September 1944: The Dead Ones

The Mink dropped anchor in Biak’s Mokmer Harbor on September 2 and discharged diesel fuel there until the 5th. At some point during that time Elmer left the ship and went ashore. It had only been two weeks since the Americans won control of the island after a ferocious three-month long battle. It was then, almost three years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, that Grandpa finally caught up with the blood-edge of the sword of war. He never forgot what he saw:

At one time, we went to an island there and it was called Biak. That’s the only place I saw dead Japs . . . When we got ashore there, we was able to go to this cave. The Japs tended to hole up in caves a lot when they were on these islands. Anyway. They used flamethrowers to get them out of there. Anyway. I was able to go into this cave there and see a lot of dead Japs laying around, or the good ones, the dead ones. Well, anyway, I remember that. That’s the only time I had occasion to see dead Japanese. That was on the island of Biak, B-I-A-K. Anyway. I remember that.”

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

Even the engine room aboard a tanker could not completely insulate Elmer from the horrors of war.

Anyway, the shock of seeing dead Japanese soldiers did not prevent Elmer from thinking more about life after the service, which increasingly appeared to be a not-so-distant possibility. “The war news is really great and the end is in sight,” he wrote. “If the pace keeps up the same it shouldn’t be long.” He told his parents he missed them greatly, and told them they “had so much to look forward to when [he comes] ‘marching home.'” He also mused about possibly going to school after the War, although he wasn’t “crossing bridges” quite yet. Such things would have to wait until the killing stopped.

Elmer continued to work through the stack of correspondence he received while in Australia. Four of the letters were from Rose Schmid. However, she was not yet at the top of his call sheet. His response on September 2nd treated her almost as if he were a call center employee apologizing to a customer for having to listen to four minutes of ambient telephone music. “I know you will understand why I am late in answering,” he wrote. “All the mail piled up on the ship during our absence. And sugar, I have more than fifty letters to answer. Of course, in many cases like yours, I must answer several letters with just one from me.” With the apologies out of the way, he threw in some lighthearted humor to smooth things over: “I’m still snowed under, darling. Don’t you feel for me? Poor me.”

Unfortunately, the letter’s tone did not improve after that. Since Elmer and Rose were not exclusive, Grandpa felt no need to censor himself. “I met a girl named Lorraine Henry [in Australia] . . . She was my steady girl, and we enjoyed everything together: dances, movies, picnics, dinner, and sight-seeing. She didn’t smoke or drink. Of course, I drank enough for the both of us.” And in case this story was not enough to dissuade Rose from feeling attached to him, Elmer stated his feelings more explicitly on the next page. “Be a good girl and remember I was just a fling.”

Elmer brought back several souvenir postcard sets back from Australia, including this one from Sydney.

Rose’s next letter must have hit its mark, since Elmer struck a much warmer tone on the 12th. “Words seem so inadequate when I write you, Rose; [I] wish I could be with you because action speaks louder than words . . . but I must console myself with the good war news and hope that a speedy victory will bring us together soon. You are a regular ‘doubting Thomas’ or the female counter-part, and probably won’t believe me. But I miss you very much.” After some more romantic talk, he segued back to his usual request in his letters up until this point: that Rose send him more pictures of herself. However, his overall thinking was not so crass. Rose enchanted him – she required some effort on his part. The cut of his jib and his uniform just would not cut it with her. “As ignorant as I am regarding the ‘ways of women’ (as you put it), I’m anxious to learn more. Maybe, I could understand you better, sweets. You have me baffled in a number of ways.”

Having already mailed his rather curt letter of the 2nd, he needed his latest reply to really shine. He assured Rose that she was still “on [his] mind” while in Australia: “I got a number of match folders for you while there . . . Do you want me to mail them or just keep them until later?” He also heaped on the charm: “Oh honey, to have you in my arms again (this is torture being away.) . . . miss you and love you. Elmer.” After signing the letter, the urgency he felt to rescue his soon-to-be floundering romance compelled him to go ahead and mail the souvenir gifts with that letter. After all, he said it himself: actions speak louder than words, and the match books he sent spoke volumes.

Meanwhile, his letters home to his parents revealed that the summer months had brought some improvements aboard the ship, most notably the availability of beer. Sailors could buy bottles for fifteen cents, and the ship was “well-stocked” with a variety of lagers. “Well, they just passed around the beer and I dashed over and drew mine also,” he announced to his parents in real time on the 27th. “Ah, it’s nice and cold. So I’ll be able to finish this letter between sips at the bottle. It’s Rainier Beer, from Frisco.” The ship store also had cigars and candy – two essential items for Elmer.

Although known principally as a Seattle beer, Rainier maintained a brewery in San Francisco as well.

Elmer and the rest of the crew kept busy watching movies, enjoying the weather, and collecting sea shells. Beach-combing and jewelry making became unexpectedly popular hobbies aboard the Mink. “I usually read [or] work at my sea-shells,” he told his parents on the 27th. “[I] collected some nice ones and cured them.” Elmer then added a parenthetical (and slightly macabre) explanation that was quintessential Grandpa: ” [seashells] have a small animal growing in them, something like a snail, and you must dry them out and remove the corpse.” As unromantic as his explanation was, it suggests that Missourians did not have a great deal of knowledge about the inner workings of seashells, even though Elmer and the crew clearly still believed that they would make fine (and cheap) gifts for folks back home. “Most of the fellows make bracelets out of them – and they’re really nice. I’m making one for Shirley. And will make some more later and send them home.”

In his last letter of the month, written on September 30th, Elmer complained about Australian writing (“Rae hasn’t a very good hand at penmanship,” he wrote. “In fact, I think it is an Aussie characteristic, judging by the letters other fellows get from Aussie girls”), congratulated his cousin Bob on entering the Navy, and thanked his mother for sending him foot powder. He also announced an important, and imminent, milestone: “It is Saturday evening, and another week and month gone. And I start on my fifth year in the Navy tomorrow. But enough for that.”

Elmer was dismissive of the anniversary that day, but his fifth year would be his last, most eventful, and most dangerous during his time in the service. And when he returned home just over a year later from the war, he would bring a bundle of letters back with him. Bafflement gave way to love, and suddenly the future appeared far more certain.

What a difference twelve months can make.

While we are on the subject of the future, this will be the last Grandpa’s Letters blog post for a little bit. There is only one year left of correspondence to cover, but it is consequential: the Battle of Leyte Gulf, kamikaze attacks, Elmer’s rapidly growing correspondence with and decision to commit to Rose, his reaction to V-E and V-J Days, and his long journey home are all in the posts ahead. Since the vast majority of my Elmer-Rose correspondence was written in 1945, I will have a lot more prep work to do for the last several posts than before. Stay tuned . . . and thanks for reading!

July 1944: A Leave Down Under

By July, the daily grind and the ongoing isolation began to wear down the Mink’s crew. So the ship’s officers cooked up some surprises for their men. “Yes sir,” Elmer wrote the day after the festivities, “we had a holiday routine yesterday – in short, just plain loafing. And for the first time in months we had some beer and Coca-Cola.” Since there were no stores nearby the men were limited to consuming whatever was aboard ship – or whatever they happened to catch fishing. “The way we are located without anywhere to go for buying beer or any other recreation makes it a little tough,” he wrote.”But through Navy Supply we may be able to get a few beers once in a while. They can’t forget morale, and it is a big point to consider.” The mess cooks prepared a feast for the crew, who also received souvenir menus to commemorate the occasion.

The Mink’s Fourth of July menu.

But giblet gravy and a round of cokes would only go so far to ameliorate the crew, which needed a break. Preferably in a place with bars that offered more than three beers. On July 9th, Elmer no longer needed to hint at a future liberty – he was now scheduled to have one.

“Now for my bit of good news,” he wrote his parents. “Due to the fact that our duty has been isolated from cities or places for liberty or recreation, they are sending a number of men at a time for ten days recreation leave in a swell country. I’ve always wanted to visit there.” Elmer’s hard work, good relationship with the officers aboard, previous bad luck with the V-12 program, and lengthy service prior to joining the Mink undoubtedly contributed to the decision to prioritize his leave over that of many of his crewmates. “I happen to be in the first group and we are due to leave soon.” He withdrew over $150 for the trip, which he viewed as “a chance to have a good time and spend some money . . . Don’t know if I’ll need it all, but I’m going to have a great time at all cost.” He continued to rationalize the vacation in his letter to his parents, but he knew it was not necessary to apologize for being young and wanting to have a good time after such a long period of labor at such a distance from the comforts of home. “[I] think I’ve earned a ‘blow out’ now, and I’m going to ‘paint the town red.'” He closed his July 9th letter, in a departure from his regular practice, with “I’m in good health and exceptionally good spirits.”

