Monday, April 22, 2013

The Nearly Forgotten Dead of WW II

Commander K. at the American Cemetery, Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy offers many delights for the visiting tourist...wonderful art and architecture, juicy bistecca fiorentina, fabulous wines and many delicious gelato options.  Everyone needs to see the statue of David at the Academia if only once in a lifetime.  On the teeming cobblestone streets of Florence you really can hear "the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo".

If one cares to, it is possible, however, to make an escape from the crowded galleries and piazzas in to experience a quiet and peaceful world of surpassing beauty and poignancy.  I recently had an opportunity to visit three World War II cemeteries just outside of Florence.

At the American cemetery on the road to Chianti country one can find the graves of 4,402 US military dead.  The quiet Greve river flows nearby the 70 acre site.

Commander K. with statue of American soldier by an Italian sculptor
361st Infantry, 91st Division ("Pine Tree"), US Army
The Italian campaign began with the invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943 and fighting continued in Norther Italy right at the end of the war on VE day May 8, 1945.  The mountainous terrain of the Apennine spine of Italy made it highly defensible for the Germans.  Moreover, the Germans were led by Field Marshal "Smiling Albert" Kesserling one of the Wehrmacht's most able commanders.  After initial successes the Germans fought a tenacious series of rear guard actions that slowed the Allied advance up the boot of Italy.

The Italian government changed sides shortly after the invasion of the Italian mainland.  Mussolini was captured by the new Italian government and then rescued by Hitler's commandos led by Otto Skorzeny.  Many Italian partisans aided the allied cause in the fighting which took place in Tuscany and all over Italy.  There were also many horrific Nazi reprisals against the Partigiani.

Over 327,000 Allied soldiers were killed during the Italian campaign -- more than in the campaign in the West from Normandy to the Rhine.  In spite of this, Allied veterans of the Italian campaign never really got their share of glory or media credit for helping win the war.  Few books were written and films made chronicling their exploits.  The strategic highlight of the campaign, the liberation of Rome, took place on June 4, 1944 -- only two days before D-day.   The Viscountess Astor allegedly disparaged Italian campaign veterans as the "D-Day Dodgers" (see video below).

Commander K. at the Commonwealth War cemetery near Florence
By the banks of the Arno you will find 1,632 of the over 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers that never returned from the Italian campaign.  You can learn more about Commonwealth memorials around the world at this

You may be surprised to find women as well as male combatants including this 28-year old Canadian Radio Officer, Maud Steane...

Maud Steane, 28 year-old Canadian Radio Officer aboard the SS Vigo Hansteen
"Her life was a wordless sermon in courage and understanding"
Picture below is a picture I took of the visitor guestbook at the Commonwealth War Cemetery near Florence.  Note how few visitors sign in -- about one per day.  I was nearly the sole visitor at each of the three cemeteries I visited.  Note the many "RIP" and "No War" sentiments expressed below, but also the gentleman from Virginia who wrote out the prescription, "War as needed to defeat evil".  Commander Kelly says, "Amen brother" to Bob De Cusati in Richmond Virginia!

Guest registry from Commonwealth Grave Cemetery near Florence, Italy
Higher up in the hills near the Futa gap where the air was distinctly cooler, one can find a massive German cemetery as well.  Over 30,000 German dead from the Second World War (Deutsche Gefallene des zweiten weltkriegs)) are buried here.

Stone tablet at German cemetery
The German cemetery, with the absence of crosses, not to mention stars of David, is more austere than the Allied versions.

German cemetery near Florence
Hermann Donath was only 19 years old when he was killed in Italy.  The soldiers here still are overwhelmingly young -- reminding us that war is ever a young man's trade.

Very occasionally one can find a grave decorated with fresh flowers.

American Cemetery Florence, Italy
Commander Kelly invites you to pay a visit to one of the many overseas cemeteries for US military personnel that are beautifully maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission  (  France has eleven US military cemeteries in any foreign country including the gorgeous Normandy cemetery.   One can also find US military cemeteries in England, Belgium, Italy, Panama, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Mexico, Philippines, and Tunisia (Carthage).  If you can't make the trip, you can still give a thought and prayer to these soldiers who fought for our freedom.

General George S. Patton, who is himself buried surrounded his troops in a cemetery in Luxembourg,  said, "It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived."

D-Day Dodgers

You can now purchase Commander Kelly's 
first book, America Invades or on

And now Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World...
or on Amazon...


P Scott Cummins said...

Thank you for this Christopher, this wonderful essay brings back memories of our visit there in the summer of 2001 when we stayed nearby for a couple of weeks.

Unknown said...

Thanks Chris!
This was an excellent post! Me being a retired US Army Sergeant Major I appreciate the articles you presented and the pictures posted. "Least we forget the brave souls that went before us so we were free from Tyranny" The D-Day Dodgers was great to hear too...Again well done mate thanks again I truly enjoyed the post.

Jim Hooper said...

You make a good point; I did not even think to look for military cemeteries when in Italy. I have an uncle who served in at least part of the Italian campaign. However, I did not know he fought in Italy until after his death years ago. I've been working to secure copies of his wartime letters in order to reconstruct his movements. Those of us who know something of the Italian campaign are familiar with the battle of Monte Cassino the landing at Anzio and the Gothic Line. But apart from these better known engagements, fighting along the Italian peninsula was generally a slow motion slug-fest. It lacked the massive sweeping armored drives or dramatic airborne events in Northern Europe. Looking at the numbers, divisions that fought in Italy had some of the highest casualty rates of the European war. The 36th division experienced its highest losses in Italy (the division had to be pulled off the line at least twice during it's Italian campaign for reorganization); contributing to its wars end turnover rate of more than 185%.

Buck Thys said...

Like you, I feel that every American that travels should visit one or more of these overseas military cemeteries as part of his or her education. I have visited both the one in Normandy and the one in Anzio. At Anzio my grandson (11 years old at the time) was in tears when recognizing what had happened about 65 years ago. Visiting a German cemetery in France near Mont St. Michele was also illuminating and gives one a unique war perspective.

Anonymous said...

Regrettably, our tour through Florence many, many years made no time for the memorials; however, the city jaunt was the highlight of our trip to Italy.

This article is a good WWII reference should we have the opportunity to return.