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.
This is the last letter I have before the Attack on Pearl Harbor. As Elmer indicates below, he is on patrol until December 6th, so it is likely that this is the last one that gets out.
My grandpa told me several times that he had a letter postmarked December 7th. Unfortunately, it is not part of the collection of letters I received. In any case, he would have written that letter on Saturday, December 6th, and as he told me in his oral interview he mailed them only a few minutes before the bombs started to fall.
Speaking of that interview, I will post the Pearl Harbor portion of it on Wednesday.
Abraham Lincoln’s decision to enshrine the last Thursday of each November as a day of national Thanksgiving in 1863 was tantamount to a Papal Bull. It immediately rendered null and void dozens of various local “Thanksgiving” observances across the country and replaced them with a single federal holiday. Lincoln also imbued the peculiar American holiday tradition with a profound, and timely, raison d’etre: Thanksgiving was to be a day when the nation’s families could give thanks for the blessings in their lives. Even when the smoke emanating from the ground at Gettysburg and other recently-hallowed places made these good fortunes – and the mounting Union dead – hard to count, the entire point of the day was to scrounge together a good meal, say a prayer of thanks, and enjoy it with loved ones. It was a beautifully simple and welcome concept, and a new holiday tradition was born out of the ravages of war.
Then FDR almost screwed it all up.
In 1939, Roosevelt asked Congress to change Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November. That month in particular had five Thursdays, which meant that after Americans gobbled down their turkey on the 30th they would only have 24 shopping days before Christmas. America’s economic recovery was still on fragile footing, and a shortened holiday season threatened to undercut it. But instead of extending Christmas, the decision instead created confusion. Some families embraced the newly decreed day, while others clung to the traditional date. A Great Schism appeared on American calendars, forcing families to negotiate among themselves the timing of their annual meal.
Partisanship often dictated the choice. The third Thursday of the became known as “Franksgiving,” while the last Thursday would often be referred to as “Republican Thanksgiving.” But this division only worsened the holiday’s reputation for bringing long-simmering disagreements between family members to the surface.
By 1941, Americans were ready to demand a solution to the growing Thanksgiving crisis. They took their concerns to Congress, which on October 6th passed a resolution establishing the last Thursday of the November as the official date. However, the Senate objected, noting that some Novembers (like that of 1939) had five Thursdays. It responded with an amendment revising the changed date to the fourth Thursday of the month. The House ultimately accepted this revision, but in true Congressional fashion the new language took several weeks to make its rounds back through Capital Hill and then onto Roosevelt’s desk. The bill was finally signed on December 26th, the day after Christmas, thus rendering the issue moot for the year. It also resulted in an interesting piece of trivia: for the second time, Thanksgiving was born during a time of war.
Elmer, his family, and Uncle Sam all seemed to agree that the official date of Thursday, November 20th, was good enough for them. “Well, another Thanksgiving has arrived,” he wrote that evening. “Although we are not united physically, know our thoughts are the same today. But we are all well and getting along fine and that is something to be thankful for . . . there are so many things to be thankful for that it could fill a book. So we can’t complain. Can we?” Elmer certainly didn’t criticize the food. “After eating such a swell dinner today I find it hard to complain about anything.” He and his shipmates enjoyed quite a spread: “turkey, chicken, tomato soup, mashed potatoes, asparagus, gravy, cranberry sauce, olives, pickles, lemonade, bread, crackers, followed by apple pie and ice cream and candy . . . it’s funny, I don’t feel hungry now. Ha ha.”
Elmer had many reasons to give thanks. Of course, he and everyone else at Pearl were thankful for the fact that they could enjoy Thanksgiving, if not with their families, then at least with the knowledge that their nation was at peace. But many if not most probably realized that it would be the last peaceful Thanksgiving for some time. Negotiations with the Japanese had broken down, leaving unresolved the question of where Japan would get its oil in light of the American embargo and the U.S. demand that the Empire cease its imperialistic war in China. Only war or an unlikely diplomatic surrender by either side could resolve the impasse. And storm clouds continued to gather over the Atlantic as well. After all, the wanton and unrepentant sinking of American ships going to or returning from England had already compelled the United States to join one World War. Despite the consternation of the America First crowd, it seemed increasingly apparent that the United States could not sit on the sidelines forever.
