Paul Robert Lewis, Sr. of the 83rd Infantry.
The 83rd Infantry Division
60 Year Reunion
by Barney Quick
History will come alive here in August due to the passion and patriotism of one Brown County woman. The 83rd Infantry Division Association, a group of veterans who lived some of the most gut-wrenching episodes of World War II, will hold its sixtieth annual reunion in Nashville due to Georgeanna Slaybaugh’s vision. Somewhere between 250 and 300 people are expected to attend.
The association had not planned on having a sixtieth reunion. Organizing such an event had become increasingly challenging for members. Several have passed away in recent months. Nationwide membership is a little over 700. Slaybaugh, who has championed the cause of recognizing this unit, couldn’t abide by the idea, so she convinced the group to not only have one more get-together, but to do so right by Camp Atterbury, where most had trained as young men.
The reunion, running from August 23 through August 27, will involve a parade, a presentation by General George Patton’s grandson Benjamin Patton, a ladies’ tea, and a banquet. A memorial service will be held at Camp Atterbury along with a luncheon and tour of the base.
Slaybaugh’s interest in the 83rd Infantry Division began in high school in the 1960s. For a term paper assignment, she chose her father’s war experience as her topic. “He never talked about it prior to that,” she says. “I learned incredible things about my dad I’d never known.”
Paul Robert Lewis, Sr. was a recently married worker in an Indianapolis meat-packing plant, vaguely aware of gathering storm clouds in Europe. After America’s entry into the war, he enlisted in the Army and was placed in the 83rd Infantry Division. He trained at Camp Atterbury and at Breckenridge, Kentucky, then trained with other Allied forces in Wales. He was in the second wave to come ashore at Omaha Beach in Normandy after D-Day. He saw what Slaybaugh calls “gruesome” fighting in the Huertgen Forest, where he was captured along with 22 other soldiers by German forces. From December 1944 to April 1945, he was a prisoner of war and experienced frostbite, malnutrition, and forced marches. His camp was liberated as the Third Reich was falling. After returning to the U.S. and healing for a few weeks, he was assigned to Camp Atterbury to oversee German POWs at a branch camp. He then returned to civilian life and raised a family of six girls and two boys (one deceased).
After recounting his wartime experience for Slaybaugh’s school paper, he continued to share his recollections with her and most notably in an oral history for the Indiana Historical Society. From these accounts, Slaybaugh began piecing together the story of her dad’s service. The Internet proved an excellent tool for research and making contacts. Her father passed away in 1992.
Slaybaugh began attending the association’s reunions about four years ago. Armed with various random bits of information, she asked questions of people she met and put people in touch with each other so as to help families understand what their veteran fathers and uncles had done.
For instance, her father’s oral history made reference to a Meade Steadman. The two shared musical interests. Lewis played harmonica and Steadman was a musician/singer. Steadman was killed in action while securing a hill. Some research led Slaybaugh to contact Steadman’s niece’s husband in Utah. She was able to relay the last words Steadman spoke to Lewis: “If I go up that hill, I’m never coming down.” It was the first time Steadman’s family had been given any account of his passing. The Utah couple will come to Brown County for the reunion.
Slaybaugh is compiling congratulatory letters from various dignitaries in an album, to be presented to the group at the banquet on August 26. Senators Richard Lugar and John McCain and Lt. Col. Oliver North are among the letter writers. British Prime Minister Tony Blair asked the British Counsel General to send a representative to the reunion, Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Browell.
The Nashville Lions Club is organizing the parade. The club will handle the route, permits, and logistics. Parade co-grand marshals will be Eddy Monfort from Belgium and Jean-Paul Pitou from France, both historians with respect and knowledge of the 83rd Infantry Division. Harry Bond will provide cars for the veterans.
History teachers in the Brown County school system are expressing interest in having veterans share their experiences with classes. Slaybaugh would like to encourage others in the community to take advantage of this unique opportunity to hear history from those who lived it.
Slaybaugh’s daughter Kelly, who works at the Brown County Inn, went to last year’s reunion in Paducah, Kentucky, to present the Nashville area as a possible site for the next 83rd gathering. Ultimately, it was probably the proximity to Camp Atterbury that sealed the deal. “When the group voted after just a little discussion,” Slaybaugh recounted, “every hand went up.”
Slaybaugh is excited about what the reunion can do to deepen the community’s understanding of the price of freedom. Her highest hope for the event, however, is to make these veterans feel honored and help ensure that their association continues to thrive. All the festivities, ceremonies and social functions are designed, as far as Slaybaugh is concerned, “to remind them that the world still cares.”
For more information, or if you would like to help with the celebration, contact Georgeanna Slaybaugh at
812-988-9106 or <firstname.lastname@example.org>.