Reporting the war was old-fashioned, anything but dull

By Mary Bishop
The Roanoke Times
June 6, 1999

In His Own Words

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 good.

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 oceanliner 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 fell silent.

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 was over.

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 even less.

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 year.

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, tattered ribbons.

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 memorial.

The idea got old soldier Slaughter on his feet again.

Yes, there should be a memorial. At least a statue. He got to work.

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!"


An obsession

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 finally said.


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 the anniversary.

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.


The breakthrough

When he returned home, his front lawn was full of neighbors welcoming himback.

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 $8 million.

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.


Mr. D-Day

Today, Slaughter is more famous than ever. He's been interviewed more this spring than he was for the 50th anniversary.

Some other D-Day veterans think he has a big ego. Some envy him.

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 wants that
memorial built.

"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."


Tired warrior

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 veteran's reminiscences.

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 expenses.

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 play taps.

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.