June 1941: Tiger Sharks and Thank You Notes

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.

Image result for invasion russia honolulu newspaper
Half a world away, Hawaiians read with foreboding – and maybe a silver lining’s worth of hope – about Hitler’s invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941.

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.

May 1941: A Reversal of Fortunes

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?”

Photo of the Luckett family.Taken c. 1928.
Photograph of grandpa’s family, taken c. 1928. Back row, from left to right: Forrest (father), Rose (mother), Bud (brother), Irene (sister). Front row: Elmer. Not pictured: Ruth (sister). [family photo]

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.”

Forrest Luckett and his son, Elmer, wearing a U.S. Navy hat. C. 1925
Despite his parents’ concerns about joining the Reserves, there were early signs that Elmer may one day enlist in the Navy . . . [Family photo]

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.

Photograph of Elmer Luckett. Family photo, digitized by KSDK.
Elmer Luckett after enlisting in the Navy. [family photo, uploaded by KSDK – not sure where the original is . . .]

* 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 . . .

It’s fun to stay at the Honolulu YMCA

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.

What I’m Reading: Brothers Down

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 by [Borneman, Walter R.]

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!

Things to “Chew” on: Daily ice cream and the process of becoming a “salty sailor”

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.

September 10th and December 6th: Thinking about Pearl Harbor on the Anniversary of 9/11

My grandpa had no problems telling his Pearl Harbor survival story. Sometimes he would pause, sometimes he would choke up a little or shed a tear, but he never seemed to doubt or misremember the event or its place within his memory and his life. While I don’t envy his experience, I do wish I had his clarity and conviction. His letters, much like his retelling of the Pearl Harbor story later on, reveal a man who knew exactly what his job was, and what America’s job was, in the years to follow. “Keep your chins up!” he repeatedly implored his parents after the attack.

If Grandpa’s Pearl Harbor story was unmuddled, my memories of 9/11 are anything but. That is probably not important in the grand scheme of things – apart from the ubiquitous “where were you?” question that is asked of any American over the age of 25, I was neither there nor in in the military or anywhere else where I could claim personal ownership of the event. But I am a history professor, and now that I find myself having to explain 9/11 to students in my classes who don’t remember it and may not have even been alive when it happened, I need to make sense of a few things. I need to find my own 9/11 story, even if it is limited to the experience of some dopey college student in the Midwest. At the very least, that story may matter someday to my daughter, who might someday get bored of me telling her about my grandpa and will want to hear some things about mom and dad for a change.

But first, it is necessary to compare the significance of both Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as touchstone events in history. And much like 9/11, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor also represents a watershed in America’s historical memory. The attack presents a clear “before and after,” neatly arranging the surrounding history into two distinct epochs. Accordingly, the days, weeks, months, and to some degree years preceding the attack were “peacetime.” Despite the uncertainties and trials of the Depression years, the economy in 1941 was already on the rebound, and for a brief period of time between pervasive unemployment and wartime rationing people had money to spend, and many choices of things on which to spend it. All the fathers, sons, brothers who would soon go to different corners of the planet to fight and die were still alive at home. War seemed perilously close, and a fight with Nazi Germany was perhaps inevitable, but it was also light years away.

However, while September 11th’s “before and after” dichotomy was stark, sudden, and shattering – it only took 102 minutes for two hijacked planes to hit and bring down the Twin Towers, and all but the first four of those minutes were broadcast on live TV – Pearl Harbor was more ambiguous. The attack itself was certainly a tremendous shock, and the anger it generated was more than justified, but few Americans could contemplate on December 6th a future that did not include America’s entry into either the Pacific or European Wars, or both. In 1940, the America First Committee created the largest anti-war movement in American history, mobilizing millions of American voters to reject calls for the United States to enter the war against Hitler and Mussolini. Millions of other Americans, understandably worried about what the future of the world would look like with a swastika flag flying outside Buckingham Palace, somberly followed news from the conflict with a foreboding sense of doom.

Yet within the ostensibly neutral United States government, preparations for the possibility of a coming war began much earlier. During the 1920s and 1930s, American military planners frequently war-gamed what a conflict with Germany and, later, Japan would look like. Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 forced the Navy to begin “neutrality patrols” in an effort to keep the war at bay. But the fall of France in 1940 compelled President Roosevelt to find ways to support Great Britain in the conflict indirectly and without alienating a largely anti-war and Depression-weary American public. On June 2, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to exchange fifty American destroyers for 99-year leases on several British bases throughout the western Atlantic. This quid-pro-quo led to new legislation in March 1940, the Lend-Lease Act, which formalized and legalized future exchanges of that nature when aiding nations whose security was determined to be “vital to the interests of the United States.” (for more information on the Lend-Lease Act, check out this website: https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=71). Meanwhile, the United States issued the first peacetime draft in American history on September 16th, 1940, nearly fifteen months before its official entry into the war.

