One of my favorite aspects of military history is the availability of documentation.
Militaries are big things, indeed. They have lots of soldiers, lots of vehicles, and lots weapons that vary in size and lethality. They also have support staff, logistical supply chains, doctors, nurses, engineers, ditch diggers, builders, movers, doers, and even dreamers. They are everything a human being needs to be trained and housed and fed and dressed and armed and cared for while in the States, as well as everything needed to ship that person across an ocean and then train, house, feed, dress, arm, and care for that person while on deployment. And that’s just the Army.
In order to make such a large, complicated entity that culturally thrives on exactitude run like clockwork, militaries in general and Navies in particular require a great deal of data collection and record keeping. Today that burden is eased thanks to computers and smart devices, but back during World War II those processes requires lots of paper, pencils, typewriters, and people to jot down all those things that needed to be jotted down.
Deck logs were indispensable record-keeping devices for ships. They recorded all sorts of things, from the windspeed at different times of day to the ship’s location and speed. They also contained a narrative of the day’s events. Most of these were mundane – who boarded and left the ship, details about food and fuel deliveries, inspection reports, etc.
The food deliveries are especially interesting, since they give us a sense what (and how much) all those sailors ate (they sure loved their potatoes):
The logs provide additional threads to pull, which reveal about not only the ship and its crew, but the wider community that surrounded and interacted with them. For instance, the Chun Hoon Company supplied many of the ship’s vegetables and fruits. The company’s namesake founder immigrated to Oahu in 1887 at the age of 14, and after starting out as a vegetable peddler Chun Hoon became increasingly successful as a vendor and then later as a grocer. Although he passed away in 1935 his sons took over the business, and in 1939 they opened a brand new supermarket at the corner of Nuuanu and School Streets in Honolulu. By 1940 the Chun Hoon Company was a major player in local business and a substantial benefactor for several local schools and charities.
More broadly, Chinese-Americans found and took advantage of the opportunities they found in Hawaii, which offered a space of relative refuge from persecution when compared to the post-Chinese Exclusion Act United States mainland. Of course, Hawaii itself was not annexed by the United States until 1898, by which time nearly 50,000 Chinese immigrants had relocated to Oahu. But by that time, Chinese-Hawaiians were already well-integrated into the island’s economy, and immigrants like Chun Hoon continued to thrive despite the changing of the flag. His company was an institution by 1940, and while the Chew and the United States Navy were important customers for the business, they were by no means the only ones.
I had no idea about the Chun Hoon Company before looking at this specific page in the Deck Log. I have several hundred more pages to go. What other secrets do they hold? What other connections do they suggest? What was the weather like at 7:30am on December 7th, 1941? Where was the ship located the next morning at 9am? Deck Logs can help us answer these questions and more . . .
To find Deck Logs for other ships, you will need to do one of two things: you can go directly to the Archives II NARA reading room in College Park, Maryland and request them, or you can hire an independent researcher in the area to scan the ones you want. You will have to wait until NARA facilities reopen after the COVID quarantines lift, and once that happens there will likely be a considerable backlog of folks like me who are clamoring to begin or continue ongoing research projects. But the staff there is very helpful, and the materials themselves are easy to access.
Hi folks, In general my policy is to keep this space – particularly the Grandpa’s Letters blog – as free from politics and current events as possible. As a historian, one of my goals is to tell stories that bring Americans together, while also telling the truth – however unsparing – about our past.
However, the protests and riots last few days demand that we all think about and contend with some harsh realities. Many of those realities are historically well-documented: that people of color and black men specifically face the disproportionate burden of aggressive and militarized policing in this country; that mass incarceration and “tough on crime” policies overwhelmingly affect people of color and poor Americans; and that eliminating racism is about more than just changing hearts and minds, it is about dismantling larger social, economic, and political structures (which we might not even be consciously aware of) that perpetuate inequality.
My heart goes out to George Floyd’s family, and to all of the families of those who have been killed under similar circumstances. And while I believe the time for change is long overdue, I am hopeful that peaceful protests, community activism, and growing public awareness of and engagement with these issues will make this particular event a watershed moment in the history of our country.
So, in lieu of one of my usual blog posts, I’m instead going to link to three pieces that I believe are particularly important for spaces like this, in which Democrats and Republicans and Independents and people of all shapes and stripes and colors (I hope) co-mingle out of a shared love for history. Please read and reflect, and, if you would like, leave a comment below.
Jim Bovard, “Cops Kill Because We Gave Them the Legal Framework to do it,” The American Conservative, 30 May 2020. So, now that we know what the problem is, what are some concrete steps for what to do next? Personally, I believe that police and criminal justice reform is one of the few bipartisan issues left. Both parties have an interest in demilitarizing police, minimizing the impact of law enforcement and law in general on our everyday lives, and keeping good people out of jail. Although there are naturally a wide range of solutions to this problem, I think this set of reforms as proposed by a prominent conservative publication are a great place to start thinking about them.
