Chapter Draft: “The College Try,” Part II

Hey folks,

Sorry, it’s late and I forgot to do this earlier, so I’m just going to post the rest without bothering with photos . . . let me know what you think! – Matt

While Grandpa’s letters contain a trove of valuable information about his college history, there is another perspective that may give it some additional context and color: my own. In 1946 SMSTC shortened its name to Southeast Missouri State College, and in 1973 it rechristened itself as Southeast Missouri State University. This was the school’s name when I matriculated there in 1999. Now often referred to as SEMO or just “Southeast,” the university is no longer just for teachers or officer trainees. Its larger mission today is to serve as the preeminent educational, intellectual, and cultural institution for Southeast Missouri, long considered to be the most economically disadvantaged region in the state. But it is also a great alternative for many St. Louis-area students who, like me, could not get into a more prestigious school and who were turned off or intimidated by Mizzou’s sprawling campus community.

As I went through his letters from Cape, I noticed many little things that tied our experiences together: afternoons at Capaha Park, evenings at Cape Rock, cool nights spent smoking under the stars, hot days spent seeking relief from the sultry Gulf heat that somehow always stretched its way up the Mississippi, and the mysteriously (almost suspiciously) high quality of the dorm food. When he first mentions Cheney Hall a rush of memories come flooding back, reminding me of all those times I’d walk from Cheney back to Towers late at night after seeing my girlfriend, passing the blinking power plant and the brooding soccer fields, hearing nothing but the tinnitus-like ringing of Missouri insects screaming from the trees and soft winds blowing a long arc from the Rockies all the way to the Atlantic. If it was especially late at night – or early in the morning – I could hear the first songbirds serenade each other from the Spanish oaks and sweet gum trees. Sometimes I would stand outside of the Towers dormitory complex after an almost all-nighter, cool in the crisp predawn air, smoking a cheap cigar and listening to the robins and brown thrashers announce the beginning of their days. I wish I had thought to talk to my grandpa about these things more often, because I know he would be immediately transported to Cape with me.

Of course, we did compare notes occasionally. Like Grandpa, I spent most of my weekends in Cape, which is not well known for its nightlife (apart from the usual – and frequent – house parties). While the town was big enough for students to enjoy a few beers while watching the barges float past, it was too small for a pub crawl. At least the Illinois side of the river had the Little Vegas Strip in East Cape Girardeau. Anchored by the Purple Crackle, a “supper club” which regularly featured big bands, for generations it was the place for students to go on a Friday night. But there was a rub: the Cape Girardeau Bridge, which was long, narrow, frightening under even the best of circumstances, and utterly terrifying under the worst. Cars passing each other only had a few feet of clearance on either side (the roadtop was only twenty feet wide), so each party going east across the river to visit the Crackle had to come back with at least one driver who was sober enough to safely make the trip back west. That wasn’t always a sure thing.* Decades later, after dinner one Sunday evening my grandpa asked me if the Crackle was still there. I quickly glanced at him and we shared a knowing look, hopefully without my mother noticing.

Despite these commonalities, many things have changed since then. When I attended Southeast Missouri State University from 1999 to 2003, Cheney Hall was the oldest and most highly desired dormitory on campus. It is a gorgeous building, and its rooms have beautiful hardwood floors and classic radiators. But like all older things, it was not always so. Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College constructed Cheney Hall in 1939 with funding from the Works Progress Administration, so by the time Elmer arrived on campus in 1943 it was one of the newest buildings on campus. Meanwhile, Elmer’s dorm, Leming Hall, was already a couple of generations old, having been built in 1905. It was used for seventy years, setting the scene for generations of students’ memories. But while this spot lived on in my grandpa’s recollection of the campus, the building that came after that – the University Center, built in 1975 – became a special place for his grandson in turn. I spent a lot of time there: club meetings, my first student conference, BBQ sandwiches in the cafeteria . . . so many things come to mind. The buildings were different but the geographic coordinates were exactly the same.

It has been nearly twenty years since I graduated college, and the memories return in fragments. There are fuzzy mental snapshots of reading history books, looking at microfilm, taking notes, talking to professors, buzzing around Carnahan Hall, making friends, eating burgers and omelets in the cafeteria . . . typical college stuff. But my mind also plays 4K videos me of going to New York on a Greyhound with my best friend, falling in love for the first time, watching 9/11 unfold on a break room TV screen at work, reading Hunter S. Thompson while sitting next to the river as it rolled forever by, racing down two lane roads in old cars covered in band stickers and then drunkenly eating pancakes with groggy truckers at the Scott City Huddle House . . . College was such an indispensably formative time for me that I cannot imagine who I would be without it. Meanwhile, the four years I spent at Southeast were the only frame of reference I have for my grandpa, whose own four formative years were mostly spent aboard Naval ships in war zones. But his residency in Cape Girardeau at least offers an intersection, a shared place, a series of moments that spanned decades of time.

Leaf peepers like to spend their time and money visiting Vermont, but Cape Girardeau is every bit as beautiful when the leaves change. Flaming oranges, reds, and yellows polka dot the thick green forests across the Mississippi Valley, crowning the river bluffs with wreaths of gold and crimson. The region’s myriad apple trees sweeten the scene, and pumpkins are never hard to find. On the college campus, leaves congregate on Normal and Henderson Avenues, shirts begin to seek cover under sweaters and jackets, and cool winds from the north and west begin to overpower the Gulf moisture from the South. Today, October comes during the midway point of the semester, and despite the increasingly comfortable climate students are often weighted down by anxiety over midterms. For V-12 students, however, October brought the end of the semester as well as the end of summer. And like boiled eggs cooling in a pan of water, students were unburdened for a short time with both the pressures of school and the soupy humidity of a Cape summer.

As the V-12 semester at Southeast began to wind down, Elmer welcomed the dipping temperatures. After spending two autumns in the tropics he was ready for cool nights and hot cider. But he could not enjoy it as much as he wanted on account of two health issues that would largely define for him his time at SMSTC. The first was a hernia that, as far as Elmer could tell, he had suffered while completing one of the obstacle courses sometime during the first two weeks of the term. It aggravated him enough to limit his activity, but not enough to warrant taking him immediately out of school, so he gutted it out. His commanding officer allowed him to put the surgery off until after the semester concluded, since it would also require two weeks of subsequent bedrest. But Elmer seemed to worry less about the operation than he did about causing his mother any more anxiety. On one of his trips home he confided in his father, letting him know what happened and what he expected to happen next. With respect to everyone else, however, mum was the word. He even kept the news from Rose. Elmer waited to read her in until he wrote her on November 9th, after nearly two weeks in the hospital. “I kept my condition a secret from just about everyone because I didn’t want my mom to know,” he explained. “She is a very high-strung and emotional person.”

Although Grandpa was able to get his hernia fixed, the second medical problem issue he faced was an intractable and, as far as the Navy was concerned, far worse for his prospects as an officer. On July 20, 1943, Elmer took an American Optical Company vision exam. The test itself only became available in 1940, after Elmer originally enlisted. The older test that Elmer took did not detect any problems with his color vision, but since a new physical examination was required prior to Elmer matriculating into the V-12 program he had to take the newer diagnostic. But after reviewing the results, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery determined that Elmer had failed the updated vision assessment. They ruled that he had “slightly defective color perception” – it was not severe enough to send him home, but it was defective enough to disqualify him from the V-12 program. He was ordered to return to active duty and allowed to retain his previous rating.

Once classes ended on October 15th, Elmer had a few extra days to visit his family in St. Louis. He broke the disappointing news to his parents and then boarded a train south toward New Orleans, where he was to be operated on before resting for two weeks and awaiting orders that would presumably send him to a new ship. When he arrived on October 26th, his autumn was officially over, but it was not yet winter, either. There were no more fall colors, such as they were, or cool breezes to be had. Just the Louisiana air, thick and steamy as a pot of bouillabaisse.

He mailed his parents a postcard and a letter shortly before his procedure. He did not have much to say: “Didn’t see much of New Orleans yet, it is an old city. I noticed how old so many buildings were as we traveled from the Union Station to the Naval Station.” He sent his next letter on October 30th. “Hi you dad! Still at the job. Had that little matter taken care of that we talked about at home. Everything is fine and working out swell. Thought you would like to know.” Father and son kept mother in the dark about Elmer’s condition. But Rose Luckett, who may well have been “high strung and emotional,” was by no means dumb. She wondered what the word “dispensary” meant when she saw it on Elmer’s new mailing address.

After Halloween she looked it up.

The news deeply disappointed Elmer, who apparently did not discover his condition or his fate until he received his transfer orders in mid-October. His letters up until that point make no mention of the vision exam results, and at several points in his letters to Rose he expressed his excitement over being done with “this term,” as opposed to school overall. There is no sense of impending finality in his letters. One letter is written in Cape; the next is a postcard from New Orleans. And therefore, with the stroke of a pen, Elmer’s college career was over.

Grandpa told me this story years later, after two children and two marriages and half a lifetime had passed. I detected more than a twinge of disappointment, even though he had since lived his best life. One time when I was a kid, I also asked my mom about this. I wondered how grandpa could drive if he could not tell the difference between red and green. After all, what would happen at a traffic light? My mom informed me that he had learned to tell which light was illuminated, which after 25 years of driving is still something I have to think about for a second. This made me admire him even more. And while I am not privy to the optical demands of the World War II Naval officer corps Elmer’s color perception deficiency never seemed to hinder him in the engine room. But just as one bureaucrat in Washington D.C. endorsed his admission into the V-12 program and another exhibited enough kindness to send Elmer to school a mere 100 miles from his parents, a third determined that Elmer could see well enough to run a ship engine but not well enough to supervise an engineer.

Years later, not long after grandpa died, I found a large envelope with “Matt + Dave” written in sharpie on the front (Dave is my younger brother) as I was going through some of the papers he left behind. When I opened the envelope a museum of our childhood tumbled out: old theater programs, photos, and even a hand-drawn Christmas book I wrote and self-published (at a Kinkos) when I was 8. I had forgotten that it existed. Seemingly more disposable was the program for my undergraduate commencement ceremony, which was carefully tucked away behind all the other childhood detritus. I do not even know where mine is today – I was annoyed at having only made cum laude with my 3.7 GPA. But when I peeked at the program my grandpa saved he had circled my name, and in margin he wrote “cum laude = with honors!!!” It was both touching and telling that he presumably felt the need to look it up. Maybe I should have been prouder of myself, or, at the very least, more willing to acknowledge his own pride in that accomplishment.

I knew the honors distinction made him happy, but I wonder how much his own history in Cape influenced his thinking on the matter. Although my grandpa did not choose Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College (the Navy chose it for him), I know he was pleased that I chose to follow his footsteps there, even if I never did join the Navy. And while I may have been the one to graduate cum laude, my grandpa left college with honors as well. Mine were published in a commencement program, while his were pinned to his uniform. And I know he knew that, but I hope he also knew that I know that as well.

Chapter Draft: “The College Try,” Part I

It’s almost back to school time! Whether you or your kids or grandkids are starting a new grade or a new school, this is a good moment to reflect on what our school and college experiences mean to us. This is especially true after the past year and a half of quarantine restrictions. Although we are not yet out of the woods (and if you are not vaccinated yet, please do so for your sake and for all those who cannot for whatever reason . . . like my four year old daughter!), I hope that we come closer to some kind of normalcy this next year.

For my part, I will be starting my MFT Counseling program at CSU-East Bay next week. I am both excited and nervous about being a grad student again . . . if memory serves, during my last go-around I could not wait to not be a student anymore! But this time feels different. It is also fitting that I end my registered student journey (one hopes, anyway) at a state college, given that I earned my Bachelors degree at Southeast Missouri State University. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s OK—it does not show up too often on the rankings lists. But it was a smart, affordable, and ultimately right choice for me and, I would guess, most of my friends as well, who have all gone on to do incredible things in their post-baccalaureate lives.

So, if you did not get into Harvard of Yale, or your parents cannot afford to sneak you into USC as a fake member of its rowing team, do not be dismayed. I received an excellent, memorable, and valuable education at Southeast Missouri State University, and I look forward to receiving one at CSU-East Bay as well. Go Redhawks, and go Pioneers!

Anyway, check out the following chapter I’ve written for my book, Grandpa’s Letters: A Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Journey in History and Memory. When my grandpa was selected to join the V-12 officers training program in 1943, the Navy decided to send him to Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College—now known as Southeast Missouri State University. This chapter describes his semester there, as related to his parents in his letters, and it also contains some thoughts of my own on how our experiences there intertwined. I think it shows just how powerful and profound the college experience can and should be.

