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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Elmer Luckett and the Shreveport Kid

“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.

There are better, more recent examples of Louisiana cops in popular culture, thanks to NCIS and True Detective. But I’ve always been partial to Remy McSwain in The Big Easy.

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.

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“Just a few lines to a very swell girl:” The First Letters to Grandma

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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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November 1943: The Big Easy

Elmer had his hernia operation on October 27th. It did not take long for his mother to find out about it, and she expressed her disapproval for being kept in the dark in her November 2nd letter to Elmer. “Mom, I’m glad you know about my operation,” he wrote on November 5th. “I didn’t like to keep it secret from you, but it was for the best I’m sure.” He asked his mother to forgive both him and his dad for not informing her of it. He also complimented her detective skills for apparently learning about it before either he or his father said anything: “Mom sweets, I figured you would suspect something from my address using ‘dispensary.’ You’re a regular eagle eye.”

His mother forgave him quickly enough, and began peppering him with some medically specific questions, such as whether or not they gave him a generalized anesthetic. She also sent “a sweet poem” to Elmer, and asked her oldest son Bud to travel down from Chicago to New Orleans to visit him. Bud could not make the trip, and when Elmer found out about his mother’s request he wrote his brother to let him know he was off the hook and that Bud didn’t need to make the trip. Whatever her faults might have been, and in spite of Elmer’s sometimes dismissive language, Rose Luckett was an attentive, loving, generous, and empathetic mother to her four children.

Elmer’s surgery was a cinch, but the recovery required two weeks in bed. He could not get up for any reason (at one point he mentioned hating those “blasted bedpans”), and by the end of the second week he began to go stir crazy. “A bed is for rest, but after 2-3 weeks it becomes tiresome,” he philosophized shortly after leaving his. But Elmer made the best use of his time by reading voraciously and writing letters. He got to know his ward mates pretty well, as well as his physician, who seemed to take a shine to Elmer. The doctor sympathized with his recent disqualification from the V-12 program. Elmer wrote that he was a “very fine man.” He also wrote about a “sweet red-headed nurse who takes extra good care of me.” While this characterization leaves much to the imagination, a couple of lines later he mentioned that he thinks about her “like a sister.”

Photograph of Elmer sitting next to a bed writing a letter. I don’t know if this was taken in New Orleans or not, but this doesn’t look like either a ship or a dorm room. Luckett family collection.

While in the hospital Elmer heard from several Navy friends. Ozzie reported that most of “the old gang” on the Chew had by then transferred to other ships or programs, and his college roommate Jim wrote the names of fourteen students in their cohort who had flunked on the envelope of his letter, which also contained his grades for the term. “Guess Jim wanted me to know who they were,” he wrote. Jim probably wanted Elmer to feel better after being disqualified from the V-12 program. But failing a vision test is nothing like failing a physics exam, and grandpa well understood the difference.

By November 11th, exactly twenty-five years to the day after an armistice between the Allied and Central Powers ended World War I, Elmer was up and ready to go back to war. He was allowed to exit his bed the previous day and was “surprised by how good [he] felt . . . of course, I’m taking it easy now, and I won’t be able to lick my weight in Japs yet. But it sure [is] good to be back in circulation again.” He was not yet “in circulation” just yet, strictly speaking – he had three more days of recovering at the hospital in front of him – but the only real question at that point was where he would end up once he was discharged.

The New Orleans Naval Station was sort of a human clearinghouse for sailors. They came for training, medical care, and reassignment, and left with orders sending them to ships and stations throughout the world. One of Elmer’s friends in the hospital, Johnny, was shipped off to New York with orders almost as soon as he had recovered. After checking on his pending orders, all Elmer knew was that he would be assigned to a new ship to help run its engines as a Master Mechanic 2nd Class, his former rank on the Chew. He also learned that his ship would not be ready for several more weeks.

NAS New Orleans in the 1940s, located on the present-day main campus of the University of New Orleans. From Wikipedia.

After a rigorous semester in Cape and a fortnight in bed, Elmer was ready to go back to sea. But he wanted to see his family one more time before shipping out again and rejoining the war. He told his parents he was optimistic he could get a leave on account of the fact that his new ship was not yet ready, but he also indicated that it was no sure thing. “I’ve been really fortunate to get home as much as I have the past year,” he wrote on the 14th. But his reasons did not necessarily involve eating more of his mother’s chicken and dumplings. “I would just like to get home and show you I am in shipshape again. They say to look at me you couldn’t tell I’ve been operated on. And I don’t feel like it.”

Elmer did not write another letter until December 2nd. Shortly after sending his parents his letter on the 14th, he received several days of leave and headed north to Saint Louis. He could then celebrate Thanksgiving with his family.

In many ways 1943 did not turn out the way he thought it would. But that year Elmer discovered, despite his recent setbacks, that he had much to be thankful for.