Finally, if anyone is looking for a concrete way to help without using their money to sanction or condone violence, consider donating to Campaign Zero. Their goal is to reduce and eventually eliminate police violence using smart public policy backed up by social science. You can donate here: https://www.paypal.me/campaignzero
As always, thank you for reading and for spending a few minutes of your time here today. Be safe and be well.
On October 31st, 1942, the Chew accompanied a small convey out of Honolulu and escorted it East. Eleven days later, the ship reached its destination: San Francisco. It was the first time Elmer and many of his shipmates had seen the North American mainland since they left for Hawaii nearly two years earlier.
No one knew how long they were going to be in town, but on the same token no one knew when they would be back on North American soil. Some of Elmer’s shipmates, including the Grossmans and Ozzie, immediately seized the opportunity to contact their parents. Elmer hesitated, however, believing that his parents would be heartbroken if they were to come out to San Francisco and arrive only after his ship had departed.
This point soon created minor controversy in Elmer’s family, since Jack and Harold Grossman’s mother, as well as Ozzie’s mother and wife, were all able to make the trip out to California to see them. Rose Luckett registered her disappointment with her baby boy. “As you say I should have contacted you as fast as possible,” he wrote. “But I was so doubtful as to what the future was, I hesitated.” Elmer did get to speak to his parents on the phone, however. The long-distance, wartime telephone call took three hours to connect, and the conversation itself only lasted for a few minutes. But it brought some relief after nearly two years of separation. While in town he also went to a photography studio to fulfill his mother’s request for a portrait.
Ironically enough, once Mrs. Grossman arrived with her daughter, Dot, Jack and Harold could not get off the ship for liberty. But Elmer was off that day, so he took their mom and sister out for lunch. “We talked about you and home, and everything in general,” he recalled in his letter. Mrs. Grossman also volunteered to deliver his photo to his mother. “[She] is taking some gifts home for me, also the two photos I had taken,” he wrote. “She sure is a swell person. They liked the photo very much. One is plain, the other tinted.” The Grossmans were on their way to visit family in Bakersfield, Elmer reported, but once they were back in Saint Louis they would deliver the photo to his parents. Later on he met Ozzie’s mother and wife as well.
Elmer did not just spend his time in San Francisco hanging out with his friends’ moms. “I’ve been having a very good time here,” he reported. “This town has everything in the line of entertainment and amusement that a person could want. I even did some dancing after being away from it for so long. Wish you could see the bridges they have here. You probably heard of them.” Elmer spared no expense during this “so-called vacation.” After spending nearly two years in Oahu or at sea, Elmer was excited to spend some time – and money – in a different place. The trip ended up costing approximately $130, he calculated the following month, “but it was worth every penny and more.” Ultimately, it was a “rather expensive vacation, but it’s our chance to have a good time.”
Elmer’s visit to the States coincided with an important milestone in the war: Operation Torch. On November 8th, 1942, American and other Allied forces landed at several points along the North African coast, thus starting on a long, circuitous path that would ultimately take them to Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and finally Germany itself. The United States Navy also won a major battle against the Japanese off the coast of Guadalcanal. The San Francisco Examiner headline the morning of November 17th read, “Japs Licked in Showdown, Lose 30 Ships, 30,000 Men!” As usual, though, Elmer was cautiously optimistic. “The news has been looking good over the past week,” he wrote, but “don’t get too optimistic.”
After thirteen days in San Francisco, the Chew departed on its return trip to Pearl Harbor on Monday, November 23rd, just three days before Thanksgiving. As he digested his holiday meal (“roast turkey, sweet potatoes, Irish spuds, asparagus, dressing, soup, cranberry sauce, salad, pie, cake, coffee, candy, nuts, cigars, and cigarettes. My what a list!”) Elmer sat down to write his first post-San Francisco visit letter home to his parents. He was in a reflective mood:
Although things aren’t looking as bright as they could be, with the war etc., we do have so much to be thankful for today . . . good health, perfect family, and the consolation that our country is fighting on the right side for the right ideals. Not that all is perfect with US and our people, but we can’t doubt that our cause is a just one. Thankful to know, that in my own small way I’m making or help[ing make] our people safe in their homes – while all over the world so many innocent people must be destroyed in their homes. This is no speech, nor intended to be anything in that sense, but just a thought. [I] wonder how many people realize how fortunate they are today?”
Elmer Luckett to Mr. and Mrs. F. L. Luckett, 26 November 1942
I’m not sure what Elmer was referring to when he wrote that the United States isn’t “perfect.” While that is hardly an arguable statement (or, one would hope, a controversial one), it is a more critical opinion of America than either Elmer or many Americans in general were accustomed to offering during the war. There is no way of knowing if he was referring to the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans, the bullying of Latinx Angelenos by American servicemen that culminated in the Zoot Suit Riots, or anything else of that nature. I suppose that is a question I could have asked him during our interview, but I did not.
At any rate, Grandpa thoroughly understood that, in spite of America’s flaws, it was on the right side of history in this conflict. Which, again, is a virtually inarguable proposition, at least as far as I am concerned.
San Francisco offered Elmer and his shipmates a much-needed break from the monotony of escort duty and life in wartime Hawaii. But it also reminded them of exactly what they were hoping to protect by fighting in the war.
