Manila, Part II: Searching for the 400 Club

When explaining this strange, too-brief-to-be-pleasure and too-long-to-be-business trip across the world to the Philippines, I tend to use the word “research” a lot. It’s probably the most applicable term, both in light of the goals I described in Part I and in view of my ongoing historical information-seeking for the book. But my own “research” trips in the past and for other projects have had a more explicit research-based component in that I am usually visiting an archive someplace. Indeed, I have a conventional “research trip” later this month when I visit College Park, Maryland to conclude my work (started before COVID) at the National Archives.

My trip to Manila, however, is a bit different. I am not bound by the opening and closing hours of a library. I do not need to fill out any call slips. I am not checking archival items off a list (while trying to avoid the temptation to add new ones). And since this does not feel like a conventional research trip, I’m not sure what I should do. I’m visiting museums, not libraries. I’m taking photographs of the city, not of arcane documents. Instead, I am trying to retrace my grandfather’s steps, and in that process I am feeling my way around a whole new dimension of place-based research.

One of my few discrete “research” goals going into this trip was to find a place called the 400 Club. Although his future brother-in-law Dan did not accompany Elmer to the popular dance hall (perhaps for obvious reasons), the name stood out to me as I was reading Grandpa’s letters. He mentions it in one of his final letters home before he was discharged:

I had liberty in Manila yesterday . . . Several other fellows [and I] took some beer with us from the ship. The place we went to is called the ‘400 Club.’ It was a pretty nice place. Small band for dance music and several girls around to dance with. I told Rosie I went dancing out here. We all had a nice time and it was good to dance again.

Elmer Luckett to his Parents, 16 September 1945

Most of his discussion about Manila is vague in terms of location, and the places with Dan and his friends are left up to the imagination. But “the 400 Club,” a “pretty nice place,” seemed enticingly specific. I wanted someplace concrete in Manila that I could use to connect with my Grandfather’s experience in the city. I did not realistically expect the club to still be operational, but I hoped that at least the building would still be there. Either way, it was worth checking out.

Destruction at the Walled City (Intramuros district) of old Manila in May 1945 — after the Battle of Manila
Destruction at the Walled City (Intramuros district) of old Manila in May 1945 — after the Battle of Manila. From WikiCommons. Original source: Illustration 341 in Medical Dept., U.S. Army: Surgery in World War II: Activities of Surgical Consultants, Vol. II, Office of the Surgeon general, Dept. of the Army, Washington, D.C., 1964.

Unfortunately, the 400 Club existed during an inconvenient period for historians researching local businesses. It is hard to know what predated and survived the relentless Battle for Manila, and what immediately followed. Like a punch-drunk boxer staggering after a near-knock out blow, Manila was putting the pieces back together—quite literally—after its liberation, and many things were changing at once. The 400 Club might have been brand-new to the stricken city, a mere room in a structurally sound building with a crate of booze, a few musicians, and a rag to wipe the soot and ash off the bar. Or it might have slinked its way through the past three years, hosting Japanese Imperial officers one day and grizzled guerillas the next, sort of like a Filipino version of Rick’s Café Américain. The more I thought about it, the more I built up the mystery in my mind.

This may be by design. The 400 Club was both a place and a concept, and the concept itself was hardly original. In 1892, the New York Times published a list of “the Four Hundred,” which was a roll-call of New York’s most beloved (or at least sought-after) socialites. The term soon became synonymous with elite social standing. Eventually someone applied the significance of the number to the need to sell drinks, and it was not long before it became a kind of brand for exclusive bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. The most famous “400 Club” belongs to London, which opened in Leister Square sometime before World War II. Although it would eventually become an exclusive supper club, during the war it catered largely to military personnel. Perhaps not coincidentally, the 400 Club was eventually exported to other places in the British Commonwealth, including Sydney, and it later made its way up the Pacific Rim. Yokohama, Japan had a 400 Club during the American occupation after the war, where it eventually became associated with the growing popularity of jazz in that city. (1)