Later, in his interview, Grandpa indicated that he was in the second party to get to go to Australia, but he was still happy with that:

I was able to get into the second party. As the second class petty officer, I guess I had a little pull, more so than somebody that hasn’t been in it for long.

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

Naval censors prohibited him from giving out much information about his Australian whereabouts in his letters. Even though the country’s safety from invasion was virtually assured by 1943, the Japanese Navy continued to ply the waters north and east of the continent, and officials did not want American sailor mail falling into enemy hands. Australia was much like England at this point of the war: a large, Allied nation close to the theater of operations where men, equipment, and supplies could be marshaled for future attacks and where friendly combatants could go for a pleasant, mostly safe leave.

Elmer mailed this sheet home at the end of the month. Since censors banned servicemen from providing much in the way of specifics to their families back home – and were themselves often unclear about what could and could not be said – the Red Cross created “furlough letters” like the one above so that servicemen could say something fun about their trips.

Of course, “close” was a relative term. It took nearly a week for Elmer’s party to make the trip, during which time he was incommunicado and could not write letters. He talked about the trip during his oral interview:

Anyway, I had a chance to go down to Australia. To get down there, we had to wait until we could get some transportation. There was a refrigerated ship called the Mizar that came up from Australia. It brought up fresh provisions and stuff. It made trips between Australia, New Guinea, Milne Bay. So anyway. We got transportation on this refrigerated ship . . . it pulled into Brisbane and we got off there. But our R&R orders were for 10 days in Sydney. So anyway . . . we had to pay for our own transportation, because we wanted to get down to Sydney. But it wasn’t that expensive.

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

When he penned his next letter to his folks on July 18th, he was in Brisbane. “I believe it will be ok if I told you that my leave is somewhere in Australia,” he wrote. “Naturally I’m very excited and enjoying the experience of traveling and living in a new country for awhile.” Elmer raved about the favorable exchange rate, which went far for his and his mates. “Meals and living expenses are cheaper here than in the States. And I have ten days to spend a hundred and fifty dollars.”

Shortly after arriving he and his crewmates from the Mink took a train down to Sydney. He described the journey in his interview as well:

I guess one thing I noticed as we rode this train down to Sydney from Brisbane, if you look out the windows as you do aboard a train, you’d see these kangaroos jumping around. I thought that was kind of neat.

Elmer Luckett. Oral Interview

Elmer’s other letters offer some specifics: lodging with three other men in a flat was $1.50 a night, while “a meal with steak or meat in any form with vegetables and desert oranges [costs] about sixty cents a person in our money.” Public transit on the Tram cost as little as two American pennies a trip, which was fortuitous since there was much to do. “[We went to] the zoo, parks, buildings, and local nightclubs,” he wrote, “[and] I’ve met several nice girls at dances given by the Red Cross Service Club.” Overall, “the people treat us swell here, and it’s practically like our home country.”

One of the girls he met at the Red Cross dances was Rae Henry, a “very sweet girl” who lived in Sydney. Elmer dated her several times, and was even invited to her parents house for dinner twice. “We have been dancing, to the zoo, movies, and sightseeing. She is really a fine person.” On July 30th, Elmer, Rae, and another couple packed up a lunch and enjoyed a picnic at the beach.

Grandpa mentioned Rae during his interview:

I got acquainted with a gal down there. She worked there. Her name was Rae Henry, R-A-E Henry. I remember her well. So anyway, I got acquainted with her down there. Then, Lloyd Hill, he was an electrician on the Mink. He was pretty close buddies with me. He met another gal down there. She was a friend of Rae’s. So we made a few dates with them. We went to … what the hell was the name of it … beautiful animal park down there.*

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

Elmer did not forget his family back home during his leave. He sent his mother a birthday telegram and arranged for his sister to give her flowers on his behalf. He also mailed boomerangs to Bud and Irene, as well as a couple of “expensive” gifts to Shirley.

Elmer’s birthday telegram to his mother, which he sent from Australia.

Elmer roamed around some during his stay, visiting a couple of small towns in New South Wales and Queensland while also checking out the Blue Mountains. Once he arrived back in Sydney for the end of his leave, however, he was there to stay until their boat came to pick them up. Unfortunately, that would be several weeks away, forcing Elmer to remain in Australia indefinitely until then. On the one hand that was good news, since it meant more time on leave – and more dates with Rae. “It has been a wonderful leave here in Australia,” he wrote on July 31st. “I’ve had such good times and enjoyed myself. I feel like I can go back and get busy at my job and help finish this war.” On the other hand, Elmer was starting to run low on money, having only budgeted himself for ten days of expenses, travel, and souvenirs. All of his incoming mail was waiting for him back on the Mink, which meant that while Elmer was sending letters out, he was not receiving any in return. Soon the shoe would be on the other foot, and Elmer would be the one worrying about his folks after months of hearing no news from the home front.

*After some quick institutional Googling it seems that Grandpa meant the Taronga Zoological Park, since other popular zoos and animal parks in the area (e.g., Featherdale, WILD LIFE Sydney Zoo) did not open until long after World War II.

June 1944: The Invasion Prayer

The whole world watched on June 6th, 1944 as over 150,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy. It was the largest amphibious invasion in history, and the fate of the planet would be determined by its outcome.

In a world before 24-hour cable news, people everywhere were glued to their radios as they scanned the newest newspaper editions for updates. Specifics were hard to come by, for obvious reasons – press censorship, operational secrecy, and technological limitations prevented the kind of play-by-play coverage Americans received when watching the invasions of Iraq near-real time in 1991 and later in 2003. With so much uncertainty, people filled the pins and needles hours with talk, conjecture, work, and prayer. In an extra-long Presidency full of memorable speeches, one of FDR’s most poignant and impactful was his invasion prayer, which he read aloud on the radio. Given the magnitude of the undertaking in western Europe, the prayer was six minute long, and took up large swaths of front page invasion coverage, like in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch below:

Elmer, who was not much of a churchgoer before, during, or after the War, followed the President’s lead in praying for “a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.” He reacted to the news in a June 8th letter to his parents, specifically addressing his thoughts to his dad (even though his mother was undoubtedly just as invested in the breaking news as her husband). “Well Dad, the news came out the other day about out invasion of France. And it is what the world’s been waiting for. A cause to rejoice and mostly one for prayer. So many men involved and as always many must be lost to this world. God grant that our men may have a speedy victory with a minimum of bloodshed.” Elmer also wrote that he believed “our cause is surely a just one” and that “this is the beginning of the end for Hitler and all he stands for.” He concluded his letter with a little added flourish to his usual “chins up!” plea: “But now you must keep those chins up with faith and courage. That’s how I want to think of you.”

Elmer’s mother, who would not receive this letter until much later, was not mollified and apparently feared that her son was involved or otherwise subject to the invasion’s downstream effects. “You shouldn’t be uneasy about me due to the invasion of France,” he wrote imploringly. “Our soldiers are the boys that must do their job now. So you just keep your spirits up because it can’t last much longer.” Elmer’s other letters late in June seem to reflect his newfound optimism. Anxious prayers over the fate of the invasion gave way to pronouncements over Germany’s all-but-certain defeat. Like many other at the time, Grandpa seemed to embrace hopeful predictions that the war would be over within a year or less, even as the Allied solders then in France slowly hacked their way through Normandy’s Panzer-infested hedgerows. “Surely the Japs and the Nazi’s realize it is a matter of time,” he mused on the 25th. Of course, as events in the spring and summer of 1945 would show, realizing that a war’s outcome was inevitable was not the same thing as having the courage, wherewithal, or support to actually do something about ending it.

For once, Elmer’s almost rote claims that there was no news to report seemed in retrospect true. The Mink was still in Seeadler Harbor, everyone was still do their jobs, and there was still nothing to do on shore. On the 25th he reported seeing and enjoying A Lady Takes a Chance, but there was little else worth noting. Most of the discussion revolved around the folks back at home: Shirley Ryder enjoyed the compact his mother bought her on his behalf for her birthday on the 22nd; Rose Schmid received a promotion at work; his friend from back home, Legs, was now in India; and Bud Tanner bought his father’s old house on Itaska Street. But Grandpa did an enticing update at the end of the month: “[I have] hopes for some decent liberty and recreation soon.” After nearly half a year at sea or in anchorage outside of undeveloped ports, Elmer was looking forward to a break. Even if the end of the war was on the horizon.

