Honoring America’s war dead far from home


It’s a continuing tribute half a world away, with a simple brush and bucket of water. Three days a week, a team of 20 in southern Italy washes each of the 7,861 military gravestones of troops from places like Connecticut and Missouri. The World War II Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial, south of Rome, honors American military war dead. Most were killed in campaigns that lead to liberating Rome from the Nazis during World War II.

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The World War II Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial, south of Rome.

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Dawn Royster didn’t know places like this existed before researching her family history. Royster promised her mother she’d come to Italy to honor her grandfather, Lieutenant James A. Calhoun. He was a Tuskegee Airman, part of that famed African American U.S. Army unit.

“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, kind of a big deal! My grandmother’s family wasn’t happy about it.”

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Lt. James A. Calhoun.

Family Photo


So, when Lt. Calhoun died during the war, Royster’s family believed her grandmother’s story, that he was missing in action, not buried overseas in one of the military cemeteries managed by the U.S. government. But as Royster told Melanie Resto, an Army veteran who runs this cemetery, her mother uncovered some old letters from the War Department:

“I remember her coming to me and saying, ‘My father is buried in a cemetery in Italy.’ And we were like, ‘What are you talking about? He was missing in action.’ She said, ‘He wasn’t. And he has a grave.'”

As superintendent, part of Resto’s job is to collect and preserve those stories. She said, “The promise that was made – Time will not dim the glory of their deeds – is a promise we hold true today.”

That promise was made by General of the Armies John J. Pershing, who was appointed to the American 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, service members killed in action, he’s automatically flown home in a matter of what, 12, 15 hours max? He can be home back in the States,” said Resto. “But back then, it was not the case. We had war dead overseas.”

Today the commission manages 26 permanent burial grounds and 32 memorials, monuments and markers, in far-off places like the Solomon Islands, Tunisia, the Philippines and Panama. There are 12 cemeteries in France.

The cemetery outside Rome is strictly for war dead from World War II, who died between Sicily and Rome. “So, no spouses are buried here, none of their children are buried here, like they would at a normal national cemetery, such as Arlington,” said Resto.

But like Arlington, the grounds are meticulously kept. Dimitri Manuzzi, part of that team of twenty gardeners, said it’s important that the grounds are precise, as a way to honor the fallen: “Nothing is perfect – we work [to] create perfect,” he said. “Every day we honor these guys who give us their life for liberty.”

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A ground crew tends to the graves of American war dead.

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Ninety-four-year-old Siversto Martufi grew up nearby, and remembers the Allies landing.  “Every time I pass by here, I salute them,” he said. “I was very close to these guys, and on Sunday when I make my visit, I talk with them. For me, this place is very close to my heart.”

Anna Carrocci, who’s 88, recalls when they built this cemetery. She said, “When they started to work here I saw all of the body bags on the ground. I asked my mother, and she said, ‘These are all of the soldiers who were fighting for us.’ And I said, ‘Oh dear, so many …'”

She was just a child then, but it’s still emotional for her to remember.

Dawn Royster did not think she’d get emotional when she visited the grave of her grandfather: “I always just thought he was missing in action. And even now it’s sort of hitting me that he’s right here. And that’s incredible to me.”

As she does for every visiting family member, Resto rubs sand from the nearby beach of Nettuno, where the Allies landed, onto the marker, bringing the names into focus, again.

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The “sanding of the grave” of Lt. James Calhoun.

CBS News


“It seems like a royal person would be buried here,” Royster said. “It is stunningly beautiful, impeccably maintained, very elegant. What an incredible place to spend your resting time, being watched and taken care of every day.”

It’s all part of that promise Gen. Pershing made 100 years ago: “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.”

     
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Story produced by David Rothman. Editor: Emanuele Secci. 



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