Next Entry:
December 1943: A Master at Arms

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October 1943: Doctor’s Orders

Leaf peepers like to spend their time and money visiting Vermont, but Cape Girardeau is every bit as nice when the leaves change. Flaming oranges, reds, and yellows polka dot the thick green forests across the Mississippi Valley, crowning the river bluffs with wreaths of gold and crimson. The region’s myriad apple trees sweeten the scene, and pumpkins are never hard to find. As the V-12 semester at Southeast began to wind down, Elmer welcomed the dipping temperatures. After spending two autumns in the tropics he was ready for cool nights and hot cider.

But he wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as he wanted on account of two health issues that had dogged him for the majority of the semester. The first was a hernia that, as far as Elmer could tell, he had suffered while completing one of the obstacle courses sometime during the first two weeks of the term. It pained him enough to limit his activity, but not enough to warrant taking him immediately out of school, so he gutted it out. His commanding officer allowed him to put the surgery off until after the semester concluded, since it would also require two weeks of subsequent bedrest. Doctor’s orders.

Elmer seemed to worry less about the operation than he did about worrying his mother. On one of his trips home he confided in his father, letting him know what happened and what he expected to happen next. With respect to everyone else, however, mum was the word. He even kept the news from Rose, and did not read her in until he wrote her on November 9th, after nearly two weeks in the hospital. “I kept my condition a secret from just about everyone because I didn’t want my mom to know,” he explained. “She is a very high-strung and emotional person.”

Yet Elmer could not hide what was, as far as the Navy was concerned, a much more damning problem, even if it was one that Elmer had dealt with for his entire life up until that point. On July 20, 1943, Elmer took an American Optical Company vision test. The test itself only became available in 1940, after Elmer enlisted. After reviewing the results, however, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery determined that Elmer had failed the assessment. They ruled that he had “slightly defective color perception” – it was defective enough to disqualify him from the V-12 program, but, evidently, not bad enough to discharge him. He was to return to active duty and could retain his previous rating.

According to Elmer’s physical examination upon entering the Naval Reserve on October 1, 1940, his color perception using existing criteria was judged to be “normal.” This changed with the introduction of the American Optical Company vision test that same year, however.

Needless to say, the news disappointed Elmer, who apparently did not discover his condition or his fate until he received his transfer orders in mid-October. His letters up until that point make no mention of the results, and at several points in his letters to Rose he expressed his excitement over being done with “this term,” as opposed to school overall. There is no sense of impending finality in his letters. One letter is written in Cape; the next is a postcard from New Orleans.

He told me this story many years later, after two children and two marriages and half a lifetime. I don’t know if he regretted that decision or not, but clearly it wasn’t something he had power to change. And I know he knew that in spite of any lingering disappointment he may have had.

One time when I was a kid, I think I asked my mom about this. I wondered how grandpa could drive if he could not tell the difference between red and green. After all, what would happen at a traffic light? My mom told me that he had learned to know which light was illuminated, which after twenty-two years or driving is still something I could not tell you without looking at one. That made me admire him even more, I think. And while I am not privy to the optical demands of the World War II Naval officer corps Elmer’s color perception deficiency never seemed to hinder him in the engine room. But just as some bureaucrat in Washington D.C. endorsed his admission into the V-12 program and another had enough kindness to send Elmer to school a mere 100 miles from his parents, a third had apparently judged that Elmer could see well enough to run a ship engine but not well enough to supervise an engineer.

Anyhow, once classes ended on October 15th, Elmer had a few extra days to visit his family in St. Louis. He then boarded a train south towards New Orleans, where he was to be operated on before resting for two weeks and awaiting orders that would presumably send him to a new ship. When he arrived on October 26th, his autumn was officially over. There were no more fall colors, such as they were, or cool breezes to be had. He sent his parents a postcard and a letter shortly before undergoing the knife.

Elmer sent this postcard to his parents upon arriving in New Orleans on October 26, 1943.

He did not have much to say when he wrote a more substantial note later that day. “Didn’t see much of New Orleans yet, it is an old city. I noticed how old so many buildings were as we traveled from the Union Station to the Naval Station.”

He sent his next letter on October 30th. “Hi you dad! Still at the job. Had that little matter taken care of that we talked about at home. Everything is fine and working out swell. Thought you would like to know.”

Father and son kept mother in the dark about Elmer’s condition. But Rose Luckett, who may well have been “high strung and emotional,” was by no means dumb. She wondered what the word “dispensary” meant when she saw it on Elmer’s new mailing address.

After Halloween she looked it up.

One of Elmer’s friends mailed him a “report card” with his final grades for the term he completed. As his friend suggests, these are “good grades” – Elmer was taking 20 hours worth of courses (the usual full-time load is 15) during an abbreviated semester, and unlike many schools today the professors at Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College did not believe in grade inflation.

Next Entry:
November 1943: The Big Easy

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