John Wayne and Jean Arthur starred in A Lady Takes a Chance (1943). It was Elmer’s second time watching it.

In the weeks and months following D-Day the world appeared to be moving once again. Lives put on hold for years at a time would soon resume. He maintained to both his mother and to his sister Irene that he was happy to remain a bachelor for the duration of the War, but civilian life would bring new opportunities for social – and permanent – companionship. “[Just] wait till I get back and round up all my women,” Elmer wrote teasingly to his sister. But if his letters to Rose and his experience with Pat were any indication, he would ultimately have to disappoint some – or all – of his suitorettes. That would not be easy.

As it turned out, D-Day was the beginning of the end of the European War. A lot of hard fighting awaited the Allies in the months ahead, but fears that the Americans, British, and Canadians would be hurled back into the sea quickly dissipated. The eastward tide was inexorable, relentless, and it would not stop until it reached the heart of Germany.

Meanwhile, in the Pacific, many future mini-D-Days were to come as the United States hopped closer and closer to the crown jewel of Japan’s island empire, Honshu. Yet one key climactic moment, the request of the Philippines, was now on the horizon that summer. Like with D-Day, that battle would be an all-hands-on-deck situation, and the Mink would play a role as well.

May 1944: Birthdays and Barracudas

The Mink would spend the next several months in Seeadler Harbor. Elmer discussed his ship’s role in our interview:

The Admiralty Islands, it had a wonderful gulf or a bay in there where ships could come in. Basically, we pulled into the Admiralty Islands there. There was this big body of water, and we dropped a hook there, and they were building a big naval base, a naval or Air Force base on one of these islands there, and they didn’t have the storage facilities for the gasoline ready. So we were more or less a filling station.

Elmer Luckett, Oral Interview

The Mink’s war diary that May tells a similar story:

As the Mink continued to fill up barges and ships, its crew had to find ways to fill their free time. Unfortunately, the Admiralty Islands offered little in the way of entertainment. The Mink’s very presence there as a “filling station” speaks volumes about the lack of development. Thus there were no bars, no restaurants, and no movie theaters on shore. Elmer lamented the absence of entertainment on the island and told Rose that he had only consumed two beers in the past four months. “What I need is a long, slow drink fest for a few days,” he wrote. He also missed the companionship of women. “Glad to hear you have been a good girl,” he told Rose. “And I can honestly say I have too – damn it! Darling, you know it is a false story about sailors having a girl in every port (some ports don’t have girls – unless you go native.)” His attitudes towards the isle’s indigenous inhabitants notwithstanding (who had ample opportunity to form own opinions about their various occupiers), there was literally no town within hundreds of miles to paint red. “No, I can’t tell you where I am now. The censor is very strict,” he told Rose in closing, “but I’m very lonesome and there is no place to go for a liberty. So you can figure out this isn’t paradise.”

While Elmer and no doubt many of his crewmates missed the social scene back in the States, they were resourceful enough to make their own fun. The ship played a movie on most evenings, and on May 31st Elmer reported seeing a boxing exhibition in a nearby Army camp. “Several of us fellows had a new form of entertainment,” he told his parents. “The captain, engineering officer, and about five of the crew went over and saw a boxing exhibition . . . had a good number of matches and we yelled like ‘hell.’ Later in the evening we had a movie aboard ship . . . [we also] have a good show [tonight], Clark Gable and Lana Turner in ‘Somewhere I’ll Find You.'” Moreover, while Elmer was not much of a salt water fisherman, some of the guys on the Mink were. “Some of the men had good luck in fishing and we had two good fresh fish meals aboard ship. Engineering officer caught a 30 lb. barracuda, and others caught quite a few 8-12 lb. jack fish. The best fish I have eaten in ages – tender and few bones. They make regular steaks.”

The crew aboard the Mink regularly watched movies in the evening. This was the offering on the night od May 31, 1944.

While boxing matches and impromptu fish frys helped make up for the lack of bars and hangouts on shore, they did little to compensate for Elmer’s fourth consecutive birthday away from home. He made the best of it, of course – “I certainly have birthdays in the most unexpected places,” he wrote on the 9th, two days after turning 24. But “the sooner I can be home for a birthday, the better I’ll like it.” Although his mother and sister Irene both sent him cigars and other gifts, he could not send a thank you card in return since there were no stores nearby. “I’m in no position to send a card or token of my appreciation,” he wrote apologetically. But he implored his parents to understand: “All the little things you and dad did for me are remembered.”

May was full of other insufficiently acknowledged birthdays, including his brother Bud’s, although the 36-year old father and breadwinner probably could not have asked for much more after his draft was deferred until September. Still, he was sad that he could not send a card, especially since he got one from Bud – with a three dollar American Express money order. But since there was nowhere to cash it in the area he sent it to his parents along with more of his pay that he could not spend. He also wanted to send a card to his nephew, Davy – “they probably think I forgot them. But I certainly did not.”

Even if Manus Island happened to have a Hallmark Store someplace, it was unlikely that the cards would have reached their recipients in time. Throughout the month Elmer, Rose, and his parents all pointed out the slowness and irregularity of the mails when receiving letters written on non-sequential dates. This created a lot of confusion when responding to letters – in particular, Elmer’s parents seemed to get letters written in early April before letters written in late March. It also made his mother incredibly anxious. “I try my best to write you and [Shirley] at least twice a week,” he told his mother.

Yet despite Seeadler Harbor’s distance from everything he ever knew and the vast sea that separated him from home, Elmer did get his letters in bunches “like bananas.” They were his lifeblood, his connection to the world back home. He joked about having to keep up with the replies, but the letters kept him busy. He also passed his time with novels and movies. And as per usual, Elmer liked to talk about the food. On the 31st he had “baked ham, mashed potatoes, peas, beets, ice-cold lemonade, apple turn-overs, and butterscotch ice cream.” In another letter, he acknowledged that “we are fed pretty good – I’ve been fortunate in landing ships with good chow.” Rose definitely scored some points in is book when she described how much he was improving as a cook. “Rose is still in Washington working for the Navy,” he told his mother. “She and a girlfriend have an apartment. She promises to prepare a dandy meal for me when possible either there or in St. Louis. She is a pretty fine girl.”

Home-cooked meals and birthdays at home would have been paradise. But those blessings would have to wait.

April 1944: The Merry-Go-Round

On April 1st the Mink got under way with the U.S.S. San Pedro and the rest of its convoy and sailed toward Seeadler Harbor in the Admiralty Islands. The harbor was located on the north side of Manus Island, which at that moment was a war zone. However, the Mink was busy as ever supplying “various ships and craft.” She started to run low on supplies by the middle of the month, and on April 21st the Mink was on the receiving end of the supply chain when the USS Platte, a Cimmaron-class oiler, transferred 281,060 gallons of diesel, 323,098 gallons of aviation gasoline, and 199 drums of lubricating oil to the smaller tanker. Then it spent the next week dispensing its diesel, gas, and oil to even smaller ships around the harbor. The supply circle continued on and on, round and round. Only victory would end the cycle.

But in spite of the fighting, the Allies maintained solid control of the water and the air, and Seeadler Harbor was safe from encroachment. Safe enough, in fact, that pent-up sailors could go ashore and stretch their legs. “Shore parties now are for recreation, such as swimming and sightseeing,” he wrote on April 19th.

Beyond that, though, the Admiralty Islands were just as bereft of recreation as the Papua Peninsula. “Money is no object out here, you just cannot spend it,” he complained. He apologized for the lack of a birthday card and gift for his father and for not sending Easter cards. He did report to his mother, however, that he had attended Easter services aboard another ship, since there were no churches in the area. Meanwhile, in his letter to Rose, he bemoaned the absence of other types of establishments. “I’m due to go out and raise one-hell of a good time. But how long before I have the opportunity no one knows. Nothing would be better than to go out on a good bender with you.” At the very least, he was all set on cigars for “months.” The ship canteen restocked its supply at one of the ports, while his mother and Shirley Ryder both sent him a box. “Nothing like a good book and a cigar to curl up with,” he mused.

