Chapter Draft: “The College Try,” Part II

Hey folks,

Sorry, it’s late and I forgot to do this earlier, so I’m just going to post the rest without bothering with photos . . . let me know what you think! – Matt

While Grandpa’s letters contain a trove of valuable information about his college history, there is another perspective that may give it some additional context and color: my own. In 1946 SMSTC shortened its name to Southeast Missouri State College, and in 1973 it rechristened itself as Southeast Missouri State University. This was the school’s name when I matriculated there in 1999. Now often referred to as SEMO or just “Southeast,” the university is no longer just for teachers or officer trainees. Its larger mission today is to serve as the preeminent educational, intellectual, and cultural institution for Southeast Missouri, long considered to be the most economically disadvantaged region in the state. But it is also a great alternative for many St. Louis-area students who, like me, could not get into a more prestigious school and who were turned off or intimidated by Mizzou’s sprawling campus community.

As I went through his letters from Cape, I noticed many little things that tied our experiences together: afternoons at Capaha Park, evenings at Cape Rock, cool nights spent smoking under the stars, hot days spent seeking relief from the sultry Gulf heat that somehow always stretched its way up the Mississippi, and the mysteriously (almost suspiciously) high quality of the dorm food. When he first mentions Cheney Hall a rush of memories come flooding back, reminding me of all those times I’d walk from Cheney back to Towers late at night after seeing my girlfriend, passing the blinking power plant and the brooding soccer fields, hearing nothing but the tinnitus-like ringing of Missouri insects screaming from the trees and soft winds blowing a long arc from the Rockies all the way to the Atlantic. If it was especially late at night – or early in the morning – I could hear the first songbirds serenade each other from the Spanish oaks and sweet gum trees. Sometimes I would stand outside of the Towers dormitory complex after an almost all-nighter, cool in the crisp predawn air, smoking a cheap cigar and listening to the robins and brown thrashers announce the beginning of their days. I wish I had thought to talk to my grandpa about these things more often, because I know he would be immediately transported to Cape with me.

Of course, we did compare notes occasionally. Like Grandpa, I spent most of my weekends in Cape, which is not well known for its nightlife (apart from the usual – and frequent – house parties). While the town was big enough for students to enjoy a few beers while watching the barges float past, it was too small for a pub crawl. At least the Illinois side of the river had the Little Vegas Strip in East Cape Girardeau. Anchored by the Purple Crackle, a “supper club” which regularly featured big bands, for generations it was the place for students to go on a Friday night. But there was a rub: the Cape Girardeau Bridge, which was long, narrow, frightening under even the best of circumstances, and utterly terrifying under the worst. Cars passing each other only had a few feet of clearance on either side (the roadtop was only twenty feet wide), so each party going east across the river to visit the Crackle had to come back with at least one driver who was sober enough to safely make the trip back west. That wasn’t always a sure thing.* Decades later, after dinner one Sunday evening my grandpa asked me if the Crackle was still there. I quickly glanced at him and we shared a knowing look, hopefully without my mother noticing.

Despite these commonalities, many things have changed since then. When I attended Southeast Missouri State University from 1999 to 2003, Cheney Hall was the oldest and most highly desired dormitory on campus. It is a gorgeous building, and its rooms have beautiful hardwood floors and classic radiators. But like all older things, it was not always so. Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College constructed Cheney Hall in 1939 with funding from the Works Progress Administration, so by the time Elmer arrived on campus in 1943 it was one of the newest buildings on campus. Meanwhile, Elmer’s dorm, Leming Hall, was already a couple of generations old, having been built in 1905. It was used for seventy years, setting the scene for generations of students’ memories. But while this spot lived on in my grandpa’s recollection of the campus, the building that came after that – the University Center, built in 1975 – became a special place for his grandson in turn. I spent a lot of time there: club meetings, my first student conference, BBQ sandwiches in the cafeteria . . . so many things come to mind. The buildings were different but the geographic coordinates were exactly the same.

It has been nearly twenty years since I graduated college, and the memories return in fragments. There are fuzzy mental snapshots of reading history books, looking at microfilm, taking notes, talking to professors, buzzing around Carnahan Hall, making friends, eating burgers and omelets in the cafeteria . . . typical college stuff. But my mind also plays 4K videos me of going to New York on a Greyhound with my best friend, falling in love for the first time, watching 9/11 unfold on a break room TV screen at work, reading Hunter S. Thompson while sitting next to the river as it rolled forever by, racing down two lane roads in old cars covered in band stickers and then drunkenly eating pancakes with groggy truckers at the Scott City Huddle House . . . College was such an indispensably formative time for me that I cannot imagine who I would be without it. Meanwhile, the four years I spent at Southeast were the only frame of reference I have for my grandpa, whose own four formative years were mostly spent aboard Naval ships in war zones. But his residency in Cape Girardeau at least offers an intersection, a shared place, a series of moments that spanned decades of time.

