October 1941: Our Boys in Blue

By October, as the Chew underwent the final stages of its rehabilitation, the World War I-era destroyer began to look more distinctive, more modern. Elmer related what he could to his parents back home. She “looks like a new ship,” he reported on October 19th. Much of the machinery was updated or replaced, while the old paint on the hull was painstakingly removed with pneumatic chisels so that the ship could be repainted. The entire crew was involved in the former effort. “It is one of those dirty jobs that just has to be done,” he lamented. By the time the crew moved back into the ship at the end of the month, it had new “tables, chairs, fans,” and other comforts. Even the mattresses were deep cleaned and repacked. Overall, the overhaul was “an experience in itself,” and throughout the process Elmer learned what he could.

As exciting as these upgrades were to the young men living on an old ship, Elmer did not relish a return to patrol duty. “I would like to go somewhere else for a change,” he wrote on the 11th. “You know a place becomes stale after you see all the sights and places. I have seen most of the places of interest.” Elmer was not alone in his boredom. After several months in paradise, many sailors began to yearn for the comforts of the mainland. Honolulu in 1941 was still a small city, with 180,000 people to Saint Louis’s 820,000. In terms of size it was like Worcester, Massachusetts, but with beaches and nicer weather. It was also expensive, with many of the restaurants and shopping destinations well outside of the Fireman 2nd Class’s budget. Even haircuts were four times as much in town than they were at Pearl, he complained at one point. It should come as no surprise why Elmer spent so much of his time at the Y.

Elmer also attributed his ennui to itchy feet. “The old urge to move and see more of the sights on this Earth has got me,” he reported to his parents. After all, the desire to see the world was one of the reasons why he joined the Naval Reserve in the first place. But Honolulu was smaller than the hometown he had left. Pearl was smaller still: an island within an island. It was time to venture forth and see more of what the world had to offer.

Yet for the time being, Hawai’i was also one of the safest places in the world. Much of the planet was engulfed in war as China and the Soviet Union fought for their right to exist, while Nazi boots kicked up dust as far west as the Bay of Biscay and as far east as the Black Sea. The Third Reich took an increasingly aggressive approach to American merchant and Naval traffic on the North Atlantic as well, (correctly) ascertaining that Roosevelt’s actions belied his supposed neutrality. On the morning of October 17th, 1941, Americans woke up to the news that a German U-Boat fired a torpedo at the U.S.S. Kearny, a Clemson-class destroyer, in the North Atlantic. The explosion killed eleven sailors, rattling the nation and heightening fears that war was imminent.

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Kearny (DD-432) following the repair of her torpedo damage in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts (USA), on 31 March 1942. USN – Official U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships photo 19-N-28745 available at Destroyerhistory.org

The scare was not lost on Grandpa. In his October 29th letter to his parents, Elmer Luckett put on a brave face for his folks. “We have little to worry about,” he assured them. “Our duty don’t [sic] take us from Pearl Harbor. And you know Pearl Harbor is the strongest naval base in the Pacific – probably in the world. So don’t let the newspaper stories worry you folks.” For his part, Luckett told his parents he was unafraid. “I wouldn’t mind” being in the Atlantic, he told them. “I am a fatalist in that sense, if a thing is going to happen nothing can stop it. People take a chance every time they cross the street. There is no use to worry about such things.”

These sentiments were easier to express when the action was taking place nearly ten thousand miles way. However, the immediacy of the dangers surrounding the United States Navy might have contributed to his decision to send his parents a poem, “Our Boys in Blue.” Although the work shares the same name as a World War I-era tune, the lines bear little resemblance to one another. Whatever its origins, the poem might have been distributed to the sailors aboard the Chew during the Navy Day ceremonies on October 27th.

