What I’m Reading: Brothers Down

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 by [Borneman, Walter R.]

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!

Dollars and Cents

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.

Eddie: “Sorry, I don’t know how to use the stove. Also that would be a very bad idea.”

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:

  • Pineapple cocktail
  • Pork chops
  • French-fried potatoes
  • Lima Beans
  • 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!

Image result for 1940s diner public domain

Things to “Chew” on: Daily ice cream and the process of becoming a “salty sailor”

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.

Gold Rushes and Golden Leaves

One of the things I miss the most about growing up in Missouri is the fall colors, which light up the bluffs along the rivers with slashes of orange, red, yellow, and brown. When I was a kid, my family and I would travel up the Great River Road from St. Louis, drive to Calhoun County, and buy apple cider from one of the many roadside stands lining the strip of land between the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers before taking the Golden Eagle Ferry back. Good times.

After nine years of living in Los Angeles, I became disenchanted with the California fall. I’d find any excuse I could to travel east during the autumn. Sometimes we would go up to Big Bear or even Mammoth Lakes, but it just was not the same. The closest I ever felt like I came to experiencing a real autumn was when I’d go up to Sacramento to visit family for Thanksgiving.

Now that I’ve lived in the Sacramento area for a couple of years now, I have to say . . . the fall up here is spectacular. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it could be a destination fall. Crowds of leaf-peepers back east got you down? Come out to Northern California, where we have all the trappings of fall, including that nice cool autumn breeze, but without the fuss. Check out Apple Hill, near Placerville, with its line of apple orchards, pumpkin patches, and food stands. Or take a drive through Sacramento itself in November, which is sometimes called the “City of Trees,” and enjoy the juxtaposition of color-changing maples against pines, redwoods, and even palm trees. It’s a fascinating sight.

But since this is ostensibly a history blog, I would be remiss if I did not discuss the historical destinations that await travelers here. Autumn is probably the best time of the year to visit one of our local Gold Rush history attractions. Apart from the changing colors, it is not brutally hot (as summers tend to be), nor will you need snow chains for your vehicle.

Here are some places you can visit:

The Gold Rush Museum – Auburn: This is a one-stop shop for all things related to Gold Rush history. Located in historic Auburn, this museum is a fantastic place to get acquainted with one of the most important events in North American history.

Firehouse #1 Museum – Nevada City: After you are done taking in the sights in Auburn, take a picturesque drive up Highway 49 towards Grass Valley and Nevada City. Once you get there, this museum offers both a fascinating look at the region’s history as well as a beautiful view of the surrounding treescape.

Donner Memorial State Park – Truckee: No visit to the Sierra would be complete without a stop at Donner Pass and a visit to the place where the ill-fated Donner Party camped in 1846. Be sure to pack a lunch . . .

National Automobile Museum – Reno: If you make it to the other side of the California-Nevada state line, this museum in Reno is not to be missed. Even though this has little to do with the Gold Rush, it does at least give you a sense of what some of the most successful gold miners might have spent their money on in later years . . .

About the horse stealing book . . .

It’s no secret that most of the stuff I post here stems from my work digitizing, reading, and then blogging about the letters my grandpa wrote to his parents and his future wife, Rose, during World War II. Eventually I am going to work this material into a book manuscript, which I would really like to be available in time for the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 2021).

However, most of my research and historical work until recently has focused on horse stealing in the nineteenth-century American West, specifically Nebraska. I began this research nearly a decade ago, when the Autry National Center in Los Angeles awarded me a fellowship to conduct research on the John Bratt Ranching Collection. My goal was to use Bratt’s voluminous ranching records to better understand how horse stealing affected ranchers and their bottom line. The material, which few historians have used up until now, yielded some fascinating insights, and I used these to get a head start on my dissertation writing.

After finishing my dissertation, “Honor among Thieves: Horse Stealing and Culture in Lincoln County, Nebraska, 1860 – 1890” in 2014, I was slow to pick the project back up and finish it. However, I started getting serious about it a couple of years ago and decided to expand my analysis beyond Lincoln County to Western Nebraska in general. I finally finished the manuscript this summer, and it should be out next fall.

