Archive for the 'Memorial Day' Tag
“The Battle of Anzio shows both the agony of command decisions and the heroism of men who carry them out.”
—Gen. William H. Simpson (U.S. Army, Ret.)
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. These words, spoken by the philosopher George Santayana, have enduring truth. Though daily operations claim much attention in a dynamic Europe-Africa theater, it is important to revisit the battles of the past, to contemplate the critical decisions made by military commanders, and reflect on the will of those who fought these battles. With Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2016, the premier Baltic maritime exercise that will feature amphibious landings in Finland, Sweden, and Poland, just around the corner, the staff ride was especially fitting as we applied the lessons learned from Anzio to our final exercise PLANORD.
There is no substitute for walking the beachhead like those who came before us. More than 50 members of my U.S. 6th Fleet staff and I conducted a Staff Ride in early May of Anzio and the battle fought there during World War II, code-named Operation Shingle. We visited X-ray beach and the Sicily-Rome Cemetery, incorporating stories of bravery along the way.
Anzio native Alfredo Rinaldi is a living history of the standoff at the beachhead in Anzio and was the cornerstone of this staff ride. The only way to understand these battles is to step in the shoes of those that have gone before—and hear directly about what they experienced. And Alfredo gave us that essence in a truly touching way.
In 1944, Alfredo was an adventurous soul, a 16-year-old with an insatiable desire to live all that life had to offer. To him, in the thralls of a German occupation, war was a playground, an open door for new experiences. Alfredo Rinaldi and the many residents of the Italian seaside town of Anzio were relocated to Rome when it became obvious that the shorelines were going to become battlegrounds. Alfredo became sort of a transient in Rome, a teenage wanderlust hoping to see action and aimlessly roaming the cobbled streets of Rome in search of it. He was lucky to avoid the ranks of the German Army, apparently because he was young and scrawny; his brother had been drafted into the Wehrmacht, but he deserted and was hiding somewhere in Italy. And then the news came in that the Americans [and British too] had landed at Anzio.
With the Allied Italy campaign at a standstill, Allied Forces struggling to gain ground up the Boot, an amphibious operation—Operation Shingle—was hatched to land behind enemy lines. On Jan. 22, 1944, at an H-hour of 0200, a combination of U.S. Army, British Army, and British Special Forces came across a 15-mile stretch of beach between Anzio and Nettuno.
As the reports flooded the hopeful Roman populace, vibrant with excitement that liberation was at their doorstep, Alfredo chose to start marching toward Anzio, a 20-kilometer journey roiled with barbed wire, snipers and German booby traps. He left in the early morning and arrived late that night, somehow steering clear of German munition dropped from above and well-laid land mines. Alfredo’s first contact with Allied Forces was with an African American U.S. army soldier who said, “What in the world are you doing here kid?,” and ultimately gave Alfredo a ride to Anzio in his jeep. Alfredo told us that until this point in his life, he did not realize that America included “people of color” and that this man had changed his life forever . . . Along the way, Alfredo saw his family’s abandoned house, unscathed despite the wreckage from the German air bombing campaign, elevating his mystical belief in America and its forces even more.
Alfredo ended up introducing himself to a group of soldiers, an infantry company, and instantly befriended them. Without any formal paperwork or agreement, he was essentially enlisted. The soldiers told him it was unsafe to for him to go back to Rome, and he preferred to stay anyway. And so he became their translator and their ‘mascot,’ a cheerful soul in a grim and beaten war.
Alfredo retells his story of those days on the beach in great detail. He remembers crouching in what where manmade fox holes as shells from “Anzio Annie,” the German 218-ton railway gun, pounded the beach. He describes hearing the whistling sound of the big rounds as they screeched by his makeshift bunker.
Alfredo was most likely the only Italian patriot embedded in an American unit, but he was not the only one from a fractured Europe to join the ranks for the Allies. Gunnar Erik Mettala was a Finnish-born U.S. Army combat engineer with the 345th Engineer General Service Regiment and the grandfather of my Deputy N6 Cmdr. Erik Pittman. Gunnar left Finland for the United States just before Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union invaded Finland in what was then known as the Winter War in 1939. He would join the U.S. army shortly after immigrating, enlisting in 1941, around the age of 23.
Gunnar landed on Anzio the second day of Operation Shingle landing with the 36th Combat Engineers and alongside the 45th Infantry Division. From the landing until the German counter attack on Feb.11, Gunnar’s Treadway Company was engaged in repairs near the port. He would later pass on to his son, who passed on to Erik: “Every day the German Luftwaffe would strafe and bomb the port; every day we’d rebuild and resurface the docks and the roads leading to the docks. Such was the tit-for-tat, hold-your-ground fighting that was the essence of a long period of entrenchment at Anzio.”
