National History Day
Courtland Morris wins Normandy Allies National History Day (NHD) Award
The Virginia Region IV National History Day competition was held on the campus of James Madison University, March 24, 2015. The NHD theme for 2015 is “Leadership and Legacy in History.” NHD is a competition for students in grades six through twelve and students are divided into two divisions based on their grade level. Students in grades six through eight make up the Junior Division while students in grades nine through twelve make up the Senior Division.
Courtland Morris, an 11th grade student from East Rockingham High School, Elkton, Virginia won the Normandy Allies award in the Senior Division for his paper “Reopened Scars.” Courtland will receive an achievement plaque and a copy of “No Greater Sacrifice, No Greater Love: A Son’s Journey to Normandy“, by Walter Ford Carter at his school’s Junior/Senior Awards Assembly on May 22, 2015.
Courtland’s paper recounts the life of Bob Slaughter, a “Bedford Boy.” Slaughter survived the Normandy invasion and returned to life in Bedford, VA. In 1987, after his retirement, Slaughter was instrumental in the establishment of the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. His life was certainly a demonstration of the NHD “Leadership and Legacy in History”.
Becky Lam, Courtland’s Social Studies teacher encouraged him to write about Bob Slaughter. She was aware that Mr. Beau Dickerson, Coordinator of Social Studies Programs for Rockingham County (Virginia) schools had interviewed Mr. Slaughter about his experiences and would be a valuable resource for Courtland. Courtland and Mr. Dickerson have visited the Bedford Memorial together. Courtland has always loved history and all things old according to his mother Becky Morris. She says that some of his best friends are men in their 70s!
NHD makes history come alive for students by engaging them in the discovery of the historical, cultural and social experiences of the past. Through hands-on experiences and presentations, today’s students are better able to inform the present and shape the future. NHD inspires students through exciting competitions and transforms teaching through project-based curriculum and instruction.
This was the second year Normandy Allies has participated in the Region IV National History Day Competition at James Madison University. Virginia Region IV includes the counties of Bath, Highland, Augusta, Nelson, Albemarle, Greene, Rockingham, Page, Shenandoah, Madison, Orange, Rappahannock, Culpepper, Frederick, Clarke, Warren, and the cities of Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro, and Winchester. The winners from region go on to compete at the state level in Williamsburg and winners from this level go on to the national competition in College Park, Maryland.
Below is the winning paper by Cortland Morris:
Reopened Scars By Cortland Morris
National History Day
World War two was one of the biggest wars in the history of mankind. The war consisted of many bloody battles. D-Day was one of the most infamous battles of WWII, many Americans lost their lives that day, but a Virginian who went by John Robert “Bob” Slaughter faced the beaches first hand, lived to tell the tale, and then became responsible for the memorial that we now have today in Bedford, Virginia.
Slaughters father worked as a lumber salesman (Slaughter John). Mr Slaughter said, “Although he had only a tenth-grade education, my father was considered a gifted mathematician” (Slaughter John, 21). He married a woman named Vera Hunter, who was working in the medical field (Slaughter). Bob Slaughter, the oldest of their children, was born on February 3, 1925. He had two brothers and one sister. For the longest time they had to live off of their fathers salary alone, until the company he worked for had to cut some workers. Of course, Bob Slaughter’s dad was one of them. Mr. Slaughter remembers, “After weeks of searching for work, my father finally found it in Roanoke, Virginia” (22). “His weekly paycheck was thirtyfive dollars” (Slaughter John, 22). Given the circumstances that his family was in, at the age of 15 Slaughter wanted to pull his own weight for the family. With increasing age, his father’s health decreased drastically (Slaughter John). Slaughter recalled, “My brothers and I had a newspaper route in a distressed section of Roanoke, where many of the customers were either late paying or simply couldn’t keep up the payments at all. Paper carriers, being contractors, are required to pay the company up front for the product they carry and sell. After many months of losing money, we were forced to give up the paper route” (23). Desperate for money, the Slaughter children began running an outside business: raking leaves, mowing grass, etc. Bob first asked about getting in the national guard, but later decided that one year in the army would do him good (Slaughter John). He figured he would go in, and then when he got out he would finish getting his education. “I had no intention of making the military a career. I promised I would send at least half my thirty-dollar-a-month private’s pay to help with household expenses and besides, I reasoned, there would be one less mouth to feed.
“When they saw my determination, they signed” (Slaughter John, 25).