Leaf peepers like to spend their time and money visiting Vermont, but Cape Girardeau is every bit as beautiful 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. On the college campus, leaves congregate on Normal and Henderson Avenues, shirts begin to seek cover under sweaters and jackets, and cool winds from the north and west begin to overpower the Gulf moisture from the South. Today, October comes during the midway point of the semester, and despite the increasingly comfortable climate students are often weighted down by anxiety over midterms. For V-12 students, however, October brought the end of the semester as well as the end of summer. And like boiled eggs cooling in a pan of water, students were unburdened for a short time with both the pressures of school and the soupy humidity of a Cape summer.

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 could not enjoy it as much as he wanted on account of two health issues that would largely define for him his time at SMSTC. 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 aggravated 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. But Elmer seemed to worry less about the operation than he did about causing his mother any more anxiety. 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. Elmer waited to 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.”

Although Grandpa was able to get his hernia fixed, the second medical problem issue he faced was an intractable and, as far as the Navy was concerned, far worse for his prospects as an officer. On July 20, 1943, Elmer took an American Optical Company vision exam. The test itself only became available in 1940, after Elmer originally enlisted. The older test that Elmer took did not detect any problems with his color vision, but since a new physical examination was required prior to Elmer matriculating into the V-12 program he had to take the newer diagnostic. But after reviewing the results, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery determined that Elmer had failed the updated vision assessment. They ruled that he had “slightly defective color perception” – it was not severe enough to send him home, but it was defective enough to disqualify him from the V-12 program. He was ordered to return to active duty and allowed to retain his previous rating.

Once classes ended on October 15th, Elmer had a few extra days to visit his family in St. Louis. He broke the disappointing news to his parents and then boarded a train south toward 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, but it was not yet winter, either. There were no more fall colors, such as they were, or cool breezes to be had. Just the Louisiana air, thick and steamy as a pot of bouillabaisse.

He mailed his parents a postcard and a letter shortly before his procedure. He did not have much to say: “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.

The news deeply 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 vision exam 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. And therefore, with the stroke of a pen, Elmer’s college career was over.

Grandpa told me this story years later, after two children and two marriages and half a lifetime had passed. I detected more than a twinge of disappointment, even though he had since lived his best life. One time when I was a kid, I also 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 informed me that he had learned to tell which light was illuminated, which after 25 years of driving is still something I have to think about for a second. This made me admire him even more. 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 one bureaucrat in Washington D.C. endorsed his admission into the V-12 program and another exhibited enough kindness to send Elmer to school a mere 100 miles from his parents, a third determined that Elmer could see well enough to run a ship engine but not well enough to supervise an engineer.

Years later, not long after grandpa died, I found a large envelope with “Matt + Dave” written in sharpie on the front (Dave is my younger brother) as I was going through some of the papers he left behind. When I opened the envelope a museum of our childhood tumbled out: old theater programs, photos, and even a hand-drawn Christmas book I wrote and self-published (at a Kinkos) when I was 8. I had forgotten that it existed. Seemingly more disposable was the program for my undergraduate commencement ceremony, which was carefully tucked away behind all the other childhood detritus. I do not even know where mine is today – I was annoyed at having only made cum laude with my 3.7 GPA. But when I peeked at the program my grandpa saved he had circled my name, and in margin he wrote “cum laude = with honors!!!” It was both touching and telling that he presumably felt the need to look it up. Maybe I should have been prouder of myself, or, at the very least, more willing to acknowledge his own pride in that accomplishment.

I knew the honors distinction made him happy, but I wonder how much his own history in Cape influenced his thinking on the matter. Although my grandpa did not choose Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College (the Navy chose it for him), I know he was pleased that I chose to follow his footsteps there, even if I never did join the Navy. And while I may have been the one to graduate cum laude, my grandpa left college with honors as well. Mine were published in a commencement program, while his were pinned to his uniform. And I know he knew that, but I hope he also knew that I know that as well.

Shock Values and Death Tolls: Comparing Pearl Harbor with COVID

Today is the 79th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. However, for many of us our minds are elsewhere this week as COVID continues to ravage the nation.