Fortunately, Manila’s 400 Club had a more detailed chronicler (at least in this respect) than my grandfather: Sy M. Kahn, an enlisted man who served in the Army Transportation Corps. In his diary, which he later edited and published, Kahn gives a fantastic and detailed description of the venue:

We went to a place named the 400 Club, a nightclub way up on the other end of Royal Ave [Real Street]. We bought several bottles of whiskey and then proceeded to look for the place. It took us an hour-and-a-half to find it, and the driving rain and dark streets of Royal Ave did not help . . . The club had a good band, an indoor and outdoor dance floor, and a small patio. There are numerous women, mostly Filipino, some Spanish. In a few moments we had women at our table. I got the company I wanted in a Spanish girl named Virginia who spoke English well, is tallish, a good dancer, and 25. It felt strange to have a good-looking girl dance close and be mildly affectionate. We all had a roaring time. The prices were terrific, but we were having such a good time that the money didn’t mean anything.

Sy M. Kahn

Kahn’s vivid and detailed description of the 400 Club leaves little to be desired, apart from its exact location and its broader historical context (2). Kahn’s recollections, like Elmer’s, provide a snapshot of the place, but little in the way of biography. So the search continued, and I knew it would take me much longer than an hour and a half to locate it.

Picture of street in Intramuros. Several motorcycles can be seen. Picture is mostly decorative.
Intramuros in 2022. Photo by Author.

Last Saturday I was able to visit Real Street for myself. I imagine it looked very different after the battle in 1945, but in 2022 it is the living, breathing heart of Intramuros. Stalls, scooters, and sleeping dogs line the narrow sidewalks, while residents make their own daily history. The war is not quite ancient, since some folks still remember the long, difficult years that followed. However, aside from a prominent memorial to the lives lost during the Battle of Manila, the conflict feels remote. As I walked down the street, I imagined throngs of American servicemen roaming down the street in giant herds, spilling out of their ships like marbles from a sack, seeking out amusement and refreshment in the battered, broken city. I could almost see my grandfather surveying the destruction, passing wrecked buildings and crumbled brick, twisted metal and blackened timber, and then marveling at the intact San Agustin Church as it gazed back at the sin-seeking sailors shuffling past. Less charitably, I could also picture him grimacing at the high price of food and the near-total absence of beer.

Once I approached the end of Real Street, I looked around for a bar or a club. There were no obvious signs of either, and the only establishment that I or Google were aware of was a small distillery museum nearby with a tasting room. Instead, Real Street ends in a crowd of apartment buildings, with the rebuilt wall looming silently ahead. I’d like to think that Grandpa had a similar moment, standing in the exact same spot, of looking around and wondering where the club was. I probably had more success in quickly deciding that it was gone than they had in quickly locating it. As Kahn noted in his diary, the east end of Real Street in 1945 was a dark, quiet place to visit at night. As for me, it was a sunny, soupy afternoon in Manila. My clothes were glued to my skin. I needed a shower, not a dance, so I headed back to my hotel.

Picture of the front of San Agustin Church. Photo mostly for decorative purposes.
San Agustin Church was one of the few structures in Intramuros to survive the battle. It was built in 1607. Photo by author.

After a couple of days spent exploring the city, I decided to perform my due diligence on my last day in town and take another crack at the mystery. So I stopped by the National Library of the Philippines to see if they had any city directories for Manila. I was not sure that they even existed, given the Library’s destruction during the Japanese occupation and the burning or theft of most of its holdings, but I figured it was worth a shot. After looking at a business directory from 1988 (which had no trace of the club), I asked the reference librarian if they had older copies. As it turns out, they are all online (remember: when in doubt, always ask a reference librarian). Unfortunately, I found no trace of any later directories from the period immediately following the war, but it was fun to check out another country’s national library.

