In Memory's Cause

updated 11/09/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/09/1998 01:00AM

Thirteen years ago, Bob Slaughter stopped to ask directions of a young man on the streets of Bedford, Va. A World War II vet, Slaughter was looking for the town's brass-and-granite monument to the men of Company A, an infantry unit whose bloody ordeal on Omaha Beach helped inspire the harrowing portrayal of D-Day in the movie Saving Private Ryan.

But the young man he asked, though he'd lived in Bedford all his life, had no inkling where the Company A memorial was. Nor did he know much more about D-Day—despite the fact that soldiers from Bedford and nearby mountain towns had played a crucial part in the battle. Of 35 local residents who went ashore with Company A on June 6, 1944, 19 were cut down in the first 15 minutes of fighting, and two more were dead before sundown. Bedford's losses won it the grim distinction of having suffered the highest per-capita D-Day casualties of any town in the country.

Yet to the young man on the street, that was all ancient history. "I thought it was strange," says Slaughter, now 73, who recalls staggering onto Omaha Beach that morning through water reddened by the blood of his fellow GIs. "This was too important to forget."

Today, Slaughter has come tantalizingly close to ensuring that the people of Bedford—and of the nation—will forever be reminded of D-Day. Last year, Slaughter oversaw the groundbreaking for a $12 million National D-Day Memorial and education center that, when completed, will overlook Bedford from a nearby mountain. Says Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, who has donated $1 million: "For me, it's an honor to show admiration for what these people did. I saw just enough action near the end of the war to know what D-Day was all about."

But for Slaughter, who has battled with wary environmentalists and apathetic politicians, much work lies ahead before the realization of his dream—an 88-acre park with statues, a waterfall and a triumphal arch. Today, just one access road is complete, and $5 million has to be raised before the scheduled opening on June 6, 2000. Still, Slaughter remains determined. "I was part of the largest air, land and sea battle ever fought, and I'm proud of it," he says. "I'm qualified to lead this charge."

Slaughter lied about his age when he joined the National Guard at age 15 in Roanoke, Va., where his late father, World War I vet John Slaughter, had moved the family in 1937. Bob says he enlisted because he liked the Guard's uniform—and for the dollar-a-week pay. "I considered it like joining the Boy Scouts," he says.

It turned out to be anything but. Slaughter was inducted as a U.S. Army private first class on his 16th birthday in February 1941. Sailing to England aboard the liner Queen Mary (a troop ship during the war) in September 1942, he trained alongside other soldiers from Roanoke in Company D, 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division. According to the Allied battle plan for the invasion of Nazi-occupied France, other units from Virginia (including Company A, the Bedford unit) would come together at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

But little on that dismal, stormy morning went according to plan. Awakened by a bell at 2:30 a.m., Slaughter remembers watching from a troop ship as a pre-invasion bombardment lit up the Normandy coast "like a sunrise." But the bombing was ineffective, and Allied estimates of enemy strength were off the mark. "It was chaos," says the 6'5" Slaughter, who jumped off a small landing craft and waded through the surf past drowning soldiers, who grasped at his arms. "People screaming, hollering, frightened, getting hit, going under."

Slaughter dashed across the beach unharmed and found shelter against a seawall. He is still haunted by the sight of a dying soldier calling for help. When a medic arrived, he too was shot. "I'll never forget them screaming," says Slaughter. "Within minutes, they both fell silent."

Slaughter made it through the war with head and back injuries and was discharged in July 1945 as a staff sergeant. But back in Virginia—where the funerals lasted for days—his world had changed drastically. Slaughter's father had died of an aneurysm, forcing his mother, Vera, to rent out rooms. Slaughter quickly finished high school, married student Margaret Leftwich, now 72, in 1947 and helped raise their two sons while working at the Roanoke Times as a printer. He always attended Company D reunions, but it wasn't until he retired in 1987 that he became set on building a D-Day monument.

Over the years, Slaughter has worked closely with Bedford's Lucille Boggess, 69, who lost two brothers in Company A, and the town's mayor, Mike Shelton, who helped make land available for the memorial. The popularity of Saving Private Ryan has helped with fund-raising, but ultimately the memorial will be not only to those who fought on Normandy's beaches but also to Bob Slaughter's persistence. "He typifies those citizen soldiers who realized that freedom doesn't come for free," says historian Stephen Ambrose. "He is the kind of guy who makes America go. Every town in America has one. If they don't, it's their loss."

Patrick Rogers
Gerald Burstyn in Roanoke

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