For the time being, however, America was an oasis of peace in a world riven by war. And while most of the world’s navies continued to battle one another on the high seas, American Destroyers like the Chew and the Ward could take pleasure cruises to tropical islands. The Chew embarked on its second recreational trip that year in November when it steamed towards Molokai for Armistice Day. “I believe everyone had a good time at Kaunakakai,” Elmer reported on the 13th. When they arrived on Monday, November 10th “the whole town was there on the dock to meet [them].” On Tuesday morning about two dozen members of the crew participated in a parade through the town. It “was very good for a small parade. We . . . marched first, behind us followed the towns division of National Guard, American Legion, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, etc.” Afterwards they gathered for a “town meeting,” at which several speeches were delivered in commemoration of Armistice Day, while “local groups of the town sang, danced, and entertained us.”
Elmer and his friends took the opportunity to explore the island. The residents “chiefly raise pineapples for Del Monte,” he recalled. He “saw acre after acre of pineapple[s under cultivation.] He also checked out a leper colony on the island, “which was a sight to see. Of course we saw it from a great height. It is like a finger of the island, being isolated by a huge cliff.” Later they watched a football game between the Army and a team of locals from the island. The Army won.
However, as was often the case for Fireman 2nd Class Luckett, the real highlight of the day was dinner, which seemed to resemble the following week’s Thanksgiving feast. “We had a turkey dinner aboard our ship,” he wrote, followed by drinks later that evening and some “chicken and hamburgers.”
Indeed, there was much to be thankful for that month, enough to fill a book and two Thanksgiving holidays. But the general feeling would change dramatically by Christmas.
On a personal note, this year I am thankful for a great many things, including the opportunity to start this blog and to begin working on this project. It has already proven to be a fascinating journey, and really it is only beginning. Thank you for reading along, for subscribing and commenting, and for your encouragement over the last couple of months as I’ve worked to get this project off the ground.
I hope that everyone has a happy Thanksgiving, and safe travels to all who are traveling over the holiday weekend. And remember: cranberry sauce from a can is not cranberry sauce. Fortunately, it only takes a few minutes to make the real thing.
By October, as the Chew underwent the final stages of its rehabilitation, the World War I-era destroyer began to look more distinctive, more modern. Elmer related what he could to his parents back home. She “looks like a new ship,” he reported on October 19th. Much of the machinery was updated or replaced, while the old paint on the hull was painstakingly removed with pneumatic chisels so that the ship could be repainted. The entire crew was involved in the former effort. “It is one of those dirty jobs that just has to be done,” he lamented. By the time the crew moved back into the ship at the end of the month, it had new “tables, chairs, fans,” and other comforts. Even the mattresses were deep cleaned and repacked. Overall, the overhaul was “an experience in itself,” and throughout the process Elmer learned what he could.
As exciting as these upgrades were to the young men living on an old ship, Elmer did not relish a return to patrol duty. “I would like to go somewhere else for a change,” he wrote on the 11th. “You know a place becomes stale after you see all the sights and places. I have seen most of the places of interest.” Elmer was not alone in his boredom. After several months in paradise, many sailors began to yearn for the comforts of the mainland. Honolulu in 1941 was still a small city, with 180,000 people to Saint Louis’s 820,000. In terms of size it was like Worcester, Massachusetts, but with beaches and nicer weather. It was also expensive, with many of the restaurants and shopping destinations well outside of the Fireman 2nd Class’s budget. Even haircuts were four times as much in town than they were at Pearl, he complained at one point. It should come as no surprise why Elmer spent so much of his time at the Y.
Elmer also attributed his ennui to itchy feet. “The old urge to move and see more of the sights on this Earth has got me,” he reported to his parents. After all, the desire to see the world was one of the reasons why he joined the Naval Reserve in the first place. But Honolulu was smaller than the hometown he had left. Pearl was smaller still: an island within an island. It was time to venture forth and see more of what the world had to offer.
Yet for the time being, Hawai’i was also one of the safest places in the world. Much of the planet was engulfed in war as China and the Soviet Union fought for their right to exist, while Nazi boots kicked up dust as far west as the Bay of Biscay and as far east as the Black Sea. The Third Reich took an increasingly aggressive approach to American merchant and Naval traffic on the North Atlantic as well, (correctly) ascertaining that Roosevelt’s actions belied his supposed neutrality. On the morning of October 17th, 1941, Americans woke up to the news that a German U-Boat fired a torpedo at the U.S.S. Kearny, a Clemson-class destroyer, in the North Atlantic. The explosion killed eleven sailors, rattling the nation and heightening fears that war was imminent.