First wave onto Los Negros, Admiralty Islands.
ibiblio.org
, originally from U.S. Army Center of Military History

If Elmer was in a place where he’d be able to spend money, he would have had a lot more of it to spare. On April 1st, he was advanced to a new rating: Machinist’s Mate 1st class. The promotion meant a $22.50 monthly pay increase. On April 3rd he decided to mail his parents a $75 money order, with the usual direction that it be used to supply any needs unmet by his father’s stochastic work flow. He also asked his dad to buy a gift for himself with the money.

But not only was Elmer in a place where he could not spend money – he could not receive much mail, either. The Mink’s presence in Seeadler Harbor and indeed the very raison d’etre for its existence was so that it could extend America’s supply chain to the far end of the world. The mails faced similar constraints and challenges, and letters seemed to come in only fits and spurts. On the 8th he complained that he could send mail but not receive it, but by the end of the month the situation had improved somewhat. It “made me very happy” when more mail arrived on the 25th, he wrote. But the letters he received were written in March, before his letter announcing that he was OK after his long trans-Pacific crossing had made it back to St. Louis. “[Your] letters of early March made me feel sort of bad, because I know how much you wanted to hear from me, and it was a long time. But your letter of the end of the month made me feel so much better.”

Arial view, ships in Seeadler Harbor, c. 1945. U.S. Navy photo [1] in Chapter XVII: Logistic Support at Seeadler and at Sea – Service Unit at Seeadler–Oilers with the Fast Carrier Group–Ammunition, Smoke, Water, Provisions, Salvage in Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil by Rear Adm. Worrall Reed Carter

Elmer’s letters that month were comparatively sparse – he only wrote six, and they mainly contained family information and gossip. But there is a clue that he may have told his father where he and his ship were located. As mentioned in a previous post, Elmer alluded to a “system” that he and his father developed, possibly to subvert the censoring of information. Anyway, on April 8th he wrote the following for his father: “Sure hard to write when I haven’t any letters to answer at present, I’m on the ‘little end of the horn.'” His remark about “the little end of the horn” is idiomatically similar to “come out on the little end of the horn,” which means “to fail in an undertaking; especially, to fail after one has bragged about a result that promised large returns.” But Elmer’s letter contains no hint of failure – as usual, his writing is breezy, contemplative, and at times ingratiating, but they were almost unfailingly positive. Perhaps he was referring to a musical instrument, like a trumpet or a saxophone, in which he could play music but not hear it. However, he could also be referring to his present position at the end of the crescent-shaped (and vaguely horn-shaped) Bismarck archipelago.

Of course, that is pure speculation . . . but it isn’t as though this is the first blog in history to do that.

The Bismarck Archipelago refers to the islands surrounding the Bismarck Sea, beginning with New Britain and circling counter-clockwise to Manus Island and the other Admiralty Islands.

At the very least, he did offer one direct clue when he remarked that, “You probably have plenty of rain at home. Can’t say that we find it too dry here.”

But, as Grandpa would often say, so much for that.

In addition to his six letters to his parents, he only wrote one to Rose. He had not heard from her since Valentine’s Day and needled her about the lack of correspondence. “A letter would be more than welcome,” he wrote, although he did reiterate the same concerns he had about mail delivery in the South Pacific that he had previously expressed to his parents. “Let me know about the ‘Merry-Go-Round’ or life as it effects [sic] you in Washington . . . after all, you aren’t censored, and you can write me the low-down.”

He seemed ambivalent about their chances, writing at one point that he was glad they had remained “best of friends” despite “some early trials and tribulations,” but then towards the end of the letter he asked her for some additional photos. “Your snapshots are becoming ragged from handling,” he wrote before signing off.

Definitely so much for that.

This post is part of “Grandpa’s Letters,” a blog series that delves into my grandfather Elmer Luckett’s experiences during World War II. It is based on over 500 letters that he wrote during the War, which I inherited from him after he passed. For more information on this series, including a complete list of posts (with links), please visit the Grandpa’s Letters Homepage.


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March 1944: The Filling Station

“It’s been a long voyage . . .in fact, the longest I’ve ever made. And the sight of land will be a pleasure for us all.”

The long voyage across the Pacific took its toll on Elmer and the rest of the crew aboard the Mink. Grandpa spent his time reading “a number of good novels,” but beyond that there was little to do – or little of interest to note. “Wish there was something to write about,” he wrote. “What I would like to write about isn’t permissible, so I have little choice.” But the communication lull worked both ways as well. Elmer did not receive a single letter during the month he was at sea transiting the Pacific Ocean. “I’m going to be glad to hear that all is well at home,” he wrote on the 8th. He had not heard from his parents since leaving Panama on February 7th. He hoped that everything was OK.

The difficulties extended to other areas as well. “We ran out of candy” at the ship store, he lamented at one point. “A hardship for us all. Ha. Ha. [And] my exact brand of soap isn’t accessible, either. So much for that.” Nonetheless, Elmer’s set-up aboard the ship eased the passage of time and distance. “The little conveniences we have aboard help out in the long run.”

On March 11th the Mink anchored in Milne Bay, officially ending its long trip across the Pacific. “Well, it sure felt good to put my feet on solid ground again,” he wrote the next day. “But my happiest joy was to get some mail.” He received seven letters from his parents, five from Shirley, and several more from a variety of other correspondents. However, disappointingly, Elmer did not receive any from Rose.

HMAS Leeuwin berthed at the Marine Wharf in Alotau within Milne Bay. Australian Navy Daily.

Elmer understood that just as he had gone so long without receiving a letter, his parents were also sore to hear from him as well. “I realize at the time I’m writing now you are probably wondering and hoping to hear from me,” he wrote. Unfortunately, there was little he could do – large swaths of New Guinea were still occupied by the enemy, and a telegram home simply was not in the cards. His letter on the 12th would have to do the job of letting his family know that he was safe. “Wish I could tell you where we are now. It is a new place on my list of stops. That’s all I can say about it.”

He might have told them about the paradox that was New Guinea in 1944: a remote island teeming with thousands of Allied and Axis soldiers, sailors, Marines, and flyboys; a damp, cloud-enshrouded jungle pockmarked with bomb craters and spewing clouds of fiery smoke; and a peaceful, sapphire blue ocean brimming with life, including some of the world’s most vivid and important marine biodiversity, yet awash in premature, artificial death. It was not so long ago that New Guinea’s interior was a blank spot on European maps, a place where there be dragons. But then energetic efforts to colonize the island began in the 1880s, and within sixty years dragons of an entirely different sort (specifically the de Havilland DH.84 Dragon) began flying between the colony’s many remote airstrips. By early 1944 it was the center of gravity for the entire Pacific War. Accordingly, Elmer could have also tried to tell his parents about what he knew about the upcoming drive up the New Guinea coast toward the Philippines, and his ship’s role in resupplying vessels and planes with critical deliveries of fuel, aviation gasoline, and lubricant. Instead, he told his mother he would like her to send more cigars and that he was eligible for a Good Conduct Medal.

Map of the last campaign on New Guinea, which consisted of a series of landings along the northern coast.

Elmer was quite busy with this hidden work after the Mink arrived in New Guinea. On the 13th the tanker began sailing toward Lae, where on March 17th the Mink spent the next four days “discharging cargo gasoline and fuel to various YO’s [self-propelled fuel barges], and harbor and district craft.” From March 21st through the 24th it did the same thing in Langemak Harbor, near Finschhafen. Elmer later described the Mink’s role in his oral interview over 70 years later:

After we checked into Milne Bay, we started making short trips around New Guinea. We went up to some ports. I recall the name of Lae, L-A-E, Buna, B-U-N-A, Finschhafen. These were places where they had army bases or air bases and they needed the fuel. But these bases didn’t have the facilities for storing fuel. So we would go up there where they could reach us with a barge. They’d come out with a barge, and they would load the gasoline aboard the barge. Then, they would take off and go back. We more or less played fill-up-the-filling-stations.

Elmer Luckett Oral Interview

Some hints do emerge in his correspondence of how he spent his free time. “We are having a lot of swimming parties and it is about the best and coolest sport for this climate,” he mentioned on March 20th. “Sometimes I take a dip twice a day.” Beyond that, he had “very little” liberty ashore apart from “sightseeing and talking with the servicemen there.” There was plenty of natural sightseeing to do in the region, and Elmer recalled walking around and exploring his surroundings some. He and his crewmates also tried fishing in various bays along the coast, but they did “not [have] much luck.” Beyond that, Milne Bay, Lae, Buna, and other military sites were not built for tourism, but for defeating Japan and for keeping Papua’s provincial capital, Port Moresby, safe. But overall liberty in New Guinea was a far cry from liberty in Hawaii.

