June, July, and August 1942: High Water Marks

Note: although the Battle of Coral Sea occurred in May, the shorter Midway-only newsreel on YouTube has an annoying watermark.

One of my clearest memories as a child of my grandfather is from when my brother and I were visiting him in 1993. He took us to Eiler Street and showed us his old house. I recall not expressing a great deal of interest in the aging brick building. Then he drove us a few blocks east to Bellerive Park. Perched along a small bluff about 70 feet or so above the Mississippi, visitors get a birds-eye view of the river from this small neighborhood pavilion. At the time I remembered visiting it once or twice when I was younger. But when we saw it that day, at the Great Flood of 1993’s destructive climax, the river looked to be just a few feet below the bluff’s summit. It rushed by like a raging torrent, carrying debris and tree branches and trees and chemicals and God knows what else on a runaway train to the Gulf.

I realized then that Grandpa didn’t take us down to see his old house that day, but to see the flood. Maybe on some level my grandpa liked seeing things like that. If that was the case then I cannot fault him for it, since I was just as entranced if not more watching the rampaging river rush by. Perhaps it runs in the family.

The Mississippi River, as seen from Bellerive Park. Author’s photo, taken in October 2019.

But during the summer of 1942, despite the epic battles being fought near the Midway Atoll and in the streets of Stalingrad, there was very little to write home about. From December 1940 through the spring of 1942, the vast majority of Elmer’s letters to his parents were at least two pages long. Many ran three or four. But between June 1st and August 31st, not one of Elmer’s twenty-five letters ran more than a single page. For one thing, Elmer had run out of topics to discuss, and much of his writing was in response to what his parents had told him in previous letters. Moreover, the things he could not talk about consumed more of his time, since by June the Chew was usually out at sea on escort duty.

Elmer could not even discuss in detail recent events of which both he and his parents were aware, since that information could be intercepted by the Japanese and used to confirm or disconfirm what they thought the Americans knew. In fact, he tried to tamp down expectations back home following the climactic American victory at the Battle of Midway. “This war is just starting on our part,” he wrote, “and it may last quite a while yet . . . I hope the public don’t get too optimistic about our recent successes and think victory is ‘in the bag.’ We should not underestimate our enemy.” Cautious optimism was certainly warranted during the early days of the war, especially after the crushing losses suffered at Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and elsewhere throughout the Pacific. But Midway shattered the Japanese Navy’s offensive capacity, and since the Empire lacked America’s cast industrial, mineral, and energy resources, the tide of the war effectively turned after that battle. Midway would later represent the high-water mark of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Elmer’s responses to news from home dominated these short letters. These reports included everything from his dad Forrest finally getting the tires he needed for his Victory to his sister Ruth divorcing her husband, Rick. Ruth sent a letter, her first since the start of the war, announcing the news to Elmer. “I hope that she is making out OK now that she out on her own,” he wrote. He also learned about a major flood hitting the St. Louis area that summer, during which the Missouri River crested at 35 feet. “Old Man River must be stepping out of bounds in many spots,” he wrote on August 3rd after receiving several snapshots of the flooding.

As an aside, the flood killed one man in Florissant and displaced several people and a number of cows in Saint Charles, but the flooding was limited compared to what was happening along the eastern seaboard, or to would come later along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The Missouri River actually crested one foot higher in similar flood events in 1943 and 1944, and in 1993 the Missouri reached 40 feet at the St. Charles riverfront. But the main difference between the World War II-era floods and the Great Flood of 1993 was development. Fifty years later, hundreds of thousands of new homes and hundreds of miles of additional levee squeezed the rivers through tighter channels, thus requiring less water to top the levees and inundate the surrounding areas. Now the floods displace people instead of livestock.

Ferguson subdivision, 1958
New home construction in Ferguson, Missouri, in 1958. Post-Dispatch file photo. Link: https://www.stltoday.com/news/archives/look-back-st-louis-suburbs-explode-after-world-war-ii/article_858a9508-e0e9-5f7c-99b0-e2dd293a7171.html

Ironically enough, the story of Saint Louis’s coming urban sprawl, the deterioration of its urban core, and the growing likelihood of destructive floods would be written once Elmer and the thousands of other regional servicemen came back from the war wanting to buy new homes. Despite Saint Louis City’s impending population decline, the bistate region’s economic power grew during World War II. “The old home town must be quite a manufacturing center in all ways now,” Grandpa wrote in June. The new factories and the post-war economic boom fueled the explosion of new suburbs in what had once been farmland.

