Retired Rutherford County teacher Barbara Turner said she continues to learn new things about her family by perusing hundreds of letters her later father exchanged with loved ones while serving in the Navy in World War II.

Robert Guthrie joined the Navy in 1944 when he was only 17, Turner said. After training, he was assigned to the U.S.S. Fessenden, a destroyer escort, where he served in communications.

Turner said she did not know many details of her father’s service until she discovered the letters and photos in a chest stored in her mother’s garage recently. Some are handwritten, while others are telegrams.

Guthrie died in 1997, Turner said. Her mother, Janet (Howard) Guthrie, 86, lives in Kentucky. Turner said her parents were married in 1951.

During the war, Guthrie exchanged letters with his parents, sister, grandparents and other people in his hometown of Indianapolis.

Guthrie often wrote about the day-to-day life of an enlisted sailor. His loved ones updated him on life at home. Occasionally, portions of Guthrie’s letters were clipped off by censors because they likely contained sensitive information; censoring was a common practice during World War II.

In one letter that cleared the censors, dated Oct. 15, 1944, Guthrie described how he became a “shellback.” That term describes a sailing hazing tradition in which a novice sailor, or “pollywog,” crosses the equator for the first time and supposedly becomes a son or daughter of Neptune.

He wrote, “The king (King Neptune) didn’t have many charges against me. They told us how terrible it was going to be, but we didn’t believe them (and that was to bad for us for what they said was true). A swell time we all had I guess. That is one thing that none of us will ever forget.”

Before the ceremony, the shellbacks had steak and eggs for breakfast, Guthrie wrote, while pollywogs had boiled bologna hardtack and weak coffee spiked with vinegar. For lunch, shellbacks had turkey while pollywogs had hot dogs, cold kraut and coffee.

In one telegram, Guthrie told his mother he could not get a furlough ticket and had to travel first class, which cost $57. He asked for $30 to repay his shipmates.

Frequently, the letters were filled with family jokes and humor. Guthrie wrote one letter addressed to his mother which started off with, “Dear Mom, Hello Mom, how are you and the rest of the folks around the old home place?”

After his service ended, Guthrie used the G.I. Bill to attend Butler University, Turner said. He worked in sales in different industries, including cars and school equipment such as portable buildings.

Turner said she was a local teacher for 19 years. Her husband, Kenneth, said he worked in transportation sales. They have two adult children: Jennifer Peters of Eagleville and Bobby Alsup of Stillwater, Okla.

Recommended for you