“Love and Things:” Rose’s First Letter to Elmer

Rose’s letter from May 15, 1944 wasn’t the first one she wrote, but it is the first one we have and was probably the first one he kept, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

If Elmer’s letters are effusive and sometimes lusty, Rose’s were coy and self-deprecating. She had a dry wit and a tendency to tease (“Please pardon the scratching out, I am lounging on the bunk in The Hatch and I am getting very lazy,” she wrote, possibly in reference to their earlier jokes about Elmer’s long hernia recovery), yet her letters are carpeted with a soft sincerity. She responded to Elmer’s queries about not having received any letters from her by telling him that she did, in fact, write him; that the mails were slow; and that she would “go see my friend the Admiral and give him a piece of my mind and yours too if you want me.”

The Jefferson Memorial and the Cherry Blossoms, April 1944. Photo by R. Schmid.

They traded news about their promotions. Rose told Elmer “how wonderful you are getting your first class stripe,” and then announced that she herself received a higher rating at the Navy Department. She wrote about life with her best friend and roommate, Anne, and told him that with all the food preparation she had been doing that she was “getting to be a wonderful cook, if I do say so myself. I baked an apple pie the other day and it’s all gone. I also baked a ham and I fried a chicken all by myself. I hope I am not making you hungry.” She also passed along the news that her brother Danny had joined the Navy (“because of me, he says. Isn’t that sweet of him?”), and apologized for only having pictures of cherry blossoms in DC on account of her not having her own camera (though she further chided him, “Don’t you know there is a war going on and film is very, very scarce.”)

But the highlight of the letter came on page three, which . . . well, maybe it would be better to read it yourself:

Right afterwards she used the poem to segue into a difficult subject: “Did you like it? I hope so because I have a confession to make. I lost the heart off of [the bracelet that you gave me].” She explained how it got lost, and then added, “I am trying to get one like it and I won’t rest until I do. Am I forgiven? I hope so.”

She concludes by telling him that Anne asked to tell him, “hello, be a good boy, and come home safely.” Rose then added, “She usually isn’t that sloppy but I have to humor her since her operation.” She signed off, “Love and things, Rose,” followed by a row of X’s.

I don’t really have a hard-hitting historical analysis for this letter. To be perfectly honest, it just makes me wish that I could have had the opportunity to meet her.

“My Dearest Elmer:” Grandma’s Letters to Grandpa

As has been pointed out several times in this blog, Elmer did not save many of the letters he received during the war. So far as I can tell none of the letters written by his parents have survived, nor did virtually any of the letters written by his girlfriends or pals in the service. Elmer usually destroyed them after a certain period of time, in part because he had very limited storage space to keep hundreds of letters filed away for future preservation. Of course, I would have loved it if he would have bundled them up in a box and mailed them to his parents, but what can you do?

Anyway, the only collection of letters I have that were written to him by other people were penned by Rose Schmid, my grandmother. Grandpa did not save a lot of these letters, either: only a few exist from 1944 (I have many more from 1945), and these were filed by month in labeled envelopes later one, probably because grandpa threw out the original envelopes. The first of these letters is dated May 15, 1944.

Like with my Elmer’s letters to Rose I will mostly integrate Rose’s letters to Elmer into the blog narrative. But I plan on spending a lot more time researching her life, her job, and her background, and then integrating these topics fully into the book. Yet this is going to be much more challenging that my research on Elmer, aided as it is by hundreds of letters, an oral interview, conversations with my father and uncle, and the privilege of knowing my grandpa for nearly 37 years before he passed away. By contrast, my grandmother Rose passed away in 1979, less than two years before I was born.

I never did hear a lot about my grandmother growing up. My mom never met her, and my dad isn’t exactly the loquacious type. Meanwhile, my grandpa remarried not too long after Rose’s death, and the policy when I was a kid was that his wife was to be called “Grandma Margaret,” and Rose “Grandma Rose.” But Margaret had grandchildren of her own, and of my maternal grandmother’s 19 grandkids my brother and I were the babies, so we always felt like we received extra-special attention despite her living nearly 600 miles away.

I’ve always been curious about Grandma Rose, though, and while growing up I always felt she was in some way looking after me and my brother. I heard that she had a wicked sense of humor, loved Johnny Cash, and called her beef stew recipe “Cowboy Stew” in an attempt to get my dad and uncle to eat it (my mother always used that name as well, though I suspect my own Frozen-obsessed daughter will insist on something like “Princess Stew” instead).