Elmer wondered about all the changes back home during wartime, but he had already noticed two: more men were joining the service, and more couples were deciding to get married. “War usually provides a stimulant for marriage and makes ‘Kid Cupid’s’ job much easier,” Elmer observed. Pat later confirmed the absence of eligible bachelors in one of her letters, “According to Pat the number of young men still at home are rapidly declining. Maybe,” he mused, “that’s why she writes me, eh?” Elmer’s anxieties about a long distance wartime romance continued to dominate his thinking, however. “Ozzie misses his wife quite a bit,” he noted on July 30th, knowing there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Union Station in 1942 was a bustling travel hub for a growing city. In the years since suspending train service the building has been used as a hotel, a mall, and most recently an Aquarium. Photo by Grand Hall STL. URL: http://www.grandhall-stl.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/09/stationin1942.jpg

In some ways his sea duty had become as routine as his letters. “Well today is the 4th of July, but just another day to the working man.” He still enjoyed working in the engine room, and he had begun studying for his next rating advancement despite having no clear timetable for when he would be able to make it. At one point in July he expressed an interest in pursuing “aviation or aircraft mechanics,” but doubted he would ever get the opportunity.

Even off-board excursions had lost some of their luster. “Had a nice liberty the other day in town,” Elmer wrote on June 25th. “Although there isn’t much to do – you can usually see a good show, swim, play pool, or drink some appropriate refreshment. Of course there are dances around town, but I care very little for dancing. All in all, liberty’s a change, and a change makes variety, and ‘variety is the spice of life,’ or something.” Later, on July 8th: “Today was my liberty day . . . I just loafed around and took it easy.” Perhaps sensing a degree of fatigue and ennui aboard the Chew, the officers hosted a “beer party on the beach” later that month. The sailors “played ball, horseshoes, [drank] beer, and [had] plenty of eats. Sure had a good time and got a good sunburn.”

But there might have been a more practical reason as well: the Chew’s impending escort duty between Hawaii and Midway Island. “We will probably be at sea very much,” he warned his parents on August 5th. A week later, he indicated that “I don’t know how long it will be before you receive this letter, as you know there are no mailboxes at sea.” He then apologized for the infrequency of mail delivery on the ocean, and sweetly told his mother that “if thoughts could speak to you my voice would be heard every day.” By the end of August, though, his spirits cheered up a bit when the ship arrive at a different port, which might have been Midway Island. “A change of scenery always helps out a little.”

Like the cows in Saint Charles Elmer had all the water he could ever want, especially with his ship’s escort duty taking him farther and farther away from O’ahu. But he would get an even nicer change of scenery by the end of fall.

April 1942: Message Received

“Japan has had a taste of bombing, too – only a taste.”

Grandpa didn’t say anything more about the Doolittle Raid, in which sixteen B-25s pulled off one of the most daring and consequential air raids in aviation history. Perhaps he did not know what he could and could not say about the raid to his parents. Or maybe he simply didn’t need to: newspapers across the country screamed headlines of the April 18th raid, and Elmer no doubt heard about it on the radio off Oahu. Either way, both the Lucketts and the rest of America were encouraged and emboldened by the attack, which lifted the Allies’ spirits after months of losing ground (so to speak) on the Pacific. “Something tells me the future looks brighter for the good old USA,” he wrote on April 30th. “So keep your spirits up.”

Chins and spirits had been difficult things to lift in past weeks. In late March the Navy’s postal system slowed to a crawl. Letters that usually took a few days to make it to or arrive from the states now came two or three weeks late. On April 8th Elmer complained that he had not received a letter from his parents since March 22nd. On the 12th he wrote again, stating that still no letters had arrived, and that while other shipmates were having the same problem, he was beginning to worry. Finally on the 17th he received four letters from his parents at once, dated between March 26th and April 7th. “It was a relief for me,” Elmer admitted. On April 30th he received another tranche of letters from his parents, as well as some delayed correspondence from family and friends. “My letters have been coming in like bananas.”

Unfortunately, his parents were having the same problem. They hadn’t received any of his since late March, either. “Mom,” he wrote, “it makes me feel bad to know you worry so much when letters are late.”

Part of the problem might have been the uptick in sailor mail and packages in advance of Easter, which fell on April 5th that year. Elmer’s mother sent him an Easter egg cake, and several people shipped him cookies. His shipmates were receiving care packages as well. In return, Elmer sent his folks an Easter card, a money order, a war bond, and his May 7th birthday wish list: slippers and Red Dot cigars.

Image result for red dot cigars
One of Elmer’s favorite cigar brands.

Elmer also received a steady stream of letters from young women. Irene Sykes, Shirley Ryder, and Dorothy Wekking wrote him “every few weeks.” Pat had recently stopped writing him, mainly because Elmer once again stopped responding to her letters. In fairness, he had a lot of correspondence to answer, which promoted him to reassure his worried mother. “I’m not much for reading the Bible or religious literature,” he wrote, “but I do nothing that I am ashamed of.” In spite of Elmer’s aversion to such things, his father announced that he was going to send his son some Christian Science materials, presumably before Elmer could have had a chance to finish reading the New Testament his mother’s pastor sent him weeks earlier.

