On the Mediterranean Sea about an hour’s drive south of Rome lie the cities of Anzio and Nettuno. In ancient times Romans built enormous seaside villas there, and the emperors Caligula and Nero were born in ancient Antium, as the area was then called. You can still see remains of the villas from the shore, but today Anzio is better known as a fishing port and the site of the World War II Battle of Anzio, which began January 22, 1944.
Operation Shingle, as the Allied offensive was known, was a big mess. The operation relied on the element of surprise to dislodge the German army that occupied the area, but because of Allied foot dragging, the Germans succeeded in rushing troops and equipment into place surrounding Anzio before the Allied operation got underway. The Allies were unable to push the Germans back until May 1944, after which the Allies moved north to liberate Rome on June 4, 1944. Much of Anzio and Nettuno were destroyed by heavy fighting, so these once-ancient cities are only about 70 years old today.
My father served as an Army Air Force co-pilot in World War II, and as part of the 15th Air Force, he flew B-24 bombers from Foggia, Italy, which is not far from Anzio, into southern Germany to attack industrial targets. My father survived the war and returned to Oregon, where he lived for 40 more years. Others were not so fortunate, and among the sights in Anzio and Nettuno are several military cemeteries— beautiful, respectful, and sobering. We have visited two of the Anzio cemeteries so far: the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial, which is dedicated to Americans who died in the campaigns from Sicily to Rome, and the Beach Head War Cemetery, one of two Anzio cemeteries dedicated to the Commonwealth dead who fought in Italy in World War II.
The American cemetery, which was established as a temporary cemetery on January 24, 1944, and which was dedicated in 1956, lies at the top of the hill in Nettuno. It is a sad, peaceful place and impressive in its precision: all of the 7,860 headstones (7,738 Latin crosses and 122 Stars of David) carved from Lasa marble march neatly in gently sloping white arcs on 77 acres of neatly mown green grass. A chapel at the far end of the cemetery lists the names of 3,095 troops missing in action. A handful of names have marks indicating that these troops were found. My favorite spot was the fascinating map room, which depicts the military operations in Sicily and southern Italy. I felt sad, knowing that people with whom my dad fought were lying in this cemetery. How I wish that the world could exist without wars. What a tragic waste!
Of the many military cemeteries that I have seen, the Beach Head War Cemetery is my favorite. Although it is much smaller with only 2,022 troops, it also is sad, peaceful, and precise place. But there is a huge difference: even in early spring this cemetery looks like an English garden, complete with arbors draped with wisteria. Every headstone has plants in front of and around it, and the plants bloom at different times of the year. Instead of just the name, rank, and date of death, every headstone has the soldier’s regimental coat of arms, and many have quotations from family or friends. It feels very personal, and many of the headstones moved me to tears.
Anzio has other attractions to offer, namely a long, narrow beach; a busy port; and good restaurants serving delicious fish. We’ve eaten there a couple of times and tasted wonderful local raw oysters and scrumptious mussels. We’ve walked along the huge port and watched fishermen mending their colorful nets. One day we stumbled into a fair of some sort on a piazza just off the pier. It’s a fun place for a day trip.
But on Memorial Day I think of all of those graves in Anzio and Nettuno—the American and Commonwealth cemeteries and the cemeteries for the Italian people, some of them soldiers, but many of them simply caught in the crossfire. Thank you to everyone who served and who serve to keep my country free and strong. And thank you, Dad. I’m proud to be your daughter.
P.S., Rick Atkinson wrote a wonderful book about the military campaigns in Sicily and Italy, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943–1944. His first book, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942–1943, covers the war in Africa. The third book in the series will be published in 2013. I highly recommend the first two and can hardly wait for the third!