Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dick Sloat, American Hero

Dick Sloat for President
By Hans Zeiger
(A version of this article appeared in the Puyallup Herald on November 5, 2008)

If any young Puyallupan ever appeared destined for the White House, it was Richard O. Sloat. The born statesman from the Woodland area[1] could think, speak, and persuade better than anybody in town, and everybody liked him. Emphasizing his local renown, the Puyallup Valley Tribune once noted that he was “known to hundreds in the Valley as ‘Dick.’”[2] It would be about like saying “Abe” in Springfield, or “Teddy” in Manhattan, or “Ike” in Abilene. All anticipated the day when Dick would make Puyallup a household word in America.

With red, wavy hair like Thomas Jefferson and a million-dollar smile like Ronald Reagan, he shared the birth year of John F. Kennedy, 1918. He was slightly built. His eyes were alive with optimism.

“I think he would have to go down as one of the really outstanding students of Puyallup High School,” said his friend Frank Hanawalt, who was three years younger than Dick and thought of him as a role model. “He was almost like an inspiration to me. I often thought in my younger years that he was going places, that he might be a Senator or even more.”

In one sense, he was “even more.” When I called the old Marine Corps commanding officer who was with Dick when he was killed on the island of Saipan in 1944, the tribute was higher than the ones we accord to mere politicians. I only mentioned the name of Lt. Richard Sloat. “My God, my God,” replied Col. Ed Bale of New Mexico. “You raise the hair on the back of my neck, and I’m glad you did, because he was a fine, fine, fine man.”

In the battles of Tarawa and Saipan, Sloat was Bale’s executive officer in C Company, First Corps Medium Tank Battalion. To the men of C Company, Dick was known as “Red.” After he assigned Doug Crotts of North Carolina as his corporal at Camp Pendleton, California, Crotts formed the opinion that “Sloat was one of the nicest gentlemanly people I’ve ever known.”

Minus the southern drawl, Puyallup could say as much.

In high school, Dick was involved in drama and debate, but he was known to his peers in the Puyallup High School Class of 1936 and the surrounding classes as the preeminent student leader of their generation. Elected student body president in his senior year, he was a natural talent in school assemblies and speeches. “He could have been the yell leader as well,” said Hanawalt.

Frank’s father Paul Hanawalt was the superintendent of the school district. “I knew how much my parents admired him. I know that one of his great fans was the principal Harry Hanson, who just really enjoyed it when Dick was student body president.”

Dick’s classmate Ralph Smith recalled Dick’s charismatic presence at PHS during the Depression years. “He was a very outgoing guy,” said Smith, “very popular with everybody.”

Following high school graduation, Dick studied at the College of Puget Sound, where he excelled in theater and speech and debate competition. “He would think on his feet and speak extemporaneously without having notes or having to think ahead of time,” said Hanawalt, who matriculated at CPS in 1939 when Dick was in his senior year. By then, no surprise, Dick was president of the college’s student body.

Frank was also involved in speech and debate, and in his freshman year he competed in a campus speech competition on the question of permanent peace, less than two years before the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor. Since Dick had won the competition in 1939, he chaired the committee of three that awarded the prize in 1940. The prize went to Frank. What Frank especially remembers about winning that competition was that Dick approached him afterwards and “really congratulated me.”

Graduating from CPS with high honors, Dick took a job as a speech and drama teacher at Kelso High School in southwest Washington. He taught there for two years; he doubtless excelled at it.

When the war came, he volunteered in the Marine Corps. Following Officer Candidate School, Lt. Sloat was assigned as executive officer with the First Corps Tank Battalion’s C Company, in training at Camp Pendleton, California.[3] Each platoon had four tanks, and Lt. Sloat was the commander of his platoon’s lead tank, an M4A2 Sherman dubbed Cobra. There were four crewmen besides “Red”: Cpl. Buck Webb was the driver, Pfc. Jack Trent was the assistant driver, Pfc. Hank Trauernicht was the gunner, and Cpl. Bill Eads was the radioman.[4] Lt. Sloat earned both the respect and friendship of the company, but especially of the Cobra crew. “He was real easy to get along with,” said Cpl. Eads of Salinas, California. “Everybody liked him.”