Gunnar was wounded after taking machine gun fire to his thighs, as he and others of his company were pushed to the front lines to defend the Allies extended perimeter from German counter attack. He recovered and would serve out the rest of the war in Allied Forces Headquarters in Naples as a staff judge advocate—ironically in the same place his grandson would serve 70 years later…
Despite the attrition faced by Treadway Company and a handful of other companies on the front lines during the initial German counter attack, four months passed with neither side giving or getting an inch. An Allied breakthrough occurred on May 23, 1944, in an operation known as Operation Diadem. While a combination of forces from Britain, Canada, Poland, and the U.S. broke through the Gustav Line, the United States’ VI Corps, controlled by 5th Army, took advantage of a reeling German force to race somewhat unfettered to Rome.
Meanwhile, our man Alfredo traveled with his unit, returning to his exiled home of Rome to raucous cheers from fellow Italians. Alfredo lived a storybook life from there, transitioning from military service to become a driver/caretaker at the American cemetery in Nettuno, constructed to honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the Italian campaign. From there, he drove buses for ten years, then opened up a photography business with his son, and ended up returning to the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery as an official photographer, where he met then President George H.W. Bush during the cemetery’s annual Memorial Day commemoration.
Alfredo, now 88 and retired, continues to come every Memorial Day to the commemoration at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery at Nettuno. And this is where I first met him and became enchanted with his story, just as those Army men were enchanted with him in 1944. Alfredo still has that spark in his eye and spring in his step.
Walking through the cemetery—either on Memorial Day or just a beautiful spring day in southern Italy as was the case for our staff ride—one is reminded of the sacrifices made on behalf of freedom. The cemetery sits in the zone of advance of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division as part of Operation Shingle. The perfectly cut lawn now dotted with headstones sits beneath a mountaintop – the same perched position that allowed the Germans to hold so tightly to position with their counter attacks.
There are nearly 7,861 Americans memorialized in the Nettuno cemetery, a majority from the landings on Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio.
During our time at the cemetery, my deputy Executive Assistant, U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Tony Bates had the privilege of reading the citation of Sgt. Sylvester Antolak, who heroically stormed a German machine gun nest on day two of the Anzio invasion, racing into enemy fire despite warning from his own troops. His heroics allowed the Allies to secure a perimeter and save countless others.
Tony is sixty years removed from these men but is a living hero in his own right. He was an advisor team leader for the Afghan National Army serving in Sangin district of Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2011 working to equip Afghan forces to defend their homeland from the Taliban. Much of the work was patrolling and clearing neighborhoods of the Taliban, while working to build trust from communal leaders. From their Forward Operating Base in Sangin, they would often experience Taliban machine gun fire but withstood multiple ambushes through determination and combat skill. Improvised explosive devices were a common tactic used by the Taliban in this time as Marines and Afghan troops would set off IEDs while conducting routine patrols or even in the vicinity of where kids were playing, as it was common for children to lay parts and pieces of the IEDs. Tony’s unit discovered the maker of these IEDs in a remote village in Sangin and sought to apprehend him. During that mission, Tony stepped on an IED, which resulted in serious injury and his left leg being amputated below the knee. Tony was awarded the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Valor device for combat action and Purple Heart for his resolve in leading those Afghan forces, and he continues to serve with the utmost pride and honor.
We started the staff ride at X-ray beach and finished at with lunch at a restaurant that sits beside the beach, a picturesque spot where the waves ever-so-calmly splash over the rocks and sand. Standing there, looking out on the beach of Anzio with Alfredo brings so many thoughts to mind. You imagine each Soldier coming across the beach, uncertain if they’d immediately take enemy fire or if death lay over the horizon.
For my friend Alfredo, he considers himself—and rightly so—a U.S. Army World War II veteran. His patriotism is remarkable for someone that doesn’t claim any official nationality to America. As we part ways, he extends a sentimental, “God bless America.” We in America have come to make this saying cliché but I can tell that Alfredo truly means it, a reflection of the appreciation that he and thousands of other Italians expressed as they were liberated from Fascist and Nazi hands.
The courage of those that took up the call for freedom on the beach of Anzio, and so many other beaches across Europe and the Pacific, should never be forgotten. So many, like Sgt. Antolak paid the ultimate sacrifice, and for this, we must continue to pay homage to their legacy of heroism. As we always do, this Memorial Day, we remember . . .
The American flags whip in the wind as the sun creeps over the grassy horizon. The charcoal sits in reused plastic grocery bags at the end of the driveway. The grass beneath them is soft with early-morning dew.
In parallel, across the country this morning, American flags fly, too. Flowers placed on hallowed graves flutter slightly in the breeze. Mementos of the lives of brave American servicemen and women who paid the ultimate price are still in place on headstones, surrounding the heroes, keeping them company.
