Guy Rutherford Day: WWI Letters Home
KATIE DOYLE finally got hold of her grandfather's war letters, which had spent about nine decades in a shoebox. They tell a deeply personal, yet universal, love story. She tells her story here.
Ninety-three years ago, my grandfather went to war. A corporal in Pershing's infantry fighting the Great War, he managed to find time, paper and pencil to write weekly to his sweetheart who would become his wife, and in time, my grandmother. She saved his letters in an old shoebox which found its way to my mother's attic and from there to mine.
I've known about these letters since I was a little girl. My mother refused to read them, respecting the private lives of her parents. My grandparents died almost 50 years ago, and with time and my own dim memories, the idea of reading them seemed less of an intrusion and more of a way of understanding something of the lives that shaped mine.
One of my daughters and her husband have served in the Army under General David Petraeus in Iraq. Opening these brittle pages might also be a way to understand the forces that continue to shape their lives.
Corporal Guy R. Day, age 21, was mustered with his fellow recruits in Company H from Washington, Pa. The first letter in the shoebox was dated May 30, 1918, from "somewhere over here." Company H was formed in Washington and Guy's fellow soldiers were old friends, schoolmates and neighbors.
His letters give no indication as to why he enlisted. Patriotism? The draft? Adventure?
"Memorial Day and 'tis a holiday in the U.S. But not one for the sons of Uncle Sam who are looking after his interests in this part of the world. However, little do we care for we are glad that we are here and are able to do our bit for the good of the cause. And let me tell you that though you people in the states believe you know the ravages of war you know practically nothing of it in comparison with those whose homes are here. But let me tell you this. Though the people here have felt for the past four years and are still feeling the weight of the heel of the iron shod monster, they are still of a cheery disposition and are very optimistic as to the outcome of the war."
Guy's sweetheart was Hazel Henry, aged 19. By today's mores, their courtship was quite a prim and proper affair. Guy clearly had marriage in mind. He addressed his first letters to "My Dear," "My Darling," "Honey my darling" and signed "As ever," then "As ever yours."
Her letters to him must have given him the go-ahead to open up because, after several months, he saluted her as "Dearest, My Own Darling," and signed "All my love to you."
Hazel had finished high school and was studying intermittently at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), Carnegie Tech's Department of Secretarial Studies and the Washington Business College and Normal School. She lived at home with her parents and one of her older sisters (Katherine, who gave me her name). Her oldest sister had married and moved to eastern Pennsylvania. Her brother Charley was also serving in Company H, and was one of Guy's closest friends.
Guy's first days in France were filled with boredom as Company H waited for orders and drilled endlessly. His letters would be reviewed by the Army's censor, and wanting to reassure Hazel, kept his information to the most banal.
"... I am snatching a few moments to let you have just a note and it is one fine morning here and the grass and trees are green and pretty. The trip over was remarkable in that we had fine weather almost all the time and I was not sick a minute of the time. On the way over I saw one whale and two sharks -- no, not the common breed of land sharks but water sharks. We have been living a life of almost idleness for so long that I think it will be hard to set down to real work again although I will be glad to do all I can to help the old U.S."
" 'Tis surely a beautiful country in which we are at present and I think it would make a fine place for a home after the war. You know wherever I hang my hat is home to me... The moon is just now coming up and it makes me feel sort of homesick when I think of some of the evenings I have spent with a certain little girl when the moon was at its best.
"Slept on some soft pine boards last night. At least that is the way they are listed in the catalogues but if wood is any harder let me never see it. Must close here, honey girl. Lights are taboo and the light of the moon is failing me."
The many successes and achievements of Pershing's army did not include a speedy mail service, at least as far as Guy was concerned. In late June he mentioned that he had not heard from home for more than two weeks. It became a recurring theme.
(In the decades since, the Army has improved its communications with the folks back home: we received daily emails and weekly phone calls from my daughter in the deserts of Iraq.)
Company H soon moved to the Front. Guy was wounded in late July by a German sniper, getting two bullets in his hip.
"When the bullet hit me, down I went and my rifle, hit in two places, flew out of my hand. Honey, I don't want you to think I am a coward, because I only had my .45 left and got up and tried to advance and I got about 15 yards when down I went again.
"This time two holes were ripped in my haversack on my back. I saw the German doing the work. The old .45 spoke twice. That is all. I believe I would make a good squirrel hunter. Then I retired as gracefully as possible."
He would spend six weeks in a field hospital and convalescent center before returning to Company H in late September. In those days before penicillin, he was lucky to recover. His letters reassured Hazel of his health and read all together, speak volumes of his boredom.
Some other Company H men had been wounded, and they read whatever they could find, played card games by the hour and reminisced about the good times back in Washington.
Guy mentions books by Lupin and Thackeray. His letters ramble, including rants against the German army, updates on fellow soldiers whom Hazel would know, how he would like to travel in France after the war and imagining himself at the Washington County Fair.
Guy had always liked to write. One letter included a poem with the instruction, "read it once and throw it in the waste paper basket."