While Elmer did not necessarily find comfort in religion, he took his self-improvement seriously. At the end of the month he wrote that he was looking forward to coming home and visiting with his parents, but he hoped that he would be “more of a man” than “the boy who left a good home.” Nevertheless, he confessed that he did not regret joining the Navy, and that in spite of him now being in the middle of a war he believed that the experience would shape him in a positive way.

Of course, there was always a risk involved when serving in the Navy during a war. But Elmer wanted his parents to not spend their time worrying about it, and instead embrace his hope for a brighter future. And thanks to the Doolittle Raiders, that future seemed a little more likely than before.

January 1942: Adjusting to a New Reality

Published in the Los Angeles Times, 1 January 1942 (Posted by GreenTentacle, https://imgur.com/gallery/35PER)

One month removed from the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, Elmer and the thousands of other surviving sailors continued to cope not only with their injuries, shock, and anger, but also a very different reality. Hawaii at peacetime was warm, pleasant, and inviting. Sometimes it could be boring, expensive, and placid, but considering everything that was happening in Europe, Asia, Africa, and on the North Atlantic, it was the warmest part of the luckiest country on Earth. With the start of the New Year, however, wartime rules were now firmly in place. Cruises beyond Oahu often led to dangerous encounters with the enemy, while on the island the soldiers and sailors warily stood guard against a possible Japanese invasion.

Yet the New Year also offered some rays of hope. One positive development was the reopening of lines of communication between servicemen and their families back home. It was now possible to renew pre-war correspondences on at least a semi-regular basis. “Yes, we were right in the middle of the air raid on the 7th of December,” Elmer reported to his parents over a month later. “It is a scene I will never forget. Our anti-aircraft guns and machine guns were extremely accurate.” Elmer began hearing from other family members, friends, and acquaintances as well. Even Pat began writing him friendly letters.

One note in particular brightened Grandpa’s day. When family friend Harry Scott wrote to Elmer, he recalled how happy Forrest was when he came by to report that his son was safe after the bombing. “It made me feel good to know that,” he admitted when relaying to his father what Harry had told him.

Not all mail services were timely or reliable. Elmer had to wait nearly two months for his “Christmas box,” which contained candy, cigars, pipe tobacco, socks, and other gifts. By the time Elmer had received it his parents had already sent him another one. But Elmer was still able to reliably send money home, which was particularly important following the wartime raise he and the rest of the Navy’s sailors received retroactive to the morning of December 7th. On January 20th he sent his parents a $75 money order (which would be worth over $1,100 in 2019), and he promised to send monthly $30 allotments in the future.

Elmer also decided to earmark some of his wartime windfall towards an upgraded life insurance policy, which was now worth $7,000 (about $100,000 today). Despite being in the “best of spirits” Grandpa understood that the Pacific was a much more dangerous place to be than it had been just a month earlier. But morbid practicality did not dampen his otherwise optimistic outlook. “The Japanese are finding out that Americans are hard fighters,” he declared. They were a “little different than unarmed Chinese troops they have been slaughtering for years.” In another letter, he admitted that the war might take some time to win. “I hope we can lick those Japs as soon as possible. It might take a little while . . . [but] ultimate victory is inevitable.”

Part of Elmer’s job while writing these letters, as we will see, was to maintain parental morale back home. “Keep those chins up!” he declared with regularity. He also warned them against believing rumors or sensationalist reports in the press. “Dad, you and mom shouldn’t pay attention to the rumors and all the newspaper reports you read. The Navy gives out very little news and it is through official sources only.” But Elmer’s letters, vital as they were in assuring his parents that he was still alive, was not enough. Mr. and Mrs. Luckett quickly found a community of other parents whose sons were off fighting in the war. His mother Rose joined the local Navy Mother’s Club and gave a speech at the Trinity Church on South Grand, while both parents called on and received visits from Elmer’s friends and his shipmates’ families.

Everyone had their part to play, but no one had to play it alone.

The Chew, Elmer’s home for over two years, including all of 1942. I have no information about who took this photohtaph or when, but I found this copy it in my grandfather’s Navy scrapbook.

December 24th: "It does not seem like Christmas Eve to me"

Things had quieted down a bit at Pearl Harbor by Christmas. The sadness, dread, and anger lingered over the still-smoking water, but each passing day that did not bring an invasion offered at least a small amount of relief.

Elmer spent the day thinking about his family, his faith, and an uncertain future. He channeled these reflections into the letter below, which would be his last of 1941.

December 21st: No Kisses or Hugs

Much of Elmer’s correspondence at this point is dictated by censor requirements. Letters must be short, they could not contain xo marks (which might be code), and they cannot reveal any information about what they are doing or where they are operating. Naturally this limited what Elmer could say.

The last image below is of a cablegram that Elmer sent on December 20th. The envelope in which it was stored was labeled “12/21,” suggesting that his parents indeed received it quickly. It may have also been the first indication that his parents received that he was alright.

Two hours spent worrying about one’s kid is an interminable length of time. Two weeks? I can’t even imagine.