On July 19, 1943, First Corps shipped out of San Diego aboard the sluggish U.S.S. Ashland, cruising 31 days to New Caledonia. There they drilled and waited for three months. In mid-November the tankers re-boarded the Ashland and joined an armada northward to the island of Tarawa.[5]

Puyallup paid a heavy price in the Battle of Tarawa. In the initial moments of the amphibious invasion on November 20, a 26-year old Pfc. named Johnny Holm, of 721 Stewart Street, was killed in the water. Then 27-year old Pfc. Carol Lundrigan, a 1934 graduate of Puyallup High School who was wounded a year earlier in the Battle of Guadalcanal, was struck down on the island.[6]

C Company loaded into landing crafts to join the third wave. Unable to traverse a reef hundreds of yards from a landing zone called Betio, the landing craft carrying Cobra deposited its tanks onto the reef. They plowed their way onto the beach, littered with the bodies of the first and second waves. And then they drove on through what Cpl. Eads describes as “random” shooting.[7]

Most of C Company’s fourteen tanks were disabled in the first day of the fight at Betio.[8] Cobra defied the odds and tracked to the edge of a Japanese airstrip by nightfall, where the crew rested.

Early on the second day, Cpl. Webb got under the tank through a trap door, probably to check up on a maintenance issue. A Japanese sniper was watching. Webb took a fatal bullet. As “Buck” lay dying in the Cobra, Lt. Sloat administered morphine.[9]

Pfc. Trent took over as driver. Through the morning and early afternoon, Cobra launched 75 mm shells at targets around the airstrip. Then Lt. Sloat received orders back to the beachhead at “Red Beach One” to take out a Japanese gun emplacement along the seawall. He directed the tank out along the carnage-laden beach and into shallow water to fire on the enemy.

As Cobra approached its line of fire, with the Japanese guns overhead training for an exchange, the Sherman suddenly tipped onto her side in a massive shell crater. Machine gun fire exploded from the seawall, but now water was seeping into the helpless tank and the crew compartment was filling up. The four Marines had no choice but to bail out through a rear hatch and slide into the water, hoping to evade the machine guns.[10]

Cpl. Eads described what happened next. “I had gotten out of the tank and was swimming towards an area that looked like it might be safe, and I got hit by a 50 caliber in the water. I think it was a 50 caliber—it was a big enough hole.” Trent was also wounded in the water, and he and Eads regrouped on the beach to locate a medic. They were evacuated to a hospital ship bound for Hawaii.

As for the red-headed lieutenant from Puyallup, he apparently made it to shore without a scratch. He survived Tarawa, and the battle concluded two days later.

Bill Eads tells me that the Cobra still sits in the haunted waters off Red Beach One. It bespeaks a parting too sudden. Next month I’ll write about Dick’s final acts of heroism on Saipan. That also, for his hometown, was a parting too sudden.

This election week, we could wonder what life would be like if Dick had come home. He might have figured prominently on the ballots of the twentieth century. But because of the price he paid—and the price that Johnny Holm and Carol Lundrigan and Buck Webb paid—we were able to cast our votes this week as citizens of a free country. We should never take that for granted around here.

Hans Zeiger is a fourth-generation Puyallup resident. He is collecting stories of Puyallup’s World War II veterans. Contact him at or 253-905-8160.

[1] Interview with Gene Cotton, 19 Aug. 2008.
[2] “Lt. Sloat Killed on Saipan,” Puyallup Valley Tribune, 4 Aug. 1944

[3] Eric Hammel and John E. Lane, Bloody Tarawa: The Second Marine Division, November 20-23, 1943. (St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2006), 264.
[4] Cobra, Tarawa on the Web,, accessed 29 Oct. 2008.
[5] Interview with Doug Crotts, 19 Oct. 2008.
[6] Puyallup Valley Tribune, “Two Puyallup Boys Lost in South Pacific,” 31 Dec. 1943; interview with Bliss Lundrigan Welcker, 30 Aug. 2008.
[7] Cobra, Tarawa on the Web,, accessed 29 Oct. 2008. “Cpl. William H. Eads, Jr.,” Tarawa on the Web,, accessed 29 Oct. 2008. Interview with Bill Eads, 19 Oct. 2008.
[8] Cobra, Tarawa on the Web,, accessed 29 Oct. 2008.
[9] Interview with Bill Eads, 19 Oct. 2008.
[10] “Cpl. William H. Eads, Jr.,” Tarawa on the Web,, accessed 29 Oct. 2008. Interview with Bill Eads, 19 Oct. 2008.