Ligonier golfers have drive to preserve D-Day legacy
A former Latrobe resident’s love of golf and his regard for one of the most heroic acts of the Greatest Generation combined Friday to bring more than 100 men carrying golf clubs from all directions to Ligonier Township.
The skirling sounds of the Laurel Highlanders pipes and drums and the flags and uniforms of a Mt. Pleasant veterans honor guard served as a Friday morning preamble to a patriotic program at Ligonier Country Club.
Complete with fireworks, the salute to soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944 has become an essential part of the annual R.A. Slavonia Invitational Golf Tournament.
In its 50th year, the invitation-only event began in September 1970 for 19 of event chairman Bob Slavonia’s friends and colleagues at the Westinghouse Electric Corp.’s Transportation Division in West Mifflin.
“The weather was really crappy, but they had a good time and wanted to come back,” said Slavonia, who relocated from Latrobe as his career progressed and is retired in Pittsboro, N.C.
As word spread, the event grew to become a weeklong affair, with enthusiasts playing golf and miniature golf at other area courses before convening at the Ligonier Township club for Friday’s game.
Initially, excess funds remaining from each year’s event were donated to various causes — including children receiving treatment at Latrobe Area Hospital and disabled veterans in need of assistance.
“I had close relationships with the guys I worked with who were members of the Greatest Generation, and I listened to their stories,” Slavonia said. “That really piqued my interest, and I started reading about D-Day. I find it astounding what those kids did.”
Nineteen soldiers from the Virginia town died in action on D-Day, and two more died later in the World War II campaign to wrest Normandy from German occupation. The Eighth Air Force is credited with helping the Allies attain air superiority for the D-Day invasion of France.
The ceremony that precedes each tournament “gives me an opportunity to talk to people about the importance of D-Day and why we owe so much to the Great Generation, for what sacrifices those people made,” Slavonia said.
Reflecting on the war dead buried in France, Westmoreland County Commissioner Charles Anderson said, “These young men lived their lives in the Depression and then their lives ended on a Normandy beach, preparing the way for all of us.”
Slavonia received a proclamation from the county commissioners and an inspirational plaque from local veterans in recognition of his efforts.
“Thanks for keeping the memories alive,” said Bill Lozier of Greensburg, an Army veteran and member of American Legion Post 446 in Mt. Pleasant.
“Everyone has formed friendships around the dedication we make to the D-Day Memorial,” Slavonia said. “We have people from all walks of life who have been coming for the last 50 years.”
Golfers come from as far away as France, Puerto Rico, Canada and South America. Many quietly make additional donations on top of the money the tournament contributes.
Slavonia believes the amount donated has exceeded $1 million over the years.
Slavonia has become a familiar, welcome presence at the country club, along with his wife, children and grandchildren.
“It’s like a family reunion every time they come back,” said Bill Elliott, the club’s general manager.
Slavonia’s program was appreciated by two local World War II Navy veterans who attended. Each came face-to-face with death in the service.
Tom Kissell, 92, of Unity recalled the “stench of burnt flesh” when his unit’s firefighting tugboat came to the rescue of a half dozen amphibious LST vessels in the South Pacific that were engulfed in a blaze apparently sparked by an acetylene torch. He later served as a superintendent and board member in Latrobe’s school system.
White Oak resident Mathilda Benson, 99, originally from Latrobe, was stationed at various stateside locales while serving as a Navy nurse.
“I saw a lot of young kids die from polio,” she said.
When a vaccine later became available, she volunteered to help administer it to schoolkids in McKeesport.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .