LONG MARCH OF BOB SLAUGHTER
Bob Slaughter personal
account of D. Day..
Reporting the war was old-fashioned, anything but dull
The Roanoke Times
I was really keyed up and so were my buddies, and we went
around. I know I took my General Eisenhower message that was
issued to all of us, and I got autographs of all my buddies and
everybody I could get to autograph it.
As our teams were called, we assembled on the landing
craft and were lowered into the water, and it was tremendously
rough and the spray from the sea was cold, and it came over the
sides of the landing craft and nearly everybody got soaked. We
were taking water from the rough sea over the bow, and we were
bailing to try to keep afloat. Some of the landing craft sank
before they got in because of the rough sea. In fact, we picked
up some of our buddies who had floundered eight or nine miles
from shore, and we had taken them on as extra cargo; and some
that we should have picked up or would have liked to have
picked, we left because we didn't have room. We hoped somebody
It was a terrible ride to the beach. Over to our right,
the battleship Texas was firing into the cliffs, and
every time that big fourteen inch gun went off, a tremendous
tsunami swamped our boat, and the water would come over the side
and just soak us and make our seasickness worse.
LONG MARCH OF BOB SLAUGHTER
Reporting the war was old-fashioned, anything but dull
By Mary Bishop
The Roanoke Times
June 6, 1999
For decades, he was silent. Then nagging memories of
D-Day stirred him to push for a national memorial to honor the
soldiers, his buddies, who went through that awful morning, 55
years ago today. Now this once unknown working Joe from Roanoke
may be the best-known D-Day veteran in America. This is the
story of his unlikely transformation.
Bob Slaughter took off his uniform in July 1945, just as soon
as he got back from the war.
He had left Roanoke a 16-year-old boy. He came home a shaken
man of 20, and had gone to work as a printer's composing room
apprentice at The Roanoke World-News. One day, he walked
downtown for a haircut. "Tell me something," the
barber asked as Slaughter settled his sprawling 6-foot 5-inch
frame into the chair in the basement of the Colonial American
National Bank Building. "How come a big, strapping young
man like you is not in the Army?"
"Well, I just got out," he told him. The barber
didn't listen and rattled on about all his son had been doing in
World War II. Slaughter let it go.
He didn't say: I was in D-Day.
Other people looked at his civvies and also assumed he hadn't
gone to war.
They made cracks about how he must be unfit for service.
Most times, he let it go.
At home, he was distant and sullen. He didn't leave his
parents' house much at first. Then he'd disappear for days. And
his younger brothers and sister would look at each other,
puzzled, when thunder cracked and he jumped, like he was ready
to jump for cover. He didn't tell them it sounded like the
Germans' 88mm cannons. He didn't talk about the war at all.
At least he still had his buddies from D Company. He spent
nights with them in beer joints and dance halls, and that was
And it wasn't so good.
Like veterans throughout history, nobody had prepared him for
life after war. He drank too much. Worse, he watched some of his
buddies drinking themselves to death. He fought all the time.
After being trained for aggression for so long, he was still
itching for it - his buried anger flying out in his fists as if
they were saying: I was in D-Day.
Before the war, Bob Slaughter had been impatient for manhood.
At 15, he stood over his father at the dining room table and
begged him to sign papers so Slaughter could join the Virginia
National Guard. By 16, he was in basic training after his
heavy-weapons company and other Virginia guard outfits were
called up for federal service. Then late in 1941, the Japanese
attacked Pearl Harbor and World War II began.
Slaughter guarded Maryland's Eastern Shore and helped Marines
practice landings at Virginia Beach.
He watched the Statue of Liberty fade in the distance aboard
the Queen Mary, the ocean liner converted to troop transport.
Porpoises followed; a whale rolled in the smooth water. Near
Scotland, the ship accidentally sliced an Allied warship in two
and killed 332 British sailors.
In England, he pulled 37-mile speed marches and practiced
assaults on cliff-backed beaches. Month after month.
His 17th, 18th and 19th birthdays came and went.
