Events | Life | People

World War II letters find their way home

By Neal Rubin / The Detroit News

It was 70 years ago, in the middle of World War II, that Glenn Husted sat down at a typewriter and first made his contribution to the cause.

The date was Nov. 6, 1943. In the Solomon Islands, the Marines had just landed on Bougainville. In Ukraine, the Red Army liberated Kiev.

In Sylvan Lake, Husted let himself into Daniel Whitfield School and composed a letter.

“Dear Joe,” the principal began. He was typing with his left hand; his right had been crippled by childhood polio.

“Don’t throw this away until I explain,” he continued — and that explanation launched a story whose ending still hasn’t been written.

It’s a tale that extends to Europe and the South Pacific, where Husted’s former students were fighting in every branch of the service. And it’s one that has returned, on this Veterans Day, to Husted’s former house overlooking Sylvan Lake.

Helen Jane Peters, the town’s official historian, and her husband, Pete, bought the house from Husted 42 years ago. It has an American flag attached to the front railing, a soothing view of the water from the back deck, and the headquarters for her campaign upstairs.

Last year, she found herself with a trove of letters from the former students Husted decided to address universally as “Joe.”

The pages were brittle and so, increasingly, are the survivors among the troops of Whitfield. With time running short, she decided to send the letters home — to those who wrote them, or more likely their widows and children.

Already, and impressively, most of the originals have been returned.

A few have confounded Peters’ attempts to complete the circle and route them to the families. But she’s not giving up.

She’s 73, too young to remember much about the war first-hand. This is her battle.

 “Your name may not be Joe but from now on you are one of the ‘Joe Whitfield’s’ … Every day as I look over the students who are here at Whitfield now, I think of you fellows who used to be here.”

 — Glenn Husted, Nov. 6, 1943

 Sylvan Lake, a few miles southwest of Pontiac, was home to 1,041 people then, about 700 fewer than today. Through eighth grade, its children attended Whitfield.

Husted was principal there from 1927-48, until the district transferred him. In that very different time, he wielded outsize influence and a large wooden paddle.

Former students remember him for more than discipline. Jim Coates, 86, who lives just outside Clarkston, still laughs about the time the kids persuaded Husted to swing a bat on the playground and he whacked a baseball through a window.

The paddle, however, was no mere prop.

Husted happened to be watching the day Coates, on safety patrol, tackled a boy named Red who had been throwing rocks at him. Husted gave Coates three emphatic swats — not for the tackle, but for ignoring his duty.

“I learned my lesson,” Coates says. “Whatever your responsibility is, you’re supposed to do what you’re supposed to do.”

At 17, Coates joined the Navy, cajoling his father to sign the paperwork after his mother refused. His father, Proctor, a telephone expert, was already in the Army; he landed at Okinawa. Coates’ older brother, Harold, earned a Bronze Star and a pair of Purple Hearts in Europe.

 “… we were replacing 5 crews that had been killed. I know that sounds gruesome but it isn’t, training is the most dangerous part of flying.“

 — Howard Sturdy, January 1944

Passing news along

In short order, Husted became a touchstone and a clearinghouse for most of Sylvan Lake’s 60-plus men — and three women — in uniform.

He’d pass along news from home: The kids had collected more than 10,000 pounds of tin cans for the war effort, and the alumni managed to scare up an orchestra for the kids’ Halloween party.

Then he would relay information from the incoming mail, often quoting passages from the letters.

“I suppose you heard and read about the fall of Rome,” wrote Wib Cook. “… I don’t think New York will have as big a welcoming committee as the one that met us.”

“The (Japanese) Zero is really a beautiful ship to watch even when attacking,” wrote Charlie Dryer. “The phosphorous bombs that they throw are just nice to look at, but that’s about all.”

Some correspondents were regulars, others sporadic. Jim Coates says he enjoyed receiving the newsletters, but never wrote back; the war ended as he was training to fly.

Future engineer Lyle Filkins, who retired at 87 in Ann Arbor, sent Husted one letter. When Peters tracked him down and returned it, he says, he read it, but only once.

For others, the impact has been more powerful.

 “This new bomb we have must be some thing. Do you know much about how it works.”

 — Harold Coates, Germany, Aug. 8, 1945

 

Connecting the letters

Husted died at 78 in 1977. The school closed in 1991 and was demolished 12 years later.

Last year, Husted’s daughter came across 70 letters from 45 of his correspondents, neatly alphabetized. Sharie Husted VanGilder, who lives in Pennsylvania, knew immediately whom to entrust them to.

Peters, a former teacher, grew up in Sylvan Lake. She’s been married 44 years, and she and her husband are on their fifth female English springer spaniel named Magee. She appreciates continuity.

Along with a Sylvan Lake expatriate named Randy Rogers, she’s the bridge connecting 70-year-old correspondence to the era of email and Facebook.

Rogers, a former Army officer with an interest in genealogy, was a civilian employee on an Army base in Seoul, South Korea, for much of the 18 months he’s been searching. From there, he sifted through census records, newspaper archives, the Social Security Death Index and any number of search engines.

The letters provided clues, as did a sad but predictable number of obituaries. Middle initials, survivor’s names and hometowns all helped them vector in.

They know now that Charles Doyle, Charles Frankenfield and Kenny Rust didn’t make it home. That pilot Howard Sturdy did, after spending time in a POW camp, but later died in the crash of an experimental aircraft. That at least seven of the letter writers are still alive — and mail from 10 remains unclaimed.

“It brings tears to my eyes,” Peters says, to link spouses or children or grandchildren with the paper the departed service members held in their hands and the thoughts they shared.

Two sisters who stopped by to retrieve their father’s letter actually giggled at his reference to his girlfriend, who became his wife.

“They had never thought about their parents being anything but that,” Peters says. Yet here was proof, in ink.

Jim Coates picked up the letters from his father and brother and recognized his dad’s textbook penmanship. “It kind of took you back home,” he says.

In turn, Coates delivered the letters to Harold, who is in faltering health in Florida. Harold, 88, volunteered to spend a year in Germany after the war, helping to rebuild small towns. Later, he and his wife adopted two abused children.

“He asked me to read them to him. He said his eyes wouldn’t let him,” Jim says.

He was weeping.

 Address unknown

Helen Jane Peters still holds original cards or letters from 10 of the Sylvan Lake veterans who were among Glenn Husted’s “Joe Whitfields.” To reach her with information about them or their surviving relatives, email veteransletters@gmail.com.

The missing 10 are George Cook, Bob Dixon, Charles A. Dryer, Charles N. Doyle, Joe Doyle, H. Vernon Harcourt, Eva Sanford, Fred Stott, Lee Valentine and Pat Wood.