January – April 1943: Last Months Aboard the Chew, Part II

Elmer had another surprise in store for his family.

As the United States dove headlong into the biggest war in human history, its Navy began to grow dramatically in size. Despite the losses suffered during the Pearl Harbor attack, America was primed and ready to build thousands of ships and enlist millions of men for sea duty. However, leaders were harder to come by, and the Navy and the Army both needed more commissioned officers. Colleges, for that matter, needed students. The Navy responded by establishing the V-12 program in 1943, which sent 125,000 men to 131 colleges across the United States for technical, academic, and leadership training. Once they had a BA in hand, they would be as qualified as their Annapolis-trained brethren.

Although many of the cadets for the program were selected from graduating high school seniors, active Navy personnel were allowed to apply as well, so long as they were under the age of 23 and unmarried. Destroyer COs were allowed to recommend two men – a seaman and an engineer – to join and receive a free college education, courtesy of the United States Navy. Needless to say the program was competitive, which is why Elmer was thrilled when the Captain endorsed his application on April 25th to represent the engineers aboard the Chew.

First page of Elmer Luckett’s V-12 endorsement. From the National Personnel Records Center, Saint Louis, Missouri.

Elmer was indeed “well qualified” for the program. In addition to progressing through the fireman ranks faster than his shipmates and performing well on the advancement tests, he attended St. Louis Junior College for a year prior to the war, where he majored in chemistry. Before that he had graduated from Cleveland High School in 1938 with honors. The V-12 program was made for candidates like Elmer: Navy sailors and engineers who possessed an acumen for their work and showed enough promise to become commissioned officers.

Although the program would take these men out of the war for a couple of years and station them in the relative safety and comfort of America’s college towns, it was not a typical university experience. According to one historian of the program, “V-12 participants were required to carry 17 credit hours and nine and one-half hours of physical training each week. Study was year-round, three terms of four months each. The number of terms for a trainee depended on his previous college background, if any, and his course of study” (Caroline Alison, “V-12: The College Navy Training Program”). Today in higher education we would call this an “accelerated program,” which is designed to pack as many units and courses into as short of time as possible in order to minimize time to degree. Naturally, this was an important consideration during the war – after all, the program would not be much use if the Navy ran out of officers before its candidates started to graduate, or if the students took so long to graduate that the war would be over before they left.

Elmer was excited and ready to embrace new opportunities and new adventures. Once the ship reached Washington State, Elmer was given 43 days of leave and ordered to report to the Naval Training Station in San Diego afterwards, where he would then be transferred to his new school.

Elmer left the Chew for the last time on May 7. It was his birthday. He then began the four-day long rail journey home to see his parents for the first time in two and a half years. It was worth the wait.

Forrest and Rose Luckett standing in their backyard and holding a photo of their son, Elmer. He was on deployment for 2 1/2 years before he was able to come home again in May 1943. Family photograph.

January – April 1943: Last Months Aboard the Chew, Part I

The year was 1943.

The United States had been at war with the Axis Powers for over a year, yet it felt as though Americans were only getting started. The first half of 1942 brought a series of disappointing setbacks across the Pacific as Japan gobbled up as much of Oceania as it could. The Battle of Midway put a stop to that, at least for the time being, but even though the Americans had eviscerated Japan’s carrier-based offensive air-power it still faced the foreboding challenge of invading a vast Empire some ten million square miles in size. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, American forces had not yet challenged the Wehrmacht, though their time would come soon enough.

For Elmer and the rest of the men aboard the Chew, calm seas returned soon after the storms of December 7th had moved on. Throughout most of the year, the ship stuck to its rounds off the Oahu coast. On some nights, only the moon illuminated the warm gray ship as it skulked across the sea, while on others only the dark shadows of mountains in the distance could blot out the impossibly thick carpet of stars overhead. Elmer loved nights like this while he was on watch, nights occupied only by the sound of the sea, the wind, and the heavens. On nights like those, the war raging around the world might as well have been on a different planet.

Overall, 1942 had been an exercise in duty, diligence, and patience as the destroyer busily escorted other ships around the Hawaiian Archipelago and sometimes beyond. Apart from a few possible submarine encounters, however, the year was relatively uneventful.

Of course, “uneventful” was not a bad state of affairs in wartime. There were far worse places to be than on a well-armed ship whose larder regularly stocked ice cream. But Elmer had spent the last two years of his life aboard the Chew, and he began to yearn for a change of scenery. “Right now a pleasant Spring would seem grand to me,” Elmer wrote on March 21st. “I can’t help but thinking how good it would be to experience the warm days of Spring (and the green covering the trees) . . . at sea it is a vast ‘blue’ – sky and water.”

The Oahu Coast. Elmer saw a lot of this from 1941 – 1943. Photo by M. Luckett.