The scare was not lost on Grandpa. In his October 29th letter to his parents, Elmer Luckett put on a brave face for his folks. “We have little to worry about,” he assured them. “Our duty don’t [sic] take us from Pearl Harbor. And you know Pearl Harbor is the strongest naval base in the Pacific – probably in the world. So don’t let the newspaper stories worry you folks.” For his part, Luckett told his parents he was unafraid. “I wouldn’t mind” being in the Atlantic, he told them. “I am a fatalist in that sense, if a thing is going to happen nothing can stop it. People take a chance every time they cross the street. There is no use to worry about such things.”
These sentiments were easier to express when the action was taking place nearly ten thousand miles way. However, the immediacy of the dangers surrounding the United States Navy might have contributed to his decision to send his parents a poem, “Our Boys in Blue.” Although the work shares the same name as a World War I-era tune, the lines bear little resemblance to one another. Whatever its origins, the poem might have been distributed to the sailors aboard the Chew during the Navy Day ceremonies on October 27th.
Of course, Elmer’s parents certainly did not need to be reminded that “these boys in blue, they’re very much worth while.” They wrote him regularly, and that month they also sent him a box of cigars, while his sister Irene mailed him cookies and candy. As he wrote his letter on the 26th, he reported that he was smoking one of the Chicago MC cigars they had mailed him, and “as they say in the Navy, ‘it’s right on,’ meaning its swell. Thanks again folks.”
But the poem also warned that “when dangers [sic] threatens, may I say (and it’s more apparent every day), they stand first, in blue or white, to adjust and make it right.” Perhaps this was the main message Elmer wanted to impart to his parents: that while the world’s troubles were beginning to close in, he and his shipmates were prepared to meet those challenges and dangers head on. His parents might worry about his safety, but they need not concern themselves with his preparedness.
Sure enough, on October 31st, just as millions of American kids were dressing up as ghosts and witches for Halloween, and as the Chew finished its own costume changes in advance of its service in a second World War, one hundred boys in blue died when a U-Boat torpedo attacked another ship, the USS Reuben James. This time the vessel sank into the cold depths of the Atlantic. Only 44 survived.
Like the Chew, the Reuben James was also a Wilkes-class destroyer from World War I. But no new paint job could save it from its fate.
It was about 9:40pm when I approached my wife. I had just woken up from a 90 minute nap (which happens when your 2-year-old daughter demands that you lie down near her in the adult-sized daybed as she is trying to sleep), so I was already groggy when I told her that I was going to attend a 10:25 showing of Midway that night. “OK.,” she chuckled.
“I’m doing it for the blog!” I maintained, perhaps a bit too insistently.
She laughed again. “Sure.”
I had already asked her a few days earlier if she would want to see it with me, and based on the conversation that followed it seemed that neither one of us expected a whole lot. After all, Roland Emmerich isn’t exactly known for his artistic nuance. Watching aliens blow up major cities in Independence Day is one thing, but trusting him with a war epic and perhaps the single most important naval battle in American history? That’s a tall order for anyone. Nevertheless, I wanted to see how the guy who blew up a scale model of the White House with a spaceship would treat four ill-fated Japanese carriers.
For starters – and perhaps this comes as a disappointment to some of you – I cannot comment too readily on the film’s historical accuracy. There are two main reasons for this. First, my “expertise” does not encompass the Battle of Midway, and most of what I know comes from general descriptions of the battle. Secondly, I decided to suspend disbelief early on, once I realized that the Japanese torpedo bombers attacking Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor (the December 7th attack is depicted within the first five minutes of the movie) were moving in from the southwest, and not from the northwest and due north. I also noticed that there were no ships anchored where the Chew and the Allen were supposed to be located – an omission that rankled me a bit (and which, understandably, would have upset my grandfather). Once the film moved past the events of December 7th and into 1942, I figured that the movie would be more easily digestible if I watched it as it was probably intended to be seen: as a “based on a true story” Emmerich disaster flick, and not as a documentary.
When seen on its own merits, Midway holds up fairly well as a war movie. For one, Emmerich’s ensemble cast of characters (including Admiral Chester Nimitz, Japanese Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Lt. Commander Richard Best, and Rear Admiral Edwin Layton) are all compelling in their own right and could easily inspire their own biopics. As for the plot, Emmerich is smart to begin the movie with the attack on Pearl Harbor and to end it with Midway. While I don’t think the script properly conveys just how poorly the war effort had been going for the United States throughout the first half of 1942, in general it does a good job of narrating the sequence of events that span the United States military’s failure to predict the attack on Pearl Harbor with its inspired and fortuitous counterstroke at Midway.
