Summary: Harry Scott wrote an “interesting” letter. Mom’s candy arrived. “Very little to write about.”
Summary: Harry Scott wrote an “interesting” letter. Mom’s candy arrived. “Very little to write about.”
If someone were to ask you where the first Pearl Harbor monument is located, what place would you guess? Honolulu? Washington, D.C.? Perhaps someplace in Arizona?
If you didn’t come up with “Swansea, Illinois,” then you wouldn’t be alone. Erected in 1942, just months after the Japanese attacked, the monument sits on a small cemetery plot beside a busy road in metro St. Louis. Located about twenty miles east of Saint Louis, and over 4,000 miles away from Oahu, Swansea does not contain a naval base, an airstrip, or much else of strategic value. What it did have, however, was a sad and terrified family whose members were losing hope. George E Hoffman’s namesake nephew was a sailor aboard the Chew, and he was reported missing along with several others following the attack. By February, his grieving uncle commissioned a large monument to be erected in his nephew’s honor and for all the other dead and missing servicemen at the Messinger Cemetery.
The monument is one of the newer stones there: the oldest grave belongs to Anne Lyon Messinger, who died in 1842. Her family’s gravestones lie behind a black iron fence near the back of the site. Nearby, W. Albert Issacs lies beneath a modest, well-kept gravestone. Issacs died on August 1, 1863, while attached to Company I of the 117th Illinois Infantry. The 117th was stationed in Memphis at that time, so it is likely that Issacs died of a non-violent cause (like disease).
Nearby, Hoffman’s much-larger monument turned out to be at least partially premature. During the months following Pearl Harbor, Hoffman was one of thousands of men whose whereabouts immediately following the bombing raid were unknown. By the time the memorial was dedicated, however, Hoffman had been found alive and well. Nevertheless, the monument’s dedication to all those who died and sacrificed during America’s “baptism by fire” was among the first to pepper a mourning nation’s growing cemeteries. Today the monument is flanked by several other memorials for more recent wars. A few feet away, just beyond a pair of small stone obelisks that mark the entrance to the cemetery, a busy highway disturbs the quiet, a perpetual symbol of time passing along just as those who perished cannot.
If you are ever in the region, it’s worth checking out the memorial and the surrounding cemetery. I visited with my family last December, and although it took a little while to venture out there from the Missouri side of the river, it was well worth the trip.
Sorry, it’s late and I forgot to do this earlier, so I’m just going to post the rest without bothering with photos . . . let me know what you think! – Matt
While Grandpa’s letters contain a trove of valuable information about his college history, there is another perspective that may give it some additional context and color: my own. In 1946 SMSTC shortened its name to Southeast Missouri State College, and in 1973 it rechristened itself as Southeast Missouri State University. This was the school’s name when I matriculated there in 1999. Now often referred to as SEMO or just “Southeast,” the university is no longer just for teachers or officer trainees. Its larger mission today is to serve as the preeminent educational, intellectual, and cultural institution for Southeast Missouri, long considered to be the most economically disadvantaged region in the state. But it is also a great alternative for many St. Louis-area students who, like me, could not get into a more prestigious school and who were turned off or intimidated by Mizzou’s sprawling campus community.
As I went through his letters from Cape, I noticed many little things that tied our experiences together: afternoons at Capaha Park, evenings at Cape Rock, cool nights spent smoking under the stars, hot days spent seeking relief from the sultry Gulf heat that somehow always stretched its way up the Mississippi, and the mysteriously (almost suspiciously) high quality of the dorm food. When he first mentions Cheney Hall a rush of memories come flooding back, reminding me of all those times I’d walk from Cheney back to Towers late at night after seeing my girlfriend, passing the blinking power plant and the brooding soccer fields, hearing nothing but the tinnitus-like ringing of Missouri insects screaming from the trees and soft winds blowing a long arc from the Rockies all the way to the Atlantic. If it was especially late at night – or early in the morning – I could hear the first songbirds serenade each other from the Spanish oaks and sweet gum trees. Sometimes I would stand outside of the Towers dormitory complex after an almost all-nighter, cool in the crisp predawn air, smoking a cheap cigar and listening to the robins and brown thrashers announce the beginning of their days. I wish I had thought to talk to my grandpa about these things more often, because I know he would be immediately transported to Cape with me.
Of course, we did compare notes occasionally. Like Grandpa, I spent most of my weekends in Cape, which is not well known for its nightlife (apart from the usual – and frequent – house parties). While the town was big enough for students to enjoy a few beers while watching the barges float past, it was too small for a pub crawl. At least the Illinois side of the river had the Little Vegas Strip in East Cape Girardeau. Anchored by the Purple Crackle, a “supper club” which regularly featured big bands, for generations it was the place for students to go on a Friday night. But there was a rub: the Cape Girardeau Bridge, which was long, narrow, frightening under even the best of circumstances, and utterly terrifying under the worst. Cars passing each other only had a few feet of clearance on either side (the roadtop was only twenty feet wide), so each party going east across the river to visit the Crackle had to come back with at least one driver who was sober enough to safely make the trip back west. That wasn’t always a sure thing.* Decades later, after dinner one Sunday evening my grandpa asked me if the Crackle was still there. I quickly glanced at him and we shared a knowing look, hopefully without my mother noticing.
