Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Memorial Day at the Florence American Cemetery

Florence American Cemetery

Not far from a Florence that is teeming with tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the stature of David and sample gelato, one can find the peaceful repose of the Florence American cemetery.  Here one is reminded of the sacrifice that was necessary around 75 years ago in order to facilitate the tourism and pleasure-seeking of the 21st century

The American Battle Monuments Commission is an agency of the US government that operates 25 American cemeteries in 16 different countries (  A couple of years ago I had the distinct honor to attend a Memorial Day ceremony at the Florence American Cemetery in Italy.

Color Guard
Florence Memorial Cemetery
Nearly 4,400 American soldiers lie buried at the Florence American Cemetery.  All were veterans of World War II.  In July of 1943 American forces, along with their allies landed in Sicily which was quickly overrun.  A long and grueling campaign up the spine of Italy was launched thereafter.  With so much media focus on D-Day the rigors and cost of the Italian campaign are often overlooked (see my earlier post...  In fact more Allied lives were lost during the Italian campaign than during the war in northern Europe from D-Day through the Battle of the Bulge and the final German surrender.  German soldiers, led ably by "smiling" Albert Kesserling, made the mountain spine of Italy a formidable defensive redoubt.

Florence American Cemetery

Every Memorial Day at the Florence American cemetery each grave is decorated with an American and an Italian flag.  Yes, we Americans helped to invade Italy in 1943.  But we also stayed to help rebuild a country that had been shattered by war.  Today there are still over 10,000 American military personnel based in Italy.  Camp Darby, named in honor of William Darby of Darby's Rangers, is a significant US Army installation based near Pisa, Italy.

361st Infantry Division Memorial
Florence American Cemetery

Kelly Degnan, the chargĂ© d'affaires of the US Embassy to Italy and San Marino attended the Memorial Day ceremony and gave remarks.  She was joined by Lieutenant General Ben Hodges the Commander of UNited States Army Europe.  Hodges reminded his audience that it is really quite inappropriate to wish someone a "Happy Memorial Day".  This is not a holiday like Easter or St. Patrick's Day.  Memorial Day is more than just a terrific excuse for a great Barbecue.  Memorial Day is a solemn occasion on which we are called to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our country, our freedom and, as those Italian flags remind us of the freedom of others (see earlier post

The most dramatic event of the ceremony was a bit comical.  It was a very hot day in Florence on May 29, 2017.  An unfortunate female member of the Carabinieri band fainted in the heat.  The poor woman, in her think black uniform, was fine if a bit embarrassed.

82nd Airbonre Re-enactors

Among the attendees were a group of re-enactors dressed in the uniforms of the 82nd Airborne.  I had a chance to speak to several of these.  It is a bit disconcerting to see that an American paratrooper speaking perfect Italian and hailing from Rome.  I learned that this intrepid group would be attending D-Day commemorations in Normandy on June 6, 2017 as well.

In America Invades we noted the painful friendly fire incident that decimated the ranks of the 82nd Airborne in Sicily in World War II...

"It all started on July 10, 1943, with Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. The first day of the campaign was also one of the worst when the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of Matthew Ridgway’s 82nd Airborne was decimated by friendly fire. About fourteen hundred Americans were tragically killed by fire from anti-aircraft batteries on allied naval vessels. From this painful experience, the Allies learned a valuable lesson. All Allied aircraft participating in the D-Day invasion were painted with black and white stripes prior to the Normandy invasion."

C-47 Dakota with D-Day Stripes
IWM Duxford, UK

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