Memorial Day Address--2007
by Robert Neumiller
Sykeston American Legion Hall
Sykeston, North Dakota
This is the story of one specific event and one specific war--World War II. But I hope this story will provide some inspiration for all of us to remember all of those who have fallen in all wars, and to remind us that the sacrifices made by our soldiers and their families are often appreciated well beyond our shores.
In January of 2004, my wife, Heidi, and I took a trip to Italy, to, among other things, visit some of the places my father, Paul Neumiller, had seen as a tank driver during the Italian campaign of World War II. One of those places was the twin cities of Anzio and Nettuno, tiny resort towns on the Tyrrhenian sea, 30 miles south of Rome, where, on January 22, 1944, Allied forces landed behind the German defensive positions known as the Gustav Line.
In September of 1943, the Allies had made their first landing in Italy south of Naples, near the town of Salerno. They managed to drive the Germans north to the Gustav Line, a series of fortifications the Germans had built stretching from east to west across Italy. At this line the Allied advance was halted, and in order to break through, a plan was devised whereby British and American forces would land behind the line at Anzio-Nettuno, hopefully forcing the Germans to weaken their defenses to counter this new threat. But after landing, the Allies became immediately bogged down. Instead of withdrawing troops from the Gustav Line the Germans brought in reinforcements from the north. So for the next 4 months the Allies at Anzio-Nettuno occupied a stretch of beach about 20 miles long and 8 miles deep, attempting again and again to break out. During this time they were shelled constantly by German artillery, and suffered over 60,000 killed or wounded. As the death toll mounted, the American Army maintained a temporary cemetery near Nettuno, and it was near this site that after the war the American Battle Monuments Commission established a permanent cemetery to inter the dead whose next of kin wanted them buried near where they fell.
On January 22, 2004, on the sixtieth anniversary of the landing at Anzio-Nettuno, Heidi and I arrived at Anzio. Before we left home, I had searched the Internet, looking for some mention of a 60th anniversary commemoration of the landing. I found nothing. I was disappointed to say the least. So as we traveled to Anzio, I expected that we, and perhaps a handful of other Americans, would commemorate the occasion by ourselves. But what we encountered more than made up for the disappointment I felt earlier.
On our list of sites to see at Anzio-Nettuno was the American Cemetery and Memorial, so it was there that we went first. Near the cemetery, parked cars lined every street. We saw why after parking our rental car and walking the four blocks to the cemetery. Hundreds of Italian people, from the youngest children to the oldest citizens, all well-dressed in suits and dresses, stood at the cemetery’s entrance. This wasn’t a national holiday or a weekend; it was a Thursday morning, yet all these people had left work and school to be here. Something was going on that I hadn’t anticipated.
At one side of the cemetery’s bronze-gated entrance a stage and podium were set up against a high stone wall, and at the other side, in full dress uniforms, stood military brass bands from Italy, Great Britain, France, and the United States. While the bands waited, local dignitaries took turns making speeches in Italian. We understood none of their words, but their sentiments were unmistakable. They were paying tribute to those who lay beyond the wall. All around us men and women cried as the speeches continued, mostly men and women from that generation old enough to remember first hand what the people on the other side of the wall had died for. I’ll never know exactly what generated the tears of the old people in that crowd, but it reminds me now of a story my father told me about the war.
One day, after the landing at Salerno, as the Allies were following the German retreat north, Pa’s tank commander ordered him to pull over to the side of the road where the crew could get out and eat. As they did, they found an American soldier lying in the ditch with a massive chest wound. When they found that he was still alive, the radio operator ran back to the tank and called for a medic. While they waited, the tank crew gathered around the man, doing what they could to comfort him. The comfort didn’t last long. The man died as the tankers watched. This seems a simple story on the surface, devoid of many details. One death among millions. But for Pa it was an important story, one he wanted me to hear. The last time he told me this story we were in his family room, and as he finished the tale he was standing at the sliding glass doors staring out. What he saw beyond those windows I’m not sure, but I am sure he wasn’t seeing his fresh-mown lawn or the cows grazing contentedly on the other side of the road. And there was a sadness in his voice I had rarely ever heard. He ended the story by saying “Gotdangit that was hard to watch.”
But why such sadness for one soldier after all he had seen; after having lost his best friend in North Africa, whose burned body he had to identify; after the landing at Salerno, where he was forced to drive his tank in a zig-zag fashion to avoid the bodies lying on the beach; after crossing the Volturno river, where the water, he said, ran red with blood? I guess I’ll never know the answer. But I do know that it’s because of people like him--those who survived and those who didn’t--that I have never had to find out first hand. What I find comforting in his story and in the tears of the old people at that cemetery is that after all they have seen and after decades have passed, they are still able to mourn for people they never knew.
