Once the early coastal mist had cleared, the morning of June 6, 1944 became a clear day, with good visibility and a brisk north westerly wind blowing along the Normandy coastline. To Bob Slaughter, it must have been uppermost in his mind that it could be the last morning he would ever see in his young life. As a squad leader in Company D of the 116th Infantry of the 29th Division, the tall 19-year-old from Roanoke, Virginia was part of the 150,000 strong of Allied troops who would, that morning, change the course of World War II and signal an eventual end to the war that ravaged much of Europe. Beside his comrades as they surged the beach along the heavily-fortified French coastline, Slaughter ran across the sand of Omaha Beach avoiding bullets, artillery shells and, remarkably, death. And although he was later wounded twice in the liberation of Europe, he lived to survive the war, returning home to Virginia in 1945 — which was when the mission of his life really began.
A long way from the beaches of northern France, and nested in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia honors those Allied forces who participated in the invasion of Normandy. In the peaceful gardens and striking Victory Plaza, the memorial forms a powerful permanent tribute to the valor, fidelity, and sacrifice of those heroes. Among the hundreds of visitors to the site this past Memorial Day was Neil Scarborough, Store Manager of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) Keydet Bookstore, who was there to attend the commemoration of the man who had dedicated much of his life to ensure the D-Day memorial was built; Sergeant John Robert “Bob” Slaughter. “We were there to pay tribute a great man,” he explains. ” He worked tirelessly to ensure that no one would forget the men who paid the ultimate price on the beaches of Normandy. He truly deserves this honor.”
Long after he had returned home from the war, and taken up a civilian job at the Roanoke Times, Slaughter realized that the events of D-Day were fading in significance to a new generation who had not lived through the war. As the surviving members of D Company began getting together for reunions, Slaughter began to collect the veterans’ accounts of that day. Those conversations and the memories by family members of the fallen, reignited Slaughter’s own war recollections in an exercise that eventually become his book, Omaha Beach and Beyond: The Long March of Sergeant Bob Slaughter.
“The way he wrote about the personal and historical events surrounding one of the defining moments of modern time was very much an individual soldier’s account of what happened that day,” explains Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) David Williams, Assistant Director of Auxiliary Services at the Virginia Military Institute. Williams, who was friends with Slaughter for over 30 years and has remained in contact with his family since Slaughter’s death in 2012, describes him as, “a remarkable guy, and a survivor from a different era.” He also explains that writing the book alone wasn’t enough for Slaughter, who also wanted a more significant and enduring commemoration to what took place that day on Omaha Beach. He wanted a national memorial, and he devoted the rest of his life campaigning for it. “It was more than just a project for Bob,” recalls Williams. “It became his mission in life.”
Slaughter’s tireless lobbying and determination was the driving force behind the eventual design and construction of the memorial, which was officially opened in 2001. With the permission of the Slaughter family, the VMI bookstore donated $500 to the Memorial in honor of the great war veteran. A bronze bust of Slaughter was unveiled on Memorial Day — now taking its place alongside more celebrated heroes of that conflict, including Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill. “It was the biggest land invasion ever, and a lot of VMI cadets of that generation played some part in its success,” Scarborough says. “We’re proud to support something that commemorates those who served and to help educate future generations about what happened that day,” he adds.
And what happened that day is of particular significance to the Virginia Military Institute. Slaughter made several trips to the Institute in the 1990’s to speak to the cadets and alumni. “Every year our freshman class of ‘Rats’ makes a pilgrimage to the National D-Day Memorial — and all that it represents — so that it will not be forgotten,” explains Williams. Founded in Lexington, before the Civil War, VMI is itself also a piece of living history, As a state-supported military college closely connected to a community with a strong military tradition, it is the oldest institution of its kind in the United States.
One of the places you can find Slaughter’s book is on the shelves of the Keydet Bookstore at VMI. It’s a particularly unique store as campus bookstores go, and will soon welcome the returning cadets after their summer leave, with Lensatic compasses and survival gear sharing shelf space alongside more expected rows of books. Manager Scarborough says his cadets are remarkable too; respectful, decent and strictly adhering to the military honor code. “It’s one of the reasons why saving the stories of these veterans who are now passing away is so important to us,” he says.
Warfare may have changed unrecognizably since 1945, but basic military values have not. The D-Day cost was high, with more than 9,387 of Slaughter’s comrades buried under the crosses and stars of the Colleville-sur-Mer cemetery in France. Yet it’s a legacy that continues to this day, and while the Institute grants degrees in 14 disciplines including engineering, the sciences, and the liberal arts, over 50 percent of cadets choose a commission and the opportunity to serve their country. Lt. Col. Williams will tell you he has his own cherished memento of the legacy of D-Day. He has a picture of the event he attended on the fiftieth Anniversary of the Normandy landings, taken on the hallowed sand of Omaha beach — and standing right next to him is Sgt. Bob Slaughter.