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First Person > Paul Slater

Paul Slater - 1924-1942: Paul's early life and his decision to join the Navy

Paul Slater was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1924, and he grew up during the Great Depression. The Japanese attack on the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, which occurred on December 7, 1941, changed the trajectory of his life...

Learn more about Paul Slater: View a timeline of his life and listen to his full interview.

Stories by this speaker

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/slater1924_wpa, alt: WPA poster showing farmer and factory worker

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Vera Bock created the poster "Work Pays America: Prosperity" for the New York Federal Art Project sometime between 1936 and 1941.

Paul Slater's father was one of close to eight million Americans who were employed by the WPA between 1935 and 1943. WPA stood for Works Progress Administration (later Works Project Administration). It was a New Deal program developed by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration to provide work for many of the millions of Americans who were unemployed during the Great Depression. As the single largest employer in the United States during its existence, the WPA had the manpower and talent, for example, to drastically improve the nation's infrastructure, to build many municipal buildings, to support the arts and historic preservation, and, through photography and the collection of oral histories, to seize a unique opportunity to document the people of the Great Depression and to record the memories of former slaves. Is it possible to find evidence of the New Deal in your neighborhood? The answer is probably yes.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction number LC-USZC2-837 DLC

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/slater1924_horse, alt: Paul Slater holding a large horse

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This is Paul Slater and, as he writes, "one of the four Belgians that were among the farm animals that we worked with and learned about" during 1941, when, at the age of 17, he attended agricultural school. It was, Paul remembered, "a peaceful time about to end," for on December 7, 1941, Japanese bombers performed a "sneak attack" on the United States Naval base at Pearl Harbor that shook the nation, and resulted in the United States' declaration of war against Japan the next day. Paul Slater returned home to support the war effort by working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. As had been the case for so many Americans, Pearl Harbor marked the end of one phase of Paul Slater's life and the beginning of another. He did not return to his agricultural interests until after World War II.

Photograph courtesy of Paul Slater.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/slater1924_gunpowder, alt: workers stacking cases of gunpowder

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Workers stack cases of gunpowder which were sent by the United States to Great Britain as part of the Lend-Lease program.

World War II put the United States to work. Paul Slater was one of 70,000 people who supported the war effort by working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which had never before and would never again employ as many people as it did during the Second World War. The United States' entry into World War II was gradual and not assured until the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941. During the 1930s Congress had passed a series of Neutrality Acts intended to keep the United States from being drawn into global conflict as it had been during the First World War (1914-1918). These Neutrality Acts prevented the United States from trading war-related provisions with belligerent nations, and confirmed U.S. neutrality in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The acts also prohibited Americans from travelling on ships of warring nations and barred American ships from transporting Americans to nations at war. The Neutrality Act of 1937, however, included a "cash and carry" provision. This provision allowed the United States, for a period of two years, to sell nonmilitary provisions to nations at war who could pay cash for them and transport them from United States' ports in their own ships. The United States stepped still further away from strict neutrality when Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, or "an act further to promote the defense of the United States" in March of 1941. The Lend-Lease program authorized the President to deliver up to 1.3 billion dollars in "any defense article for the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States."1 In describing the program to the nation, President Roosevelt likened the transaction to a garden hose lent between neighbors. "In other words," he stated, "if you lend certain munitions and get the munitions back at the end of the war, if they are intact haven't been hurt--you are all right; if they have been damaged or have deteriorated or have been lost completely, it seems to me you come out pretty well if you have them replaced by the fellow to whom you have lent them."2

Cases of TNT gunpowder shipped from the USA under the lend-lease clause of the Neutrality Acts are stacked in the dump in a tunnel 100 feet underground dug out of solid rock, in western England. Great Britain had been at war with Germany since September, 1939.

National Archives, Series: Franklin D. Roosevelt Public Domain Photographs, compiled 1882-1962, ARC Identifier 196328.

1Public Laws. Part 1 of United States Statutes at Large Containing the Laws and Concurrent Resolutions Enacted During the First Session of the Seventy-Seventh Congress of the United States of America, 1941-1942, and Treaties, International Agreements Other than Treaties, and Proclamations. Vol. 55 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1942): 31-33. http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq59-23.htm Retrieved on November 16, 2009.