Note that some of the prose matches the prose in earlier blog posts about the project. This is by design, since the book is largely based on these posts. But I hope this also gives you a sense on how I’m trying to make everything congeal into a larger, book-length narrative. As it continues to evolve I will keep adding things and taking other things away. But overall the final product will be much better—and less raw—than the posts themselves. Such is the nature of writing.

Please let me know what you think in the comments, or by sending me a message in the Contact page. The book is just about fully drafted, so I’m rapidly reaching the point where I can start sending it out to people and soliciting feedback. I’d love to know what you think!

Thanks,

Matt

Chapter 7, The College Try—Part I

Time flew. June arrived before anyone knew it, and Elmer’s 43 days were up. “That month at home was heaven,” he wrote his parents after arriving at San Diego on June 15th. “Mom dear, I sure miss that home cooking of yours. Our food is good, but it just don’t compare with yours.” Elmer’s train deposited him in San Diego several days early. What was in 1940 a sleepy if boisterous border town that happened to have a Naval base was by 1943 a large, bustling wartime port that happened to be near a major city. He spent his remaining days on leave with a couple of friends he made on the train west, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city before being shipped to Heaven Knows Where. While Elmer was on his way to start his officer training program, he had no idea where in the United States he would end up going. Texas? New York? Idaho? College students today have thousands of possible destinations to pick choose and can visualize where they will end up, but Elmer and other V-12 selectees had to wait on pins and needles for their school assignments without even knowing their destination’s time zone. But by the time he reported for duty on June 18, he received some unexpectedly good news: he would be soon be on a train back East. He would report to Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College to begin his V-12 program studies. It was only one hundred miles from home.

Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College (SMSTC) was located in Cape Girardeau, where it stretched across a series of forested, rolling hills overlooking the Mississippi River. It was an odd place for a Naval school, just as Cape Girardeau is an odd name for a town located approximately 500 miles from the nearest ocean. Yet Cape Girardeau itself rests just above the northernmost tip of the Mississippi Embayment, a massive alluvial region that is at least geologically a continuation of the Mississippi Delta. Over millions of years the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers carried sediment from the Ozark and Appalachian ranges down towards the Gulf, which during the Cretaceous Period extended all the way up to the Missouri bootheel. As the once-towering mountain ranges across eastern North America slowly crumbled away the river sediment continued to build up, adding new land over tens of millions of years that eventually became the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. By 1943 the Mississippi was much longer, and the rippled hills surrounding Cape Girardeau were now closer to the shores of Lake Michigan than they were to the sea. But Scott City, Cape’s southern neighbor, was once the maritime domain of sharks and plesiosaurs. The Navy was 65 million years too late.

While Cape Girardeau might not have been anywhere close to the sea, it was a classic river town. In many ways aesthetically similar to Hannibal, its more famous counterpart north of St. Louis, Mark Twain once complimented Cape’s “handsome appearance.” But unlike the more culturally Midwestern Hannibal, Cape’s location on what many Missourians would consider to be the state’s border between its Midwestern and Southern regions gives it a special flavor of its own. Residents prefer northern red brick buildings over plantation-style wooden frame homes, which do a better job of keeping the cold out. But at dinner time they will grab some gumbo or gator etouffee at Broussards, which keeps the heat inside. It is a bit isolated for a city east of the Great Plains: St. Louis is 100 miles to the north, and Memphis is twice as far to the south. The college’s nearest competitor, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, is an hour’s drive away on rural two-lane highways. Meanwhile, the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers make it hard to get anywhere else as they crash into one another south of Cairo. Both rivers elbow their way past Illinois and Kentucky while occasionally puffing out their chests like drunken revelers in the French Quarter. Even today ferries are the quickest and least circuitous way to get to many places on the other side of either river.

Despite being landlocked, SMSTC was well-equipped to host one of the Navy’s 131 V-12 programs during World War II. It also needed the business. School enrollments plummeted during the months following the Pearl Harbor attack, as enlistments and the draft snatched bodies out of dorm rooms and classroom seats in universities across America. The V-12 program, in addition to supplying the Navy with college-educated officers and providing its swelling ranks of enlisted men with a new opportunity for advancement, threw a lifeline to colleges like SMSTC. Instead of waiting out the war with reduced enrollments and endowments that nearly vanished during the Depression, these schools served as satellite Annapolises and extension West Points. Since most of the classes offered in the program were general education courses, as well as physical and leadership training, the V-12 schools provided both experience and facilities. No ocean required.

At least SMSTC looked the part. The Teacher’s College spread across a wooded hill northwest of downtown Cape Girardeau. Its dormitories crowded along Henderson Ave, just east of Capaha Park and on the western edge of today’s campus. The college’s flagship building, Academic Hall, was perched upon the highest of these knolls. The building’s milquetoast name does not do its architecture justice. A neoclassical behemoth built in 1906 from limestone and capped with a copper dome, Academic Hall looms like a stately courthouse over the rest of the campus and the surrounding town. While figuratively it was an ivory tower, the dome itself was made of thinly hammered copper.

Academic Hall today

On June 26th, Elmer hopped a train from the Pacific to the Mississippi for the second time in as many months. After four days, Grandpa arrived in Cape Girardeau, Missouri at 3:15 in the morning. The moon was only a sliver in the sky, and the disembarking passengers immediately found themselves surrounded by pitch black floodwaters. Cape Girardeau’s railroad is so close to the Mississippi that it practically kisses the riverbank. “The train tracks had about a foot of water over them,” he reported the next day, “but all was well.” Elmer and the other arrivals grabbed their bags, splashed across the submerged platform, and ducked into cabs for the short ride to campus. They only had a couple of hours to sleep before reporting in at 8:30 that morning. But despite the inauspicious beginning, Elmer was excited to start. “I like it here and this is really an opportunity to attend college first class,” he reported. “I think we will be able to get home over weekends once we settle down.”

Elmer quickly found himself busy once classes started on July 6th. “Same routine,” he wrote two weeks later. “Exercise, chow, classes, chow, exercise, classes, study, chow, study, and then sleep. What a day!” His mornings started at 6am, which began with physical drilling. He was not used to the frequent and intense training. “I’m tired,” he reported on July 12th after finishing his workout for the day, “but this is good for me.” Several days later he elaborated: “my physical drills tightened my muscles up and made me stiff – especially in the stomach. But it proves that it is doing good.” On the 21st he told his parents he was “wore out” after completing the obstacle course. “It’s a killer,” he wrote. By 8am he was in class. For the next nine hours it was coursework, study time, and more physical education. He enrolled in seven classes: Physics, American History, Naval History, American Literature, Physical Education, Engineering Drawing, and Psychology. Of all those subjects, “Physics seems to be the toughest subject for all the fellows.” He held his own, though – on the 28th he learned that he had passed his first exam, “but not with a high grade.”

The V-12 Program worked Elmer to the bone, but there were rewards to his new posting: “they really can serve chow here.” The food on campus was “the closest to home cooking I have ever had,” he reported, and the chicken dinner he had on the Fourth of July was “perfect.” In addition, the dorms were a nice change of pace after spending two and a half years on a cramped ship. “The lounge has really nice over-stuffed divans, chairs, a radio, and such lovely carpets, drapes, etc,” he noted. “It really is swell here, folks.” But the best part was the people. He became close friends with Hal Spiner, a fellow Cleveland High School graduate and a fellow resident in his dorm. On July 16th he interrupted a letter home by announcing that Hal had walked in and asked him to go out; when he picked it up the next day he described a double-date with Hal and two local girls, Ruthie and Hettie Jean, who worked as waitresses on campus. They drove up to Cape Rock, which was just as popular among couples in the 1940s as it was sixty years later. But he quickly added, probably to short-circuit any worrying, that Cape Rock was also “the spot where some frenchmen landed back in 1733.” He was taking American history, after all.

Cape Rock in the 1960s.

Evenings were just as busy as the days. Elmer and his classmates visited the Rainbow Room, a local bar, and attended a dance held by the school. But the nights were hot in other ways as well. “Even at night you perspire a great deal,” Elmer wrote of the summer heat in Cape. As all longtime Missourians know, the state’s weather is in a perennial crossfire between Gulf of Mexico heat waves and Hudson Bay cold snaps, but Cape is noticeably closer to the former than St. Louis. “Boy is it hot here . . . [it] makes it hard to write as my arm keeps floating away in a pool of sweat.”

Elmer enjoyed spending some of his weekends in Cape, but he did try to go home regularly. Usually his visits were brief and hurried: he would take a bus up to Saint Louis early Saturday evening, stay the night, and head back Sunday afternoon. The trips were short but pleasant. “Good to be home,” he wrote after a visit. “The good old home-cooked food hit the spot.” Although he could not make it up for his mother’s birthday on July 24 – they spoke on the phone instead – he tried to coordinate one visit with his brother Bud and his family visiting from Chicago. And while Elmer did not get to experience the Animal House lifestyle while on campus, he did take advantage of that most hallowed and time-honored tradition among college students: bringing the laundry home over the weekend. After one visit his mother had shipped him his uniform, which she had generously cleaned and pressed for him. It’s “in perfect shape” he announced – “‘just like taking it out of a drawer.’ Thanks, you’re a dear.” Elmer enjoyed seeing his parents and getting his laundry done, but had had one other reason to visit home as well. At the end of July, he announced his intention to visit. But he did not plan to spend a great deal of time at home that Saturday evening – he had a date. With Rose.

Back at Cape his studies went well, though his course load was heavy enough to cause considerable and daily stress. Physics continued to be the worst culprit, though he had begun showing improvement in that class as well. On September 1st he reported earning an 80% on his latest physics exam, which was a marked improvement over the 55s and 60s he usually received. He excelled in his other courses, and even ranked 2nd in his psychology class.

Sometimes that routine was interrupted, like when the students who waited his table had left for a short summer break (the new girls were “not as good as the old ones” he uncharitably announced on August 14th), or when he made trips up to Saint Louis to see his folks. Before leaving he’d request his favorite foods, including chicken and dumplings on two occasions, plus pie for desert. The following month he received a visit from Bud Tanner, who traveled down to Cape to see his old friend. They hit the town and saw the sights, including Cape Rock.

Every now and then Elmer’s letters offer refractive clues about what his parents were thinking at the time. Forrest Luckett complained that White Castle hamburgers had declined in quality since the start of the war (“this war has effected [sic] everything, no doubt,” Elmer replied blandly), and kept Elmer up to date on a recent workplace injury. Meanwhile his mother asked if Elmer’s chaplain friend on campus drank at all (“every now and then”), and bombarded him with questions about Miss Bedford, an art professor who often hosted Elmer and some of his friends for dinner and card games. She frequently appeared in his letters, but mostly on account of her hospitality and her prowess in the kitchen.

While his love for Miss Bedford was clearly platonic, he continued to flirt with a revolving cast of women throughout the country. Shirley Ryder wrote him from Michigan and Rose Schmid announced that she would be moving to Washington, D.C. to work for the Navy Department. In the meantime, Elmer dated a couple of girls in Cape as well. As always, his mother was still his “number one girl.”

The pace of this routine – classes, drills, nights on the town, alternating weekends in Saint Louis – make these letters seem more perfunctory than usual. As almost anyone who is or has ever been busy will attest, there is both more going on and less to talk about. But there are thoughts and feelings sprinkled here and there. For instance, on September 16th Elmer expresses his gratitude that he had restarted his college career later on (“This college life is really OK and I feel it is doing me much more good than if I would have just continued a complete college program after high school”). Although gap years were not yet invented and would have certainly not been filled with surprise air raids by design, Elmer clearly benefited from the time off from school. But he was also sentimental about some of his relationship prospects, particularly Rose Schmid, who while traveling to California for a week while on vacation did not write to him. And Elmer, despite his long bachelor call sheet, noticed the lack of mail from her.

In any case, time flew by, and for the time being Elmer was in a great place. “Everything’s shipshape,” he reported, despite being hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean-going vessel.

To be Continued: Part II posts next Tuesday!

Putting the Pieces Together: World War II Naval Sources for Veteran’s Day

I recently had the honor and privilege of talking about Grandpa’s Letters with Dr. Samantha Cutrara on her Imagining a New We video series. During the show we chatted about Veteran’s Day (or Remembrance Day in Canada), the advantages of using family letters in a history classroom, and the joys of writing.