In fact, statistically we are well past the point where each day represents a larger death toll than that of some of the deadliest days of American history, including Pearl Harbor:

It’s not just Pearl Harbor, either. On December 2nd, more Americans died of COVID than from enemy fire during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. At least 53 days have been deadlier than April 15th, 1912, on which morning the Titanic sank. And if current trends continue, the IHME projects that the United States will hit 2,971 deaths on January 13, 2021, which would make it deadlier than any single day during the Civil War, with the exception of the Battle of Antietam.

While these numbers are accurate and striking, they need to be properly contextualized. When my grandpa woke up on the morning of December 7th, 1941, neither he nor anyone else under the Stars and Stripes knew that a war was going to break out before lunchtime. No one on the USS Arizona could have guessed that their ship would explode within a couple hours, bathing hundreds aboard in burning fuel and showering them with white hot shards of metal. None of the other American ships or planes or sailors or soldiers had that quiet Sunday circled on their calendars in bold red ink as a day that would live forever in infamy.

Meanwhile, thousands will die today, thousands more will die tomorrow, and thousands more the next day, and so on, and so on, and probably through Christmas. In all probability, the next few months will make clear that our annus horribilis did not begin on January 1st, 2020, but on St. Patrick’s Day. By the time we slice into our corned beef this coming spring, half a million Americans may be dead.

To be sure, no one, not even the most stubborn anti-maskers or the most oblivious and aggressive huggers, deserves to die from this awful disease. But it is certain that no one woke up this morning without having had the opportunity to learn about and understand the risks associated with contracting COVID. Many people, especially front-line health care workers, emergency responders, and even fast food and grocery workers, have little choice over whether or not they will contract it because their jobs put them into regular contact with those who already have it. For the rest of us, however, we knew what was coming, even if we did not want to acknowledge the coming tsunami of sickness. Imagine if FDR had know about the Japanese sneak attack all along (and to be clear, no, he did not), from the planning meetings that summer to the Task Force’s launch on November 26th. Would we have ever forgiven him for sitting idly by in the White House, thinking that sooner or later a stray sub or destroyer would happen upon the convoy and scare it away, like a spider retreating through a crack in the wall? Probably not.

But it’s a moot point. FDR did not see the attack coming, and while a few people in the War Department had their suspicions, the sailors, soldiers, and Marines in Hawaii were none the wiser. And even if they knew – some, like grandpa, suspected that a war was going to start soon, but assumed that both sides would have the common courtesy to declare it first – then what was their alternative? Should they desert and hide out someplace? Sleep with a gun under their pillow? Spend all their nights off-ship and on land? Not even that was a guarantee for safety – while most of the USS Arizona’s survivors spent the previous night in town or in the barracks on Ford Island, both men from the Chew who died had slept elsewhere and were caught in a bomb blast while trying to put out fires aboard the USS Pennsylvania. The common denominator for most of those who were caught by surprise that morning was that they chose to be there. While they did not sign their enlistment papers with the foreknowledge of this attack, they also knew that to some extent they did not know what they were signing up for, so to speak. Their oaths and their duty kept them where they least needed to be when the war broke out.

Another thought comes to mind when I reflect on another deadly day in American history that has been frequently invoked in comparison with the daily COVID death tolls: September 11th. When I compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor over a year ago, I argued that Americans more effectively (if not more equitably) processed their anger following the latter than they did after the former, and that as a result September 11th has festered like an open wound over the past two decades. Yet the most obvious trait that the two events have in common is also the most powerful: both days delivered nothing less than a sudden, profound, and existential shock to the American people that resulted in a wave of patriotic fervor and a newfound appreciation for the fact that no nation is immune to exogenous violence. While one could argue that both events represented the inevitable culmination of American diplomatic and military interventions elsewhere in the world, Americans writ large did not spend a great deal of time worrying about those policies or their repercussions in either case. As I argued last year, shock value does not merely characterize an event. It is foundational to understanding that event’s legacy and memory in history. After all, the JFK Assassination was also a shocking, transformative event whose effects continue to ripple into the present, but if judged by its death toll alone it would barely make the front page in many American newspapers in 1963, or even today.

COVID, on the other hand, is no longer shocking. It is more like a bad roommate than a late-night burglar: its presence does not come as a surprise. Instead, it malevolently leeches away our energy, health, and happiness, and makes us aware of its presence even when we are thinking about other things. COVID is simply exhausting. It is wearing away at us, and even though a vaccine may only be weeks away, each day until that happens is a challenging slog.