These were slow news months aboard the Chew. Elmer reported missing his mother’s chicken dumplings and noted that his friends were razzing him about his “soup strainer.” On March 2nd Elmer reported having paid $59.00 to settle his income tax bill. “No doubt that every dollar is needed,” he wrote approvingly.

One interesting development arrived from back home: Keep Klean, his former employer in St. Louis, folded in late 1942 . . . not for want of business, but because most of its employees enlisted. Any business that principally employed young men, from Major League Baseball teams to auto detailing companies, struggled to stay open during the war. The American economy began to experience a problem it had not known for well over a decade: labor shortages. Of course, one positive aspect of this was near-full employment for women and the opening of skilled labor and technical positions formerly reserved for men. Perhaps the closure of companies like Keep Klean had less to do with the unavailability of men to do the work and more to do with the fact that both men and women had more important jobs to fill in a total war economy. Besides, car seat covers for new automobiles became unnecessary once the car companies themselves started making jeeps instead.

Image result for rosie the riveter
“Rosie the Riveter,” one of the most iconic images of the American home front, was inspired by a photograph of Naomi Parker-Fraley, a machinist at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California. She passed away in 2018. For more information: https://www.aarp.org/politics-society/history/info-2018/rosie-riveter-dies-fd.html

As usual, Elmer interspersed the “usual dope” on movies he saw and letters he received with his thoughts about the War. He was more cogent and perceptive than most people twice his age. “Yes, the war has made many economic and industrial changes for rich and otherwise,” he wrote on March 8th. “[It] Created new businesses, ruined old ones, shifted manpower to and fro; giving people more wages with which to buy nothing; and effecting [sic] all for better or for worse. But I believe the people realize it is the only way for total war. And we will win this war!”

April 1943 represents Elmer’s least prolific letter-writing month of the War thus far. As many as five days passed without a letter, which was unusual for him. The Chew was busy that month, and busy months had the dual effect of providing less time for letter-writing and, given the long list of banned discussion topics, simultaneously robbed him of things he could say. “This is another one of my short letters dear,” he wrote apologetically on April 27th, “but you said they are always ‘short but sweet’ so that makes me feel better.”

However, Grandpa believed that chattier times lay ahead. On April 27th he dropped a hint regarding his future plans: “I may have a surprise to tell you about in the near future.” While Elmer teased his parents, the Chew was just a few hundred miles southwest of the Olympic Peninsula as it cruised towards the States. Within a couple of days, new mountains appeared in the distance. Unlike the craggy volcanic summits in Hawaii, these peaks crowded together in an ancient, misty huddle. Their secrets were well-kept. The air around the ship had grown cooler, the skies were like a gray-scale print.

The Chew steamed into the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, bound for the Bremerton Ship Yard west of Seattle. Once it docked, Grandpa could begin to enjoy his first extended time off in nearly two and a half years. He had not written his parents since April 27, but on May 8th he sent his parents a telegram whose seven words were more exciting than a hundred letters:

“ARRIVE HOME NEXT WEEK ON LEAVE. ELMER” He had forty-two days off.

Elmer was coming home.

September and October 1942: From Pollywog to Shellback

Life is full of transitions, transformations, and comings of age. During the early 1940s, as young men and women felt themselves rushing headlong into the responsibilities demanded by wartime America, millions made their own transformations by getting married, joining the service, or both. This included many of Elmer’s friends, classmates, and family members.

Elmer kept abreast of these reports from the States with a mix of wonder, surprise, humor, and maybe a twinge of sadness over not being present to watch these big life moments take place. His journey into war was both more and less dramatic than that of most American men – more dramatic in the sense that he was at Pearl Harbor the moment the bombs began to fall, and less given that he was a reservist called up for active duty during peace time. But the transition from summer to autumn brought some transformative moments in Elmer’s life as well, even if none of them involved wedding bells or answering Uncle Sam’s call during wartime. Together they seem to represent a clear before and after for Elmer, both personally and professionally, and in a very tangible way fulfill the desire he stated earlier in the year to become “more of a man” by the time he returned home.

The first transformative moment arrived when Elmer needed his timepiece to be fixed. He sent it to his parents in hopes that they could repair it as a Christmas present. It “probably needs a new face,” he advised his parents on September 6th. Evidently the job was prohibitively expensive, however, and therefore his mother made an executive decision back home: she traded it in towards a beautiful, top of the line, yellow gold watch. “The wrist watch arrived O.K., folks,” he wrote on September 17th. “Thanks a million, it’s sure a beauty.” Elmer continued to mention the watch in several later letters, gushing over how many compliments he received and how much it likely cost. It “sure looks expensive enough, and if I know mom it’s the best!” Although it could not wear it in the engine room for safety reasons, it became a fixture on his wrist during liberty time. It was a fancy, new adult watch for a recently minted adult. Given how fresh memories of the Depression were for most Americans, this piece of bling was no small thing.

