MERIDEN — Ducking for cover as Japanese artillery rained down around him, Leonard W. Slavinski imagined he could have dug a hole in the sand with his eyelids as Allied troops landed on the beach in the Solomon Islands. The World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient detailed his harrowing experience during the Bougainville Campaign in a letter to his mother dated January 1944, two months after the battle.
”It’s an experience I shall never forget,” Slavinski wrote. “That landing to that date was the toughest the Marine Corps had ever made.”
A copy of the letter was provided to the Record-Journal by Slavinski’s daughter, Loretta Slavinski Mislick. Born in 1920, her father graduated Meriden High School in 1937 and later joined the Marine Corps, serving with the Third Marine Division in the South Pacific in World War II where he participated in the devastating Bougainville Campaign.
He described the battle that ensued after landing on the beach in stunning detail in the letter.
”Today is the beginning of a new year and things look much brighter for us now that the odds are in our favor (more) than they have for the past couple of years,” Slavinski’s letter begins. “There is a possibility that the conflict may be over before ’44 comes to a close. Just knowing that there is a possibility makes everything look that much brighter.”
Following months of hard training, Slavinski wrote he was excited for his team to finally reach their objective in the Solomon Islands. As the men were being loaded into a smaller boat to breach the shore, Slavinski recalled the soldiers “laughing and kidding as if they were going to a picnic.”
”You see my assignment had gone through so many practice landings that it seemed we were only on another ship to shore,” Slavinski wrote. “Then what must have added to the confidence we had was the part that as we were coming into shore we could see our Navy and dive bombers knocking hell out of the beach.”
The mood shifted quickly as the graveness of the situation became clear just seconds before the boat hit the beach. In a surreal moment, the team’s lieutenant, “a great guy but a person whom I thought had no religion,” turned to the men and said, “okay boys this is it. Bless yourselves and get ready.”
Panic struck as the boat became stuck, leaving the men open targets. “That’s when the lord took over,” Slavinski wrote.
Japanese fighter planes and machine guns pummeled the beach, “and would have killed each and every soul in the boat as we were caught like rats in a trap.”
Just in time an Allied dive bomber made a direct hit on the enemy, clearing the way for the troops to run up the beach toward the jungle.
“We could see machine gun parts and hunks of (Japanese) scattered all over the area,” Slavinski wrote.
As they made their way toward the tree line, Slavinski said a low-flying Japanese fighter plane swirled overhead and began to rain more fire on the soldiers.
“We hit the deck and the slugs from his guns made a pattern between my head and the legs of the fellow who was five yards up ahead of me,” Slavinski wrote. “I was so close to the ground that I could have dug a hole with my eyelids.”
Slavinski sustained several more attacks by enemy troops that day, but ultimately made it out of the battle alive.
”After that it’s just a story of blood and sweat and guts and the days certainly had plenty of all. You hear stories of people being awarded medals for doing this or that,” Slavinski wrote. “There was hardly a day there where the boys did not pull off stunts of some kind which certainly rated a decoration.”
Slavinski ends asking his mother to relay his story to his grandmother and children in the family, signing it “your loving son, Leonard.”
Seventy three years later Mislick said her father’s letter paints a stark picture of his experience during the war.
”Describing this battle he was in, it almost makes you fee like you were actually there,” Mislick said.
After returning from the war, Slavinski received a letter to his Center Street home from Colonel A. E. O’Neil of the U. S. Marine Corps informing him he would be entitled to the Purple Heart for an injury sustained in the Bougainville Campaign in November 1943 along with the American Campaign Medal, bronze Asianic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the Victory Medal.
Mislick described her father as extremely bright. A 1938 Record-Journal news clip states Slavinski was selected as an alternate to West Point on March 1, one of only three in the state considered to the prestigious military school. Mislick said he was later accepted to the school, but had to decline admission as she had just been born.
After returning from service Slavinski never spoke of the war, although Mislick believes he was haunted by his experiences.
“Very often you’d see him somewhere being very pensive and quiet and you’d wonder what he would think of but he never talked about it,” Mislick said. “He was somebody that, sad to say, after the war things did not go well and in those days they did not recognize PTSD or anything like that.”
Records from the City Clerk’s office showed Slavinski died on June 20, 1966 at age 46. Mislick said he died in a veterans hospital from complications due to alcoholism.
“Obviously something there must have bothered him,” Mislick said. “This place he was in in the Solomon Islands was just another hell hole of all the hell holes these poor military guys had to go through.”
Mislick hoped her father’s story could shed light on the struggle of veterans whose stories often go untold.
“I would hope that people in the community would have a better respect and more of an appreciation for our veterans,” Mislick said. “We’re lacking in patriotism in so many ways and I think we need to get back to it.”