It’s a continuous homage to the other side of the world, with just a brush and a bucket of water. Three days a week, a crew of 20 in southern Italy washes each of the 7,861 military headstones of troops from places like Connecticut and Missouri. The Sicily-Rome American World War II Cemetery and Memorial, south of Rome, honors American service members who died during the war. Most were killed during the campaigns that led to the liberation of Rome from the Nazis during World War II.
Dawn Royster didn’t know places like this existed until she researched her family’s history. Royster promised her mother that she would come to Italy to honor her grandfather, Lt. James A. Calhoun. He was a Tuskegee Airman, part of this famous African-American unit in the United States Army.
“My grandmother, I believe, was his neighbor, and they met and fell in love,” Royster said. “He was black. She was white. It was, uh, a big deal! My grandmother’s family wasn’t happy about it.”
So when Lieutenant Calhoun died in the war, Royster’s family believed his grandmother’s story that he was missing in action and was not buried overseas in one of the military cemeteries managed by the US government. But as Royster told Melanie Resto, an Army veteran who runs this cemetery, her mother discovered old letters from the War Department:
“I remember she came to me and said, ‘My father is buried in a cemetery in Italy.’ And we were like, “What are you talking about? He was missing in action.” She replied, “He wasn’t. And he has a grave.”
As superintendent, part of Resto’s job is to collect and preserve these stories. She said, “The promise that was made – Time will not obscure the glory of their deeds – is a promise we keep true today. »
This promise was made by Army General John J. Pershing, appointed to the U.S. Battle Monuments Commission by President Warren Harding. In 1923, one hundred years ago, Harding signed legislation establishing this effort that honors fallen and missing service members.
“Today, military personnel killed in action, he is automatically repatriated home within 12 to 15 hours maximum? He can return home to the United States,” Resto said. “But back then, that wasn’t the case. We had war deaths overseas.”
Today, the commission manages 26 permanent cemeteries and 32 memorials, monuments and landmarks, in far-flung places like the Solomon Islands, Tunisia, the Philippines and Panama. There are 12 cemeteries in France.
The cemetery outside of Rome is for the dead of World War II, who died between Sicily and Rome. “So no spouse is buried here, none of their children are buried here, like they would be in a normal national cemetery, like Arlington,” Resto said.
But like Arlington, the gardens are meticulously maintained. Dimitri Manuzzi, a member of this team of twenty gardeners, said it was important that the soils be precise, in order to honor the dead: “Nothing is perfect, we work to create perfection,” he said. he declares. “Every day we honor these guys who give us their lives for freedom.”
Siversto Martufi, 94, grew up nearby and remembers the Allied landings. “Every time I pass by here, I greet them,” he said. “I was very close to these guys and on Sundays when I visit them I talk to them. For me, this place is very close to my heart.”
Anna Carrocci, 88, remembers the construction of this cemetery. She said: “When they started working here I saw all the body bags on the floor. I asked my mother and she said, “They were all soldiers who fought for us.” And I said, ‘Oh my God, there are so many…'”
She was only a child then, but it is still moving for her to remember it.
Dawn Royster didn’t think she’d be moved by visiting her grandfather’s grave: “I always thought he was missing in battle. And even now I’m a little struck by the fact that he’s here . And that’s incredible to me.”
As she does for each visiting family member, Resto scrubs the sand from nearby Nettuno Beach, where the Allies landed, on the marker, bringing the names into focus once again.
“It seems like a royal person would be buried here,” Royster said. “It’s stunningly beautiful, immaculately maintained, very stylish. What an incredible place to spend your down time, to be watched over and taken care of every day.”
It’s all part of General Pershing’s promise 100 years ago: “Time will not obscure the glory of their deeds.” »
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Story produced by David Rothman. Publisher: Emanuele Secci.