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Robert Henry Slade

The Fastest Boy

1926 was a special year for YMCA Camp Takodah.

Start of Boys Session, July 1926
Start of Boys Session, July 1926 (Robert is possibly present in this photo)

As they celebrated their 10th anniversary, the Directors and Staff were pleased with how far the camp had come in such a relatively short time. It had grown from two worn down buildings and some musty old tents in the middle of the Richmond woods to a rapidly expanding campus and waterfront. They had new wooden cabins for the campers, along with the frames of several other cabins just waiting to be finished. An addition was put on the kitchen along with installing a larger series of Blodget ovens to dramatically increase food production. The bathhouse received hot water tanks and a series of outdoor washstands were erected for cleaning dirty faces and brushing teeth. Cleanliness, of course, has always been an important mandate at Takodah.

Seeing that the demand for activity programming was equally expanding, the Directors purchased new rowboats and canoes, cleared more area on the sports field, and hired more staff than ever.

But something else was due to turn 10 years old that year.

Flag Raising Ceremony, Boys Camp, 1926 (Robert is likely present in this photograph)
Flag Raising Ceremony, Boys Camp, 1926 (Robert is likely present in this photo)

A local boy named Robert Henry Slade would mark that occasion in November. Before that day, however, he would become a true blue Takodian. It was unusual as the minimum age to come to camp was usually 12, but Bob was a special kid. He was more mature and better suited to being away from home than most kids his age. His parents, William Allen Slade and Lillian May Clark, spoke with Oscar Elwell in the spring and everyone agreed they should give it a chance to see how it went. Besides, Bob would be going to Camp with his older brother, Donald, and together they would be just fine.

And so it was.

Bob loved Takodah so much that summer that he wanted to come back year after year. He did exactly that in 1927, 1928, and 1929 – the year he met a fellow Takodian camper named Leonard Abbott “Spike” Merrill, Jr., who would also go on to serve his country and make the supreme sacrifice in the Second World War.

Bob took a break in the summers 1930 and 1931 after he moved to New York to attend a private school, but when he returned to Camp the following July, Uncle Oscar would end up making a small but important note in a Session Report that would go on to be discovered nearly 90 years later.

Bob Slade won the Camp Takodah Road Race.

Photo, take by Bob, of the US Flag flying over Camp Takodah
Photo, taken by Robert, of the US flag flying over Camp Takodah, circa 1932

After lunch on Saturday, July 23, 1932, the boys all lined up side-by-side outside the Dining Hall. They faced west down the camp road. The hot sun was shining. The cool lake was calling. The dust was quickly rising. Oscar proudly held aloft a blue and white checkered flag that the campers had made for him in Hobby Nook earlier that week. The cabin leaders rallied and encouraged their campers to “run fast and win big!” The runners were dressed up in either white or blue shirts. The other campers cheered out the color their cabinmate was wearing.

“Go White go!”

“Blue! Blue! Blue!”

The route would take them along the newly constructed May Lane, east along Fitzwilliam Road, right onto Pond Woods Road, down to the end, and back again. This was no easy task as May Lane was under construction and the other stretches of the race were barely more than old weather-beaten dirt roads with potholes that made them look like the surface of the moon.

Robert Henry Slade at 16 years old
Robert Henry Slade at 16 years old

But Bob didn’t mind that. At 16, like most boys, he thought he knew everything. And today he knew exactly what he was capable of. He stretched and jumped around and waited for Oscar to give them the signal to go. And go he did. Bob ran like an antelope giving and taking the lead until he made it back to May Lane, turned the corner, and saw the camp – the entire camp – cheering and hollering for him to go, go, go!

He leaned forward, doubled down, and pushed through the heat, sweat, mosquitoes, and exhaustion. Bob was a natural born fighter. He had the mind of a mature man in the body of a sixteen-year-old boy. He put in everything he had for those last few yards under the shade of the towering hemlocks and glorious pines.