More importantly, I think Emmerich recognized a problem that many war movies about air raids have, which is that they often occurred so quickly that it would be impossible to make a movie about them without including lots of filler. This issue has plagued film reenactments of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which in real time lasted less than two hours from start to finish. Tora! Tora! Tora! tried to solve this problem by devoting most of its screen time to the events leading up to the attack, while Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) focused primarily on a love triangle. Neither film successfully balances the intensity of the attack with the relative quiet of the days, weeks, and months preceding it. In Midway, however, the attack on Pearl Harbor provides exposition, not climax, while the namesake battle begins at the start of the screenplay’s third act. This was a clever way to frame the film around its comparatively short action sequences.
That being said, the dialogue could use a lot of work. Most of the characters speak like, well, the people in Independence Day. There are lots of New Jersey accents, platitudes about duty and winning and what not, and an endless stream of tropes (like references by Japanese commanders to being ordered to stand “like samurai.”) The characters just don’t seem to talk like normal people. In fact, I’m positive that Admiral Halsey spent a lot more time complaining about his shingles than he let on in the film.
Also, as other reviewers have stated, the film’s use of CGI is a bit overwhelming. It is one thing to depict a ship blowing up; it is another thing entirely to have Best fly his bomber through the explosion caused by one of his own bombs. These whiz-bang moments don’t really add much to the drama, but instead muddle the narrative with endless special effects distractions. Perhaps this is where Emmerich’s resume becomes a liability. History, when told truthfully and with an ear for good storytelling, does not need disaster filmmaking to engage the audience’s interest.
Aside from these concerns, however, the movie overall was pretty good. While it does not compare to more inspired war films in recent years (like the masterful Dunkirk), it is a classic action war movie. I enjoyed it, and if you plan on seeing it, I would definitely recommend checking it out at the theater. Even if you can only make it to the 10:25pm showing, and you have to grab a cup of coffee first to get through it.
Elmer’s August 18th letter home contained two important pieces of news, neither of which might have seemed all that surprising to his doting parents: he officially received a Fireman 2nd Class rating, and he was not in love with his girlfriend, Pat.
On August 9th he took his two engineering exams, and despite receiving a 3.93 out of 4.0 grade on his training course he anxiously awaited the results. Eight other men in the broiler rooms applied for the new rating as well, including his buddies Ossie, Jim, and the Grossman brothers. Elmer fretted over the better than even odds. “[Nine] men are trying. They may only rate the five best . . . that’s the way the Navy works.” He also worried about whether or not his commanding officers recommended him for the promotion. “I believe I am well liked,” he wrote after the fact. “I always do my best.” At the very least, he was not cutthroat so as to want to see his friends fail. “I hope we all make it,” he wrote. When the results came in, Ossie and Jack Grossman both made the cut, but Jim and Harold Grossman did not. That, unfortunately, is just how the Navy works.
Elmer’s new rating was welcome news, particularly in light of his money situation. All the time he was spending dockside that August was cutting into his finances – less work meant more time, and more time on land meant more movies, beers, milkshakes, and sandwiches. But he didn’t just spend his money on himself. He also purchased a “Chinese kimono” for Pat with an embroidered dragon on the back. The robe cost $4.50, which is about $80 in 2019 dollars. “Next week I should get my raise” of about $5, he reported. “Hot dog.”
Grandpa did not specify why he bought Pat such a nice gift. It may have been out of loyalty, friendly affection, or as thanks for all the small gifts she sent him over the past few months. But his feelings towards her stopped short of love. “You know mom, I don’t know if Pat is the girl for me or not,” he wrote, perhaps not realizing that those words put together in a sentence usually meant the latter. “Not that I have anyone else in mind. She is a good kid and sends me books, candy, and is real sweet. But I am not sure I love her.” Elmer explained that he attached himself to her partly because his shipmates all seemed to have girls of their own. “I was never much of a ladies man,” he sheepishly admitted.
Elmer decided to let her down gently – perhaps too gently to make a clean break. He stopped writing her as often, and told his parents that he had made no promises to her about the future. But he also seemed to hope that Pat would end up pulling the trigger herself on their long distance courtship. “Pat goes out with fellows occasionally. Perhaps she will find someone else.” He then told his parents that he would continue responding to her letters, and that they did need “to tell Pat about this – just suit yourself about it.” In the words of future singer-songwriter Neil Sedaka, then a two-year old growing up in Brooklyn, “breaking up is hard to do.”
