July 1941: Day Trips

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.

Memorandum to all hands announcing the Chew’s cruise to Hilo.

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.”

The SS Lurline ferried passengers across the Pacific for decades, and was widely renown for its splendor and comfort. During the war, however, it traded its deep pocketed clientele for another kind of VIP passenger: U.S. troops.

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.

* “Gob” is slang for a sailor

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 . . .

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.

“The Roughest Ships in the Navy”

One thing I always wondered about . . . how frequently do newly enlisted seamen in the Navy get seasickness? Is it common, or infrequent enough for those who do to get razzed about it?

Elmer’s letter of January 30, 1941 answered that question. His ship arrived in Pearl a day earlier after patrolling the neutral zone, and the crew soon discovered that “the old ‘Chew’ didn’t ride as smoothly as the big old Lexington. In fact, destroyers are the roughest ships in the navy.” Grandpa did not sugarcoat the experience. “Of course, little Elmer was [not] feeling up to par at first,” he recalled, “but he stuck it out and by Tuesday night [he] was feeling fine.” He estimated that three fourths of the crew was seasick. “So I had company.” Elmer also predicted that they would all “get used to it in a few trips.”

The Chew was not only out to sea in order to patrol the surrounding waters and shakedown its new crew. “We had many battle drills, fire drills, gunnery practice and everything in general,” wrote Elmer. The ship was slowly beginning its preparation for the coming war, which included moving and operating in the dark. “The lights all went out at 6:30 every night, and I would sit on the top deck and look at the stars and sky. It was so soothing and comforting. It is really a wonderful feeling. The old salty sea air smell.”

Elmer also related his first impressions of Honolulu. “Pretty nice town,” he thought, “but very Oriental. Most of the people are Chinese and Japanese.” Admittedly, his experience with “Oriental” towns and neighbors was limited, and his perception was of course shaped by having spent most of his life in the mostly French and German-influenced city of Saint Louis. But Honolulu was already well on its way to becoming a cosmopolitan metropolis and an important cultural and economic nexus between America, Asia, and Oceania. Native Hawai’ian culture was palpable as well, and his friends and family had already began expressing their curiosity about it. Pat wrote him asking for a grass skirt – “she’s a good kid and deserves it.”

The letter closed with Elmer assuring his mother that he “will always make you proud to have me for a son,” and telling his father to not worry about him “pulling AWOL – I know better than that.” Although I have not located the letter which prompted this curious defense, it is hard to imagine Elmer deciding to leave his post. Temperamentally, as well as officially, he was committed to serving in the Navy.

Besides, between his duties aboard the Chew and his adventures on the Island of Oahu . . . where could he even go? It is a good thing that seasickness is a temporary condition, because Elmer wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The Chew’s Crew: “The best bunch of fellas you could ever meet”

Grandpa Luckett wrote about a lot of different things in his letters home. He liked to describe his friends, his work, his surroundings, his ship, and his various adventures while on liberty.

His letter of February 8th, 1941 lay out for his folks the various routines on his ship, the USS Chew. He might have been grasping for a topic to discuss: “Not much to write about today,” he admitted. “Today was Saturday. Every Saturday morning the captain and executive officers inspect the whole ship.” The process of getting ready for the weekly inspection began on Friday, with the sailors patching up the walls with paint and polishing “all the brass around their bunks.” The next morning, the crew would replace all their linens and then undergo individual inspections. “Then the captain and officers look the ship over. I have all my cups, dishes, and eating gear in perfect shape.” Elmer announced that he and his mates passed the inspections “O.K. They are part of the routine.”

Elmer went on to describe his work gear. “It is always warm out here,” he wrote. “I had a pair of my white trousers made into shorts. I wear shorts most of the time.” In the even warmer boiler room, he and his fellow engineers and firemen wore dungarees and chambray shirts “most of the time, except for inspections.”

Next, Grandpa began breaking down the ship’s divisions of labor. The crew overall was divided into “two branches of men. The seamen, who take care of things on the top deck (like guns, torpedos, steering, steering, and general deck work)[, and] the ‘Black Gang,’ or Engineers Force. (They take care of all the machinery, boilers, oil burners, and water distillers). I am a fireman in the Engineers Force.” Elmer went on to mention that the Engineers slept in a separate “compartment in the ‘aft’ part of the ship.” At that time he was not in the boiler room, but was instead finishing up his duty assignment as the Engineers mess cook. “The Engineers are the best bunch of fellows you would ever meet,” he went on to write. “I wish you could meet them.” He then added, almost parenthetically, “the seaman [sic] are fine also.”

Camaraderie in the boiler room. Source: Hoffman Island, merchant marine training center off Staten Island, New York. Trainees aboard the training ship New York working in the boiler room. John Vachon. 1942. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information photograph collection (Library of Congress). Call number LC-USW3- 005818-D [P&P] LOT 42.

Soon, Elmer’s pen began to run out of steam. “There are many things I could tell you about. I will tell you all about them sometime. It is hard to try and write about all of them.” Looking ahead, he predicted that the ship would remain “at the dock for for about two weeks. I don’t know for sure.” Unlike with the Friday and Saturday inspection routines, “We never know anything definite.” But for the time being, Elmer’s place in the crew was fixed and secure, even if the Chew’s location was not.