Bob Slaughter, who led a determined effort to build the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, died Tuesday at 87.
“He was our founder,” said April Cheek-Messier, vice president of operations, in describing a “very somber” mood Tuesday at the Bedford attraction, which has an education building named for Slaughter.
“This was his dream. He was determined to make it happen,” she said.
Slaughter and a handful of fellow D-Day veterans began their quest for a memorial in 1987. At first, they just wanted a statue in a Roanoke museum to recognize the city residents’ contribution to the invasion of Europe.
Their efforts evolved into a publicity and fund-raising campaign, emanating mostly from Slaughter’s typewriter. Along the way, he was featured in national publications including the Washington Post, Newsweek and People magazine.
“I don’t think I ever heard anybody say Bob was in it to glorify himself,” said Roanoke artist Steve Stinson, an original member of the D-Day Memorial’s board of directors.
“He had a remarkable balancing act of making the D-Day Memorial a highly personal thing, but at the same time he never made it about him,” Stinson said.
Slaughter stood alongside President Bill Clinton on Omaha Beach during a 50th-anniversary remembrance of D-Day in 1994, and beside President George W. Bush in 2001 when Bush spoke at the memorial’s dedication.
D-Day Memorial officials today credit the Clinton event with helping to bring in substantial donations from film director Steven Spielberg and cartoonist Charles Schulz. The Peanuts creator gave $1 million.
Slaughter did not create the memorial single-handedly, and many people credit its first director, Richard Burrow, with bringing organization and direction to the movement started by Slaughter.
When the memorial encountered financial difficulties three years ago, Slaughter didn’t seem discouraged.
“The D-Day Memorial is not going anywhere,” Slaughter said during a D-Day movie screening in Washington in 2009. “It is going to stay up there on that hill” above Virginia 122 in Bedford.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th District, called Slaughter “a true American hero.”
“As a young man, he fought the foes of democracy on the beaches of Normandy,” he said. “Later in life Bob showed the same determined spirit when working to ensure there was a proper memorial to the countless men who took part in the D-Day invasion.”
John Robert Slaughter, with his reluctant parents’ permission, enlisted at 16 in a National Guard unit in Roanoke, partly to help with finances.
Three years later, at 19 with the rank of sergeant, Slaughter led a squad in the third wave of troops that landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.
A couple of hours earlier, the famed Bedford Boys unit had lost 19 soldiers in a first-wave assault on the same beach.
Slaughter’s squad, under heavy fire from enemy on the cliffs overlooking the beach, also lost men but managed to establish a defensive position. Within hours, they helped overtake the German guns on the cliffs.
They were part of the Army’s Company D, 116th Infantry, 29th Division.
After 13 more months of fighting across Europe in hedgerow battles, Slaughter was discharged in 1945. He began working in The Roanoke Times’ “composing room,” a job of turning hot lead into newspaper type.
Eventually, Slaughter became shop foreman.
As he and his wife, Margaret, raised their two sons, Slaughter rarely talked about his wartime experiences.
But with the passage of time, Slaughter and other veterans in the composing room began to tell pieces of their stories to one another.
“Bob and I started that memorial on his back porch,” said Stinson, who also worked at The Roanoke Times as its art director.
“We said, there should be a statue” in the History Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke, which was expanding at the time, he said.
Stinson persuaded a Roanoke Times columnist to write about the idea, and “the rest is history."
Roanoke city officials talked about finding a site for the statue in various parks, but never made a decision.
Meanwhile, people from Bedford were joining the memorial’s board of directors, and offered a site near the intersection of U.S. 460 and Virginia 122.
The project’s scope grew, and evolved into a memorial commemorating all of the Allied forces that participated in the D-Day invasion.
“Most of the people who got involved in it came because Bob invited them,” Stinson said.
“For many of us, it was like, ‘We can’t let him down.’ It was his own personal drive.
“He wrote countless letters; he just pitched the idea wherever he could.
“He had a remarkable speaking presence when he was talking about D-Day. I’ve watched him keep a classroom of junior-high kids enraptured. And you know that’s not easy.”
Slaughter’s memoirs were published in 2007, in a book titled “Omaha Beach and Beyond,” chronicling his wartime experiences and the creation of the memorial.
In it, Slaughter wrote: “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.”
Statement from 6th District Congressman Bob Goodlatte:
“I was proud to call Bob Slaughter a friend and so I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte. “Bob Slaughter was a true American hero. As a young man, he fought the foes of democracy on the beaches of Normandy. Later in life Bob showed the same determined spirit when working to ensure there was a proper memorial to the countless men who took part in the D-Day invasion. Thanks in large part to his efforts the National D-Day Memorial stands in Bedford and it serves as a constant reminder of the men who paid the ultimate price to protect the freedoms that we hold so dear.”
10:02 a.m. Tuesday
By News & Advance staff
D-Day veteran Bob Slaughter, credited with spearheading the movement to bring the D-Day Memorial to Bedford, died today in a Roanoke hospital. He was 87.
"It is with great sadness that we announce that Bob Slaughter passed away at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital," Carilion spokesman Eric Earnhart wrote in an e-mail this morning.
"The family understands that there is a great deal of interest from the media given Mr. Slaughter’s remarkable life, but requests privacy at this time."
Slaughter enlisted at age 16 in the National Guard’s Virginia 116th Infantry Regiment in early 1941.
Three years later, he was in the third wave of troops to land onOmahaBeach, behind the Bedford Boys unit that was in the first wave and lost 19 soldiers.
In 1987, Slaughter and a few other Roanoke-area veterans formed a committee to raise interest in building a memorial to the battle.
The group developed a foundation and began to look for sites near Roanoke, but its city officials were not receptive.
But Slaughter’s reputation grew, and he was featured in national publications including the Washington Post, Newsweek and People magazine.
Historian Stephen Ambrose included Slaughter in his best-selling book D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (1994).
He appeared with President Bill Clinton at a 50th anniversary observance on Omaha Beach, which D-Day Memorial officials credit with helping to bring in substantial donations from film director Steven Spielberg and cartoonist Charles Schulz. The Peanuts creator gave the project $1 million.
This has been a breaking news update. For more on this story, see Wednesday's The News & Advance or check back to newsadvance.com
7:03 p.m. Monday
By WSLS News Staff
Prayers and well wishes are being said for D-Day veteran Bob Slaughter.
According to National D-Day Foundation President Robin Reed, Slaughter is at a local hospital. Reed said Slaughter recently suffered from some falls, and was being rehabilitated. Then something happened to cause as Reed described it, 'a turn for the worse.'
"It is getting close to June 6th and with bob being under the weather we think more about that particular day in history now that one of our finest veterans is under the weather," says Reed.
Reed was not certain which hospital Slaughter was at as of Monday evening. He said members of the D-Day Foundation planned to meet with Slaughter's family on Tuesday, to see how they can help with his recovery.
Slaughter is credited with spearheading the movement to bring the D-Day Memorial to Bedford. He was on the beaches of Normandy during the invasion, and has worked tirelessly to educate younger generations about the struggles that he and his fellow soldiers went through.