As Oscar wildly waved the blue and white, Bob pulled ahead of the other boys, raised his arms as he crossed the finish line, broke the string, and won the race. His cabin mates, leaders, teachers, staff members, kitchen crew, and even the nurse cheered his name, patted his back, called out his cabin number, hoisted him aloft and gave him the chance to bask in the glory of the win.

His reward? Takodah fame, a handmade tin-foil pine-cone trophy, and, best of all, free ice cream!

Robert Henry Slade at New York Military Academy
Robert Henry Slade at New York Military Academy

Bob would carry this win with him from camp to the New York Military Academy in Cornwall-On-Hudson, where he earned a full scholarship in the music department. He lived at 57 beech Street and sang in the Chapel Choir, played clarinet and saxophone in the band and orchestra, and maintained grades worthy of being on the Honor Roll for two straight years. He would letter in a variety of sports including football, basketball, boxing, and tennis. He also excelled in track and field. He ran – and regularly won – the relay race and took high standings in the 220-yard dash as the NYMA team traveled around New England taking on school after school while setting new records.

They were so well-known that the local papers frequently published their stories, statistics, and photos.

NYMA Track Team
New York Military Academy Track Team

After graduation, Bob followed his older brother to Ohio Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts university in Delaware, Ohio, in the fall of 1934 where he “hopes to make the track squad and seek new laurels.” He was a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, a fraternity still active at OWU, where they are focused on “Building Balanced Men.” He was on the fencing team, played in the marching band and, of course, he ran track starting in 1936.

In 1938, however, Bob dropped out of school and moved to Florida where he started working for Wometco Theaters. Nobody exactly knows why, but maybe it was music, a girlfriend or just the adventure of it. Of course maybe it was the air conditioning, which would have been a relief to a northern boy. Over the next two years, he worked his way up from ticket sales to theater manager. Wometco, founded in 1925 as the Wolfson-Meyer Theater Company, was based in Miami. Bob worked at the Capitol Theater in downtown Miami, their first movie theater opened by Wometco in 1926. Over the years the company built up the largest chain of movie theaters in South Florida.

Barcelona Hotel, Miami, Florida
Barcelona Hotel, Miami, Florida

On October 16, 1940, at the age of 23 years old, Bob registered with the Selective Service. He processed his application at the Local Board #4 for Dade County located at 518 Seybold Building in Miami, Florida. At that time, he listed his address as the “Barcelona Hotel in Miami Beach.” When asked for a contact who would always know his address, he listed Mr. Frank H. Whitcomb, an old friend and former cabin leader from YMCA Camp Takodah.

Work with Wometco continued to improve with Bob eventually managing several different theaters as he moved around from town to town. But he kept coming back to Miami after meeting Ms. Dorothy Gloria Tinsley from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Ms. Dorothy Gloria Tinsley
Ms. Dorothy Gloria Tinsley

She was a striking and ambitious young southern lady that Bob immediately fell for.

They began dating but Dorothy was justifiably concerned by Bob’s nomadic lifestyle and traveling profession. She wasn’t sure yet if he was the sort of man who could ever truly settle down. Even so, he had this irresistible little grin and charming way about him especially when he would sing for her as they walked together along the beaches of South Florida. It didn’t take too long until she, too, was in love. That much was certain, but she had no plans to let him know it. Not yet, at least. This time, she’d play it cool and take things one step at a time.

Over the course of the coming year, Bob took on increasingly responsibility and administrative duties at work while making a concerted effort to spend more time with his “best girl.” But Dorothy was as tough and independent as she was beautiful. If Bob was going to win her over forever, he’d have to prove that he was in it for a long haul.

After all, war was igniting the planet on multiple fronts and she wasn’t sure what may come and who might go. In March, Bob’s brother Donald had enlisted with the United States Army at Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio. Knowing how close the Slade boys had always been, Dorothy saw that the writing was on the wall.

As expected, Donald’s decision to enlist weighed heavy on Bob. His mind swirled with thoughts of love and honor, duty and future, possibilities and patriotism. Like so many other men faced with the choice of service over self, Bob chose to serve his country.