At the age of 15, Slaughter stood at six foot two. He begged his parents to sign the papers that would allow him to go in to the core. “My father had joined the army in 1918 during WWI and was assigned to the coast artillery at Fort Story, Virginia” (Slaughter John, 21). While his father was in the core, he contracted the Asian flu, and came very close to dying (Slaughter John). So his father knew what he was getting into and what could happen, he just hoped that his son knew as well. When he went to the enlistment office, the captain questioned his decision, but let him join. WWII had not even been a thought at the time, and he had no idea what he was getting himself into. The men went through a year of intense training (Slaughter John).When he got out of basic training, he stood at six foot five (Slaughter, John). Slaughter joined the heavy weapons company that would help the riflemen in combat (Slaughter, John). No one thought they would ever see action, and then World War II hit. Before the men were shipped off, they were given a speech by their town mayor,
“I do not know what tasks will be assigned of you… I do know that whatever the tasks are. or whatever the sacrifice required of you, that not one single member of the
1st Battalion, 116th infantry, 29th Division will be found wanting.
Your Battalion has a splendid and noble record. Many of its
members in the World War I are standing here beside me. They are not handing the baton to you, but merely back standing you here, for their services may be needed before the insane dictators of Europe are crushed… Good luck and God bless you”
(Walter W. Wood).
Named Operation Overlord, the battle of D-Day was arguably the biggest battle in WWII.
On June 6, 1944, 150,000 Allied troops were deployed on the French coastline in Normandy. Their mission was simple: to push the Nazi forces back and invade into the land of France, which would allow them to push into Germany and defeat the tyrant Adolf Hitler. This battle had been planned out for over a year, and the day of the battle was going to be on the 5th, but bad weather pushed it back to the 6th. The battle began at 6:30; the men faced a boat-ride to the shore that made many of them sick, as guns went off on the ships behind them, water poured over the side. They could hear the clangs of bullets hitting the sides of the boats, and prayed that none of them would come through. When they arrived to the shore, they had to wade through the water with over 80 pounds of gear, all the while Germans were shooting bullets at them. Many of the men were unlucky and did not even make it out of the boat, and the ones that did had to fight just to stay afloat in the water. Over 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft helped with the invasion, one of the biggest battles by far. What made everything worse for the men, is that they had to run 200 yards of beach before they had any type of cover at all. Many of the soldiers fighting were not even 20 years of age yet. Most had not even finished high school.
Among the ranks of allied soldiers, there was a group from Virginia that went in first. These men were called the Bedford Boys. The name came from the town of Bedford from which they came. Thirty men that had come from Bedford were still in the unit the day of the attack, but by the end of the day, nineteen of them had died (Slaughter, John). Many of the men that went into the 29th battalion did not think they would ever see any action-until the plans of Operation Overlord came to their ears, and they realized that they would be the first ones on the field. These men had to be expert marksman, and had to be able to carry out their missions flawlessly. This meant that they had to know all the works of fighting (Slaughter John). They had to be able to stalk and remain unseen and be able to report everything that happened. All of the basic training was held at Achnacarry House in the highlands of a British depot. It rained quite often there, and the men were pushed to their limits. There always seemed to be a biting wind that would go right through their clothes and chill the very bones of the men. They were taught to be able to live off of the land for long periods of time (Slaughter John). One of the instructors went by Captain Hoar. He was a battle-hardened veteran that showed the marks of war. At the time, he was still recovering from wounds that had been inflicted upon him in North Africa. “His hatred of the Germans was absolute and unconditional” (Slaughter John, 63). “The training consisted of grueling speed marches, running the world’s toughest obstacle course, mountain and cliff climbing, unarmed combat, boat drills, stripped-to-the-waist log PT (physical training) during the winter, and finding our way on the desolate Scottish moors with nothing but a compass and a map” (Slaughter, 63). After a little time, over half of the men that went in decided they could not do it and had backed out. The commander gave the men strict morals to fight by, and most men did not forget them (Slaughter John). One of those men was Bob Slaughter.
After all the training, the men finally felt ready to fight the biggest battle of their lives. Little did they really know what really awaited them at Omaha Beach. Captain Shilling gave the men their last pep talk before the battle; for many of them, it would be the last speech they ever hear. The end of the speech went like this: “Men,” he said, “this is it, the real McCoy. The dry runs are over, the amphibious assault training has finally concluded” (Slaughter John, 96 ). The men understood what he was saying, and prepared themselves mentally for what was to come. Then, the battle came.