So far I have found very little information on Pat, apart from these letters. Perhaps someone reading this blog has more information . . . did Grandpa ever talk about his pre-Pearl Harbor girlfriend? Maybe his letters are sitting in a box somewhere in a St. Louis attic, gathering dust, sandwiched between or perhaps buried under a mound of artifacts from a more successful future courtship with another good kid. Or maybe she threw them into the fireplace.
Summers in Hawaii were hot, but so were the springs, falls, and winters. If anything set the season apart, it was the Chew crew’s determination to enjoy it. Elmer’s letters that July described the many kinds of recreation available on – and via – the ship, even as the boat continued to drill for a possible war. “All kinds of athletic equipment” were available to the crew, he wrote on the 9th, including “punching bags, boxing gloves, [and] hand balls.” The sailors even liked to skeet shoot off the Chew’s deck. In the evening, the officers played a phonograph for the crew “with all the popular songs” and showed movies on the deck. “[The officers] do all they can to make us happy and break the daily routine,” he wrote. “They are really swell.” If the Chew had a Captain Queeg, he must not have ever set foot in the engine room.
The officers also organized a recreational cruise to Hilo, a town located on the east coast of the Big Island. The trip included three days of liberty on the island, as well as two separate excursions to Hawaii National Park. “It was a swell cruise,” he reported to his folks. “[Hilo] was a nice town (people liked the sailors a lot – we practically had the whole town to ourselves as there were only two other ships there), whereas Honolulu is overflowing with gobs.*” The sailors were ferried around the island in station wagons, with eight men per car. Despite the cramped quarters, the payoff was grand: “We arrived at the park and saw all volcano craters, flows, and lava tubes. Sure was interesting.” Of course, no Elmer sightseeing report would be complete without an update on lunch: “ham and egg sandwiches, fruit and cake.” Once back in Hilo, Elmer and his friends knocked back a few beers and went to the movies. “Saw Jack Holt in The Great Swindle,” he announced.
The movies had become one of his favorite destinations in Honolulu. On July 2nd, he watched It All Came True, starring Humphrey Bogart, which he thought was “a pretty good show.” Two days later, they saw another one. But Elmer never mentioned the name of the flick, for once it let out something more exciting awaited him and his group of friends: the SS Lurline. The widely renowned passenger ship was docked at Honolulu for the afternoon, and it disgorged its many passengers onto the busy city streets. Elmer and his friends were allowed to board and check out the boat for themselves. “Sure was fun,” he recalled. “All the people were happy and wore flower leis around their necks.” When the ship departed, a large crowd gathered at the dock to wave goodbye, “just like in the movies.” But while sometimes life imitates art, there is no substitution in life for art. Elmer and his group spent the night at the Y in town, and then saw two more movies the next day. “We’re regular ‘show-bugs.’ Ha ha.”
Elmer’s descriptions of his many adventures that month jazzed up what had otherwise become a somewhat routine correspondence. His parents continued to emote their concerns about his service to him in their letters, and he responded by stating that it would “make [him] very unhappy” for him to learn they were worried. They also continued to send gifts back and forth – Elmer sent something to his mom for her birthday, and she in turn sent him a package containing “1 lb of tobacco, 2 boxes cigars, candy, soap, tooth powder, and shave lotion.” Perhaps one new dynamic emerged this month: Elmer and his family expressing their true feelings about his girlfriend, Pat. Apparently Bud and Elsie did so in one of their letters, prompting Elmer to reassure his mother that he was not offended. “I believe I said the same things about her myself,” he wrote, casting doubt on the future of their relationship.
In any case, his letters had grown slightly less frequent in light of the Chew’s constant sea duty. “Yes sir, this is a sea going son of a gun,” he wrote with pride. But the week-on, week-off neutrality zone rotations were phased out in favor of a more staggered schedule. Sometimes they would head out for a week, and at other times they would only head out for the day in order to practice torpedo runs in the waters surrounding the harbor entrance.
However, the day trips out to sea for shooting fake subs and clay pigeons would soon be put on hold. “[The Chew] is supposed to go in the Navy Yard for two months,” he reported. “Our ship is to be overhauled completely . . . we’ll probably get tired of it after so much sea duty, but a change won’t be bad to take. You won’t have to worry about me being at sea then.” While August could make no promises about milder weather, it certainly did seem to mark the end of the summer.