One of the benefits of writing is that it helps us work though what we are thinking. And as I look back on what I’ve written so far, it seems like what began as a post asking readers not to underestimate the Pearl Harbor attack with respect to daily death tolls is turning into something else: a plea to understand what we are going through now on its own terms. On the one hand, Pearl Harbor was a bad day in American history. An event that mostly occurred within the span of a couple of hours cast a long, dark shadow over the following years and decades. The death toll that day was certainly and inarguably tragic, but the costs were much higher. Tens of thousands of others were injured or scarred in less obvious ways, and countless Americans back home waited weeks with stones in their stomachs waiting for news about their loved ones. As for my grandfather, who could not simply unsee the Arizona exploding a few hundred yards away, memories of the attack stalked him for the rest of his life. This multifaceted and terrible toll transcends and multiplies exponentially the sorrowful calculus baked into that four-digit number we see in the above tweet.

On the other hand, the same logic applies to the drumbeat of COVID daily deaths we see in the newspapers. Too many Americans today continue to dismiss those numbers, playing fast and loose with peoples’ lives and their true impact on those around them by speciously seizing on arbitrary and misleading statistics, like the fact that it “only” kills 1% of infected victims, or that on most days heart disease kills more people. How inured are we to sickness and premature death to not empathize with the millions of people in our own country who not only grieve lost loved ones, but who in most cases did not get to say goodbye, or even bury them? What about the millions of others who recovered, but who are now facing the debilitating downstream effects of their COVID fight? How much shorter will their lives be as a result?

Yet because COVID is no longer a shock comparable to that of an enemy bombing or a terrorist attack or a mall shooting, its effects are muted in real time, even as our loved ones – or as we ourselves – suddenly join the ranks of the infected. Just today I learned that one of my students has it and one of my ex-girlfriends may have it, just as half of the State of California goes on stay-at-home lockdown as of early this morning. But apart from the hundreds of thousands who died and the millions more who suffer from its effects, there are the countless other downstream effects: businesses closed, weddings and graduations cancelled, children robbed of a year of their lives . . . it is impossible to quantify them.

So, on this Pearl Harbor anniversary day . . . don’t just remember the victims. Think about the fact that it is now 79 years later, and that we are still remembering the day itself. Think beyond the cumulative toll of all the lives lost that day . . . why was that event itself seared so terribly into our collective memory? And why are so many Americans today so oblivious to the gargantuan tragedy – not just the daily death counts, but *waves arms wildly in all directions* all of this – unfolding around us?

COVID does not make the Pearl Harbor attack any less tragic by comparison, nor is our collective remembrance of that day somehow unjustified if literally more people die today from COVID than from the actual event we are remembering. But both events are historically massive, albeit for different reasons: one killed a few and shocked many, while the other shocked few but killed a great many. Both count as transformative tragedies, yet only one was immediately and universally recognizable for its terribleness. Hopefully, as we reflect on the horrors of Pearl Harbor for the 79th year, more of us will begin to recognize, anticipate, and mourn the horrors of the other.

Wear a mask.

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.

Next Entry:
May – June 1943: Two Homecomings

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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.

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

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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.

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November 1942: Stateside

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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.

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History Mystery: Where did my Great-Grandmother Go to Church?

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December 22nd: Revenge will be Sweet

This letter gives a sense of the anger that Elmer and tens of thousands of servicemen in Oahu felt towards Japan after the attack. Read it for yourself, but note that it does contain some offensive language.

This would be a great time to leave a comment . . . do you believe his anger is justified? How about the way in which he expresses it?

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

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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.

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December 22nd: Revenge will be Sweet

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December 16th: “Fighting Mad” with Japan

“You are all probably worrying your ‘heads off’ about me. I wrote as soon as possible.” Unfortunately for the parents back home, their intense anxiety over their sons’ safety coincided with exactly the worst possible time for their boys to write home. The rescue and recovery effort following the attack continued night and day for weeks following the attack as the Navy rushed to find trapped sailors, extinguish fires, recover bodies (and myriad body parts) from the scene, and fix whatever they could. The Chew spent these days on patrol, hunting for enemy subs and watching for a second raid – or worse, an invasion. Elmer worked 4 on and 4 off during this time, on account of the engineering crew being short-staffed. He did not have time to get a decent night’s sleep, let alone write a letter.

There was also the issue of content. Elmer did not know what to write because there was nothing he could safely say. The United States government did not want to imperil morale at home by revealing the extent of its losses at Pearl, and no one wanted to inadvertently admit to the Japanese just how successful – or unsuccessful, given the auspicious absence of the Navy’s three carriers – their attach had been.

Of course, as any parent will attest, the mere fact that he was writing at all and saying he was in good spirits was itself a relief. “Be brave for me,” he urged his worried parents, “and don’t worry.” Easier said than done.

