July 1945: Pounds and Politics

In the last weeks of the war, Elmer and the Mink spent their days doing what they had been doing for the past fifteen months: slaking the American Navy’s seemingly endless thirst for fuel on the other side of the world. The ship passed a second month that July servicing ships off Morotai, an island that is now part of Indonesia. “No, Dad, our anchor isn’t stuck at this place. We have to move once in awhile or else the tin cans thrown over the side would fence us in. Ha! Ha!”

Although the Mink was no longer traveling around the region, Elmer was in good spirits on the Fourth of July that year. “Here goes again from that man,” he began, in reference to himself. “Seems as if I just finished a letter home and whats-up, but its [sic] time to write again. [It is] a good thing you all love me so much at home, or I’m afraid these letters would grow very boring. Ha! Ha!” He went on to talk about how many of correspondents thought he was “a pretty fair letter writer,” but that “the censor probably thinks different, or at least he gets plenty tired of going over my letters each week. Someone has to take the punishment for my letters, even if the people that receive them don’t complain.” In any case, he joked that a leave rotation would solve everyone’s problems. “Even the censor[‘s.] So much for idle chatter.”

LST’s at BLUE Beach, Morotai in September 1944. Wikicommons.

Yet in spite of his heightened spirits his parents were still going to be parents. His mother grew anxious after Elmer reported losing a few pounds. “Mom at times you’re a problem to me,” he wrote rather harshly on the 8th. “I casually mention that I lost a few pounds in a letter and right away you start worrying. What am I to do with you? I feel fine at all times and eat as much as I desire.” He then tried to explain the cause of his weight loss. “I’ve been in the tropics and heat for a good while and it don’t bother me. It’s only natural that you don’t eat any heavy meals here, mom, that is, all the time you don’t feel like eating a big meal.”

At the very least he was no less skinny than he was before, as he told to his father in that same letter. “I have a pretty good paunch as it is,” he reported. “Trouble with a ship is you are confined to such a small area most of the time, you don’t get enough exercise. You have your work and can keep busy, but really need more exercise. And the tropics aren’t exactly the type climate to inspire a man for exercising. Give me good old Missouri – four seasons – and a temperate climate.”

Elmer did not only discuss his weight with his parents. He and his dad continued to discuss In Fact, with Elmer articulating his own – and alluding to his father’s – political views throughout. That July, in fact, Elmer broached a subject that is still taboo today among many Americans: bigotry and race.

This is a brief, but wonderful documentary short about the Tuskegee Airmen

Historians since the George Floyd Protests began have been rightfully more attuned to biases in not only our nation’s history, but within our own work as well. This extends from our research and reading to what and how we teach our classes. It compels us to think about what antiracism means in our own daily lives, as well as what it means for our professional ones. This process of accountability applies to historical subjects as well, including my grandfather. However, anyone who undertakes the challenge of confronting their own privilege and bias today should be equally willing to witness and acknowledge that process as it plays out in the biographical record. If we are able to cut ourselves any slack after changing our hearts and our beliefs, we should do the same for the people about whom we write.

In that regard, then, my Grandpa is a case study in how Greatest Generation servicemen confronted their privilege in an era before the term had any academic cache. “Did you read the article about race, color, and religious prejudices the Army put out to its men,” he asked his dad on July 1st.

“It sure was good. And today the sermon at church was about being a good neighbor, and loving one[‘s] neighbors as thyself. There is no doubt that anyone prejudices against Jews or colored people or anything else is working against democracy and helping fascism. And at the same time its [sic] against the teaching of Jesus and any true religion. That writer Seldes is O.K. for my money.”

Elmer to his Parents, 1 July 1945

Of course, Elmer had prejudices of his own, the most conspicuous being his resentment toward Japan and Japanese people. His letters, while containing nothing out of the ordinary when compared to other white Naval personnel during the War, contained a torrent of Japanese stereotypes and slurs. He held this image of Japan in his mind possibly until the end of his life. And although he reserved more respect for other Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities, he sometimes commented on their skin, dress, and culture in his letters home.

That being said, Seldes’s columns were not universally embraced, and not everyone took them to heart as much as Elmer did. The American Armed Forces, despite a prohibition against discrimination by the Selective Service Act, were racially segregated during World War II. Even though Black units like the Tuskegee Airmen were well known for their bravery and skill, and less-famous units were instrumental in carrying out the D-Day Invasion and other critical tasks, their exploits did not translate into better rights for their families at home, or for their own rights upon their return. Within the branches themselves, many whites still treated people of color as second-class servicemen. The Roosevelt Administration and the Military attempted to combat some of these prejudices by writing and distributing pamphlets like the one Elmer apparently read while in Morotai, and by circulating training manuals. In many ways this was a prelude to President Truman’s decision to issue Executive Order 9981 almost exactly three years later, which desegregated the Armed Forces. While that decision shocked many whites, particularly Southerners in Truman’s own Democratic Party, the Army was clearly ahead of the curve in at least trying to anticipate the logistical and cultural effects of desegregation.

