THE LAST TRUE MEASURE OF DEVOTION
On a small sandy hill, behind an old country church, there lies the body of a fallen, nearly forgotten hero. His tombstone simply reads "Paul E. Sly, November 3, 1921 to January 8, 1945." You don't know Paul Sly, but seventy years ago today, this 23-year-old, Evansville, Indiana-born, Florida-raised journeyman welder and 82nd Airborne paratrooper gave the last full measure of devotion to protect the freedoms of his family and his country. This is his story.
Paul's parents, Anzy and Thomas Benjamin Sly, in their senior years worked in a citrus cannery in the small Central Florida town of Davenport, Florida, where Paul graduated high school.
Paul Sly was drafted into the army although military service ran in Sly's blood. His grandfather, Samuel Sly, was most likely a member of the 58th Indiana Infantry, which fought in the Tennessee, Chickamauga and the March to the Sea campaigns.
Paul married Kate Johnson, daughter of Kelley and Bell Fort Johnson, in a simple ceremony held in the Baptist church in Orianna in mid June of 1940. The couple lived for a while in the Johnson community around Pleasant Springs Baptist Church on the old Savannah Road in eastern Laurens County.
With a wife to support, Paul Sly took a job in the Carolinas as a welder. In June of 1943, he was ordered to report for a physical at Carolina Beach, North Carolina. By mid-October, Sly returned to Winter Park, Florida for his induction into the U.S. Army. "If you want to make more money, join the paratroopers," the sergeant said. It was extremely dangerous duty, but Paul had a family to support according to his son, Paul, Jr., who was born in July 1944, just as his father was arriving in Europe.
Paul Sly (lower left corner) endured rigorous training assignments, achieving parachutist status on May 13, 1944. As a member of the famed 505th Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, Sly's status as a parachutist came too late to allow him to participate in the pre-dawn jump into Normandy on D-Day.
The 505th Infantry regiment, activated in 1942, participated in the campaigns of Sicily, Salerno, Normandy, the Netherlands and the Battle of the Bulge during World War II, during which the regiment received two Presidential Unit Citations, three foreign distinguished unit citations, the French fourragère, the Netherlands Military Order of William, and the Belgium fourragère.
Sly joined the 82nd in July 1944 in France. In September 1944, the unit participated in Operation Market Garden. In December, the 505th jumped into an area which would host one of the war's most notorious and deadliest battles of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge.
Just after New Years Day of 1945, Sly's battalion was assigned to occupy and move south out from the village of Reharmont in Southeast Belgium in the center of the regiment's attack. Under intense 88 mm artillery, mortar and small arms fire, Sly's Company C incurred heavy casualties as it moved out from the woods north of Reharmont.
"They had fields of fire - it became obvious to us early on that nobody was going to cross that open ground in daylight without tank or artillery support, so we fell back into the woods and started screaming for artillery fire and tank support, and neither were forthcoming," Sgt. Elmo Bell of C Company recalled.
Finally, C Company was ordered to move forward to the edge of the woods for the assault on the town, which eventually succeeded, but with great loss of life reducing the company down to half of its normal strength.
"Your husband was wounded in Belgium by the explosion of an enemy shell while he was engaged in delivering a mesage from the commander of his organization. That was on January 4, 1945," later wrote Major General James Gavin in a letter to Kate Sly.
The first telegraphic notice came on January 25,: "Regret to inform you your husband Paul E. Sly was seriously wounded in action, 4 January 1945 in Belgium, J.A. Ulio."
The final and devastating notice soon followed that Pvt. Paul E. Sly died from his wounds on January 8, 1945.
Following Private Sly's death, letters poured in from military and political officials. "The significance of his heroic service to his country will be preserved and commemorated by a grateful nation. It is hoped that this thought may give you strength and courage in your sorrows," wrote Major General J.A. Julio, Adjutant General, United States Army, January 28, 1945
Secretary of War Henry L. Stemson added, "The loss of a loved one is beyond man's repairing, and the medal is of slight value; not so. However, the message it carries is we are all comrades in arms in this battle for our country and those who have gone are not, and never will be forgotten by those of us who remain."
Major General James M. Gavin, the youngest major general division commander in the Army in World War II and who jumped with his own men, said, "Private Sly was a loyal and well disciplined soldier who had developed a high sense of loyalty. His humor was a great morale builder and consequently he was liked by his comrades."