* Not the actual book cover, which has not yet been designed . . . this is just something I whipped up on Photoshop. The photo however will be in the book. (Source: Edward S. Curtis, Brulé war party, [1907?], b&w film copy negative, Edward S. Curtis Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-46958.)

I don’t want to give too much away about the book . . . after all, it is a narrative, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending! But my book, which is the first to tackle both American Indian horse raiding and white horse stealing as related historical phenomena, will cover a lot of ground. As the year goes by I will periodically post updates here, as well as tidbits from the book, items of interest that didn’t make the final cut, and other stuff.

I apologize in advance if the blog seems to ping-pong between the old West and the Pacific Theater, with occasional references to Midwestern earthquakes from time to time. Most academic historians are a bit less cluttered with their varying projects, although I would argue that my grandpa’s letters project would never happen if these letters did not literally fall in my lap (my dad, after my grandpa died, actually dropped a suitcase full of these letters inside right on my lap! It was pretty heavy . . .). In the meantime, once Never Caught Twice is out I would like to write another book about the Great Plains, which I’ve grown to love over the past ten years. I have some ideas, but, for now, I think I’m going to focus on writing just one book at a time. 🙂

The Chew’s Crew: “The best bunch of fellas you could ever meet”

Grandpa Luckett wrote about a lot of different things in his letters home. He liked to describe his friends, his work, his surroundings, his ship, and his various adventures while on liberty.

His letter of February 8th, 1941 lay out for his folks the various routines on his ship, the USS Chew. He might have been grasping for a topic to discuss: “Not much to write about today,” he admitted. “Today was Saturday. Every Saturday morning the captain and executive officers inspect the whole ship.” The process of getting ready for the weekly inspection began on Friday, with the sailors patching up the walls with paint and polishing “all the brass around their bunks.” The next morning, the crew would replace all their linens and then undergo individual inspections. “Then the captain and officers look the ship over. I have all my cups, dishes, and eating gear in perfect shape.” Elmer announced that he and his mates passed the inspections “O.K. They are part of the routine.”

Elmer went on to describe his work gear. “It is always warm out here,” he wrote. “I had a pair of my white trousers made into shorts. I wear shorts most of the time.” In the even warmer boiler room, he and his fellow engineers and firemen wore dungarees and chambray shirts “most of the time, except for inspections.”

Next, Grandpa began breaking down the ship’s divisions of labor. The crew overall was divided into “two branches of men. The seamen, who take care of things on the top deck (like guns, torpedos, steering, steering, and general deck work)[, and] the ‘Black Gang,’ or Engineers Force. (They take care of all the machinery, boilers, oil burners, and water distillers). I am a fireman in the Engineers Force.” Elmer went on to mention that the Engineers slept in a separate “compartment in the ‘aft’ part of the ship.” At that time he was not in the boiler room, but was instead finishing up his duty assignment as the Engineers mess cook. “The Engineers are the best bunch of fellows you would ever meet,” he went on to write. “I wish you could meet them.” He then added, almost parenthetically, “the seaman [sic] are fine also.”

Camaraderie in the boiler room. Source: Hoffman Island, merchant marine training center off Staten Island, New York. Trainees aboard the training ship New York working in the boiler room. John Vachon. 1942. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information photograph collection (Library of Congress). Call number LC-USW3- 005818-D [P&P] LOT 42.

Soon, Elmer’s pen began to run out of steam. “There are many things I could tell you about. I will tell you all about them sometime. It is hard to try and write about all of them.” Looking ahead, he predicted that the ship would remain “at the dock for for about two weeks. I don’t know for sure.” Unlike with the Friday and Saturday inspection routines, “We never know anything definite.” But for the time being, Elmer’s place in the crew was fixed and secure, even if the Chew’s location was not.

Interior Borderlands book out now!

For whatever reason I did not share this back in May (this was right about when I started getting sick), but the Interior Borderlands compilation is out.

Here is the Amazon link, where you can find more information: https://www.amazon.com/Interior-Borderlands-Regional-Identity-Midwest/dp/0931170125

If you would still like to buy it (after reading the two sentence, three star review), you can get it directly from the source: http://www.augie.edu/center-western-studies/shop/interior-borderlands-regional-identity-midwest-and-great-plains