We went to the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, outside of Rome in Nettuno, Italy, because my great-uncle was part of the invasion force that landed nearby in January of 1944. Though he made it through that particular slog in the mud, he was killed in a car accident in Paris in 1945, just before being shipped stateside.
My father's named after him.
Anyway, there's a certain fascination to tracking the steps of your ancestors (though it seems a little strange to refer to my grandparents' generation as "ancestors") which is why we took our Mercedes to the American Cemetery.
The only other military cemetery I've visited is Arlington National Cemetery, where my grandfather is.
For people of my generation, I think it's hard to fully understand that this was a war supported by the American people in full measure. Before terms like "liberty" and "freedom" were coopted to serve purely political purposes, they had a meaning people would die for.
There are 7,861 American servicemen and women buried here, with a chapel dedicated to a further 3,095 whose remains were never found.
It's an immensely peaceful place, as cemeteries tend to be.
The American Battle Monuments Commission is doing a wonderful job - the grounds couldn't have looked nicer.
Crosses stretched off in neatly curved rows, broken occasionally by a Star of David. After a moment, the markers begin to blend together - it's hard to imagine that each of these blindingly white symbols signify the grave of an actual person, until you look more closely at the names.
Here and there, we found crosses marking remains that were never identified. How must families have felt, never knowing where their loved ones rested?
In the back of the cemetery sits a neo-classical building. Half of this building is a chapel dedicated to all of the unknown soldiers, while the other half is filled with large maps and dioramas helping to put the Anzio invasion in a broader context.
The maps were helpful, giving a better idea of how many people and divisions were involved in the operation, and just how slowly they advanced.
A 3-D mosaic of the entire country of Italy showed how gaining a foothold near Anzio was so essential for the eventual move north into Rome.
Scariest of all for me was a map of Europe between December of 1941 and June of 1943, showing just how much territory the Axis powers could lay claim to. The white (or light gray) is Axis, the darker gray is neutral, and orange is Allied.
It's pretty hard to believe.
Walking out of the history lesson, you face the chapel dedicated to the unknown soldiers. There's a grate up which prevents you from actually going in, though it is possible to see the engraved names, written in very, very small script so as to fit them all in the limited area.
It's a very powerful room. Beautiful, too, with a zodiac covering the ceiling.
We had to cut our time at the cemetery a little short, since our next stop, the Anzio Beachhead Museum (or Museo dello Sbarco) closes fairly early. It was difficult to leave - I was lost in thought about the significance of the place and the people resting there.
We left the cemetery and got lost on the way to the museum. That's what we get for following signs - those lying pieces of metal said Anzio and Nettuno were only 3 kilometers apart, but it took us almost an hour to get from one to the other! (Actually, every single time we tried to go from Nettuno to Anzio, we got horribly lost. Good times with road signage.)
The Museo dello Sbarco was actually a one-room deal, filled from floor to ceiling with memorabilia. Some of it was sent in by the veterans or their families, and there were handwritten letters everywhere that had accompanied Uncle John's uniform or Bill's medal.
There were also a few artifacts that had been pulled up from the waters around Anzio, like this American helmet recovered from a depth of 112 meters.
There were pictures of servicemen everywhere, which served to put a human face on the operation that the cemetery hadn't - here, you saw the young men who were actually there. A 1960s-era 20-minute video, full of interviews with the ranking officers in charge of the invasion, was interesting not only for its historical context, but also for being a prime example of 1960s school video.
The display I found the most interesting, though, was the strip along the top of the wall filled with Italian and German propaganda from different times during the war. We've all seen lots of American posters from that era, with Rosie the Riveter and requests to buy war bonds and warnings of loose lips sinking ships, so it was interesting to see what the other side was saying.
They ranged from incredibly racist ( I mean, my god!),
to more than just a little creepy,
(the Italian means "Germany is truly your friend")
to sort of funny.
This was the first World War 2 site we had visited since we've been here - not really being war buffs (a mark that distinguishes me from my father and aunt) I hadn't had the urge. However, I was very happy to see this piece of family history.
And that was just the morning! Next post will be lighter, I hope, though we did have an extremely heavy seafood pasta.