A Journey to World War II Battlefields (Part 1)
In September I was a guest lecturer on a tour of World War II battlefields in conjunction with the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Over a ten-day period we visited a number of historic places in the Mediterranean, including Kasserine Pass, Malta, the landing sites and some of the battlefields in Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio. Starting this month and in the coming months I will be writing my impressions of what was a memorable and exceptionally edifying trip.
Accompanied by my wife, our trip began in Boston with a very uncomfortable flight overnight flight to Paris aboard an Air France 747, which had very narrow seats designed to numb one’s backside sometime within the first hour and a half of flight! From Paris we transferred to a mercifully short flight to Tunis, where the tour began.
Two nights in one of the world’s great hotels on the beach in Carthage was a wonderful cure-all for jet lag and a superb introduction to Tunisia.
Tunisia is a modern Arab nation with, at least on the surface, a surprisingly liberal Muslim society. In many respects Tunisia is a unique blend of Western and Arab cultures in a melting pot society. The nation is multi-lingual: English, Italian and German are frequently heard in addition to French and Arabic.
The mix of modern and ancient is evident everywhere. Tunis is a very modern city, while its suburb of Carthage is a pre-historic place with an incredible history that is thought to date to the 9th century BC.
There is a visible police presence throughout the country and during the next few days as we saw various parts of the country, we saw patrols everywhere. They routinely stop cars and people at random to check their papers. It was abundantly clear that small bribes are the necessary antidote for those who are stopped and wish to continue without further harassment.
Despite a vigorous economy and increasing tourism, lip service to democracy and a reformed political system, under its present ruler, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, (in power since 1987), Tunisia is nevertheless an authoritarian police state and a nation where censorship is routine and criticism of the government, while tolerated, does not extend to public demonstrations. Much of the censorship and repression practiced in Tunisia is aimed at curbing Islamic extremism.
The average tourist gets an impression of Tunisia as a progressive nation where the people seem to be relatively free and content despite the strong police and security presence. Those who arrive in Tunis by air have to go through a security check. I made the mistake of noting my profession on the immigration form as “writer,” which nearly got me into trouble when the officer thought I was a journalist. I had to hastily explain to another English-speaking officer that I write books and was in the country only as a “touriste.”
Nevertheless, what separates Tunisia from other Arab states is the legacy of its modern day leader. When France granted independence to Tunisia in 1956, one of the first acts undertaken by Habib Bourguiba, after he assumed the post of prime minister (and later as president-for-life), was to introduce modern social and economic changes that Westernized the nation. Tunisia became a secular state in which the role of Islam was largely marginalized. He closed religious schools, banned the Islamic law courts (the Sharia), abolished polygamy and granted women full rights, including the same rights to a free education (including university) that was granted to males. Women in Tunisia also have the right to divorce and a large number occupy senior positions in the government and in both the chambers of Parliament, where they hold some 20% of the seats.
The literacy rate is around 83% for males and nearly 75% for the entire population. Starting at the age of six, education up to the age of sixteen is compulsory and students are not only taught Arabic but also French and English.
Before departing Tunis our group visited the American military cemetery located in Carthage: the only cemetery in North Africa, and one of the twenty-four permanent overseas military cemeteries maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC).
Completed in 1960, it contains twenty-seven acres of marble headstones, 2,841 in all, ringed by cypress and Russian olive trees that also include acacia, Aleppo pines and Jerusalem thorn.
The cemetery is a prehistoric place built on the ruins of ancient Roman Carthage. The chimes ring each hour and sometimes mingle with the Muslim call to prayer from a nearby mosque located just outside the cemetery.
Four sets of brothers lie side by side and 240 headstones are inscribed: “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” There are more MIAs and unknowns here than there are headstones. On the Tablets of the Missing are inscribed the names of 3,274 and a rosette marks those who have since been recovered and identified. Also by the Tablets of the Missing is a Statue of “Memory,” while by the reflecting pool there is a Statue of “Honor.” In the cloister is a Stone of Remembrance. A Memorial contains a Court of Honor.
On another wall is a large map that highlights the names of the battles fought in North Africa. Texts are in English, Arabic and French.
Each grave tells a story of a life, a battle and a death. Battles ranging from Algiers, Casablanca, Oran, Longstop Hill, Sidi bou Zid, Kasserine, Sbeitla, Faid or perhaps El Guettar or Hill 609. From the dates of their deaths one can generally surmise the battle where they died.
Also resting here are airmen and others lost in battles in the air and at sea. Army Air Corps Captain Foy Draper, a 1936 Olympics Gold medal winner is among those buried at Carthage. Draper ran the third leg of the famed 4 x 100 relay team in Berlin that also included Jesse Owens, who ran the first leg. Their feat not only set a world record time of 39.8 seconds on August 9, 1936, but was also yet another rebuff to Adolph Hitler and his aim of a purely Aryan Olympic games. Their record stood until 1956. Another member of this famous relay team was Frank Wykcoff, who won Olympic gold medals in 1928 and 1932, giving him the distinction for a decade of being called the fastest man on Earth.
In North Africa, Foy piloted an attack bomber from a base at Thelepte, Tunisia. On Jan. 4, 1943 Foy flew a mission again Axis forces near Fonduk and never returned.
The headstones of Medal of Honor winners are engraved in gold with a gold star. There is one MOH winner buried here, Polish born Pvt. Nicholas Minue, Company A, 6th Armored Infantry, the 1st Armored Div.
His citation reads:
For distinguishing himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the loss of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy on 28 April 1943, in the vicinity of Medjez el Bab, Tunisia. When the advance of the assault elements of Company A was held up by flanking fire from an enemy machinegun nest, Pvt. Minue voluntarily, alone, and unhesitatingly, with complete disregard of his own welfare, charged the enemy entrenched position with fixed bayonet. Pvt. Minue assaulted the enemy under a withering machinegun and rifle fire, killing approximately 10 enemy machinegunners and riflemen. After completely destroying this position, Pvt. Minue continued forward, routing enemy riflemen from dugout positions until he was fatally wounded. The courage, fearlessness and aggressiveness displayed by Pvt. Minue in the face of inevitable death was unquestionably the factor that gave his company the offensive spirit that was necessary for advancing and driving the enemy from the entire sector. (Source: Congressional Medal of Honor Soclety)
The evening of September 11, after a day full of memories of the fallen of World War II and of that terrible day in the United States in 2001, we boarded a small but elegant cruise ship called the Corinthian II and sailed for Tunisian port city of Sousse. The ship was to be our home for the next ten days during a voyage that would take us to Malta, Sicily, and Italy.
The following day our group visited famed Kasserine Pass, the subject of next month’s article.