Summary: Harry Scott wrote an “interesting” letter. Mom’s candy arrived. “Very little to write about.”
Historian of the American West, Professor, and Documentarian
Summary: Harry Scott wrote an “interesting” letter. Mom’s candy arrived. “Very little to write about.”
If someone were to ask you where the first Pearl Harbor monument is located, what place would you guess? Honolulu? Washington, D.C.? Perhaps someplace in Arizona?
If you didn’t come up with “Swansea, Illinois,” then you wouldn’t be alone. Erected in 1942, just months after the Japanese attacked, the monument sits on a small cemetery plot beside a busy road in metro St. Louis. Located about twenty miles east of Saint Louis, and over 4,000 miles away from Oahu, Swansea does not contain a naval base, an airstrip, or much else of strategic value. What it did have, however, was a sad and terrified family whose members were losing hope. George E Hoffman’s namesake nephew was a sailor aboard the Chew, and he was reported missing along with several others following the attack. By February, his grieving uncle commissioned a large monument to be erected in his nephew’s honor and for all the other dead and missing servicemen at the Messinger Cemetery.
The monument is one of the newer stones there: the oldest grave belongs to Anne Lyon Messinger, who died in 1842. Her family’s gravestones lie behind a black iron fence near the back of the site. Nearby, W. Albert Issacs lies beneath a modest, well-kept gravestone. Issacs died on August 1, 1863, while attached to Company I of the 117th Illinois Infantry. The 117th was stationed in Memphis at that time, so it is likely that Issacs died of a non-violent cause (like disease).
Nearby, Hoffman’s much-larger monument turned out to be at least partially premature. During the months following Pearl Harbor, Hoffman was one of thousands of men whose whereabouts immediately following the bombing raid were unknown. By the time the memorial was dedicated, however, Hoffman had been found alive and well. Nevertheless, the monument’s dedication to all those who died and sacrificed during America’s “baptism by fire” was among the first to pepper a mourning nation’s growing cemeteries. Today the monument is flanked by several other memorials for more recent wars. A few feet away, just beyond a pair of small stone obelisks that mark the entrance to the cemetery, a busy highway disturbs the quiet, a perpetual symbol of time passing along just as those who perished cannot.
If you are ever in the region, it’s worth checking out the memorial and the surrounding cemetery. I visited with my family last December, and although it took a little while to venture out there from the Missouri side of the river, it was well worth the trip.
Today has been a busy day on my end. I’ve had a final exam to complete, urgent work matters to sort through, and a child who really wanted Winter Wonderland pancakes from IHOP this morning. I only have a few minutes to write this, at nearly 6pm in the evening, before I have to attend to other matters.
Although this day is mundane in its hustle and bustle, it is certainly no ordinary day. Eighty years ago, on the morning of December 7th, 1941, a Japanese attack on the United States forces at Pearl Harbor catapulted America into World War II and changed our nation’s history forever. As you know from this blog and my book-in-progress, it is a story I hope to continue telling to the world, thanks to my grandfather Elmer K. Luckett’s testimony, interviews, and letters.
A few years ago I had hoped that my book would be out now. Unfortunately, the pandemic had other plans, and I still have yet to obtain various documents I need to finish it (some of those archival centers remain closed). But the pandemic did something else, too: it stacked a new heap of history on top of the old. September 11th now seems almost as remote at the Kennedy Assassination, and Pearl Harbor might as well be the start of the Civil War for some of today’s kids. My book’s job, and this blog’s, is to help preserve and echo that history across time and generations.
But today is not that day. There are still Pearl Harbor survivors out there, living their best lives and perfectly willing and able to tell their stories. So let’s listen to them and thank them for their service and sacrifice.
Thanks as always for reading, and I will be in touch soon.
I apologize for being so negligent over these past few months in writing or contributing to this blog. It’s been an interesting few months here in Orangevale, and for all of us I suppose. What’s up with you all? Well, on my end, let’s see . . . I built a fence, I lost a little weight, I was diagnosed with a hernia (the same kind my grandpa had!) and will need a surgery for it soon, I taught several classes, I took two more, I got vaccinated, and I turned 40. Clementine and I traveled to St. Louis for the first time in over a year, which was nice (my dad hadn’t seen his granddaughter since late 2019), and I made my first trip to LA since the pandemic started. Like everyone else, the pandemic has affected me in ways that I’ve barely even begun to appreciate. It has been both disruptive and transformative, scary yet hopeful, stultifying yet revelatory. But now that my wife and I are vaccinated, we are looking forward to hopefully enjoying some semi-normalcy in the hopefully not-too-distant future.
The pandemic and the quarantines have helped guide and inspire me to make some changes, however, beginning with this: starting next fall, I will be studying for my Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy Counseling at California State University East Bay. After I finished my PhD, I swore up and down that I was done with graduate school. A terminal degree is a terminal degree, after all. But I also told myself that if I ever did decide to go back to school, it would be to get a Masters in Counseling. That way I could maximize my opportunities in higher education administration, earn a degree that immediately qualifies me for a wide range of other jobs, and perhaps one day open my own private practice.
