Every year, either on April 25 or Memorial Day, We the Italians visit Nettuno's Sicily-Rome American Cemetery to celebrate and pay respect to the American soldiers who helped liberate Italy. Last June 4, We the Italians laid a wreath at the cemetery on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Rome.
It is a sacred place of peace and memory. We therefore thank Superintendent Melanie Resto for agreeing to be the protagonist of this interview, on the occasion of Memorial Day 2020, which this year, due to the coronavirus, will not allow us to organize a physical event celebrating the American heroes - and many of them Italian Americans - to whom we owe our freedom. But the emergency of these times does not extinguish our gratitude and the debt that Italy honors every year towards America and its sons who gave their lives for us. We will never forget. Thank you
Ms. Resto, how did your relationship with Italy start?
I have a long-standing relationship with Italy. My first visit here was in 1980, when I was a young soldier stationed in Germany. On vacation, I visited this country and fell instantly in love with its beauty, people and food. I could not have imagined my future would include living here. In 1990, I was selected as a Rotary Scholar and chose Italy as the country to serve in and complete a university project. That year I met my husband and the rest is history.
Prior to this assignment, I have worked and lived in Tuscany and Sicily. In 2016, I was fortunate to be selected for a transfer to the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, in Nettuno. The immaculately maintained manicured lawns, the marble headstones and the majestic Memorial still take my breath away daily. The most important part of the day is strolling on the grounds and reading aloud the names of our service members, as I watch over the gardeners who work with such pride. It is evident they understand the sacrifice of those resting and the importance of their work.
It is an honor for me to work for the American Battle Monuments Commission at Sicily-Rome American Cemetery to keep the memories and stories alive of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, to be the voice of those who can no longer speak.
Please, tell our readers the story of the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery.
Sicily-Rome American Cemetery is one of the 26 military cemeteries located in foreign countries that is operated and maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Sicily-Rome American Cemetery is one of the two permanent American military cemeteries in Italy.
Two days after the landings in Anzio and Nettuno, the American army established a temporary cemetery on the site that would in time become Sicily-Rome American Cemetery. Following the conclusion of WWII, the U.S. government decided to organize a permanent American Cemetery there called the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery. It was dedicated as a permanent cemetery in 1956.
How many Americans rest in peace here, and how many missing in action soldiers are remembered and honored here?
At Sicily-Rome American Cemetery we have almost 8,000 service members who rest in peace in the cemetery. Close to 3,100 are also memorialized on the Wall of the Missing. The Wall of the Missing at Sicily-Rome American Cemetery includes 13 bronze rosettes that indicate the 13 service members whose remains have been identified. The last bronze rosette was placed in June 2017. PFC Lonnie B.C. Eichelberger remains were recovered in 2016 and positively identified in 2017.
The sacred duty of the American Battle Monuments Commission is to remember the courage, sacrifice and heroism of those who fought to free Europe and ensure that tyranny did not find footing on American shores.
Is there any information about their States of origin, or their average age?
On each headstone or on the Wall of the Missing you have some information such as the name, rank, unit, the state where the service members enlisted and the date of death. Part of our daily work is to conduct research on the service members to get more details on their lives, and the state of origin is part of that. Meeting families and next-of-kin can also be very helpful. They bring anecdotes on the service members and quite often documents or pictures that we can use.
The age average at Sicily-Rome American Cemetery is 20 and service members from all 50 states are represented in the burials here.
It is an honor and part of our mission to keep the memories and stories alive of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Do many visitors come to the cemetery? Where do they come from, both America and Italy?
In 2019, we had more than 245,000 visitors at Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, but we need to remember that 2019 was a very special year as it was the 75th anniversary of the landings in Anzio and Nettuno. In 2018, we had also about 245,000, with over 12,000 attending the mass held by Pope Francis on November 2, 2018. On an average, we have at least one family, of a service member buried here, visit weekly.
Up to the closure of the cemetery in March 2020, 28,000 visitors had already reached our cemetery, which was consistent to past years. As you can appreciate, 2020 may be a unique year when it comes to visitation due to the pandemic and necessary closure. While attendance and visitation are important to us, the health and safety of our staff and visitors is of critical importance. The U.S. and Italy, like all countries, continue to work together to defeat covid-19. We are stronger together.
The American Battle Monuments Commission network includes cemeteries in several countries around the world, including 6 countries in Europe: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. When was the American Battle Monuments Commission born and how does it work?
With 26 cemeteries and 30 federal monuments in more than 10 countries, the American Battle Monuments Commission is the guardian of America’s overseas commemorative cemeteries and memorials— it honors the service, achievements and sacrifice of U.S. armed forces. It was established by Congress in 1923. Its mission also includes: designing, constructing, operating, and maintaining permanent American military cemeteries, monuments and markers overseas where American forces have served since April 6, 1917.