Of course, Elmer’s parents certainly did not need to be reminded that “these boys in blue, they’re very much worth while.” They wrote him regularly, and that month they also sent him a box of cigars, while his sister Irene mailed him cookies and candy. As he wrote his letter on the 26th, he reported that he was smoking one of the Chicago MC cigars they had mailed him, and “as they say in the Navy, ‘it’s right on,’ meaning its swell. Thanks again folks.”

But the poem also warned that “when dangers [sic] threatens, may I say (and it’s more apparent every day), they stand first, in blue or white, to adjust and make it right.” Perhaps this was the main message Elmer wanted to impart to his parents: that while the world’s troubles were beginning to close in, he and his shipmates were prepared to meet those challenges and dangers head on. His parents might worry about his safety, but they need not concern themselves with his preparedness.

Sure enough, on October 31st, just as millions of American kids were dressing up as ghosts and witches for Halloween, and as the Chew finished its own costume changes in advance of its service in a second World War, one hundred boys in blue died when a U-Boat torpedo attacked another ship, the USS Reuben James. This time the vessel sank into the cold depths of the Atlantic. Only 44 survived.

Like the Chew, the Reuben James was also a Wilkes-class destroyer from World War I. But no new paint job could save it from its fate.

“Our Boys in Blue,” a poem Elmer mailed to his parents on October 29th, 1941.

Movie Review: Midway

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.

Image result for midway theater poster

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.

This Weekend: Going to St. Louis

On Thursday morning we are going to fly to Saint Louis for a few days, partly to make up for me not bringing our daughter there over the summer due to my health issues, and partly because autumn is probably the best (read: least miserable) time to visit Missouri. I say this with all the love in the world, but, between the freezing cold temperatures in the winter, the summer humidity, and the insane pollen counts in the spring, Saint Louis doesn’t leave many options for nice, comfortable, allergy-free weather.

At any rate, I am looking forward to visiting with family, eating toasted ravioli, and getting some work done on this project. Specifically, on Friday I will visit the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in northern St. Louis County. This is where you would want to go to get the personnel records for anyone who served in the Armed Forces during World War II. In fact, it is as far as I know the ONLY place to go – this is the federal repository for these records. I’m bringing with me a short list of people to look up, including grandpa (of course), my grandmother (who worked for the government during the war), and several of my grandpa’s shipmates.

The NPRC campus in St. Louis, Missouri

This will be my first visit to the NPRC, but a great deal of my horse theft research comes from the National Archives headquarters in Washington D.C. Although the security protocols for getting in and out can be intimidating at first (and the guards are seldom enthusiastic when explaining it for the hundredth time each day), the National Archives is on the whole a fantastic place to conduct historical research. They employ a small army of technicians whose job it is to help you find precisely what you are looking for, and unlike in many archival reading rooms researchers are allowed to use cameras to photograph and scan their documents (I did this liberally – rather than relocate to D.C. for a few months and read everything on site I photoscanned several thousand pages of reports and correspondence for my book and reviewed the material at home on an iPad).

I plan on posting a quick update this Friday on what I find in my grandpa’s service record, and if there are any interesting images or photographs inside I may include them here as well (note: most National Archives materials are publicly owned and thus public domain for copyright purposes). In the meantime, if you or someone you know is interested in looking up a World War II veteran’s record, please check out their website: https://www.archives.gov/personnel-records-center.

If you don’t live in or plan on visiting St. Louis any time soon, you can ask the NPRC to look it up for you and send you the file directly (for a fee, of course). But some federal privacy law caveats apply: only veterans who died or were discharged prior to 1957 can be looked up without having to obtain special permission from the service-member or their next of kin, and medical records are explicitly excluded from these personnel files. Also, having the service number handy would be enormously helpful when locating the veteran’s file. However, since it was a unique identifier the military used it in a lot of different records, which makes finding it fairly easy. I found all the relevant service numbers using Ancestry.com. If you enter your relative’s full name, birth date, and hometown, you should have no problem finding a muster log or some other document that contains their service number.