Elmer Luckett’s letter home on January 4th, 1941 describes some of the preparations being made in San Diego’s Destroyer base. As he waited to be taken to Hawaii, where the USS Chew would soon be launched, Elmer was ordered to help with the buildup. “Yesterday I was busy working with a pneumatic powered steel chisel,” he wrote. “They are clearing the rust off the marine railway structure,” which would then be “used to take the destroyers out of the water and into dry dock.” The United States Navy had recently begun repurposing dozens of aging destroyers from World War I, including the Chew, in order to beef up its Atlantic and Pacific fleets. As these ships were modified and restored for modern use, the decaying Destroyer naval infrastructure had to be restored as well. Projects such as these lit America’s naval bases, ports, and harbors with the high-intensity sparkle of welding torches, and the rattle of pneumatic chisels and other tools echoed throughout the bases. “We are working almost every day now on something or other,” he observed. The war was almost a year away but the mobilization had already begun.

Elmer was beginning to do some of his own war planning as well. Later in the same letter, he asked his parents if it would be wise for him to take out $1000 in National Service Life Insurance. This policy, offered by the United States government, would cost $0.65 a month and would be good for five years. Since his regular life insurance would be void in the event a war started, he wanted his family to be covered if it did. After all, he was sending checks home every month or so, and his father had only recently started finding steady work again after years of Depression-era job insecurity. Elmer’s passing would not only devastate his parents, it could also jeopardize their financial and economic future.

His concern about his parents’ welfare continued to deepen. Three days later, he announced that he had taken out a $2,000 policy for $1.30 a month. “I think I did the best thing, mom. Don’t you think so? How about you dad, does it sound OK to you?” Regardless of their thoughts on the matter, the deal did sound OK to the 22 million other servicemen who purchased policies of their own between October 8, 1940 and September 2, 1945. And for hundreds of thousands of buyers and their families, this would prove to be both a wise investment and a decidedly unwished-for windfall.

In many ways, Pearl Harbor and September 11th offer little more than an apples to oranges comparison. After all, while the War on Terror has killed over half a million people, including 8,748 American military personnel (see icasualties.org for the latest numbers), and has dramatically reshaped the geopolitics of both the United States and the Middle East, its historical footprint is simply not as large as that of World War II (though in the end it may end up lasting much longer). Pearl Harbor’s effects cannot be overstated: it catapulted the United States into a global conflict against three of the most tyrannical and dangerous regimes in human history, and America’s own involvement ushered in both the nuclear and the digital ages. The United States almost certainly owed its postwar superpower status to its vast economic and military mobilization, which alone among the Western powers had survived not only intact but substantially larger as a result of the war. And it is certainly possible that Americans would not have fought in the conflict with such self-assurance, collective resolve, and stoic commitment had it not been for the surprise sacrifice of over 2,400 Americans at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s fear that Japan had only managed to wake a “sleeping giant” was eventually realized when Pearl Harbor, rather than chastening a stunned nation, instead galvanized it into fierce action. Of course, the United States was hardly asleep before Pearl Harbor, but a year and a half of peacetime mobilization could hardly prepare the United States for what was to come. The United States had destroyers to spare, but it had not yet mustered the resolve.

Nearly eighty years later, as I sit here writing this on the 18th anniversary of 9/11, I am also struck by the quietude of the era preceding the latter day. References to September 10th made that date something of a trope, but they suggest a subtle hint of what was lost when those four planes crashed into New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. There was no wartime mobilization during the months leading up to September 11th. Few were worried about or were even aware of what was to come, including some senior officials in the United States government whose jobs were to keep Americans safe. Then again, twelve years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and over a decade since the United States and its coalition allies nearly annihilated Saddam Hussein’s military during the lightning-fast Persian Gulf War, Americans were used to not having to worry too much about war. There was no peacetime draft, no hurried modernizing of aged Cold War-era ships, and no particularly urgent reason to worry about the political fate of the world.

Even the pop culture landscape did not conceive of 9/11’s scale. Most fictional movie terrorist attacks, like those in the strangely prophetic 1998 film The Siege, killed no more than a few hundred people and only did so with gloomy solemnity, whereas disaster films like Independence Day giddily destroyed vast swaths of the world. Depictions of events that lay in-between seemed more fantastical, like Tom Clancy’s almost on-the-nose foreshadowing of the damage a 747 jet could do when a pilot (a Japanese pilot, incidentally, who lost his son and brother in a recent, brief war with the United States) crashed one into the United States Capitol during a Joint Session of Congress in his 1994 novel Debt of Honor. Admittedly, Tom Clancy and others often sounded the alarm to Americans in the years before 9/11, warning them to imagine new and terrible threats to American security and to take them seriously. But those threats, like the looming and catastrophic consequences of climate change today, too often fell on deaf ears.

I would love to tell my grandpa’s 9/11 story here, but I regret to say that I don’t know it. Neither do my parents. I imagine he was as shocked as the rest of us. I believe he was relieved to know that his children and grandchildren were all at least a thousand miles from the devastation, even if most Americans as a whole were only inches away from the terror unfolding across their television screens. Nevertheless, I wish I would have called him, just to check in (my grandmother, who lived in Alabama, probably would have liked one as well). 9/11 provided the ultimate excuse for unsolicited family phone calls.