In addition to discussing the letters, I also mentioned a few additional sources that I use to add context and detail to Grandpa’s Naval career. Unlike the letters, which are not only a treasure trove but a treasure in their own right, many people know that a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent served in World War II, but they have few documents or heirlooms to reveal more. This is particularly true for servicemen who died or went missing in action, and for countless others whose letters, journals, or other artifacts were lost, destroyed, or discarded for one reason or another. Where would these people start their historical journey of learning more about a loved one in the service if that loved one left little evidence of their service behind?

Well, consider this a down payment on what I hope will become a separate chapter in my book. Here are explanations and links to (most) of the sources I mentioned in the video, along with some information on where to get them and how to use them. Note that while these are Navy sources, other branches of the service were similarly dedicated to ample and redundant record-keeping (my horse stealing book, in fact, relies heavily on Army sources).

Personnel Records

Personnel records are the most fundamental source to acquire in your journey. Get these first. They contain essential documents for each service member, including enlistment paperwork and exams, orders, various commendations and citations, and discharge papers. Most if not all vital data points can be found here.

Right now these papers are hard to get. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis contains virtually all of these files, and under ordinary circumstances researchers have the option of either making arrangements with the NPRC directly and visiting the site in person to review requested documents, or they can order a digital scan of the file. However, due to COVID the facility shut down during the spring and summer, and is only now beginning a phased reopening process. There will likely be a substantial backlog of requests once it is fully reopen, so I would personally wait (and, incidentally, I will wait because I still have additional requests of my own) until the COVID crisis has passed to make an inquiry.

Here’s a screenshot of one of the pages from Grandpa’s file. Please note that while I have digitized the entire thing, I will not post it anywhere. This is because these files contain a lot of sensitive and personal data, up to and including physical examination reports. Also bear in mind that I am photo-scanning this manually. Since most of it is bound together I am holding it open with one hand (very gingerly, so as not to damage it), while photographing it with the other. It doesn’t produce publishable files, but it gets the job done (pro-tip: bring a tripod, plus extra batteries and a larger-than-you-need memory card).

Elmer Luckett file, National Personnel Records Center, National Archives, St. Louis, MO.

One thing to note: the term of service for the requested person needs to have ended before 1957, or else federal privacy laws prohibit accessing the record without additional permissions and documentations.

For more information, check out their website: https://www.archives.gov/personnel-records-center

Deck Logs

Personnel records are fantastic sources for filling out your loved one’s biography, but what about their ship (if they were in the Navy)? Ship records are fantastic for understanding the setting, as well as whatever actions in which your loved one was involved. When combined with personnel records, any existing oral or written reminiscences from the crew, and secondary sources, you can get an excellent idea of exactly what transpired on and around the ship.

Deck logs are probably the most data rich source of information about ships, their crews, and almost every other conceivable variable. You can track things like temperature and wind speed, the ship’s geographic location throughout the day, and even the amount of ice cream consumed aboard. For instance, check out this page from the Chew’s deck log on December 7th, 1941:

The Chew’s Deck Log, 7 December 1941. Notice the declassification tag at the bottom. All photographs taken at the National Archives of declassified materials must contain it. National Archives, College Park.

This page tells us a story: the Chew’s Sunday morning started out like any other, with the ship taking aboard ten gallons of milk and 4 1/2 gallons of ice cream. But then at 7:57am everything changed, and suddenly the crew found itself in the middle of a war. Deck logs contain narratives of all the major stuff happening on board, as well as much of the minutia. They also contain information about the weather, the location, and other details. If you want to picture what it felt like in Pearl Harbor immediately before the attack started, check out the following table in the Chew’s deck log:

Chew Deck Log (7-12-1941). National Archives, College Park.

For instance, the barometric pressure hovered just above 30 inches (Hg) for most of the morning . . . until 8am, that is, when it was broken by gunfire.

These records can be found at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Learning how to request, access, use, and photograph takes a little bit of time, so if you go be ready to give yourself a few hours to learn the ropes and request the documents (and be careful not to schedule a plane trip immediately after working hours, like I did back in January), plus a few more hours to review and possibly photograph them for future use. If you cannot make the trip yourself, you can hire a freelance researcher to request and photograph the files for you. It will cost a little money, of course, but if you are only requesting a few things it is a lot cheaper to do this than to travel to Maryland for two or three nights. Also, because of COVID and the NARA closures these folks are hurting right now . . . they can use your business!

Here are NARA’s listings for researchers available for hire: https://www.archives.gov/research/hire-help

War Diaries

Like the deck logs, the war diaries can be found at the NARA facility in College Park, Maryland. Unlike the deck logs, war diaries are much shorter, more compact documents that communicate a brief day to day log of where a ship has been and what it did on any given day. They contain a lot less information overall, but they also contain just enough. If you just want information on where a ship was and what it was doing, ask for the war diaries. If you want as much information as possible, use the war diary for context and the deck log for everything else.

Here’s a page from the USS Mink’s war diary from October 1944. Notice how the ship relates a series of geographic coordinates for several days, and then finds itself in action on October 24th:

USS Mink War Diary, 10/1-10/31 1944, National Archives, College Park

The Mink was part of a task force that set sail for the Philippines. Once it got there it would play a role in the largest naval battle in human history: the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

One good thing about the war diaries is that many, if not most of them are available online. In fact, the above-cited war diary for the Mink (10/1 – 10/31 1944) can be found here: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/78665385

By the way . . . you can search for anything else the National Archives might have by going to the NARA Advanced Search site: https://catalog.archives.gov/advancedsearch

It might take a while to figure out what you want and where it is located, but once you spend a little time noodling around with it you will find what you need. Just be patient: NARA has literally millions of records, so if it feels like you are looking for a needle in a haystack, it is because you are! But NARA also employs a lot of people whose jobs revolve around helping the public find what they need, so be sure to ask for help if you need it.

Action Reports

The last type of document I mentioned is the action report, which is an official report following any kind of naval engagement. Action reports flush out many of the details that are missing from war diaries, but are specific to the engagements themselves. They chronicle what guns were used, how much ammunition was expended, what they were targeting, etc. You could write action sequences based on these reports. Here is an excerpt from one from the Mink in January 1945, which related what occurred when a kamikaze attack targeted the Mink’s convoy while en route to Lingayen Gulf:

Action Report, USS Mink, National Archives, College Park

The action reports are physically long and thus difficult to present digitally, but this snapshot gives you a sense of how detailed they are. If you want to see the whole thing, you can see it online. Like the war diaries, many (though not all) action reports have been digitized by NARA and can be found on their website. Here’s the link to the one above: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/139885506

Conclusion

I was very lucky to inherit so many letters from my Grandpa. Not only did those letters survive intact and in great (i.e., readable) shape, but Grandpa was an intelligent commentator and a lucid writer. It’s rare to find a correspondence trove in which the letters appear with great frequency, regularity, over a long period of time, with readable writing, and with so many things to say. My Grandpa might not have realized it, but he had the soul of a historian.

That being said, World War II – and modern wars in general – are richly detailed affairs, with a lot of granular and unit-level reporting. Most veterans have detailed files, even if they are not yet publicly available, and for most of them you can get information on where and how they served, what they saw, and where they fit into the overall scheme of things. In other words, you don’t need a box full of letters to find a lot of this stuff out . . . just a bit of shoe leather and some resourceful online searching will get you there. Hopefully for those of you with WWII American Navy veterans in your family, the above resources will help you find more information.

And as I state in the interview, World War II is rapidly disappearing from living memory. Of the 16 million men and women who served in the war, only about 325,000 are still alive today. If you know one of them, please reach out to them and ask if they are willing to share their story with you. They might not, and that is OK, but if they do then all you need is a smart phone with a recording app. For more information on conducting oral history interviews, check out UCLA’s Center for Oral History page on the subject. I trained there while in grad school, and they know what they are doing.

A couple of other things: I’ve heard from family members of a few of Elmer’s shipmates on the Chew and the Mink. If someone you loved was on either of these ships during the war, please feel free to reach out to me on my Contact page! I would love to talk to you sometime and, if you’d like, interview you for my book project. Although my grandpa’s story is at the center of this narrative, I want to also use the opportunity to talk about the other men who served on these ships. Neither the Chew (a destroyer) nor the Mink (a Liberty Ship tanker) are frequently mentioned in the annals of World War II Naval history, yet the war would not have been won without their efforts and sacrifices, nor those of thousands of other ships that have not yet had movies made about them.

Also, thanks again to Dr. Samantha Cutrara for inviting me onto her show to talk about my project. Please check out her YouTube channel for more interviews with scholars, teachers, artists, and others across both Canada and the United States.

Finally, today is Veteran’s Day here in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada. It is November 11th in both countries because 102 years ago, on November 11, 1918, the Allied and Central Powers agreed to an Armistice which ended World War I. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that November 11, 1919 would “be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations” every year on that date henceforth. So while it is entirely appropriate and highly encouraged to thank the millions of Americans today who have given their service to our country, do not forget that we share these burdens with Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and other allies over the past century and more whose own veterans have fought alongside Americans for the free peoples of the world.

And if you are in a giving mood and would like to more than just saying “thank you” to veterans on social media, consider giving some money to a charity that serves veterans and their families. There are many charities out there that do this, but my favorite is Give an Hour. It raises money for mental health counseling and therapy for veterans, as well as victims of disasters. Help make this vital care available to the people who need it while destigmatizing mental health care by making a gift today: https://giveanhour.org

OK . . . that’s all. Thanks for reading all the way to the end! I’m going to take a week or two off, then I will post a couple of stories about Grandpa’s time in the Philippines, including the story of how he met my great Uncle Danny . . . in Manila. I’m going to shoot for posting that one on Thanksgiving.

Stay safe and wear a mask!

Matt

September 1945: “I am on my Way”

Even though Billie Joe Armstrong wrote this song about losing his father at the age of 10, the song has been reinterpreted in a variety of ways, including within its own music video.

After cruising around New Guinea and the Philippines throughout most of August, the Mink finally set anchor in Manila Harbor at the end of the month. It would spend the next several weeks there, fueling a wide variety of ships and smaller craft. “This bay is covered with ships of all descriptions,” Elmer wrote on September 9th. “Really a sight to see so many ships.”

Elmer was less than impressed with Manila. “There isn’t much to do around town after you’ve looked it over,” he wrote. “Plenty of liquor stores and places to dance, but the prices they charge are highway robbery. Everything you do or buy costs about three times what it is worth. Not much in supply and a lot of demand, so they really ask plenty for everything.” You can’t really blame the locals for trying. Business tanked during the Japanese occupation, which brought its own fresh set of horrors, and the sailors and Marines streaming ashore were often flush with cash. In addition to that, the Philippines faced the heavy task of rebuilding after over three years of brutal occupation. “[Manila] is in ruins,” he wrote on the 9th. “Not many buildings missed being shot up and bombed out. A city of ruins!” But the chow hound’s mind immediately turned to his stomach. “No good places to eat, except at the Red Cross or Army Snack Bars,” he opined. “You must be careful of the food and water you drink due to unsanitary conditions.”

Destruction at the Walled City (Intramuros district) of old Manila in May 1945 — after the Battle of Manila. Wikicommons.

Price gouging did not stop Elmer from buying some souvenirs for his loved ones, however. “I got Rosie a pair of wooden slippers, an oriental design and very fancy,” he admitted. “They cost six dollars.” Meanwhile, he was saving money from not buying gifts for – or writing – his other pen pal flames. “I don’t think [Rae] will write much more, if at all. She knows I am interested in someone at home. I don’t care much about writing other girls anyway; Rose is the one that counts.”

Elmer did not want to buy too many things in any case. He mailed his mother a package containing the sweater that Rae made him, some wool socks from Rose, and other odds and ends from his travels. He knew the trip home would be long, and it was not as if he could hop onto an airplane and take a nap while flying directly back to the states. The journey would be convoluted, involving boats, trains, and eleven time zones. And he would have his sea bag with him the whole way. On September 9th he also sent a $100 money order home, believing that he had enough cash and not wanting to risk losing it on his way home.

But Elmer knew that he might have to wait weeks, if not months, to go home. “With the war over and my duty done, I want to get back to civilian life. This waiting now will seem the longest because the war is over and everyone wants to get out. But I will try to be patient as always.” However, Elmer did not generally communicate his disappointments to his parents, which put Rose in the position of providing emotional support. “Rosie wrote a letter to cheer me up about not having enough points to get out,” he wrote on the 9th. “She said she will be waiting for me with open arms – and I know she will. I’m really in love with that girl and I have all the confidence and faith that she loves me as much as I do her. So much for my sugar.”

