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.

December 16th: "Fighting Mad" with Japan

“You are all probably worrying your ‘heads off’ about me. I wrote as soon as possible.” Unfortunately for the parents back home, their intense anxiety over their sons’ safety coincided with exactly the worst possible time for their boys to write home. The rescue and recovery effort following the attack continued night and day for weeks following the attack as the Navy rushed to find trapped sailors, extinguish fires, recover bodies (and myriad body parts) from the scene, and fix whatever they could. The Chew spent these days on patrol, hunting for enemy subs and watching for a second raid – or worse, an invasion. Elmer worked 4 on and 4 off during this time, on account of the engineering crew being short-staffed. He did not have time to get a decent night’s sleep, let alone write a letter.

There was also the issue of content. Elmer did not know what to write because there was nothing he could safely say. The United States government did not want to imperil morale at home by revealing the extent of its losses at Pearl, and no one wanted to inadvertently admit to the Japanese just how successful – or unsuccessful, given the auspicious absence of the Navy’s three carriers – their attach had been.

Of course, as any parent will attest, the mere fact that he was writing at all and saying he was in good spirits was itself a relief. “Be brave for me,” he urged his worried parents, “and don’t worry.” Easier said than done.

Book Review: Pearl Harbor

I apologize for not posting any book reviews for a while. The end of the fall semester is usually tough sledding, especially when one’s family spends their Thanksgiving in the Sierras during a winter storm. But I certainly did not improve matters when I chose my next book: a thick, authoritative, and in every conceivable way complete history of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Author Craig Nelson’s appropriately-named Pearl Harbor: from Infamy to Greatness charts the history of the attack from the beginning . . . in fact, the book covers the 1869 Meiji Restoration in Japan and the original settlement of Hawai’i by Polynesian seafarers. The tome continues in thorough, if sometimes tedious detail. While this is not necessarily bad, the publisher’s curious selection of a small typeface for the book makes each already-long chapter look deceptively short. I have a fair amount of practice reading history books, and frankly this one took me a while.

Organizationally the book is divided into three parts. Part I, “The Roads to War,” explores the various historical, political, geopolitical, and cultural factors that put Japan and the United States on a collision course. While this narrative is thickly told and makes no attempt to spare any details, Nelson does a fantastic job of highlighting some of the fulcrum points leading to the Japanese attack. He convincingly argues that it could have prevented at several different points, including in early December when FDR made a last-minute appeal to Emperor Hirohito himself. Nelson does not pull any punches when describing either Japanese complicity in attacking Hawai’i or the complete and utter unwillingness among Americans to anticipate or prevent such an attack, but he does provide essential contest and nuance when discussing both. Not surprisingly, the lead-up to war was complicated: Japanese Army hardliners won out over the objections of the Navy and civilian authorities, while FDR’s full embargo of oil to Japan backed the expansionist nation into a corner. Few people on either side seemed to want a war. But war is what they got, especially when Japan famously underestimated the American response to the raid on Pearl Harbor.

Part II (“Strike!”) covers the raid itself, providing a minute-by-minute account of the hostilities. Nelson does an admirable job of covering the devastation wrought outside the especially infamous explosion on the Arizona, including a chapter on the raids against Wheeler, Hickham, and other Oahu airfields. Two chapters on the two successive waves to hit the harbor tell in detail what happened to the Pennsylvania (in dry dock), the Utah (anchored on the opposite shore of Ford Island), the Nevada (which beached itself after failing to escape the harbor through its narrow entrance channel) and various other battleships, cruisers, and destroyers that suffered damage or were destroyed. This is the meat of the book for Pearl Harbor history aficionados, and they will not be disappointed by the detail or the energetic prose.

Finally, Part III tells two different stories in three chapters: the Doolittle Raid and the public memory of Pearl Harbor after the war. Chapter Eleven, “Vengeance,” provides an excellent history of the Doolittle Raid, and the next chapter cleverly intertwines a summary of how the Pacific War was won with the stories of the Doolittle Raider POWs in Japanese custody for the duration of the conflict (or, in three cases, until they were executed).