Slade brother in uniform
Slade brothers in US Army uniforms shortly after Robert’s enlistment.

On 7 October 1941, two months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Robert Henry Slade once again followed in his older brother’s footsteps and enlisted in the United States Army. He was processed at Camp Blanding, Bradford County, Florida and began basic training at Fort Knox, KY, soon after.

By late 1941, the U.S. Army was not the small, professional “glorified police force” it had been in the 1920-30s. The hard-bitten men who’d put up with the rough life of the Depression-era Army were swamped by tens of thousands of new recruits as the Army grew from 183,000 in 1938 to 1.5 million in August 1941. Bob was part of this huge influx of civilians who suddenly needed to learn how to march, fire a rifle, dig a hole, test their personal limits, and obey orders.

With each letter sent home, Dorothy fell deeper in love with Bob. She was proud of his decision to enlist and she found the doubt and lingering hesitation she had felt was fading and fading fast. Bob completed his training on December 7th, 1941 the infamous date itself, and immediately returned home to Dorothy. Now that the US was officially in the fight, he and Dorothy decided the time had come to get married before he was shipped out for combat duty.

Slade brothers with their mother on the day Bob and Dorothy married
Slade brothers with their mother

They took a train to Springfield, OH where his brother, now a Captain in the Army, was stationed. On 24 December, they were married by Revered Ross Miller, PhD., of the local Presbyterian Church. The small, brief ceremony took place at Donald’s house on 1210 Selma Road. Dorothy wore a “street-length dress of dusty red crepe with matching accessories and a corsage of white rose.” Donald’s wife, Betty, was the Matron of Honor and wore “a solder blue dress with matching accessories and a corsage of pink roses.” Donald was the Best Man, wearing his uniform, of course. The only other witness was Bob’s mother, Lillian Clarke Slade.

Soon after the ceremony concluded, the newlyweds returned to Bob’s station at Fort Knox, KY.

Upon his arrival, Bob was assigned to the 1st Armored Division where he attended Armored Force School while living off-base with his lovely bride. There he joined veteran cavalry soldiers in learning how best to use the new tanks and armored vehicles coming into service. Based on the experience of American observers during the Spanish Civil war, and then reports from the German “blitzkrieg” in France in 1940, the Army realized that armored warfare in the future was about speed and power. In response, they quickly redesigned their fast light tanks to include a 37mm gun, which would ultimately go into service as the M3 Stuart. Armor school curriculum changed as well, with students taught land navigation, map reading, radio communication, artillery spotting and vehicle maintenance.

Cover of "The First Armored Division" published in 1945 by the US Army
Cover of “The First Armored Division” published in 1946 by the US Army

After a time in the Armored Force Replacement Center, Bob was assigned to the 81st Cavalry Reconnaissance Battalion, part of the 1st Armored Division. The battalion, knowing it would be among the first armored forces deployed overseas, feverishly prepared for combat. Assigned a mixture of M3 Stuart light tanks, half-tracks and trucks, the men conducted maneuvers, learned their vehicles inside and out and studied the latest combat reports from the British fighting the Afrika Korps in Egypt.

By this time, Bob had been promoted to Staff Sergeant and likely led his own crew in an M3 Stuart. With the rest of the division, he helped pack up the equipment, supplies and vehicles on trains and moved east to New York City in late April, 1942. Before he departed, he said goodbye to Dorothy and assured her that the war would soon be won and he would be back safe and sound so they could start a long, happy life together. With the reality of the war never far from the front pages of newspapers on ever stand, she struggled to believe her brave and confident husband. With tears flowing, Dorothy bid her final farewell to Bob at the train station surrounded by other wives and girlfriends of officers and soldiers taking a similar path towards overseas combat.

The last time Dorothy saw Bob was as he waved to her and blew a kiss from the window of a passenger train as it huffed and chuffed its way off into the distance.

