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Woman nearing 105th birthday among 1st women to serve in Navy during WWII

Hellen Guthrie joined the Navy's WAVES program in 1943 because she said she "was feeling bored and patriotic."

INDIANAPOLIS — Hellen Guthrie will turn 105 years old at the end of April. She's a veteran, one of the first women to serve in the Navy during World War II. 

She doesn’t see well anymore, but still gets around pretty good with a walker in her Franklin Township home on the southeast side of Indianapolis.   

“Did you ever think you'd be sitting here talking to someone at 104 years old?” I asked Hellen to begin our conversation in her living room. 

“Heavens, no,” she replied. 

Helen was born in Indianapolis on April 30, 1917. But she grew up and was raised by her grandparents in Spencer, Indiana. 

"I had a pet chicken,” Hellen said with a big laugh. “I can remember seeing some pictures of me sitting in a little rocking chair holding that pet chicken.”

Hellen graduated from Spencer High School in 1934 and went to work as a secretary a law firm. Then World War II offered the first opportunities for women to join the Navy beyond nursing.  

"I was bored and feeling patriotic,” said Hellen.

In August 1943, Hellen became one the first WAVES - Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. The branch was established to replace men stationed ashore to provide more sea duty sailors and officers. Hellen went off to New York for training, then served just over two years in Washington, D.C. as a petty officer first class cryptographer in the Japanese intelligence section.

"We took all these intercepted messages and typed them out,” said Hellen. “With the Japanese, they usually encrypted everything they did at least four or five times.”

Credit: Hellen Guthrie
Hellen Guthrie signed up for the WAVES branch of the U.S. Navy in August 1943, typing out messages intercepted from the Japanese during World War II.

Hellen said the messages never meant anything to her. But she enjoyed her time in the Navy. 

"I loved going home on leave and having everybody think I was wonderful,” Hellen said with another chuckle.

After the war, she was offered a Navy position at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. But her family wanted her back home. So, she returned to Spencer and married an Army friend of her brother. Ralph and Hellen Guthrie moved to Indianapolis and were married 62 years before his death in 2009. They had one son, Gene, who looks after Hellen.

"My husband died when he was 91 years old,” said Hellen. “I had never thought that I would ever live to be as old as he was." 

All over Helen's house you will find tiger stuff: pictures, figurines, painted plates, stuffed animals, and a calendar. Most of the items were given to her as gifts that fit her personality, tenacity from someone who's lived for more than a century.

"Everybody used to say to me, 'You are a little tiger. You will fight for your son. You will fight for your husband,'" said Hellen.  

Hellen has also collected elephants over the years, souvenirs from her many years involved in local Republican politics. She's been honored with Hellen Guthrie Day in Indianapolis on her 70th birthday and the Sagamore of the Wabash from the governor.  

She loved to travel, taking trips to North Africa to see the Sahara Desert, and going on Mediterranean and Caribbean cruises. Before she began losing her vision, she did lots of handicraft work. Hellen said she was a “top notch” seamstress. 

“I know people who all they do is sit around and complain, which does no good for them or anybody else,” said Hellen. “But you make the best of what you have, you're going to have a good life."

This little tiger is still living the good life.

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