Despite these commonalities, many things have changed since then. When I attended Southeast Missouri State University from 1999 to 2003, Cheney Hall was the oldest and most highly desired dormitory on campus. It is a gorgeous building, and its rooms have beautiful hardwood floors and classic radiators. But like all older things, it was not always so. Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College constructed Cheney Hall in 1939 with funding from the Works Progress Administration, so by the time Elmer arrived on campus in 1943 it was one of the newest buildings on campus. Meanwhile, Elmer’s dorm, Leming Hall, was already a couple of generations old, having been built in 1905. It was used for seventy years, setting the scene for generations of students’ memories. But while this spot lived on in my grandpa’s recollection of the campus, the building that came after that – the University Center, built in 1975 – became a special place for his grandson in turn. I spent a lot of time there: club meetings, my first student conference, BBQ sandwiches in the cafeteria . . . so many things come to mind. The buildings were different but the geographic coordinates were exactly the same.
It has been nearly twenty years since I graduated college, and the memories return in fragments. There are fuzzy mental snapshots of reading history books, looking at microfilm, taking notes, talking to professors, buzzing around Carnahan Hall, making friends, eating burgers and omelets in the cafeteria . . . typical college stuff. But my mind also plays 4K videos me of going to New York on a Greyhound with my best friend, falling in love for the first time, watching 9/11 unfold on a break room TV screen at work, reading Hunter S. Thompson while sitting next to the river as it rolled forever by, racing down two lane roads in old cars covered in band stickers and then drunkenly eating pancakes with groggy truckers at the Scott City Huddle House . . . College was such an indispensably formative time for me that I cannot imagine who I would be without it. Meanwhile, the four years I spent at Southeast were the only frame of reference I have for my grandpa, whose own four formative years were mostly spent aboard Naval ships in war zones. But his residency in Cape Girardeau at least offers an intersection, a shared place, a series of moments that spanned decades of time.
Leaf peepers like to spend their time and money visiting Vermont, but Cape Girardeau is every bit as beautiful when the leaves change. Flaming oranges, reds, and yellows polka dot the thick green forests across the Mississippi Valley, crowning the river bluffs with wreaths of gold and crimson. The region’s myriad apple trees sweeten the scene, and pumpkins are never hard to find. On the college campus, leaves congregate on Normal and Henderson Avenues, shirts begin to seek cover under sweaters and jackets, and cool winds from the north and west begin to overpower the Gulf moisture from the South. Today, October comes during the midway point of the semester, and despite the increasingly comfortable climate students are often weighted down by anxiety over midterms. For V-12 students, however, October brought the end of the semester as well as the end of summer. And like boiled eggs cooling in a pan of water, students were unburdened for a short time with both the pressures of school and the soupy humidity of a Cape summer.
As the V-12 semester at Southeast began to wind down, Elmer welcomed the dipping temperatures. After spending two autumns in the tropics he was ready for cool nights and hot cider. But he could not enjoy it as much as he wanted on account of two health issues that would largely define for him his time at SMSTC. The first was a hernia that, as far as Elmer could tell, he had suffered while completing one of the obstacle courses sometime during the first two weeks of the term. It aggravated him enough to limit his activity, but not enough to warrant taking him immediately out of school, so he gutted it out. His commanding officer allowed him to put the surgery off until after the semester concluded, since it would also require two weeks of subsequent bedrest. But Elmer seemed to worry less about the operation than he did about causing his mother any more anxiety. On one of his trips home he confided in his father, letting him know what happened and what he expected to happen next. With respect to everyone else, however, mum was the word. He even kept the news from Rose. Elmer waited to read her in until he wrote her on November 9th, after nearly two weeks in the hospital. “I kept my condition a secret from just about everyone because I didn’t want my mom to know,” he explained. “She is a very high-strung and emotional person.”
Although Grandpa was able to get his hernia fixed, the second medical problem issue he faced was an intractable and, as far as the Navy was concerned, far worse for his prospects as an officer. On July 20, 1943, Elmer took an American Optical Company vision exam. The test itself only became available in 1940, after Elmer originally enlisted. The older test that Elmer took did not detect any problems with his color vision, but since a new physical examination was required prior to Elmer matriculating into the V-12 program he had to take the newer diagnostic. But after reviewing the results, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery determined that Elmer had failed the updated vision assessment. They ruled that he had “slightly defective color perception” – it was not severe enough to send him home, but it was defective enough to disqualify him from the V-12 program. He was ordered to return to active duty and allowed to retain his previous rating.
Once classes ended on October 15th, Elmer had a few extra days to visit his family in St. Louis. He broke the disappointing news to his parents and then boarded a train south toward New Orleans, where he was to be operated on before resting for two weeks and awaiting orders that would presumably send him to a new ship. When he arrived on October 26th, his autumn was officially over, but it was not yet winter, either. There were no more fall colors, such as they were, or cool breezes to be had. Just the Louisiana air, thick and steamy as a pot of bouillabaisse.