I promised myself (and my family) that if I were to get another gradate degree, the program would have to be nearby, convenient for working adults, affordable, and well-established. CSU East Bay checks all the boxes. It isn’t exactly down the street, but with classes meeting only two days a week I can commute via Amtrak and get some work done on the train. The program itself is well-regarded, so I feel like my cohort and I are in good hands going into the fall. And it is affordable, which means . . . no student loans! But even if I did have to take some out, the degree itself would cost considerably less than the new Subaru Forester I bought a few years (and have since paid off).
Regardless of the program’s good fit, I realize it is still a big leap. Yet it makes sense. On the one hand, although I was in no rush to do this before the Pandemic, the switch to online teaching forced me to reevaluate my career trajectory. For instance, what I missed the most about teaching in a traditional setting was the impromptu, one-on-one meetings I often had with students who wanted to talk about school, history, and whatever else. Moreover, I had the creeping feeling that my teaching load in the future will continue to be, one way or another, increasingly virtual. While I am reasonably well-versed in online teaching (I’ve been teaching online for years), I am happier in a classroom. History is a narrative art, and I prefer telling my stories in person. Finally, I do not want to spend the rest of my professional career teaching courses as an adjunct. Like many other contingent faculty over the past year, I’ve come to terms with the stark realities of the tenure-track job market and the demands of tenure-line labor. Not only is it exceedingly unlikely that I will get a tenure line job, but it is even less likely that I will get one in a place that I like more than where we are in Northern California, or that I would come to enjoy working 60 hours a week for not much more money in exchange for job security. If I’m stagnating as an adjunct and no longer interested in finding a tenure-line position, then I need to reconsider my path.
On the other hand, I am genuinely excited about becoming a therapist. I’ve always wanted to hang my shingle someplace and be my own boss. I’ve always wanted to have a career in which I am able to help people, but with more impact and immediacy than what I have as an instructor. And I’ve always believed that I do a better job of helping people find their best versions of themselves than of constantly fighting the worst versions of people. That might be a controversial declaration these days, given our nation’s deep cultural, racial, economic, and political divides, but I know where my strengths lie. As a therapist and as a member of my community, I believe I can make a tangible difference helping people becoming more accepting of themselves, and therefore by extension helping them become more accepting of others.
Since it’s Memorial Day weekend, it’s also a good time to mention that one of the populations I’m most interested in working with is veterans. We have a lot of veterans in my community, many of whom do not seek treatment for one reason or another for PTSD, depression, and other issues. I’ve posted on this blog before about Give an Hour, an organization that gives veterans, disaster victims, and other at-risk persons with free counseling while simultaneously destigmatizing mental illness in the community. I’ve been happy to donate to this organization and write about it here, but I want to play a more active role in this important effort. Unlike my grandpa, dad, and brother, I never served in the military, but I hope that by doing this I will be able to offer a different kind of service to my community and country.
As I prepare to go back to school (again!) and start my 40s as a college student, I hesitate to frame this next step as a decision to “leave academia.” Like so many other contingent faculty across the country who have already left or who are in the process of leaving academia, I am wary of spending the rest of my career teaching without a true professional home, or teaching for less money and nearly no security compared to my colleagues who have the same credentials I do. However, I still do want to teach, albeit less. I want to be able to teach because I decide to teach a class or two, not because I have to teach four or five.
I also want to continue to write and create. I loved writing my first book, I am enjoying the process of writing the second one even more, and I eventually want to write enough books of my own to fill a small satchel bag. Again, though, I want to want to write. I don’t want to have to write, if that makes any sense. And if I could make those things that I like—big writing projects, small teaching loads—orbit around a new professional home, my private practice, well . . . then I’d be living the dream. In any case, it will be interesting to see how my new professional path informs my historical scholarship. Considering that I’ve already been writing quite a bit about paranoia (e.g., vigilante responses to horse thieves, collective freak-outs over prophecized Midwestern earthquakes, etc), I believe my new intellectual curiosities will remap, rather than erase, my preexisting ones in novel and hopefully interesting ways.
More to come in this space, both with respect to my research/writing and to other things happening in my world. But for now, thank you all for coming here and for reading my little blog, and take care of yourselves!
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 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).
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
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:
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:
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
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:
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.
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:
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
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!
I’ve heard a lot of great things about Greyhound, the new World War II Naval drama starring Tom Hanks and, I guess, Elisabeth Shue (more on that later). I read that it was the most realistic naval war movie in years, if not ever, and the fact that it takes place on a Fletcher-class destroyer makes it even better. Talk about a movie tailor-made for this blog! So, naturally, I had to see it.
