Jim (c) and two friends early in the war.
On first reading the title of this letter from Jim my thoughts went to cussing sailors. Then I thought, “Wait a minute! Jim wasn’t much of a cusser.” What’s the deal with this letter?
Jim tells the story of what he learned in Navy boot camp in 1941, a couple of months before World War II erupted into the American consciousness. In his own indomitable (one of his favorite words) way he relates boot camp not to the normal deprivations and indignities, but to the new words he had to learn. Naval Language.
Within the first paragraph I was ready to learn new words for all sorts of things. Not this time. He learned his lesson well. On the surface, this letter is a lengthy list of definitions and new terms he learned in boot camp. He missed one term that I clearly remember him using after my first month at NDSU. I had moved in and had lived in the dorm for a couple of weeks before he had Air Guard drill in Fargo. He told me that he was eager to see my “quarters.” I couldn’t figure that out. I didn’t have a coin collection that amounted to anything. The few coins I had were mostly pennies. Why would he want to see my quarters? Oh. Naval Language for the place you slept.
All of the other terms Jim describes were quite familiar to me. Over the years he used every one of them many times. He was only one of thousands of WWII veterans that brought new language back to the states. Until reading this letter I didn’t know how much he really learned in boot camp.
Boot camp or recruit training is a profound shock to most recruits because the navy begins its job of building men by destroying the identity they brought with them. Their heads are shaved. They are assigned numbers. The drill instructor is their Mother, Father, their God!
Ken and Lucy
The months after the war ended must have been heady times. Ken and Lucy had worked in Seattle for a couple of years after training in Minneapolis. They met new people, grew up, and visited with relatives passing through Seattle to and from the Pacific Theater of operations. Not bad for a couple of kids from Gardner, North Dakota.
Now they’re off to new adventures back home in Fargo. Family was there. After such an adventure they must have been eager to just go home.
We left Seattle with such a happy feeling you just have no idea. Of course – no job, no place to live – the little house on “Hungry Point” (that was what our section of town was called) was no place for someone expecting to have a baby. Everything changed again.
Lucy’s brother Llewelyn
Seattle during the war. Connections between people show up everywhere, but WWII and Seattle fit neatly into my family history, just like it weighs into Lucy’s. Lucy talks about brothers coming through Seattle to and from various Navy vessels. One of my treasured possessions is a newspaper clipping about Louie coming through Seattle on his way to the Korean conflict. Seattle must have been the port of call for the northern tier of states.
The second part of Lucy’s letter that really triggers memories for me is the short sentence about a wisdom tooth.
Finally, she gets to some of the biggest news and decisions of her life.
We lived across the lake from Seattle in a town called Kirkland. The men had to cross the lake to get to work. I thought I wanted to work also but of course Ken said no “I don’t want you on one of those old boats. Men & women just jamed in them. So I stayed home. I did get a job in a restaurant and stayed until I saw the cook skimming the worms of the spaghetti pot.
The rabbit hutch’s roof is visible behind my new bike.
Every day fewer people personally remember the privations of the world war. The sad part is how long it took those who lived through the war to tell us younger folks about what it was like to live through the chaos of true war. I heard very little about the war until we received these letters from Lucy, along with the ones from Jim, Grace and Louie. Recently some veterans in Rochester have sponsored a monthly series of recollections by veterans, participants, and civilians who experienced the war in person. Listening to these older folks recount their stories moves me deeply.
I experienced the war second-hand. In Lucy’s letter below she talks about rabbit meat sold in the butcher shop. Rabbit was a familiar food. We were a poor family. Meat was a luxury. My mother and grand mother were farm folk. Raising live stock came to them naturally. There weren’t any city ordinances against it, so they raised dozens of rabbits in a shed behind the house. They built cages three deep along one wall. The cages were made of chicken wire, so the waste would drop through to the floor. Mom and Dad used it as garden fertilizer each fall, I assume.
We didn’t play with these rabbits. We ate the meat. Maybe it tasted like chicken. No big deal for me then. Lucy disagreed.
You couldn’t drive up to the gas pump and fill up the tank. It was rationed. Everyone had a book of stamps. You had stamps or the attendant would refuse to fill your tank. We did not have self service stations at that time.
FDR delivers the declaration of war request to congress.
World War in 1941 was not the same as the relatively little dust up in the Middle East in my lifetime.
In 1990 our president didn’t ask us for any sacrifices. In the forties everyone gave up something, often they gave up a lot. Lucy talks about some of the privations they endured. There was only one of them that I can really relate to.
In 1973, during the Vietnam war, I was called up for a draft physical. We stood around in the Fargo Army physical exam facility all day, just like Ken did in Lucy’s letter. Fortunately for me the outcome was a little different. I plan to write an entire story about that day in the near future. Let’s get back to the forties.
Being newly married, then have the threat of war was not easy to deal with. We would have to leave our little house – by the way – Ken was working on a car at the garage and a customer stepped on the starter and Ken lost the end of his finger. The insurance from that paid for our house – along with overhauling cars in the yard.
Maybe Louie thought he could ride like Alan Wood?
Can you believe how many ways Louie had to get into trouble? In earlier letters we’ve read about his escapades on the railroad, boxing in the Golden Gloves, road apple fights, multiple Halloween pranks, and more. In the next couple of months he will graduate to even more memorable adventures.