Hi folks, Sorry for being tardy and not posting for a few days. I usually schedule all my posts well in advance, and I left this week free so that I could blog from the road. But if past experience is any guide, research trips are very busy affairs. I haven’t had much time to post since leaving town Monday, and even though I’ve thought of a lot of things to say this is the first chance I’ve had to write anything down.
I have been collecting research material for the Grandpa’s Letters project. Compared to my last major project (Never Caught Twice, which will be released this fall by the University of Nebraska Press), the research paradigm for this one is relatively easy. Rather than having to reconstruct the history of a notoriously under-reported and over-exaggerated crime across half a state and half a century, my current book’s source base is already well-established: my grandpa’s letters, along with my oral interview, other family documents, and several albums full of photographs. I also have my dad and Uncle Richard to fill in the gaps, which is a resource I did not have when investigating nineteenth-century horse stealing. This is a solid, if not excellent, foundation for a compelling historical narrative.
But this source set by itself isn’t enough. For one, I should have my grandfather’s official military personnel file from World War II. It contains a great deal of specific, well-documented information about every aspect of his service record. While getting that, I might as well get the service records of some of his friends on the Chew as well, so that I can give a broader perspective on St. Louis-area reservists before, during, and after the War. Speaking of the Chew, I should have more information on that as well, especially since Grandpa was barred from discussing his ship’s position and activities after the Pearl Harbor attack. I should also do the same thing with the Mink as well, Elmer’s ship from January 1944 until his discharge from the Navy in October 1945.
That is what this trip was all about. On Tuesday I visited the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis and scanned my Grandpa’s service record. I also scanned several others, including a couple of people I’ve discussed before on this blog. This took more time than I thought since these were large files, and since I only allocated a day for this I barely beat the clock to finish the job before closing. But I found a lot of fascinating information . . . stay tuned.
As soon as I was finished at the NPRC I had to Uber back to the airport to catch a flight to Baltimore, where I rented a car and drove to College Park, Maryland. Then on Wednesday I started collecting ship records at the National Archives facility at College Park. Like in St. Louis I’ve been scanning everything I can get my hands on, which is slightly more cumbersome here given that all scans have to have a declassification tag. That said, I’ve collected not only everything I could find on the Chew and the Mink, but after reading the other personnel files in St. Louis I decided to expand my strategy a bit and collect information on those ships on which Elmer’s friends on the Chew from St. Louis later served.
Although this is more work, I am really excited about where this is taking me . . . one of his friends participated in the invasion of Okinawa, while another one helped rescue sailors after the Frederick C. Davis, a destroyer, was sunk in the North Atlantic by a German U-Boat. Yet another served on a ship which played an important role in Operation Magic Carpet, the United States military’s massive post-war plan to bring hundreds of thousands of servicemen home in a matter of months. Of course this project will continue to revolve principally around my grandpa and his experience (which is exceptionally and uniquely well-documented given his letters), but my intention was always to bring other people into the story as well. I believe this is a great way to do just that.
I still have a few things to look for tomorrow, and I should have a few hours to spare. I hope to spend any extra time I have poking around some other collections and otherwise ensuring that this is the only trip out here I have to make for this book (as I promised my family . . . I visited the National Archives in DC several times for the first book). But so far this has been a successful trip.
Given both the blog and a history methods class I am teaching at Sacramento State this spring I may have more to say about both archival visits, what I found at each, and my strategy for tackling the archives. Since I will soon have to lecture my students about this very process it makes sense to start crystallizing my thoughts now while I’m in the trenches, so to speak.
Anyway, I need to get some other things done before I go to bed, but I will write again soon. In the meantime, here is an out-of-context page from grandpa’s service file at the NPRC in St. Louis. This is an important document, all things considered:
Some of you might already know the answer to this question, but when it’s 10 in the evening and you find a reference that needs chasing, you don’t wait around for people to wake up. I spent at least an hour trying to figure this out, and the next morning I realized that this would be a great opportunity to shed a bit of light on one of my favorite parts of the job: finding out difficult to track pieces of information and unveiling whole new worlds in the past.
Yet this is also one of the least appreciated aspects of researching and writing history. In my forthcoming horse stealing book there are countless little questions like this one, each of which required hours and in some cases days of research and oftentimes a special trip to a library or archive. Sometimes all I have to show for it in the final product is a single sentence or endnote. It could be said that a history book is less of a rabbit hole and more of a warren excavated out of many overlapping and knotted-together rabbit holes.
The Question: Where did Rose Luckett (my great-grandmother) go to church?
The Context: in his December 6th letter to his mother, Elmer mentioned that “Reverend Stock” of the “Trinity Church” sent him a New Testament Bible. He was not, by his own admission, much of a church-goer himself, but he greatly appreciated the gesture. As it happened, he wrote this letter the day before the air raid on Pearl Harbor and was topside mailing it when the bombs began to fall. Considering that he was not strafed by a Zero during these opening moments of the war, some greater force was certainly looking out for him.