The day was getting late, and I had other things to do before I left. My quest, such as it was, came to an end. I may be able to learn more about the club eventually (and perhaps one of my readers has some information that I have missed . . .), but when I do I will be thousands of miles away, unable to visit. I decided to settle for a consolation prize: dinner and beer at the Army Navy Club (better known today as the Rizal Park Hotel). I sat down at my table on the rooftop veranda just as the sun was setting, and even though many things have changed in the 111 years since it was first built, I watched the same pink, orange, and golden hues swirl into one another over the bay that surely entranced Douglas MacArthur, Jose Rizal, and so many others. And at that moment I felt like I was truly sharing something with my Grandpa and my Uncle Dan, as if we were connecting across time.

View from the Rizal Park hotel after sunset. Image mostly decorative.
View from the Rizal Park Hotel after sunset. Photo by author.

I’m not sure if looking for an eighty-year old nightclub and then giving up because it was too hot outside qualifies as research. But retracing my grandfather’s footsteps nearly a century later and seeing the old church, feeling the breeze off the bay and the cobblestones beneath my feet, and experiencing the scrum of crowded humanity in narrow streets helps me visualize his experience a little better. The experiences I’ve gained and the empathy I’d developed will help the book, and to be frank they help me as a person, too.

This journey was also a pilgrimage of sorts. It has become a family tradition for Elmer Luckett’s descendants to fly to Hawaii, don a lei, and drive out to the USS Arizona Memorial and Museum at Pearl Harbor. It is a powerful, instructive, and emotional moment for the people who loved him. But for me, anyway, I feel like this trek is a tribute to to the other end of grandpa’s journey. It does not represent the start of a frightening quest, but the end of a momentous adventure. It also helps me connect my grandfather’s journey to my Uncle Dan’s. I never knew him (or my grandmother), but there is a kind of poetry in reflecting on how his and grandpa’s journeys intersected in this place halfway around the world, just as grandpa and grandma’s fates began twisting themselves around one another during the past two years. On a more global level, it reminds me not of how America was violently awaken from its pre-war apathy, but of that very same war’s destructive effect. It shows that Americans should continue to care about both the horrors of war and the possibilities of peacetime.

Well, anyway, that’s all a bit tedious to summarize, so perhaps I will keep calling it a research trip. The term may appear somewhat disingenuous in hindsight. However, if the hallmark of a good research trip is to not only learn the things to came to learn, but to better appreciate the vast universe of things you never had any idea you needed to learn, then this journey has been an unqualified success.


(1) See William Thomas Generous Jr., Sweet Pea at War: A History of USS Portland (Lexington, Ky: University of Kentucky Press, 2003), 21; and E. Taylor Atkins, Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 179, 206.

(2) Sy M. Kahn, Between Tedium and Terror: A Soldier’s World War II Diary, 1943-45 (Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press), 285. Note Kahn’s use of “Royal,” not “Real,” which may either be soldier slang for the infamous neighborhood’s main thoroughfare or an automatic translation on Kahn’s part. But there is no “Royal” Avenue in Manila, either before or following the war, and even Anglicized maps of the region during the American occupation use “Real.”

Manila, Part I: Getting A Sense of Place

At SFO last Wednesday, the ticketing line for Philippine Airlines stretched away from the counter, around the corner, and past the entrance doors. I rolled my luggage to the end of the queue, and silently thanked my wife for buying me a new suitcase for my birthday. The line was not moving fast, but at least it was moving, and my flight to Manila wasn’t supposed to leave for another three hours. I stood and started to wait.

A white man in front of me with even more luggage turned around. “So, I’m assuming that you’re going to go see your girlfriend?” He saw the ring on my left hand. “Your wife?” “Neither,” I replied. “My wife drove me down here.” “Oh,” he sighed. I never realized how many American men traveled to the Philippines to see wives and girlfriends until he asked. Then I realized something else: not a lot of white Americans traveled there at all, let alone to simply satisfy their curiosity. Give our nation’s shared if complicated history, this struck me as interesting, and perhaps a little odd. Anyway, we struck up a conversation about the nation to which we were both traveling. He had been several times over the past several years, and on his last trip he and his wife had purchased a house in Cebu City.