Elmer’s last letter came in this envelope. Notice the absence of a censorship stamp.

At the very least, while he waited Elmer would be able to write without fear of someone else reading his mail. “Don’t think I mentioned it yet, but our censorship of letters and packages has stopped. They just stopped it a couple of days ago. Really swell to write a private letter again.” Elmer then took the opportunity to talk a bit more about his ship, something he was not able to do earlier due to censorship and distance from home.

“Our ship is sort of a station tanker and we handle diesel fuel for all the diesel propelled craft,” he explained. “Mostly LST’s, LCI’s, LSM’s, and other types of amphibious ships. This has been our job for many months now. At first we carried high-octane gasoline while operating around New Guinea, Admiralties, and Biak; this was early in 1944 when things were a little hot down there. We also carried 80 or low octane gasline for awhile. High octane is for airplanes, and we supplied advance air fields with fuel. the low grade gas was usually for Army use. So much for an idea of our past work.

Elmer to his Parents, 9 September 1945

Elmer made one other note about their previous job, one which undoubtedly gave them pause when learning of Japanese kamikaze attacks on other tankers. “Personally I don’t like carrying gasoline of any grade, so I was pleased when it was changed to diesel fuel. The whole crew was pleased. Ha! Ha!”

Regardless of the changes in his and his ship’s jobs over the past year and a half, one thing was clear by September 12: his job was almost done. The Navy decided to grant credit for overseas service, which raised Elmer’s point total to 55. This qualified him for a discharge. “Of course,” he noted, “until they release me from the ship to return to the states, it may take awhile. But according to the plan I should get out within the next four months. Some of the fellows with enough points will leave soon. But they can’t take everyone, because some must be relieved before they can leave the ship. So we will hope for the best.”

His situation was clearer by the 16th. All rotation leaves were canceled, and servicemen with 18 months of continuous overseas service (like Elmer) who were eligible for discharge were to be simply relieved instead. “Sure glad I have enough points to get out,” he wrote. “I feel fairly sure that I will be off the ship in another month. May be sooner, but it’s hard to figure just how fast they will get men aboard for our relief. So we will hope for the best. Chins up!”

Veterans aboard the USS Enterprise, which carried over 1100 men back to the States from the Pacific Theater. Wikicommons.

Turns out it would be sooner. “I hav some good news I feel sure will interest you,” he wrote on the 20th. “Yesterday evening four new engineers reported aboard ship. And they will permit the relief of men eligible for discharge. At present four of our old gang of engineers have enough points for discharge . . . I am at the top of the list.” His Chief Engineer told him that he would be able to leave “by the middle of next week.” At that point, “I should be transferred to the shore station here, probably Cavite, in a week’s time. Of course, how long I must wait around for transportation to the states is another question. But there is a lot of shipping coming and going all the time, so it shouldn’t take long. How’s that for good news? I’m as happy as a lark.”

Elmer laid out his communication plan for the journey home.

“When I leave the ship I will write and tell you so. You can stop writing me then because all the while I am traveling back I will not get mail. And it will only be sent home again after I leave. I will keep writing as much as possible. When I hit the states I will send a wire or call home. I promised to call Rose or send her a wire also. You can tell all the folks at home I’ve quit writing as of now, that is, Aunt Frieda, Chick, Jeanette, and the others. The only ones I will write are Rose and my Mom and Dad. So much for letter writing.”

Elmer to his Parents, 20 September 1945

He talked over some of the other implications of his leaving so quickly. “Mom, you won’t have to send me any more Christmas packages,” he pointed out. “This year it will be Xmas together, God willing. That will be a wonderful feeling.” He also sent a few reflective words to his father. “Yes Dad, so much has happened the past years . . . it will be so good to get home and see you all again. And settle down as a civilian. We can talk again, Dad. I’m so tired of writing letters.”

He still had a couple more to write. On the 23rd he mentioned having to “break in” the new engineers, and predicted he would be able to leave in “3 or 4 days.” He also discussed how much he enjoyed spending time with his future brother in law, Dan, who was about to leave for Tokyo the following day. And he commented on the rain in Manila: “This is the rainy season in the Philippines . . . I’ve never seen so damn much rain.”

His September 25th letter was shorter. Elmer was busy packing. “Tomorrow morning I will leave the ship and begin the long voyage and journey home.” He informed his parents that he had to wait at Cavite for a ride back to the States. “Just how long that will take is hard to predict,” he admitted. “But I will get back as soon as they can get me there. You can stop writing me letters now.”

Elmer’s last letter is below. It was postmarked September 28th, 1945, and mailed from the Cavite Naval Station:

Just a few lines before I leave to go aboard ship. Only have time for a few lines now. Big rush here. It may be two weeks or more before you hear from me. But I am on my way. Don’t worry about me. That’s all for now.

Your loving son,
Elmer
Hugs and Kisses

P.S. They are really rushing us to the states. Hot Dog!

Elmer to his Parents, 28 September 1945

That’s the last letter Elmer wrote his parents during his Naval service. During our interview, we spent some time talking about his adventures on the journey back. I may write about those for the book. But for now, this seems like a fitting place to close.

He arrived back in St. Louis on October 27th, and received his official discharge on the 29th. After nearly five years of duty, Elmer’s job finally came to an end. He was home.

Elmer’s last letter home.

This is not the end of his documentary record. My files are full of wedding invitations, postcards, a smattering of letters across the decades, and other pieces of paper that neither he nor Rose threw away. This is also not the end of his story, since the last chapter of the book I’m writing will cover Elmer’s journey after the war and how his Pearl Harbor experience shaped that.

However, these boxes of letters . . . these were a gift. When Grandpa first told me that he was going to leave them to me, I felt a little confused and maybe even slightly annoyed at having to take care of them. When I received them after he died, I was working on other things and reluctant to begin going through them. Once I started working on them, I was motivated by the idea that I was doing something historically cool (I still think that, actually). But over the last few months of reading through them, I’ve realized that they have a much deeper significance for me.

I knew my grandpa for 36 years, which I realize is a blessing for most people. Yet I never really knew him. We did not talk all that often, apart from us updating each other on our lives, and that oral interview was probably the longest we had ever talked. So these letters were a window into the life of a man whose universes and multitudes, to borrow from Walt Whitman, were always kept pretty close to the vest. I saw bits and pieces of myself in these letters, as well as bits and pieces of my dad, my uncle, and my brother (all Navy veterans, incidentally). But I also saw a lot of him: his willpower, his commitment to service, his idealism, his passion for adventure, and his love for home and family.

My grandpa was the quintessential Taurus: he enjoyed the beauty of the world, but he preferred the warmth of home even more. It was also funny to read about his appetite, which even in his last years was never easily satisfied (“Good supper, Phil!” he’d tell his daughter in law during his last years). And I have barely started going through my grandmother Rose’s letters – not because I haven’t had the time, but because I don’t really want to rush the job. I never had the chance to meet her, so I am looking forward to getting to know her. And I sincerely hope, if she was still around, that she would have been proud of me.

Anyway, if this blog/book does anything, I hope that it tells a much more multifaceted story about my grandpa’s war experience than most of us ever knew. He mentioned Leyte Gulf a few times, and talked a little about the vision test that booted him out of the V-12 Program, but for most people (including me) his story began and ended with the Attack on Pearl Harbor. Indeed, that’s the story people wanted, including the news organizations that would show up and interview him each year on the anniversary. Which was great, by the way – he loved the attention and never tired of telling the story. But his experience, which spanned the entirety of America’s involvement in the war, was so much more. It is a war story, a narrative about personal growth, and a romance as compelling as any you would see in one of the movies he had watched on the deck of the Mink.

As this narrative becomes a book, I hope to do it justice. But it is important to note: these letters, with all of their ups and downs, ARE his story. It is a lot more than Pearl Harbor. And yet, somehow, it is also a lot less. That’s what makes his experience so relatable.

These monthly letter posts have reached their conclusion, but please stick around. There is still a lot of work to do, and I hope to share it with you as I make progress on this project. So stay tuned . . . you haven’t heard the last of Elmer Luckett. And that’s, I think, how he would have wanted it.

Thanks for reading.

– Matt

August 1945: A Time for Peace

“Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing? This time, it will swing us clean to oblivion.”

Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

The course of human history can change in a manner of nanoseconds. That is exactly what happened at 08:15 on the morning of August 6th, 1945, when the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The initial airburst created a fireball measuring over 100,000,000° Celsius, hot enough to flay the skin off the sun, and a blast wave capable of flattening everything from air to steel. The city was gone in under a minute. But the tens of thousands who died during those first few moments were the lucky ones. Thousands more died from radiation sickness in the following months, with some wandering miles from ground zero before finally succumbing to their wounds. The Hiroshima explosion might have lasted mere seconds, but its effects would last years. Then on August 9th, three days and half a breath later, the United States dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki. To make matters worse for the reeling Empire, the Soviets declared war that same day and invaded Manchuko. The writing was on the wall for Japan, which reluctantly began surrender talks with the Allies.

Just as Japan’s nightmare was beginning, the long slog of America’s Pacific War was finally coming to an end. It’s hard to fathom the immensity of this conflict, spread as it was over four years and 65 million square miles of ocean. If the war were a chess match, the board would have included four continents and 25,000 islands, and the United States would have started the game with a few pieces missing. But, finally, a checkmate was in sight. After the bombings, the Soviet invasion, the near-total destruction of Japanese infrastructure and production, and sinking morale, Japan was running out of moves.

Two aerial photos of atomic bomb mushroom clouds, over two Japanese cities in 1945. Wikicommons.

Elmer responded to these momentous events in a letter to his parents on August 12th. “The world has been shaking with news since I wrote home last Wednesday,” he reflected. “And in a matter of hours this war may come to an end – please God.” Elmer discussed how he and his shipmates responded to the news. “Since last Wednesday when news of our new atomic bomb came out, our whole ship has been tensed for all the news . . . I hope within the next twenty four hours that Japan will agree to our terms. They can’t hope for a better deal.”

Elmer quickly pivoted to the $64,000 question: if the war was about to end, then when would he be able to get home?

It will mean so much if the war ends. Of course, it may be months before I get my discharge. But with my time over-seas and length of service I should be eligible for discharge under any system of demobilization the Navy may use. I sure hope so! We will hope for the best. The main thing is to end the war, after the war is over we know it is only a matter of time before I will be coming home to stay. I’ve been thinking about you at home and somehow knowing how you must feel at this time. And I bet Rosie is plenty excited too.”

Elmer to his Parents, 12 August 1945

He also reflected on the new deus ex machina that brought the war to a climax so quickly, circumventing what many believed would be an inevitable – and bloody – invasion of the Japanese home islands. “It has all been so sudden that I can’t seem to believe it,” he wrote. “That bomb must be horrible.” Perhaps realizing right then what the existence of such a weapon might mean for the world, he reflected further on what the invention would mean for humanity. “Let’s hope and pray that new atomic bomb will be a symbol of everlasting peace in the future. God knows what the hell this world will see if another war comes with weapons like that . . . [The atomic bomb] can be a continuous reminder to people that another war will bring world destruction. Maybe in that way we can keep peace.”

This is what Elmer’s parents would have read on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Regardless of the political, military, or ethical implications of its use, the news must have come as a relief to millions of families like Elmer’s who feared what would happen if the U.S. were to invade Japan.

A few days later, Elmer continued to ponder the history being made right at that moment. “The news has kept us up and down concerning the Jap surrender business,” he wrote. “Most of us did not know how we stood in this war. And more rumors can be circulated! But it seems the Japs are finally surrendering and only certain formalities [remain] to be carried out in signing the surrender.” He wondered about what his friends and family in St. Louis were thinking. If anything could cut through the gooey heat of a Missouri summer, he suspected, it would be news of victory. “I try to imagine how all this news is effecting [sic] at home. No doubt many are getting drunk and raising hell,” he wrote, before adding a beat later that “we would if we could out here.” However, for the time being they still had work to do. “We are still at our jobs as usual. Waiting to see how the war’s end will effect [sic] us. It may be months before they start demobilizing. But you can only hope for the best.”

Elmer then wrote about his journey over the past four years. While the war had come to a horrible end for Japan, the engineer recalled that its beginning was just as jarring for the United States.

