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The National D-Day Memorial exists, to a large extent, due to the efforts of John Robert “Bob” Slaughter.
Slaughter died Tuesday morning after a long illness. It was Slaughter’s vision of a national memorial to the men who landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and his dogged pursuit of that vision, that led to the establishment of the Memorial.
Slaughter was a D-Day veteran. He had joined the Virginia National Guard when he was 15 shortly before America’s entry into World War II. He lied about his age in order to do this — it was an opportunity to earn some extra money. Five days after his 16th birthday, Slaughter and other Guardsmen boarded a train on Feb. 8, 1941, for what they thought was a year of active duty training. The Japanese changed the whole picture for these young men when that nation bombed Pearl Harbor 10 months later.
On D-Day, Slaughter was a 19-year-old sergeant in command of a heavy machine gun crew.
“I was soaking wet, seasick and scared to death,” Slaughter recalled years later. “The artillery and mortar shells were thick and guys were getting cut down as we hit the surf. I was just a boy.”
By the time he got ashore, his team had lost its gun, but they still had their tripod. They met up with a man from M Company who had a gun, but no tripod, and got into action.
He survived the landing, uninjured and fought all the way to the meet up between U. S. and Russian soldiers at the Elbe River at the end of the war. He was wounded twice during that time, once by shrapnel from a mortar round and once by a sniper’s bullet that grazed his head.
After the war, Slaughter eventually went to work for the Roanoke Times, eventually retiring as a composition department supervisor.
The idea for the National D-Day Memorial came about because Slaughter felt that the men who came ashore that day deserved more that a block of granite, with a plaque, in front of a courthouse. He along with several other supporters formed a committee to raise funds and search for an appropriate location for a small memorial in 1987.
This ultimately became the National D-Day Foundation which, in 1994, received a tract on a hilltop from the city of Bedford. Slaughter was chairman of the Foundation’s board of Directors from 1994 to 2001. Bedford was chosen as the site for the national memorial because it suffered the greatest per-capita loss of life of any single American community on D-Day.
Of the 35 Bedford area soldiers that went ashore with Company A, only 12 survived. Nineteen of the 23 Bedford casualties died in the first 15 minutes of battle. In all, 96 percent of men in Company A were killed or wounded that day.
The dream of a national memorial honoring the sacrifice of the men who waded ashore on a French beach, under withering German gunfire, took its first step toward becoming a concrete reality when several hundred people gathered on the crest of that cold, windy Bedford hilltop on Veterans Day, back in 1997.
April Cheek-Messier, the Foundation’s education director, came on board in 2001 when Slaughter was still chairman of the board of directors.
“I just remember a very distinguished gentleman who also had a very determined purpose,” Cheek-Messier recalled.
She saw a lot of him over the years.
“He was a fixture here at the Memorial,” she commented.
Cheek-Messier recalled that Slaughter considered June 6, 1994, and June 6, 2001, to be two of the best days of his life. Back in 1994, he walked Omaha Beach with President Bill Clinton. It was the 50th anniversary of D-Day and, for Slaughter, it was a great day because the men of D-Day were finally getting the recognition they deserved. This attention also got the effort to build the Memorial rolling.
The date in 2001 was also a great day for him because he stood at the Memorial’s arch with President George W. Bush to dedicate the Memorial.
“He was overwhelmed,” Cheek-Messier recalled. “He was so happy.”
Cheek-Messier noted that Slaughter was humble. It was his comrades, both those who came home and those who were killed that he wanted to honor. Providing a memorial to honor them was one of the two factors that drove him.
The other was education. Cheek-Messier said that Slaughter wanted to make sure that the next generation would know what happened.
“Education was a critical component,” she said.
“He was a remarkable man,” Cheek-Messier said of Slaughter. She said that the Foundation plans to recognize Slaughter at its annual commemoration of the anniversary of D-Day on Wednesday, June 6.
Slaughter wrote a book, published in 2007, called “Omaha Beach and Beyond: The Long March of Sergeant Bob Slaughter.” It’s his memoir and contains photos of the men he served with as well as a photo of his copy of General Dwight Eisenhower’s general order for the invasion, signed by Slaughter’s buddies just before they boarded the landing craft.
In his preface, Slaughter writes that there are numerous questions about World War II and why it happened. He then proceeds to write that his book won’t answer any of these questions — it’s one soldier’s description of what happened around him.
He then goes on to describe why he chose to write it.
“My purpose instead is to tell the untold story of a few young citizen soldiers, including myself, who were caught up in a world war that turned out to be so utterly brutal that it still remains difficult to write about it even now, over sixty years later,” Slaughter wrote. “This book will attempt to show that ordinary men and women can do extraordinary feats if they believe the cause is great.”
“Now that I am in my eighties, I am well aware that the long march that began so many years ago is about to come to a halt. I am proud to say my generation helped save the world from tyranny, prevent the extinction of an entire group of people, and preserve the democratic freedoms of our wonderful American way of life. I wouldn’t change a thing, except to wish that my dear army buddies could be here to see and touch the magnificent National D-Day Memorial that was built for us all.”
Slaughter’s book is available at the National D-Day Memorial’s bookstore.