Besides that, I intend to take a little tour of my grandpa’s old neighborhood (Carondolet) and hope that inspiration strikes hard enough for me to hole up somewhere for a couple of hours and write. After all, this is where grandpa’s story begins, and it is also where the first chapter of my book will take place.

Eiler Street in St. Louis. This is where Elmer lived prior to enlisting in the Navy Reserve.

What I’m Reading: Tin Cans and Greyhounds

Frankly, I’m glad that Clint Johnson hopped off the Word Processor and immediately emailed his editor the second his narrative reached V-J Day, because otherwise I would not have had the benefit of this book for my own research. Published last February, this comprehensive and technical history of the destroyer during World War I and II, Tin Cans and Greyhounds: The Destroyers that Won Two World Wars, covers in exhaustive – and sometimes exhausting – detail the story of this type of ship.

Destroyers were the true jacks of all trades during the World Wars. Originally designed during the 19th century by the British Navy, they evolved over the next several decades in response to changing technology, growing battleship displacements, and the exigencies of war. Airplanes and submarines both spurred additional destroyer development. Even though the United States Navy spent hardly any money during the 20s or early 30s building or developing new destroyers, they were adept and resourceful when repurposing much of the retired WWI destroyer fleet.

Johnson’s narrative from the destroyer’s origins through the late 1930s is a sweeping, fascinating story of the destroyer’s shifting popularity and ever-evolving utility. He does a fantastic job of not only discussing American destroyers, but explaining how their development mirrored that of similar-sized ships in rival navies. We learn, for instance, that while British sailors appreciated the dozens of ships transferred from America’s aging destroyer fleet to the Royal Navy in 1940, they would have preferred sleeping in their customary hammocks as opposed to the Americans’ bunk beds.

Overall, Johnson’s thesis is that destroyers were integral, and perhaps even indispensable, to Allied Naval victories during both World Wars. In particular, the old “battleships versus aircraft carriers” debate that roiled the Navy intelligentsia throughout the 1940s may have missed a key point: that without a healthy number of destroyers to protect and assist the battleships, carriers, and the supply chain, the superiority of one over the other would be entirely moot. This claim is both grandiose and tautological – it is absurd to claim that these destroyers won both World Wars, but it is equally implausible to deny or rather ignore their obvious importance, particularly when so many people across the world could have claimed to have moved the sequence of events a certain way at precisely the right moment. Yet perhaps that kind of rhetorical (if not exactly historical) claim is necessary to highlight the destroyer class’s many important contributions to both war efforts, which this book does in spades. After all, books claiming that “X won World War II” are a cottage industry these days. How else can you get someone to buy one?

While I agree with Johnson’s argument, the second half of his book oscillates between the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters, which creates a disjointed narrative. Moreover, his chapter division along these lines – Pacific Theater, 1942; Atlantic Theater, 1942; Pacific Theater, 1943; and so on – seems unnatural and arbitrary. I sympathize with the plight of the narratively-focused historian who has to break down what would otherwise be a very long chapter into shorter yet intelligible units . . . I dealt with this problem myself when organizing my horse stealing book, and it took me a while to figure out an outline that broke apart while also bringing together the story I wanted to tell. But it does not seem like the author (or his editors) put much thought into this. Which is a shame, because I want the story of the destroyer to be an actual story, not a CV of its successes and failures. And that last point hints at my other concern with this book, which is that the World War II chapters fail to bring the author’s many stories and pieces of information together into a cohesive whole. These chapters lack a narrative strand, and instead seem to move from one story to another without so much as a segue.

Organizational concerns aside, this is a very well-researched book, and it is a necessary volume for students of World War II, Naval history, and anyone who has ever enjoyed one of Tom Clancy’s technical novels about various kinds of military weapons (anyone remember Armored Cav?). It also plugs a gaping hole in the hull of naval scholarship by providing a much-needed historical reference and overview of the chronically understudied and widely misunderstood destroyer. I personally found it useful as well, and will likely cite it often.