Needless to say, I am excited to start reading her letters, because in a way this will be my opportunity to get to know her. Which is fantastic, because, honestly, she seemed pretty cool.

February 1944: No News is Good News

On February 3rd the Mink pulled into Cristobal, a port on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal Zone. The crew had two nights to rest, mail letters, and paint the town red. Elmer “had some liberty” while there and, as he told his parents, “I enjoyed myself very much.” But he could not tell them much more, including where they happened to be in the world. I didn’t hear many stories about Panama when I was a kid, nor did he say much about it during our oral interview. But Elmer doubtlessly enjoyed a bottle of Balboa, Panama’s national beer, while in town, and hopefully an order of ropa vieja.

Two days later, Elmer and the rest of the crew got to experience the region’s most well-known landmark: the Panama Canal. Over a hundred years later it remains one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels. While the Panamanian isthmus may seem narrow on a map it is still a forty-mile crossing through steep mountains and dense jungle. In spite of these obstacles the canal was wide enough to accommodate tankers like the Mink and other massive seafaring vessels, although the U.S. Navy refused to build any ships too large to squeeze through it until it launched its first Midway-class aircraft carriers in 1945. Even Fitzcarraldo would be impressed.

Nonetheless, the Panama Canal was not a racetrack. It took the Mink nearly nine hours to make the trip.

Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal. Photo by M. Luckett.

After a sixteen-hour layover in Balboa, the Mink set sail for Milne Bay on the island of New Guinea on February 7th. The trip took over a month to complete. With arrival at their destination planned for sometime in mid-March, the crew settled in for a long, lonely passage across the South Pacific.

Elmer’s letters over the next few weeks reflect both the length of his transit and the constraints imposed on his letter writing by the Naval censors. “There isn’t a thing new to write about,” he scribbled on the 14th, “but I’ve been confronted by this situation before.” Two weeks and no stops later, he had a growing stack of unmailed letters. He apologized to his parents for his silence, which he knew would be deafening. But he put a positive spin on his isolation: “it has been ideal sailing, and the days pass rapidly.”

Elmer could not talk about where he had been or where he was going, so he wrote about life aboard the ship. “The routine of watch standing or everyday duty grows monotonous in a way,” he reflected on the 28th. “But it is broken by reading a good book, or watching an educational movie (shown occasionally to the crew.)” In addition to reading he also began studying assiduously for his Master Mechanic First Class rating, and bragged about his new sun tan from spending hours topside on watch. However, he also complained about the “unbearable” heat in the engine room, though he still appeared to prefer the equatorial heat over the winter cold. “[I] don’t know how I’ll ever get used to winter weather again,” he mused on the 1st. Overall, he observed that “the sea duty is coming back to me very well, and this baby rides better than a destroyer.”

The Mink War Diaries at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland give a thorough – yet concise – rundown of the ship’s activities in any given month, especially when combined with battle-specific Action Reports. This is excerpted from the February report. Source: Mink IX-123 War Diaries, 1944.

The Mink had other advantages for well: “it is not so crowded compared to a destroyer,” he pointed out on the 5th. He later noted that there was more than sufficient water for showers, which was a “treat” after working long hours in the engine room. But on the whole, he told his parents that they could “see it is not much of an ordeal to send so much time at sea. Yes sir, chicken every Sunday – and pie a-la-mode. It is really tough – Ha. Ha.”

Elmer wrote a bunch of other letters that February as well, but only one was addressed to Rose. He told her that he was happy she was acclimating so well to D.C., and mentioned that he would “like to see you and Anne walking the streets with you and your road map. Keep it up kid, you’ll make a good dry-land navigator.” But he seemed less spirited in reference to himself. “As for me I’m a lonely fellow at sea. No news to write about in that respect. Just a routine day to day existence. But I have my memories.”

The ship did not move as fast as a destroyer, but it made good time. By March 3rd, it had crossed what is now the International Date Line about 250 miles south of Tonga. The Mink very nearly leapfrogged Leap Day that year. But horological oddities quickly gave way to geographic realities as they approached the front lines of the Pacific War. As muggy as the air was already, the ambient temperature was about to get a lot hotter.

This post is part of “Grandpa’s Letters,” a blog series that delves into my grandfather Elmer Luckett’s experiences during World War II. It is based on over 500 letters that he wrote during the War, which I inherited from him after he passed. For more information on this series, including a complete list of posts (with links), please visit the Grandpa’s Letters Homepage.

