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.

Next Entry:
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.

Next Entry:
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?

Next Entry:
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.

Next Entry:
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.

Next Entry:
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.

Next Entry:
December 16th: “Fighting Mad” with Japan

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The Morning When All Hell Broke Loose

The following is an excerpt from a book I am writing, tentatively entitled Salty Dog: A Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Journey through Letters and Memory, about Elmer Luckett and his experiences during the war. The writing is a bit rough still, since the manuscript is in development, but it is close to what his Pearl Harbor story will look like in the final product. This chapter, entitled “All Hell Broke Loose,” also includes the history of what led up to the attacks, as well as a discussion of their aftermath (including Japanese internment) in the United States. My end goal is to blend grandpa’s story with narrative history about the war itself. Anyway, please let me know what you think! – Matt

Sunday, December 7th was a workday for Elmer. After a week of patrolling the harbor entrance, the Chew pulled into port on Saturday, when it was then relieved by the Ward. The Chew dropped anchor in the northeast corner of the harbor, just a few hundred yards stern side from Battleship Row. Ford Island, with its support facilities and massive fuel tanks, lay just to the southwest. Surrounded by water, the only way to get to shore was to take a motorized whaleboat. Two crewmen operated the vessel: a seaman who steered the boat, and an engineer who operated the engine.

Elmer had engine duty that day.

Grandpa woke up early, rolled out of his cot, and got ready for work. Sunday mornings usually ran a bit slower – they were the perfect time to lollygag, eat a leisurely breakfast, and chat with friends. Elmer wrote several letters the previous evening, so he took the opportunity that morning to mail them before reporting to duty. He headed topside to where the mailbox was located. Bathed in crisp sunlight, the top deck of the Chew was already beginning to feel warm, despite it not even being 8am yet. This sort of weather would be unheard of back home for most of the sailors aboard, but in Hawaii the temperature only drops to the upper 60s at night, which makes the air cool for about five minutes before dawn. Then it starts start to feel muggy again, like a bathroom with no working fan after a steamy shower. After dropping off his letters, Elmer strolled over to the galley, which was also topside. He ran into Ossie there, who was about to eat, and the two friends began to chat. It was 7:55 in the morning, and the whale boat had not yet returned to the ship with all of the sailors and officers who had spent the previous night offboard. He described what happened next in an oral interview over 70 years later:

“And all of a sudden, [Ossie] said, ‘Look at all that smoke over at Ford Island.’ I looked over there and it was just about the time that I took a look, there it was. Planes started coming in over Battleship Row, the dive bombers hitting Battleship Row. Then, in the distance I could see the torpedo planes, torpedo bombers. They were coming in, and they’d just skim it over the water. And they were, like, lined up. They would drop their torpedoes and take off, one after another . . . Meanwhile, Ozzie and I, we were just standing there all shook. And I do remember saying to him, I said, ‘This means war.’ And then . . . the planes went by. You could see the red Rising Sun insignia on their wings.”

Elmer Luckett

He and Ossie stood there in shock for a few long moments and watched helplessly as Japanese torpedoes began slamming into the outboard battleships. “When the torpedoes hit, you see the plane drop the torpedo,” he later explained, “and then just a second or two later you’d see the battleship jump up from the impact of the torpedo hitting.”

Elmer might not have realized it at the time, but he was watching one of World War II’s many technical innovations being deployed for the first time. One of the reasons why so many Americans erred in believing that Pearl Harbor was safe from attack was that the water, which was only a few dozen feet deep, was too shallow for such an attack. Torpedoes are heavy things; lobbing one into the water from a speeding airplane is like driving a Ford F-150 at 60 miles per hour off a tall bluff into a river. Strategists believed, not without reason, that Japan’s torpedo bombers would not be able to harm any of the ships at Pearl. Unfortunately, Japanese planners realized this too, so they invented a new kind of torpedo with wooden fins. This new design made the weapons more buoyant, allowing them to quickly resurface and strike their targets without first hitting the seabed. The Battleships were sitting ducks.

After a few minutes the captain sounded general quarters, and both he and Ossie sprung into action as their training kicked in. Elmer raced across the ship towards his duty station in the engine room. As he ran, bombs rained down upon the nearby battleships and torpedoes sliced through the shallow water towards their marks. Just before he reached the ladder, a deafening roar drowned out the distant booms and machine gun fire.

“Why, then the Arizona got hit with that explosion that … it was just a big ball of flames; [a] tremendous explosion.”

Elmer Luckett

A Japanese bomb tore through the Arizona’s decks and detonated its magazine, causing a massive explosion that tore the battleship apart. Hundreds of sailors and Marines died either instantly or over the next few minutes, many of whom were burned alive as nearly every surface of the ship caught fire. Witnesses later described dismembered body parts and twisted chunks of steel being blown away from the doomed ship and into the water by the blast. Overall, nearly half of the servicemen who died that day were aboard the Arizona. Elmer did not stick around to watch. If he did, it is a memory he never discussed.

After escaping the horrors above, Elmer quickly encountered chaos below. Many of the engineers were on liberty, and so several critical duty stations were unmanned.

“I remember they got a call down . . . about starting up the engine in the steering room. In the back, there was a separate engine that ran the steering mechanism that turned the rudder. Evidently, some of our guys were off on liberty . . . if they didn’t have duty, some of them had their wives over there in the naval housing projects. [Anyway], who[ever] was supposed to handle the steering engine wasn’t aboard.”