He mailed his parents a postcard and a letter shortly before his procedure. He did not have much to say: “Didn’t see much of New Orleans yet, it is an old city. I noticed how old so many buildings were as we traveled from the Union Station to the Naval Station.” He sent his next letter on October 30th. “Hi you dad! Still at the job. Had that little matter taken care of that we talked about at home. Everything is fine and working out swell. Thought you would like to know.” Father and son kept mother in the dark about Elmer’s condition. But Rose Luckett, who may well have been “high strung and emotional,” was by no means dumb. She wondered what the word “dispensary” meant when she saw it on Elmer’s new mailing address.
After Halloween she looked it up.
The news deeply disappointed Elmer, who apparently did not discover his condition or his fate until he received his transfer orders in mid-October. His letters up until that point make no mention of the vision exam results, and at several points in his letters to Rose he expressed his excitement over being done with “this term,” as opposed to school overall. There is no sense of impending finality in his letters. One letter is written in Cape; the next is a postcard from New Orleans. And therefore, with the stroke of a pen, Elmer’s college career was over.
Grandpa told me this story years later, after two children and two marriages and half a lifetime had passed. I detected more than a twinge of disappointment, even though he had since lived his best life. One time when I was a kid, I also asked my mom about this. I wondered how grandpa could drive if he could not tell the difference between red and green. After all, what would happen at a traffic light? My mom informed me that he had learned to tell which light was illuminated, which after 25 years of driving is still something I have to think about for a second. This made me admire him even more. And while I am not privy to the optical demands of the World War II Naval officer corps Elmer’s color perception deficiency never seemed to hinder him in the engine room. But just as one bureaucrat in Washington D.C. endorsed his admission into the V-12 program and another exhibited enough kindness to send Elmer to school a mere 100 miles from his parents, a third determined that Elmer could see well enough to run a ship engine but not well enough to supervise an engineer.
Years later, not long after grandpa died, I found a large envelope with “Matt + Dave” written in sharpie on the front (Dave is my younger brother) as I was going through some of the papers he left behind. When I opened the envelope a museum of our childhood tumbled out: old theater programs, photos, and even a hand-drawn Christmas book I wrote and self-published (at a Kinkos) when I was 8. I had forgotten that it existed. Seemingly more disposable was the program for my undergraduate commencement ceremony, which was carefully tucked away behind all the other childhood detritus. I do not even know where mine is today – I was annoyed at having only made cum laude with my 3.7 GPA. But when I peeked at the program my grandpa saved he had circled my name, and in margin he wrote “cum laude = with honors!!!” It was both touching and telling that he presumably felt the need to look it up. Maybe I should have been prouder of myself, or, at the very least, more willing to acknowledge his own pride in that accomplishment.
I knew the honors distinction made him happy, but I wonder how much his own history in Cape influenced his thinking on the matter. Although my grandpa did not choose Southeast Missouri Teacher’s College (the Navy chose it for him), I know he was pleased that I chose to follow his footsteps there, even if I never did join the Navy. And while I may have been the one to graduate cum laude, my grandpa left college with honors as well. Mine were published in a commencement program, while his were pinned to his uniform. And I know he knew that, but I hope he also knew that I know that as well.
It’s almost back to school time! Whether you or your kids or grandkids are starting a new grade or a new school, this is a good moment to reflect on what our school and college experiences mean to us. This is especially true after the past year and a half of quarantine restrictions. Although we are not yet out of the woods (and if you are not vaccinated yet, please do so for your sake and for all those who cannot for whatever reason . . . like my four year old daughter!), I hope that we come closer to some kind of normalcy this next year.
For my part, I will be starting my MFT Counseling program at CSU-East Bay next week. I am both excited and nervous about being a grad student again . . . if memory serves, during my last go-around I could not wait to not be a student anymore! But this time feels different. It is also fitting that I end my registered student journey (one hopes, anyway) at a state college, given that I earned my Bachelors degree at Southeast Missouri State University. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s OK—it does not show up too often on the rankings lists. But it was a smart, affordable, and ultimately right choice for me and, I would guess, most of my friends as well, who have all gone on to do incredible things in their post-baccalaureate lives.
So, if you did not get into Harvard of Yale, or your parents cannot afford to sneak you into USC as a fake member of its rowing team, do not be dismayed. I received an excellent, memorable, and valuable education at Southeast Missouri State University, and I look forward to receiving one at CSU-East Bay as well. Go Redhawks, and go Pioneers!
Anyway, check out the following chapter I’ve written for my book, Grandpa’s Letters: A Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Journey in History and Memory. When my grandpa was selected to join the V-12 officers training program in 1943, the Navy decided to send him to Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College—now known as Southeast Missouri State University. This chapter describes his semester there, as related to his parents in his letters, and it also contains some thoughts of my own on how our experiences there intertwined. I think it shows just how powerful and profound the college experience can and should be.
Note that some of the prose matches the prose in earlier blog posts about the project. This is by design, since the book is largely based on these posts. But I hope this also gives you a sense on how I’m trying to make everything congeal into a larger, book-length narrative. As it continues to evolve I will keep adding things and taking other things away. But overall the final product will be much better—and less raw—than the posts themselves. Such is the nature of writing.