There's a little girl I'm loving far across the sea,
I can see her in the shadows stretching forth her arms to me;
As she stood that night of all nights with a smile so sweet and rare,
Bidding goodbye to a soldier bound to do his bit o'er there.
In late September, Guy returned to his unit, anxious to see his friends, and most anxious to get his mail.: "Just try to imagine me when I again see the handwriting that has been denied me since July 13, the handwriting, the author of which is more than life itself to me and the messages conveyed are more than food and drink."
He was to be with Company H only for a short time; the Army had recognized leadership qualities in Corporal Day and decided to send him to some kind of officer-candidate school somewhere in France.
By October, Guy had begun thinking about the end of the war. He was "rather pessimistic and have the idea in the back of my head that fighting will still be continuing next spring."
His letter dated Nov. 10 had no hint that the Germans would surrender the next day. He continued his rant about the mail service and reported that the Army did not plan to serve turkey on Thanksgiving. He had watched an inter-company football game, compared it to Pitt football games and missed the "color in the crowd that can only be supplied by the feminine half of this big world."
With the cessation of hostilities, he stayed in France. Did he volunteer for extended duty? Did he stay because of his status as an officer-in-training? His letters give no hint and were still subject to some amount of censorship.
With his friends on their way home and more leisure time, he thought about a military career but decided against it. Clearly he planned marriage:
"A commission would not pay us financially, the length of time we would hold it. And another thing -- it might mean longer service in the states. ... All I think of and want is home, home, sweet sweet home and all that goes with it."+
In December, Guy was sure he'd be home soon. He'd been allowed to withdraw from the officer training course. He tried to sound upbeat, and almost succeeded. He'd last received mail on July 13 and Oct. 6. His pay was seven months in arrears. His sweetheart was probably enjoying holiday parties, and he was unable to send her any kind of Christmas present. "Some of these days I will sail for home and then, and then -- but never mind. I have only my pipe dreams, not even a picture, but I am able to recall to my vision an object of loveliness."
In early January 1919, Guy learned he'd be in France for another six months, assigned to a military police unit, and promoted to sergeant. He had time to visit the local hangouts and enjoy the dance music ("on the rear floor of a café an orchestra of one flute was playing. ... That was my first and hope the last dance I attend as a wall flower.") French food was "excellent chow."
The Army still hadn't delivered his mail, or his paycheck. The French winter was cold but his living quarters included a fireplace -- luxury! "That is one thing I am to have in my home. A fine open fireplace from which the heat will radiate through the room."
(I remember him often sitting in his overstuffed chair by the gas fireplace with a good book, and yes, it was cozy and warm. Did he imagine granddaughters sharing the heat?)
On Feb. 16, 1919, Guy received part of his mail -- letters from his sweetheart dated Aug. 28, 30, 31 and Sept. 2, 1918. In March her letter of Aug. 6, 1918, arrived. Hazel must have mentioned an increased effort on her part to "know the members of the family better." Guy especially appreciated her efforts to befriend his sister. This would become a lifelong effort on Hazel's part. My mother often said that Guy's family never deemed Hazel good enough for their son. Regardless, Guy was single-minded in his pursuit, and signed his letters "all my love for yourself as ever and always."
The last letter in the shoebox is dated July 30, 1919. Guy had just had a few days' leave in Paris, still busy with the post-war peace talks. He was a thorough tourist -- Versailles, the "tower Eiffel," the Pantheon, the Bastille, Notre Dame, obviously all the sights listed in his guidebook.
Paris would be perfect only if Hazel were with him.
Guy Rutherford Day, home from the war, October 1919.
Guy and Hazel were married in November 1922. They lived in Washington, Pa., all their lives. He worked for the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph and then the Washington Reporter and never returned to Europe. Their only child -- my mother Louise -- was born in 1924. Guy and Hazel both died in 1962, she in January, he in December.
I contrast these letters with the daily e-mails and weekly phone calls we received from our daughter in Iraq, and think of her regular paycheck, spent on what creature comforts existed in the desert -- sumptuous in comparison to Guy's.
One of her first letters home included a rough map of Baghdad including notations as to her whereabouts. My father could only comment that such a map sent home from World War II would have led directly to a court-martial. She noted that holidays in Iraq as on a U.S. Army Post are "big deals" -- a traditional menu, plenty of food, served by officers.
The common thread between them -- patriotism, an earnest desire to do good, useful work, mixed with almost unbearable homesickness -- is the same thread that links all soldiers.
I was young when Guy died. By then he and Hazel had become comfortable "old-marrieds," with little outward signs of affection. In his 60s he was a serious, dour man, busy with work and myriad civic and church responsibilities, only occasionally guffawing at some joke. The young soldier who enjoyed dancing became a grandfather who could not understand Chubby Checker's "Twist."
Try as I might, it is hard to reconcile this older man with his younger self, desperate for any word from home, and desperate for his girl.
But it is strangely comforting to remember my own life -- serious, busy and very happily married -- as also starting as someone giddy in love and aching for home.
Katie Doyle's rememberance was published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11044/1124789-109.stm#ixzz1EfZVgJya