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December 19th: Touching Base

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Book Review: Pearl Harbor

I apologize for not posting any book reviews for a while. The end of the fall semester is usually tough sledding, especially when one’s family spends their Thanksgiving in the Sierras during a winter storm. But I certainly did not improve matters when I chose my next book: a thick, authoritative, and in every conceivable way complete history of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Author Craig Nelson’s appropriately-named Pearl Harbor: from Infamy to Greatness charts the history of the attack from the beginning . . . in fact, the book covers the 1869 Meiji Restoration in Japan and the original settlement of Hawai’i by Polynesian seafarers. The tome continues in thorough, if sometimes tedious detail. While this is not necessarily bad, the publisher’s curious selection of a small typeface for the book makes each already-long chapter look deceptively short. I have a fair amount of practice reading history books, and frankly this one took me a while.

Organizationally the book is divided into three parts. Part I, “The Roads to War,” explores the various historical, political, geopolitical, and cultural factors that put Japan and the United States on a collision course. While this narrative is thickly told and makes no attempt to spare any details, Nelson does a fantastic job of highlighting some of the fulcrum points leading to the Japanese attack. He convincingly argues that it could have prevented at several different points, including in early December when FDR made a last-minute appeal to Emperor Hirohito himself. Nelson does not pull any punches when describing either Japanese complicity in attacking Hawai’i or the complete and utter unwillingness among Americans to anticipate or prevent such an attack, but he does provide essential contest and nuance when discussing both. Not surprisingly, the lead-up to war was complicated: Japanese Army hardliners won out over the objections of the Navy and civilian authorities, while FDR’s full embargo of oil to Japan backed the expansionist nation into a corner. Few people on either side seemed to want a war. But war is what they got, especially when Japan famously underestimated the American response to the raid on Pearl Harbor.

Part II (“Strike!”) covers the raid itself, providing a minute-by-minute account of the hostilities. Nelson does an admirable job of covering the devastation wrought outside the especially infamous explosion on the Arizona, including a chapter on the raids against Wheeler, Hickham, and other Oahu airfields. Two chapters on the two successive waves to hit the harbor tell in detail what happened to the Pennsylvania (in dry dock), the Utah (anchored on the opposite shore of Ford Island), the Nevada (which beached itself after failing to escape the harbor through its narrow entrance channel) and various other battleships, cruisers, and destroyers that suffered damage or were destroyed. This is the meat of the book for Pearl Harbor history aficionados, and they will not be disappointed by the detail or the energetic prose.

Finally, Part III tells two different stories in three chapters: the Doolittle Raid and the public memory of Pearl Harbor after the war. Chapter Eleven, “Vengeance,” provides an excellent history of the Doolittle Raid, and the next chapter cleverly intertwines a summary of how the Pacific War was won with the stories of the Doolittle Raider POWs in Japanese custody for the duration of the conflict (or, in three cases, until they were executed).

Nelson’s Pearl Harbor is a sweeping, even-handed history of a complicated, yet critically important event in American history. It largely avoids the triumphalist rhetoric of less-reflective World War II books (like The Greatest Generation), but Nelson does argue that Pearl Harbor not only awakened Americans to the dangers of fascism, but that it helped steer the course for its postwar contributions to world peace. Of course that last point is debatable, but given the last few centuries of western history 75 years without a World War III is certainly an achievement. And that achievement would not have been possible without America’s military might, economic dominance, and diplomatic acumen.

I think I am going to write a separate post on how this book (and, if I’m being honest, This American Life) has made me rethink the contours of this project somewhat. That will come probably early next week. Meanwhile, if you were to purchase only one book on Pearl Harbor and had enough free time to soak up an exhaustive, single-volume account of the attack, its origins, and its consequences, then I cannot recommend this book enough.

December 10th, 1941

This is the first letter Elmer wrote following the attack on Pearl Harbor. As you can see he actually wrote two letters: one on the 10th and another on the 14th. But the letter itself was postmarked on the 17th.

The days following the attack were rough, both on the survivors and on the families of everyone back home who anxiously awaited word from their loved ones. As the Army and Navy began scooping body parts out of the harbor water with pillowcases and searching what was left of the Oklahoma and other ships for survivors, officials scrambled to inform loved ones about the fate of their sons, fathers, husbands, and brothers. Unfortunately, this process took a great deal of time, given both the sheer extent of the destruction and the fact that thousands were presumed dead or missing.

Over 40,000 servicemen were stationed on Hawaii, and they all had people back home who cared about them. For some of those people, it would be a long wait before they received any news.

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December 16th: “Fighting Mad” with Japan

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