"Putting aside family ties, the admiration, respect and affection of comrades are a soldier's most priceless possessions. These possessions I believe your son had earned in full measure. Death of such a man leaves each member of the division a lasting sense of loss, from which there comes to you a deep sense of personal sympathy," continued General Gavin in his letter of February 23, 1945.
Chaplain Philip M. Hannan in comforting Sly's widow wrote, "From the account of those who were near him when he met his death, your son was hit by a shell fragment and died very shortly thereafter. His death occurred in Belgium. The greatest courage and devotion of men like your son has made possible the truly epic history and accomplishments of this regiment, you can be justly proud of him as a loyal soldier and Catholic.
"Although your son has been with this regiment for quite some time, he was well respected and had won the friendship and goodwill of all of his comrades. During the campaign in which he met his death and in previous engagements, Paul Sly was noted for his aggressiveness. His officers testified that he was a very good soldier and always ready to take the worst with a smile," Chaplain Hannan said.
The Chaplain assured Mrs. Sly that her husband did have the comfort and aid of his religion at the time of his death and all during the bitterest winter weather that the Catholic men continued to attend Mass and to receive general absolution, even in the deep snow drifts.
Atlanta Constitution owner, Clark Howell, wrote, "There are no words which serve to alleviate your sorrow, but I did want to send you my sincere sympathy." Standard letters from future governor of Georgia and then Adjutant General S. Marvin Griffin and Georgia Governor Ellis Arnall came to Mrs. Sly's mail box in March.
"Your son was buried in Belgium and I can assure you that this was accomplished in a most befitting manner by his comrades with an Army Chaplain officiating," wrote General Gavin in a most personal letter. For more than two and one half years his body laid in the United States Military Cemetery Henri Chapelle, Belgium, Grave No. 167, Row 9, Plot No. VV.
In November 1947, one by one, 6250 coffins, containing the remains of Private Sly and other servicemen who died in Europe, were unloaded from the hold of the USS Joseph Connolly in New York Harbor. New York Mayor William O'Dwyer, who presided over the ceremonies, wrote Kate Sly, "As mayor of New York and on behalf of the citizens of this city, I extend my heartfelt sympathy to the family of Pvt. Paul E. Sly, who so honorably gave his life that others might enjoy peace and freedom. I trust and pray his sacrifice will not have been in vain."
Included aboard the shipment of fallen heroes were the bodies of T Sgt. Emmett Asbell, S. Sgt. Palmer N. Braddy, 2nd Lt. Blakely Parrott, and T-4 Johnny Rowland of Dublin. Six thousand marchers escorted the bodies up Fifth Avenue and the Hero's Canyon. This time, there was no ticker tapes thrown out of windows nor were there any cheers yelled from the skyscrapers. Only the mourning sound of mothers' tears of anguish and the muffled respectful drumbeats could be heard as they reverberated through what is still called "The Canyon of Heroes."
It was late in the cool, cloudy afternoon of the third Thursday of November 1947, when the body of Private Paul Edward Sly was finally laid to rest in the cemetery of Pleasant Springs Baptist Church in southeastern Laurens County. Gill C. Dudley had accompanied Sly's body on the last final leg of his journey home. Memories of that mournful day are still vivid in Paul Sly Jr.'s mind. Members of the local unit of the VFW served as pallbearers in a ceremony presided over by V.A. Chaplain, W.J. Willingham.
Kate Sly lovingly kept the memories of her husband's service and his death. If you close your eyes and turn on your other senses you can still feel the love and smell her perfume in the brittle, yellowing pages of her chocolate brown scrapbook.
And now, on this 70th anniversary of Paul Sly's last true measure of devotion, it is only proper and fitting for our community to recognize his acts of heroism. On December 6, 1947, Kate J. Sly signed OQMG Form # 623 in applying for a military headstone for her husband, Serial No. 34795788 .
A small marker was placed on his grave, but that marker is now missing. Through the aid of Paul Sly, Jr. and the Laurens County Historical Society, there will be an appropriate marker which tells the true identity of this never to be forgotten hero, "Private Paul E. Sly, Co. C, 505th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, United States Army, World War II."