during that era. I am hoping to paint a vibrant picture of what these neighborhoods were like.

It is difficult to imagine in 2020 how important community churches were a hundred years ago. With megachurches on one end of the scale and an increasingly non-religious population on the other, it is easy to forget that churches were once centers of neighborhood activity. They were not simply places of worship: they provided social programs, charity, language instruction, opportunities for neighbors and congregants to bond, and sometimes even schooling and child care. They also gave their neighborhoods a strong sense of identity. Therefore, Rose Luckett’s church could tell us a lot about her, about Elmer, and about their little corner of the city.

The Rabbit Hole: Historians (myself included) often romanticize the dustier places where we do our work. Some of my favorite horse stealing research stories involve traveling to remote courthouses in Nebraska and digging through back rooms, attics, and in one case a storage shed for 140-year old documents. However, the advent of the Internet, personal computing, and research databases have revolutionized historical work, making it possible to find out much more in much less time. So, instead of flying to Saint Louis and pulling out a bunch of local city directories, I went to Newspapers.com (where I have an account) and started searching. One of the reasons why I had to start here: St. Louis has a LOT of Trinity Churches.

There are several “Trinity” churches in Saint Louis, including seven within a five-mile radius of Grandpa’s address in 1941.

It did not take long to find an article containing both the name of the church and a “Reverend Stock.”

“Missouri Valley Synod Urges Protection of Civil Liberties,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 25 Apr 1953

“Paul R. Stock of Trinity Church.” Now we are getting somewhere. But during this first pass I missed an important detail: this church belonged to the Missouri Valley Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. We’ll come back to that in a bit.

After some more full-text searching through the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, I found an address for our church, and confirmed that Paul Stock was the Reverend there. It was located at 4700 South Grand Boulevard. That’s less than a mile away from Elmer’s home. Is that same building still there? Yes . . .

4700 South Grand Avenue, Saint Louis, MO. Taken from Google Maps Streetview.

But now it is a Mosque:

The sign out in front of 4700 South Grand Blvd. Taken from Google Maps Streetview.

There is some good news and some bad news. Obviously the bad news is that the church is no longer there. But the good news is that we can tie Rose Luckett’s church to a more recent historical narrative and connect it to the neighborhood’s ongoing evolution. In the early 1990s the Bosnian War displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees, and over 40,000 Bosnians moved to Saint Louis to start new lives in the American Midwest. I was in school in South Saint Louis County at the time, and I remember getting dozens of new classmates over the next few years, all of whom had hard-to-pronounce names. This influx of migrants shifted the region’s demographics and reshaped its religious landscape, adding on top of what had already been a diverse array of churches and synagogues a layer of new mosques. Some built new facilities, while others took over older buildings vacated by aging congregations.

This recently-opened corner market in Affton, located only a few blocks from where I grew up, demonstrates how the Bosnian migration of the mid-1990s continues to shape South St. Louis. When I was 12 I used to ride my bike to this building, which at the time was a memorabilia shop. I bought hundreds of baseball cards there. Given the collapse of the baseball card market in the late-1990s a Bosnian market seems like a more prescient and successful choice for the area. Taken from Google Maps Streetview.

The decline of mainline Protestantism over the past several decades suggests that this is what likely happened here: the Trinity Church lost congregants and transplanted itself elsewhere, while this mosque moved into the larger building on Grand later. But that begs the question: whatever happened to the original church? This is where I realized I made a mistake easier by not understanding initially what the above article meant by the “Evangelical and Reformed Church.” I assumed (as someone who does virtually no church history) that this simply referred to an organization of Evangelical churches. Not so.

According to Wikipedia, “The Evangelical and Reformed Church (E&R) was a Protestant Christian denomination in the United States. It was formed in 1934 by the merger of the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) with the Evangelical Synod of North America (ESNA) . . . In 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the majority of the Congregational Christian Churches (CC) to form the United Church of Christ (UCC).”

The Trinity Church on South Grand Boulevard belonged to this larger denomination. But what organizations had merged to create it in 1934?

Again we go to Wikipedia, which can on occasion be a historian’s best friend. The Evangelical Synod of North America was “centered in the Midwest, the denomination was made of German Protestant congregations of mixed Lutheran and Reformed heritage, reflecting the 1817 union of those traditions in Prussia (and subsequently in other areas of Germany).” As for the Reformed Church in the United States, we get a similar story: “Originally known as the German Reformed Church, the RCUS was organized in 1725 thanks largely to the efforts of John Philip Boehm, who immigrated in 1720. He organized the first congregation of German Reformed believers near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, some of them descendants and German immigrants from the turn of the century.”

What does all of this mean?

