Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Though in some respects I wish I'd posted this in advance of or on Memorial Day, ultimately it doesn't matter because any of the overseas American cemeteries -- overseen by the American Battle Monuments Commission -- may be visited at nearly any time during the year (it's just that on Memorial Day, there are official programs held at each cemetery). I think it's safe to assume that just about everyone knows about the ABMC cemeteries in Normandy and Somme, France, as well as Flanders Field in Belgium and in Manila, Philippines; but I suspect not many visitors to Italy know about the Florence American Cemetery, where 4,402 American men and women killed in World War II are buried.

Visiting the Cemetery has been on my (too-long) list of things I want to see in and around Florence for quite some time, but I haven't yet visited this site, which is on the west side of the Greve river and by all accounts is lovely and moving. The memorial covers 70 acres and is only about 7 1/2 miles south of Florence (according to the ABMC website, there is even a SITA bus stop on Via Cassia just outside the cemetery gate). It's open from 9 to 5 and there is always a staff member there to answer questions and escort relatives to particular grave sites.

The military dead in Florence represent 39% of the U. S. Fifth Army burials originally made between Rome and the Alps; most died in the fighting that occurred after the capture of Rome in June 1944, and included in this number are those who died in the heavy fighting in the Apennine mountain range just before the war's end [as I note in my book, an outstanding read about this time is Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby (Picador, 1983), a captured officer of the British Army who served time as a POW at Fontanellato in the Po Valley near Parma. After many years he decided to write the book because he felt that "comparatively little had been written about the ordinary Italian people who helped prisoners of war at great personal risk and without thought of personal gain, purely out of kindness of heart."]

The ABMC was established in 1923 by Congress and General of the Armies John J. Pershing served as chairman until his death in 1948, when he was succeeded by General George C. Marshall. In addition to the cemetery in Florence, the Commission maintains 23 others on foreign soil, in Europe, North Africa, Latin America, and the Philippines. Currently there are 124,909 American war dead interred in these cemeteries, 30,921 from World War I, 93,238 from World War II, and 750 from the Mexican War.

A Florence American Cemetery booklet may be downloaded with or without pictures from the ABMC website, http://www.abmc.gov/, and there is also a narrated video tour of the cemetery's landscaped grounds, architecture, and works of art. The website also includes details on all the other overseas cemeteries; no new overseas cemeteries have been established since the end of World War II.

A writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jim Winnerman, related in a piece that appeared on Sunday, May 29th that after his visit to the Florence American Cemetery, the 44-year-old guide of his tour group said, "Many of your countrymen died so I could live in freedom. Thank you."

Today, one day after Memorial Day, I offer my own sincere thanks to all of the brave men and women who served and are serving.

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