The envelope was addressed to me by name, and had been sent by the U.S. ambassador to Italy. It was an invitation to attend the annual Memorial Day observance at the U.S. War Cemetery at Nettuno, not far from the storied landing beaches of Anzio, and after confirming that my wife and daughters would go with me, I accepted. As guests of the ambassador, I dared to fancy that we might have reserved seats, perhaps near the front, and might be treated to some of the pomp and circumstance of military ceremonies.
So on a cool May morning last year, when my colleagues were heading for the beach or sleeping in, we rose early and dressed for the occasion. We were in good spirits as we left for the two-hour drive. But as the drive stretched on, I wondered if my wife and daughters were beginning to wish they hadn't come. Adding to these fears, I chafed at the traffic and the narrow beach roads that lay before us.
We finally arrived after a three-and-a-half-hour trip. Walking through broad metal gates, we found ourselves amid pleasant fountains, broad green lawns, shady trees, and row upon row of white marble crosses. The ceremony had begun, and we made our way quietly up the gravel path toward the crowd. Each branch of the U.S. armed forces had a formation in ranks before the rostrum, flanked on either side by the Sixth Fleet band and an Italian Carabinieri Band. Like many others who could not be seated, we stood in the shade of a tall tree, sobered by the occasion and listening to U.S. Sixth Fleet Commander Admiral Gregory G. Johnson's remarks.
Near the front of the crowd we could see a small sea of wizened heads, some wearing military hats, some with parts of old uniforms, a few leaning on canes. It became clear that these were the honored guests. These men, now wearied with age, had borne the battle, had once stood here in the flower of youth. They had seen these grounds under the scourging hand of war, when there were no shady trees or green lawns. They had left a part of their hearts here, and had come back to see old friends. The cumulative effect was inescapable: the strong young troops in sober formation; the U.S. and Italian flags, lowered to half-mast and billowing softly. The haunting tones of echo taps, the 21-gun salute, the "missing man" fly-over, and the military parade that brought the ceremony to an end. I didn't notice it, but my wife told me later she saw my daughters wiping tears from their eyes.
After the ceremony, the crowd before the dais broke into small groups of mourners who paid their private respects to fallen friends. Walking alone among the headstones, I came across an elderly Italian man. Out of courtesy I spoke a word of greeting, and in doing so unlocked a treasure box of emotion. As he began to speak, my wife and daughters came up beside me. We all stood in silent awe, with a little catch in our throats, as he told his tale.
His name was Michele Cuoco, and he had been a small boy in Anzio when the invasion began. he spoke of the oppressions of the German soldiers, and how the Italians looked forward to the liberation U.S. troops were sure to bring. He spoke of the misery and suffering brought on him and his neighbors by the scourge of war, and tears rolled down his cheeks as he told us of a U.S. Army captain who saved his life as the battle rolled northward. Gesturing broadly at the rows of graves, he said, "These are my friends and my heroes. I love them all, and I will never forget them and what they did for me. I come here every year on Memorial Day to honor them. The Americans saved my life and my country. I live in Italy, but every night I pray for America." Then he approached my daughters and looked carefully into their eyes. he reminded them again of America's greatness, and told them to be proud of their country and the wonders it had accomplished for the world.
I could never have planned a better lesson in love for our country, in honor for those who gave their lives at its request, or of the lives of humble people around the world who kneel each night and pray for her success. Never again will we pass a cemetery to those fallen without the memories of Nettuno and Michele Cuoco coming to mind. Never again will we hear the haunting strains of taps without a tug on our heartstrings in the direction of Anzio. Never again will Memorial Day be just a day for going to the beach.
The best evidence that the hearts of the next generation have been moved is this: My daughters want to celebrate this Memorial Day in Normandy.
Captain Allred is an Associate Dean and Professor of Law at the George C. Marshall European Center for security Studies, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.