ARTHUR – He stood 6-foot-2. Weighed 160. Friends at Arthur High School said he looked as skinny as slats on a bed. The 1944 Class Roster lists him as Lawrence Trower, but to this day, he's still called "Slats."
Blue eyes, innocent from 18 years of small-town living, peeked out from a blond hank of hair as he rode the train to Chicago for his military physical that June after graduation.
He planned to enlist in the Navy, but some Marines looked through the bunch of teens, saying they needed 26 strong, healthy ones. The tall kid from Arthur got picked, maybe, because of the biceps and pecs he'd developed at a dairy, toting 10-gallon cans of Amish milk around.
Slats' sweep of blond hair got left behind at the Marine boot camp in San Diego. Then, with eyes wide, he boarded a ship that left California for Maui. And on New Year's Day 1945, he boarded a transport ship headed for a string of islands with odd names.
He'd never heard of Iwo Jima. But Slats and the others in the Marines' 4th Division joined a convoy of 800 ships that sailed across the Pacific to the 5-mile-long island held by the Japanese. "Iwo Jima" means sulphur mountain; many said it smelled like rotten eggs.
From off the shore for three days, Slats watched wave after wave of landing crafts, running back and forth from the ships to the beach, delivering the fighting men. On Feb. 22, they woke Slats up and fed him steak and eggs.
"That was the best meal I believe I ever had in the Marine Corps," he says.
Then, the 19-year-old grabbed his M-1 rifle and moved out with a 72-pound pack on his back and bandoliers of ammunition around his shoulders. He and some 70 others in his platoon rode a landing craft that opened its mouth and spewed them out into the shallow water. Slats splashed through the water's edge onto the beach, into a cacophony of booming shells and screaming bullets.
He froze with fear, but somehow, his legs carried him forward. He ran past bodies of dead Marines lined up in rows on the beach, in search of a foxhole or any depression that would give him cover.
A corporal's voice boomed – "If you know how to pray, you better start now!"
Believe it, Slats says. He prayed.
In nine short months, he'd gone from Arthur High School, where he'd been one of five boys in a class of 20, running track and playing football and basketball, to the middle of one of the most deadly battles of the Pacific war. Slats had no choice but to move ahead. He pulled out all courage he could muster. He asked God to help him be brave. And he made two vows.
God, if you let me live through this, I promise I'll be the best man I can possibly be.
And secondly, Slats said, if I ever get back home to Arthur, I won't ever leave.
Life on Park Street
Just south of Arthur's business district, on a shady street across from the grade school, Slats lives in a white, two-story house with his wife, Jane. After 61 years, he still calls her his sweetheart, and though he says there's no such thing as a perfect marriage, theirs, he says, is darn close.
He emerged from the war in 1946 and as he promised, headed straight to Arthur to find a job and build a life. He and Jane married in 1948. She had lived 5 miles south of Arthur; spending the rest of her life in that small town sounded just dandy to her.
And then Slats began working on his second vow: being the best person he could be.
A few months ago, the 83-year-old vet walked across the street from his house to an empty city lot. He walked lightly, a little weak-kneed from bad health battles over the winter, but he eyed the plot of land, freshly tilled, and talked about his garden plans.
Typically, he puts out at least 250 tomato plants, along with an abundance of green peppers, green beans, radishes, onions, beets, carrots, spinach, lettuce – and a lot of corn.
He and Jane eat and can a bit of it, but he donates the vast majority of the produce to the New Tabernacle Church at Sullivan. Church members come up on Fridays during the summer to get a truckload that they deliver to families in need.
Throughout the summer, he keeps a table filled with produce in his front yard. Customers help themselves, paying under the honor system. That money provides a $500 scholarship to a graduating senior at Arthur High School each year. So far, it has helped 14 students with college expenses since 1995.
And he's really proud that the money in the scholarship fund now stands at $13,980.
"I'm going to say 85 or 90 percent of that is all from tomatoes," Slats says. "That's the truth."
That just proves, he says, that if you want to do something, like be a better person, there's a way to do it if you just try.
He worked as a machinist for USI chemical plant at Tuscola for 36 years. He and Jane raised three daughters. They could never have afforded scholarships for students or been able to help put food on the tables of needy families without raising the vegetables in the garden.
If you want something bad enough, he says, you can find a way make it happen.
Hospital ship to Saipan
He lived in one foxhole after another on Iwo Jima for 11 days.
"I tell ya, when you talk about fear – I mean, I was so scared at times I couldn't even move," he says. "I mean, boy, I learned how to pray. And I found out there is a God. Every time I prayed, it worked. I mean it. I just asked him to help me do what I had to do. In the Marine Corps, when they tell you to do something, you done it. Guys were getting killed and wounded all around me.
"They were shooting at us the whole time. Your mind was racing the whole time. It just didn't seem real. It was terrible."
On March 4, a shell exploded about 4 feet from him, critically injuring Slats and two others. Shrapnel covered his legs and back. He woke up on a hospital ship anchored off the shore, and remembers the sickly smell of dead and decaying flesh. The ship took him to Saipan and then a naval hospital on Oahu. Six weeks later, he returned to his unit.
