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DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: Getting to know Slick

by Debra Hale-Shelton | May 24, 2020 at 1:39 a.m.

His name was Robert Sylvane Smith. His family called him Slick; his girlfriend called him Bob; the Marines called him PFC, then Corporal, and finally Sergeant.

Born May 20, 1920, Slick died during World War II of typhus at age 23 on March 23, 1944, at a hospital in the Southwest Pacific--specifically at Cape Gloucester in New Britain--according to an old newspaper article and the website Find A Grave.

He received the Purple Heart and had been in the Marines since at least 1940, the year of the oldest letters I recently read from him to his family in Marked Tree while he was in the Marines.

There also was a four-page handwritten letter dated Aug. 2, 1944, to my grandmother from an Australian woman, Jean Dalkin, Slick dated. And there were a few letters from two of Slick's brothers, Felton, who was in the Navy, and James, who was in the Army. Both survived the war but have since died.

I never met Slick, who died years before I was born. I first visited his grave at Little Rock National Cemetery decades ago with my mother. But I didn't know him, and my mom was just 13 when he died.

So, in the quiet of my home recently, I went through the letters one by one. I read most of them carefully, scanned others and got to know this young man--his sense of humor, his interest in pretty girls, and mainly his love of the family he had to leave behind.

I learned that Slick enjoyed reading as did his dad, my grandfather, and that Slick worried about his large family who farmed but didn't have much money and who had already lost one son, Leslie, to tuberculosis.

He wrote of how he avoided bug bites outdoors--something that he couldn't always avoid and that ultimately killed him.

"We slept out in the woods. Boy, you should of seen my bed. I made a pillow with pine needles. I got the idea out of western books," he wrote in an Aug. 11, 1941, letter to one of his sisters.

"I stuck four sticks up in the ground put my neck on, and of course I had my blanket on the ground to lay on. I tucked the net in around my blanket, and I didn't get a bug bite," he said.

In a July 23, 1942, letter to "folks" back home, Slick said he couldn't tell them where he was stationed but wrote, "Well, you know we can't get many things here. So I want you to send me some chewing gum, some books, and a fruit cake."

About a month earlier, on June 26, 1942, Slick wrote his oldest sister, Frances, and her family.

"How about sending me the Memphis paper for a year?" he asked.

Though disease killed him, he saw plenty of action.

"At last I can tell you where I am. Guadalcanal," he wrote home in September 1942. "You can figure out what I'm doing. Just listen to the radio."

There, he fought in the months-long battle between Allied and Japanese forces in the South Pacific.

On Jan. 16, 1943, he wrote home to say he had left Guadalcanal. "I can't tell you where I am but it is a good place. It is very much like the States," he wrote. "We get all the liberty we want, and there [are] big cities to go to. The people here even talk and act like we do."

A June 1944 article in the now-defunct Marked Tree Tribune said Slick, a machine gunner, was transferred to a rest camp for a while but then returned to action.

Slick, who closed many of his letters with the words "Your son and bud, Slick," arranged to have money sent back home and repeatedly mentioned his mom's need for new eyeglasses.

"If I live you will get them glasses and if I die you will get six months pay. ... So you will get them," he wrote on Jan. 8, 1941.

In an April 9, 1943, letter to his family, he wrote: "I have taken a 10,000 dollar insurance [policy]. It will cost me about $6.60 a month. I think that is pretty good, but I will drop it when I get out of the service anyway."

He had a sense of humor.

"Since I made corporal, I am now a squad leader," he wrote to his family in February 1942. "I have to teach them all I know about ... guns, maps, compass, bayonet, first aid, hiking, keeping clean in the field and about 40 other things. What do you think about me as a teacher and leader? ha ha."

He wasn't shy about asking his family for small sums of money when he needed help.

At some point, after he had mentioned a young woman he'd met, his mom wrote back that they had sent some money he had requested and added, "How about that pretty girl. Send me her picture."

She then became more serious. "Write as much as you can," she wrote. "I am praying for you, Son, and you must pray too that God will watch over you and Felton and all of the other boys." (James was younger and joined the military later than his brothers.)

Slick's letters were mostly upbeat, and I never found one where he wrote of the typhus, though my mother had few if any of his letters from 1944.

More than once, he told his family not to worry about him.

"And of all things don't start worrying about me leaving," he wrote in February 1942 from North Carolina. "If I have to go across [the ocean], I'll just go. And worrying won't help. And one thing sure I'll get back."

Dalkin, who served in the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force, told my grandmother after Slick's death that they had been "sort of engaged."

Dalkin wrote of Slick's love for a cup of tea and his happiness while he was with her.

She also mentioned his youngest sister, Dorothy, my mother.

Slick--or Bob, as she called him--"always carried a snapshot of Dorothy in his wallet," Dalkin wrote. "He was terribly proud of that sister of his. ... He was a son & brother to be proud of, & all my life I'll be glad I knew him."

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

Editorial on 05/24/2020

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