By comparison, my childhood feels tame, as was my children’s. They didn’t even get to walk to school, and neither do their kids. Surviving childhood in the thirties and forties must have given those who made it to adulthood a certain invincibility. Anyone who can climb on a wild horse with no instruction, no protective gear, and little preparation must have been able to face the challenges of adult life with no fear.
I was perfectly happy taking my kids on the tame trail ride at the dude ranch in Custer State Park. No bucking broncos for me, thank you.
Back in 1947 I was working at a horse meat packing plant in Jamestown. They had us packing horsemeat and gravy in cans for shipment to Europe for the people there that were starving from the results of the bombing of their homes – farms – and whatever the bombs hit during World War II.
Sample of Jim’s diary from 1965
When I met Jim, he was deep into the habit of keeping a diary. After he bought the 1952 Cadillac, he became even more addicted to the habit, as the odometer didn’t work. Jim had to keep track of the mileage for simple things like when to change the oil, or measure the gas mileage.
Keeping a diary was never very high on my list of things to do, but as I read through Jim’s log books (as he called them) from the fifties and sixties I’m amazed at the insight they give. In Jim’s last letter there’s a picture of his diary entry from his visit to Cannes, France and the yacht. A year later he was back on another Navy tour. His diary entry for that visit was a little more cryptic, but those shore leaves were highlights of his life.
Judy and I often talk about events that we “mark time by.” A diary records those times wonderfully. Jim’s diaries and photo albums are among my treasured possessions. Those, and the letters, and all the same from Lucy, Grace and Louie. Without something to touch, look at and read, a life is only memories. Memories fade even faster than photos.
I hope you enjoy this vignette.
When I was in the eighth grade in Athol my English teacher, Miss Mary Lou Hodges gave me a diary for Xmas that year … and I faithfully recorded events in my young life that I deemed worthy of remembering. I’m afraid, as I look back, that most of the entries were nonsense and just written to fill the little book! But that habit has stayed with me off and on over the years.
Melvin in his Navy uniform
There are a lot of under currents hinted at in this letter. Grace was only ten when war was declared after Pearl Harbor. After reading Jim and Lucy’s letters about the war, this experience seems almost indifferent.
Fanny must have had an incredibly difficult time when, soon after losing her husband, her two sons were drafted and left for the military. The oldest daughter had just left for school in Fargo. Now she was alone on the farm with one young daughter. What a challenge! This gives me a clue as to why my grandmother was such a tough old gal who could handle anything. She had lived through the hard times.
This letter seems short, but the stories between the lines are harrowing.
We made the trip to Nebraska in 1941 not the summer of ’40 as I said yesterday. Esther graduated from Hi School in ’41 and turned down a job in Steele so she could go on the trip. She went to school in Fargo in the fall.
War was declared on Dec 7, 1941. I don’t know how soon but I know that Henry + Melvin both got drafted and had to go for induction physicals at the same time so Mom had to take care of all the cattle + everything alone. Luckily …
Bill and Jim in July, 2006, reminiscing about the war.
A couple of days ago I posted a letter from Jim about him volunteering for the Navy. He related that after Pearl Harbor he was assigned to the USS New Mexico (BB-40). From then he skips over the entire war, not telling us some of the most harrowing tales of the South Pacific.
There are hints, but most of the stories are missing. He does mention that one of his duties was far below decks, handling the huge bags of gun powder. He told me what each bag weighed, and I wish I could remember, but it was close to a hundred pounds. Jim was a small man, and only seventeen at the time. There might have been as much gun powder as there was Jim! He was doing his job, far below decks, always in danger of explosion, in tropical heat. My claustrophobic self cannot, does not want, to imagine being in that hell hole. Fortunately, Jim was able to wrangle a promotion to the bridge working navigation.
Beginning around the year 2000 Jim started visiting a war buddy of his in Clear Lake, Iowa. His name was Bill. They served together on the bridge of the New Mexico and had a lot of shared stories. The most dramatic was the one in the video below. There is more information about the attack on Wikipedia.
Have you ever summed up your life in six words? Try it sometime, you might be surprised. My story:
“Serendipity is my friend, yet again.”
Was it pure chance that led me to Cal’s Office Supply that day when I needed some paper for a project? Some might say it was the hand of God leading me to the right place, I prefer to think of Serendipity guiding me. I could have gone to the other office supply store in town, but I didn’t.
Jim could have been on the road that day. He wasn’t.
Jim at sea during WWII
I just walked into the store to ask for some paper for a kids newspaper. By the end of that year I had a “substitute” father and mentor who helped me through the challenges of being a teenager, college student, and young professional. Beyond the little newspaper that only lasted a couple of issues, Jim and I enjoyed camping, old Cadillacs, the Red Skelton Show, and so many other activities. He loved writing, and when I asked him for fifty-two stories from his life he lit up, pulled out his portable Underwood-Olivetti typewriter and religiously sent dozens of stories. His first stories describe life on a farm in northern North Dakota, continue to Massachusetts, diverting to the South Pacific for WWII, and returning to North Dakota for a successful career in Jamestown. We saved copies of the letters and had them bound, titling the collection
Short Stories of a Good Life
Below is the introductory letter I wrote and the invitation letter to him describing the story project. He was very proud of his autobiography, sharing copies with many friends.