On D-Day, he was in the third wave of troops to hit Omaha
Beach on the French coast of Normandy. He was a squad leader in
Company D of the 116th Infantry of the 29th Division, a
participant in the biggest coastal invasion in the history of
the world, the one that began to put Hitler out of business.
Germany artillery blasted in Slaughter's ears. The smell of
explosive cordite burned his nostrils. American naval guns
boomed, and fighter-bombers darted overhead. His landing craft's
ramp slammed furiously in the stormy English Channel, killing
one of the first men off the boat.
Dead and wounded men were everywhere as he leaped into the
water. Men screamed as 60-pound loads of gear pulled them,
drowning, under water. Some clung to Slaughter and nearly
dragged him down until he inflated his Mae West life vest and
swam hard for the beach. The water was red with blood.
He saw a GI shot as he crossed the beach; the medic who came
to help was also shot. They lay screaming side by side, then
Slaughter had stripped the plastic casing off his rifle and
wet sand jammed the firing mechanism. He ran low across the
beach aware, he wrote later, that to the Germans his big frame
presented a "naked morsel on a giant sandy platter."
He stumbled in a tidal pool, accidentally firing his gun and
almost shooting himself in the foot.
By the end of the day, 790 men from Virginia were dead.
Eighteen died from Roanoke. Twenty-three from Bedford.
But somehow Slaughter had made it.
For the next 11 months, he fought on through the Normandy
hedgerows, liberating French towns from the Nazis. He was
wounded twice - a forehead grazing so bloody he was sure he was
dying, and a shot above his right kidney. Both times, he got
patched up and made his way back to the front. He and D Company
pushed into Germany. By the spring of 1945, the war in Europe
Bob Slaughter came home the middle of July.
Life goes on
As the drinking and fighting filled his nights, word got
around: Don't fool with Bob Slaughter. Then he began dating
Margaret Leftwich, a young Roanoke bank teller he met in
Virginia Beach. They married in 1947, and the marriage civilized
him. He finished high school at night, and later earned an
associate's degree from Virginia Western Community College. He
lost touch with his war buddies and quit the beer joints.
He labored hard at the newspaper and rose to composing room
foreman. He raised two sons, coached Little League, made
furniture in his woodworking shop and mowed the grass. And for
30 years, except to other veterans, he rarely mentioned the war.
His wife knew little of what he'd been through. His sons learned
Occasionally he would wander from the newspaper's backshop
into the newsroom and suggest a story about D-Day. He asked for
one in 1979, the 35th anniversary, but there was no story that
It was beginning to bug him that people knew so little about
the invasion. He'd meet college-educated people in their 30s who
hadn't heard of it, who didn't understand.
The D Company guys started getting together for reunions in
1982. Their talk sharpened Slaughter's war memories.
He began to collect other veterans' accounts of D-Day. They'd
send him bits and pieces of their lives, yellowed clippings,
In 1984, a bunch of them went to Washington, D.C., for a
ceremony on D-Day's 40th anniversary. Former Defense Secretary
Caspar Weinberger spoke, and bands played. It was the first
major tribute to D-Day. Slaughter came home pleased. He didn't
expect there to ever be much more than that.
The march begins
Bob Slaughter retired from the newspaper in 1987. One warm
afternoon he sat on his patio on Kirkwood Drive Southwest with
Steve Stinson, a young co-worker he'd befriended at the
newspaper. Slaughter, then 62, wanted to take his wife to
Europe; Stinson had been there.
Slaughter mentioned that, well, he had been to Europe before,
too. He'd been in the war. He'd been in D-Day.
Stinson listened a while and said there ought to be a D-Day
The idea got old soldier Slaughter on his feet again.
Yes, there should be a memorial. At least a statue. He got to
Late in 1987, a newspaper columnist proposed a memorial, and
Slaughter, Stinson and two veterans, Col. Norman Elmore and Lt.
Col. Milton Aliff, formed a committee.