Even if I were to provide it, though, Pearl Harbor would still remain his story. As I dive deeper and deeper into his letters, both before the event and afterwards, and reconcile these with my own memories of the man, it becomes increasingly clear to me just how powerful and central a moment Pearl Harbor was to him. This stems most compellingly from his experience as a survivor of the attack, but also from his memories of a pre-War America and within the broader context of his own generation’s response to the onslaught. Of course, his World War II journey is much larger than this, much more grand and global in scope. It’s a sweeping, fascinating tale, and I hope to do it all justice. But I think grandpa principally defined his own experience in relation to Pearl Harbor. It was both the beginning and the end of the war for him. Prologue and epilogue all at once.

To a much lesser extent I see the past, present, and future through the lens of 9/11. I was not there – the closest I came was a visit to Ground Zero the following July while in New York and having friends who lost friends. I was not directly affected, apart from starting my third week as a dorm resident advisor with an emergency meeting between the RAs and hall directors as we all tried to figure out what we needed to do, assuming there was anything within our power that could be done. But I will never forget that morning. I slept in, waking only a few minutes before I had to go to my tutoring job. Since I was running late I did not bother to check the TV or the radio or internet at all before leaving. When I arrived at the office, I headed towards the break lounge to drop off my bag and see if any students were waiting for me, and upon opening the door I immediately saw directly in front of me on the television a single Twin Tower – just one, where there should have been two – billowing smoke. I’ll never forget that image.

That said, I hesitate to say that 9/11 is “my” story, insofar as I experienced it just as millions of others who weren’t there. In that sense, it was a defining event in my life, though not as personally defining or immediate as, say, graduating from college, getting married, getting hit by a car when I was 14, climbing the Great Wall of China, or the birth of my daughter. But for my grandfather Pearl Harbor was both.

Perhaps that is why Pearl Harbor was never far from my grandfather’s mind. He was very active in veterans’ associations, had a Pearl Harbor Survivor license plate, and watched Tora! Tora! Tora! more times than any kid my age could claim to have seen The Goonies. He was certainly entitled to attach that kind of personal significance to the event. It loomed large in his memory, and with good reason. He owned a piece of it. And when he died, another piece of the history of the attack died with him.

Anyway, if I don’t post this soon, I am going to have to wait until the 19th anniversary to do so. Perhaps that would give me enough time to think of a suitable ending for this piece, instead of prattling on about my grandpa and about me being late to my college tutoring job 18 years ago. I would like to think that, in the space of a year, I can think of some clever way to wrap up how I feel about 9/11’s legacy, which is that we did not only lose 3,000 Americans that day, but a sense of ourselves. Part of our charity, part of our capacity for understanding collapsed into rubble. Part of what it means to be an American, I think, seemed to disappear.

A compelling argument can be made that Pearl Harbor created a similar pathology within the United States. After all, the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans in 1942 stands as one of the most egregiously undemocratic, inhumane, and un-American actions in recent historical memory. But that preparation before the war, that sense of what was to come, probably helped America fight afterwards instead of becoming completely unglued. The flag-waving and song-singing patriotism, which only lasted weeks after 9/11, helped carry America across the finish line four years after the attack on Hawaii and win the war.

Meanwhile, our War against Terror continues, unresolved, with no end in sight. And while the color-coded terror alerts are gone, the fear remains. It has been eighteen years, and we still live as if we are waiting for the other shoe to drop. But we don’t have to, and perhaps those of us who don’t remember America before 9/11 will lead the way in creating a future that is happier, freer, less burdened, and more inclusive than our romanticized past.

Chins up.

“When this upset world straightens out we will all be together again.”

In July 1941, Grandpa had only been in the service for a few months. He was still getting to know Hawaii and his ship, the U.S.S. Chew. Meanwhile, all the action seemed fairly remote: the European War lurched to the east in dramatic fashion when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union the previous month, and Japan’s diplomatic impasse with the United States was quiet if ominous to anyone on or within shelling range of the Pacific.

Elmer did not have much to tell his parents, but they did have a great deal to share with one another. This letter, written on July 2nd, lists some of the things they exchanged between Oahu and Missouri: birth dates, DeMolay cards, and care packages for Elmer; and photos, programs, and money for his parents. “Today I got the box you sent me. Boy, it sure had plenty. A lb of tobacco, 2 boxes of cigars, candy, soap, tooth powder, and shave lotion. Gee, you sure are good to me . . . you are always thinking of your sailor boy.”

Elmer certainly returned the favor every payday, at which time he would send a few bucks back home. Although this letter hints at some good news regarding his father’s job, it is clear the Depression hit him hard, just as it did so many others. “So glad to know you are still working steady,” he commented. “I guess all business is pretty good now.” In spite of the warming economic climate, however, Elmer continued to send his parents money. This letter in particular contained a money order for $8.

Over the next few months, Elmer would send more money, as well as pictures, brochures, and descriptions of his adventures in Oahu and throughout the islands. Although his reactions in his letters to his parents seem muted, he no doubt enjoyed the time he spend in Hawaii that summer. Like many others stationed at Pearl Harbor, he knew he was lucky. In a world torn apart by war, he was able to serve his country while enjoying the sun, surf, and scenery.

It was paradise.