The Answer: First, some background information: Rose Luckett was German. Her parents immigrated to the United States in approximately 1888, and Rose was born shortly thereafter. Rose’s sister, Frieda (Aunt Frieda in the letters) was actually born in Germany. But their parents died not long after immigrating here, and Frieda ultimately helped raise her younger sister.*

By the 1930s, Rose and her family lived in Carondelet, a largely German neighborhood at that time. Given the origins of the denomination and the neighborhood itself, we can start to make some suppositions about Trinity Church and the role it played in Rose’s life. For instance, according to grandpa his mother spoke at least some German, and presumably the church also claimed as members other folks within the German-speaking community. All this suggests that the institution played a central role in the Carondelet German community’s everyday life, and that Rose was a part of it.

Unfortunately, to confirm this we need more information about the church, which I do not yet have. So now we need to move in the other direction: did the Trinity Church close its doors, or did it move? If it closed then it would be very difficult to gather information on it. The church’s records might have ended up in an archive someplace, in someone’s basement, or, regrettably, in the trash. However, if it moved then we may be in luck. Protestant churches generally do a fantastic job of curating their own histories. While they might not always have tranches of archival documents, they often create anniversary brochures, yearbooks, commemorative histories, and other documents. So if the church moved, then the new location may have all of these materials on hand. To answer this question I went back to the original Wikipedia article: “In 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the majority of the Congregational Christian Churches (CC) to form the United Church of Christ (UCC).”

Is there a Trinity United Church of Christ in South Saint Louis? As it turns out, there is:

From http://www.trinityuccstl.org

This church has the same name, is over 120 years old, was once located on South Grand, has moved in recent years, belongs to the appropriate denomination . . . this must be it! The best part, at least for me, is that the church relocated to my hometown, Affton, a suburb just outside of St. Louis City proper and less than five miles away from where Grandpa grew up (it was one of the seven “Trinity”-named churches I pointed out earlier as existing within a five-mile radius of Eiler Street). In fact the building is located less than a block from where my fourth-grade babysitter, Sharon, lived. I grew up a mile and a half away.

The Follow-Up: This is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new rabbit hole. I need to contact the church and get a hold of any historical documents, pamphlets, brochures, yearbooks, or anything else it might have, and I will need to delve back into the newspapers and some other potential repositories to flush this story out. At one point after Pearl Harbor Rose gave a speech at this church – what did she say? How many people attended? I’d love to have this information. But in the meantime, we have a promising lead, and a little more insight into not only Grandpa’s world at the time the war started, but also my own.

I enjoy writing, and teaching is usually a lot of fun. But the best part of it all is the detective work. No doubt this project will have many more twists and turns as it develops, and I will try to write about some of them. Stay turned.

* I think this is what happened, but I’m not sure. I’d love for someone in the family to clarify this.

2020 Letters Preview

Hi folks,
I’ve started looking ahead through the remaining correspondence, all of which I hope to scan, review, analyze, and discuss before the summer.

Although the lead-up to Pearl Harbor naturally lends itself as a dramatic historical narrative, it is by no means the sum total of my grandfather’s experiences during the war. Here is a brief list of some of the topics the letters (and I) will cover over the next few months:

  • Grandpa’s adventures on the Chew, 1942-1943
  • Elmer’s train trip across wartime America in 1943
  • Officer’s training in Cape Girardeau, Missouri
  • The Lucketts on the home front
  • An introduction to Rose Schmid, Elmer’s future wife
  • Women in uniform during World War II, The WAVES program, and Rose’s service in Washington, D.C.
  • Elmer and Rose’s love letters
  • The USS Mink, an oil tanker and Elmer’s new ship in 1944
  • Grandpa’s travels throughout Australia and the South Pacific
  • Elmer’s experience during the Battle of Leyte Gulf
  • The last months of the war and Elmer’s reaction to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • Grandpa’s eventful journey home at the end of the war

My grandpa and grandma’s war stories both shed light on some of the less often discussed pathways towards service: the Naval Reserve, the Navy engineering corps, destroyers, auxiliary ships (like tankers), and the WAVES program. However, despite not serving on the frontlines, both had critically important jobs while managing to take part in what Tom Brokaw once called “the adventure of their lives.”

I’m excited to tell their stories, both here and in my book. And I hope you’ll stick around to see what happens next.

Have a happy and healthy 2020!

Best,
Matt

December 24th: "It does not seem like Christmas Eve to me"

Things had quieted down a bit at Pearl Harbor by Christmas. The sadness, dread, and anger lingered over the still-smoking water, but each passing day that did not bring an invasion offered at least a small amount of relief.

Elmer spent the day thinking about his family, his faith, and an uncertain future. He channeled these reflections into the letter below, which would be his last of 1941.