How is your relationship with Italian institutions, both local and national? I hope they recognize the importance of a sacred place, of peace and reflection like this one.
The American Battle Monuments Commission has very good relationships with the local and national institutions. We work hand in hand with them for our ceremonies and events.
For instance, we are very close to schools that come often to the cemetery for group visits or to attend our ceremonies. Each year we hold a special ceremony, on January 22nd, to commemorate the Allied Forces Landing on the beaches on Anzio/Nettuno. For the past few years this ceremony has been led by students from a local middle school. The students pledge to learn about WWII and conduct research to learn more about the service members buried here. At the end of this program they hold a special “Memorial Day” ceremony at their school, which I attend and participate in as the Superintendent. The students present their findings creatively in a variety of categories such as dance, drama, song, poetry readings, and more. This program is sponsored by a local Italian man, Antonio Taurelli - 94 years old, who fought alongside the U.S. troops during their time here in Nettuno. Since the war, he continues to pay tribute to his fellow service members buried here at Sicily-Rome American Cemetery by laying single roses at five headstones.
Also, often you can find me having coffee with the local Mayor and museum directors in the region. It is during these special times we discuss how to better collaborate in order to encourage tourists and locals to visit our towns and important historical sites. There isn’t a day when I am downtown, or at a bread shop, and am greeted by a local with a “buongiorno Direttrice”, as I am known affectionately.
After Pearl Harbor, the Italian Americans became enemy aliens overnight: their country of origin was at war with America, and they were asked to choose. Almost everyone chose America, but a higher percentage than any ethnic group enlisted in the American armed forces, and many asked to go and fight to free Italy. Are there many of them who rest in peace here?
Most of the burials in the cemetery hold the remains of service members who died in World War II. Some civilians, who were serving in a military support role, are also buried in Sicily-Rome American cemetery.
However, the service members who are buried at the cemetery represent the diversity of the Americans who served in war, including males, females, people of different faiths, multiple ethnicities, and backgrounds. We know many sons of Italian immigrants fought in WWII, often serving as translators on the front line.
Is there a story about someone resting at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery that struck you, and can you tell our readers?
All of the stories of the service members buried at Sicily-Rome American Cemetery are of equal importance but the story of First Lieutenant (1LT) Gerst G. Buyer is quite special to me.
The service of U.S. forces made many great additions to the Italian culture. During their free time here in the area, many soldiers played a game that the Italians had never seen before and started sharing this practice with them. This gave birth to a long lasting friendship between Italians and Americans and introduced a new form of culture here in the country.
Nettuno is officially known as “The City of Baseball”. These men brought the sport here and taught the locals how to play it. This sport was helping them overcoming differences and building a stronger cooperation which would have continued even after the war.
1LT Gerst G. Buyer was one of them. He was a first baseman and had played in the baseball teams of both his high school. He was drafted in February 1942. He went through the North African campaign, landed at Salerno, Italy and later in May 1944 his regiment was sent to Anzio to take part in the Allied breakout of the beachhead beginning on May 23rd. He was killed in action during heavy fighting two days later on May 25.
Like many others, he left a legacy. During his time here, he probably played baseball with some Italians. One thing is for sure, the locals were so fascinated by this new sport that they continued to play it also after the war.
Since 1945, Nettuno has its own baseball team and they have won several Italian and European cups. Many American baseball players have come here to play (Joe Di Maggio, Lenny Randle) and many Italians have made their contribution to baseball in the U.S. The sport spread throughout the nation, but still today Nettuno is considered to have one of the best teams in Italy. I guess it’s because they had the best teachers, like 1LT Buyer.
In a few days, we will celebrate Memorial Day, this year in a probably different form, given the emergency of the coronavirus. What significance does this anniversary have for you, the superintendent of this important place of memory for those who gave life for the United States of America, and in this case to liberate Italy?
As you know, Sicily-Rome American Cemetery as all American Battle Monuments Commission cemeteries is currently closed. While our sites remain closed and all public ceremonies are canceled, to fulfill our sacred mission, we will commemorate Memorial Day virtually with ceremonies that will be available for viewing through the agency’s social media platforms on May 25, 2020.
American Battle Monuments Commission is committed to honoring the service, achievements and sacrifices of the U.S. Armed Forces. Our digital and social media efforts, with the support of our Department of Defense partners, will honor the more than 200,000 U.S. service members buried or memorialized at our sites around the world.
I know the citizens of Nettuno and Anzio, as well as those from neighboring towns, will be saddened by the absence of a large ceremony. For many, it is an event they have attended their entire lifetime. But it is essential for the American Battle Monuments Commission to keep with the precautionary measures from the United States and local authorities to prevent the spread of covid-19 among employees and visitors. This year they will join us in spirit.
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