Elmer Luckett

The officer in charge ordered Elmer to go back and “get that steering engine running.” However, he had never even set foot in that room before. Once Elmer made it back there, he quickly figured out how to make it run. “I knew what the engines were,” he explained, “so I just went back there and I realized you’ve got to open the exhaust valve, you’ve got to open the drain valves and put the steam to it, and not too hard; just warm up the engine. Once you got it going, well, then it took over what it was supposed to do to move the rudder.” Soon the ship was underway.

Elmer worked four hours on and four hours off for the next three days. Since the Chew was constantly on the move after the bombs began to drop, the whale boat was not able to connect with the ship. He and the other engineers and fireman who had spent the night on the ship had to pull double-duty given the absence of so many crew members. However, this fate was nothing compared to that of the sailors and officers aboard the Arizona.

Although the Chew survived the attack unscathed, the gravity of the drama unfolding around them and their own ship’s uncertain fate weighed on everyone differently. Elmer noticed one coping mechanism as he rushed past the head towards the steering engine. “The toilet facilities . . . had, like, a big, long trench, a long metal thing, and the guys was sitting with each other,” he recalled. “There was a number of them in there, sitting there having bowel movements . . . I glanced in there. You know, the excitement, it just worked their bowel. But it didn’t bother me anyway.” The clinical term for this “excitement” is “acute stress reaction,” and one of the symptoms is sudden and urgent diarrhea. Yet Elmer’s coolness under fire could be misleading. According to Dr. Lawrence Knott, victims could also “[feel] emotionally numb and detached from others.”[i]

The Chew began pacing around the harbor, but it could not leave for several hours. Once the bombing started the battleship Nevada made a beeline for the harbor entrance. However, if the Nevada were to sink on the harbor’s narrow entrance channel, it would have effectively bottled up the surviving ships inside for months. The Japanese pilots soon recognized this and began gunning for the fleeing boat. Once the Nevada’s captain understood what was happening, he ordered his crew to intentionally run the ship aground. “After that happened,” according to Elmer, “I think they ordered that no ships were to try and leave Pearl Harbor until after the attack was over.” Between the Nevada’s self-sacrifice, Yamamoto’s decision to cancel a third wave of bombers, and the absence of three aircraft carriers, the Attack on Pearl Harbor was not the worst-case scenario it could have been. Elmer also pointed out that several targets in and around the harbor (which would have been likely hit during the third wave) were missed:

“The oil storage tanks were all above ground at that time. If they’d have put one or two bombs there, they’d have started that whole goddamn storage field on fire, and all the oil for the ships that they use for fuel would have had to have been shipped out for the West Coast. Meanwhile, there wouldn’t have been no way of getting fuel for Pearl. And another thing, they didn’t hit the dock facilities, the maintenance buildings. They had a machine shop there that could do big work on these battleships or any other ship. They didn’t try and bomb that.”

Elmer Luckett

But near misses and silver linings did not matter to the hundreds of crewmembers entombed on the Arizona, or the thousands of others who died that day. For their families, who would not hear for days or weeks about the status of their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers, the damage was unimaginable.

Elmer’s shipmates Matthew Agola and Clarence Wise were among the dead. Both men spent the previous night away from the ship, and with no way of returning to the Chew that morning they rushed towards the USS Pennsylvania, which was in dry dock and easy prey for Japanese dive bombers. They died trying to rescue sailors from the Pennsylvania after it caught fire from several bomb blasts and two adjacent destroyers already engulfed in flames.

The Chew earned its spurs – and a Battle Star – for its actions that morning. The gun crew shot down one Japanese plane and damaged two others, and over the next three days the ship conducted anti-submarine patrols off the harbor entrance. “I think we made eight depth charge runs,” Elmer later stated. “We kind of figured we might have been successful with a couple of them. So who knows? It’s kind of hard to verify anything that you do with depth charges below the water.” Oil slicks suddenly rising to the surface were the usual telltale sign of a fallen sub, but only records of enemy communications or another submarine could confirm the kill. In fact, later investigations proved many of these reports to be erroneous or, at best, optimistic. According to the Navy, reports that the Chew destroyed as many as three submarines remain unconfirmed, and thus it has not been credited with any kills. At the very least, the Chew kept the Japanese submariners on their toes, which in turn helped keep the surviving Americans safe.

If the Japanese had attacked a day earlier, or if the Ward had departed a day later, the Chew might have fired what some historians believe was the first shot of the war. During the early morning hours of December 7th, the Ward spotted a Japanese submarine while patrolling the harbor entrance. Of course, the submarine had no legal or diplomatic reason to be in restricted American waters, so the Ward took aim and fired. The submarine sank, and the captain reported his engagement to the Pacific Fleet Command. Unfortunately for thousands of American servicemen at Pearl Harbor and the surrounding airfields, however, it was Sunday morning, and Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Husband Kimmel was in no hurry to relay his report up the chain of command. The Ward’s encounter could have contextualized a report later that morning from a radar station in north Oahu. The technician in charge radioed headquarters that a large formation of planes was inbound from the north, thus providing some warning to the island. Unfortunately, the Lieutenant in charge of the radar system insisted that the technician was looking at a formation of bombers due to arrive from the states, and no warning ever came.


[i] https://patient.info/mental-health/stress-management/acute-stress-reaction

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December 10th, 1941

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Elmer Luckett on Pearl Harbor (excerpted from oral interview, recorded 12-31-14)

Hi folks,
Here’s an excerpt from my three-hour oral interview with grandpa, which I recorded on New Year’s Eve in 2014. This twenty-two minute excerpt corresponds to his discussion of the Pearl Harbor attack and its aftermath. As time goes by I will excerpt additional portions of the interview and post them here. If anyone would like a full copy of it please let me know.

Best,
Matt

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The Morning When All Hell Broke Loose

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