“My biggest hope when this war started at Pearl Harbor was to live and see it end. May sound funny, but it looked so bad at first for us that I didn’t want to die for fear that I wouldn’t know who won the war in the end. Now when I look back over the three years and eight months of this war, it is amazing to realize how much has been accomplished. I know you will feel more relieved and have more peace of mind about me since the war is ending (I’ll feel a little better too. Ha! Ha!) But I feel that my chances for an early discharge are very good. And before you know it I’ll be back home as a ‘Joe Civilian.'”

Elmer to his Parents, 15 August 1945

Elmer’s emotions continued to pour out as he segued to talking about his love life. Although Elmer had already told his parents that he had settled on Rose, he did not mention wanting to marry her until August 15 – the formal Japanese surrender date. “Mom,” he wrote reassuringly, “I know you will like Rosie very much. Sometime in the future I hope to marry her.” This must have come as a surprise to his parents, considering the speed with which this long-distance romance seemed to crystallize. But Elmer assured his parents that he no longer had any qualms about his future with her. “I suppose there comes a time to every man,” he noted, “when he feels that the right girl has been found. It is hard to explain, yet it is an understanding and inner feeling that you have the girl to make you a real wife.” After years of trying to convince his parents that he was too young to get married, Elmer now worried that they did not think him old enough. “To you, I am still your baby. Always will be I guess. But I am actually twenty-five you know. And I’m glad I’ve waited this long before getting serious . . . I have changed my ideas about women so much since I left home . . . in fact, I feel matured beyond my years.” This was no doubt true, as Elmer by that point had spent nearly his entire post-adolescent life in the service. He had seen war first-hand, traveled across two oceans and three continents, and had achieved one of the highest ratings he could get as an enlisted reservist. He was entitled to make this decision for himself.

It is hard to know what his parents had to say about this turn of events, given the fact that Elmer never saved any of their letters. Based on what we can surmise from his correspondence, it seems that they were likely thrown for a loop by his whirlwind romance with Rose, and they might have pushed back on that some in their letters. They might have reminded him at one point that he was still young and still at war – precisely the same point Elmer made himself repeatedly over the past four years, ever since his ill-fated courtship with Pat O’Donnell in 1941. His mother sensed a change in Elmer’s descriptions of Rose, however, which is already discernible just by reading his increasingly long discussions of her and their relationship. She expressed anxiety over whether or not Rose would like her, which is something that Elmer had not commented on in earlier letters with respect to her meeting other girlfriends. His father, meanwhile, seemed to play the Devil’s Advocate (as fathers are wont to do – mine still does!). Knowing his son’s intention over the past four years was to wait to marry until after being mustered out likely made him write a letter to Elmer asking him to clarify his reasons for committing to Rose. This was a reasonable response, to be sure, but since Elmer was 10,000 miles away it may have seemed less reasonable when reading his father’s questions without the benefit of answering them in person.

Elmer sensed something was off when he wrote his parents about the matter in July. He decided to clear the air:

“Guess I sound like I’m going to dash right home and get married,” he wrote, maybe a bit defensively. “But that is not my intention at all. Mom, you said something about Rose expecting a ring. She didn’t say a word about being engaged. I asked her to wait for me and she said she would. But I told her later that we would be engaged when I got home. So the ring will come then. But until I go home and reestablish myself I won’t get married. That may take a year or more. Whether to go to school or to get a job is something I must decide when I get back home. Then I can see how the situation stands. If I was home I could explain myself better, but I think you understand how I feel. And we will have a lot of time to talk things over.”

Elmer to his Parents, 15 August 1945

By the end of the month, Elmer had heard Rose’s account of her meeting with his parents. She had since quit her job in the Navy Department to move back to Saint Louis, so she was free to call on her prospective in-laws. “I told Rose what a fine Mom and Dad I had and she agrees with me a hundred percent. I know she was very happy and pleased to meet you both, I know by the way she writes.” He was a little nervous about how they responded, however. “You didn’t have much to say about Rosie, Dad. But I know you have faith in me and my judgment. As you said, it is how I feel toward Rosie.” In the final analysis, though, regardless of what his parents thought, he knew it was his decision.

“Naturally, I don’t expect you to know and understand her as I do on your first meeting. And I am the one in love with her. I’ve never felt this way about any other girl, and perhaps you don’t understand the way I feel. But in some way, maybe instinct or insight, I am sure that Rose is the girl I want for a wife someday. I won’t try to explain ‘love,’ too many think they can or have failed trying. As I have faith in you, as my mother and father, I have this faith and trust in a girl I want to have for a life partner. I believe this is very necessary. And I know I am right.”

Elmer to his Parents, 29 August 1945

If his parents had any remaining doubts up until that point, that paragraph must have extinguished them. After all, the most frequently described characteristic of love is its very indescribability. Elmer’s trajectory over the past four years may seem personally and intimately familiar to many readers: from being resolutely and vocally opposed to marriage for one reason or another, to announcing one’s engagement. It is not so much that Elmer or anyone else renounces the argument that they should wait, but that the eventually find the person for whom they were waiting in the first place.

A soldier’s 1944–45 Welcome Home Guide to Camp Patrick HenryVirginia. The end of the war created a massive logistical challenge for the United States military, particularly the Navy: getting millions of fighting men and women back home. Wikicommons.

When not discussing his love life, Elmer continued to write about the ship’s morale as the surrender rumors turned into news reports. The crew was preoccupied with when they would be discharged and sent home. “All you hear out here is ‘points,’ ‘points,’ and more ‘points,'” he wrote on August 22nd. “Everyone wants to get out and get home.” The United States Armed Forces introduced a Points system that summer in order to prioritize who would go home first, and who would have to stay behind for a while. Disassembling a victorious military in peacetime was like surfacing after a deep sea dive – doing so without slowly depressurizing would be catastrophic. “You just can’t jump off all the ships and leave them set,” he wrote. “It will take time to demobilize.” There was also some suspicion that Japan’s surrender entreaties were not made in good faith, with Elmer at point calling Japan “a sneaky damn outfit” as negotiations between the Empire and the Americans continued at a slower-than-desired pace.

For the Mink’s part, all of the American ships on the far side of the Pacific still had to get home. If all of the oilers and tankers disappeared, they would be stranded without fuel. Yet Elmer was high on the priority list: he had 40 1/2 points. Discharge required 44. “Considering my age (only 25) and the fact that I’m not married or having a dependent, I stand pretty high,” he noted. “Of course, it is because of my long service. But many married men aboard in their middle thirties have no more points than I do. And young fellows in their teens don’t have half as many points. So I won’t complain about the deal.”

Apparently his family back home was more than aware of the Points system – they were also crunching the numbers. It became something of a game for loved ones to correctly reckon the government’s math, and Elmer’s family sent their guesses to their man on the Mink. Most of them were a bit optimistic. “Looks like brother Bud is the only one at home that figured my points out right,” Elmer announced, as if he were emceeing a pub trivia night. “At least, he figured I didn’t have enough, and that’s right.” but Elmer did have some good news to report on August 29th. “We heard that in the near future the Navy was going to allow more points to men who that have done over-seas duty,” he wrote. “Just how many points hasn’t been announced yet, but it would only take three or four to bring my score up to 44 points. If the Navy is going to demobilize a million or more men within the next year, I feel sure within six months I should be getting out.”

Nonetheless, he looked forward to going home. He declined to send a money order home that month, informing his parents that he might need it for a leave home if the opportunity arose. On the 29th he asked his parents to stop sending him packages, telling them, “I can get all the things I need out here, or else it can wait till I get to the states (I’m hoping it won’t be too long).” As August turned into September, he believed that sooner would be better than later for a break from the tropical heat:

It’s been pretty damn hot lately – but its always hot or hotter. Back home it will be September soon and autumn [is] just around the corner. Leaves falling and weather comfortable for a sweater or a jacket. I’ve said it before and I say it again, give me four seasons a year.”

Elmer to his Parents 25 August 1945

The seasons were indeed changing, even in the sultry Pacific. As summer turned to fall elsewhere, the vaporizing heat of atomic fire would soon lead to the slow, frozen chill of a new Cold War, once again wrapping the world in a fresh set of anxieties. But for Elmer, his service would soon be over. He would celebrate Halloween in St. Louis that year, enjoying the crisp fall breeze and the hot apple cider, dressed as a civilian.

July 1945: Pounds and Politics

In the last weeks of the war, Elmer and the Mink spent their days doing what they had been doing for the past fifteen months: slaking the American Navy’s seemingly endless thirst for fuel on the other side of the world. The ship passed a second month that July servicing ships off Morotai, an island that is now part of Indonesia. “No, Dad, our anchor isn’t stuck at this place. We have to move once in awhile or else the tin cans thrown over the side would fence us in. Ha! Ha!”

Although the Mink was no longer traveling around the region, Elmer was in good spirits on the Fourth of July that year. “Here goes again from that man,” he began, in reference to himself. “Seems as if I just finished a letter home and whats-up, but its [sic] time to write again. [It is] a good thing you all love me so much at home, or I’m afraid these letters would grow very boring. Ha! Ha!” He went on to talk about how many of correspondents thought he was “a pretty fair letter writer,” but that “the censor probably thinks different, or at least he gets plenty tired of going over my letters each week. Someone has to take the punishment for my letters, even if the people that receive them don’t complain.” In any case, he joked that a leave rotation would solve everyone’s problems. “Even the censor[‘s.] So much for idle chatter.”

LST’s at BLUE Beach, Morotai in September 1944. Wikicommons.

Yet in spite of his heightened spirits his parents were still going to be parents. His mother grew anxious after Elmer reported losing a few pounds. “Mom at times you’re a problem to me,” he wrote rather harshly on the 8th. “I casually mention that I lost a few pounds in a letter and right away you start worrying. What am I to do with you? I feel fine at all times and eat as much as I desire.” He then tried to explain the cause of his weight loss. “I’ve been in the tropics and heat for a good while and it don’t bother me. It’s only natural that you don’t eat any heavy meals here, mom, that is, all the time you don’t feel like eating a big meal.”

At the very least he was no less skinny than he was before, as he told to his father in that same letter. “I have a pretty good paunch as it is,” he reported. “Trouble with a ship is you are confined to such a small area most of the time, you don’t get enough exercise. You have your work and can keep busy, but really need more exercise. And the tropics aren’t exactly the type climate to inspire a man for exercising. Give me good old Missouri – four seasons – and a temperate climate.”

Elmer did not only discuss his weight with his parents. He and his dad continued to discuss In Fact, with Elmer articulating his own – and alluding to his father’s – political views throughout. That July, in fact, Elmer broached a subject that is still taboo today among many Americans: bigotry and race.

This is a brief, but wonderful documentary short about the Tuskegee Airmen

Historians since the George Floyd Protests began have been rightfully more attuned to biases in not only our nation’s history, but within our own work as well. This extends from our research and reading to what and how we teach our classes. It compels us to think about what antiracism means in our own daily lives, as well as what it means for our professional ones. This process of accountability applies to historical subjects as well, including my grandfather. However, anyone who undertakes the challenge of confronting their own privilege and bias today should be equally willing to witness and acknowledge that process as it plays out in the biographical record. If we are able to cut ourselves any slack after changing our hearts and our beliefs, we should do the same for the people about whom we write.

In that regard, then, my Grandpa is a case study in how Greatest Generation servicemen confronted their privilege in an era before the term had any academic cache. “Did you read the article about race, color, and religious prejudices the Army put out to its men,” he asked his dad on July 1st.

“It sure was good. And today the sermon at church was about being a good neighbor, and loving one[‘s] neighbors as thyself. There is no doubt that anyone prejudices against Jews or colored people or anything else is working against democracy and helping fascism. And at the same time its [sic] against the teaching of Jesus and any true religion. That writer Seldes is O.K. for my money.”

Elmer to his Parents, 1 July 1945

Of course, Elmer had prejudices of his own, the most conspicuous being his resentment toward Japan and Japanese people. His letters, while containing nothing out of the ordinary when compared to other white Naval personnel during the War, contained a torrent of Japanese stereotypes and slurs. He held this image of Japan in his mind possibly until the end of his life. And although he reserved more respect for other Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities, he sometimes commented on their skin, dress, and culture in his letters home.

