Repost: “It was the most moving gesture I ever saw.”

| May 25, 2020

I first posted this article 7 years ago. It still says what I want to say about today.

May all of you TAH readers have a gentle Memorial Day.

———-

Wednesday, 30 May 1945 dawned as the first Memorial Day after World War II ended in Europe. War still raged in the Pacific; it would continue there for another 3 months. But in the US and Europe it was a day for somber ceremonies and remembrances of lost comrades.

This was especially true at US cemeteries in Europe, where tens of thousands of US war dead were buried. At some if not all of these ceremonies were held; many political figures and/or senior military officers gave speeches. I’m sure all of them were worthwhile, and paid appropriate tribute to the fallen.

But one speech in particular that day was unique. It occurred at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery.

Sicily-Rome American Cemetery is near the modern Italian town of Nettuno, called Antium in antiquity. It lies within what had been the US sector of the Anzio beachhead – or “bitchhead,” as those who were trapped there for 4+ months came to call it. The cemetery was originally intended a temporary resting place for US dead from the Anzio landings and subsequent combat. It became a permanent resting place for US war dead.

Today, only 7,861 US fallen remain in eternal rest near Nettuno. However, the cemetery on 30 May 1945 held approximately 20,000 graves. Most were soldiers who were lost before the fall of Rome – in Sicily, at Salerno, or at Anzio. (Some years later, the US government gave families the choice to allow fallen relatives to remain with their comrades or be repatriated. Many of those originally buried near Nettuno – about 60% – were repatriated.)

A number of VIPs were present at Sicily-Rome American Cemetery that day. Some were senior military officers; some were political figures. Several senators were in attendance.

One of the speakers at the ceremony was the US 5th Army Commander, LTG Lucian K. Truscott, Jr. (Truscott would later receive a post-retirement honorary promotion and a 4th star, but at the time he still wore 3 stars.) He had returned to Italy from France to command 5th Army earlier that year.

When it was his turn to speak, Truscott moved to the podium.

What happened next was truly remarkable.

Before speaking, Truscott looked at the assembled visitors awaiting his remarks. He then turned away from the living.

He turned and faced the graves of the fallen.

Rather than speak to the living, Truscott addressed those buried in the cemetery. He spoke in a quiet voice.

He apologized.

Sadly, no transcript or recording of Truscott’s speech that day exists. But SGT Bill Mauldin (yes, the Stars and Stripes journalist and cartoonist of “Willie and Joe” fame) was there. His account of the speech appears to be the best and most complete record that exists.

According to Mauldin (see note),

“. . . when it came time for the general to speak, he turned away from the visitors and addressed the corpses he’d 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 there. He said that everybody tells leaders that it is not their fault that men get killed in war, but that every leader knows in his heart that 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. A senator’s cigar 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 death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. He said he thought it was the least he could do.”

Truscott then reportedly walked away, without looking around.

Truscott had commanded troops during or shortly after every major US amphibious landing in the European theater except D-Day – from Mehdia and Port Lyautey in Morocco (the Atlantic landings of Operation Torch) to Operation Dragoon in Southern France. He’d seen combat in North Africa, Sicily, near Salerno, at Anzio, in central Italy, in southern and central France, and in northern Italy.

In particular, Truscott had commanded the 3rd Infantry Division in Sicily, after Salerno, and at Anzio. After a month, he had assumed command of the entire Anzio beachhead and VI Corps – and had commanded the Anzio beachhead and VI Corps during another several months of desperate combat there and elsewhere in Italy. Many of those buried at Nettuno were soldiers Truscott had commanded during the previous two years.

Apparently Truscott felt he owed a personal apology to those who’d died under his command.

Moving? Yes – moving indeed. And apropos.

. . .

It’s again Memorial Day. Today we pause to remember those who served – and didn’t come home.

Rest in peace, my fallen brothers-in-arms. You’ve surely earned that.

And as you rest, know this: you’re not forgotten.

———-

Author’s Note: Earlier versions of this article linked to a copy of Mauldin’s quotation above on Google Books. Regrettably, that link no longer works, and Google Books now no longer appears to offer access to that page of the source. The Mauldin quotation above appears on p. 578 of Rick Atkinson’s excellent 2008 book concerning World War II in Sicily and Italy, The Day of Battle (highly recommended, as are the others in his Liberation Trilogy). Any errors in transcription are mine.

Category: We Remember

Comments (25)

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  1. LIRight says:

    Oh my God, Hondo….what a beautiful story.

    I was at the Vietnam Memorial (Wall) for the first time yesterday to meet my old Platoon Leader with his family and the family of a crewmate on my ACAV (M-113)that was KIA from an almost direct hit from an RPG-7 on 8 May 68.

    A very difficult but rewarding day.

    Rolling Thunder was incredible.