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January 1944: Shakedown

It was January 1944, and it seemed like everyone was nursing a cold. Elmer had the sniffles for the first week of the month, and Rose was sick as well. Elmer’s mother was so ill that she had to cancel her planned trip to Chicago to see her son Bud’s family. It wasn’t the Spanish Flu, but cold viruses easily made their way around the nation as millions of Americans swarmed around following the holidays.

Despite everyone being sick, bigger concerns were on the horizon. For one, Elmer was about to begin a new tour on a new ship – the U.S.S. Mink. He and his new crew-mates closed out their affairs at the Naval Station on January 4th, and were formally transferred to the ship on the 6th. Since the Mink was brand new, the job of getting it ready to sail was not unlike running a start-up: long hours, low pay, and a steep learning curve.

Well they are keeping me busy on the ship now. New men to teach and train, besides all the necessary adjustments and work besides. But a busy man is a happy man, and I’m interested in my work. Learning a new ship is like reading a book. You must start from the beginning. [There] are new types of machinery and different engineering plants on an auxiliary ship like this.

Elmer to his Parents, January 12, 1944

In other words, Elmer had to learn a whole new ship, and he only had a few weeks to do it. “The engines are reciprocating,” he explained in one of his letters, “and my experience has been on turbine jobs.”

Yet there were also benefits to the new posting:

The chow has been good on here. A small crew usually gets good food . . . [Also] when you want to rest or read in your spare time you have a private room practically because all four men are seldom in [the stateroom] at once . . . it is really nice. Our bunks have sheets and a regular bed cover of blue material. And the light is a spot light right over the head of the bunk. It’s really a luxury job. And that big locker is a treat after the foot lockers we used on the Chew.”

Elmer to his Parents, January 12, 1944

The Mink, originally named the Judah Touro, was built for the Merchant Marine. As a result, according to Elmer, “It has nicer accommodations than a regular Navy ship.” It had a smaller complement as well, which augmented the ship’s comforts while multiplying its crew’s responsibilities. “No doubt you are wondering why we are so busy aboard,” Elmer wrote his parents. “But with all the necessary engineering, food, and other supplies to brought in [with] only a small crew it explains why.” All the extra work cut into his liberty time, thus putting a damper on his social life. “So I haven’t had any dates with my women,” he wrote on the 16th. “Ha. Ha. I have so many.”

Given the size of the crew, it would be important for everyone to get along well and work together. Fortunately, that did not seem to be an issue. “We have a good bunch of fellows, and will make a good crew,” he wrote on the 16th. In particular he liked the ship’s newly installed officers, and looked forward to trying to impress them as he sought his next rating advancement. But the rest of the crew was swell as well. The men even started their own ship’s canteen, with Elmer and the others each kicking in $10. The store would sell “candy, toilet articles, and [fulfill] other needs,” he explained.

Elmer Luckett on the Mink’s deck, February 1945. Although Elmer was a Pearl Harbor survivor, he would see more action while on board the Mink in 1944 and 1945.

Mid-January was eventful. The new tanker embarked on a short shakedown cruise on the 7th, and then on the morning of the 9th the Mink was officially commissioned into the United States Navy’s Auxiliary Fleet. That same day Lt. William J. Meagher was formally installed as its captain.* Then for the next week and a half the Mink began to load up on provisions and prepare for a long cruise.

Elmer did not know, or could not divulge, where they were going. But he knew enough from his time on the Chew that he would no longer remain in regular contact with his friends and family in the States. He began to prepare his parents, who had grown used to Elmer being just a few hundred miles away and even seeing him now and then, for another extended absence. Part of this was his usual disclaimer that his letters would be fewer and farther between, and that “no news is good news.” But his pleas for his parents to keep a stiff upper lift carried even more urgency now, perhaps in light of one or several recent dinner table conversations at which his parents communicated to him just how worried they were while he was on the Chew. “Please keep those chins up for me – that is my biggest concern,” he urged in his letter on the 18th. “And you must carry on when times are trying. I know it is so easy for me to write that – and I understand it is so hard to do on your part. Because folks, what I’m fighting for is my future, family at home, and all that they stand for. So chins up.”