Please let me know what you think in the comments, or by sending me a message in the Contact page. The book is just about fully drafted, so I’m rapidly reaching the point where I can start sending it out to people and soliciting feedback. I’d love to know what you think!
Chapter 7, The College Try—Part I
Time flew. June arrived before anyone knew it, and Elmer’s 43 days were up. “That month at home was heaven,” he wrote his parents after arriving at San Diego on June 15th. “Mom dear, I sure miss that home cooking of yours. Our food is good, but it just don’t compare with yours.” Elmer’s train deposited him in San Diego several days early. What was in 1940 a sleepy if boisterous border town that happened to have a Naval base was by 1943 a large, bustling wartime port that happened to be near a major city. He spent his remaining days on leave with a couple of friends he made on the train west, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city before being shipped to Heaven Knows Where. While Elmer was on his way to start his officer training program, he had no idea where in the United States he would end up going. Texas? New York? Idaho? College students today have thousands of possible destinations to pick choose and can visualize where they will end up, but Elmer and other V-12 selectees had to wait on pins and needles for their school assignments without even knowing their destination’s time zone. But by the time he reported for duty on June 18, he received some unexpectedly good news: he would be soon be on a train back East. He would report to Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College to begin his V-12 program studies. It was only one hundred miles from home.
Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College (SMSTC) was located in Cape Girardeau, where it stretched across a series of forested, rolling hills overlooking the Mississippi River. It was an odd place for a Naval school, just as Cape Girardeau is an odd name for a town located approximately 500 miles from the nearest ocean. Yet Cape Girardeau itself rests just above the northernmost tip of the Mississippi Embayment, a massive alluvial region that is at least geologically a continuation of the Mississippi Delta. Over millions of years the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers carried sediment from the Ozark and Appalachian ranges down towards the Gulf, which during the Cretaceous Period extended all the way up to the Missouri bootheel. As the once-towering mountain ranges across eastern North America slowly crumbled away the river sediment continued to build up, adding new land over tens of millions of years that eventually became the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. By 1943 the Mississippi was much longer, and the rippled hills surrounding Cape Girardeau were now closer to the shores of Lake Michigan than they were to the sea. But Scott City, Cape’s southern neighbor, was once the maritime domain of sharks and plesiosaurs. The Navy was 65 million years too late.
While Cape Girardeau might not have been anywhere close to the sea, it was a classic river town. In many ways aesthetically similar to Hannibal, its more famous counterpart north of St. Louis, Mark Twain once complimented Cape’s “handsome appearance.” But unlike the more culturally Midwestern Hannibal, Cape’s location on what many Missourians would consider to be the state’s border between its Midwestern and Southern regions gives it a special flavor of its own. Residents prefer northern red brick buildings over plantation-style wooden frame homes, which do a better job of keeping the cold out. But at dinner time they will grab some gumbo or gator etouffee at Broussards, which keeps the heat inside. It is a bit isolated for a city east of the Great Plains: St. Louis is 100 miles to the north, and Memphis is twice as far to the south. The college’s nearest competitor, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, is an hour’s drive away on rural two-lane highways. Meanwhile, the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers make it hard to get anywhere else as they crash into one another south of Cairo. Both rivers elbow their way past Illinois and Kentucky while occasionally puffing out their chests like drunken revelers in the French Quarter. Even today ferries are the quickest and least circuitous way to get to many places on the other side of either river.
Despite being landlocked, SMSTC was well-equipped to host one of the Navy’s 131 V-12 programs during World War II. It also needed the business. School enrollments plummeted during the months following the Pearl Harbor attack, as enlistments and the draft snatched bodies out of dorm rooms and classroom seats in universities across America. The V-12 program, in addition to supplying the Navy with college-educated officers and providing its swelling ranks of enlisted men with a new opportunity for advancement, threw a lifeline to colleges like SMSTC. Instead of waiting out the war with reduced enrollments and endowments that nearly vanished during the Depression, these schools served as satellite Annapolises and extension West Points. Since most of the classes offered in the program were general education courses, as well as physical and leadership training, the V-12 schools provided both experience and facilities. No ocean required.
At least SMSTC looked the part. The Teacher’s College spread across a wooded hill northwest of downtown Cape Girardeau. Its dormitories crowded along Henderson Ave, just east of Capaha Park and on the western edge of today’s campus. The college’s flagship building, Academic Hall, was perched upon the highest of these knolls. The building’s milquetoast name does not do its architecture justice. A neoclassical behemoth built in 1906 from limestone and capped with a copper dome, Academic Hall looms like a stately courthouse over the rest of the campus and the surrounding town. While figuratively it was an ivory tower, the dome itself was made of thinly hammered copper.