That being said, Seldes’s columns were not universally embraced, and not everyone took them to heart as much as Elmer did. The American Armed Forces, despite a prohibition against discrimination by the Selective Service Act, were racially segregated during World War II. Even though Black units like the Tuskegee Airmen were well known for their bravery and skill, and less-famous units were instrumental in carrying out the D-Day Invasion and other critical tasks, their exploits did not translate into better rights for their families at home, or for their own rights upon their return. Within the branches themselves, many whites still treated people of color as second-class servicemen. The Roosevelt Administration and the Military attempted to combat some of these prejudices by writing and distributing pamphlets like the one Elmer apparently read while in Morotai, and by circulating training manuals. In many ways this was a prelude to President Truman’s decision to issue Executive Order 9981 almost exactly three years later, which desegregated the Armed Forces. While that decision shocked many whites, particularly Southerners in Truman’s own Democratic Party, the Army was clearly ahead of the curve in at least trying to anticipate the logistical and cultural effects of desegregation.

This is the first page of “Command of Negro Troops,” a training pamphlet released by the War Department in 1944. Although the text is riddled with bias and racist logic, it represents an attempt by the Army brass to ameliorate some of the pressures and injustices facing their Black soldiers. You can read the entire thing at the FDR Library.

This systemic segregation persisted, however, and was entrenched within military culture. This was evident on Elmer’s ships, where in the United States Navy African-Americans could only serve as stewards or mess attendants. On the Chew, for instance, Elmer served with a handful of stewards who were born and raised in Guam.* But by 1944, he and the rest of his crew no doubt had a great deal of contact with various other people from across Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, which may have introduced opportunities for Elmer to broaden the diversity of his social network.

In his Fourth of July letter, Elmer continued to talk politics, this time in the context of America’s democratic experiment.

“A lot has happened since the Declaration of Independence. A number of wars and much bloodshed to keep that declaration. And I think the country has gone a long way toward making it a real Declaration of Independence. All men created equal, and other individual rights were [a long] time in coming. Took almost a hundred years to finish slavery and when manufacturing developed more the working man was busy trying to get decent hours, wages, and working conditions. Yet it has been improving with the years and it is the best deal yet. Our country isn’t perfect, but it has the best chance of becoming as near perfect as possible, if the people want it that way. So much for that, I’ll be giving a speech soon.”

Elmer to his Parents, 4 July 1945

Afterwards, he mentioned that Harry Scott wrote him to let Elmer know he was also a fan of Seldes’s columns. “Glad he likes the paper,” Elmer noted, in reference to In Fact. “I think it is a good little news sheet.”

Elmer’s passion for politics brought him closer to his dad. It probably helped bring him closer to Rose as well, since she was also not afraid to express her opinion. “And you think another left hook from Rose will put me down for the count,” he told his dad. “She is the girl that can do it” However, he was no longer reserved in his letters about sharing his feelings about his blossoming romance. “Yes, mom, if I were [to] fall for a girl it is Rose,” he wrote on the 15th. “Someday she may be a new daughter for you. I’ve never asked a girl to wait for me before, but I did ask Rose to wait. I love her, Mom, and that’s all I can say.” He was thinking about finishing school, and he reiterated that “until this war is over and I get re-established we are just sweethearts.” But the decision had been made.

* I plan on researching these men over the next year and adding their story to those of Grandpa’s crew mates on the Chew.

June 1945: Hooked

A month after V-E Day, it was business as usual in the Pacific. The work to defeat Japan continued unabated, isolated from the celebrations and culminations unfolding a continent away in Europe. However, there were some signs that the final act was approaching. After three months of brutal, harrowing fighting on Okinawa, the Americans declared the island secure on June 22. “Okinawa is secure now,” he wrote on the 24th. “The Japs are taking a bigger beating every day, and here’s hoping it won’t be long now.”

Apart from Okinawa, there was little else that Elmer could say that month, either due to the censors or, more likely, the absence of anything noteworthy happening aboard the ship. There was news, however, both from the States and from Elmer himself.

The first piece of news was surprising, but not unwelcome: Shirley Ryder was engaged to a school teacher. “The girl didn’t waste any time,” he mused. He had heard the news from Bud Tanner, who was a mutual friend. “It is probably true,” he added, “because she mentioned having dates with a high school teacher at times. I never hear from her anymore.” Nonetheless, “I’m glad I told her not to regard our relationship too seriously. Maybe she was looking for an opportunity to say the same to me. I’m glad she is engaged and happy.” The news also seemed to validate Elmer’s approach to wartime courtship. “Evidently she was fond of this teacher all along. And it all goes to show I’m right in not getting too serious about any girls while I’m out here. It just don’t pay to take a chance.”

Shirley and “the school teacher,” Harry J. Prentis, who eventually became an administrator for Detroit Public Schools. Despite getting engaged so soon after breaking up with Elmer, the couple had a happy ending: in 2015 they celebrated their 70th anniversary with their three children, four grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Source: Hometownlife.com

Elmer then immediately turned his attention toward his current sweetheart. “Now with Rose, I think very much of her and think she is a sweet girl, but it would be foolish to get serious over it. Seems girls are all so impatient over and wanting to get engaged or married.” Elmer then recognized his own privilege to take his time making a decision: “I’m glad I’m a man, I’m not afraid of losing my charm before someone will have me. The longer I stay single the better chance I have of getting hooked. And this boy wants to have a little fun before he settles down.”

Elmer’s letter of the 24th went into a little more detail, and also stated more clearly his growing attachment to Rose:

“Mom, Shirley never said anything about us splitting up. Seems I never was sure about her and I didn’t want any hard feelings if I decided different later. And Rose was always writing me regular, I just felt she (Rose) was the right one. So after I wrote Shirley not to get serious, she answered back we should forget about it. I’m glad she is engaged to the teacher, that makes everybody happy. As far as getting a girl, I know several times I could have been hooked by a girl. But I wasn’t interested, too young and not ready. In my mind Rose is the finest girl I have ever considered for a sweetheart. And when the war is over and I get settled in again – if Rose is willing, she is my choice of the right girl.”

Elmer to his Parents, 24 June 1944

In short, Elmer had finally made his choice. “Maybe this will clear things up for you Mom,” he wrote a few lines later, perhaps unaware that he had not really been forthright about his intentions when writing to his mother until that moment. Only a few weeks earlier Elmer was telling his parents that he wanted to sow his wild oats after the war. Yet his breakup with Shirley probably communicated on some level to Elmer that while it might be convenient to string a line of eligible bachelorettes along until after the end of the War, there was always the possibility of a girl he really liked tiring of his behavior and moving on to someone else. Apparently he was willing to risk his relationship with Shirley in this way, but not with Rose.

While most World War II sailors had cause to be “really afraid” at one point or another, Dark Waters was one of the movies screened aboard the Mink in the summer of 1945.

Elmer’s letters – and Rose’s – comment directly on the state of their relationship, and on both fared individually during the war. They contain less information about his parents, however, since Elmer did not save any of their letters. However, they do contain some useful clues, as when Elmer reports that “Aunt Frieda told me to scold you Mom for standing her and the Davissons up when you were to go see Joan Meyer dance at high school.” While his aunt was clearly upset with her sister for not making the trip, Elmer suspected that her declining health might have been the cause. “I won’t scold you hard, mom, I guess you didn’t feel like going. Hope you were feeling OK anyway.” His mother also worried about whether or not Rose would like her. “Don’t worry [about it],” he wrote, noting that his other girlfriends enjoyed her company. “Jo Ann still asks about my sweet mother in her letters. She liked you a lot. Anyway, if they don’t like you or Dad they can forget me.” Meanwhile, Elmer commented more favorably about his father’s health. “June Tanner mentioned seeing you Dad – said you looked fine Skipper. Same good looking Dad of mine.” But he still worried. “I see you’re keeping busy, Dad” he noted on the 20th. “Plenty of rain now, so you keep working inside. It will be hot as blazes soon back home and I want you to take care of yourself.”

On the Mink, conditions were improving a bit. Beginning in April, the ship’s mess had managed to acquire a large enough supplier of eggs and butter to feed the crew an American-style breakfast twice a week. “Started off this morning with a good breakfast,” Elmer wrote on the 3rd. “Fresh fried eggs, bacon, pineapple juice and coffee, also toast and butter. Butter and eggs aren’t always available, but the last couple of months we’ve done pretty good with fresh eggs.” Whenever there were no eggs to be had, they could at least eat the hens. “We had fried chicken tonight,” he wrote on June 10th, “and ice cream for dessert.”

Elmer saw the Mink in a new light now as he familiarized himself with the rigors – and the benefits – of his CPO rank. On June 6 he spent some time discussing his new role. “Monday I took a group of the crew ashore for a recreational liberty. A chief is always put in charge of these parties,” he explained, “and we all take turns taking a group over each day.” In addition to that, “I don’t have to stand auxiliary watches in port anymore. But I have other jobs seeing that everything is running O.K. . . . I still have my watches to stand in the engine room when we are underway at sea.” On the 27th, Elmer joked about needing to take a shower after a long day at work in the engine room. “Got pretty dirty working around this morning. But even a chief [has to do] some work. Ha! Ha!”

Another picture of Elmer wearing his “Hand Me Down” CPO uniform. Luckett family collection.

Although Elmer’s days were filled with new responsibilities, his evenings presented more opportunities for relaxation and recreation. “Friday evening most of our gang of chiefs went to the CPO Club ashore,” he wrote on the 10th. “Had a nice time drinking a few beers and playing records on a phonograph. And it is nice to spend one or two evenings a week just shooting the breeze over a beer at the club.” Elmer was even impressed with the club’s furniture. “The stainless steel bar they have . . . is really nice, they handle the beer at the bar but the chiefs sit around at tables, no bar seats.” His letters this month also give us a sense of how his parents responded to the news of his promotion. “So you dashed over to Irene’s in the rain [to tell her the news]. I though you would spread the good word.”

Fortunately for Elmer’s mother, and for America, the rainy days were almost over, at least for the time being.

May 1945: Advancements

V-E Day did not bring the war to an end for the Allies in the Pacific Theater. But Germany’s surrender brought a sense of relief and joy, as well as a wave of sadness and mourning for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost their lives in western Europe, northern Africa, and the icy North Atlantic. “Well, folks, you have all heard the news and it is officially over in Europe,” Elmer wrote on May 9th, a day after Germany unconditionally surrendered. “We all knew it was going to happen, yet it comes as a big relief to know that Germany is out. And may God grant us a speedy victory over the Japs. It must not feel good to be a Jap, knowing the whole world is against you.” Elmer was pleased that the first, though not the “official,” instrument of surrender was signed on May 7th. “A very nice [birthday] present for me,” he wrote to his parents. “I couldn’t ask for much more.” Neither could President Truman, who was born on May 8th.

Elmer’s birthday talk that year reflected his improved morale. “At least we are making progress towards getting home,” he wrote on the 6th. “Each year I say, let’s hope next year we can be together for the occasion. It’s been a long time but I still have my faith – and endurance. So let’s hope again for next year.” He was even hopeful about being able to go home that year, at least once his 18 months at sea were up. At that point he would be eligible for rotational leave. “At least we know our time is put in,” he wrote after listing a litany of reasons why he might not go home until later that year or 1946, “and we are line to go back as soon as possible.”

V-E Day in Times Square. Corbis. From History.com.

Later in the month, Elmer reflected on his situation over the past few years, and concluded that the light was visible at the end of what had been an extraordinarily long tunnel. “I’ve been away and out here to much to let a little lonesomeness bother me,” he wrote on the 27th. “Because the end is in sight and it won’t be much longer. The days of 1942, ’43, and ’44 were much harder. We have the happier days to look forward to.” As reassuring as these words must have been to his parents, they must have also wondered just how much worse the earlier years had been, given how reluctant Elmer was to reveal his true mood to his parents. Then again, had Elmer “kicked” more about his circumstances in his letters home, his parents would have fared worse as a result – and he knew it. Parents don’t forfeit their parenthood when they send their sons and daughters off to war, but they lose most of their ability to act on their children’s behalf. For whatever criticisms one might have about Elmer’s almost cad-like writing habits toward his various romantic pen pals, he was a dutiful and loving son.

Elmer’s letters that May provide additional insight into both his reading habits and his political philosophy. “Dad,” he wrote on the 11th, “I sent in a subscription to a weekly newspaper called ‘In Fact.’ I also put in a subscription for you and Harry Scott. You should get it soon – let me know.” In Fact’s slogan, “An antidote for falsehood in the Daily Press,” reflected the career and reputation of its publisher, the well-known muckraker and rogue reporter George Seldes. The news sheet filled a gaping hole in the American information economy: the absence of an established, patriotic journalistic voice who nonetheless refused to echo government (or enemy) propaganda. Elmer, like many Americans both in the service and at home, enthusiastically supported the war effort while yet remaining skeptical of the now-censored press and wary of cherry-picked reports of Allied progress overseas. Seldes believed that Americans could handle the full, unvarnished truth. “I ran across the paper out here; rather a shipmate called my attention to it . . . I think it has a lot of good dope, maybe you will agree. Anyway, this fellow Seldes backs up all his news with facts and its good.”