I guess you could say I was going to the Philippines for family-related reasons as well. Manila was the end of the road for my grandpa’s World War II career, and before that he had spent several months in his ship either anchored or steaming off the coasts of Leyte, Samar, and northern Luzon. His oiler, the Mink, was only two days behind MacArthur when he waded back into history after fleeing the Philippines a few years before. Later, the Mink was a part of the initial convoy charged with supporting the landings at Linguyen Gulf. Grandpa’s Liberty ship earned more battle stars during this period than the Chew (his destroyer at Pearl Harbor) did during its entire career. At one point off the coast of Luzon, only fifty miles or so west of Manila, a kamikaze pilot destroyed the ship next to his in the convoy line. For Grandpa, Manila represented the end of the longest, hardest, and arguably most harrowing period of his war service. As devastating as Pearl Harbor was to grandpa and to everyone else on Oahu, at least it ended. In the Philippines, however, the dive bombers kept coming for weeks and months on end.

Manila Bay
Ships and boats floating in Manila Bay. Elmer’s ship the Mink was here in 1945, along with hundreds of other American vessels that crowded the harbor in the days following its liberation.

Manila was remarkable for other reasons as well. Grandpa writes a lot about it in his letters, commenting on how so much of the city was in ruins and yet its nightlife seemed more boisterous than ever after three years of Japanese occupation. He also met my great-great-uncle Danny in Manila. A nineteen-year old soldier from St. Louis, and his girlfriend Rose’s baby brother, Danny was not old enough to have seen much fighting but he was smart enough to be posted in Army headquarters. Elmer and Danny met several times in the devastated city, believing each time to be their last encounter for a while. Elmer knew he was heading home, while Danny was told he was going to Japan.

I do not have the time or the money to check out all the places my Grandpa visited. Wars have a nasty habit of shaking up the globe and scattering people like snow into seemingly random places. Elmer’s ship made stops in New Orleans, Houston, Panama, Papua New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands, Indonesia, and several spots throughout the Philippine archipelago. It would be cost and time-prohibitive for me to visit them all, so I decided to choose one and get to know it a little.

Manila seemed like a good choice for a variety of reasons. As noted above, Manila is an important setting in grandpa’s narrative, and I wanted to connect his experience with that of my Uncle Danny’s. It was also host to one of the most savage and devastating battles in World War II, so much so that by the time my grandpa arrived most of the city was in rubble. Flying to Manila is also lot less involved than getting to the northern coast of New Guinea, or Manus Island, or Morotai in Indonesia. It would take twice as much money and thrice the time to visit any of these places, and if the lengthy flight to Manila was any indication then I am glad I didn’t put together a more frenetic island-hopping travel plan.

Manila Sky Line
Manila’s skyline. The city has come a long way since 1945, when the battle between Japanese and American forces reduced most of the city to rubble.

The man in front of me in line had a lot of good advice for traveling in the Philippines, and he suggested that I ride a Jeepney at some point. He also spent about five minutes talking about his new home’s air conditioning. Having recently installed a mini-split in our attic office space, I asked him about his new system. He did not know the details, he responded, but air conditioning is vitally important in the Philippines. He described the heat there, which is a hard thing to imagine while standing indoors on a cool, windy morning near San Francisco Bay.

This is another reason for me wanting to travel to Manila, or to any of grandpa’s ports of call in the Southern Pacific, and it ties in to one of my goals in writing this book. One of my general complaints about academic history, and a lot of decidedly non-academic history, is that it is too often non-descriptive. Places are “hot,” not “sweltering.” Mountains are “tall,” not “towering.” Fact-finding and narrative-establishing overshadow the need to set the scene in writing about the past. To be fair, there is often not a lot of grist to that mill. The past is a foreign country, after all, and we cannot Google Street View a scene in Renaissance Italy or the San Agustin church in Manila after the Japanese set fire to everything else around it. But my grandpa’s letters take me halfway there, as he was no idle observer himself. One of the strengths of my first book, I believe, was my success in describing western Nebraska for readers who have either never visited it or have only seen it in passing while driving Interstate 80 or flying on a plane. When I traveled to Lincoln to accept my Nebraska Book Award last year a couple of people asked me where in Nebraska I was from. Considering that I live in California and was raised in Missouri, I could not help but be flattered.