Once they reached NYC, the men embarked in the liner Queen Mary for the voyage across the Atlantic, arriving in Northern Ireland five days later. Assigned a bivouac out in the country, the unit spent the next five months preparing for operations. Finally, after what must have seemed an eternity, the unit shipped out again in October, this time bound for North Africa, via a short stop in England.

Robert in North Africa
Robert with the 81st in North Africa

After landing in Algeria in November, the 81st joined the rest of the division in the advance east towards Tunisia. The weather was cold and wet, with muddy roads making the movement of men and vehicles difficult. The battalion screened the rest of the division as the American II Corps pushed into Tunisia and saw its first combat action on 15 January 1943. As a reconnaissance force, the purpose of the 81st was to move ahead of the main force, scouting and look for the enemy. The information was then collated, assessed and sent back to higher headquarters. Beginning 31 January, the 81st encountered a strong German armored force at Station de Sened near Kasserine Pass and over the next two weeks fought a delaying action against superior enemy tanks as poor weather limited American airpower.

In mid-February the battalion lost an entire company, which had been cut off and surrounded, which luckily Bob avoided.

Back home, Dorothy, like tens of thousands of other women watching the war from a stateside vantage point, decided to get involved and do her part. She attended US Army Parachute Rigger’s School at Pope Field, Fort Bragg, Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1943 and proceeded to work as a Central Mechanic for the United States Army Air Force Parachute Packing & Repair Unit. Mastery of parachute packing was essential to the safety of all pilots and air crews—and it was female riggers like Dorothy who were the best in their field. In fact, 90 percent of all parachutes used in the Second World War were packed, inspected, and repaired by women.

Dorothy's Identification Card for Fort Bragg
Dorothy’s Pass Card for Fort Bragg

Dorothy found the work to be mentally challenging and personally satisfying. She also felt like each day she spent working was a day that brought her closer to seeing Bob again. She longed for her husband to come home from the war and spent many nights after work sending letter after letter to him while keeping a close eye on the news.

Meanwhile, the 1st Armored division regrouped following the previous months’ defeat, and, with the weather clearing, began a counter-attack into Tunisia. The 81st fought at Maknassy, El Guettar, and Mateur before the Germans surrendered all of Tunisia on 9 May 1943. After this the division retired to Morocco where the unit received new tanks, replacement equipment and well-needed rest.

Following the Allied invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943, which caused the Italians to surrender on 8 September, the Allies quickly landed in southern Italy, liberating the Taranto, Brindisi and Naples. By October, with fall rains hindering offensive operations, American forces regrouped and 1st Armored was shipped in to Naples as reinforcements, arriving there on the 28th.

Parachute Riggers in WWII
Parachute Riggers in WWII

October was also a busy month for Dorothy as she was transferred to Olmstead Army Airfield in Pennsylvania where numerous transport and reconnaissance units were organized and formed before they were equipped and reassigned to training bases. She worked hard for the USAAF Middletown Air Services Command at Olmstead and gained a reputation as a highly valued parachute packer, inspector, and technician for various types of chutes including S-1, S-2, B-7, B-8, QAB, and T-5. Letters from Bob were infrequent at best but when they came in, he was supportive, appreciative, and proud that she was playing a part in the war. It was an interesting connection that made the distance between them feel just a little bit smaller.

In the mountains of central Italy, given the impossibility of armored operations, the 81st spent the next three months conducting “dismounted” combat operations. Basically, the tankers became infantrymen and conducted patrols, stood watch and occasionally climbed the rugged hills as American forces slowly inched north. Finally, on 1 February 1944, the 81st shifted to the Anzio bridgehead. Unbeknownst to Bob, when his ship anchored at that port, he passed over the same waters that had claimed the life of another Takodian just a month before when Leonard Abbott “Spike” Merrill had died aboard the LST-422 after she struck a mine.

Safely ashore, Bob’s company helped push the Germans back out of the hills that spring and, in May, the Allied offensive broke through the German lines and the 81st raced north, helping liberate Rome on 4 June 1944. Over the summer the armored cavalry continued pushing north as the Germans retreated, exploiting the open terrain along the coast until finally stopped in the mountains north of Florence.

