There was for the past two decades in Tega Cay a veteran, a war hero of the U.S. Army, who almost nobody knew about. He told almost no one of what he did, and shunned any fuss.
And he wasn’t even born in America.
But Frederick “Fred” Sleeman, who died Monday at 88, is one of the reasons there’s a holiday Monday called Veterans Day.
Fred Sleeman is why there are parades and flags and thanks.
“My father didn’t talk much about what he did,” said one of his children, Robin Sleeman.
What Fred Sleeman did was help America save the world.
The war scenes from the movie “Saving Private Ryan” could have been excerpts from Sleeman’s life.
Sleeman came to New York from Wales at the age of 2.
When World War II started, he tried for more than a year to enlist in the Marines. Finally, the Army drafted Sleeman in March 1943 and by early June 1944, he was aboard a ship and back in the United Kingdon.
Just a day after the Allied invasion of Normandy started, Sleeman was sent across the water with more infantry troops. The men were given a few francs (French money) and threw dice to pass the time.
Hours later, the gamble was for lives as Sleeman was on an amphibious landing ship headed toward the beach that was already littered with American dead. From behind that beach came the shells and bullets that would leave thousands of American boys cut to pieces.
“The sounds of explosions and gunfire was continuous,” Sleeman wrote in 2009. “We scrambled as fast as possible off the beach.”
Sleeman pushed through hedgerows, as so many did, despite the barrage of bullets. He found a rifle and because this was real war, became a rifleman. He shot and fought and did what those soldiers had to do to survive – kill the enemy.
A bullet knocked the rifle from Sleeman’s hands, but somehow he was not hit as the rain fell and the German mortars fell, too.
After more than a full day of combat, he fell, exhausted, into a slit in the ground, covered by a piece of sheet metal.
For a full 96 days, the 19-year-old Sleeman was an advance scout and mortarman and gunner pushing toward German lines and past lines to where death lived.
Every day was death.
“A most horrible scene,” he later wrote.
On Sept. 11, 1944, near Metz, France, a mortar blew up Sleeman and others in his company. Sleeman’s leg was riddled with shrapnel. Everybody else was dead.
Sleeman crawled away through machine gun fire to a farmhouse. After he was evacuated, doctors wanted to take off his leg, but he made one loud squawk and the maimed leg stayed on.
Because he had been shipped to an English hospital, Sleeman was thought to have been missing on action or killed. This was an era of combined units, no computers or phones.
The Army sent word back to his family in America that he was dead.
He sure was not.
An uncle in England found him in a hospital and reassured everybody back in Queens, N.Y., that Sleeman was very much alive.
“I still carry the shrapnel in my thigh,” he said in 2009.
Sleeman was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the French Normandy Liberte Badge, and a chestful of other ribbons from the country he loved – America.
After 40 years of design work, Sleeman moved south to Tega Cay to retire. In 2004, he was one of two dozen Normandy invasion veterans honored in York County but he didn’t tell anybody much more. The limp said it all.
Finally, a couple of years ago, state Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, who represents Tega Cay in the General Assembly, was asked to help with a van to get Sleeman to a medical appointment. That’s when Norman first heard the story of Sleeman’s wartime dedication.
“This was a real hero,” Norman said. “But he was so humble; almost nobody knew.”
So Norman pushed through a resolution that, on June 8, 2011 – 67 years to the day after Sleeman fought through those first hedgerows of France for America – honored him.
South Carolina honored Sleeman that day, just like America will honor all of its veterans Monday.
Sleeman died a week before Veterans Day 2013.
It is guys just like him who are the reason we have such a day in America.