History Mystery: Where did my Great-Grandmother Go to Church?

Some of you might already know the answer to this question, but when it’s 10 in the evening and you find a reference that needs chasing, you don’t wait around for people to wake up. I spent at least an hour trying to figure this out, and the next morning I realized that this would be a great opportunity to shed a bit of light on one of my favorite parts of the job: finding out difficult to track pieces of information and unveiling whole new worlds in the past.

Yet this is also one of the least appreciated aspects of researching and writing history. In my forthcoming horse stealing book there are countless little questions like this one, each of which required hours and in some cases days of research and oftentimes a special trip to a library or archive. Sometimes all I have to show for it in the final product is a single sentence or endnote. It could be said that a history book is less of a rabbit hole and more of a warren excavated out of many overlapping and knotted-together rabbit holes.

The Question: Where did Rose Luckett (my great-grandmother) go to church?

The Context: in his December 6th letter to his mother, Elmer mentioned that “Reverend Stock” of the “Trinity Church” sent him a New Testament Bible. He was not, by his own admission, much of a church-goer himself, but he greatly appreciated the gesture. As it happened, he wrote this letter the day before the air raid on Pearl Harbor and was topside mailing it when the bombs began to fall. Considering that he was not strafed by a Zero during these opening moments of the war, some greater force was certainly looking out for him.

The Relevance: I am writing a chapter about Grandpa’s neighborhood during the 1920s and 1930s and, more broadly, community life during that era. I am hoping to paint a vibrant picture of what these neighborhoods were like.

It is difficult to imagine in 2020 how important community churches were a hundred years ago. With megachurches on one end of the scale and an increasingly non-religious population on the other, it is easy to forget that churches were once centers of neighborhood activity. They were not simply places of worship: they provided social programs, charity, language instruction, opportunities for neighbors and congregants to bond, and sometimes even schooling and child care. They also gave their neighborhoods a strong sense of identity. Therefore, Rose Luckett’s church could tell us a lot about her, about Elmer, and about their little corner of the city.

The Rabbit Hole: Historians (myself included) often romanticize the dustier places where we do our work. Some of my favorite horse stealing research stories involve traveling to remote courthouses in Nebraska and digging through back rooms, attics, and in one case a storage shed for 140-year old documents. However, the advent of the Internet, personal computing, and research databases have revolutionized historical work, making it possible to find out much more in much less time. So, instead of flying to Saint Louis and pulling out a bunch of local city directories, I went to Newspapers.com (where I have an account) and started searching. One of the reasons why I had to start here: St. Louis has a LOT of Trinity Churches.

There are several “Trinity” churches in Saint Louis, including seven within a five-mile radius of Grandpa’s address in 1941.

It did not take long to find an article containing both the name of the church and a “Reverend Stock.”

“Missouri Valley Synod Urges Protection of Civil Liberties,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 25 Apr 1953

“Paul R. Stock of Trinity Church.” Now we are getting somewhere. But during this first pass I missed an important detail: this church belonged to the Missouri Valley Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. We’ll come back to that in a bit.

After some more full-text searching through the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, I found an address for our church, and confirmed that Paul Stock was the Reverend there. It was located at 4700 South Grand Boulevard. That’s less than a mile away from Elmer’s home. Is that same building still there? Yes . . .

4700 South Grand Avenue, Saint Louis, MO. Taken from Google Maps Streetview.

But now it is a Mosque:

The sign out in front of 4700 South Grand Blvd. Taken from Google Maps Streetview.

There is some good news and some bad news. Obviously the bad news is that the church is no longer there. But the good news is that we can tie Rose Luckett’s church to a more recent historical narrative and connect it to the neighborhood’s ongoing evolution. In the early 1990s the Bosnian War displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees, and over 40,000 Bosnians moved to Saint Louis to start new lives in the American Midwest. I was in school in South Saint Louis County at the time, and I remember getting dozens of new classmates over the next few years, all of whom had hard-to-pronounce names. This influx of migrants shifted the region’s demographics and reshaped its religious landscape, adding on top of what had already been a diverse array of churches and synagogues a layer of new mosques. Some built new facilities, while others took over older buildings vacated by aging congregations.

This recently-opened corner market in Affton, located only a few blocks from where I grew up, demonstrates how the Bosnian migration of the mid-1990s continues to shape South St. Louis. When I was 12 I used to ride my bike to this building, which at the time was a memorabilia shop. I bought hundreds of baseball cards there. Given the collapse of the baseball card market in the late-1990s a Bosnian market seems like a more prescient and successful choice for the area. Taken from Google Maps Streetview.

The decline of mainline Protestantism over the past several decades suggests that this is what likely happened here: the Trinity Church lost congregants and transplanted itself elsewhere, while this mosque moved into the larger building on Grand later. But that begs the question: whatever happened to the original church? This is where I realized I made a mistake easier by not understanding initially what the above article meant by the “Evangelical and Reformed Church.” I assumed (as someone who does virtually no church history) that this simply referred to an organization of Evangelical churches. Not so.

According to Wikipedia, “The Evangelical and Reformed Church (E&R) was a Protestant Christian denomination in the United States. It was formed in 1934 by the merger of the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS) with the Evangelical Synod of North America (ESNA) . . . In 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the majority of the Congregational Christian Churches (CC) to form the United Church of Christ (UCC).”

The Trinity Church on South Grand Boulevard belonged to this larger denomination. But what organizations had merged to create it in 1934?

Again we go to Wikipedia, which can on occasion be a historian’s best friend. The Evangelical Synod of North America was “centered in the Midwest, the denomination was made of German Protestant congregations of mixed Lutheran and Reformed heritage, reflecting the 1817 union of those traditions in Prussia (and subsequently in other areas of Germany).” As for the Reformed Church in the United States, we get a similar story: “Originally known as the German Reformed Church, the RCUS was organized in 1725 thanks largely to the efforts of John Philip Boehm, who immigrated in 1720. He organized the first congregation of German Reformed believers near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, some of them descendants and German immigrants from the turn of the century.”

What does all of this mean?

The Answer: First, some background information: Rose Luckett was German. Her parents immigrated to the United States in approximately 1888, and Rose was born shortly thereafter. Rose’s sister, Frieda (Aunt Frieda in the letters) was actually born in Germany. But their parents died not long after immigrating here, and Frieda ultimately helped raise her younger sister.*

By the 1930s, Rose and her family lived in Carondelet, a largely German neighborhood at that time. Given the origins of the denomination and the neighborhood itself, we can start to make some suppositions about Trinity Church and the role it played in Rose’s life. For instance, according to grandpa his mother spoke at least some German, and presumably the church also claimed as members other folks within the German-speaking community. All this suggests that the institution played a central role in the Carondelet German community’s everyday life, and that Rose was a part of it.

Unfortunately, to confirm this we need more information about the church, which I do not yet have. So now we need to move in the other direction: did the Trinity Church close its doors, or did it move? If it closed then it would be very difficult to gather information on it. The church’s records might have ended up in an archive someplace, in someone’s basement, or, regrettably, in the trash. However, if it moved then we may be in luck. Protestant churches generally do a fantastic job of curating their own histories. While they might not always have tranches of archival documents, they often create anniversary brochures, yearbooks, commemorative histories, and other documents. So if the church moved, then the new location may have all of these materials on hand. To answer this question I went back to the original Wikipedia article: “In 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the majority of the Congregational Christian Churches (CC) to form the United Church of Christ (UCC).”

Is there a Trinity United Church of Christ in South Saint Louis? As it turns out, there is:

From http://www.trinityuccstl.org

This church has the same name, is over 120 years old, was once located on South Grand, has moved in recent years, belongs to the appropriate denomination . . . this must be it! The best part, at least for me, is that the church relocated to my hometown, Affton, a suburb just outside of St. Louis City proper and less than five miles away from where Grandpa grew up (it was one of the seven “Trinity”-named churches I pointed out earlier as existing within a five-mile radius of Eiler Street). In fact the building is located less than a block from where my fourth-grade babysitter, Sharon, lived. I grew up a mile and a half away.

The Follow-Up: This is not the end of the story, but the beginning of a new rabbit hole. I need to contact the church and get a hold of any historical documents, pamphlets, brochures, yearbooks, or anything else it might have, and I will need to delve back into the newspapers and some other potential repositories to flush this story out. At one point after Pearl Harbor Rose gave a speech at this church – what did she say? How many people attended? I’d love to have this information. But in the meantime, we have a promising lead, and a little more insight into not only Grandpa’s world at the time the war started, but also my own.

I enjoy writing, and teaching is usually a lot of fun. But the best part of it all is the detective work. No doubt this project will have many more twists and turns as it develops, and I will try to write about some of them. Stay turned.

* I think this is what happened, but I’m not sure. I’d love for someone in the family to clarify this.

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

The Plan for December and Beyond

We are now nearing the end of our month-by-month letter analysis series. In fact, next Wednesday’s post on November 1941 (just in time for Thanksgiving!) will be the last for a while.

I am going to change things up a bit for December: instead of posting my writing based on the letters, I am going to post the December 1941 letters themselves, on the days when they were written (e.g., a December 17th letter will be posted on December 17th). On the morning of December 7th I will post an excerpt from my book project in which I describe the attack on Pearl Harbor and Elmer’s recollections from that day. Later in the month (after Christmas sometime) I will write a December 1941 post reflecting on the attack and on the days that followed, and on the 31st I will post about Grandpa’s 1941 Near Year’s celebration in San Diego, which was eventful and interesting for a number of reasons.

I am still working out how to approach this material in the new year. I plan on immediately diving into Elmer’s 1942 correspondence, but the pacing will be different because his letters following the attack on Pearl Harbor are much shorter. This is not for want of things to talk about, but because Naval censors took seriously the old warning, “loose lips sink ships.” Then sometime around Valentine’s Day I will begin introducing you all to a tranche of letters I have barely even touched yet: Elmer’s love letters to his future wife, Rose, and the letters he received from her in turn.

In addition to all that, I hope to have news to report about my forthcoming book on horse stealing, including cover art, during the first few months of the year. This summer I will begin to pivot more towards that project as its release date gets closer. I also hope to have some exciting updates about my documentary project, Earthshaking.

In the meantime, my winter break is coming up, and I am very much looking forward to having some time to catch up on project reading and also crank out some writing for this manuscript. That means more book reviews are coming.

Thanks for your patience . . . and thank you as always for reading!

Best,
Matt