Veterans Day is an important day to thank our nation’s heroes for their service, and each veteran has a significant story to tell.
One of those stories belongs to Athens, Ohio resident Don Slagle, a rather quiet and friendly man who has led an amazing life.
To see Don riding his bicycle around town or working in his yard with his wife, Donna, you’d never know that he is 92, fought in World War II and still has shrapnel lodged in his neck and shoulder.
He also helped to stock lakes around the region and the state in the 1940s, sold real estate and insurance around Athens for decades and lives a joyful and thankful life.
“We go back so far that we remember when Court Street was a two-way street,” Don said about the well-known one-way Athens roadway.
Don was born in 1925 in Gallipolis in his family’s home next to the historic Our House, a well-known downtown building that dates back to 1819 and once was a popular tavern. A premature baby, he was given his middle name of Leo in honor of the doctor who made it to the family home in time to deliver him.
His father, Craig Slagle, fought in World War I and later served as a state representative in Ohio. After trying ice cream for the first time while in the France in World War I, he decided to open an ice cream store when he returned home. He also served as the manager of a dime store in Gallipolis and then owned several Ben Franklin stores in the area.
On the day that Don turned 18, he received his draft card and reported to the U.S. military. He hadn’t finished high school yet, but soon was on his way to Charleston, W.Va., and then to the Quantico U.S. Marine Corps base in Virginia. After that, it was on to California and then to the Pacific Ocean island of Peleliu, where he took part in a notoriously deadly battle in September of 1944.
“We lost a lot of men,” Don said.
He was among the Marines who stormed the beach to take the island back from the Japanese soldiers, who were firing at them from the caves in the hills above the landing area.
Don’s unit managed to arrive at their planned location on that day, only to see the units behind them cut off.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m in a heap of trouble,’” he explained. He survived, though, and while he was originally told they would only be on the island for two days, he was there for about a month.
On Oct. 2, 1944, he was hit with shrapnel and injured, and then Oct. 10 he was in another battle and hit again. That second time being injured got him sent off of the island and back to the U.S.
“If you look at the dates of when I was injured, I was going at a rate where I wasn’t going to live to be 19,” he said. “I was just a country boy, a river rat.”
He had shrapnel in his neck, shoulder and right leg, and went through some painful medical procedures at the field hospital. Some of the shrapnel couldn’t be removed, and it still rests today in his shoulder and neck
“It’s just a hunk of metal,” Don said with a smile.
When he was eventually discharged, the military gave him $66 to get home, but Don points out that the money only got him as far as Charleston, W.Va.
“I had to pay my own way back to Ohio,” he said. And while it was hard enough just to get home, it was even more difficult to try to adjust to life after being in the war.
“I was a wreck when I was shipped back home,” he said.
Wars are usually fought by young men who are 18, 19 or 20 years old, and they have not even had half of a life to live yet before they are out there risking their own lives, Don said. He and the other young men were told that if they were going to survive, they were going to have to kill young men who were fighting for the other side. It’s a lot to deal with at the time, and it’s a lot to deal with afterward, too.
“War is hell, really,” he said. He wishes that people in power would consider just how terrible war is before they send young men into the battles that kill and scar far too many soldiers who are just beginning to live their lives.
After returning home and recovering with his family, Don eventually moved to Athens where he enrolled in a two-year program at Ohio University that allowed him to finish his high school education and take some college classes, too.
It was also in Athens where he met Donna, when they went out on a blind date on July 4, 1950. The couple went to the drive-in movie theater located in the area that now that is near Matthews Insurance building on Columbus Road.
“There was going to be fireworks after the movie, and there have been fireworks ever since,” Don said. He doesn’t remember what movie they saw, and said he cared a lot more about his date than the movie. He added that he also had a secret weapon for that date.
“I had a ‘49 Mercury convertible, that’s what did it.” Don said.
In 1951, the two were married, and they have enjoyed a storybook marriage.
Don worked several jobs over the years, including working for the Ohio Division of Wildlife in Fish Management, where he stocked the lakes that were being created, including Burr Oak Lake, Dow Lake and several other lakes in southeast Ohio and around the state.
He also worked in real estate and insurance with Donna’s father, and he only retired from real estate a short time ago.
Don still works regularly, including assisting the Athens County Sheriff’s Office with the appraising of properties before they go up before the sheriff’s sales. He and Donna also carefully take care of their lawn and garden, and Don is often working at a rental property they own or helping his neighbors with different projects.
He and Donna are active around town, and they spend a great deal of time with family and friends.
“I don’t feel old. I really don’t think much about it,” Don said.
He doesn’t think much about his time in the military, either, partially because being in war is not something that he wants to remember. He is a proud veteran, but he is also a proud husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He’d prefer to talk about his family, the Ohio University football team, the neighborhood squirrels or other aspects of his happy life in Athens.
He feels fortunate that he survived his time in World War II when so many other young men did not, and the community around him is fortunate to have him here with us.
His story is one of many, but at the same time it’s unique, and it’s pretty amazing.