Elmer spent the majority of the month at sea, so he had fewer opportunities to write his folks. Not that he had a great deal to say, anyway. “There really isn’t much to write about this time,” he wrote apologetically. “Our duty is the same, and not much to speak of.” His writer’s block appeared to be contagious as well. “Ozzie is writing a few lines also, he is sitting next to me. He doesn’t know what to say either.” His time at sea was not entirely uneventful. In the next paragraph, Elmer recounts spotting various kinds of marine life. “Ozzie and I saw a tiger shark this morning,” he wrote. It is “the most fierce of sharks.” They also watched “flying fish and porpoises” on the trip.
Thank you’s dominated his letters. His mother continued to send him candy. His sister Irene shipped him cookies, which “sure [were] good” despite being delivered a month late. “That happens every once and a while by parcel post,” he offered.” Thanks a million, sis.” He also sent home three Father’s Day cards, as thanks for “being such a swell dad!”
One reason for the lack of commentary was both straightforward and inevitable: after six months, life in the Navy was becoming routine. Elmer stressed in his letters that he still missed his home and his family: “I’m not kicking [out of the Navy] but a home with mom and dad suits me any time.” He also continued to reassure them that he was OK, “safe and shipshape.”
However, he did not fail to mention that he was studying for his new rating, and that the pay increase would be substantial. Compared to his pay in the Navy, “when you stop to think about it I wasn’t doing all that well at home.” Similar economic circumstances drove thousands of men from across the United States to join the Navy during the 1930s and early 40s: the promise of paid room and board, adventure and excitement on the government’s dime, and pay on top of all that. It was a great deal, at least for the time being.
Yet his June letters sounded more ominous notes about the waters ahead. For one thing, the Navy announced it would begin censoring sailors’ mail. Elmer explained that he would have to be careful about what he could say, and that he would no longer be able to describe the ship’s activities, location, or other details that could be intercepted by a potential enemy. He also responded to Hitler’s invasion of Russia that month. “I think Germany has bit off too much time,” he wrote his father. “At least I hope so.”
But Elmer, ever the optimist, expressed no regrets. “It is such a beautiful day today,” he wrote on June 15th. “The waiting room [at the Y] is open around the front and the sun is beating down on the palm trees. A cool breeze is drifting through here and it is refreshing. Gee, it is great to be alive.” Regardless of what was happening elsewhere in a world gone mad, it was a lovely afternoon in Hawaii, and Elmer was determined to enjoy it.
Longer letters were nice, but as far as his parents were concerned, that is all he needed to say.
Before Americans really even began to realize it, the Great Depression was over. Times weren’t good, necessarily, but then again they were nowhere near as bad as they were a decade earlier. Jobs were less scarce than before, and all of Elmer’s friends back home seemed to be buying cars. His father was also working steady again. After years of struggling to put together enough work as a carpenter to feed his family and pay the rent, Forrest Luckett was finally able to string together enough work to put his money problems behind him.
Times were good enough that his family could send him a package of gifts for his birthday on May 7th, as well as a bundle of civilian clothes to help celebrate turning twenty-one. “Well, today I am a man,” he wrote when the big day arrived. “Or am I?”
But the “swell civilian outfit” he received was helpful for another reason: he didn’t want to have to buy another. No longer flush with extra mess hall earnings, Elmer’s third class Fireman pay rate didn’t do a whole lot for someone stationed in Hawai’i. He looked forward to receiving a promotion . . . and the corresponding pay bump, which “will be a big help.” But in the meantime, he economized by buying gifts for friends and family back home at the Y, while reducing the amount of money he mailed back to his parents. On May 18th, he apologized for only sending $7. “Don’t want to cut myself short,” he explained. “Things are so high out here.”
Oahu’s exorbitant prices were understandable, if not necessarily welcome. The problem is even worse today: insufficient housing stock, a growing population, a relatively small percentage of arable land, overstretched and crowded infrastructure, and the cost of importing much of its food and most of its manufactured items makes the Hawaiian dream a distant reality for most people.* But in 1940, these cost of living expenses only made it more difficult for servicemen and officers to stretch their salaries between themselves and their families. If anything, the sudden influx of Naval personnel who arrived at Pearl after President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor created a housing crisis almost overnight. Officers’ wives who followed their husbands to the islands often found themselves living in tiny, dingy apartments. Many questioned and lamented the decision to move the fleet’s headquarters to Oahu from San Diego, which was cheaper, larger, and much closer to friends and family across the United States. Elsewhere, civilian workers were feeling the pinch, and the dock workers at Pearl were about to begin striking for higher wages. “Everyone [is] as greedy as the devil,” Elmer wrote of their efforts (perhaps uncharitably, given his and his family’s own history as union members).