Nelson’s Pearl Harbor is a sweeping, even-handed history of a complicated, yet critically important event in American history. It largely avoids the triumphalist rhetoric of less-reflective World War II books (like The Greatest Generation), but Nelson does argue that Pearl Harbor not only awakened Americans to the dangers of fascism, but that it helped steer the course for its postwar contributions to world peace. Of course that last point is debatable, but given the last few centuries of western history 75 years without a World War III is certainly an achievement. And that achievement would not have been possible without America’s military might, economic dominance, and diplomatic acumen.

I think I am going to write a separate post on how this book (and, if I’m being honest, This American Life) has made me rethink the contours of this project somewhat. That will come probably early next week. Meanwhile, if you were to purchase only one book on Pearl Harbor and had enough free time to soak up an exhaustive, single-volume account of the attack, its origins, and its consequences, then I cannot recommend this book enough.

The Morning When All Hell Broke Loose

The following is an excerpt from a book I am writing, tentatively entitled Salty Dog: A Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Journey through Letters and Memory, about Elmer Luckett and his experiences during the war. The writing is a bit rough still, since the manuscript is in development, but it is close to what his Pearl Harbor story will look like in the final product. This chapter, entitled “All Hell Broke Loose,” also includes the history of what led up to the attacks, as well as a discussion of their aftermath (including Japanese internment) in the United States. My end goal is to blend grandpa’s story with narrative history about the war itself. Anyway, please let me know what you think! – Matt

Sunday, December 7th was a workday for Elmer. After a week of patrolling the harbor entrance, the Chew pulled into port on Saturday, when it was then relieved by the Ward. The Chew dropped anchor in the northeast corner of the harbor, just a few hundred yards stern side from Battleship Row. Ford Island, with its support facilities and massive fuel tanks, lay just to the southwest. Surrounded by water, the only way to get to shore was to take a motorized whaleboat. Two crewmen operated the vessel: a seaman who steered the boat, and an engineer who operated the engine.

Elmer had engine duty that day.

Grandpa woke up early, rolled out of his cot, and got ready for work. Sunday mornings usually ran a bit slower – they were the perfect time to lollygag, eat a leisurely breakfast, and chat with friends. Elmer wrote several letters the previous evening, so he took the opportunity that morning to mail them before reporting to duty. He headed topside to where the mailbox was located. Bathed in crisp sunlight, the top deck of the Chew was already beginning to feel warm, despite it not even being 8am yet. This sort of weather would be unheard of back home for most of the sailors aboard, but in Hawaii the temperature only drops to the upper 60s at night, which makes the air cool for about five minutes before dawn. Then it starts start to feel muggy again, like a bathroom with no working fan after a steamy shower. After dropping off his letters, Elmer strolled over to the galley, which was also topside. He ran into Ossie there, who was about to eat, and the two friends began to chat. It was 7:55 in the morning, and the whale boat had not yet returned to the ship with all of the sailors and officers who had spent the previous night offboard. He described what happened next in an oral interview over 70 years later:

“And all of a sudden, [Ossie] said, ‘Look at all that smoke over at Ford Island.’ I looked over there and it was just about the time that I took a look, there it was. Planes started coming in over Battleship Row, the dive bombers hitting Battleship Row. Then, in the distance I could see the torpedo planes, torpedo bombers. They were coming in, and they’d just skim it over the water. And they were, like, lined up. They would drop their torpedoes and take off, one after another . . . Meanwhile, Ozzie and I, we were just standing there all shook. And I do remember saying to him, I said, ‘This means war.’ And then . . . the planes went by. You could see the red Rising Sun insignia on their wings.”

Elmer Luckett

He and Ossie stood there in shock for a few long moments and watched helplessly as Japanese torpedoes began slamming into the outboard battleships. “When the torpedoes hit, you see the plane drop the torpedo,” he later explained, “and then just a second or two later you’d see the battleship jump up from the impact of the torpedo hitting.”

Elmer might not have realized it at the time, but he was watching one of World War II’s many technical innovations being deployed for the first time. One of the reasons why so many Americans erred in believing that Pearl Harbor was safe from attack was that the water, which was only a few dozen feet deep, was too shallow for such an attack. Torpedoes are heavy things; lobbing one into the water from a speeding airplane is like driving a Ford F-150 at 60 miles per hour off a tall bluff into a river. Strategists believed, not without reason, that Japan’s torpedo bombers would not be able to harm any of the ships at Pearl. Unfortunately, Japanese planners realized this too, so they invented a new kind of torpedo with wooden fins. This new design made the weapons more buoyant, allowing them to quickly resurface and strike their targets without first hitting the seabed. The Battleships were sitting ducks.