The Relevance: I am writing a chapter about Grandpa’s neighborhood during the 1920s and 1930s and, more broadly, community life during that era. I am hoping to paint a vibrant picture of what these neighborhoods were like.
It is difficult to imagine in 2020 how important community churches were a hundred years ago. With megachurches on one end of the scale and an increasingly non-religious population on the other, it is easy to forget that churches were once centers of neighborhood activity. They were not simply places of worship: they provided social programs, charity, language instruction, opportunities for neighbors and congregants to bond, and sometimes even schooling and child care. They also gave their neighborhoods a strong sense of identity. Therefore, Rose Luckett’s church could tell us a lot about her, about Elmer, and about their little corner of the city.
The Rabbit Hole: Historians (myself included) often romanticize the dustier places where we do our work. Some of my favorite horse stealing research stories involve traveling to remote courthouses in Nebraska and digging through back rooms, attics, and in one case a storage shed for 140-year old documents. However, the advent of the Internet, personal computing, and research databases have revolutionized historical work, making it possible to find out much more in much less time. So, instead of flying to Saint Louis and pulling out a bunch of local city directories, I went to Newspapers.com (where I have an account) and started searching. One of the reasons why I had to start here: St. Louis has a LOT of Trinity Churches.
It did not take long to find an article containing both the name of the church and a “Reverend Stock.”
“Paul R. Stock of Trinity Church.” Now we are getting somewhere. But during this first pass I missed an important detail: this church belonged to the Missouri Valley Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. We’ll come back to that in a bit.
After some more full-text searching through the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, I found an address for our church, and confirmed that Paul Stock was the Reverend there. It was located at 4700 South Grand Boulevard. That’s less than a mile away from Elmer’s home. Is that same building still there? Yes . . .
But now it is a Mosque:
There is some good news and some bad news. Obviously the bad news is that the church is no longer there. But the good news is that we can tie Rose Luckett’s church to a more recent historical narrative and connect it to the neighborhood’s ongoing evolution. In the early 1990s the Bosnian War displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees, and over 40,000 Bosnians moved to Saint Louis to start new lives in the American Midwest. I was in school in South Saint Louis County at the time, and I remember getting dozens of new classmates over the next few years, all of whom had hard-to-pronounce names. This influx of migrants shifted the region’s demographics and reshaped its religious landscape, adding on top of what had already been a diverse array of churches and synagogues a layer of new mosques. Some built new facilities, while others took over older buildings vacated by aging congregations.
The decline of mainline Protestantism over the past several decades suggests that this is what likely happened here: the Trinity Church lost congregants and transplanted itself elsewhere, while this mosque moved into the larger building on Grand later. But that begs the question: whatever happened to the original church? This is where I realized I made a mistake easier by not understanding initially what the above article meant by the “Evangelical and Reformed Church.” I assumed (as someone who does virtually no church history) that this simply referred to an organization of Evangelical churches. Not so.
According to Wikipedia, “The Evangelical and Reformed Church (E&R) was a Protestant Christian denomination in the United States. It was formed in 1934 by the merger of the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) with the Evangelical Synod of North America (ESNA) . . . In 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the majority of the Congregational Christian Churches (CC) to form the United Church of Christ (UCC).”
The Trinity Church on South Grand Boulevard belonged to this larger denomination. But what organizations had merged to create it in 1934?
Again we go to Wikipedia, which can on occasion be a historian’s best friend. The Evangelical Synod of North America was “centered in the Midwest, the denomination was made of German Protestant congregations of mixed Lutheran and Reformed heritage, reflecting the 1817 union of those traditions in Prussia (and subsequently in other areas of Germany).” As for the Reformed Church in the United States, we get a similar story: “Originally known as the German Reformed Church, the RCUS was organized in 1725 thanks largely to the efforts of John Philip Boehm, who immigrated in 1720. He organized the first congregation of German Reformed believers near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, some of them descendants and German immigrants from the turn of the century.”
What does all of this mean?
The Answer: First, some background information: Rose Luckett was German. Her parents immigrated to the United States in approximately 1888, and Rose was born shortly thereafter. Rose’s sister, Frieda (Aunt Frieda in the letters) was actually born in Germany. But their parents died not long after immigrating here, and Frieda ultimately helped raise her younger sister.*
By the 1930s, Rose and her family lived in Carondelet, a largely German neighborhood at that time. Given the origins of the denomination and the neighborhood itself, we can start to make some suppositions about Trinity Church and the role it played in Rose’s life. For instance, according to grandpa his mother spoke at least some German, and presumably the church also claimed as members other folks within the German-speaking community. All this suggests that the institution played a central role in the Carondelet German community’s everyday life, and that Rose was a part of it.
Unfortunately, to confirm this we need more information about the church, which I do not yet have. So now we need to move in the other direction: did the Trinity Church close its doors, or did it move? If it closed then it would be very difficult to gather information on it. The church’s records might have ended up in an archive someplace, in someone’s basement, or, regrettably, in the trash. However, if it moved then we may be in luck. Protestant churches generally do a fantastic job of curating their own histories. While they might not always have tranches of archival documents, they often create anniversary brochures, yearbooks, commemorative histories, and other documents. So if the church moved, then the new location may have all of these materials on hand. To answer this question I went back to the original Wikipedia article: “In 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the majority of the Congregational Christian Churches (CC) to form the United Church of Christ (UCC).”
