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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Loss of a Friend: John Robert "Bob" Slaughter

John Robert "Bob" Slaughter
The National D-Day Memorial Foundation is deeply saddened by the death of our dear friend and founder John Robert Slaughter who passed away yesterday, May 29, 2012.  Bob brought the same energy, tenacity, and drive to the creation of the D-Day Memorial that he displayed 68 years ago on Omaha Beach, and throughout the war. 

Bob Slaughter entered the service in 1940 at the tender age of 15 (after convincing his parents that he wanted to join the National Guard and earn extra money for household expenses).  By the age of 19, he found himself engaged in the largest amphibious assault in history on the beaches of Normandy, France.   Bob served with Company D, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division.  Company D was a heavy weapons company that supported rifle companies in combat.  Slaughter was wounded twice while in France and was discharged in July 1945 at which point he returned to his home in Roanoke, Virginia.  He married in 1947, and he and his wife Margaret had two children.  Over the years, however, memories of what took place on that stretch of sand in Normandy continued to haunt him. 

In 1987, Bob Slaughter declared “We have no gathering place, no meeting hall, no memorial, where our country can collect its memories and the lessons we learned from D-Day.”  Shortly thereafter, Slaughter, along with several other supporters, formed a committee to raise money and search for an appropriate location for a small memorial. 

After visiting Normandy on several occasions, the vision for a memorial took shape and in 1989, Slaughter’s small committee introduced a seventeen-member board of directors.  The committee faced a series of challenges and a discouraged board was near disbandment when a resurgence of interest in D-Day, due to the 50th anniversary in 1994, led to increased publicity and new momentum. 

Shortly thereafter, Bedford City officials donated eleven acres of land to the D-Day Foundation for the site of the proposed memorial and an additional seventy-seven acres was purchased by the Foundation to protect the site from further development. 

Mr. Slaughter served as the Foundation’s Chairman from 1994-2001.  Congress also adopted legislation designating the site a national memorial in 1994.  The Foundation hired its first employee in 1996 and the Memorial was officially dedicated by President George W. Bush on 6 June 2001. 

Plaque marking the Bob Slaughter Youth Learning Center
In 2007, Bob authored Omaha Beach and Beyond, an auto-biography, chronicling his wartime experience and the creation of the Memorial.  In 2008, the John Robert Slaughter Youth Learning Center was dedicated at the Memorial.  That area has always been and continues to be the hub of the Foundation’s education initiatives.  Last year the Foundation celebrated Bob’s achievements by welcoming him as Director Emeritus.

Bob Slaughter was a very special man and one who was respected and admired.  In his book in 2007, Bob noted “Now that I am in my eighties, I am well aware that the long march that began so many years ago is about to come to a halt.  I am proud to say my generation helped save the world from tyranny, prevent the extinction of an entire group of people, and preserve the democratic freedoms of our wonderful American way of life.  I wouldn’t change a thing, except to wish that my dear army buddies could be here to see and touch the magnificent National D-Day Memorial that was built for us all.”

While Bob will be deeply missed, his legacy is preserved in perpetuity at the National D-Day Memorial.  The Foundation Board, volunteers and staff extend their deep and heartfelt condolences to Bob’s family and his many, many friends.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Our D-Day Fallen: PFC James Burns

The next few days and weeks here at the Memorial are very busy and exciting times, but they are also very solemn times.  The D-Day Memorial, like many other sites around the country, will host a special ceremony on Memorial day to remember the nation's fallen; and while it is not a national holiday, we also host another commemorative event on the 68th anniversary of D-Day on June 6th.  In honor of the solemnity of the next few weeks leading up to these events, we will feature a few stories of fallen D-Day heroes on our blog.

I would also like to extended a huge "thank you" to our summer intern, Kaitlin, who compiled the information and drafted the text for this post on James Burns.


James Franklin Burns was born on July 23, 1923 in Hamilton, Texas.  Before WWII broke out, he worked on his family farm after completing an 8th grade education.  On January 15, 1943, James received his draft letter, and by 1944 PFC James Burns was a bona fide member of the US Army's 146th Combat Engineers.

The 146th found themselves in England preparing for the impending invasion of France.  The night before the D-Day Invasion James spoke with a friend, Carroll Guidry, and made the remark that he did not think he would make it through the invasion.  Guidry brushed off the comment and thought nothing of such a dark premonition.  On the first day of the invasion, the 146th was tasked with removing obstacles in the sea and on land.  While working towards their objective on the beach, a sand dune collapsed burying men from the 146th battalion including James Burns.

Guidry watched in horror as the dune collapsed then rushed in to help others dig men out of the sand.  While most of the men were rescued from the disaster, James remained unaccounted for.  Soon enough, someone standing in the sand pile felt something beneath the surface and started digging; it was James Burns.  Sadly, James' premonition proved true as he died that day in the sands of Normandy.  Carroll Guidry recalls laying next to the body of his friend, James, and cried as the battle raged on.  PFC Burns was the only causality from this collapsed sand dune.

James Burns was initially buried in the first cemetery along Omaha Beach, but upon request from his parents, he was later laid to rest at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas.  James' commander also sent a letter to the Burns family praising James for his valor and commitment to duty regardless of circumstance.  Years later, at the 50th Anniversary Commemoration in Normandy, William Burns, James' younger brother, accepted the French Freedom Medal on his older brother's behalf.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Digging for Victory

One of my favorite aspects of springtime at the Memorial is our annual Victory Garden project.  Every year we select a group of local students to participate in planning, planting, tending, and harvesting the Memorial's own Victory Garden.  We collaborate with local Master Gardeners, 4-H agents, and the Bedford Cooperative Extension to teach students about nutrition, environmental science, and the farm to table process.  I am always amazed by the eagerness of our students to learning about gardening in our hands-on format. 

The Memorial's victory garden is a representation of the victory gardens common on the American Homefront in WWII.  Victory gardens first became popular in WWI in the midst of food rationing, and when war broke out again in the 1940s and rationing was re-introduced, Americans across the country turned to their Victory Gardens to supplement their diets.  By the end of WWII, over 20 million victory gardens were growing nation-wide!

Victory gardens were planted during the world wars to ensure an adequate food supply for civilians and troops.  Many different agencies and organizations worked together to provide land, instruction, and seeds for Americans to grow food.  Across the country, people plowed backyards, vacant lots, parks, and even baseball fields to set out gardens.  Adults and children tended their gardens in order to harvest plenty of vegetables. 

The goal of a victory garden was to produce enough vegetables for a family and their neighbors for the summer.  Any excess produce was canned and saved for the winter and early spring until next year's harvest.

Happy Gardening!