Elmer had also written two letters to Rose that month. In the first, dated January 1st, he wrote that he was “glad [she] enjoyed a Christmas at home” and briefly discussed his new ship, the Mink – but, tellingly, did not mention what kind of vessel it was.** He also continued to beseech Rose for her forgiveness after their Thanksgiving fight. “[I] don’t know where we go from here,” he wrote, “but it will be plenty far in my estimation.” Twelve days later, however, he seemed less certain. Rose was going to DC on the 16th, and his ship would disembark a few days later. Soon thousands of miles would separate the two. Like with his parents, he told her that his letter would be less frequent, but that it did not meant he was not thinking of her. “[Out here] all I have is my pin-up girls,” he wrote while still in New Orleans, “and they aren’t soft and warm to hold like you.” But while he was hopeful for more meetings and better times ahead, he also seemed to steel himself for the possibility of a more permanent separation. “[I] never will forget the good times we had. And if I ever ever did anything to make you angry I’m sorry and ask you to forget it. No one is perfect, and I’m no exception. Just a human being with normal reactions. I won’t forget you – and may that be a mutual feeling.”

The Mink completed its shakedown maneuvers off Sabine Pass on January 21st, and then proceeded to Beaumont, Texas to fill its capacious cargo tanks with fuel. It would be their last few days in the continental United States for the duration of the war. Elmer received a liberty and “had a good time.” But before they knew it they were back on the ship, and on January 25th the Mink entered the Gulf of Mexico via Sabine Pass and began sailing toward a distant war and an uncertain future.

Elmer sent this souvenir folder full of postcards to his parents while on liberty in Beaumont, Texas. He would not return to the mainland United States until after the War.

Elmer was surprised at having never really lost his sea legs. “Some of the boys were sea sick – I know how they feel. But I’ve been going like an old salt.” Old familiarities on the Chew carried over onto the Mink, including the dilution of time. The days turned as quickly as the nautical miles. “I have to look at a calendar to see what day it is,” he remarked. But he noticed differences as well, such as his surroundings. “We are on the Gulf of Mexico,” he wrote while on the shakedown cruise from New Orleans to Beaumont, “and the sea is as calm as a mill pond. And [it] has a nice cool green color.” Despite not having yet traveled that far on the new ship he already felt as though he was “getting back in the routine of sea life, or is it life at sea[?] Ha. Ha.”

As the Mink sailed toward the Caribbean Sea that winter, the flames of war continued to burn in Europe, Asia, and in the Pacific. But the Allies could almost feel, as if watching a very long movie, that the climax was finally approaching. In England, millions of soldiers crowded into the island in preparation for the largest amphibious invasion in human history against perhaps the most deeply entrenched enemy in recorded memory. In Italy, the bloody stalemate near Monte Cassino continued in spite of the Allied landings at Anzio four days earlier, offering a grim preview of what awaited Allied forces in Normandy and beyond. Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the United States lost six thousand men in a pyrrhic victory at Tarawa. Few believed that the fierce Japanese resistance encountered at a small central Pacific atoll would not be exponentially larger and more deadly within the larger pieces of real estate eyed by the Americans, including the Philippines. Of course, when 1944 came to an end the Allies had a knife to Germany’s throat, and they were well-prepared to finish the job in Japan shortly after dispatching Hitler. But the start of the year seemed less pre-determined. In January, the United States was staring squarely at the outer razor edges of two formidable and sprawling Axis Empires, both of which afflicted the opposite ends of Eurasia like an incurable contagion.

The whole world had a cold that year. But a cure was coming.

*In the December 1943 post I wrote that this ceremony happened in December. Apparently Grandpa and I both made dating errors – he misdated his January 9th letter to his parents (it was dated “December 13th, 1944” on the top), and I failed to corroborate the information. He later explained his “silly” error to his parents, who apparently began to worry about their son’s safety and whereabouts. As for me, all errors are my own, and I apologize for the mix-up. It won’t be the last. – M.L.

**It would be premature to assume anything about whatever negative feelings Elmer may have had about his ship, especially since he was so clearly happy with the accommodations and the food on board. He never seemed to waver from his belief that he had a job to do and that he would do it to the best of his ability. However, he was also savvy enough to know what to say and what not to say to his girlfriends, and his station aboard a tanker might have carried less social cache. There is evidence in letters later that year that Rose still does not know any details about the Mink. This does not appear to be an oversight on Elmer’s part or an omission mandated by Naval censors, since Elmer described in some detail the ship, its role, and its engines to his father. At any rate, this is a thread I’d like to pull some more as I start to put together what 1944 looked like using two sets of letters, rather than just one.

