CHIAVARI, Italy – This is Memorial Day weekend and just like the United States, America’s fallen heroes will be honored in Italy too. The only difference is that they will be honored by the very people they were liberating when they lost their lives for the sake of their freedom. The ceremonies will take place at two of the American military cemeteries in Italy, one in Anzio and the other in Florence.
The idea of American military cemeteries started after World War I. Given the number of soldiers killed on all sides, the U.S. did not know what do to. How could they bring so many bodies back to the United States? They also had to figure out a way to commemorate their sacrifice. So an idea was developed to establish cemeteries overseas, and let the soldiers become the monuments to their service.
Families of deceased World War I soldiers were given choices regarding the remains of their loved ones. They could choose to have them buried overseas in cemeteries with perpetual care, or returned to a national cemetery or family grave site in the United States. Their other option was to have their loved ones remains shipped somewhere else in the world, in which case they would be responsible for the funeral costs. About 20% of families chose the first option, overseas cemeteries.
According to the American Battle Monuments Commission there are 24 cemeteries in foreign lands where nearly 125,000 service men and women are buried. The Florence American Cemetery and Memorial is one of them. It is in the outskirts of Florence, Italy, next to an ancient Roman highway, the Via Cassia.
This cemetery holds 4,402 of our military dead. Some are the men and women who died in Italy during the last days of World War II, a fight that ended on May 2, 1945 when the last of the enemy troops were surrounded and captured in northern Italy. But most of them died in the fighting that took place after the liberation of Rome in June 1944. These dead Americans represent 39 percent of the total U.S. Fifth Army’s burials.
Ex-servicemen and women are drawn to this cemetery to honor those who have served and died in a cause they believed in. The band of brothers is more than just a movie title, it is the bond soldiers feel toward each other that only they truly understand. And even though their “brothers” are in a cemetery, those bonds are still strong.
At the Florence American Cemetery there are over 1,400 names on marble slabs called “The Tablets of the Missing”. The stone markers have no names on them and are marked only with the sorrowful phrase “Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms Known But to God.” These are the unknown soldiers who have been buried with their comrades. Their families only know that they died, but not where they are buried.
The second American cemetery, which honors the heroes of World War II, is the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial. It is located in Nettuno, Italy, near Anzio in the province of Lazio.
The Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial covers 77 acres. There are 7,861 American military war dead here, their graves form gentle arcs on the wide green lawns shaded by Roman pine trees. Most of these men died in the liberation of Sicily, which took place from July 10 to August 17, 1943, and in the landings at Salerno of September 9, 1943, and the heavy fighting during the landing at Anzio Beach, which started in January 22, 1944 and didn’t end until May of that same year.
At the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery there is a wide central mall that leads to the Memorial Chapel. The names of 3,085 whose bodies were never found, are engraved on the white marble walls of the chapel. The names of those whose bodies have since been recovered and identified are marked with rosettes. In the map room there is a bronze relief map and four fresco maps that show the military operations in Sicily and Italy. At the end of each section of the memorial there are carefully tended ornamental Italian gardens.
The very people who were liberated by the men who are buried here, now care for the American cemeteries in Italy. The cemeteries hold the stories, great and small, of Americans who volunteered to march long miles with little sleep and in desperate conditions, and in the end lost their lives. The sacrifices they and their families made are not forgotten by the Italians, and never will be.
This article was first posted last Memorial Day. I felt it was worth repeating. I hope you agree. Happy Memorial Day.