After a few minutes the captain sounded general quarters, and both he and Ossie sprung into action as their training kicked in. Elmer raced across the ship towards his duty station in the engine room. As he ran, bombs rained down upon the nearby battleships and torpedoes sliced through the shallow water towards their marks. Just before he reached the ladder, a deafening roar drowned out the distant booms and machine gun fire.

“Why, then the Arizona got hit with that explosion that … it was just a big ball of flames; [a] tremendous explosion.”

Elmer Luckett

A Japanese bomb tore through the Arizona’s decks and detonated its magazine, causing a massive explosion that tore the battleship apart. Hundreds of sailors and Marines died either instantly or over the next few minutes, many of whom were burned alive as nearly every surface of the ship caught fire. Witnesses later described dismembered body parts and twisted chunks of steel being blown away from the doomed ship and into the water by the blast. Overall, nearly half of the servicemen who died that day were aboard the Arizona. Elmer did not stick around to watch. If he did, it is a memory he never discussed.

After escaping the horrors above, Elmer quickly encountered chaos below. Many of the engineers were on liberty, and so several critical duty stations were unmanned.

“I remember they got a call down . . . about starting up the engine in the steering room. In the back, there was a separate engine that ran the steering mechanism that turned the rudder. Evidently, some of our guys were off on liberty . . . if they didn’t have duty, some of them had their wives over there in the naval housing projects. [Anyway], who[ever] was supposed to handle the steering engine wasn’t aboard.”

Elmer Luckett

The officer in charge ordered Elmer to go back and “get that steering engine running.” However, he had never even set foot in that room before. Once Elmer made it back there, he quickly figured out how to make it run. “I knew what the engines were,” he explained, “so I just went back there and I realized you’ve got to open the exhaust valve, you’ve got to open the drain valves and put the steam to it, and not too hard; just warm up the engine. Once you got it going, well, then it took over what it was supposed to do to move the rudder.” Soon the ship was underway.

Elmer worked four hours on and four hours off for the next three days. Since the Chew was constantly on the move after the bombs began to drop, the whale boat was not able to connect with the ship. He and the other engineers and fireman who had spent the night on the ship had to pull double-duty given the absence of so many crew members. However, this fate was nothing compared to that of the sailors and officers aboard the Arizona.

Although the Chew survived the attack unscathed, the gravity of the drama unfolding around them and their own ship’s uncertain fate weighed on everyone differently. Elmer noticed one coping mechanism as he rushed past the head towards the steering engine. “The toilet facilities . . . had, like, a big, long trench, a long metal thing, and the guys was sitting with each other,” he recalled. “There was a number of them in there, sitting there having bowel movements . . . I glanced in there. You know, the excitement, it just worked their bowel. But it didn’t bother me anyway.” The clinical term for this “excitement” is “acute stress reaction,” and one of the symptoms is sudden and urgent diarrhea. Yet Elmer’s coolness under fire could be misleading. According to Dr. Lawrence Knott, victims could also “[feel] emotionally numb and detached from others.”[i]

The Chew began pacing around the harbor, but it could not leave for several hours. Once the bombing started the battleship Nevada made a beeline for the harbor entrance. However, if the Nevada were to sink on the harbor’s narrow entrance channel, it would have effectively bottled up the surviving ships inside for months. The Japanese pilots soon recognized this and began gunning for the fleeing boat. Once the Nevada’s captain understood what was happening, he ordered his crew to intentionally run the ship aground. “After that happened,” according to Elmer, “I think they ordered that no ships were to try and leave Pearl Harbor until after the attack was over.” Between the Nevada’s self-sacrifice, Yamamoto’s decision to cancel a third wave of bombers, and the absence of three aircraft carriers, the Attack on Pearl Harbor was not the worst-case scenario it could have been. Elmer also pointed out that several targets in and around the harbor (which would have been likely hit during the third wave) were missed:

“The oil storage tanks were all above ground at that time. If they’d have put one or two bombs there, they’d have started that whole goddamn storage field on fire, and all the oil for the ships that they use for fuel would have had to have been shipped out for the West Coast. Meanwhile, there wouldn’t have been no way of getting fuel for Pearl. And another thing, they didn’t hit the dock facilities, the maintenance buildings. They had a machine shop there that could do big work on these battleships or any other ship. They didn’t try and bomb that.”