Elmer had caught up on over a month’s worth of letters by the 23rd, but within three days he had another bundle to read. Several additional letters from his parents were among them, including at least one with some worrying language from his mother. “Mom dear, you seemed uneasy about me in these last letters,” he wrote, “no doubt because my letters haven’t arrived yet. But when my letters start coming you will pep up, I’m sure.”

Although Elmer once again complained of having nothing to write on the 26th, he was in a reflective mood. “This ship has pretty good duty,” he maintained, “and it’s not bad at all. Of course, I’ll always like a destroyer for a fast and steady duty. But living conditions are so much better on here that I’m rather spoiled now.” He also thought about the beginning of spring back home, and the tropical heat was no doubt a constant and unpleasant reminder that there are places where the seasons never really change. “Well dad, you mentioned the first robin you saw this year. And it sounds good to me, and I wish we could watch the first signs of spring appear together. It is just another thing we have to look forward to. And a sight to behold in a world of peace and security.”

By the end of March the Mink was in Lae, en route to the Admiralty Islands. There was still no word from Rose.

This post is part of “Grandpa’s Letters,” a blog series that delves into my grandfather Elmer Luckett’s experiences during World War II. It is based on over 500 letters that he wrote during the War, which I inherited from him after he passed. For more information on this series, including a complete list of posts (with links), please visit the Grandpa’s Letters Homepage.

Next:
April 1944: The Merry-Go-Round

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The Toughest Campaign: The War for New Guinea (Part 2 of 2)

Along with the Battles of Guadalcanal and the Coral Sea, the successful defense of Milne Bay and Port Moresby in 1942 helped stop Japan’s southward expansion in its tracks. But the majority of New Guinea remained in Axis hands, and securing the rest of the island was a prerequisite for America’s future plan to retake the Philippines and prepare for a climactic push towards the Japanese home islands. But before that could be done, the Allies had to find a way to take Rabaul, Japan’s stronghold on the island of New Britain.

Fortunately, a new year brought fresh victories for the Allies. When the Japanese attempted to attack Wau, a village southwest of Salamaua, the Australian infantry decisively repulsed the assault and chased them out of the area on January 31st. Incidentally, this was followed shortly thereafter by the Japanese evacuation of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands after six months of fighting, on February 9th. The disasters mounted towards the end of the month, when 6,900 Japanese troops boarded eight transport ships in Rabaul and headed towards Lae to mount a new offensive towards Wau. An Allied plane spotted the convoy, however, and on March 3rd American planes decimated the strike force, killing over half of the inbound soldiers. This action, known as the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, established Allied air superiority over eastern New Guinea and infuriated the Japanese naval command. Although Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto retaliated by launching Operation I-Go, which consisted of several large air assaults on Port Moresby, Oro Bay, and Milne Bay in early October, the raids were not sustained over a longer period and the Allied facilities quickly recovered.

A patrol from the 39th Australian Infantry Battalion looking out over the Uberi Valley in October 1942..

With the Papuan Peninsula and the air and waters surrounding it firmly under Allied control, the Australians and Americans could now more carefully consider their offensive options. The main priority, as far as MacArthur was concerned, was to take Rabaul on New Britain. By this time the Japanese had built it into a veritable fortress, and despite the Empire’s recent losses in and around New Guinea Rabaul kept them relevant, and dangerous, in the region. MacArthur’s plan to take Rabaul, New Britain, and the surrounding islands while maintaining pressure on New Guinea was called Elkton III. After conferring with President Roosevelt and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Elkton III plan became Operation Cartwheel.

The new campaign began on June 30, 1943, when Allied forces landed at Kiriwina, Woodlark Island, and several points along the New Georgia coast. The goal was to systematically isolate Rabaul by taking strategic islands and spaces surrounding the space. On New Georgia, for instance, Allied forces targeted the Japanese base at Munda Point, which continued to harass the Americans stationed in Guadalcanal. Although New Georgia and its 780 square miles would not be completely pacified until August 23rd, the strategy began to pay dividends as the Allies slowly neutralized Rabaul by choking off its air support and supply lines.

The western portion of Operation Cartwheel, the massive and convoluted plan to neutralize Rabaul

As the Americans closed in on Rabaul, on New Guinea the fight to reclaim the island was still in progress. In late April the Australians and Americans began a five month-long drive toward Lae and Salamaua, where the Japanese had established bases. The Allies succeeded in taking Salamaua by land on September 11, but Lae required an amphibious assault as well. It fell to the Allies four days later. Later that month, the Allies began two new offensives using Lae as a base of operations: one drove west towards the Finisterre Ridge, while another cleared out the Huon Peninsula to the north and east. Both objectives were achieved by April the following year.

The New Guinea Campaign is a difficult subject to learn, with its extensive and complicated geography, multi-pronged operations, and long duration. Yet the fighting was far, far worse – Australian war correspondent George H. Johnston called it “the toughest fighting in the world” in his book on the subject. In the South Pacific theater of World War II, Guadalcanal gets much of the attention, and rightfully so – it was an epic slugfest and a devastating slog. But narratively it also makes sense: one army invades an island, the other army fights back and gets reinforcements, and a terrible and long battle slow burns across the land. This story has an intelligible beginning, middle, and end. It could be a movie. In fact, it was:

The New Guinea Campaign is harder to summarize. Like Guadalcanal it had its fits and spurts, but it was perhaps more akin to several seasons of a long-running drama that to a movie. Yet the campaign’s narrative history does not negate its tremendous influence and impact on the war.

In any case, the last months of the New Guinea campaign proceeded linearly and at breakneck speed. And once the Mink arrived in March 1944, the United States and Australia were readying themselves for the final push up the northern coast. While Elmer was not on the beaches or in the jungles fighting, his ship followed close behind. Soldiers and Marines needed air support, and airplanes providing air support needed aviation fuel. So did the many vessels providing direct and logistical support to the invaders. Everyone had a part to play, and the Mink was right where it needed to be.

This post is part of “Grandpa’s Letters,” a blog series that delves into my grandfather Elmer Luckett’s experiences during World War II. It is based on over 500 letters that he wrote during the War, which I inherited from him after he passed. For more information on this series, including a complete list of posts (with links), please visit the Grandpa’s Letters Homepage.

Next:
March 1944: The Filling Station


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The Toughest Campaign: The War for New Guinea (Part 1 of 2)

Before the Mink arrived at Milne Bay on March 9, 1944, Americans, Australians, and many Papuans had been fighting the Japanese on New Guinea for over two years. Yet the counter-offensive was only just reaching its crescendo at that point. More had yet to be done, and the island was not yet safe from Japanese imperial aggression.

New Guinea is often overlooked as one of the critical places in World War II historical lore. However, it was just as vital to Japan’s ambitions as it was to Australia’s self-defense. Port Moresby, the capital of Australia’s Papua colony, was only 530 miles from Cairns, Queensland, and the Torres Strait separating New Guinea from the Australian Mainland is just about as wide as the Straights of Florida that separate the U.S. from Cuba. Losing New Guinea would be an unmitigated disaster for both Australia and the other Allies, and Port Moresby’s capture in particular would benefit Japan by giving it control over the Torres Strait and anchoring the empire’s southern perimeter with a well-located and amply resourced base.

Yet taking New Guinea would be no easy task for the Japanese. It is the world’s second-largest island, big enough to swallow Texas whole and still have enough room left over to gobble up Ohio for dessert. It was also one of the least accessible places on the planet during the Second World War: suffocating heat, mercurial weather, rugged terrain, vector diseases, and poor infrastructure made the island inhospitable for Australian and American infantry, while tall, jagged peaks; low, heavy cloud cover; and geographic isolation made it an exceptionally difficult place to fly as well.

The Owen Stanley Mountains stretch along the length of the Papua peninsula in Papua New Guinea. They were the only things separating the Japanese from Port Moresby in early 1942.