* * *
When the speeches were finished at the cemetery entrance the bands played their respective national anthems, beginning with Italy and ending with the United States; after which, the crowd dispersed, some walking back up the streets from which they came, but most going into the cemetery. We were about to step inside the gate ourselves when an Italian man with a Pomeranian dog on a leash approached us, asking if we were Americans. How he knew we were Americans I’m not sure; I suspect it was our casual attire--T-shirts and jeans--which was in stark contrast to the impeccable dress of most Italians. The man was about my age, spoke good English, and wanted to know if we had relatives buried here. I said no, but told him of my father’s military service during the war and our interest in visiting this place. The man was fascinated, wanting to know everything about Pa’s time in Italy--what battles he was in, what type of tank he drove, any wounds he suffered. I was happy to tell him what he wanted to know, and at that point thought he was just a history buff.
Inside the bronze gates we parted ways with the man, walked past a beautiful reflecting pool, and entered the graves area. Here, flanked on either side by Italian cypress and holly oak trees, lay the remains of 7,861 Americans, each grave marked with a white granite cross or Star of David, each stone inscribed with the person’s name, rank, military unit, date of death, and home state. Four hundred and eighty-eight of the headstones are inscribed with “Unknown”. There are 23 sets of brothers buried side by side, 2 sets of twins, 17 women, and 2 children. The dead buried at the American Cemetery at Nettuno represent only 35 percent of the Americans who were killed during the liberation of Sicily, the landing at Salerno, the heavy fighting northward, the landing and occupation of the Anzio Beachhead, and the liberation of Rome. The rest were sent home for interment at the request of their next-of-kin. The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains the cemetery at Nettuno, as well as 23 other overseas military cemeteries, wherein lie a total of 125,000 American war dead from both world wars and Korea.
Heidi and I passed through row after row of graves. On the Internet I had found a list of the men from the 751st Tank Battalion who were buried here and took a picture of each headstone we found. Around us we saw the Italian children we’d seen at the gate, now gathered in groups of 20 or 30, each with one or two adults at their lead--school groups we decided. As the teachers led the students among the graves they stopped here and there to point to a headstone and read its inscription and convey a lesson of some sort. At the far end of the cemetery, opposite the entrance gate, sits a memorial with white granite walls and Romanesque columns at its entrance. We watched a group of school girls, each wearing uniforms of plaid skirts and green blouses, be led by their teacher in front of the memorial where the teacher stopped them and had them face out toward the graves. As a group, the teacher and the children crossed themselves, bowed their heads for a few seconds, then moved on.
During our travels in Italy to that point we had seen graffiti scrawled on walls and bridges, little of which we could read. But here and there in the middle of some spray-painted Italian phrase we could make out the name “Bush.” We decided that the rest of those phrases probably weren’t flattering. And back at home in 2004 there were the news stories and polls suggesting that many Europeans were less than pleased with America. But during our visit to that cemetery it was beginning to sink in for me--the Italian people may not have agreed with our present policies, but they were still grateful for what our country had done 60 years earlier. Here were people of the generation that survived the war still crying for soldiers of another country, a man of my generation wanting to learn what one American soldier did on his land, other people of my generation teaching the youngest generation of another country’s sacrifice for them, and the youngest generation praying for those who made that sacrifice so long ago.
One of my father’s concerns was always that the Italian campaign, and especially the landing at Anzio, never received the credit it deserved. At home he was probably right. In the history books it hardly gets a paragraph, and the books written about it have titles like The Backwater War and Anzio: The Gamble that Failed. From a military standpoint the gamble may have failed, but from a human standpoint, I now realize, the gamble paid off tremendously. The proof for me that day at the cemetery was in the tears of the old and in the prayers of the young. They are still grateful 60 years later for the part played by my father and by the 7,861 Americans who died so that all Italian people might enjoy free and peaceful lives.
As we finished our visit and passed back through the front gate, we once again saw the Italian man with the Pomeranian. I waved to him. He came over to us, shook my hand, and said to me: “When you get home you tell your father, ‘Thank You’.”
As we walked away from that cemetery a half a world from home, I was never more proud of my father, and never more proud of my country.
Copyright 2007-2014. Robert Neumiller. All rights reserved.