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.

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.

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.