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Veterans Day | WWII letters tied to Cumberland found in San Diego garage

Cumberland Times-News - 11/14/2022

Nov. 11—CUMBERLAND, Md. — Growing up in a family of 10 children, Tom Farnsworth and his siblings were familiar with the name Robert "Bob" Mathias.

Mathias and their father were best buddies in a Washington, D.C., high school, and enlisted in the military together in 1942.

Mathias joined the Marine Reserves, transferred to the National Guard and was activated in February 1941.

Mathias applied for officer candidate school and later requested to be a paratrooper.

Mathias was leader of the second platoon, E Company, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, in World War II.

Numerous stories have been published about Mathias and his heroic service in Maryland newspapers and the book "D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II" by Stephen Ambrose, who also wrote New York Times bestseller "Band of Brothers."

Mathias "was the first American officer killed by German fire on D-Day," Ambrose wrote.

Mathias and his wife Doris Habig Mathias are buried at SS. Peter & Paul Roman Catholic Cemetery in Cumberland.

His wife was raised in the Western Maryland city.

Tom Farnsworth's parents, John and Diana Farnsworth, met in England during the war and honored Mathias when their first child was born.

"It was common knowledge in my family that my brother was named after my dad's best friend," Tom Farnsworth said.

His dad died in 2010, and mom in 2020.

But it wasn't until more recently that the Farnsworth children learned their mother had saved in the garage at her San Diego home seven letters written by Mathias to their father during the war.

"She pretty much saved every piece of correspondence she received," Tom Farnsworth said. "She saved the envelopes, too."

The letters

Mathias began his letters to John Farnsworth as "Dear Jawn," but it's unknown where the nickname originated.

In an Aug. 16, 1943, letter sent from Camp Mackall, North Carolina, Mathias writes of his wife having a stillborn baby girl.

He shares with "Jawn" his mother's mailing address, and talks of other family members, including his brother Joe in the Navy and "on high seas."

Mathias encourages his pal to marry one of his sisters.

"Will get you for a bro in law yet," he writes.

Mathias, who worked before the war as a commercial artist for the Washington Post, also says he draws to pass the time.

In a Jan. 14, 1944, letter from New York, Mathias writes of being on a boat and says "I'd like to see you in England."

The final letter, written from Ulster, Ireland, is postmarked early February 1944.

"I'll duck bullets before you. Bet?" Mathias writes to his friend.

Families connected

After he learned of the letters, Tom Farnsworth researched and found articles about a memorial dedication for Mathias on the Cumberland Times-News website.

"It was nice to know that (Mathias) is remembered by other people," Tom Farnsworth said. "He meant something to a lot of other people."

He contacted the newspaper, which connected him with relatives of Mathias.

Tom Farnsworth also said among the letters was an empty envelope dated October 1944. He believes it was sent to his father to inform him that Mathias was deceased.

He shared the letters with Mathias' nieces, Howard County resident Marilyn Mathias, and Phyllis Blair, a Cumberland native who now lives in St. Mary's County.

"These families are really interesting," Blair said after reading the letters.

She was grateful to talk to Tom Farnsworth, learn of the letters and get to know a new side of Mathias.

A lot of the banter in the letters is "cute" she said of Mathias teasing his best friend and calling him things like "trout-faced."

But reading her uncle's words also felt "gut wrenching," Blair said.

"You know what's going to happen ... you know he's going to die," she said. "It's just completely different when you know the outcome."

Teresa McMinn is the Digital Editor for the Cumberland Times-News. She can be reached at 304-639-2371 or


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