The main point here is that description matters. Being able to help one’s readers see, smell, hear, taste, and feel a place they’ve likely never visited matters. And if my years of teaching early American history to Californians has taught me anything, it is that the east coast might as well be Europe if you cannot make that place real for them.

But the best way to get a sense of that place is to actually be there. So, for me, that place is going to be Manila.

Selfie at the Jollibee
Greetings from Manila! Here I am hanging out with Jollibee the Bee (basically the Filipino equivalent of Ronald McDonald) near the Mall of Asia.

After an interminably long flight bookended by an hour at the gate on each end of the journey, we finally emerged from the plane and into Ninoy Aquino’s cool and pleasantly air-conditioned arrivals hall. My friend from San Francisco was just a few travelers behind me, and we passed each other in the immigration line. “We made it!” he sighed. The man sounded weary, but his traveling was not over. He had another flight to catch. I, on the other hand, took the easy way out of the airport: my hotel sent a driver to pick me up outside the terminal. “Yup,” I replied. “Here we are.”

We each looked ahead in opposite directions as yet another line snaked its way through the gauntlet of international travel. But we were almost through it. And at the end, travelers were rewarded with a blast of humid heat immediately upon exiting customs. Manila and San Francisco are both known for their large bays, but they could not feel any more different outside their respective airport terminal doors.

New Blog, Site Updates, and Moving to the Country (Gonna Eat a Lot of Peaches)

Hi folks,

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve started posting again. One of my goals has always been to find some way to put all of my grandpa’s letters on here so that they can be publicly available. Since I’ve been busy writing elsewhere lately for school, work, and my book project, I decided that I might as well start posting the letters here, one after another. With that in mind, I have started posting these letters exactly 80 years after they were written.

Envelope, Letter, Elmer to Parents, March 4, 1942
This letter is exactly 80 years old today . . .

At some point I will have to backtrack and post all of the letters that predate March 1, 1942, but that’s a problem for a different day. In the meantime, I will simply post scanned pictures of each letter, along with an audio recording in which I read the contents of that letter. For a variety of reasons I want to avoid having to transcribe them all, at least for the time being, but since I want these letters to be accessible to anyone who is unable to read them I am also including the audio narration below each letter. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to to enhance their accessibility.

I have also made some changes and updates to the website. For instance, I took out the “Teaching” section and replaced it with a “Media” section in order to highlight some of the reviews I’ve received and interviews I’d done for Never Caught Twice. I’ll try to keep this site up to date. Meanwhile, if you are a student, you can contact me via the “Contact” form on my page or via my institutional email (hint: it is in your syllabus 😉).

I also removed all of the previous Grandpa’s Letters blog posts. I did not do this out of meanness or insecurity, but rather because I have started the process of marketing my manuscript to publishers and I don’t want my old posts to suggest that my book is merely a physical instantiation of my blog, which of course it is not. But even so, I have made a lot of updates, additions, corrections, and other changes to my previous drafts . . . I would much prefer that everyone read the book when it comes out and, as my grandpa would say, “get the straight dope,” rather than pinball back and forth through an arcade of outdated posts. I appreciate everyone’s interest in these month-to-month installments, which were instrumental in establishing this blog and spreading interest in my grandfather’s story. However, it is time to turn my attention away from the old blog and back toward putting these letters out there so that anyone, anywhere can access them.

I hope to have some announcements in the not-to-distant future about the book, its progress, and its destination. Exciting things are happening on that front. In the meantime, I hope that you enjoy reading my grandpa’s actual letters—the straight, straight dope, one might say—and that you and all your friends and loved ones are safe in these uncertain times. And since it would be weird to write a big blog post without any kind of picture, here’s a shot of my Eva’s Pride peach tree budding. I planted a small orchard over the winter, and this little guy is the first to emerge from dormancy. Come by in five years if you want plenty of fresh fruit!

Anyway, take care, stay tuned . . . and Slava Ukraini!