Is there a Trinity United Church of Christ in South Saint Louis? As it turns out, there is:
This church has the same name, is over 120 years old, was once located on South Grand, has moved in recent years, belongs to the appropriate denomination . . . this must be it! The best part, at least for me, is that the church relocated to my hometown, Affton, a suburb just outside of St. Louis City proper and less than five miles away from where Grandpa grew up (it was one of the seven “Trinity”-named churches I pointed out earlier as existing within a five-mile radius of Eiler Street). In fact the building is located less than a block from where my fourth-grade babysitter, Sharon, lived. I grew up a mile and a half away.
The Follow-Up: This is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new rabbit hole. I need to contact the church and get a hold of any historical documents, pamphlets, brochures, yearbooks, or anything else it might have, and I will need to delve back into the newspapers and some other potential repositories to flush this story out. At one point after Pearl Harbor Rose gave a speech at this church – what did she say? How many people attended? I’d love to have this information. But in the meantime, we have a promising lead, and a little more insight into not only Grandpa’s world at the time the war started, but also my own.
I enjoy writing, and teaching is usually a lot of fun. But the best part of it all is the detective work. No doubt this project will have many more twists and turns as it develops, and I will try to write about some of them. Stay turned.
* I think this is what happened, but I’m not sure. I’d love for someone in the family to clarify this.
I apologize for not posting any book reviews for a while. The end of the fall semester is usually tough sledding, especially when one’s family spends their Thanksgiving in the Sierras during a winter storm. But I certainly did not improve matters when I chose my next book: a thick, authoritative, and in every conceivable way complete history of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Author Craig Nelson’s appropriately-named Pearl Harbor: from Infamy to Greatness charts the history of the attack from the beginning . . . in fact, the book covers the 1869 Meiji Restoration in Japan and the original settlement of Hawai’i by Polynesian seafarers. The tome continues in thorough, if sometimes tedious detail. While this is not necessarily bad, the publisher’s curious selection of a small typeface for the book makes each already-long chapter look deceptively short. I have a fair amount of practice reading history books, and frankly this one took me a while.
Organizationally the book is divided into three parts. Part I, “The Roads to War,” explores the various historical, political, geopolitical, and cultural factors that put Japan and the United States on a collision course. While this narrative is thickly told and makes no attempt to spare any details, Nelson does a fantastic job of highlighting some of the fulcrum points leading to the Japanese attack. He convincingly argues that it could have prevented at several different points, including in early December when FDR made a last-minute appeal to Emperor Hirohito himself. Nelson does not pull any punches when describing either Japanese complicity in attacking Hawai’i or the complete and utter unwillingness among Americans to anticipate or prevent such an attack, but he does provide essential contest and nuance when discussing both. Not surprisingly, the lead-up to war was complicated: Japanese Army hardliners won out over the objections of the Navy and civilian authorities, while FDR’s full embargo of oil to Japan backed the expansionist nation into a corner. Few people on either side seemed to want a war. But war is what they got, especially when Japan famously underestimated the American response to the raid on Pearl Harbor.
Part II (“Strike!”) covers the raid itself, providing a minute-by-minute account of the hostilities. Nelson does an admirable job of covering the devastation wrought outside the especially infamous explosion on the Arizona, including a chapter on the raids against Wheeler, Hickham, and other Oahu airfields. Two chapters on the two successive waves to hit the harbor tell in detail what happened to the Pennsylvania (in dry dock), the Utah (anchored on the opposite shore of Ford Island), the Nevada (which beached itself after failing to escape the harbor through its narrow entrance channel) and various other battleships, cruisers, and destroyers that suffered damage or were destroyed. This is the meat of the book for Pearl Harbor history aficionados, and they will not be disappointed by the detail or the energetic prose.
Finally, Part III tells two different stories in three chapters: the Doolittle Raid and the public memory of Pearl Harbor after the war. Chapter Eleven, “Vengeance,” provides an excellent history of the Doolittle Raid, and the next chapter cleverly intertwines a summary of how the Pacific War was won with the stories of the Doolittle Raider POWs in Japanese custody for the duration of the conflict (or, in three cases, until they were executed).
Nelson’s Pearl Harbor is a sweeping, even-handed history of a complicated, yet critically important event in American history. It largely avoids the triumphalist rhetoric of less-reflective World War II books (like The Greatest Generation), but Nelson does argue that Pearl Harbor not only awakened Americans to the dangers of fascism, but that it helped steer the course for its postwar contributions to world peace. Of course that last point is debatable, but given the last few centuries of western history 75 years without a World War III is certainly an achievement. And that achievement would not have been possible without America’s military might, economic dominance, and diplomatic acumen.
I think I am going to write a separate post on how this book (and, if I’m being honest, This American Life) has made me rethink the contours of this project somewhat. That will come probably early next week. Meanwhile, if you were to purchase only one book on Pearl Harbor and had enough free time to soak up an exhaustive, single-volume account of the attack, its origins, and its consequences, then I cannot recommend this book enough.