Since this is an Apple TV movie, I had to sign up for a free trial for the Apple TV service in order to watch it. Five bucks a month isn’t a terrible price as far as streaming services go (it is a lot less than Netflix) but it all adds up after a while. I will surf it some in the next few days, and if you have any recommendations for what I should watch on there, please leave a comment and tell me!
Anyway, once the trial was set up, I queued up the film and sat back with some chips and a beer ready for a show. Then I looked at the runtime: one hour and 31 minutes! This is definitely a one-beer film. And even that is generous, since the interminably long credits start to roll with 12 minutes left in the film, effectively making this a 75 minute movie.
75 minutes? Tom Green’s movies are longer than that. The Love Guru, possibly the worst film ever made, clocks in at 84 minutes. Even Uwe Boll can crank out 100 minutes of whatever the heck it is that Uwe Boll makes when he points a camera at something. Why is Greyhound so short?
The answer to that question, I think, is key to figuring out this movie.
Let’s go back to the resounding praise most folks seem to have for the film’s accuracy. Greyhound speaks the language of a Tin Can deck. Officers and crew are constantly barking out and then repeating orders, sonar readings, sub sightings, etc. The word “bearing” is probably shouted at least 200 times. Director Aaron Schneider revels in this staccato dialogue, which realistically conveys the urgency Commander Ernst Krause and his crew felt during those long hours while escorting a large convoy across “the Black Pit” without the aid of air cover during the Battle of the Atlantic. Both the dialogue and the editing come at breakneck speed – I found it helpful to watch with closed captioning – which underlines just how quickly a battle with a U-boat can turn in real time.
Without moving into spoiler territory, let’s just say that Schneider fits a lot of stuff into 75 minutes. And the film’s pacing is deliberate enough that I come away from it thinking that if it were to run any slower, with those long deliberative character pauses that we see in films like Hunt for Red October, then it would just be another hackneyed Naval combat movie. I applaud Schneider for not embracing that schtick, since if he were to do that, with Tom Hanks as the lead no less, he still would have made a fine – if not great – movie.
But I don’t think that this movie is great, either, precisely because the entire film seems to channel 1917 and Dunkirk in making a real time-conscious war movie. When successful, the real time effect, pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock and popularized by the Fox series 24, accentuates the heart-pounding drama of the story minute by minute. Greyhound cannot truly hew to this format, however, since the action takes place over two days (each sequence is preceded by a title card indicating the name of the corresponding watch period). As a result, the film is a stream of crises, one after another, boom boom boom. By way of comparison, it is not unlike an edited YouTube video, in which the narrator’s pauses are cut, thus resulting in a continuous if visibly disjointed presentation. While that is not necessarily bad in and of itself, Schneider’s commitment to accuracy and the resulting jargon-laced dialogue makes the pacing frenetic and, at several points, tiresome. It’s a bit like listening to air traffic controllers for a hour on end, but instead of listening in on the radio transmissions, you’re standing in the middle of the tower at 9am on a Friday at JFK. The chatter soon turns into a cacophony.
The film is not totally robotic – Hanks is fantastic (as always) and there are some genuinely emotional and even solemn moments in the movie. However, it needs to be diluted a bit. Elisabeth Shue’s character is in the movie for about three minutes, and then she is gone (presumably to go babysit some mischievous kids in a Chicago suburb). Why is she even in the previews? Her disappearance five minutes in hints at a larger indictment: that there is almost zero character development. We learn three (mostly spoiler-free) facts about Commander Krause: he is devoutly religious, he drinks a lot of coffee, and his shoes may be a size too small. Schneider and Hanks lionize, rather than humanize, his character, and in this sense Krause is basically Captain John Miller in a different service uniform. With the recent trend in war movies to make protagonists into regular, flawed humans (see The Pacific, Band of Brothers, The Hurt Locker, etc), and not Greatest Generation caricatures, this seems like a misstep. It would not have taken a lot of money or time to shoot a few extra scenes in the San Francisco hotel where the movie opens and add some backstory, some flashbacks, some flash-forwards, or just something to break up the flow.
Apart from those criticisms, however, Greyhound is a fast-faced, entertaining, and perhaps even instructive war movie. It is definitely worth watching.
But is it worth subscribing to Apple TV? Well . . . I just discovered that every episode of Fraggle Rock is on there, so I suppose the question is now moot, at least for me.
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.
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.
“Op-Ed: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge,” Los Angeles Times, 30 May 2020. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of America’s most legendary sports figures, is also a fantastic writer. Please check out what he has to say about what’s happening.
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.
Kelly Vanessa Porter, “The Story of Doris Miller and What It Means to be An American Hero,” Medium.com, 22 May 2020. Finally, the story of Doris Miller is one I have not told on this blog, but this article does a far better job than I would have – and it is a great reminder for me that I need to include it in the book. It is also a reminder that even Miller, an American hero who died in the service of his country, still regularly battled racism at home in the country he was fighting to protect.
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.
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 Bosnian classmates over the next few years. 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 always 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.
January 1942: Adjusting to a New Reality
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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.