On June 26th, Elmer hopped a train from the Pacific to the Mississippi for the second time in as many months. After four days, Grandpa arrived in Cape Girardeau, Missouri at 3:15 in the morning. The moon was only a sliver in the sky, and the disembarking passengers immediately found themselves surrounded by pitch black floodwaters. Cape Girardeau’s railroad is so close to the Mississippi that it practically kisses the riverbank. “The train tracks had about a foot of water over them,” he reported the next day, “but all was well.” Elmer and the other arrivals grabbed their bags, splashed across the submerged platform, and ducked into cabs for the short ride to campus. They only had a couple of hours to sleep before reporting in at 8:30 that morning. But despite the inauspicious beginning, Elmer was excited to start. “I like it here and this is really an opportunity to attend college first class,” he reported. “I think we will be able to get home over weekends once we settle down.”
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, which began with physical drilling. He was not used to the frequent and intense training. “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 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 held his own, though – on the 28th he learned that he had passed his first exam, “but not with a high grade.”
The V-12 Program worked Elmer to the bone, but there were rewards 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,” he noted. “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 was just as popular among couples in the 1940s as it was sixty years later. 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. As all longtime Missourians know, the state’s weather is in a perennial crossfire between Gulf of Mexico heat waves and Hudson Bay cold snaps, but Cape is noticeably closer to the former than St. Louis. “Boy is it hot here . . . [it] makes it hard to write as my arm keeps floating away in a pool of sweat.”
Elmer enjoyed spending some of his weekends in Cape, but he did try to go home regularly. Usually his visits were brief and hurried: he would take a bus up to Saint Louis early Saturday evening, stay the night, and head back Sunday afternoon. The trips were short but 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 on July 24 – they spoke on the phone instead – he tried to coordinate one visit with his brother Bud and his family visiting from Chicago. And while Elmer did not get to experience the Animal House lifestyle while on campus, he did take 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 enjoyed seeing his parents and getting his laundry done, but had had one other reason to visit home as well. At the end of July, he announced his intention to visit. But he did not plan to spend a great deal of time at home that Saturday evening – he had a date. With Rose.
Back at Cape his studies went well, though his course load was heavy enough to cause considerable and daily stress. Physics continued to be the worst culprit, though he had begun showing improvement in that class as well. On September 1st he reported earning an 80% on his latest physics exam, which was a marked improvement over the 55s and 60s he usually received. He excelled in his other courses, and even ranked 2nd in his psychology class.
Sometimes that routine was interrupted, like when the students who waited his table had left for a short summer break (the new girls were “not as good as the old ones” he uncharitably announced on August 14th), or when he made trips up to Saint Louis to see his folks. Before leaving he’d request his favorite foods, including chicken and dumplings on two occasions, plus pie for desert. The following month he received a visit from Bud Tanner, who traveled down to Cape to see his old friend. They hit the town and saw the sights, including Cape Rock.
Every now and then Elmer’s letters offer refractive clues about what his parents were thinking at the time. Forrest Luckett complained that White Castle hamburgers had declined in quality since the start of the war (“this war has effected [sic] everything, no doubt,” Elmer replied blandly), and kept Elmer up to date on a recent workplace injury. Meanwhile his mother asked if Elmer’s chaplain friend on campus drank at all (“every now and then”), and bombarded him with questions about Miss Bedford, an art professor who often hosted Elmer and some of his friends for dinner and card games. She frequently appeared in his letters, but mostly on account of her hospitality and her prowess in the kitchen.
While his love for Miss Bedford was clearly platonic, he continued to flirt with a revolving cast of women throughout the country. Shirley Ryder wrote him from Michigan and Rose Schmid announced that she would be moving to Washington, D.C. to work for the Navy Department. In the meantime, Elmer dated a couple of girls in Cape as well. As always, his mother was still his “number one girl.”
The pace of this routine – classes, drills, nights on the town, alternating weekends in Saint Louis – make these letters seem more perfunctory than usual. As almost anyone who is or has ever been busy will attest, there is both more going on and less to talk about. But there are thoughts and feelings sprinkled here and there. For instance, on September 16th Elmer expresses his gratitude that he had restarted his college career later on (“This college life is really OK and I feel it is doing me much more good than if I would have just continued a complete college program after high school”). Although gap years were not yet invented and would have certainly not been filled with surprise air raids by design, Elmer clearly benefited from the time off from school. But he was also sentimental about some of his relationship prospects, particularly Rose Schmid, who while traveling to California for a week while on vacation did not write to him. And Elmer, despite his long bachelor call sheet, noticed the lack of mail from her.
In any case, time flew by, and for the time being Elmer was in a great place. “Everything’s shipshape,” he reported, despite being hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean-going vessel.
To be Continued: Part II posts next Tuesday!
I recently had the honor and privilege of talking about Grandpa’s Letters with Dr. Samantha Cutrara on her Imagining a New We video series. During the show we chatted about Veteran’s Day (or Remembrance Day in Canada), the advantages of using family letters in a history classroom, and the joys of writing.
In addition to discussing the letters, I also mentioned a few additional sources that I use to add context and detail to Grandpa’s Naval career. Unlike the letters, which are not only a treasure trove but a treasure in their own right, many people know that a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent served in World War II, but they have few documents or heirlooms to reveal more. This is particularly true for servicemen who died or went missing in action, and for countless others whose letters, journals, or other artifacts were lost, destroyed, or discarded for one reason or another. Where would these people start their historical journey of learning more about a loved one in the service if that loved one left little evidence of their service behind?
