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Cover Story November 6th, 2008

  Untitled Document

The Paper Endorsments

In just five days we will celebrate Veteran’s Day.

November 11th. It used to be called Armistice Day . . . marking the end of World War I. Later, it became Veteran’s Day.

Today, it is a national holiday but folks really don’t give our sleeping veterans the respect they deserve. These men and women died for their country . . . they gave the last great gift anyone can give for their nation. Yet they lay in their graves around the world . . . all dressed up in a beautiful cemetery, and few come to visit them . . . and pay them the homage they are due. Here, our Jim Winnerman gives a poignant insight into what awaits you when you visit Europe. - lyle e davis

Florence American Cemeteryby Jim Winnerman

Tourists wanted for US military cemeteries overseas

American Battle Monuments Commission mission encourages American visits

We had just left our hotel on the way to a much anticipated tour of the Tuscan countryside in Italy, so no one in our group was happy about our guide's announcement that he wanted us to make an unscheduled stop before we reached our destination. "I think you will appreciate it," is all Paolo Santioli offered as an explanation.

A few minutes later our bus pulled through the entrance of the Florence American Cemetery where more than 4400 American men and women from World War II lay buried. After proceeding up the wooded hillside to the memorial pylon towering over the rows of pristine white grave markers, we got off the bus and explored the grounds. Some in our group walked quietly around the reflecting pools and marble maps indicating from which battles the dead had come, while others wandered among the manicured graves.

Back on the bus, it was noticeably quiet. Then our 44-year old guide said simply: "Many of your countrymen died so I could live in freedom. Thank you."

The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) would be happy to know Santioli took us to see the Florence cemetery. Established by Congress in 1923 as an agency of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government, the agency oversees 24 such cemeteries in ten different nations in Europe, North Africa, Latin America and the Philippines.

But other than ABMC's frequently visited Normandy American Cemetery in France which overlooks Omaha Beach and the site of the D Day invasion of June 6, 1944, few people come to visit the other sites where over 125,000 men and women lay buried not far from where they died in combat in World Wars I and II.

Part of the Commission's mission is to encourage Americans with foreign travel plans to include stops at the cemeteries. Several are close to popular tourist destinations such as Rome, London and Paris. A visit is almost always an unexpected and uniquely rewarding and moving travel experience, even for those with no relative buried there.

When a cruise ship tour took Leigh Venzke of Arlington, Virginia, and his group to Tunis, Tunisia, in February, 2007, the guide for the 30 Americans told them they would be stopping at the North Africa American Cemetery. None of the pre-trip itineraries had included the visit, and Venzke remembers the announcement was met with surprise, but little reaction.

"Everyone's mood changed quickly when we got there," Venzke recalls. "We were greeted by the American cemetery superintendent who gave us a tour along a memorial wall that contained a history of where the soldiers came from. Then the chimes in the carillon played the National Anthem followed by Taps, and God Bless America. It turned out to be a very emotional visit for everyone."

The appearance of each cemetery creates a lasting impression. All are the result of the work of a different team of landscape designers, sculptors, muralists and painters who enjoyed outstanding reputations at the time the cemeteries were created in the 1920's and late 1940's.

"They were built to reflect the sacrifices Americans made fighting for freedom, and to attract people to come and reflect on the accomplishments made by the deceased," says Marty Sell, Chief of Public Programs for the ABMC.

The Netherlands Cemetery

Although all are unique, common elements create a feeling of part art museum and part botanical garden. Sculptures are prevalent in relief wall carvings and free-standing statues. In the Netherlands American Cemetery in Holland, a statue of a mourning woman flanked by doves of peace overlooks the graves. The cemetery outside Cambridge, England, has a sculpture of an airplane flying into eternity. Native plantings and reflective pools create park-like scenes that are maintained in keeping with the strict standards set by the ABMC. "There wasn't a blade of grass out of place in Tunis," Venzke remembers.

Visitor centers and non-denominational chapels contain stained glass windows, while art on monument walls frequently consists of mosaic or marble maps that detail the battles fought by those buried nearby. Many have carillons, and all have engraved memorials that list names of the missing or those buried at sea.
To encourage Americans to visit, the ABMC assists travelers with planning a visit to cemeteries close to their scheduled itineraries. The agency will furnish maps and directions, and even suggest where to stay. Locations, in fact, were partially selected to make it easy for the public to visit. An example is the Suresnes American Cemetery in Paris which is within sight of the Eiffel Tower.

Sites were also selected based on their proximity to military action where the deaths of those buried occurred. In some instances fighting took place on the cemetery grounds. The Sicily-Rome American Cemetery contains the graves of two nurses killed by a bomb that exploded at what is now the cemetery entrance.

All the cemeteries contain headstones that tell silent stories of sacrifice. The Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines is the final resting place for 28 men awarded the Medal of Honor. Several cemeteries contain graves of multiple sets of brothers buried side by side. Outside of London, the Brookwood American Cemetery has 114 shipmates of the USS Tampa sunk in 1918 by a German submarine.

Many graves contain names familiar to Americans. General George S. Patton is buried at Luxembourg, and Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Junior and his brother Quentin are interred at Normandy. Glenn Miller and Joseph Kennedy are memorialized at Cambridge, as is poet Joyce Kilmer at Oise-Aisne, France.

In some countries foreigners belonging to local organizations have each adopted a separate American tombstone, and they place flowers on it on appropriate holidays such as Memorial Day. As more years pass since the time the soldiers died in combat, visits by family members of the deceased are increasing. More grandchildren and distant relatives are coming, according to Sell. However, relatives remain a small portion of those who do visit.

Anyone arriving at an ABMC cemetery seeking a specific grave is personally escorted to the location by the superintendent or assistant superintendent, both of whom are Americans.

No new overseas cemeteries have been created since the end of World War II. Then next-of-kin could make a choice between a foreign burial or having a relative returned to the United States. In subsequent wars all remains have been returned home.

"Only American forces and those serving with them such as the Red Cross are buried in the cemeteries," Sell says, adding that all are also closed to new burials, except for the few remains that are still being discovered.

For more information on American Battle Monuments Commission cemeteries or to have the organization assist in planning a visit, call 703 696 6897 or visit






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