To say Yellow Brick Home resident John Slavik came from humble beginnings is a misrepresentation of European history. A ‘multi-cultural’ beginning is closer to the truth.
His maternal grandmother was born in the middle of the now-defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, dissolved as a kingdom after World War I. The newly established countries have the now familiar names like Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and smaller and larger parts of many others including Italy. Among the languages spoken are Austro-Wegy, Osterreich-Ungarn and Rakusko-Uhorsko.
“There were more than 40 different languages,” Slavik said. “The Austro-Hungarian officers in World War I couldn’t communicate with the majority of their men. I had to speak Slavic with my grandmother.”
Born in Jersey City, N.J. in 1927, Slavik recalled listening to a New York Giants football game Dec. 7, 1941, in his grandmother’s parlor.
“All of a sudden the announcer said, ‘Pearl Harbor has been bombed by the Japanese,’” Slavik said. “I heard what he said, but kept thinking — ‘Well?’ — we had no idea where Pearl Harbor was. We certainly found out when Roosevelt delivered his legendary ‘Day of Infamy’ speech.”
Slavik recalled the victory gardens and saving cigarette wrappers (which contained lead) to support the war effort. After high school graduation in early 1945, he joined the Navy.
“They told me to go home and wait, so I did,” Slavik said. “I called them from time to time, but nothing happened, so I started spring training with the New York Giants baseball team.”
Under contract with the Giants, Slavik played in the Ohio State League until finally called up for duty in May of 1945.
After completion of his training as a radioman at the Samson, N.Y. Naval Training Center, Slavik took a four-day train ride to a Seabee Camp in Pleasanton, Calif.
“The train trip was not too enjoyable,” he said. “Four days and four nights, no beds and only bench seats to sleep on.”
From Pleasanton, Slavik was sent by his lonesome to MINSY — Mare Island Naval Shipyard — in Vallejo, Calif. He reported daily to the Chief Petty Officer, as required, received no assignment and, after a few days went to headquarters, to ask for a liberty pass.
“After I gave them my name somebody said, ‘Where have you been?’ and I was promptly surrounded by Yeomen as if I was a threat to national security,” Slavik said.
The U.S. Navy had been searching for Slavik — they had him recorded as AWOL (Absent Without Leave).
Mare Island, begun in 1853, was the first United States Naval base established on the West Coast. The base has a colorful history, including activity in the Civil War, World War I and becoming a major building yard for submarine and surface ships during World War II. MINSY still holds the shipbuilding record for a destroyer. In May-June 1918, her shipbuilders completed the USS Ward in 17.5 days. The Ward was the destroyer that sunk a Japanese midget submarine outside of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, 6:45 a.m., about two hours before the main attack.
Informed of Slavik’s athletic background, the U.S. Navy assigned him as a physical trainer in charge of welfare and recreation. He also completed assignments as a typist for the 19th Fleet of a Naval Captain called Rickover.
“Man, that guy was one tough cookie,” Slavik said. “Even seasoned veterans were terrified of him.”
Hyman Rickover eventually became a 4-Star Admiral and is known as the “Father of our Nuclear Navy.”
With World War II winding down, Slavik helped decommission naval vessels. He spent time at the Hunter’s Point drydock facility at Potrero Point in San Francisco.
“Every kind of ship in the Pacific Theater would come in for dry-dock repairs,” Slavik said. “I remember seeing all the damage done by Japanese Kamikaze attacks. I could only imagine what those sailors went through trying to stop suicidal pilots before the pilots killed them.”
Slavik baked bread after the war, and after a new commander reported for duty, he asked Slavik if he was the big-shot baseball player people talked about.
“I told him that was me,” Slavik said. “He put me in charge of the base gym. I was only 20 years old at the time. As if that wasn’t a great enough deal, I also ‘had’ to coach the Naval WAVEs (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) basketball and tennis teams. That’s a heck of a way to fight a war, don’t ya think?”
“Join the Navy and See the World” has been a famous Navy recruiting slogan for eons. John Slavik joined the Navy and saw California. In civilian life, he would accomplish what he didn’t do in the Navy: see the world.
Working for the retail conglomerate Neisener’s, Slavik lived in Boston, New York, Pennsylvania, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Akron, Rochester, Mobile and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He said Ft. Lauderdale was a slice of heaven. Meeting his future wife in Ft. Lauderdale may have had something to do with that statement.
After joining a chemical company in New Orleans, a competitor named Testron scooped him up for a top position at its headquarters in Singapore: Join Testron and see the World: Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Nairobi, Kuwait, Dubai, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Togo, the Ivory Coast, Guyana, Kenya, Swaziland, Mombasa, and Qatar, to mention a few.
Then came the Pacific: Hawaii, Samoa, Guam, the Philippines, Tonga, Nauru and an island called Guadalcanal.
“Henderson Field was still active with a little shack and a man behind a desk to check you in and out,” Slavik said. “A friend and I took a stroll into the jungle. We couldn’t believe what we found — crashed planes all over the place. Every 100 feet or so, there was a Jap plane, an American plane; all the relics of war passed over by time.”
Slavik lost a lot of friends in the war in a variety of ways.
“One buddy received a battlefield commission and was killed the next day; another was shot down as a B-17 tail gunner,” Slavik said.
“These men had principles, resolution; they had the right stuff. I hate reading newspapers today, the junk going on in Washington, D.C. — Where are their principles? Why don’t they have the courage of their convictions?
“I can walk down a street and hear 14-year-old girls using language we didn’t even use in the Navy. Well, I did my part, in war as well as civilian life. I guess we just need to be kinder to people.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and free-lance writer. Contact Pete at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his website ataveteransstory.us.