Needless to say, one of the points that I plan on making in the book is that tankers were often targeted by Japanese ships, thus proving that duty on those ships was inarguably dangerous and no less “masculine” or essential as service aboard the ships of the line. I also show that the tankers themselves often deployed their anti-aircraft armament against Japanese planes (and took many of them down), and that the tankers themselves were logistically vital and militarily indispensable to the United States Navy’s operations in and around the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and the Japanese archipelago itself.

This post is part of “Grandpa’s Letters,” a blog series that delves into my grandfather Elmer Luckett’s experiences during World War II. It is based on over 500 letters that he wrote during the War, which I inherited from him after he passed. For more information on this series, including a complete list of posts (with links), please visit the Grandpa’s Letters Homepage.

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As Ever: Elmer’s Letters to Rose (December 1943)

Despite being able to spend Thanksgiving at home with his family, Elmer’s holiday was overshadowed by developments in his love life. He and Rose had their first fight.

Both parted ways in a huff, and no one blinked for two weeks afterwards. Then Rose broke the silence with a letter. Grandpa did not keep it, as far as I could tell – I have not processed any of Rose’s letters yet beyond arranging them chronologically by envelope, so it could be buried someplace within that pile – so I don’t know what she said. But Elmer’s letter in response is revealing:

Believe me, it was very good to hear from you again. Rose, I am all kinds of a silly, stupid proud jack-ass. Yes, I was very much angry at you for what happened at your house. And you hit it on the head when you said it was ‘silly pride’ – and mostly on my part. Perhaps in a way you were a little to blame, but I owe you the apology, dear. Do you think we can both forget it ever happened? And pick up where we left off.”

Elmer Luckett to Rose Schmid, 14 December 1943

Elmer continued by telling Rose that he was “tempted to call [her] several times, but was too bull-headed,” and that he regretted not meeting her brother, Ray, who was in town for the holidays as well.

Without knowing what precipitated the fight (perhaps that is something my dad or uncle could shed some light on?), there were other issues that may have set the stage for a confrontation. One potential problem may have been Elmer’s visit with Shirley Ryder, who was apparently also competing for Elmer’s affections. Shirley visited St. Louis with her parents over Thanksgiving, and during that time they went out. Her parents wrote his parents on November 30th, thanking them for their hospitality and noting that Elmer and Shirley appeared to have fun together. In his December 2nd letter home, Elmer alluded to his active social calendar during his previous leave, which may have included other dates or outings that could be mistaken for dates: “I bum around so much that you saw little of me. But you understand.”

Elmer’s ambivalence about Rose moving to Washington, D.C. to accept her new Navy Department job may have been another factor. While he was clearly happy for and proud of Rose for making such a big decision, he also worried about what would happen once she was even farther removed from him. Whenever Elmer would make it back to St. Louis Rose would no longer be there waiting for him. This surely came as a disappointment. One passage in his November 9th letter to Rose seems to hint at these various feelings:

Well honey, you are going to work for the Navy. You sounded very happy and well-pleased, and I’m happy for you also. That gives us another interest in common, sugar. I know you will be doing well. You had me worried about going to California, and then you start heading East. You will be on your own, honey, so be careful and good. Perhaps I didn’t show it very well, but I couldn’t ever see you any other way than a quiet, respectable young lady.So much for that, darling.”

Elmer Luckett to Rose Schmid, 9 November 1943

In other words, Elmer was happy that she was going on her own adventure and that she would be representing the Navy, but he also worried that her independence as well as her new address would distance them. He was also apparently concerned about her non-exclusivity – a courtesy he was not yet willing to show himself – and couched those anxieties in his remark about her respectability.

Rose (2nd from the right) and three friends posing in front of the US Capitol building. Rose’s pictures from DC radiate with warmth and confidence, demonstrating clearly that her time in Washington was well-spent.

While there is a great deal to parse here with respect to both Elmer and Rose’s gender expectations and role-playing, for the present it may suffice to say that his letter on December 14th was a sweet mea culpa (if not entirely an admission of guilt on his part). At the very least he sweated the past few weeks out. “You signed, ‘as ever, Rose,'” he pointed out at the end of his letter. “That means you haven’t changed [your feelings] in regards to me.”