The ride to the beach was far from pleasant. The boats of which they road in had a flat bow, and as it hit the seven foot swells, it would send water over the sides and flooding the inside of the boat, soaking the men inside (Slaughter John). The captains ordered them to start bailing out the water with their helmets. Some men even wished that they would make it to the shore. They had to wait for all six boats to get in the water before they could advance, soaking them even more as they waited. An hour later, when the last one was finally in, they started the advance. The ride to shore was a slow one. They could hear the roar of anti-aircraft guns going off in direction they were going (Slaughter John). They knew that there was no turning back now, and the only way to get back home was to survive whatever lay in wait. The men were given brown bags, just in case they got sick on the ride, and many of them filled theirs and then had to use their helmets to throw it out of the boat. As they neared the shore, they came across men who were stranded in the water due to their boat filling with water and sinking. They got them in the boat and continued to advance (Slaughter John). Rounds from the allied ships flew over their heads as they neared the shore. Slaughter recalled, “We could see the projectiles spiraling as if thrown by a gigantic quarterback” (107). About one hundred yards out, small arms started firing at them. They could hear the clangs of the shots hitting the sides of the boat and skipping off. As the shore grew closer and closer, the enemy started firing mortar rounds at them. The explosions going off all around them would send debris and water spilling over the sides of the boats. This struck fear into the hearts of the men, for they had never had people shooting to actually kill them in training. They knew that they would be lucky to even make it to the shore (Slaughter John). The beach should have been taken over by the time the Bedford boys went in, and they realized very quickly that the plan had not gone as they hoped. They ended up being the first ones to even set foot on the beach that they landed on. The weather and the rough seas had pushed them off course (Slaughter John).
Exiting the boat in itself was a challenge for the men. When they arrived at shore, the coxswain could not drop the steel door to the boat. The coxswain is the steersman of the boat. When they managed to get it down, the boat pivoted on it and raised them six or seven feet in the air, and then slammed back down (Slaughter John). It made a ritual of it, and made exiting the boat very difficult. “The first man to exit went off about midramp. The craft surged forward and crushed the poor fellow to death. Everyone who followed went off at each side or the rear” (Slaughter, 109). Slaughter took an exit off to the side. As the men got out of their boats, they found that the journey did not become any easier. The water was over six feet, and they had over eighty pounds of soaked gear on that drug them down. Shorter men grabbed on to Slaughter just to keep their heads above the water, and many failed in their attempts. Men resourced to taking off their protective gear and throwing down their guns just to get to shore. Slaughter was afraid of being shot and then drowning due to small arms fire and snipers (Slaughter John).
The beaches of Normandy were hell for the men. Many did not even make it out of the water and on dry land (Slaughter John). Even if they did, they had very little cover and also had to run with 80 pounds of soaked gear on them. The anti-artillery units were supposed to have been taken out by the allied aircraft before the infantry hit the beach. Poor weather obstructed their view so they let their bombs out further inland, missing their targets completely. Another failure by the allied troops, were their new amphibious tanks. This was the first time that these tanks had been used, and many sank before making it to shore. Many men thought it was a bad idea to float a tank in the first place, but they did it anyway (Slaughter John). The life of a heavy gunner on this mission was very difficult as well. The guns that they carried were broken down into three different parts: a tripod, the receiver, two boxes of ammo, and two gallons of water that were used to cool the weapon down when in use. Many of the mortar teams did not even make it to the shore, many drowned with the heavy equipment.
A few hours into the operation, Slaughter and his men had made it to the base of the beach. They knew that they had to get off the beach, or else they would be killed. The men scrambled through a path that had been cleared away. All around were signs warning the men of underground mines. They found a path with white tape that seemed to be safe to travel on (Slaughter John). They took their chances and followed it. They soon came to a dead officer that had a radio on his back, all they could hope was that it still worked. They flipped it on and sure enough it still worked. Slaughter remembered, “Pressley calmly told the destroyer that the ship’s liaison officer was dead and that he had a target for them. He described nearby landmarks and asked them to fire a test round, which they did (81). The ship fired off two or three rounds before the explosions actually came into view (Slaughter John). It was only a matter of time before they would hit their mark and the men could advance. They were off the beach, but still in the danger zone. At the top of the hill they encountered a squad of Germans on bicycles. They took them out them out, and then set up fortifications. They expected to have a counterattack put upon them in twenty-four hours. They were low on guns and ammunition, so they all took turns going to the beach to collect what they could (Slaughter John). After a few trips by the men, it was Slaughter’s turn; it was a disaster area. The incoming flooding tide brought with it the bodies of hundreds of our proud regiment. Slaughter remembered, “Scores of our men with bloodstained shirts rolled in the surf among helmets, assault jackets, gas masks, and M1 rifles” (Slaughter
John). Seeing this Slaughter thought that the mission was completely useless.
