By Henry M. Holden
During World War II, Army Air Corps Lt. Lyle Sladek wrote letters home to his parents on their farm in South Dakota. He wanted to keep them informed of the events going on in his life. His mother saved every letter.
“I had been helping my parents with their estate planning and was sorting through their possessions from the past 60 years, when I stumbled across a cardboard box on a closet shelf. I discovered 400 dusty letters,” said Karen Sladek, Lt. Sladek’s daughter and the author of “Lucky Stars and Gold Bars.” “Back during WWII, neighbors use to pass the letters around to each other, so they could all get an idea of what was going on. My grandmother insisted on getting all her son’s letters back. She wrote on the back of each envelope, ‘Please return.'”
Sladek said she had no idea they existed, nor did her mother.
“My father explained that when his parents died 30 years after the war, he found the same cardboard box where they had save all his letters,” Sladek said. “He was equally astonished. He put the box in his closet, intending to read the letters when he had time. Well, 25 years later, he hadn’t gotten around to reading them.”
Karen Sladek, a University of Montana graduate, felt she needed to write a book as tribute to her father, and to preserve history from a unique point of view.
“When I started reading the letters, I was absolutely wowed,” she said.
Although her father and six uncles served in the Armed Forces during World War II, Sladek rarely heard them speak of their experiences.
“Until I started reading the letters, I didn’t realize the depth of his experiences,” she said.
The letters made history come alive.
“They had his emotions alongside the facts,” Sladek said. “It was my father’s personal story. I never imagined his early adulthood. It was the story of a war that I believed didn’t relate to me.”
Sladek isn’t aware of any other set of letters from one solder that contains such a complete record of the war.
“What was also unique is that during the war, most soldiers were stationed at one or two military installations,” she said. “My father was stationed at more than 60 bases, on five continents.”
During his three and a half years of service, Lt. Sladek served as a cryptographic security and intelligence officer in the China-Burma-India, European and Mediterranean theaters.
Sladek said that although no one shot at her father, he passed through many war zones. He felt blessed by “lucky stars” that he came home unharmed.
In his letters, Sladek wrote not only about his immediate circumstances, but also about what he saw as the broader implications of the conflict, the crumbling of the British Empire in India and the growing threat facing Mao Tse Tung from Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces in China.
“I felt I had a responsibility to make this history available to the public,” Sladek said. “I used my father’s letters and story as a vehicle to personalize the war. I wanted to make people aware of what it was like for Americans at that time.”
She said he book wouldn’t have been the same if she hadn’t found the letters while her father was still alive.
“I wrote it entirely from his perspective, describing the point of view of someone who was there,” she said. “If he weren’t still living, I would’ve had to make a lot of assumptions.”
Sladek worked with her father on the book, but sometimes his recollections didn’t agree with what he had written in the letters.
“He’d forgotten some details,” she said. “Memories fade over time. The letters haven’t changed.”
Lt. Sladek is proud of his daughter’s book, which won a 2005 Benjamin Franklin Award. He feels the book is an accurate representation of his experiences.
The Army discharged Lt. Sladek in 1946, and he went back to civilian life and college. He earned a Ph.D. in mathematics and is now a professor emeritus at California Lutheran University.
“Lucky Stars and Gold Bars” ($32.95) is available on line at [http://www.luckystarsandgoldbars.com] or online booksellers.