As Elmer struggled to stretch his pay in Hawaii and as the employment prospects began to improve in Saint Louis, he expressed no regrets over choosing to serve his country. But his parents, who had to sign Elmer’s paperwork in order for him to join the Naval Reserve, seemed to have their doubts. “My mother had signed for me reluctantly,” Elmer stated in an interview years later. But even after her youngest son had already found his sea legs in the Navy, she began second-guessing her decision to let him go in her letters. Elmer was annoyed, if not slightly indignant. “I told you how I felt about those papers you signed,” he wrote after the subject came up yet again that month, “so let’s hear no more about it.”
While economic concerns and past regrets were at the front of the Luckett family’s minds that spring, the possibility of a war looming on the horizon continued to lurk in the background. Elmer’s parents had good reasons to be concerned. The Navy, for its part, was not taking any chances. Grandpa reported on the various drills and exercises he, his ship, and the surrounding community were taking to protect themselves against an ominous if uncertain Japanese threat. On May 22, he described his spectacular view of Honolulu’s lights all turning off at once during a city-wide blackout, and mentioned his ship’s participation in a “sham battle” with other vessels which were tasked with trying to enter the Harbor. Later that month, the Chew spent three days at sea testing out its long-range gunnery. “Yes, sir,” he wrote, “never a dull moment.”
His destroyer was slowly but surely becoming one. But Elmer didn’t need a birthday to prove that he was all grown up.
* I was offered a fantastic job at a school in Honolulu a few years ago. I really wanted to accept it . . . However, the salary would have made it difficult to move out there, enjoy the kind of life we were living in Los Angeles at the time, and still have enough money for my wife and I to travel back to the states and visit our families. I turned it down, even though I am still kicking myself for passing up an almost perfect job in an almost perfect location . . .
For sailors and soldiers stationed on Oahu, the local YMCA offered a comfortable home base away from, well . . . base.
Grandpa’s box of war documents did not just contain letters. Hidden among the many other pieces of ephemera, I found a well-worn YMCA map and brochure. According to his letters Elmer visited the facility often, and the document lists many potential reasons for why he and others frequented the place: “The popular ‘Navy Y’ [is] the club, meeting place, and recreation center for thousands of men from the [Navy] Yard and the ships afloat.” The Y featured “a 700-seat auditorium” with “four free shows and three paid programs . . . [a] week,” as well as a “cool, spacious lobby with many table and small games.” It also contained “quiet writing and study rooms,” which is what Elmer must have been utilizing when penning his March 8th, 1941 letter. “The fellas” he came to town with that day “went on to a show,” he wrote, “but I decided to write you and Pat here at the ‘Y.'”
The Y provided essential services as well, including a small bank, a money order wire counter, two chapels, and even a “curio shop” for “the economical purchase of souvenirs and gifts.” Getting there was easy as well, and no hitchhiking was necessary: a one-way bus ticket from Navy Yard to the Y was 20 cents, and a taxi (which could be divvied up) cost a quarter. The brochure even contained a complete map of the island of Oahu, showing the locations of the various bases, attractions, and even what beaches were safe for swimming.
In any event, the YMCA was a cheap, pleasant place to spend one’s liberty, and Elmer frequently found himself there when in town.
One thing I’d like to start doing in this space is to spend some time writing about the books I am using in my research. While admittedly my research interest in my Grandpa’s Letters project is a bit less academically trenchant than my work on horse thieves, it does give me the opportunity to read some great books about World War II, the Navy, and the wider world he inhabited.
Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizona is historian Walter R. Borneman’s most recent book, having come out earlier this year. It is the tale of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona, as told from the perspective of the thirty-eight pairs (and in some cases trios) of brothers who served together on that ill-fated ship. Of those thirty-eight sets, only one pair of brothers both survived, and only twelve other men among the others avoided death that day.