Well, consider this a down payment on what I hope will become a separate chapter in my book. Here are explanations and links to (most) of the sources I mentioned in the video, along with some information on where to get them and how to use them. Note that while these are Navy sources, other branches of the service were similarly dedicated to ample and redundant record-keeping (my horse stealing book, in fact, relies heavily on Army sources).
Personnel records are the most fundamental source to acquire in your journey. Get these first. They contain essential documents for each service member, including enlistment paperwork and exams, orders, various commendations and citations, and discharge papers. Most if not all vital data points can be found here.
Right now these papers are hard to get. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis contains virtually all of these files, and under ordinary circumstances researchers have the option of either making arrangements with the NPRC directly and visiting the site in person to review requested documents, or they can order a digital scan of the file. However, due to COVID the facility shut down during the spring and summer, and is only now beginning a phased reopening process. There will likely be a substantial backlog of requests once it is fully reopen, so I would personally wait (and, incidentally, I will wait because I still have additional requests of my own) until the COVID crisis has passed to make an inquiry.
Here’s a screenshot of one of the pages from Grandpa’s file. Please note that while I have digitized the entire thing, I will not post it anywhere. This is because these files contain a lot of sensitive and personal data, up to and including physical examination reports. Also bear in mind that I am photo-scanning this manually. Since most of it is bound together I am holding it open with one hand (very gingerly, so as not to damage it), while photographing it with the other. It doesn’t produce publishable files, but it gets the job done (pro-tip: bring a tripod, plus extra batteries and a larger-than-you-need memory card).
One thing to note: the term of service for the requested person needs to have ended before 1957, or else federal privacy laws prohibit accessing the record without additional permissions and documentations.
For more information, check out their website: https://www.archives.gov/personnel-records-center
Personnel records are fantastic sources for filling out your loved one’s biography, but what about their ship (if they were in the Navy)? Ship records are fantastic for understanding the setting, as well as whatever actions in which your loved one was involved. When combined with personnel records, any existing oral or written reminiscences from the crew, and secondary sources, you can get an excellent idea of exactly what transpired on and around the ship.
Deck logs are probably the most data rich source of information about ships, their crews, and almost every other conceivable variable. You can track things like temperature and wind speed, the ship’s geographic location throughout the day, and even the amount of ice cream consumed aboard. For instance, check out this page from the Chew’s deck log on December 7th, 1941:
This page tells us a story: the Chew’s Sunday morning started out like any other, with the ship taking aboard ten gallons of milk and 4 1/2 gallons of ice cream. But then at 7:57am everything changed, and suddenly the crew found itself in the middle of a war. Deck logs contain narratives of all the major stuff happening on board, as well as much of the minutia. They also contain information about the weather, the location, and other details. If you want to picture what it felt like in Pearl Harbor immediately before the attack started, check out the following table in the Chew’s deck log:
For instance, the barometric pressure hovered just above 30 inches (Hg) for most of the morning . . . until 8am, that is, when it was broken by gunfire.
These records can be found at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Learning how to request, access, use, and photograph takes a little bit of time, so if you go be ready to give yourself a few hours to learn the ropes and request the documents (and be careful not to schedule a plane trip immediately after working hours, like I did back in January), plus a few more hours to review and possibly photograph them for future use. If you cannot make the trip yourself, you can hire a freelance researcher to request and photograph the files for you. It will cost a little money, of course, but if you are only requesting a few things it is a lot cheaper to do this than to travel to Maryland for two or three nights. Also, because of COVID and the NARA closures these folks are hurting right now . . . they can use your business!
Here are NARA’s listings for researchers available for hire: https://www.archives.gov/research/hire-help
Like the deck logs, the war diaries can be found at the NARA facility in College Park, Maryland. Unlike the deck logs, war diaries are much shorter, more compact documents that communicate a brief day to day log of where a ship has been and what it did on any given day. They contain a lot less information overall, but they also contain just enough. If you just want information on where a ship was and what it was doing, ask for the war diaries. If you want as much information as possible, use the war diary for context and the deck log for everything else.
Here’s a page from the USS Mink’s war diary from October 1944. Notice how the ship relates a series of geographic coordinates for several days, and then finds itself in action on October 24th:
The Mink was part of a task force that set sail for the Philippines. Once it got there it would play a role in the largest naval battle in human history: the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
One good thing about the war diaries is that many, if not most of them are available online. In fact, the above-cited war diary for the Mink (10/1 – 10/31 1944) can be found here: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/78665385
By the way . . . you can search for anything else the National Archives might have by going to the NARA Advanced Search site: https://catalog.archives.gov/advancedsearch
It might take a while to figure out what you want and where it is located, but once you spend a little time noodling around with it you will find what you need. Just be patient: NARA has literally millions of records, so if it feels like you are looking for a needle in a haystack, it is because you are! But NARA also employs a lot of people whose jobs revolve around helping the public find what they need, so be sure to ask for help if you need it.