With his $1.50 pasteboard briefcase jammed with D-Day
information, Slaughter won the support of other Roanoke Valley
men - Circuit Judge Jack Coulter, Navy Cmdr. William Bagbey,
artist John Will Creasy, former newspaper editorial writer Bob
Fishburn and Gen. William Rosson.
With each meeting, Slaughter felt he had moved ahead. The men
formed a D-Day foundation and were talking about where a
memorial ought to be, what it ought to look like.
The naysayers, oddly enough, were D-Day veterans, especially
ones who still couldn't talk about it. They told Slaughter to
forget about a memorial. To which he'd respond: "You're
going to let these guys down who're lying over there in graves?
They were our buddies!"
In a corner of his bedroom, Slaughter set up an IBM Selectric
typewriter, a retirement gift from the newspaper. He began to
write his memories of the war. On the wall was his framed, worn
copy of the June 6, 1944, orders of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower,
the D-Day commander. Slaughter had gotten his buddies to sign
it, and he carried it in his wallet through the war. The inked
signatures were fading and the lines where he folded the paper
many times crisscrossed the page, but Eisenhower's words were
still there to spur him on: "You are about to embark upon
the Great Crusade ..."
Slaughter would mentally put his uniform back on. He'd place
himself in the landing craft and ride it all the way in to Omaha
Beach. He gave himself permission to remember everything, to
feel everything that he had packed away in his consciousness.
He was kicking in his sleep, flinging his arms, running,
jumping - reliving it. A flailing man of his size can be
dangerous. Margaret Slaughter moved to another room to sleep.
The newspaper began to pay attention. Two days before D-Day's
45th anniversary in 1989, The Roanoke Times & World-News
published excerpts from Slaughter's memoirs. I was in D-Day , he
Ups and downs
Around that time, the D-Day foundation proposed that the
memorial be built on Mill Mountain in Roanoke. The mountain
park's prominence and its closeness to the Blue Ridge Parkway
seemed to make it the perfect place. Slaughter was encouraged.
City government didn't go for the idea. Some leaders thought
construction would harm the mountain. Others said the memorial
clashed with other plans.
Roanoke seemed as disrespectful as it had when he came back
from the war.
"A lot of good Roanoke boys went over there and got
themselves killed, and in a few years they were just completely
forgotten," he said. "That just wasn't fair. It hurt
me, and it made me mad."
By 1994, he was even more discouraged. All the city offered
was a speck of land near the Hotel Roanoke. Maybe his committee
should concede defeat.
But as in the ups and downs of D-Day, the axis soon shifted.
In the spring of 1994, a few weeks before the 50th
anniversary of D-Day, Ken Ringle, a writer for The Washington
Post, was looking for a D-Day veteran to profile. He read about
Slaughter in a collection of D-Day oral histories.
Ringle's profile on the front of the Post's Style section
told the story of an ordinary working Joe with vivid and humble
memories of one of the worst battles in history. Other stories
followed in Newsweek, People, on television. The White House
asked Slaughter to walk Omaha Beach with President Clinton on
It was Slaughter's proudest moment. On the beach, he
remembered, Clinton held on to him as he poured sand out of his
shoes. And as he described D-Day to Clinton and pointed out
where the troops landed, Slaughter could hear the photographers
off in the bushes: Click, click, click, click.
When he returned home, his front lawn was full of neighbors
Roanoke - and the world - finally was getting the picture.
But the best news was that Margaret Slaughter, who had stayed
home, had a long list of people who wanted to talk with her
husband about the memorial. He thought then that he'd turned a
corner. In 1994, Bedford offered a stunning hilltop with a view
of the Peaks of Otter. In 1996, the National D-Day Memorial
Foundation took what Slaughter believed was its most important
step: It hired an executive director, Richard Burrow, formerly a
chief planner of Explore Park in Roanoke County.