In Fact was an “antidote to falsehood,” but it was also notable for its stance against fascism. From Archive.org.

Elmer also started to warm to his new Commander-in-Chief. “Yes, Dad, Truman may make a good President,” he wrote on the 11th. “I believe in giving him a chance.” Of course, he and millions of others continued to mourn FDR. “Losing Roosevelt was a great loss, you and I agree he was a great man.” But with the war nearly won, it was time to look towards the future, and Elmer understood – as Truman did – that America’s leadership would be even more critical in the months and years to follow. “Let’s pray that the world’s great powers can work in harmony and establish a league or something to maintain peace in this world.”

While Elmer’s support of Truman was still somewhat guarded, he was far less restrained now when discussing Rose with his parents. No longer just another romantic pen pal, his letters devoted more space to her than they have towards any woman since, and possibly including, Pat. “I did get two lovely letters from Rose,” he pined on the 16th. “She is such a sweet girl; writes the best letters of any girl that ever wrote me. Sensible and intelligent.” He continued piling on the compliments, and even noted the deal that they had made: she would not cut her hair, which he liked long, in exchange for him not shaving his mustache. “That will be easy,” he added, “because that’s your same wish Mom.” A few days later he was more self-reflective. “Mom I believe I always thought most of Rose even when I went with Shirley,” he admitted, perhaps more to himself than anyone.

He related how he recently revealed one of his romantic secrets to his new girlfriend when she told him how bad she felt about not being in St. Louis for the recent birth of a nephew, who then died only a few days later. The entire family was crushed, and with three of her brothers away fighting overseas she felt guilty about not being there. “I told Rose she was the only girl I had a picture of on my bureau at home. And how you had to watch and put it away in case another girl called. She got a good laugh out of it.” He then asked his mother to keep it there, regardless of who called on them. “You’re safe now, mom.” For her part, his mother tried to alleviate the pressure somewhat, perhaps sensing that her son was finally lovestruck and did not need any additional prompting. “Well mom, if I’m not [really] a bachelor until I’m 30, [then] I’ve got a good way to go yet. Ha! Ha!” While Elmer discussed his feelings with his mother, he tried to rationalize his changing views when talking to his father. “Guess Dad is right,” he offered on the 23rd, “I need not worry about some gal hooking me. There will be plenty of women to extra women to go around after the war. And I have my Rose waiting, and my best girl will always be at home.”

Elmer’s growing commitment to Rose did not only affect his letters home to his parents. Even after his breakup with Shirley Elmer still had an extensive collection of written wartime romances, some of which had likely not yet been concluded. This could theoretically complicate matters with Rose, as when one of his flames, Hettie Jean, moved to Washington D.C. to start a new civil service job. “I don’t suppose Rose or Hettie Jean will meet each other in Washington,” he wondered. “I’m not worried about it.”

Elmer wearing a Chief’s khakis. Luckett family photo.

Rose was not the only one to receive a promotion that month. Elmer received some unexpected news that May: he earned an advancement to Chief Machinist Mate. He was now a Chief Petty Officer, and would finish the war – and his service – with that rank. However, he was not able to tell his parents about it until the end of May. Here is his explanation why:

There is a little story to the deal. Our ship already had its quota for CMMs, and my rate had to go through a lot of official channels before they could advance me. Last March I took my exam for chief and made a 3.8 score. Very good! And in April the Chief Engineer sent a letter out with the Captain’s recommendation for my advancement. In April I just finished one year as MM1/c, but in most cases you must be MM1/c for eighteen months before being advanced to chief. But my record was very good, good marks all along, and I have quite a bit of sea duty, so the Engineering Officer and Captain thought I was an exception to the rule and recommended me . . . It took quite awhile for any action on the letter they sent in, but Monday my rate came in approved . . . and that’s my good news.

Elmer to his Parents, 30 May 1945

Being a Chief Petty Officer had its privileges. “My pay jumps $15 a month,” he wrote, “and I get a $250 clothing allowance for my new type uniforms. Of course while I’m out here I won’t need anything but a couple of hats and some khaki or grey shirts and trousers.” He planned on getting a blue uniform in the states, and in the meantime keeping “about one hundred and fifty aboard shop in case I ever get a leave.” His pay that month, with the clothing allowance, was $346. “Nice piece of cash,” he remarked.

Elmer and his pals on the Mink. The man on the front left may be holding a Japanese skull. Elmer referenced this when he mentions in his 5/23/1945 letter that “several fellows got some skulls at one spot we were at, but I didn’t care to mess with one.” Luckett family photo.

Apart from the pay, there were other fringe benefits, like being able to visit the CPO club on the beach. “Last night I went over with our chiefs and did some celebrating. They have a nice bar and tables around and you can enjoy drinking your beer. The prestige and privileges of a chief aren’t hard to take.” They were also exclusive: in order to get into the club, he had to borrow some khakis and a hat from his crew-mates. One privilege that didn’t require dressing up was him being able to sleep in an extra half hour each morning. “7:30 instead of 7:00,” he wrote. “So much for that.”

Elmer was not the only one passing out cigars: another one of his buddies made chief that month as well, and his close friend Lloyd Hill did so in April. “We have eleven chiefs aboard now,” he remarked. “Pretty good bunch of fellows.” Meanwhile, as the number of chiefs aboard swelled aboard the Mink, the Pacific overall seemed to be more crowded all of a sudden, especially with Germany’s collapse and the impending push to finish the job in Japan. “Got a card from Warrant Machinist Damian, he’s the former chief that wrote me from Florida (on the Chew you remember),” Elmer wrote as he closed his letter of the 11th. “He is in the Pacific now and I’m on the lookout for him. All the people I know out here – surely I should meet someone soon. Ha! Ha!” He would get his wish . . . by the end of the summer Elmer would end up hanging out on the other side of the world with someone whose travels intersected with his own: his future brother-in-law.

April 1945: Warm Springs Eternal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elmer to his Parents, 8 April 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for text break symbol glyph

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

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

March 1945: Splitsville

“Thanks for the Memory” (1938) was one of the most iconic breakup songs of the WWII generation . . . it even won the Oscar for “Best Original Song”

If Elmer’s life during World War II was a season of The Bachelor, Shirley would have been one of the first contestants and probably the odds-on favorite for a marriage proposal at the end. But in the spring of 1945, Elmer’s main squeeze took herself out of the running. “Shirley and I are practically split up now,” he wrote rather abruptly on the 7th. “Perhaps I better explain the situation more thoroughly.”

The “situation” actually wasn’t that complicated: Elmer told Shirley, probably not for the first time, that he did not want to be exclusive. But Shirley, perhaps sensing that the end of the war was approaching, while also realizing that the last several years of courtship were not bringing the two any closer together, decided to break things off. Elmer was surprised by, though not necessarily broken up over, the news. “[We] never had a definite understanding between us,” he protested. “While I was home and saw her it was dates and a good time. She knew my intentions were not to marry anyone until after the war (this wasn’t meant just for her – it came up in conversation).” He further explained that he told her about his other romantic flings and pen pals, which based on previous letters probably did not come as much of a surprise to Shirley. But the sentence that might have cut the most, and was likely left unsaid over the past several years, was a buried lede: “To be fair with Shirley I wanted her to know that she meant very much to me and I liked her but just what I intended to do after the war was indefinite. In short, I didn’t want her to assume we would get engaged, married, or even go steady . . . but I was still willing to write her sweet letters for sweet letters, and after the war we would see what developed.”

Needless to say, this did not go over well. “Evidently Shirley felt hurt about it and didn’t think the same as I do. She said beings I didn’t want any obligations, and would be happier without any, perhaps we should forget each other.” Elmer seemed glad that, like with Pat a few years earlier, he was able to avoid dumping her. “I’m glad she thought it out and decided what she wanted.” He then essentially admitted that he was being unfair. “I admit my offer is selfish and and didn’t sound like I think much of her, but I’d sooner she know that now. I don’t expect any girl to wait around for me, and on my terms I guess they would be foolish to do so. Ha! Ha!”

Elmer’s letters to Rose sent mixed messages, suggesting that he wanted Rose to avoid dating other men while yet refusing to commit on his own.

The problem, though, is that if Elmer’s letters to Shirley were even remotely similar to those he sent to Rose, then one could not blame her for reading between the lines. Here’s one passage he wrote to Rose on November 21st, 1944:

“I feel at a disadvantage when it comes to expressing myself with pen and paper. My presence in your company would be a marvelous solution. But very impractical and highly impossible for some time. My problem, therefore, is to hold your interest (at 10,000 miles or so) and keep your mind off all the attractive males you must come in contact with time and time again. Yet, somehow, I feel that our memories of a wonderful past together carry weight in the matter. If only I could reaffirm myself your standing dear. Perhaps this separation, in its lonesome and trying way, is creating a better understanding. I sincerely hope so darling.”

Elmer to Rose, 21 November 1944

Throughout 1944 and into 1945, Elmer wrote his parents twice and Shirley at least once a week. He did not commit to writing Rose once a week until the fall of 1944, and even then Elmer made it known to his parents that his letters Shirley were his highest priority. But his letters to Rose are stacked with references to reconnecting after the war and to seeing where things go during peacetime. He is careful not to make any explicit promises, but we must remember that in 1945 sailors were only rarely able to telephone their loved ones. There was no email, no texts, no emojis, and certainly no Facebook relationship status. As anyone who has ever been in love can imagine, those early stages of a relationship are filled with a lot of recreational reading between the lines, and for couples during WWII the only way to do that across a long distance was to read and reread the letters they received from their sweetheart. Elmer probably felt – in fact, I’m positive that he genuinely believed – that his disclaimers were enough to signal his lack of interest in committing to any one woman during the war. But the “sweet letters” he sent mixed the message.

It is also important to remember the social context of courtship during World War II. Men and women both put their lives on hold for several years as they worked and sacrificed their way toward victory. An unmarried woman Elmer’s age when the war started would have been 25 when it ended. Although there is nothing (or rather there should be nothing) unusual about that today, in 1940 the median age of first marriage for women was 21.5, while for men it was 24.3. In other words, once the war was over, Elmer was only beginning to reach the point in his life where the crescendo of social pressure for him to marry would begin to build to intolerable levels. Rose, meanwhile, regularly referred to herself in 1944 as being “old,” despite being six months younger than Elmer.

This social pressure, when coupled with lingering economic insecurity from the Great Depression and the simple fact that hundreds of thousands of marriageable men would die in the War, took its toll on Elmer’s romantic pen pals. Rose likely succeeded in ameliorating that pressure somewhat when she moved (escaped?) to Washington, D.C. to begin her Navy Department job, and since there was no reason for her to believe that Elmer would not return to St. Louis after the war her prospects for a more permanent relationship were good. But Shirley, who by 1944 was living in Michigan and writing letters to her sailor sweetheart for several years at that point, wanted a more definite outcome. Once it became clear that their future was muddled at best, she cut bait.

The “129 Ways To Get a Husband” article from a 1958 issue of McCalls has become something of a meme in recent months, but it does speak to a broader truth: that young American women faced enormous social, economic, political, and cultural pressure to find a husband.

Meanwhile, Elmer’s own future became somewhat clearer, if for no other reason than through the process of elimination. “Rose has been very attentive to me in her letters, so I’ll still be busy writing her,” he wrote on the 7th. But then a couple of weeks later his tone changed. “I must write Rose this afternoon,” he announced on the 21st. “She is my ‘heart-throb’ now.” He added that he still planned on going to university and being a bachelor while in school, since single college students “have more fun.” However, Elmer began to see his future, as well as his past, through Rose-colored glasses. With just the slightest bit of hesitation, he told his parents that he didn’t “want to become infatuated with a girl, at least not seriously.” At this point, it seems, his infatuation – and his growing affection – for Rose were a foregone conclusion. It just wasn’t serious.

Yet.

[Note: I have started writing a follow-up to this, entitled “A Post about Shirley.” Like I did with Pat, I tracked down Shirley and will provide a write-up about her and her life. Spoiler alert: Shirley, like Pat, had a “happy ending” after she broke things off with Elmer.]

