What I’m Reading: Brothers Down

One thing I’d like to start doing in this space is to spend some time writing about the books I am using in my research. While admittedly my research interest in my Grandpa’s Letters project is a bit less academically trenchant than my work on horse thieves, it does give me the opportunity to read some great books about World War II, the Navy, and the wider world he inhabited.

Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizona by [Borneman, Walter R.]

Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizona is historian Walter R. Borneman’s most recent book, having come out earlier this year. It is the tale of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona, as told from the perspective of the thirty-eight pairs (and in some cases trios) of brothers who served together on that ill-fated ship. Of those thirty-eight sets, only one pair of brothers both survived, and only twelve other men among the others avoided death that day.

But while only a few members of the Arizona’s complement survived – most of whom happened to have spent the night elsewhere, thus avoiding the ship’s fate altogether that morning – their stories live on. Borneman interviewed the survivors and their families, as well as the families of the deceased, many of whom shared their letters and other mementos and stories of their departed fathers, brothers, and uncles. The author did a remarkable job not only collecting all of these different stories, but of also weaving them together throughout the book. It’s a master class on historiographical resourcefulness: it is much easier to go to an archive than it is to hunt down families whose loved ones died the better part of a century ago under sudden, violent, and tragic circumstances.

Organizationally the book is divided into three parts: the history of the Arizona and its crew before the attack, the attack itself, and the days and years following December 7th. Borneman revels in details throughout this narrative: explaining who these men were, where they grew up, the kinds of trouble they got into as kids, the reasons why they joined the Navy during peacetime, etc. Some of their stories were not unlike Grandpa’s – they sent money home each month and wrote as often as they could. But grandpa’s story diverged when he was assigned to a ship that, for the most part, survived the day relatively unscathed. Anyway, these stories give names and life to the list of names on the wall at the Arizona Memorial.

The book was a quick read, at least for me. It would have been quicker if not for some filler towards the middle – Borneman takes pains to describe the college football games being played on December 6th and the hot songs of the day, apropos of nothing. However, for the most part the story is well-written, accessible, and at certain points action-driven. The last two chapters of the book were especially poignant, and one many wish to have a box of tissues or a handkerchief available.

This was a valuable first book to read on the subject of Pearl Harbor. Borneman is a more than capable historian, and this entry will serve as a touchstone for me going forward. But more importantly, it is a fantastic model for how to research and write the stories of World War II servicemen. It is sensitive, contemplative, thorough in its chasing down of narrative strands and family leads, and exquisitely well-written. His use of the brother pairings was an excellent choice, both in terms of creating a broad yet narrow set of subjects for the book (the Arizona’s compliment was over 1,500, which is a lot of individual stories) while also facilitating its research (pairs of brothers mean multiple families to consult, which creates larger pools of historical information as family members tell stories about their uncles as well as their fathers or grandfathers). His approach works very well.

Overall, I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona, or well-crafted history book in general.

Do you have any books you’d like to recommend? Have you read this one? Share your thoughts in a comment!

“The Roughest Ships in the Navy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When this upset world straightens out we will all be together again.”

In July 1941, Grandpa had only been in the service for a few months. He was still getting to know Hawaii and his ship, the U.S.S. Chew. Meanwhile, all the action seemed fairly remote: the European War lurched to the east in dramatic fashion when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union the previous month, and Japan’s diplomatic impasse with the United States was quiet if ominous to anyone on or within shelling range of the Pacific.

Elmer did not have much to tell his parents, but they did have a great deal to share with one another. This letter, written on July 2nd, lists some of the things they exchanged between Oahu and Missouri: birth dates, DeMolay cards, and care packages for Elmer; and photos, programs, and money for his parents. “Today I got the box you sent me. Boy, it sure had plenty. A lb of tobacco, 2 boxes of cigars, candy, soap, tooth powder, and shave lotion. Gee, you sure are good to me . . . you are always thinking of your sailor boy.”

Elmer certainly returned the favor every payday, at which time he would send a few bucks back home. Although this letter hints at some good news regarding his father’s job, it is clear the Depression hit him hard, just as it did so many others. “So glad to know you are still working steady,” he commented. “I guess all business is pretty good now.” In spite of the warming economic climate, however, Elmer continued to send his parents money. This letter in particular contained a money order for $8.

Over the next few months, Elmer would send more money, as well as pictures, brochures, and descriptions of his adventures in Oahu and throughout the islands. Although his reactions in his letters to his parents seem muted, he no doubt enjoyed the time he spend in Hawaii that summer. Like many others stationed at Pearl Harbor, he knew he was lucky. In a world torn apart by war, he was able to serve his country while enjoying the sun, surf, and scenery.

It was paradise.

“I suppose you are all worried sick since the war started . . .”

I’ve started the process of scanning and transcribing my grandfather’s letters, only to quickly discover that my laptop (on which I have Dragon Naturally Speaking) is far too slow and cumbersome to carry this load. So as I start to shop for a new computer, here is one of the first letters I found, which just happened to be dated December 10, 1941 . . . three days after the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor.

My grandpa, a steam engineer aboard the U.S.S. Chew, tried to allay his parent’s fears. “Don’t worry about me,” he wrote reassuringly, “because everything is O.K. . . . keep your chins up.” The letter has few specifics beyond that, but with several hundred to go I think this is going to be a fascinating journey.