It was about 9:40pm when I approached my wife. I had just woken up from a 90 minute nap (which happens when your 2-year-old daughter demands that you lie down near her in the adult-sized daybed as she is trying to sleep), so I was already groggy when I told her that I was going to attend a 10:25 showing of Midway that night. “OK.,” she chuckled.
“I’m doing it for the blog!” I maintained, perhaps a bit too insistently.
She laughed again. “Sure.”
I had already asked her a few days earlier if she would want to see it with me, and based on the conversation that followed it seemed that neither one of us expected a whole lot. After all, Roland Emmerich isn’t exactly known for his artistic nuance. Watching aliens blow up major cities in Independence Day is one thing, but trusting him with a war epic and perhaps the single most important naval battle in American history? That’s a tall order for anyone. Nevertheless, I wanted to see how the guy who blew up a scale model of the White House with a spaceship would treat four ill-fated Japanese carriers.
For starters – and perhaps this comes as a disappointment to some of you – I cannot comment too readily on the film’s historical accuracy. There are two main reasons for this. First, my “expertise” does not encompass the Battle of Midway, and most of what I know comes from general descriptions of the battle. Secondly, I decided to suspend disbelief early on, once I realized that the Japanese torpedo bombers attacking Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor (the December 7th attack is depicted within the first five minutes of the movie) were moving in from the southwest, and not from the northwest and due north. I also noticed that there were no ships anchored where the Chew and the Allen were supposed to be located – an omission that rankled me a bit (and which, understandably, would have upset my grandfather). Once the film moved past the events of December 7th and into 1942, I figured that the movie would be more easily digestible if I watched it as it was probably intended to be seen: as a “based on a true story” Emmerich disaster flick, and not as a documentary.
When seen on its own merits, Midway holds up fairly well as a war movie. For one, Emmerich’s ensemble cast of characters (including Admiral Chester Nimitz, Japanese Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Lt. Commander Richard Best, and Rear Admiral Edwin Layton) are all compelling in their own right and could easily inspire their own biopics. As for the plot, Emmerich is smart to begin the movie with the attack on Pearl Harbor and to end it with Midway. While I don’t think the script properly conveys just how poorly the war effort had been going for the United States throughout the first half of 1942, in general it does a good job of narrating the sequence of events that span the United States military’s failure to predict the attack on Pearl Harbor with its inspired and fortuitous counterstroke at Midway.
More importantly, I think Emmerich recognized a problem that many war movies about air raids have, which is that they often occurred so quickly that it would be impossible to make a movie about them without including lots of filler. This issue has plagued film reenactments of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which in real time lasted less than two hours from start to finish. Tora! Tora! Tora! tried to solve this problem by devoting most of its screen time to the events leading up to the attack, while Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) focused primarily on a love triangle. Neither film successfully balances the intensity of the attack with the relative quiet of the days, weeks, and months preceding it. In Midway, however, the attack on Pearl Harbor provides exposition, not climax, while the namesake battle begins at the start of the screenplay’s third act. This was a clever way to frame the film around its comparatively short action sequences.
That being said, the dialogue could use a lot of work. Most of the characters speak like, well, the people in Independence Day. There are lots of New Jersey accents, platitudes about duty and winning and what not, and an endless stream of tropes (like references by Japanese commanders to being ordered to stand “like samurai.”) The characters just don’t seem to talk like normal people. In fact, I’m positive that Admiral Halsey spent a lot more time complaining about his shingles than he let on in the film.
Also, as other reviewers have stated, the film’s use of CGI is a bit overwhelming. It is one thing to depict a ship blowing up; it is another thing entirely to have Best fly his bomber through the explosion caused by one of his own bombs. These whiz-bang moments don’t really add much to the drama, but instead muddle the narrative with endless special effects distractions. Perhaps this is where Emmerich’s resume becomes a liability. History, when told truthfully and with an ear for good storytelling, does not need disaster filmmaking to engage the audience’s interest.
Aside from these concerns, however, the movie overall was pretty good. While it does not compare to more inspired war films in recent years (like the masterful Dunkirk), it is a classic action war movie. I enjoyed it, and if you plan on seeing it, I would definitely recommend checking it out at the theater. Even if you can only make it to the 10:25pm showing, and you have to grab a cup of coffee first to get through it.
On Thursday morning we are going to fly to Saint Louis for a few days, partly to make up for me not bringing our daughter there over the summer due to my health issues, and partly because autumn is probably the best (read: least miserable) time to visit Missouri. I say this with all the love in the world, but, between the freezing cold temperatures in the winter, the summer humidity, and the insane pollen counts in the spring, Saint Louis doesn’t leave many options for nice, comfortable, allergy-free weather.
At any rate, I am looking forward to visiting with family, eating toasted ravioli, and getting some work done on this project. Specifically, on Friday I will visit the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in northern St. Louis County. This is where you would want to go to get the personnel records for anyone who served in the Armed Forces during World War II. In fact, it is as far as I know the ONLY place to go – this is the federal repository for these records. I’m bringing with me a short list of people to look up, including grandpa (of course), my grandmother (who worked for the government during the war), and several of my grandpa’s shipmates.