This was the watch my great-grandmother bought Elmer in 1942. My dad inherited it after grandpa passed away. Photo by Phyllis Luckett.

The second big moment came on October 1st when Elmer was promoted to Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class, making him a petty officer aboard the Chew. The advancement came with a pay bump (now $115 a month), new uniform insignia, new duties, and a well-earned sense of accomplishment. “It is something I have worked and studied for during my time in the Navy . . . I know it will make you all happy and increase my prestige. Ha ha.” He was the first among his friends to make petty officer, and between that and the new watch Elmer carried a bit more authority and gravitas than before. He also made good on the Navy tradition of handing out cigars upon receiving a new rating, giving out two boxes worth to his shipmates after hearing the news.

Machinist's Mate Rating Petty Officer 2nd Class

The final transformative moment occurred the second he and his ship passed the Equator on its way towards the Southern Hemisphere. Perhaps the best way to describe what happened next is to let Elmer do the writing:

[I] want to tell you about the initiation we were given at the time. Men or sailors that have crossed the “line” [are] known as “Shellbacks” (I’m one now). Sailors that never crossed the “line” are called Polly-wogs. Anyway, the Shellbacks give the Pollywogs the “works.” There were only about 20 Shellbacks aboard, but they really gave us the works. We were tried before a court of King Neptune . . . [and] by Davy Jones and his associates the Royal Family of the King. Words are difficult to express the entire ordeal and its details. Anyway, officers were no exception and they got the same treatment as the enlisted men . . . it so happened there weren’t any Shellbacks among the officers. It was a lot of fun and the initiation consisted of paddling (well done), followed by treatments from the Royal Doctor, Barber, Police, and all Shellbacks. Perhaps someday I will be able to tell you more of the details . . . we will get certificates for crossing the “line” and cards to prove we are “Shellbacks” now. I pity any “Pollywogs” if we cross the line again.

Elmer Luckett to Mr. and Mrs. E. L. Luckett, 19 October 1942

The Equatorial crossing ceremony and the fraternity of the Shellbacks goes back to at least the early 1500s, according to cultural anthropologist Carie Little Hersh. Its proliferation across the European navies and merchant marines corresponded with the Age of Discovery, during which over the next three centuries European merchants, navigators, explorers, conquistadors, missionaries, and naval personnel systematically sailed, mapped, and in many cases subjugated the indigenous nations adjacent to the high seas. Crossing the Equator was no small feat in this context, especially since it was often done while traveling to a more distant destination around Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. Since the ceremony was in some ways meant to test the mettle of sailors during the early stages of a long voyage, the Equatorial crossing was a significant milestone and an excellent opportunity for such a rite of passage. Otherwise, untested sailors could present a liability during a real emergency.

Geography and meteorological hazards also made the crossing a particularly anxious time for sailors and captains alike. The Equator itself lay between the two circumferential “horse latitudes” bands at 30 degrees North and South, respectively, which allegedly received their name for the number of horses thrown overboard at these locations once the fresh water began to run dry and the animals began to die of thirst. Moreover, the Intertropical Convergence Zone, or the Doldrums, also threatened to becalm sailing ships and strand them for weeks or even months. This zone is roughly parallel to the Equator.

While the ceremony may seem anachronistic, especially given that it is still frequently held today, it carried a great deal of meaning for Elmer and his shipmates. Becoming a Shellback was, in many ways, tantamount to becoming a seasoned sailor. At the very least, the induction into what was for all intents and purposes an informal fraternal order signified to Elmer that he had passed an important milestone in his Naval career.

It was something that he was proud of for the rest of his life. I remember him showing me the card he received after the ceremony, which I scanned and uploaded below. It was one of his favorite stories from the War.

December 24th: “It does not seem like Christmas Eve to me”

Things had quieted down a bit at Pearl Harbor by Christmas. The sadness, dread, and anger lingered over the still-smoking water, but each passing day that did not bring an invasion offered at least a small amount of relief.

Elmer spent the day thinking about his family, his faith, and an uncertain future. He channeled these reflections into the letter below, which would be his last of 1941.

December 21st: No Kisses or Hugs

Much of Elmer’s correspondence at this point is dictated by censor requirements. Letters must be short, they could not contain xo marks (which might be code), and they cannot reveal any information about what they are doing or where they are operating. Naturally this limited what Elmer could say.

The last image below is of a cablegram that Elmer sent on December 20th. The envelope in which it was stored was labeled “12/21,” suggesting that his parents indeed received it quickly. It may have also been the first indication that his parents received that he was alright.

Two hours spent worrying about one’s kid is an interminable length of time. Two weeks? I can’t even imagine.