Rose wrote him back, and Elmer penned his reply on the 22nd. “So you are getting ‘salty’ now,” he teased at one point. But he didn’t tease too much. “No doubt I’ll be thinking of the evenings you were in my arms.”

The New Year brought uncertainty for the couple and their future, even as both Elmer and Rose prepared to embark on new wartime adventures. They would see very little of one another until after the end of the war – indeed, they would be on near opposite sides of the globe. But the letters continued to fly, and they must have been pretty good: by early 1945, as the end of the war approached, Elmer began to close his correspondences with his other bachelorette pen pals. He had made his choice. And Rose seemingly knew the outcome all along.

Note: From now on I am going to combine the two correspondences – Elmer’s letters to his parents and those letters he wrote to Rose – in order to craft a more cohesive narrative. At some point in the next month or two I will post separately about Rose and her own letter-writing style, but I will integrate her letters into the narrative as well.

Happily ever after: Elmer and Rose after the War

Next Entry:
January 1944: Shakedown

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“Be frank with me:” Elmer’s Letters to Rose (August – November 1943)

During the next several months Elmer and Rose saw a lot of each other, at least given their distance from another and Grandpa’s service obligations. As mentioned in a previous blog, Elmer did not have a lot of time to spend in St. Louis when visiting, so he would take the bus to the city on Saturday and return promptly on Sunday afternoon. After eating dinner with his folks, he would head out to go meet Rose, who was usually out and about with her friend Dot Wehking and Dot’s boyfriend, Marty. Elmer also received two longer leaves during this period – one after his studies ended in October, and another in November that coincided with Thanksgiving – which provided the young couple with more opportunities to get to know each other.

But during the long weeks of waiting in between dates Rose and Elmer used letters to communicate. Elmer told her about school and his experiences in Cape. Rose told him about a trip she took to visit Pasadena, California. Elmer teased Rose about her handwriting, and in November Rose teased Elmer about writing his letters in bed (she apologized and wrote that she had no idea, but he laughed it off). They also passed specific requests to one another – Elmer badgered her about a picture she mentioned of her wearing a sarong (she repeatedly refused to mail it to him), and Rose asked Elmer for matchbooks from New Orleans to add to her collection.

This may have been the sarong picture to which Elmer was referring in multiple letters.

As all couples in the process of getting to know one another do, they shared their interests and dislikes. Both claimed that history was their favorite subject. Both apparently hated taking the train through Kansas (“I didn’t think much of Kansas, either,” Elmer opined. “It’s entirely too flat and not enough trees to suit me.”) Both enjoyed poker and pinochle and photography.

Beyond that, there is not much to say about these letters. They illuminate a budding, but not yet blossoming, romance. There is teasing and flirting, but not a great deal of intimacy. He still saved those words and feelings for his parents, even though he was not always forthcoming with them. And there is another issue, of course: I only have one side of the letter exchange, at least for this time period. I’m really excited to read Elmer and Rose’s letters to one another together, side by side.

In any case, more serious matters soon intruded. Elmer told Rose about his hernia surgery via post two weeks after it happened. Rose announced to Elmer that she accepted a job offer to work for the Department of the Navy in Washington, D.C. They continued to flirt and show their affection for one another, but with Elmer’s uncertainty about where he would end up after being released from the V-12 program and Rose’s upcoming move to the East Coast it was clear that there were a number of elephants in the room. Some of these issues likely came to a head while Elmer was in St. Louis for Thanksgiving.

Their date that weekend did not end well.

Next Entry:
As Ever: Elmer’s Letters to Rose (December 1943)

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“The Fellow with the Blue Suit:” Elmer’s Letters to Rose (July 1943)

“Remember me – the fellow with the ‘blue suit?'”

Elmer wrote his first letter to Rose less than a day after arriving in Cape Girardeau. He had not heard from her since sending her a postcard ten days earlier, although he had spent four days in the interim on a train from California to Missouri. He once again apologized for getting sick on their most recent date. “I don’t understand what happened to me, but it sure did.” Alcohol may have played a part: “Don’t think that I drank enough to warrant such a result. But so much for that.”

The fellow in the blue suit.

With that business out of the way he quickly pivoted to his other agenda items: asking whether Rose had “[taken] care of the swim trunks” someone had placed in his bag “by error,” stating that their snapshots had turned out “very well” (he enclosed a couple), and that he was already busy getting situated down in Cape Girardeau.