Plans were announced for a $12 million memorial and education
center. Ground was broken. And "Peanuts" cartoonist
Charles Schulz donated $1 million, bringing the total raised to
Slaughter also won an ally in Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower
biographer and president of the National D-Day Museum in New
Orleans, set to open in 2000. Ambrose wrote about Slaughter in
his best-selling 1994 book "D-Day, June 6, 1944: The
Climactic Battle of World War II." The two men became
friends, and Ambrose agreed to help raise money for the
memorial. Ambrose made an appeal for the memorial and his own
museum before the National Press Club.
Director Steven Spielberg studied the Ambrose book for his
Oscar-winning D-Day movie "Saving Private Ryan." Bob
and Margaret Slaughter attended the Hollywood premiere last year
and met Spielberg, Tom Hanks and other stars.
Today, Slaughter is more famous than ever. He's been
interviewed more this spring than he was for the 50th
Some other D-Day veterans think he has a big ego. Some envy
Many veterans, however, say Slaughter deserves the attention
and that he's doing it for the memorial, not for himself.
Widows, sisters and children of men who died on D-Day call to
thank him. They're still sending him shoeboxes of old photos and
medals of their loved ones. All of it will find a place in the
memorial's education center.
Last week, Slaughter received a package from the daughter of
old D Company buddy Vic Crimone, who died not long ago. She sent
medals, pictures and his newspaper articles about other
veterans. Slaughter looked at the snapshots of them as GIs.
"How young we were," he said, "how happy. It just
tears me up."
"Nobody ever asked him about D-Day," he said of
Crimone. "He spent his life obscurely. Vic had five or six
kids and sent them all to college. He was just a good man."
It's guys like Crimone, Slaughter says, the memorial will
honor. He wishes Crimone could have seen it.
A thousand World War II veterans die every day. Slaughter
"I don't like to get my name in the paper,"
Slaughter said. "I don't like to have my picture in the
paper. Most of the time it's pretty ugly. But I know what it
takes to get the job done."
There are high costs to being Mr. D-Day.
Slaughter is tired. At 74, he rarely turns down an interview
or an invitation to speak. Exposure helps the memorial.
"I think I'm doing a terrible job," Slaughter told
a reporter one morning after a run of interviews with the
Washington Post , CBS and the History Channel. "I'd love to
do a good job with you. It just seems like I'm leaving out a lot
of good stuff. I'm tired of talking about it."
He doesn't take vacations. Important calls may come.
His phone rings all day. His fax machine, in his bedroom
office, sometimes whirs away at 3 a.m. with a British D-Day
Slaughter has trouble sleeping anyhow, especially around the
D-Day anniversary when he's talking about it a lot. He still
fights in his sleep.
His back hurts from typing thank-you notes. As memorial
foundation chairman - a position he finally accepted recently -
he thanks people for every donation, however small.
He often works 40 hours a week and doesn't earn a dime.
Postage, computer, fax, pencils, paper, long-distance phone
calls - he pays for all that he needs in his job as chairman.
Burrow, the director, says in the three years he's been in the
job, Slaughter's asked for reimbursement for less than $50 in
Slaughter is pained when he talks about his family. He still
can't talk with his sons, Bob Jr. and Hunter, about the war. He
can talk more openly with strangers in the news media. He
doesn't know why. He says he was hard on them when they were
boys. He should have been a better dad. His face sags when he
says his sons talk more with their mother about his wartime
experiences than they do to him.
He has no time for hobbies. The seasoned walnut and cherry he
collected for woodworking draw dust in his basement shop. He
used to fish. Catching a big fish seemed like the most important
thing in the world years ago. "I don't feel that way
anymore," he said. "I think that fish deserves to live
out his life, just like I want to live out mine."
Writing and history interest him more now.
And the D-Day memorial.
Comparing the memorial's progress to his battle route in
World War II, he says the memorial is about as far along as
Germany's Roer River, about the end of the war.
In France today, veterans will hold their annual D-Day
service at Omaha
Beach American Cemetery.
A few words will honor the men who died, and someone will
Three men were selected to lay the D-Day wreath.
There will be a Medal of Honor winner from California, and a
former Army chief of staff.
And there will be a long, tall staff sergeant from Roanoke
named Bob Slaughter.