  2. OWB says:

    We do remember. Perhaps not individually by name, but we remember them all.

  3. Friend says:

    WOW…

  4. Ex-PH2 says:

    Thanks for the post and story, Hondo.

    Humbleness….

  5. Green Thumb says:

    Great post.

    Thank you.

  6. Ex-Garbage Gun Shooter says:

    Awe inspiring.

  7. timactual says:

    Mauldin is sort of an artistic Ernie Pyle. He was an infantryman himself until he became a cartoonist for Stars And Stripes, and never forgot where he came from.

    Mauldin wrote three books; Up Front (which won a Pulitzer in 1945), Back Home, and The Brass Ring. All are profusely illustrated with his cartoons, and all are worth reading.

    • David says:

      Seems to me someone here is living in Cloudcroft? Mauldin is from just up the hill from High Rolls in Mountain Park.

  8. AnotherPat says:

    Never knew LTG Truscott, Jr. gave that soeech.

    Thank you, Hondo, for sharing this again with the TAH Family.

  9. fibmcgee1 says:

    This thread seems to be a good place to mention the coming 76th anniversary of the Battle of Midway and the sacrifices of the pilots and crewman of Torpedo Squadron 8, knowingly flying obsolete aircraft and unworkable torpedoes to almost certain death.

    “Torpedo Squadron 8 – John Ford’s Tribute – The Battle Of Midway 1942”

  10. 5th/77th FA says:

    Y’all ‘cuse me while I go change the air filters. Seems like the spring pollen and fur baby dander has gotten awfully thick in here.

    Thanks Hondo.

  11. HMCS(FMF) ret says:

    Thanks, Hondo…

  12. ninja says:

    Thank You, again, Hondo, for sharing this.

  13. Old tanker says:

    I can’t think of a more appropriate sign of respect for our fallen Brothers and Sisters than Gen Truscott’s actions that day. We all have what we have here because of the sacrifice of our Brother’s tomorrows on the battlefield. May we make them proud by how we live in their honor. May they Rest in Peace in the arms of their God.

  14. Fyrfighter says:

    Excellent story Hondo.
    The General was truly a man of honor. Crying shame that the current bearer of his name doesn’t share in it.

  15. CDR_D says:

    Great story. Thanks for posting.

  16. gitarcarver says:

    We found this and decided to use it as the basis of our post on Memorial Day and those who made the ultimate sacrifice:

    THE GENERAL WEPT when he heard the news. About 3 a.m. on November 3, 1917, German troops overran an isolated Allied outpost near Verdun, killing three men from the 16th Infantry who had slipped into the trenches for their combat debut only hours before. These were the first of Jack Pershing’s men to die in the Great War. One was shot between the eyes; another had his skull smashed. The third was found face down, his throat cut. All three were buried near where they had died, amid the beautiful rolling hills of northeastern France. This was as it should be, General Pershing believed. There was no time to bring fallen soldiers back to the States, he said, nor any space on ships crossing the Atlantic. And he couldn’t bear to think of mothers opening caskets to see their boys ravaged by the fearsome new weapons of the industrial era. Within days, however, the War Department discovered that the families and friends of the dead thought differently. Letters and telegrams arrived in Washington asking when the soldiers’ remains would be shipped home. Grand funerals were planned. No matter that the men had died an ocean away or that the war was still going on. Bring them home. This was a refrain Pershing and the military establishment would hear for the rest of the war, indeed, for years afterward. History had given the American people definite ideas about what to do with the war dead. And they weren’t to be denied.

    [….]

    More here: https://www.historynet.com/rest-in-peace-bringing-home-u-s-war-dead.htm

    • David says:

      Verdun was beautiful when we went by there in ’71. I suspect less so 50 years previously.

      • ninja says:

        Lived in Verdun as an Army Brat (before DeGaulle kicked us out) and to this day, still remember Bayonet Trench.

        Very sobering experience on seeing it.

        Thank You for sharing, David and gitarcarver.

  17. Sparks says:

    Thank you Hondo.

  18. Mary R. T. says:

    Nicely done. Thank you. I always post this story today, and hope it continues to be shared.

    • AW1Ed says:

      Hi Mary. I edited your name prior to approving your comment. Please go to the Valor Vultures tab and scroll until you find my PSA to see why.
      AW1

  19. Wilted Willy says:

    Thank you Hondo, That was truly moving! Did anyone happen to catch the Coke 600 opening tribute to our departed brothers and sisters?
    It was very well done and it was the best tribute
    I have seen in a long time! The dust got really thick in here?? Memorial Day is a very special day to me and my family. No, we did not loose any family during the war, but knew many who did. Please folks, never forget our fallen heroes!!!
    I wonder if todays youths would be able to do what all of our fallen comrades did 75 years ago??
    I pray that they would?
    Take care all and remember our fallen heroes!!