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.
, 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.

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.

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