But while only a few members of the Arizona’s complement survived – most of whom happened to have spent the night elsewhere, thus avoiding the ship’s fate altogether that morning – their stories live on. Borneman interviewed the survivors and their families, as well as the families of the deceased, many of whom shared their letters and other mementos and stories of their departed fathers, brothers, and uncles. The author did a remarkable job not only collecting all of these different stories, but of also weaving them together throughout the book. It’s a master class on historiographical resourcefulness: it is much easier to go to an archive than it is to hunt down families whose loved ones died the better part of a century ago under sudden, violent, and tragic circumstances.
Organizationally the book is divided into three parts: the history of the Arizona and its crew before the attack, the attack itself, and the days and years following December 7th. Borneman revels in details throughout this narrative: explaining who these men were, where they grew up, the kinds of trouble they got into as kids, the reasons why they joined the Navy during peacetime, etc. Some of their stories were not unlike Grandpa’s – they sent money home each month and wrote as often as they could. But grandpa’s story diverged when he was assigned to a ship that, for the most part, survived the day relatively unscathed. Anyway, these stories give names and life to the list of names on the wall at the Arizona Memorial.
The book was a quick read, at least for me. It would have been quicker if not for some filler towards the middle – Borneman takes pains to describe the college football games being played on December 6th and the hot songs of the day, apropos of nothing. However, for the most part the story is well-written, accessible, and at certain points action-driven. The last two chapters of the book were especially poignant, and one many wish to have a box of tissues or a handkerchief available.
This was a valuable first book to read on the subject of Pearl Harbor. Borneman is a more than capable historian, and this entry will serve as a touchstone for me going forward. But more importantly, it is a fantastic model for how to research and write the stories of World War II servicemen. It is sensitive, contemplative, thorough in its chasing down of narrative strands and family leads, and exquisitely well-written. His use of the brother pairings was an excellent choice, both in terms of creating a broad yet narrow set of subjects for the book (the Arizona’s compliment was over 1,500, which is a lot of individual stories) while also facilitating its research (pairs of brothers mean multiple families to consult, which creates larger pools of historical information as family members tell stories about their uncles as well as their fathers or grandfathers). His approach works very well.
Overall, I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona, or well-crafted history book in general.
Do you have any books you’d like to recommend? Have you read this one? Share your thoughts in a comment!
By early March 1941, Elmer was beginning to get acclimated to his new surroundings: the Chew, Pearl Harbor, the Neutrality Zone, Honolulu, and Waikiki Beach. “I feel fine,” he wrote in a letter to his brother Bud and his family, “[and I] really have a swell sun tan.”
Although still on mess duty, Grandpa did not mind starting his Naval career in the Chew’s kitchen. “I am glad I got mess cook first,” he reported to his parents. “It will be over soon[,] then I can dive right in and learn all about running this destroyer. The other fellows will all have to take their mess cook duty in turn. Every man in the Navy has [to do it.]” Mess duty had its advantages as well. “The ‘chow’ is plenty good, too. You can eat as much as you want. Ice cream every day,” he wrote on January 25th. It was also financially lucrative, with mess cooks earning an extra $5 a month in pay plus whatever was in the mess tip jar. Elmer sent his extra earnings home each month. On March 1st, he informed his parents that he was sending them $20, but that they should not worry about him keeping enough for himself. Between that and the $6 he had won in a card game the past week, Elmer was flush with walking around money (“I am a careful gambler,” he wrote reassuringly).
Outside of the mess kitchen, Elmer was also getting to know the wider world on and beyond the base. On March 1st Elmer described the overall organization of the 80th Destroyer Division, which was made up of the Chew, the Schely, the Allen, and the Ward. The four ships shared patrol duties through the Hawai’ian neutrality zone, which included searching for hostile ships and submarines, performing battle drills, and ensuring the safety of Pearl Harbor and its many inhabitants. He told his parents that they would soon embark on a ten day patrol cruise and that they shouldn’t expect any letters during that time. With all of the patrolling, “[I am] getting to be a salty sailor.”
Despite the cruises, Elmer was also getting to know and enjoy Oahu. In Honolulu he frequented the YMCA and enjoyed going to the movies, while at Waikiki he and his pals “really had a swell time. Swimming and surf boat riding. Boy is that the life! We all had a good time.” Although the beach was a ways away from town, he had no problems hitchhiking. “It is easy to catch a ride. A sailor in uniform gets a ride very easy.”
In any case, Elmer’s mess duty was scheduled to end on April 1st, and a brand new set of experiences would begin. He would then have a little over eight months to learn as much as he could about “running this destroyer” before he, his shipmates, and the rest of the country found themselves smack dab in the middle of a war.