A Journey to World War II Battlefields Part 11: Anzio
Editor’s Note: This article is the eleventh installment from Carlo D’Este’s A Journey to World War II Battlefields. Please click on the following links to read Carlo’s other articles from this series: Tunisia; Kasserine Pass; Malta; Sicily; Biazza Ridge; Messina; Salerno; San Pietro Infine; Cassino and Monte Cassino.
The final stop on our tour of Mediterranean battlefields was Anzio. A two-hour bus ride from Gaeta brought us to the site of one of the most savage series of battles fought in all of World War II.
The Allied landings at the port cities of Anzio and Nettuno on January 22, 1944 were borne from the failure to advance rapidly on Rome after the invasion of Italy the previous September. Designed as both a diversion, a dagger in the German rear, and a threat to capture Rome, the invasion of Anzio turned instead into a bloody stalemate when the Germans rapidly brought thousands of reinforcements that nearly resulted in the Allies being defeated.
After a visit to an Anzio war museum our two buses traveled to one of the U.S. 3d Infantry Division landing beaches in Nettuno that was in an area off limits to the public and only accessible with a police escort. It proved to a very windy, unprepossessing and rather unpleasant place.
The various sites where so many of the Anzio battles were fought are now largely gone, replaced by commercial buildings or houses. A sad sign of the times is that the plaque in a stone wall commemorating the desperate battle fought at what was known as The Flyover is now obscured by a newsagent’s kiosk. (The battle for The Flyover will be the subject of a future article).
Our final stop was at the American military cemetery in Nettuno. It was first established on January 24, 1944 as a temporary cemetery in what is now seventy-seven acres covering an immense field that contains the graves of 7,861 American war dead set among rows of stately Roman pines. There is a large pool with an island and a cenotaph. In addition to the graves the cemetery has a memorial consisting of a chapel, a museum and two gardens.
There were formerly American military cemeteries in both Salerno and Sicily that were eventually closed and the graves moved and consolidated at the new site in Nettuno, now called the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial.
Most of those buried here died in Sicily, at Salerno, Cassino, Anzio, and in air and naval operations in the Mediterranean. On the while marble walls of the chapel are the names of 3,095 of the missing – and as is the case in all American Battle Monuments Commission cemeteries, there are rosettes to mark the names of those since recovered and identified.
There is also a large map room containing a bronze relief map depicting military operations in both Sicily and Italy.
At each end of the Memorial are ornamental Italian gardens. In the center of the Memorial is a brothers-in-arms statue depicting an American soldier & sailor each with an arm around the other’s shoulder.
On the east façade of the museum is a panel symbolizing Resurrection that portrays a dead soldier being borne to his reward by a guardian angel.
Some facts about the cemetery: One plot contains many of Audie Murphy’s platoon (Co B, 1st Bn, 15th Inf. Regt, 3d Inf. Div.) A complete bomber crew is buried side by side; several nurses buried here were killed by an exploding shell at what is now the entrance to the cemetery; twenty-three sets of brothers are buried side by side, and Medal of Honor winner, 1st Lt. Robert T. Waugh of the 85th Inf. Div. is buried here. Lt. Waugh won the Medal of Honor on May 14, 1944 for personally taking out six enemy pillboxes.
Perhaps the most unusual ceremony ever recorded occurred here on Memorial Day 1945. The cemetery was still a raw, unfinished place with wooden grave markers. The principal speaker was Lt. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott, the U.S. Fifth Army commander, who commanded Allied troops at Anzio the year before.
The cemetery was filled with visitors and VIPs that included several American senators, and a military honor guard. Also present that day was famed G.I. cartoonist, Bill Mauldin and as he later related, there was a very different kind of ceremony held that day.
When Truscott spoke, he turned away from the visitors and addressed himself to the corpses he had commanded there. It was the most moving gesture I ever saw. It came from a hard-boiled old man who was incapable of planned dramatics. The general’s remarks were brief and extemporaneous. He apologized to the dead men for their presence here. He said everybody tells leaders it is not their fault that men get killed in war, but that every leader knows in his heart this is not altogether true. He said he hoped anybody here through any mistake of his would forgive him, but he realized that was asking a hell of a lot under the circumstances. One of the senator’s cigars went out; he bent over to relight it, then thought better of it.
Truscott said he would not speak of the glorious dead because he didn’t see much glory in getting killed in your late teens or early twenties. He promised that if in the future he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought that death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. He said he thought it was the least he could do.
Even today, Truscott’s words are as moving as they were fifty-six years ago when he spoke of what the loss of these men and women meant to him. They are unique in the annals of Memorial Day speeches.
Back aboard ship late that afternoon we began saying our good byes as we got ready to debark early the following morning to begin the long journey home. Our tour of a number of Mediterranean battlefields was enlightening and educational. It was also poignant, as several of the participants had relatives who were lost during World War II. Cemeteries like those at Nettuno that are so magnificently maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission are moving testimonials to the terrible price that war extracts.
Like others on the tour, I spent time alone wandering among the graves, stopping occasionally to read the names, and to ponder on the enormity of their sacrifice.
Source for descriptions of the cemetery are from the ABMC website: http://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries/cemeteries/sr.php