This will be my first visit to the NPRC, but a great deal of my horse theft research comes from the National Archives headquarters in Washington D.C. Although the security protocols for getting in and out can be intimidating at first (and the guards are seldom enthusiastic when explaining it for the hundredth time each day), the National Archives is on the whole a fantastic place to conduct historical research. They employ a small army of technicians whose job it is to help you find precisely what you are looking for, and unlike in many archival reading rooms researchers are allowed to use cameras to photograph and scan their documents (I did this liberally – rather than relocate to D.C. for a few months and read everything on site I photoscanned several thousand pages of reports and correspondence for my book and reviewed the material at home on an iPad).
I plan on posting a quick update this Friday on what I find in my grandpa’s service record, and if there are any interesting images or photographs inside I may include them here as well (note: most National Archives materials are publicly owned and thus public domain for copyright purposes). In the meantime, if you or someone you know is interested in looking up a World War II veteran’s record, please check out their website: https://www.archives.gov/personnel-records-center.
If you don’t live in or plan on visiting St. Louis any time soon, you can ask the NPRC to look it up for you and send you the file directly (for a fee, of course). But some federal privacy law caveats apply: only veterans who died or were discharged prior to 1957 can be looked up without having to obtain special permission from the service-member or their next of kin, and medical records are explicitly excluded from these personnel files. Also, having the service number handy would be enormously helpful when locating the veteran’s file. However, since it was a unique identifier the military used it in a lot of different records, which makes finding it fairly easy. I found all the relevant service numbers using Ancestry.com. If you enter your relative’s full name, birth date, and hometown, you should have no problem finding a muster log or some other document that contains their service number.
Besides that, I intend to take a little tour of my grandpa’s old neighborhood (Carondolet) and hope that inspiration strikes hard enough for me to hole up somewhere for a couple of hours and write. After all, this is where grandpa’s story begins, and it is also where the first chapter of my book will take place.
For sailors and soldiers stationed on Oahu, the local YMCA offered a comfortable home base away from, well . . . base.
Grandpa’s box of war documents did not just contain letters. Hidden among the many other pieces of ephemera, I found a well-worn YMCA map and brochure. According to his letters Elmer visited the facility often, and the document lists many potential reasons for why he and others frequented the place: “The popular ‘Navy Y’ [is] the club, meeting place, and recreation center for thousands of men from the [Navy] Yard and the ships afloat.” The Y featured “a 700-seat auditorium” with “four free shows and three paid programs . . . [a] week,” as well as a “cool, spacious lobby with many table and small games.” It also contained “quiet writing and study rooms,” which is what Elmer must have been utilizing when penning his March 8th, 1941 letter. “The fellas” he came to town with that day “went on to a show,” he wrote, “but I decided to write you and Pat here at the ‘Y.'”
The Y provided essential services as well, including a small bank, a money order wire counter, two chapels, and even a “curio shop” for “the economical purchase of souvenirs and gifts.” Getting there was easy as well, and no hitchhiking was necessary: a one-way bus ticket from Navy Yard to the Y was 20 cents, and a taxi (which could be divvied up) cost a quarter. The brochure even contained a complete map of the island of Oahu, showing the locations of the various bases, attractions, and even what beaches were safe for swimming.
In any event, the YMCA was a cheap, pleasant place to spend one’s liberty, and Elmer frequently found himself there when in town.
One thing I’d like to start doing in this space is to spend some time writing about the books I am using in my research. While admittedly my research interest in my Grandpa’s Letters project is a bit less academically trenchant than my work on horse thieves, it does give me the opportunity to read some great books about World War II, the Navy, and the wider world he inhabited.
Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizona is historian Walter R. Borneman’s most recent book, having come out earlier this year. It is the tale of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona, as told from the perspective of the thirty-eight pairs (and in some cases trios) of brothers who served together on that ill-fated ship. Of those thirty-eight sets, only one pair of brothers both survived, and only twelve other men among the others avoided death that day.
But while only a few members of the Arizona’s complement survived – most of whom happened to have spent the night elsewhere, thus avoiding the ship’s fate altogether that morning – their stories live on. Borneman interviewed the survivors and their families, as well as the families of the deceased, many of whom shared their letters and other mementos and stories of their departed fathers, brothers, and uncles. The author did a remarkable job not only collecting all of these different stories, but of also weaving them together throughout the book. It’s a master class on historiographical resourcefulness: it is much easier to go to an archive than it is to hunt down families whose loved ones died the better part of a century ago under sudden, violent, and tragic circumstances.
Organizationally the book is divided into three parts: the history of the Arizona and its crew before the attack, the attack itself, and the days and years following December 7th. Borneman revels in details throughout this narrative: explaining who these men were, where they grew up, the kinds of trouble they got into as kids, the reasons why they joined the Navy during peacetime, etc. Some of their stories were not unlike Grandpa’s – they sent money home each month and wrote as often as they could. But grandpa’s story diverged when he was assigned to a ship that, for the most part, survived the day relatively unscathed. Anyway, these stories give names and life to the list of names on the wall at the Arizona Memorial.