He also asked her out. Anticipating the possibility of going home for the weekend, he wanted to know if they could “go on dates” when he was in town. “Needless to say I enjoyed your company and think we had great times together. Don’t you?” He wanted a prompt answer, even if that answer was “no.” “Be sure and write me a letter very soon,” he urged, “and give your reaction to my suggestion. You can be frank.”

Apparently he received a favorable response, although Rose was evidently worried that she hadn’t written him sooner. “You said you thought I was angry with because you didn’t write sooner. How could I get angry with such a cute trick and good sport as you are. But I hope you write me very much in the future.” Rose also sent some snapshots in return from their outings together, and Elmer responded by sending her his negatives. “I intended to write you sooner but work on my studies is monopolizing my time.”

Elmer’s tendency to repeat or reference what his correspondents wrote in previous letters gives us some sense of what they had to say. Rose was not only worried about not having written him sooner, but also about whether or not her writing was up to snuff. “Your letter was very good honey,” he wrote reassuringly, “and no excuses about how bad you think it is. I’ll be the judge.” She also told Elmer that she and several friends had been rolling bandages for the Red Cross. He applauded her effort, but also indicated that he “would love to see you in your little outfit.”

Rose standing outside of her house in Washington, D.C., in 1944. Earlier that year she moved to DC to start a job with the Navy Department.

Elmer’s next letter on July 23rd was slightly less dismissive of Rose, who sincerely wanted to contribute to the war effort. “Say, you really are doing your part in this war,” he exclaimed after learning about her second blood donation. “You deserve a big kiss.” But then Elmer echoed Rose’s preference for a particular school subject. “So history is your favorite study also,” he wrote. “I took all the history I could at high school.”

Grandpa wrote one last letter than month – a short note on the 29th announcing his intention to go to St. Louis that weekend, and announcing his hope that they would be able to get together that Saturday night.

As it turns out, she was free, and they had a great time.

Next Entry:
“Be frank with me:” Elmer’s Letters to Rose (August – November 1943)

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“Just a few lines to a very swell girl:” The First Letters to Grandma

I was a little trepidatious about reading and writing about my grandparents’ love letters. Not enough to just file them away in a closet and give them to my more emotionally and generationally removed daughter, but enough so that these were the last items I started to scan and review for this project. I mean, who really wants to read about their grandfather seducing their grandmother?

However, as I start to read through this other correspondence, I begin to see another side to Elmer. He was dashing, flirty, persistent when appropriate, and apologetic when necessary. He was a man of the world, a person who had seen things and was going places. Elmer was a smooth letter writer: he knew the right things to say, and was prepossessed enough of his talents to be able to say them to several different bachelorettes at the same time.

One thing to keep in mind is that Elmer did not commit to Rose Schmid until early 1945. Until that point he maintained several different correspondences with several different women. In 1943 Elmer mostly wrote about another girlfriend, Shirley Ryder, in his letters to his parents. Although Ryder lived in Detroit during the war she seemed to be Elmer’s most frequent non-parental correspondent.

That is not to say that Elmer modulated his language or his aspirations in his letters to Rose. “Don’t give me that ‘girl in every port’ story,” he wrote at one point, responding to Rose’s charge (whether it was real or imagined by him) that he had a date waiting for him whenever he set foot on land. “You know what girl I’m interested in. And don’t ever forget it.” But he could also be solicitous, as when he not-so-casually mentioned his favorite card games. “Sometimes we will play ‘strip-poker,’ it is loads of fun. Did you ever play?”

Now you can imagine why I was so anxious to start this part of the project.

A photograph of Elmer and Rose from early in their courtship.

Anyway, it is not hard to imagine Elmer writing letters similar to the ones he sent Rose to other women throughout the War. However, I doubt whether any of these other letters still exist.* Eighty years is a long period of time: things get lost, things get thrown away, people move, people die, households downsize, attics and basements get cleaned out, floods and fires indiscriminately strike . . . letters usually only survive such a long period of time when they are well-cared for and set aside as treasured belongings. There is little reason to believe Elmer’s letters to other women would have survived their subsequent attachments to other men, particularly those resulting in marriage.

Elmer did not even keep all of his letters from Rose. His letters from her date start in 1944, and continue on through the end of the war and beyond. And we will get to those in due course . . . but just as he did not keep all of Rose’s letters, he also threw out virtually all of his letters from his other girlfriends. I have nothing from Pat, and only a short note or two from Shirley. It is clear that Elmer did not make an effort to start permanently holding onto Rose’s letters until he decided that he was willing to date her exclusively.

