It’s fun to stay at the Honolulu YMCA

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.

“The Roughest Ships in the Navy”

One thing I always wondered about . . . how frequently do newly enlisted seamen in the Navy get seasickness? Is it common, or infrequent enough for those who do to get razzed about it?

Elmer’s letter of January 30, 1941 answered that question. His ship arrived in Pearl a day earlier after patrolling the neutral zone, and the crew soon discovered that “the old ‘Chew’ didn’t ride as smoothly as the big old Lexington. In fact, destroyers are the roughest ships in the navy.” Grandpa did not sugarcoat the experience. “Of course, little Elmer was [not] feeling up to par at first,” he recalled, “but he stuck it out and by Tuesday night [he] was feeling fine.” He estimated that three fourths of the crew was seasick. “So I had company.” Elmer also predicted that they would all “get used to it in a few trips.”

The Chew was not only out to sea in order to patrol the surrounding waters and shakedown its new crew. “We had many battle drills, fire drills, gunnery practice and everything in general,” wrote Elmer. The ship was slowly beginning its preparation for the coming war, which included moving and operating in the dark. “The lights all went out at 6:30 every night, and I would sit on the top deck and look at the stars and sky. It was so soothing and comforting. It is really a wonderful feeling. The old salty sea air smell.”

Elmer also related his first impressions of Honolulu. “Pretty nice town,” he thought, “but very Oriental. Most of the people are Chinese and Japanese.” Admittedly, his experience with “Oriental” towns and neighbors was limited, and his perception was of course shaped by having spent most of his life in the mostly French and German-influenced city of Saint Louis. But Honolulu was already well on its way to becoming a cosmopolitan metropolis and an important cultural and economic nexus between America, Asia, and Oceania. Native Hawai’ian culture was palpable as well, and his friends and family had already began expressing their curiosity about it. Pat wrote him asking for a grass skirt – “she’s a good kid and deserves it.”

The letter closed with Elmer assuring his mother that he “will always make you proud to have me for a son,” and telling his father to not worry about him “pulling AWOL – I know better than that.” Although I have not located the letter which prompted this curious defense, it is hard to imagine Elmer deciding to leave his post. Temperamentally, as well as officially, he was committed to serving in the Navy.

Besides, between his duties aboard the Chew and his adventures on the Island of Oahu . . . where could he even go? It is a good thing that seasickness is a temporary condition, because Elmer wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.