The battle was considered a victory, but it came with a price. Many of the allied troops would never see their family’s again. “As I later discovered, one company of the 116th Infantry had fared even worse than we had in D company. As the ramps splashed down, the 180-man A Company, led by Captain Taylor Fellers, were cut down like wheat under a slashing scythe. Because this first-wave team beat the smoke and fire, they landed precisely where they were supposed to land, and were decimated in mere minutes. Ninety-one of the 180 men in the landing party died, and most of the others were wounded. We found out later that it was the concentrated machine gun fire we had heard to our right when we were at the sea wall that nearly wiped them out. The next day, only about fifteen soldiers from Company A were able to continue the fight” (Slaughter John, 115-116). “The 116th Infantry lost from eight hundred to one thousand men on D-Day and D Company lost at least seventy-two” (Slaughter John, 118). They spent that night on top of the hill at Omaha beach. Later they discovered that they had been camped out just 25 yards away from their enemy (Slaughter John).
The battle of D-Day was over, but a long march to Germany awaited the men. All of them thought that they were going to get shot; they just hoped that it would be in an arm or leg. Getting men medical attention was very tough for the soldiers. Many did not get any and died by either bleeding out, or getting an infection. Slaughter himself was inflicted two wounds during this operation; one skimming the top of his head, and the other in the torso.
Slaughters troops made it to the Bivouac area, and this is where the news that the war was over reached their ears. Mr. Slaughter remembers, “The war’s over! The war’s over!” “The war’s over! Even before this pronouncement, it was clear to us that the war was ending, but they still were good words to hear” (185). Slaughter was going home.
Life outside of the army was a twist for the soldiers coming back. Not only the physical scars got to them, but the emotional scars got to them as well. Many were traumatized so bad that they had to go into therapy, some never fully recovered. Bob Slaughter was a very tough man, and did what he could to not show the effects of the war. He was barely even known as one of the soldiers that fought in the war much less the battle of D-Day. 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” (Bishop). At nights, Slaughter was very active. Everyone around knew not to mess with him, especially when he was drunk. Things were not looking up to Slaughter, and then he met Margaret Leftwich and his life changed completely. “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” (Bishop). He found a job working in the newspaper industry and became the composing room foreman. ” He raised two sons, coached Little League, made furniture in his woodworking shop, and mowed the grass. For 30 years, except to other veterans, he rarely mentioned the war. His wife knew little of what he had been through. His sons learned even less” (Bishop). Occasionally they would ask for a story about D-Day, but they never got it. It was as if the world did not care and did not want to care about what happened on D-Day. This irritated Slaughter, but he never said anything.
Time passed, and in 1987 Slaughter retired from his newspaper job. One day, Slaughter was talking to a former co-worker. The co-worker’s name was Steve Stinson. Stinson brought up that we wanted to take his wife to Europe. Slaughter replied saying that he had been there before, on D-Day (Bishop). Slaughter then went into his story of that horrible day and Stinson replied saying, “There should be a memorial for the men of D-Day” (Bishop). This got Slaughter on the ball again. “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” (Bishop).
For all of this to happen, Slaughter had to recollect all the war memories that he had. This took a toll on him and many nights he would have nightmares of the battle. “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” (Bishop). Getting the monument was not an easy or quick process, he would spend days typing on his typewriter. He had no idea that this small idea would turn into a multimillion dollar project.
In the end, Slaughter got what he wanted.
“Plans were announced for a $12 million memorial and education center. Ground was broken. And the “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” (Bishop). The memorial was placed in Bedford Virginia, the town that had sustained the most loss per capita than any other town (Langer). There was already a small monument there dedicated to the Bedford Boys, but Mr. Slaughter wanted one dedicated to all the D-Day men who lost their lives.
Through all of this, Bob Slaughter stayed his humble self, often saying, “I’m not doing this for me, I’m doing it for the memorial.”
“Mr. Slaughter, 87, died May 29 at a hospital in Roanoke of complications from dementia, his son Bob Slaughter Jr. said” (Langer). Slaughter may not be with us today, but his legacy lives on.
D-Day was one of the most infamous battles of WWII, many Americans lost their lives that day, but a Virginian who went by John Robert “Bob” Slaughter faced the beaches first hand, lived to tell the tale, and then became responsible for the memorial that we have today in Bedford, Virginia. Through Mr. Slaughter the world has realized just what it was like to have faced the battle in Normandy. While we will never fully understand what he and many other men went through, we can sure give them our gratitude and respect.
Bishop, Mary. “The Long March of Bob Slaughter.” The Long March of Bob Slaughter.
The Roanoke Times, 6 June 1999. Web.
Langer, Emily. “Bob Slaughter, D-Day Veteran Who Helped Create National Memorial in
Bedford,Va.” Washington Post. The Washington Post. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.
Slaughter, John Robert. Omaha Beach and Beyond: The Long March of Sergeant Bob
Slaughter. St. Paul: Zenith, 2007. Print.