D-Day veteran Bob Slaughter took on a new, daunting mission
The Roanoke Times, Va.
On D-Day, John Robert "Bob" Slaughter of Roanoke waded ashore toward the chaos and death of Omaha Beach as a sergeant and squad leader in Company D, 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry, 29th Division. He was 19 years old.
At 6 feet 5 inches tall he presented a large target.
The memories of that history-changing day during World War II — June 6, 1944 — and of the months of fierce combat that followed in France and Germany compelled Slaughter decades later to fight for and help found a memorial for the D-Day veterans who helped turn the tide of war against Germany.
In large part because 19 soldiers from the Bedford area died during the D-Day invasion's first wave, the National D-Day Memorial rose there.
Bob Slaughter's long march ended Tuesday morning. He was 87 and had been in declining health for some time.
He was remembered as a hero, a friend and a powerful force determined to ensure the world never forgot the sacrifices of D-Day.
"Bob Slaughter had the dream, the vision, the passion and the persistence to build the national memorial to D-Day," said Richard Burrow, a former president of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation.
"He was driven to honor those who lost their lives and never came back home," Burrow said. "Because he was fortunate enough to survive that day on the beaches of Normandy, as well as the many days of fighting thereafter, he felt duty-bound to create a place where the fallen heroes would be remembered and honored in perpetuity."
Burrow added, "Bob Slaughter was my friend, my comrade and my hero. We have lost a good person and a great American."
Robin Reed, president of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation in Bedford, said the office was fielding numerous calls Tuesday from the media and from friends of Slaughter.
"It's a sad day for the foundation, a sad day for us personally and individually," Reed said. "It's a somber feeling here in the office."
On June 6, the memorial will observe D-Day's 68th anniversary and celebrate Slaughter's role in keeping its memories alive.
"Certainly the makeup of our program will change dramatically with Bob's passing," Reed said.
He remembered Slaughter as a "soldier's soldier," a man devoted to his family, community and fellow veterans.
Dave "Mudcat" Saunders put it simply.
"I loved Bob Slaughter," said Saunders, a political strategist and author who said he'd known Slaughter for decades and once smoked cigarettes with him on breaks when both worked at The Roanoke Times and World-News.
"He was a real guy. He was extremely intelligent and could talk about anything — sports, politics, anything," Saunders said. "He was a warm guy, with a big old smile, and when you met him, it radiated."
Like others, he commented on Slaughter's key role in establishing the memorial in Bedford.
"That D-Day memorial shows without question what one man with resolve can do," Saunders said. "He thought it up. He lobbied for it. He raised money. He put his heart and soul into it.
"His whole focus was honoring the guys who didn't come back," Saunders said. "His vision was to have a place that not only recorded history but was also somewhere veterans of the World War II era could come and reflect."
Saunders has described Slaughter's book, "Omaha Beach and Beyond — The Long March of Sergeant Bob Slaughter," as "a riveting story of unsurpassed gallantry and sacrifice that all Americans need to hear."
Slaughter has written and spoken candidly about how he struggled with the memories and effects of combat after leaving the service in July 1945.
"I began the long march as an adventurous schoolboy, just turned 16. Fifty-two months later, I returned to my home a bewildered and disillusioned 20-year-old man," he wrote in "Omaha Beach and Beyond."
In 1947, he married Margaret Leftwich.
"Without Margaret's love and understanding, I dread to think what I might have become," he wrote. "There was no treatment then for 'post-traumatic stress syndrome.' It was simply called 'battle fatigue.' Those of us who had returned from the war were left to tough out what it meant to have survived."
Slaughter was twice wounded in combat in the fighting that followed D-Day — once after a German bullet pierced his helmet and a fragment of either the bullet or the helmet grazed his forehead, and once by a shrapnel fragment that entered just above his right kidney. He experienced many other close calls as the Allies pushed the Germans out of France, including inadvertently kicking up a "Bouncing Betty" land mine that did not explode.
During an interview in February, Slaughter was asked whether he ever wondered why he had survived when so many others had not.
"No. I was just lucky, that's all. Plain lucky," Slaughter said then.
He was born in February 1925, in Bristol, Tenn., to John W. Slaughter and Vera Hunter. The family moved to Roanoke after John Slaughter lost his job in Bristol and went to work for a lumber company in Roanoke.
When Bob Slaughter was 15 years old, he persuaded his parents to allow him to join the Virginia National Guard. He envisioned a one-year hitch. He was 16 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war. He was 17 when he and other troops sailed for England aboard the converted RMS Queen Mary on Sept. 27, 1942. Months of training followed, both in England and Scotland, as the Allies prepared to attack the beaches at Normandy.
Years later, Slaughter began to realize that many Americans had little or no knowledge of the momentous events of D-Day.
"People had forgotten," he said in February. "There was no doubt about it. And it made me mad."
In 1987, Slaughter retired from The Roanoke Times and World-News, where he had worked in the composing room, and wondered how he would spend the rest of his life.
"It was clear to me that the signal event of my life, the largest air, land, and sea battle in history, had been all but forgotten by everyone except those who had participated in it," he wrote.
A newspaper article in December 1987 suggested Virginia's unique contributions on D-Day should be acknowledged in some permanent way. Slaughter's quest began. Years passed.
"I kept waiting for something to happen," Slaughter said in February. "I thought it would be an easy sell. I found out it wasn't. It was very hard."
Momentum grew after the 50th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 1994. Slaughter and two other World War II veterans were invited to walk Omaha Beach that day with President Bill Clinton.
Slaughter wrote in his book about that "unforgettable stroll," saying it changed him forever and would always remain a highlight of his life.
It also stirred his hope for the D-Day Memorial. On Veterans Day 1994 it was officially announced that Bedford would be the site of the proposed memorial.
On June 6, 2001, President George W. Bush dedicated the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford. It was the second time Slaughter stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a commander-in-chief to honor veterans of the invasion.
Burrow recalled that day.
"One of the proudest and most humble days of my life was spent with Bob at the dedication of the D-Day Memorial on June 2, 2001, with the president of the United States and 21,000 World War II veterans and guests in attendance," he said.
The National D-Day Memorial has struggled financially. Congress has directed the National Park Service to study whether the memorial meets criteria that would allow it to be designated as a unit of the service.
"That would be fine with me," Slaughter said in February, describing that outcome as one of the better options for securing a healthy financial future for the memorial he worked so hard to help build.