Perhaps it is telling then that most or all of Grandpa’s letters to Rose seem to be intact. By keeping his letters to her, even after she had moved from St. Louis to Washington, D.C. to work for the Navy Department, she may have known something that Elmer did not: that they were meant to be together.

*If anyone reading this blog happens to have any letters from Elmer Luckett, especially those addressed to a woman with whom he may have been romantically involved, I would love to hear from you!

Next Entry:
“The Fellow with the Blue Suit:” Elmer’s Letters to Rose (July 1943)

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July 1943: The Obstacle Course

Elmer quickly found himself busy once classes started on July 6th. “Same routine,” he wrote two weeks later. “Exercise, chow, classes, chow, exercise, classes, study, chow, study, and then sleep. What a day!”

His mornings started at 6am, when he would get up and begin his physical drilling. He was not used to the frequent and intense training, and although he often complained about it in his uncensored letters home, he did not question its necessity. “I’m tired,” he reported on July 12th after finishing his workout for the day, “but this is good for me.” Several days later he elaborated: “my physical drills tightened my muscles up and made me stiff – especially in the stomach. But it proves that it is doing good.” On the 21st he told his parents he was “wore out” after completing the obstacle course. “It’s a killer,” he wrote.

By 8am he was in class. For the next nine hours it was coursework, study time, and more physical education. He was enrolled in seven classes: Physics, American History, Naval History, American Literature, Physical Education, Engineering Drawing, and Psychology. Of all those subjects, “Physics seems to be the toughest subject for all the fellows.” He apparently held his own, though – on the 28th he learned that he had passed his first exam, “but not with a high grade.”

Naval Students at Brown tacking an obstacle course. Physical training was a central component of the V-12 Program.

The V-12 Program worked Elmer to the bone, but there was a silver lining to his new posting: “they really can serve chow here.” The food on campus was “the closest to home cooking I have ever had,” he reported, and the chicken dinner he had on the Fourth of July was “perfect.” In addition, the dorms were a nice change of pace after spending two and a half years on a cramped ship. “The lounge has really nice over-stuffed divans, chairs, a radio, and such lovely carpets, drapes, etc. It really is swell here, folks.”

But the best part was the people. He became close friends with Hal Spiner, a fellow Cleveland High School graduate and a fellow resident in his dorm. On July 16th he interrupted a letter home by announcing that Hal had walked in and asked him to go out; when he picked it up the next day he described a double-date with Hal and two local girls, Ruthie and Hettie Jean, who worked as waitresses on campus. They drove up to Cape Rock, which apparently was just as frequented by couples in the 1940s as it was in the early aughts. But he quickly added, probably to short-circuit any worrying, that Cape Rock was also “the spot where some frenchmen landed back in 1733.” He was taking American history, after all.

Evenings were just as busy as the days. Elmer and his classmates visited the Rainbow Room, a local bar, and attended a dance held by the school. But the nights were hot in other ways as well. “Even at night you perspire a great deal,” Elmer wrote of the summer heat in Cape. “Boy is it hot here . . . [it] makes it hard to write as my arm keeps floating away in a pool of sweat.”

The Rainbow Room was located inside the Hotel Idan-Ha, which burned down in 1968.

Elmer enjoyed spending some of his weekends in Cape, but he did make an effort to go home occasionally. Usually his visits were brief: he would take a bus up to Saint Louis early Saturday evening and head back Sunday afternoon. The visits were not long, but they were pleasant. “Good to be home,” he wrote after a visit. “The good old home-cooked food hit the spot.” Although he could not make it up for his mother’s birthday – they spoke on the phone instead – he tried to coordinate one visit with his brother Bud and his family visiting from Chicago. And Elmer took advantage of that most hallowed and time-honored tradition among college students: bringing the laundry home over the weekend. After one visit his mother had shipped him his uniform, which she had generously cleaned and pressed for him. It’s “in perfect shape” he announced – “‘just like taking it out of a drawer.’ Thanks, you’re a dear.”

Elmer had one other reason to visit home as well. At the end of the month, he announced his intention to visit. But he would not spend a great deal of time at home that Saturday evening – he had a date. With Rose.

Next Entry:
August – September 1943: Everything’s Shipshape

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