The last type of document I mentioned is the action report, which is an official report following any kind of naval engagement. Action reports flush out many of the details that are missing from war diaries, but are specific to the engagements themselves. They chronicle what guns were used, how much ammunition was expended, what they were targeting, etc. You could write action sequences based on these reports. Here is an excerpt from one from the Mink in January 1945, which related what occurred when a kamikaze attack targeted the Mink’s convoy while en route to Lingayen Gulf:
The action reports are physically long and thus difficult to present digitally, but this snapshot gives you a sense of how detailed they are. If you want to see the whole thing, you can see it online. Like the war diaries, many (though not all) action reports have been digitized by NARA and can be found on their website. Here’s the link to the one above: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/139885506
I was very lucky to inherit so many letters from my Grandpa. Not only did those letters survive intact and in great (i.e., readable) shape, but Grandpa was an intelligent commentator and a lucid writer. It’s rare to find a correspondence trove in which the letters appear with great frequency, regularity, over a long period of time, with readable writing, and with so many things to say. My Grandpa might not have realized it, but he had the soul of a historian.
That being said, World War II – and modern wars in general – are richly detailed affairs, with a lot of granular and unit-level reporting. Most veterans have detailed files, even if they are not yet publicly available, and for most of them you can get information on where and how they served, what they saw, and where they fit into the overall scheme of things. In other words, you don’t need a box full of letters to find a lot of this stuff out . . . just a bit of shoe leather and some resourceful online searching will get you there. Hopefully for those of you with WWII American Navy veterans in your family, the above resources will help you find more information.
And as I state in the interview, World War II is rapidly disappearing from living memory. Of the 16 million men and women who served in the war, only about 325,000 are still alive today. If you know one of them, please reach out to them and ask if they are willing to share their story with you. They might not, and that is OK, but if they do then all you need is a smart phone with a recording app. For more information on conducting oral history interviews, check out UCLA’s Center for Oral History page on the subject. I trained there while in grad school, and they know what they are doing.
A couple of other things: I’ve heard from family members of a few of Elmer’s shipmates on the Chew and the Mink. If someone you loved was on either of these ships during the war, please feel free to reach out to me on my Contact page! I would love to talk to you sometime and, if you’d like, interview you for my book project. Although my grandpa’s story is at the center of this narrative, I want to also use the opportunity to talk about the other men who served on these ships. Neither the Chew (a destroyer) nor the Mink (a Liberty Ship tanker) are frequently mentioned in the annals of World War II Naval history, yet the war would not have been won without their efforts and sacrifices, nor those of thousands of other ships that have not yet had movies made about them.
Also, thanks again to Dr. Samantha Cutrara for inviting me onto her show to talk about my project. Please check out her YouTube channel for more interviews with scholars, teachers, artists, and others across both Canada and the United States.
Finally, today is Veteran’s Day here in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada. It is November 11th in both countries because 102 years ago, on November 11, 1918, the Allied and Central Powers agreed to an Armistice which ended World War I. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that November 11, 1919 would “be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations” every year on that date henceforth. So while it is entirely appropriate and highly encouraged to thank the millions of Americans today who have given their service to our country, do not forget that we share these burdens with Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and other allies over the past century and more whose own veterans have fought alongside Americans for the free peoples of the world.
And if you are in a giving mood and would like to more than just saying “thank you” to veterans on social media, consider giving some money to a charity that serves veterans and their families. There are many charities out there that do this, but my favorite is Give an Hour. It raises money for mental health counseling and therapy for veterans, as well as victims of disasters. Help make this vital care available to the people who need it while destigmatizing mental health care by making a gift today: https://giveanhour.org
OK . . . that’s all. Thanks for reading all the way to the end! I’m going to take a week or two off, then I will post a couple of stories about Grandpa’s time in the Philippines, including the story of how he met my great Uncle Danny . . . in Manila. I’m going to shoot for posting that one on Thanksgiving.
Stay safe and wear a mask!
One of my favorite aspects of military history is the availability of documentation.
Militaries are big things, indeed. They have lots of soldiers, lots of vehicles, and lots weapons that vary in size and lethality. They also have support staff, logistical supply chains, doctors, nurses, engineers, ditch diggers, builders, movers, doers, and even dreamers. They are everything a human being needs to be trained and housed and fed and dressed and armed and cared for while in the States, as well as everything needed to ship that person across an ocean and then train, house, feed, dress, arm, and care for that person while on deployment. And that’s just the Army.
In order to make such a large, complicated entity that culturally thrives on exactitude run like clockwork, militaries in general and Navies in particular require a great deal of data collection and record keeping. Today that burden is eased thanks to computers and smart devices, but back during World War II those processes requires lots of paper, pencils, typewriters, and people to jot down all those things that needed to be jotted down.
Deck logs were indispensable record-keeping devices for ships. They recorded all sorts of things, from the windspeed at different times of day to the ship’s location and speed. They also contained a narrative of the day’s events. Most of these were mundane – who boarded and left the ship, details about food and fuel deliveries, inspection reports, etc.