The struggle for New Guinea actually began on New Britain to the north, where the Japanese attacked Rabaul on January 23, 1942. They conquered it and its superior harbor a short time later, and over the next year began turning their new possession into a major naval base. Shortly thereafter, on March 8th, the Japanese began seizing the northern New Guinea coast, and walked into Lae and Salamaua nearly unopposed. By the end of the spring the Japanese had overrun the Gilbert Islands and much of the Bismarck Archipelago, and were preparing to push towards New Guinea’s biggest prize: Port Moresby.

Refugees from villages across Papua began streaming into the capital as the Japanese Army fanned out across the northern half of the island. Bombers and fighters began attacking the city from the north as well, blasting and strafing barracks and airfields in a foreboding sign of the terrors to come. Meanwhile, over Australia, the enemy’s closeness was felt in Darwin, which was also targeted by bombing raids, and in Sydney, where a tiny submarine infiltrated its famed harbor. Port Moresby’s capture seemed all but inevitable.

Darwin Harbor on February 19, 1942. Picture: Australian War Memorial

However, General Douglas MacArthur was determined to hold it at all cost. As Supreme Commander Allied Forces of the South West Pacific Area he commanded the combined American and Australian forces in the region.

Meanwhile, Operation Mo, Japan’s somewhat convoluted plan to take Port Moresby, began in early May when the Japanese seized Tulagi in the Solomons in hopes of establishing a seaplane base. Yet the Americans had the drop on them and sank several of their ships using aircraft from the USS Yorktown. The Japanese responded by sailing southwest in order to flush out the Americans, which soon resulted in a showdown at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Over the course of two days the Japanese successfully attacked two fleet carriers, the Lexington and the Yorktown. The former was subsequently scuttled. But in return the Americans sank the light carrier Shōhō, damaged the fleet carrier Shōkaku, and destroyed many of the fleet carrier Zuikaku’s planes. None of the three carriers would be available for Yamamoto’s dangerous gamble at Midway the following month, and their loss effectively and abruptly ended Japan’s attempt to take Port Moresby by sea and air.

But the option to invade by land remained, although it was the Japanese planners’ second choice for a reason. Doing so would require an overland trek across the formidable Owen Stanley mountain range and through dense jungle. But the Japanese slid their chess pieces into position by taking the village of Buna on July 21st. It was located on the opposite side of the Papuan Peninsula from Port Moresby, which was only 150 kilometers to the west southwest. Within a month the Japanese amassed 11,000 troops in the area, and on August 22nd they began to climb their way towards the capital via the Kokoda Track across the Owen Stanley mountains.

Men of the 2/31st Australian Infantry Battalion stop for a rest in the jungle between Nauro and Menari, Papua New Guinea, 1942. National Museum of Australia.

The Kokoda Track is a bit like the Cumberland Gap, only it is sixty miles long, soars from 980 feet above sea level to 7,185 feet at Mount Bellamy, and its hikers are prone to get malaria. Once the Japanese committed to taking it, the Australians had a difficult time slowing them down despite the remote, difficult terrain. But this was no Thermopylae: the single-file trail could not be easily bypassed with some even narrower foot path, nor was there an Ephialtes within the local Papuan population who dared to believe that the Japanese conquerors would be friendlier overlords than the English or the Australians. The Allies held firm, and with the help of some well-placed airstrikes they broke the Japanese advance on September 17th. Plagued by disease and hunger during their disorganized retreat, most of the invaders never made it back to Buna.

Meanwhile, as Japanese troops battled their way south across the mountains, another force prepared to attack an emerging Allied stronghold at Milne Bay. Located at the extreme eastern end of New Guinea, Milne Bay provided an excellent harbor and air access to the Gilberts, Solomons, and other island groups in the region. A small contingent of Aussie troops and a few American engineers made a quiet landing there on June 15th, where they began constructing a new airbase. The Allied landing and subsequent buildup at Milne Bay quickly caught Japan’s attention, and they responded two months later by launching an amphibious assault. But they misjudged their target: the Aussies and Americans were dug in, the Japanese lacked air support, and by September 7th their gambit failed. While the Battle of Milne Bay was not large by World War II standards, it effectively secured southern New Guinea for the Allies and allowed them to build one of the region’s most important military bases.

It also revealed an evolving mindset among the Allies, who were beginning to figure out how to beat the seemingly invincible Japanese. Their successes on New Guinea and Guadalcanal foreshadowed their tactics and strategies later on, after the tide had irrevocably turned. Later, while MacArthur’s campaign to liberate the Buna-Gona region in November exposed his command’s inexperience and resulted in a long, bruising fight, the Americans overcame the steep learning curve and helped the Aussies recapture the region by late January 1943.

The new year would bring a new series of Japanese and Allied campaigns in eastern New Guinea, but for the time being at least Port Moresby and Milne Bay were safe. And MacArthur, who never forgot his vow to return to the Philippines, understood that the road back to Manila would lead him to the opposite end of New Guinea. There would be a lot of tough fighting in the months and years ahead, but the Australians and Americans now had reason to be optimistic.

This post is part of “Grandpa’s Letters,” a blog series that delves into my grandfather Elmer Luckett’s experiences during World War II. It is based on over 500 letters that he wrote during the War, which I inherited from him after he passed. For more information on this series, including a complete list of posts (with links), please visit the Grandpa’s Letters Homepage.

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February 1944: No News is Good News

February 1944: No News is Good News

On February 3rd the Mink pulled into Cristobal, a port on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal Zone. The crew had two nights to rest, mail letters, and paint the town red. Elmer “had some liberty” while there and, as he told his parents, “I enjoyed myself very much.” But he could not tell them much more, including where they happened to be in the world. I didn’t hear many stories about Panama when I was a kid, nor did he say much about it during our oral interview. But Elmer doubtlessly enjoyed a bottle of Balboa, Panama’s national beer, while in town, and hopefully an order of ropa vieja.

Two days later, Elmer and the rest of the crew got to experience the region’s most well-known landmark: the Panama Canal. Over a hundred years later it remains one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels. While the Panamanian isthmus may seem narrow on a map it is still a forty-mile crossing through steep mountains and dense jungle. In spite of these obstacles the canal was wide enough to accommodate tankers like the Mink and other massive seafaring vessels, although the U.S. Navy refused to build any ships too large to squeeze through it until it launched its first Midway-class aircraft carriers in 1945. Even Fitzcarraldo would be impressed.

Nonetheless, the Panama Canal was not a racetrack. It took the Mink nearly nine hours to make the trip.

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal. Photo by M. Luckett.

After a sixteen-hour layover in Balboa, the Mink set sail for Milne Bay on the island of New Guinea on February 7th. The trip took over a month to complete. With arrival at their destination planned for sometime in mid-March, the crew settled in for a long, lonely passage across the South Pacific.

Elmer’s letters over the next few weeks reflect both the length of his transit and the constraints imposed on his letter writing by the Naval censors. “There isn’t a thing new to write about,” he scribbled on the 14th, “but I’ve been confronted by this situation before.” Two weeks and no stops later, he had a growing stack of unmailed letters. He apologized to his parents for his silence, which he knew would be deafening. But he put a positive spin on his isolation: “it has been ideal sailing, and the days pass rapidly.”

Elmer could not talk about where he had been or where he was going, so he wrote about life aboard the ship. “The routine of watch standing or everyday duty grows monotonous in a way,” he reflected on the 28th. “But it is broken by reading a good book, or watching an educational movie (shown occasionally to the crew.)” In addition to reading he also began studying assiduously for his Master Mechanic First Class rating, and bragged about his new sun tan from spending hours topside on watch. However, he also complained about the “unbearable” heat in the engine room, though he still appeared to prefer the equatorial heat over the winter cold. “[I] don’t know how I’ll ever get used to winter weather again,” he mused on the 1st. Overall, he observed that “the sea duty is coming back to me very well, and this baby rides better than a destroyer.”

The Mink War Diaries at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland give a thorough – yet concise – rundown of the ship’s activities in any given month, especially when combined with battle-specific Action Reports. This is excerpted from the February report. Source: Mink IX-123 War Diaries, 1944.

The Mink had other advantages for well: “it is not so crowded compared to a destroyer,” he pointed out on the 5th. He later noted that there was more than sufficient water for showers, which was a “treat” after working long hours in the engine room. But on the whole, he told his parents that they could “see it is not much of an ordeal to send so much time at sea. Yes sir, chicken every Sunday – and pie a-la-mode. It is really tough – Ha. Ha.”