The American wartime press salivated over MacArthur’s career, which was both intrinsically inspiring and cultivated to maximize propaganda value. This image of MacArthur on the cover of Destiny magazine in 1942 embodies the image that journalists often exhibited to Americans.

Romantic drama notwithstanding, March was uneventful aboard and around the Mink. The soupy tropical air was just as hot and stifling as it was February, and like the previous month no fresh dangers from the air or the sea confronted the crew. Most of the news was happening elsewhere, even if it was somewhat distorted by the intense gravitational pull that men like Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur had on the American media: “Well, dad, I read what you had to say about Doug MacArthur,” Elmer replied on the 11th.

“The opinion [about General MacArthur] seems to be much the same wherever I’ve been around. A favorite nickname for him out here is ‘I Love a Parade MacArthur.’ Most people can’t help but admit he has been a great and capable general. He has proven that, it just seems like his name and words are the only force here in the Pacific according to the news. I agree that the Navy gets very little publicity compared to the Army. But the Navy is much harder on censorship I believe.”

Elmer to his Parents, 11 March 1945

Nevertheless, in spite of all the positive press being heaped upon the nation’s military leaders, the reports were indeed good. American troops crossed the Rhine on March 7th, and by the end of the month Iwo Jima was officially secure. There was also some good news on the Mink: Elmer’s initial $10 stake in the ship’s canteen had grown into a $31 share, tripling his original investment. The candy, cigars, and toiletries practically sold themselves.

While the men aboard the Mink did not have too many shore adventures in March, they did enjoy some changes of scenery. On the 15th the oiler sailed back to Leyte Island, where it refueled ships for the next several days. Then it departed again in order to return to the Dutch East Indies. On the morning of March 31st, the Mink anchored in Mios Woendi, an island south of Biak that was barely larger than the National Mall. It was not much of an improvement, but at least it was something different.

Even though the Mink would not see any more hostile action for the duration of the conflict, its service would not end until the war did. And in the meantime, the sea would be its home – and Elmer’s.

February 1945: Mail Call

“Your boy is growing a bit weary of this mess. In fact, he’s damn tired of it.”

The four years and counting of active service were beginning to take their toll on Elmer, who started to lose his trademark optimism and buoyancy in his letters home. “I sure hope to get home sometime this year,” he wrote on February 21st. “Better still, if this war can end before next year.” Yet hope sprang eternal , especially with Elmer. “Well Dad the war news has been fine,” he wrote on the 1st. “[The] Russians are heading right for Berlin – and it shouldn’t be long now. I’ll be glad when Germany folds up so they can concentrate all our strength out here. I’m itching to get back in those civilian clothes. Gosh, I hope they still fit me.”

Although nothing short of Japan’s surrender would have cured Elmer’s blues, the interminably long delay in receiving mail did not help matters. “It’s been better than three weeks since we received mail,” Elmer wrote on February 1st. “[I] got tired of trying to guess when the mail will arrive,” he told his parents three days later. “I’m sure you are all well and OK at home. That’s my big concern. [I also] miss hearing from Shirley and my other fans.” But incoming correspondence did not only provide reading material – it also gave Elmer some things to discuss in his own letters. “I have a devil of a time finding something to write about.”

Elmer Luckett aboard the Mink, February 1945. Family photo.

Yet Elmer knew that the delay was probably temporary. “I’ll probably get a truck-load to answer all at once,” he joked on the 4th. Indeed, that is exactly what happened. “Yes sir!” he exclaimed a week later. “The mail really hit home-plate today. And I find myself with forty three pieces of mail.” Among other things, Elmer finally received his Australia snapshots, as well as letters from his pen pals – platonic and otherwise. However, the words spilled out of him as he responded to his parents’ accumulated mail. “So you think I’m a chip off the old block,” he asked his dad,” – and concerning the girls too. You never told me you were a woman-killer, Dad, but I suspected it. I get along alright, but this duty out here cramps my style. Ha! Ha!” The mail did more than lift the crew’s spirits – it helped them see the light at the end of what had been an exceedingly dark tunnel. “But I have plenty of time to come yet, and it shouldn’t be too long now before I get the chance. This war is rapidly reaching the end of the line.”

The mail ship’s arrival was the biggest news in weeks, since the task force did not make a lot of news on its own. The Mink did not leave Lingayen Gulf that month – it was as stationary as a Circle K. Fewer ramblings meant even less to say in his letters home. “I haven’t had much chance of getting off the ship lately to look around,” he wrote on the 4th. “Once in awhile you get boat engineer duty and run around to different ships. But I like to adventure around on the beach when possible. That always helps break the monotony of being aboard the ship so much.” He made a similar lament at the end of the month. “It’s been a little monotonous aboard [the] ship lately. Wish we could get ashore for a change.”

With so little happening outside of the ship, and even fewer goings-on that would pass the censors, Elmer talked more about the movies that he and his shipmates watched aboard the Mink. “Just saw a movie before deciding to write a little,” Elmer explained on the 1st. “[The] Powers Girl was the name. Pretty good show.” Laster that month they watched Random Harvest and Janey. “I enjoyed seeing Random Heart again,” he wrote, implying that many of the movies were reruns. But they weren’t all winners. “We [saw] Knickerbocker Holiday with Nelson Eddy [this evening,]” he wrote on the 18th. The film indicted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, and accused the recently reelected President of promoting fascist policies. Elmer, a New Deal supporter until his dying day, was not impressed. “It was pretty much of a stinker. But it was better than nothing – I guess.”

Although the New Deal has earned plaudits from generations of Americans and historians, not all contemporaries supported it. The Knickerbocker Holiday is one of many movies, books, and other cultural artifacts that strongly criticized FDR’s reforms during the 1930s.

Of course, there were worse places to be that month. On February 19th the Americans invaded Iwo Jima. Although Joe Rosenthal only had to wait four days in order for him to take his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” the seizure of Mount Suribachi only concluded the first phase of the fighting. Over the course of five weeks, nearly seven thousand Americans would die on the volcanic island, which itself was just six times larger than New York’s Central Park.

January 1945: Diversions

No one knew with certainty when the war was going to end, but most observers believed that 1945 was going to be the year when, at minimum, Germany surrendered. It was just a matter of time. Even though the Germans gave the Allies a run for their money in the Ardennes only weeks earlier, the Soviets in the East and the other Allies in the West were both juggernauts by this point, and the armies seemed to be in as much of a footrace with each other as they were against the Wehrmacht.

In the Pacific, meanwhile, the timeline was less certain. Although the liberation of the Philippines was rapidly progressing, and the vast majority of the Imperial Navy was dead in the water, Japan itself loomed ominously on the horizon.

For Elmer, another New Years at sea meant “just another night” aboard the Mink. But at least they got “a good dinner” out of it. And Elmer was no less hopeful that the war would soon end for him, too. “This year can make millions of people happy if it spells doom to our enemies,” he wrote on the 3rd. “Let’s pray this is the year for victory and the beginning of an everlasting peace.” The New Year also brought a significant milestone for the crew aboard the Mink: the ship’s first anniversary. “It’s done its little bit in that time toward fighting and operating against our enemy in the Pacific,” Elmer reflected. “May our ship and crew continue to operate in the same good fortune always and God grant us strength, courage, and protection.”

Anti-aircraft fire from ships of the U.S. Navy task force in Lingayen Gulf, Luzon. Taken from USS Boise (CL-47) on 10 January 1945 (80-G-304355).

The Mink would once again do its little bit in this effort as the Allies closed in on the Island of Luzon and Manila, the territorial capital. On January 9th the American Sixth Army landed at Lingayen Gulf, establishing a beachhead where over 175,000 troops would land within the next few days. The Mink was reassigned to another auxiliary convoy, CTG 78.9, which contained dozens of other support vessels. Led by the destroyer escort U.S.S. Flusser, the convoy almost immediately hit resistance as it sailed through a tropical storm. According to the Mink‘s war diary, the ship “experienced some difficulty in taking position because of heavy rain squalls, this ship not being equipped with radar.”

The next two days were quiet as the convoy steamed west through the Bohol Sea and then north toward the Mindanao Strait. But on January 12, at 1310 a single kamikaze plane crashed into a ship 1500 yards astern from the Mink. According to the U.S. Navy’s Official Chronology, this might have been the LST-700, a tank landing ship. The plane caused some damage, but no casualties were reported. Later that evening, however, five Japanese additional kamikaze planes attacked the convoy in a coordinated strike. The ships were about 35 miles west of Subic Bay on Luzon, and were well within range of Japan’s rapidly diminishing air assets. Manila, which was still in Japanese hands, was only 90 miles to the east southeast. The planes attacked at 6:10pm, not long before sunset, and targeted the merchant vessels within the convoy. One pilot hit the USS Otis Skinner, but there were no casualties and the crew quickly put out the fire. Another ship in the convoy shot one of the planes down, while the other three pilots crashed into the ocean. Although the Mink fired upon the kamikazes, the shooting had no effect. According to the action report, “[Anti-aircraft] ineffective to this type of attack, unless a direct hit by a 3 [inch] or 5 [inch], none were observed; 20MM practically useless.” Even though only one of the five planes hit their mark, the situation was extraordinarily dangerous. Tankers like the Mink were sitting ducks. “[The] convoy held station,” the captain later reported, “as maneuverability is of no value in this case.”

USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) hit by two Kamikazes in 30 seconds on 11 May 1945 off Kyushu. Dead-372. Wounded-264., 1943 – 1958″, from Archival Research Catalog.

The attack was mostly unsuccessful, but it spooked the task force as it finished its journey to the Lingayen Gulf. At 6:30 the next morning, about an hour before sunrise, the convoy shot at three approaching planes in the predawn twilight. After a couple of minutes, however, the observers were able to get a better look at the aircraft: they were American. Fortunately, none of the planes apparently suffered any damage, and the convoy itself was only about seven hours out from the Lingayen Gulf. Their arrival could not have come a moment too soon.

Elmer alluded to these events in his letter of the 14th. “We had a couple of diversions while at sea to break the routine. OH boy! But on the whole it was a pretty nice cruise.” But as usual, there was little he could say beyond that. “We can’t always write about what our part is in this show. But I’d say our ship and crew is doing alright.” Prohibited from revealing his location, he soon hinted at his growing worldliness. “I haven’t sailed seven seas yet, but a good five or six can be checked off the list.”

The Mink’s crew received virtually no mail after reaching the Lingayen Gulf, which was on the northwest coast of Luzon. Logistically, they were at the end of the Allies’ sprawling but not unlimited supply line. The Japanese Army lay between them and the eastern shore, and as they discovered on the 12th the sea lanes approaching the American beachhead on Luzon were often targeted by kamikaze pilots. Without any mail to respond to, Elmer devoted more space in his letters to describing various aspects of life aboard the ship. “This morning I had the four to eight auxiliary watch in the engine room,” he explained on the 28th. “An ‘auxiliary’ watch means tending the boiler and watching whatever machinery is in operation. That type of watch is maintained when the ship is not underway.” By contrast, “a watch underway with the main plant in operation is called a ‘steaming watch.’ Thought I would enlighten you with the nomenclature used by engineers. But I better not get started or I’ll forget to stop on that subject.”

Have 45 minutes to spare? Watch Murder on the Waterfront, a not-so-classic murder mystery . . .

He also talked about the films he had seen. Movies resumed aboard ship the previous month, and even though they were seldom new and not always good, they were very much appreciated. “Had another movie this evening,” Elmer wrote on the 6th. “Murder on the Waterfront. Some mystery! But it was something to see and even the bad movies go over big here.” Elmer explained that the movies were swapped regularly between ships, and that the studios provided the movies for free to the servicemen. “They help a lot and my hats off to the Motion Picture Industry for their contribution.” However, not all the movies were purely for entertainment. “Just finished seeing . . . They Come to Destroy America,” he announced on January 28th. “It was indirectly based on the capture of eight Nazi saboteurs in the U.S. Guess you could easily class it as a propaganda feature. But it is entertainment at least.”

The Mink did not see any more action during the war, but it soon begin a long tour up and down the Western Pacific, fueling the ships and boats and other craft that constituted the largest and most powerful surface fleet in human history. Yet between October 1944 and January 1945, the Mink shot down two planes and earned three Battle Stars as a result of its participation in the liberation of the Philippines. The Mink might not have been the fastest ship, or the best armed, but it unquestionably did “its little bit” in the war. And then some.