The food deliveries are especially interesting, since they give us a sense what (and how much) all those sailors ate (they sure loved their potatoes):
The logs provide additional threads to pull, which reveal about not only the ship and its crew, but the wider community that surrounded and interacted with them. For instance, the Chun Hoon Company supplied many of the ship’s vegetables and fruits. The company’s namesake founder immigrated to Oahu in 1887 at the age of 14, and after starting out as a vegetable peddler Chun Hoon became increasingly successful as a vendor and then later as a grocer. Although he passed away in 1935 his sons took over the business, and in 1939 they opened a brand new supermarket at the corner of Nuuanu and School Streets in Honolulu. By 1940 the Chun Hoon Company was a major player in local business and a substantial benefactor for several local schools and charities.
More broadly, Chinese-Americans found and took advantage of the opportunities they found in Hawaii, which offered a space of relative refuge from persecution when compared to the post-Chinese Exclusion Act United States mainland. Of course, Hawaii itself was not annexed by the United States until 1898, by which time nearly 50,000 Chinese immigrants had relocated to Oahu. But by that time, Chinese-Hawaiians were already well-integrated into the island’s economy, and immigrants like Chun Hoon continued to thrive despite the changing of the flag. His company was an institution by 1940, and while the Chew and the United States Navy were important customers for the business, they were by no means the only ones.
I had no idea about the Chun Hoon Company before looking at this specific page in the Deck Log. I have several hundred more pages to go. What other secrets do they hold? What other connections do they suggest? What was the weather like at 7:30am on December 7th, 1941? Where was the ship located the next morning at 9am? Deck Logs can help us answer these questions and more . . .
To find Deck Logs for other ships, you will need to do one of two things: you can go directly to the Archives II NARA reading room in College Park, Maryland and request them, or you can hire an independent researcher in the area to scan the ones you want. You will have to wait until NARA facilities reopen after the COVID quarantines lift, and once that happens there will likely be a considerable backlog of folks like me who are clamoring to begin or continue ongoing research projects. But the staff there is very helpful, and the materials themselves are easy to access.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
January 1944: Shakedown
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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!
“It’s a wonder he didn’t shoot his foot off.”
That’s my dad, Steve, commenting on one of the non-Pearl Harbor-related stories my grandpa liked to tell about the War. My grandpa was never really much into guns, at least as far as I know, and my dad has a deadpan sense of humor. But to tell you the truth I never really thought of Elmer as the kind of guy to step onto a train, in uniform, like an Old West sheriff, with a .38 holstered to his hip.
But that’s what he did on Thursday, December 16th, 1943, during his brief tenure as a Master at Arms in New Orleans. On that day he was given a special assignment: take the train up to Shreveport, Louisiana, and bring back a deserter who was currently in police custody back to New Orleans for court martial. He hopped an overnight train that evening, with a pistol at his side and handcuffs in his pocket, and after a sleepless night he rolled into his destination. With the sun rising above the glimmering Red River, Elmer stepped out of the station and into the cool morning. Nervous about the task at hand, he began to walk straight ahead, resolved to complete his assignment and bring justice home.
OK, OK – I might be getting a little carried away here. I do study horse thieves, after all. As far as historical subjects go the stories I tell can get a bit animated at times.
So here’s what Elmer wrote to his parents about the trip:
I left New Orleans on Thursday night, arriving at Shreveport Friday morning. Good traveling by Pullman Sleeper. Got to spend about four or five hours looking the town over. And left with my prisoner in the afternoon, and reached New Orleans late at night. The prisoner was just a kid about 17, who ran away for seventy some-odd days. Didn’t have any trouble at all. The trip was something new and I enjoyed it.
Far from being a hard-boiled, bayou-noir escapade, the scene somehow seemed so quintessentially grandpa: a leisurely trip, a nice breakfast, some exploration of the town, and a nice chat with a new friend. He even sent his parents a postcard in which he alludes to “picking something up.”
Yet it’s exactly this kind of adventure that I find so enrapturing about both these letters and my grandpa’s Naval career as a whole. Elmer’s War experience truly ran the gamut, from moments of sheer terror to peaceful evenings under the stars surrounded by hypnotic seas, from gunnery practice on Shell Beach and escorting prisoners in Louisiana to studying physics in Missouri. As historians we so often focus on those moments of terror, and perhaps rightfully so – it is important to write widely and often about Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and so many other moments of dramatic decision. But war was much more than those flashpoints. Sometimes it was getting to where you were going. Sometimes it was killing a few days before moving on to a new assignment in a distant corner of the world. And sometimes it was just sending one’s parents a quick postcard to let them know they’re OK.
As the United States once again learns what it is like to face a critical and existential crisis both at home and abroad, it would do us well in the future to not just remember the virus, the pandemic, the sick and the death, COVID-19’s domino impacts on our world, and its ability to creep into seemingly everything (like, admittedly, this blog), but also the time we spent at home with our families, the books and the Netflix, the walks and the bike rides and the spring gardens outside, the connections we made and remade over phones and chatlines, and the many little misadventures along the way. As we all push against the present and future darkness together, we cannot cede to it control of the past.
Anyway, I’d tell everyone to stay healthy, but since that is now a hackneyed saying, I’ll put it like this: try not to shoot your foot off.