This is the first page of “Command of Negro Troops,” a training pamphlet released by the War Department in 1944. Although the text is riddled with bias and racist logic, it represents an attempt by the Army brass to ameliorate some of the pressures and injustices facing their Black soldiers. You can read the entire thing at the FDR Library.

This systemic segregation persisted, however, and was entrenched within military culture. This was evident on Elmer’s ships, where in the United States Navy African-Americans could only serve as stewards or mess attendants. On the Chew, for instance, Elmer served with a handful of stewards who were born and raised in Guam.* But by 1944, he and the rest of his crew no doubt had a great deal of contact with various other people from across Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, which may have introduced opportunities for Elmer to broaden the diversity of his social network.

In his Fourth of July letter, Elmer continued to talk politics, this time in the context of America’s democratic experiment.

“A lot has happened since the Declaration of Independence. A number of wars and much bloodshed to keep that declaration. And I think the country has gone a long way toward making it a real Declaration of Independence. All men created equal, and other individual rights were [a long] time in coming. Took almost a hundred years to finish slavery and when manufacturing developed more the working man was busy trying to get decent hours, wages, and working conditions. Yet it has been improving with the years and it is the best deal yet. Our country isn’t perfect, but it has the best chance of becoming as near perfect as possible, if the people want it that way. So much for that, I’ll be giving a speech soon.”

Elmer to his Parents, 4 July 1945

Afterwards, he mentioned that Harry Scott wrote him to let Elmer know he was also a fan of Seldes’s columns. “Glad he likes the paper,” Elmer noted, in reference to In Fact. “I think it is a good little news sheet.”

Elmer’s passion for politics brought him closer to his dad. It probably helped bring him closer to Rose as well, since she was also not afraid to express her opinion. “And you think another left hook from Rose will put me down for the count,” he told his dad. “She is the girl that can do it” However, he was no longer reserved in his letters about sharing his feelings about his blossoming romance. “Yes, mom, if I were [to] fall for a girl it is Rose,” he wrote on the 15th. “Someday she may be a new daughter for you. I’ve never asked a girl to wait for me before, but I did ask Rose to wait. I love her, Mom, and that’s all I can say.” He was thinking about finishing school, and he reiterated that “until this war is over and I get re-established we are just sweethearts.” But the decision had been made.

* I plan on researching these men over the next year and adding their story to those of Grandpa’s crew mates on the Chew.

In Light of Recent Events

Hi folks,
In general my policy is to keep this space – particularly the Grandpa’s Letters blog – as free from politics and current events as possible. As a historian, one of my goals is to tell stories that bring Americans together, while also telling the truth – however unsparing – about our past.

However, the protests and riots last few days demand that we all think about and contend with some harsh realities. Many of those realities are historically well-documented: that people of color and black men specifically face the disproportionate burden of aggressive and militarized policing in this country; that mass incarceration and “tough on crime” policies overwhelmingly affect people of color and poor Americans; and that eliminating racism is about more than just changing hearts and minds, it is about dismantling larger social, economic, and political structures (which we might not even be consciously aware of) that perpetuate inequality.

My heart goes out to George Floyd’s family, and to all of the families of those who have been killed under similar circumstances. And while I believe the time for change is long overdue, I am hopeful that peaceful protests, community activism, and growing public awareness of and engagement with these issues will make this particular event a watershed moment in the history of our country.

So, in lieu of one of my usual blog posts, I’m instead going to link to three pieces that I believe are particularly important for spaces like this, in which Democrats and Republicans and Independents and people of all shapes and stripes and colors (I hope) co-mingle out of a shared love for history. Please read and reflect, and, if you would like, leave a comment below.

“Op-Ed: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge,” Los Angeles Times, 30 May 2020. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of America’s most legendary sports figures, is also a fantastic writer. Please check out what he has to say about what’s happening.

Jim Bovard, “Cops Kill Because We Gave Them the Legal Framework to do it,” The American Conservative, 30 May 2020. So, now that we know what the problem is, what are some concrete steps for what to do next? Personally, I believe that police and criminal justice reform is one of the few bipartisan issues left. Both parties have an interest in demilitarizing police, minimizing the impact of law enforcement and law in general on our everyday lives, and keeping good people out of jail. Although there are naturally a wide range of solutions to this problem, I think this set of reforms as proposed by a prominent conservative publication are a great place to start thinking about them.

Kelly Vanessa Porter, “The Story of Doris Miller and What It Means to be An American Hero,” Medium.com, 22 May 2020. Finally, the story of Doris Miller is one I have not told on this blog, but this article does a far better job than I would have – and it is a great reminder for me that I need to include it in the book. It is also a reminder that even Miller, an American hero who died in the service of his country, still regularly battled racism at home in the country he was fighting to protect.

Finally, if anyone is looking for a concrete way to help without using their money to sanction or condone violence, consider donating to Campaign Zero. Their goal is to reduce and eventually eliminate police violence using smart public policy backed up by social science. You can donate here: https://www.paypal.me/campaignzero

As always, thank you for reading and for spending a few minutes of your time here today. Be safe and be well.

ML