Elmer Luckett

But near misses and silver linings did not matter to the hundreds of crewmembers entombed on the Arizona, or the thousands of others who died that day. For their families, who would not hear for days or weeks about the status of their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers, the damage was unimaginable.

Elmer’s shipmates Matthew Agola and Clarence Wise were among the dead. Both men spent the previous night away from the ship, and with no way of returning to the Chew that morning they rushed towards the USS Pennsylvania, which was in dry dock and easy prey for Japanese dive bombers. They died trying to rescue sailors from the Pennsylvania after it caught fire from several bomb blasts and two adjacent destroyers already engulfed in flames.

The Chew earned its spurs – and a Battle Star – for its actions that morning. The gun crew shot down one Japanese plane and damaged two others, and over the next three days the ship conducted anti-submarine patrols off the harbor entrance. “I think we made eight depth charge runs,” Elmer later stated. “We kind of figured we might have been successful with a couple of them. So who knows? It’s kind of hard to verify anything that you do with depth charges below the water.” Oil slicks suddenly rising to the surface were the usual telltale sign of a fallen sub, but only records of enemy communications or another submarine could confirm the kill. In fact, later investigations proved many of these reports to be erroneous or, at best, optimistic. According to the Navy, reports that the Chew destroyed as many as three submarines remain unconfirmed, and thus it has not been credited with any kills. At the very least, the Chew kept the Japanese submariners on their toes, which in turn helped keep the surviving Americans safe.

If the Japanese had attacked a day earlier, or if the Ward had departed a day later, the Chew might have fired what some historians believe was the first shot of the war. During the early morning hours of December 7th, the Ward spotted a Japanese submarine while patrolling the harbor entrance. Of course, the submarine had no legal or diplomatic reason to be in restricted American waters, so the Ward took aim and fired. The submarine sank, and the captain reported his engagement to the Pacific Fleet Command. Unfortunately for thousands of American servicemen at Pearl Harbor and the surrounding airfields, however, it was Sunday morning, and Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Husband Kimmel was in no hurry to relay his report up the chain of command. The Ward’s encounter could have contextualized a report later that morning from a radar station in north Oahu. The technician in charge radioed headquarters that a large formation of planes was inbound from the north, thus providing some warning to the island. Unfortunately, the Lieutenant in charge of the radar system insisted that the technician was looking at a formation of bombers due to arrive from the states, and no warning ever came.


[i] https://patient.info/mental-health/stress-management/acute-stress-reaction

November 1941: The Year with Two Thanksgivings

Abraham Lincoln’s decision to enshrine the last Thursday of each November as a day of national Thanksgiving in 1863 was tantamount to a Papal Bull. It immediately rendered null and void dozens of various local “Thanksgiving” observances across the country and replaced them with a single federal holiday. Lincoln also imbued the peculiar American holiday tradition with a profound, and timely, raison d’etre: Thanksgiving was to be a day when the nation’s families could give thanks for the blessings in their lives. Even when the smoke emanating from the ground at Gettysburg and other recently-hallowed places made these good fortunes – and the mounting Union dead – hard to count, the entire point of the day was to scrounge together a good meal, say a prayer of thanks, and enjoy it with loved ones. It was a beautifully simple and welcome concept, and a new holiday tradition was born out of the ravages of war.

Then FDR almost screwed it all up.

In 1939, Roosevelt asked Congress to change Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November. That month in particular had five Thursdays, which meant that after Americans gobbled down their turkey on the 30th they would only have 24 shopping days before Christmas. America’s economic recovery was still on fragile footing, and a shortened holiday season threatened to undercut it. But instead of extending Christmas, the decision instead created confusion. Some families embraced the newly decreed day, while others clung to the traditional date. A Great Schism appeared on American calendars, forcing families to negotiate among themselves the timing of their annual meal.

Partisanship often dictated the choice. The third Thursday of the became known as “Franksgiving,” while the last Thursday would often be referred to as “Republican Thanksgiving.” But this division only worsened the holiday’s reputation for bringing long-simmering disagreements between family members to the surface.

FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt enjoying some turkey on Franksgiving in 1941.