Elmer wrote a bunch of other letters that February as well, but only one was addressed to Rose. He told her that he was happy she was acclimating so well to D.C., and mentioned that he would “like to see you and Anne walking the streets with you and your road map. Keep it up kid, you’ll make a good dry-land navigator.” But he seemed less spirited in reference to himself. “As for me I’m a lonely fellow at sea. No news to write about in that respect. Just a routine day to day existence. But I have my memories.”

The ship did not move as fast as a destroyer, but it made good time. By March 3rd, it had crossed what is now the International Date Line about 250 miles south of Tonga. The Mink very nearly leapfrogged Leap Day that year. But horological oddities quickly gave way to geographic realities as they approached the front lines of the Pacific War. As muggy as the air was already, the ambient temperature was about to get a lot hotter.

This post is part of “Grandpa’s Letters,” a blog series that delves into my grandfather Elmer Luckett’s experiences during World War II. It is based on over 500 letters that he wrote during the War, which I inherited from him after he passed. For more information on this series, including a complete list of posts (with links), please visit the Grandpa’s Letters Homepage.

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January 1944: Shakedown

It was January 1944, and it seemed like everyone was nursing a cold. Elmer had the sniffles for the first week of the month, and Rose was sick as well. Elmer’s mother was so ill that she had to cancel her planned trip to Chicago to see her son Bud’s family. It wasn’t the Spanish Flu, but cold viruses easily made their way around the nation as millions of Americans swarmed around following the holidays.

Despite everyone being sick, bigger concerns were on the horizon. For one, Elmer was about to begin a new tour on a new ship – the U.S.S. Mink. He and his new crew-mates closed out their affairs at the Naval Station on January 4th, and were formally transferred to the ship on the 6th. Since the Mink was brand new, the job of getting it ready to sail was not unlike running a start-up: long hours, low pay, and a steep learning curve.

Well they are keeping me busy on the ship now. New men to teach and train, besides all the necessary adjustments and work besides. But a busy man is a happy man, and I’m interested in my work. Learning a new ship is like reading a book. You must start from the beginning. [There] are new types of machinery and different engineering plants on an auxiliary ship like this.

Elmer to his Parents, January 12, 1944

In other words, Elmer had to learn a whole new ship, and he only had a few weeks to do it. “The engines are reciprocating,” he explained in one of his letters, “and my experience has been on turbine jobs.”

Yet there were also benefits to the new posting:

The chow has been good on here. A small crew usually gets good food . . . [Also] when you want to rest or read in your spare time you have a private room practically because all four men are seldom in [the stateroom] at once . . . it is really nice. Our bunks have sheets and a regular bed cover of blue material. And the light is a spot light right over the head of the bunk. It’s really a luxury job. And that big locker is a treat after the foot lockers we used on the Chew.”

Elmer to his Parents, January 12, 1944

The Mink, originally named the Judah Touro, was built for the Merchant Marine. As a result, according to Elmer, “It has nicer accommodations than a regular Navy ship.” It had a smaller complement as well, which augmented the ship’s comforts while multiplying its crew’s responsibilities. “No doubt you are wondering why we are so busy aboard,” Elmer wrote his parents. “But with all the necessary engineering, food, and other supplies to brought in [with] only a small crew it explains why.” All the extra work cut into his liberty time, thus putting a damper on his social life. “So I haven’t had any dates with my women,” he wrote on the 16th. “Ha. Ha. I have so many.”

Given the size of the crew, it would be important for everyone to get along well and work together. Fortunately, that did not seem to be an issue. “We have a good bunch of fellows, and will make a good crew,” he wrote on the 16th. In particular he liked the ship’s newly installed officers, and looked forward to trying to impress them as he sought his next rating advancement. But the rest of the crew was swell as well. The men even started their own ship’s canteen, with Elmer and the others each kicking in $10. The store would sell “candy, toilet articles, and [fulfill] other needs,” he explained.

Elmer Luckett on the Mink’s deck, February 1945. Although Elmer was a Pearl Harbor survivor, he would see more action while on board the Mink in 1944 and 1945.

Mid-January was eventful. The new tanker embarked on a short shakedown cruise on the 7th, and then on the morning of the 9th the Mink was officially commissioned into the United States Navy’s Auxiliary Fleet. That same day Lt. William J. Meagher was formally installed as its captain.* Then for the next week and a half the Mink began to load up on provisions and prepare for a long cruise.

Elmer did not know, or could not divulge, where they were going. But he knew enough from his time on the Chew that he would no longer remain in regular contact with his friends and family in the States. He began to prepare his parents, who had grown used to Elmer being just a few hundred miles away and even seeing him now and then, for another extended absence. Part of this was his usual disclaimer that his letters would be fewer and farther between, and that “no news is good news.” But his pleas for his parents to keep a stiff upper lift carried even more urgency now, perhaps in light of one or several recent dinner table conversations at which his parents communicated to him just how worried they were while he was on the Chew. “Please keep those chins up for me – that is my biggest concern,” he urged in his letter on the 18th. “And you must carry on when times are trying. I know it is so easy for me to write that – and I understand it is so hard to do on your part. Because folks, what I’m fighting for is my future, family at home, and all that they stand for. So chins up.”

Elmer had also written two letters to Rose that month. In the first, dated January 1st, he wrote that he was “glad [she] enjoyed a Christmas at home” and briefly discussed his new ship, the Mink – but, tellingly, did not mention what kind of vessel it was.** He also continued to beseech Rose for her forgiveness after their Thanksgiving fight. “[I] don’t know where we go from here,” he wrote, “but it will be plenty far in my estimation.” Twelve days later, however, he seemed less certain. Rose was going to DC on the 16th, and his ship would disembark a few days later. Soon thousands of miles would separate the two. Like with his parents, he told her that his letter would be less frequent, but that it did not meant he was not thinking of her. “[Out here] all I have is my pin-up girls,” he wrote while still in New Orleans, “and they aren’t soft and warm to hold like you.” But while he was hopeful for more meetings and better times ahead, he also seemed to steel himself for the possibility of a more permanent separation. “[I] never will forget the good times we had. And if I ever ever did anything to make you angry I’m sorry and ask you to forget it. No one is perfect, and I’m no exception. Just a human being with normal reactions. I won’t forget you – and may that be a mutual feeling.”

The Mink completed its shakedown maneuvers off Sabine Pass on January 21st, and then proceeded to Beaumont, Texas to fill its capacious cargo tanks with fuel. It would be their last few days in the continental United States for the duration of the war. Elmer received a liberty and “had a good time.” But before they knew it they were back on the ship, and on January 25th the Mink entered the Gulf of Mexico via Sabine Pass and began sailing toward a distant war and an uncertain future.

Elmer sent this souvenir folder full of postcards to his parents while on liberty in Beaumont, Texas. He would not return to the mainland United States until after the War.

Elmer was surprised at having never really lost his sea legs. “Some of the boys were sea sick – I know how they feel. But I’ve been going like an old salt.” Old familiarities on the Chew carried over onto the Mink, including the dilution of time. The days turned as quickly as the nautical miles. “I have to look at a calendar to see what day it is,” he remarked. But he noticed differences as well, such as his surroundings. “We are on the Gulf of Mexico,” he wrote while on the shakedown cruise from New Orleans to Beaumont, “and the sea is as calm as a mill pond. And [it] has a nice cool green color.” Despite not having yet traveled that far on the new ship he already felt as though he was “getting back in the routine of sea life, or is it life at sea[?] Ha. Ha.”

As the Mink sailed toward the Caribbean Sea that winter, the flames of war continued to burn in Europe, Asia, and in the Pacific. But the Allies could almost feel, as if watching a very long movie, that the climax was finally approaching. In England, millions of soldiers crowded into the island in preparation for the largest amphibious invasion in human history against perhaps the most deeply entrenched enemy in recorded memory. In Italy, the bloody stalemate near Monte Cassino continued in spite of the Allied landings at Anzio four days earlier, offering a grim preview of what awaited Allied forces in Normandy and beyond. Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the United States lost six thousand men in a pyrrhic victory at Tarawa. Few believed that the fierce Japanese resistance encountered at a small central Pacific atoll would not be exponentially larger and more deadly within the larger pieces of real estate eyed by the Americans, including the Philippines. Of course, when 1944 came to an end the Allies had a knife to Germany’s throat, and they were well-prepared to finish the job in Japan shortly after dispatching Hitler. But the start of the year seemed less pre-determined. In January, the United States was staring squarely at the outer razor edges of two formidable and sprawling Axis Empires, both of which afflicted the opposite ends of Eurasia like an incurable contagion.