Dorothy, however, was on the move as well. She decided to head back to Florida, likely to work at Miami Army Airfield, to await Bob’s return. On 24 July 1944, she received a letter of recommendation from Captain James L. Webb, Supervisor of Maintenance, USAAF, who stated that:

Mrs. Slade showed great progress in her work and was very efficient in her assignments. We kindly recommend her for any position she may attain in parachute work in the future.

After wintering in Tuscany, the 81st began the Spring 1945 offensive, codenamed Operation Grapeshot, by driving northeast across the Apennines towards the Po River Valley and Venice. The German Reich was collapsing and American forces were racing to secure ports in the northern Adriatic and control the mountain passes into Austria.

The fighting was intense, difficult, and, at times, extraordinarily violent. It was also confusing with so many different units converging from a variety of different directions in the land and air. That confusion, it would turn out, would be far more deadly than anyone could have predicted.

Bob when he joined the 1st Armored Division (left) and just prior to his death in Italy (right)
Robert when he joined the 1st Armored Division (left) and just prior to his death in Italy (right) with the 81st Calvary Reconn Squad.

Staff Sargent Robert Henry Slade was killed in action, reportedly by friendly fire from misdirected shelling, just as elements of the 81st were descending out of the mountains into the Po River Valley near Ravenna.

He died on 22 April 1945, 10 days before the surrender of all enemy forces in northern Italy. He was 28 years old, by then a veteran of the long, hard campaigns fought in the Mediterranean to free the people of Europe from tyranny.

He had seen burning villages, extreme combat, and the twisted bodies of the enemy, civilians, and his friends.

He was buried in Plot A, Row 8, Grave 23 in the Florence American Cemetery in Impruneta, Italy and was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.

While Bob never made it home, Dorothy, who went on to happily remarry and live a full and accomplished life, forever kept close the memory of the man she loved and the soldier she lost.

 

Bobs grave at Florence American Cemetery in Impruneta, Italy as seen immediately after burial (left) after the war (right) and present day (center)
Robert’s grave at Florence American Cemetery in Impruneta, Italy as seen immediately after burial (left) after the war (right) and present day (center) (click to enlarge)

 

Read the next story in the series.

Return to the Lost Takodians of WWII main page.

Authors Note: We have been working with the National Archives and Records Administration and the United States Army to recover all of Bob’s military records but, unfortunately, that has proven to be a substantial challenge over the past several months. We know his records exist but it could take up to a year before we’re able to get copies and study them. We will be sure to keep up the search no matter how long it takes. His Official Military Personnel File (OMPF) and his Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) will eventually enable us to get far more specific on Bob’s enlistment, training, movements, duties, and his death in combat. Once Bob’s information has been received, we will update this story and republish on social media.

 

SOURCES:

  • Slade Family letters, clippings, interviews, and documents
  • YMCA Camp Takodah History, Oscar & Francis Elwell, 1971. Takodah YMCA Archives.
  • YMCA Camp Takodah Registration Cards. Takodah YMCA Archives.
  • Ancestry.com Records, Media, and Merrill Family Trees
  • Fold 3 Records, Media, and Military Documents
  • history.army.mil
  • Keene Evening Sentinel
  • Historical Society of Cheshire County
  • Newspaper Archives
  • Newspapers.com
  • Wikipedia
  • enacademic.com
  • The Story of the The First Armored Division, US Army, 1946
  • Ike Skelton Combined Arms Research Library Digital Library
  • custermen.com
  • Warfare History Network
  • American Battle Monuments Commission

PHOTO CREDITS:

  • YMCA Camp Takodah Photo Archives
  • Slade Family photos, clippings, and documents
  • Ohio Wesleyan University
  • wikipedia
  • The Story of the The First Armored Division, US Army, 1946
  • Wikimedia
  • FindAGrave
  • American Battle Monuments Commission