Yesterday, as it does by law every year, enacted in the last century, on the last Monday in May, America celebrated Memorial Day. This recognition stems from the Civil War, when compassionate groups of citizens would decorate the graves of soldiers who had died fighting for their cause. It has grown into an annual recognition of all our honored war dead, and a federal holiday that gives many a reprieve from the workweek.
Many use the day for celebration of the freedoms we enjoy, especially as the holiday coincides with long-awaited warm weather in much of America’s broad latitude. They use it as a day to reflect on family and friends, to fill their lives with familiarity and warmth.
Few of us can comprehend, though, the silent heartbreak of those whose loved ones have felt the pain of ultimate sacrifice. Their experience on Memorial Day is markedly different, but it is right and genuine and pure. To love a warrior is the sweetest tragedy; to live their memory the highest privilege.
Yet the great, silent measure of a nation is its remembrance of its heroes on all the other days of the year; not as a boastful measure of bellicose pride, but as an eternal example of highest achievement. Selfless service has long been idealized in words and opinion polls, now manifest in Facebook posts and Instagram memes, but we must do the hard work of living that notion and encouraging our children to live it through our own actions.
To honor and to serve; both are active verbs.
You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done – Ronald Reagan
Through the years we’ve observed Memorial Day on these pages in a variety of ways. Through it all, we’ve sought to instill a sense of perspective and context to an occasion that, unfortunately, most have come to recognize as a mere green light for the frivolous pursuits of the summer season.
We’ve offered a first person perspective:
Some number of years later the memory came flooding back as we learned of the terrible news. It had been while flying a low-level anti-ship cruise missile supersonic profile for a destroyer. Just a training hop. He’d taken time off from his post-command staff job to climb back in the cockpit he so dearly loved. The big Tomcat was there one minute – and gone in a cloud of flame, smoke and vapor. Little was found – and a good friend, a husband, father, and fighter NFO beyond compare was gone. CAPT Scott “Scooter” Lamoreaux, USN. Bounty Hunter One. Rest easy Scooter and know that while we all miss you, we each have our memories. Mine forever of an orange and white jet with the countenance not unlike a guppy, suspended against the Florida sky and two young buck aviators, intense on the task at hand and loving every second of it with grins a mile-wide, yet hidden behind an O2 mask, having the time of their life… Flightdeck Friday: T-2C Edition
I honestly try not to dwell on the casualties of war. Not that I don’t have a heart; in fact, the exact opposite is true… I probably care too much. Nor have I given any serious thought to the wars beyond the current conflicts we’ve all watched unfold on the television since 2001.
However, this changed as of yesterday morning while I was listening to my wife try to explain to my daughters what a door gunner does; the job my father-in-law had as a helicopter mechanic in Vietnam. This came about when a vet walked past our van, which has a Virginia Coast Guard license plate, saying thank you for my service to which my wife and swiftly returned the thank you.
As we continued our day I continued thinking about what Memorial Day really was? Sure we know it’s the day we take pause and thank those who’ve given their lives for their country. Or perhaps it’s simply a three-day weekend for others. I’m guessing most outside of the military centric world of which I reside don’t give much thought as to why they are getting a three-day weekend. I don’t fault them though. The U.S. has fallen short on remembering our fallen. That, of course, is my own opinion.
I didn’t have to think too long though in terms of its meaning to Ryan. I didn’t lose any family members to the wars of past. I know of three family members who’ve fought in wars since World War II/Vietnam and they retuned. The combined U.S. deaths of these two wars alone was: 463,608. That equates to 463,608 people, and their families, I should be thanking for the safe return of two Grandfathers and a father-in-law. More so that is 463,608 people I should be thanking for the freedoms afforded to the people of the United States and other free nations of the era.
Memorial Day is not about the long weekend, nor the day itself. It’s about those who’ve died in battle to ensure you can live the way you do; to vote the way you do; to wake up knowing that you are in a free county- the way you do. I’m tempted to go on a rant as to how this county has seemingly given up on caring about those who’ve perished… but I won’t. Not today.
Monday, 28 May 2012 is Memorial Day. I’m not asking you to visit military grave sites to see the numbers yourself, nor am I asking you to go out and find a veteran who may have lost their best friend in battle. What I am asking, however, is that you and your family reflect for only a moment- whether in silence or discussion- as to what Memorial Day is and means. It doesn’t matter if you know someone who died or not… don’t let the reason for the day be lost on that fact that you don’t think it directly affects you today. Though you know it or not- it has.
To lean more about Memorial Day check out these links:
This video, Old Glory, is powerful and poignant, and although not perfectly suited for this holiday, it is a wonderful message of our comradeship – in service to our nation and each other – and the deep respect we share for each other regardless of service.
Happy Memorial Day shipmates!
Semper Fortis, Semper Fidelis, Semper Paratus
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