The whole world had a cold that year. But a cure was coming.

*In the December 1943 post I wrote that this ceremony happened in December. Apparently Grandpa and I both made dating errors – he misdated his January 9th letter to his parents (it was dated “December 13th, 1944” on the top), and I failed to corroborate the information. He later explained his “silly” error to his parents, who apparently began to worry about their son’s safety and whereabouts. As for me, all errors are my own, and I apologize for the mix-up. It won’t be the last. – M.L.

**It would be premature to assume anything about whatever negative feelings Elmer may have had about his ship, especially since he was so clearly happy with the accommodations and the food on board. He never seemed to waver from his belief that he had a job to do and that he would do it to the best of his ability. However, he was also savvy enough to know what to say and what not to say to his girlfriends, and his station aboard a tanker might have carried less social cache. There is evidence in letters later that year that Rose still does not know any details about the Mink. This does not appear to be an oversight on Elmer’s part or an omission mandated by Naval censors, since Elmer described in some detail the ship, its role, and its engines to his father. At any rate, this is a thread I’d like to pull some more as I start to put together what 1944 looked like using two sets of letters, rather than just one.

Needless to say, one of the points that I plan on making in the book is that tankers were often targeted by Japanese ships, thus proving that duty on those ships was inarguably dangerous and no less “masculine” or essential as service aboard the ships of the line. I also show that the tankers themselves often deployed their anti-aircraft armament against Japanese planes (and took many of them down), and that the tankers themselves were logistically vital and militarily indispensable to the United States Navy’s operations in and around the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and the Japanese archipelago itself.

This post is part of “Grandpa’s Letters,” a blog series that delves into my grandfather Elmer Luckett’s experiences during World War II. It is based on over 500 letters that he wrote during the War, which I inherited from him after he passed. For more information on this series, including a complete list of posts (with links), please visit the Grandpa’s Letters Homepage.

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December 1943: A Master at Arms

When Elmer arrived back in New Orleans after his Thanksgiving leave, he still had several weeks ahead of him in Louisiana before he would be able to join his new boat. But now work, training, and preparation, rather than bedrest, prevented him from more thoroughly enjoying the French Quarter and its many old buildings.

Elmer spent the first four days of the month working at the Naval Air Station as a Master-at-Arms. While the rating itself has a long history and intensely professional tradition, his commanders at the barracks threw the relatively healthy and warm-bodied Elmer into what may be best described as a temp job. “My job as a Master-at-Arms is a snap,” he wrote. “A little walking here and there, and a night duty now and then. But we have a ‘pie truck’ (police wagon) for many jobs. And every night off except when you get the duty.”

On December 5th, he led a dozen other sailors assigned along with him to his new ship to gunnery school at Shell Beach. Located southeast of New Orleans on the south shore of Lake Borgne, the Anti-Aircraft Training School introduced students to the guns the Navy used to take down enemy aircraft. For six days, sailors assembled, reassembled, and learned the ins and outs of the Navy’s 20mm and 3-inch anti-aircraft guns. And then they learned how to shoot them. “Personally, I don’t think I’m much of a marksman,” he admitted to his parents, “but it’s all new and only practice makes perfect.” Sometimes the practice was enjoyable, especially with the 20mm guns. “It’s fun to feel that ‘baby’ spit hot steel and tracers from the muzzle,” he wrote, as if channeling Rambo. The 3″ gun was a little different, however. Elmer was “a little nervous” about firing it, but so were his crewmates. Overall, he believed that “we did fine [despite having] such little training.” When practicing their firing, they would train their guns at a “sleeve towed by an airplane.”

A Royal Navy 20mm Oerlikon gunner at his gun mount aboard the Dido-class cruiser HMS Dido in 1942, which is the same year when the United States Navy began ordering and installing Oerlikon guns for use on its vessels. The Mink was equipped with eight of these cannons.

There was little else to hit in Shell Beach. “Well, here I am after three days of gunnery practice. What a life! What a place?” Tucked deep as it was within Louisiana’s bewildering maze of brackish swamps, canals, and rivers, the question mark after “place” seemed oddly appropriate. There were few towns or villages around the area, just the beasts of the bayou. “[There are] plenty of mosquitos, fog, and bugs and bunks with boards instead of springs,” Elmer complained. They also could not rate liberty or receive mail. Shell Beach was just a place to go and shoot guns for a few days.

Elmer did have one interesting encounter while at the gunnery school. There he met several Russian soldiers who, for one reason or another, were also there to learn about the Navy’s anti-aircraft guns.* Elmer got to know some of his allied comrades at the facility. “They are really big, husky boys,” he wrote his parents. “They like Americans and our movies, chow, and about everything. They can speak very little English, but [they] try so hard to learn more.”

Elmer was happy to return to the comforts of New Orleans on December 12th. On the 13th, he resumed his Master of Arms duties at the barracks.** But the most exciting news was that he finally had a new ship: the USS Mink (IX-123). The Mink was an Armadillo-class tanker that could store and deliver nearly 65,000 barrels of crude oil, aviation fuel, lubricant, or other essential materials. One of eighteen tankers of this class, the Mink helped the United States Navy build up its auxiliary fleet in advance of its planned invasions of the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. While the United States was inching closer to Japan proper, its ships and planes were also creeping farther away from established supply lines, thus necessitating the use of mobile tanker ships that could resupply other vessels on the open sea or while anchored offshore.

The Judah Touro, an Armadillo-class tanker, was launched in New Orleans on December 4th. After New Year’s it was transferred to the United State Navy, commissioned for service, and renamed the Mink. Source: Tuoro Infirmary, New Orleans.

Elmer was excited about his new assignment, especially when he learned about the sleeping arrangements on the ship. “They say we have excellent living quarters [aboard the Mink],” he wrote on the 19th. “Four men to a compartment with big upright lockers and even reading lights on the bunks. Some job, eh dad?” He also geeked out over the ship itself, and recited the ship’s statistics to his father. “It is a big tanker, about 436 feet long by about 50 or 70 feet broad. Good duty. Weight or displacement about 14,000 tons.” Overall, the new ship pleased Elmer. “I’m well satisfied with the set up.”

But not every one was looking forward to serving aboard a tanker. Some of the senior officers on the Mink declined to attend its commissioning ceremony, thinking that it was a powder-puff assignment and that perhaps serving on the Mink was somehow an indictment of their courage or character. Elmer elaborated on this somewhat in his oral interview:

They had a regular commissioning ceremony [on the Mink.] I’ll never forget that. There was quite a few young guys that just came into the Navy boot camp . . . Anyway, two or three of them didn’t even show up for their commissioning date. They didn’t want to go do duty on a tanker.

Elmer Luckett

At least on a destroyer, like the Chew, ostensibly the primary function by definition was for it to destroy things, whether they be submarines, mines, or other ships. But while the Chew was certainly not representative of all destroyers in the Pacific Theater, it completed the war with only one Battle Star to its credit, which it had earned following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Like a boxer waiting for their next fight, the ship paced around the Pacific with her full compliment of deck guns, escorting numerous ships to safety but finding little danger on her own.

Meanwhile, the Mink, a glorified gas station with a rudder and a few anti-aircraft guns bolted onto the deck, spent less than two years refueling bigger, stronger, and faster ships that were on their way to the fighting. But tankers were major targets of opportunity for Japanese ships, airplanes, and kamikaze pilots, who only had to detonate the highly flammable fuel inside to destroy both the tanker and anything located in its vicinity, particularly other ships in the process of being refueled. By the time the Japanese surrendered, the Mink had earned three Battle Stars of her own. Elmer was there for all of them.

1944 was going to be a very different kind of year.

The USS Porcupine (IX-126), filled with aviation fuel, is struck by a kamikaze plane on 30 December 1944, off White Beach, Mangarin Bay, Leyte, in the Philippines. The Porcupine, like the Mink, was an Armadillo-class tanker.

Despite serving on a tanker, seven of her crewmen never made it home.

*If anyone has any information on Russian soldiers or sailors training on American military equipment, please let me know.

**Elmer had one especially interesting adventure as a Master of Arms which frankly deserves its own blog post. I will publish it in the coming days. Stay tuned!

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Elmer Luckett and the Shreveport Kid

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