“It’s a wonder he didn’t shoot his foot off.”
That’s my dad, Steve, commenting on one of the non-Pearl Harbor-related stories my grandpa liked to tell about the War. My grandpa was never really much into guns, at least as far as I know, and my dad has a deadpan sense of humor. But to tell you the truth I never really thought of Elmer as the kind of guy to step onto a train, in uniform, like an Old West sheriff, with a .38 holstered to his hip.
But that’s what he did on Thursday, December 16th, 1943, during his brief tenure as a Master at Arms in New Orleans. On that day he was given a special assignment: take the train up to Shreveport, Louisiana, and bring back a deserter who was currently in police custody back to New Orleans for court martial. He hopped an overnight train that evening, with a pistol at his side and handcuffs in his pocket, and after a sleepless night he rolled into his destination. With the sun rising above the glimmering Red River, Elmer stepped out of the station and into the cool morning. Nervous about the task at hand, he began to walk straight ahead, resolved to complete his assignment and bring justice home.
OK, OK – I might be getting a little carried away here. I do study horse thieves, after all. As far as historical subjects go the stories I tell can get a bit animated at times.
So here’s what Elmer wrote to his parents about the trip:
I left New Orleans on Thursday night, arriving at Shreveport Friday morning. Good traveling by Pullman Sleeper. Got to spend about four or five hours looking the town over. And left with my prisoner in the afternoon, and reached New Orleans late at night. The prisoner was just a kid about 17, who ran away for seventy some-odd days. Didn’t have any trouble at all. The trip was something new and I enjoyed it.
Far from being a hard-boiled, bayou-noir escapade, the scene somehow seemed so quintessentially grandpa: a leisurely trip, a nice breakfast, some exploration of the town, and a nice chat with a new friend. He even sent his parents a postcard in which he alludes to “picking something up.”
Yet it’s exactly this kind of adventure that I find so enrapturing about both these letters and my grandpa’s Naval career as a whole. Elmer’s War experience truly ran the gamut, from moments of sheer terror to peaceful evenings under the stars surrounded by hypnotic seas, from gunnery practice on Shell Beach and escorting prisoners in Louisiana to studying physics in Missouri. As historians we so often focus on those moments of terror, and perhaps rightfully so – it is important to write widely and often about Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and so many other moments of dramatic decision. But war was much more than those flashpoints. Sometimes it was getting to where you were going. Sometimes it was killing a few days before moving on to a new assignment in a distant corner of the world. And sometimes it was just sending one’s parents a quick postcard to let them know they’re OK.
As the United States once again learns what it is like to face a critical and existential crisis both at home and abroad, it would do us well in the future to not just remember the virus, the pandemic, the sick and the death, COVID-19’s domino impacts on our world, and its ability to creep into seemingly everything (like, admittedly, this blog), but also the time we spent at home with our families, the books and the Netflix, the walks and the bike rides and the spring gardens outside, the connections we made and remade over phones and chatlines, and the many little misadventures along the way. As we all push against the present and future darkness together, we cannot cede to it control of the past.
Anyway, I’d tell everyone to stay healthy, but since that is now a hackneyed saying, I’ll put it like this: try not to shoot your foot off.
“Just a few lines to a very swell girl:” The First Letters to Grandma
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