The book was a quick read, at least for me. It would have been quicker if not for some filler towards the middle – Borneman takes pains to describe the college football games being played on December 6th and the hot songs of the day, apropos of nothing. However, for the most part the story is well-written, accessible, and at certain points action-driven. The last two chapters of the book were especially poignant, and one many wish to have a box of tissues or a handkerchief available.
This was a valuable first book to read on the subject of Pearl Harbor. Borneman is a more than capable historian, and this entry will serve as a touchstone for me going forward. But more importantly, it is a fantastic model for how to research and write the stories of World War II servicemen. It is sensitive, contemplative, thorough in its chasing down of narrative strands and family leads, and exquisitely well-written. His use of the brother pairings was an excellent choice, both in terms of creating a broad yet narrow set of subjects for the book (the Arizona’s compliment was over 1,500, which is a lot of individual stories) while also facilitating its research (pairs of brothers mean multiple families to consult, which creates larger pools of historical information as family members tell stories about their uncles as well as their fathers or grandfathers). His approach works very well.
Overall, I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona, or well-crafted history book in general.
Do you have any books you’d like to recommend? Have you read this one? Share your thoughts in a comment!
I’m running behind on my research and writing during the past couple of weeks. Everyone in our house but the dog has been sick for much of that time, and unfortunately the dog is not able to cook us food or clean the house. We’re all on the mend and feeling much better, but needless to say it’s been a drag.
As I start building up some more material to write about (currently going through the April 1941 letters), I’ll post a couple of quick blog posts about interesting topics that may not necessarily justify a longer discussion.
For example . . . think about two things most people possess today: food and photographs. Food is expensive, while photographs, thanks to smart phones, are virtually free. In fact, we now live in the age of the “food selfie,” in which folks order exotic or elaborate meals while traveling, and then upload pictures of the spread and of themselves to social media.
In 1941, however, those price points were reversed . . . on March 8th Elmer described a meal that he had purchased in Honolulu to his parents, which included the following fare:
Apple pie and ice cream
How much did all that sumptuous food cost? 45 cents!
However, Elmer’s parents requested that he send a photo of himself back to Saint Louis. They wanted to see for themselves how he was doing. Since Instagram would not be invented for another 75 years or so, Elmer had to go into town and order portrait photographs. This required an appointment with a photographer (booked in advance), plus about two weeks for development.
He ordered six 4×3″ pictures. The cost? Four dollars.
That’s a lot of pork chops and ice cream.
If you could buy any meal you wanted for less than a dollar, what would it be? Please leave a comment and let us know!
By early March 1941, Elmer was beginning to get acclimated to his new surroundings: the Chew, Pearl Harbor, the Neutrality Zone, Honolulu, and Waikiki Beach. “I feel fine,” he wrote in a letter to his brother Bud and his family, “[and I] really have a swell sun tan.”
Although still on mess duty, Grandpa did not mind starting his Naval career in the Chew’s kitchen. “I am glad I got mess cook first,” he reported to his parents. “It will be over soon[,] then I can dive right in and learn all about running this destroyer. The other fellows will all have to take their mess cook duty in turn. Every man in the Navy has [to do it.]” Mess duty had its advantages as well. “The ‘chow’ is plenty good, too. You can eat as much as you want. Ice cream every day,” he wrote on January 25th. It was also financially lucrative, with mess cooks earning an extra $5 a month in pay plus whatever was in the mess tip jar. Elmer sent his extra earnings home each month. On March 1st, he informed his parents that he was sending them $20, but that they should not worry about him keeping enough for himself. Between that and the $6 he had won in a card game the past week, Elmer was flush with walking around money (“I am a careful gambler,” he wrote reassuringly).
Outside of the mess kitchen, Elmer was also getting to know the wider world on and beyond the base. On March 1st Elmer described the overall organization of the 80th Destroyer Division, which was made up of the Chew, the Schely, the Allen, and the Ward. The four ships shared patrol duties through the Hawai’ian neutrality zone, which included searching for hostile ships and submarines, performing battle drills, and ensuring the safety of Pearl Harbor and its many inhabitants. He told his parents that they would soon embark on a ten day patrol cruise and that they shouldn’t expect any letters during that time. With all of the patrolling, “[I am] getting to be a salty sailor.”
Despite the cruises, Elmer was also getting to know and enjoy Oahu. In Honolulu he frequented the YMCA and enjoyed going to the movies, while at Waikiki he and his pals “really had a swell time. Swimming and surf boat riding. Boy is that the life! We all had a good time.” Although the beach was a ways away from town, he had no problems hitchhiking. “It is easy to catch a ride. A sailor in uniform gets a ride very easy.”
In any case, Elmer’s mess duty was scheduled to end on April 1st, and a brand new set of experiences would begin. He would then have a little over eight months to learn as much as he could about “running this destroyer” before he, his shipmates, and the rest of the country found themselves smack dab in the middle of a war.