2Franklin Roosevelt, Press Conference, December 17, 1940. http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/odllpc2.html. Retrieved on November 16, 2009.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/slater1924_poorkids, alt: three children in soup kitchen

In April 1940, John Vachon photographed these "children of poor families [who] bring their pails to the city mission for soup which may be left over after twenty-five men have been fed. Dubuque, Iowa."

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/slater1924_peacoats, alt: Paul Slater and two fellow naval recruits

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In 1942, Paul Slater (right) and two fellow naval recruits were photographed during boot camp at the Naval Station Great Lakes located in Illinois.

Paul remembers feeling compelled to join the Navy: "I started to work...in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as an apprentice machinist, and we were all deferred from the draft as essential workers. But there was, that was just not possible. The tenor of the time was such that you just could not stay there. You know, when you see ships coming in all battered and what all, and you're sitting there in the Navy Yard and, you know, going bowling after work...So I joined the Navy. And that's it."

For the young men who had been children during the depression, boot camp was not merely a place for military training. World War II brought work to the nation and nutrition to young soldiers. As Paul remembers, "for the first time in our lives, we could eat all the food we wanted."

John Vachon Photograph, Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress), Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction number LC-USF34-060603-D DLC.

Portrait photograph courtesy of Paul Slater.

Story Clip #1:

Paul Slater is raised in Brooklyn, New York

Wait for each file to download, then click the arrow to play the audio.


My name is still Paul Slater. [NM laughs] I was born in Brooklyn January 8, 1924. It was a while back. And it was only a few years after that began what we call the Great Depression. And uh, in the relative scheme of things, we weren't too bad off because we were like everyone else. All of my friends and I had jobs, either before school or after school or on the weekend. And we just, you know, we watched our parents try and make things do, and they did.

Q: What kinds of jobs did you have?

Well, my father was a paper hanger. He finally got a job with the Works...WPA, the Works Progress Administration. My wife, my mother was doing menial house work, washing floors and so on and so forth. But, she decided that was not the thing to do and she studied and became a Licensed Practical Nurse and she took care of babies for many years.

Q: What were your parents' names?

Rachel and Isadore...

Q: Slater...They were...


Q: Yeah.

And uh, I don't think they had middle names either. I had no middle name, and we decided that because we were poor, my wife and I...neither...we don't have middle names. [NM chuckles] And you know, probably in the mid '30s or thereabouts, there was the insurrection in Spain, the fascist insurrection, interaction...older kids that we knew went off to war in Spain, so we began to think about that...business, even as kids.

Q: Thinking about the business...

About war...

Q: ...of going off to the military or about war...

About war.

Story Clip #2:

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Paul works in the Brooklyn Navy Yard


And then in '39, there was...the war broke out, and uh.... I of course was ...I was outta high school by then and, and working and I had gone off to a two year agricultural school. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, I was 17. I went back and I started to work in the, in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as an apprentice machinist, and we were all deferred from the draft as essential workers. But there was, that was just not possible. The tenor of the time was such that you just could not stay there. You know, when you see ships coming in all battered and what all, and you're sitting there in the Navy Yard and, you know, going bowling after work...So I joined the Navy. And that's it. I did...I did well in all the various tests and so on. So I, when I wanted to be assigned to a destroyer escort, that was what I got, and it was a very good, very good choice.

Story Clip #3:

"Gee, Slats, you know I gained twelve pounds in boot camp and they were running us ragged."


When we went into boot camp, we were we were all such a skinny bunch of kids. In fact, so many couldn't even pass, not only the Navy physical, they couldn't pass the Army physicals because of poor nutrition growing up in the Depression. And when we got to boot camp, for the first time in our lives, we could eat all the food we wanted. There was no limit. If you took it, you had to eat it, but you could go back for seconds and thirds and whatever. Now that didn't occur to me [chuckling] until a few years ago in a conversation with some kids were asking me questions that led me to this, you know, sort of an obvious kind of thing, that I should have realized right away. And when I mentioned it to a former shipmate, he says, gee, Slats, you know I gained twelve pounds in boot camp, and they were running us ragged.

Related Resources

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