"I didn't know hardly anybody," he says. Most of the men he had known had either been killed or wounded.
"When you go in the service, you get closer to people than your brothers, really. I found out my best friend, he'd come from Detroit, Michigan, he got killed. When I got back to my outfit, they told me. Boy, I hated that. It was hard."
The battle on Iwo Jima was over, but not the war. Slats and the 4th Division trained in Hawaii for the next big push – a land invasion of Japan. He remembers one three-day period in August 1945 when the Marines marched 80 miles carrying their 72-pound packs on their backs. He thanks God for the war coming to an end before the planned invasion, feeling for certain he would not have lived through it.
With the war over, the Marines sent him to guard prisoners in a brig on Okinawa until being discharged in May 1946.
He keeps scrapbooks with pictures from the war, and he proudly wears an Iwo Jima Survivor ball cap and sweatshirt. He received a Purple Heart and other military awards and bars. He's frequently asked to speak at Memorial Day or Veterans Day events. He gladly goes.
"It may sound silly, but I'm proud to be a Marine," he says. "I am.
"When we were in combat and they'd tell them guys to move out – they'd just move on. They did it. I saw some of the bravest guys – it was just unbelievable. Guys were getting wounded and dropping and being killed all around us but I never saw one guy refuse an order. Never. Those rifle bullets would go whizzing by and they'd tell you to move on and you just moved on."
Kids like Slats/Slats likes kids
He opens the front door of Arthur Elementary School, walks down the hall and past a classroom. A fifth-grade girl walks past, giving him a big smile and wave – "Hi, Slats!"
He knows all the fifth- and sixth-graders. Part of his ambition to be a good man took him to school many times throughout the years to talk to the kids about how to grow vegetables in a garden. He had gardened all his life and increased that knowledge by taking the University of Illinois Extension's Master Gardener class. He had four gardens within two blocks of his home that he used to grow the produce for the scholarship fund, and then the vacant lot near the school was offered to the science teacher. She wanted an expert, and Slats stepped up.
The kids help him plant the seeds in growing trays, and he puts the trays under grow lights in the hallway. When the ground is warm and dry enough, he and the kids spend several days planting the tomatoes and peppers and other plants. And then they weed and cultivate.
When school's out for the summer, many of the students voluntarily show up one day a week to help Slats pick the produce and do the weeding.
"I love the kids, I really do," Slats says. "All the years I been doing this, I never met a bad kid. Not a one. No. I can't explain it, but I love them kids.
"I wish I'd gone to college and been a teacher. I really like the kids. I tell 'em to call me Slats. I'm their buddy, I hope. That's what I try to be. I know when I'm not feeling good, they bust their buns and don't want me to do a thing. I ain't found a bad one yet."
Some of the kids he worked with in the garden are in college now, and they will stop by his house to see him. "They hug me and stuff, and I like that," he says. "It really makes me feel good."
The fifth- and sixth-grade science teacher, Melissa Rush, says the kids LOVE Slats, capital letters intended.
"Any time I say it's garden day, they get so excited. They absolutely love him," she says. "He has a great personality, and he loves the kids. It comes across in the way he talks with them. And he says it all the time right in front of them – he says, 'I just love these kids.'"
The students learn an incredible amount about gardening from the beginning of March, when they plant, to the start of school in the fall, when they pick the last of the tomatoes.
The kids cheer when Rush tells them it's work and weeding day.
"I think it's the way he talks to them," she says. "Just everything he does exudes his love for them. And the kids really respond to him. They'd do anything for him."
Can't be perfect
Memories of those 11 days on Iwo Jima haunted him for about 50 years.
He talked about it some with his older brother, Joe, who had served in the Navy during the war and, in fact, was off the coast of Iwo Jima on the USS San Juan, which bombarded the island. Neither knew the other was there.
Slats also talked about the bad memories with another vet from Arcola. He began to realize the frightening recurrent scenes that played in his head were normal. Finally, the hauntings stopped.
Today, he's recovering from surgery to a leg, so he sits in his house on beautiful spring days, wishing he could get out. The leg problem's not related to a war wound, just an old-age thing, he says. Friends are taking care of the garden until he can get back to it.
That's one of the reasons he loves Arthur.
"This town is special. I mean it," he says. "These people here are just something special."
He tells the story all the time – about how he promised to never leave Arthur and to be a good man.
But he never tried or pretended to be perfect, he said. He just had a huge need to thank God for letting him live.
Teaching fifth- and sixth-graders how to grow vegetables is part of it. Letting them know how much he enjoys them, letting them know he values each of them, is an easy payback.
An Amish friend told him one time, "Slats, those kids are going to remember you for the rest of their lives."
Soft blue eyes that have taken in much in 83 years of living tear up, and he shakes his head.
"Well, I don't know about that," Slats says with a smile. "But I do love 'em. I love them all."