By 1941, Americans were ready to demand a solution to the growing Thanksgiving crisis. They took their concerns to Congress, which on October 6th passed a resolution establishing the last Thursday of the November as the official date. However, the Senate objected, noting that some Novembers (like that of 1939) had five Thursdays. It responded with an amendment revising the changed date to the fourth Thursday of the month. The House ultimately accepted this revision, but in true Congressional fashion the new language took several weeks to make its rounds back through Capital Hill and then onto Roosevelt’s desk. The bill was finally signed on December 26th, the day after Christmas, thus rendering the issue moot for the year. It also resulted in an interesting piece of trivia: for the second time, Thanksgiving was born during a time of war.

Elmer, his family, and Uncle Sam all seemed to agree that the official date of Thursday, November 20th, was good enough for them. “Well, another Thanksgiving has arrived,” he wrote that evening. “Although we are not united physically, know our thoughts are the same today. But we are all well and getting along fine and that is something to be thankful for . . . there are so many things to be thankful for that it could fill a book. So we can’t complain. Can we?” Elmer certainly didn’t criticize the food. “After eating such a swell dinner today I find it hard to complain about anything.” He and his shipmates enjoyed quite a spread: “turkey, chicken, tomato soup, mashed potatoes, asparagus, gravy, cranberry sauce, olives, pickles, lemonade, bread, crackers, followed by apple pie and ice cream and candy . . . it’s funny, I don’t feel hungry now. Ha ha.”

Elmer had many reasons to give thanks. Of course, he and everyone else at Pearl were thankful for the fact that they could enjoy Thanksgiving, if not with their families, then at least with the knowledge that their nation was at peace. But many if not most probably realized that it would be the last peaceful Thanksgiving for some time. Negotiations with the Japanese had broken down, leaving unresolved the question of where Japan would get its oil in light of the American embargo and the U.S. demand that the Empire cease its imperialistic war in China. Only war or an unlikely diplomatic surrender by either side could resolve the impasse. And storm clouds continued to gather over the Atlantic as well. After all, the wanton and unrepentant sinking of American ships going to or returning from England had already compelled the United States to join one World War. Despite the consternation of the America First crowd, it seemed increasingly apparent that the United States could not sit on the sidelines forever.

For the time being, however, America was an oasis of peace in a world riven by war. And while most of the world’s navies continued to battle one another on the high seas, American Destroyers like the Chew and the Ward could take pleasure cruises to tropical islands. The Chew embarked on its second recreational trip that year in November when it steamed towards Molokai for Armistice Day. “I believe everyone had a good time at Kaunakakai,” Elmer reported on the 13th. When they arrived on Monday, November 10th “the whole town was there on the dock to meet [them].” On Tuesday morning about two dozen members of the crew participated in a parade through the town. It “was very good for a small parade. We . . . marched first, behind us followed the towns division of National Guard, American Legion, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, etc.” Afterwards they gathered for a “town meeting,” at which several speeches were delivered in commemoration of Armistice Day, while “local groups of the town sang, danced, and entertained us.”

Image result for molokai pineapple
Pineapple fields on Molokai

Elmer and his friends took the opportunity to explore the island. The residents “chiefly raise pineapples for Del Monte,” he recalled. He “saw acre after acre of pineapple[s under cultivation.] He also checked out a leper colony on the island, “which was a sight to see. Of course we saw it from a great height. It is like a finger of the island, being isolated by a huge cliff.” Later they watched a football game between the Army and a team of locals from the island. The Army won.

However, as was often the case for Fireman 2nd Class Luckett, the real highlight of the day was dinner, which seemed to resemble the following week’s Thanksgiving feast. “We had a turkey dinner aboard our ship,” he wrote, followed by drinks later that evening and some “chicken and hamburgers.”

Indeed, there was much to be thankful for that month, enough to fill a book and two Thanksgiving holidays. But the general feeling would change dramatically by Christmas.

~

On a personal note, this year I am thankful for a great many things, including the opportunity to start this blog and to begin working on this project. It has already proven to be a fascinating journey, and really it is only beginning. Thank you for reading along, for subscribing and commenting, and for your encouragement over the last couple of months as I’ve worked to get this project off the ground.

I hope that everyone has a happy Thanksgiving, and safe travels to all who are traveling over the holiday weekend. And remember: cranberry sauce from a can is not cranberry sauce. Fortunately, it only takes a few minutes to make the real thing.

Thanks for reading!

– Matt

Image result for happy thanksgiving