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Today is Memorial Day in Pennsylvania and across the nation. And while many of us will gather with friends and families for barbecues and picnics, for thousands of our fellow citizens, it’s not a day of celebration. It’s a time to honor America’s fallen, their loved ones, who died in service to the nation.
On Memorial Day in 1945, Lt. Gen. Lucian Truscott Jr., commander of the U.S. Fifth Army, delivered what may well be the most moving and iconic of all addresses.
On that day, instead of addressing the crowd at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, Truscott turned his back on the audience, and delivered an extraordinary apology to the roughly 20,000 American soldiers who were buried there, Doyle Hodges, of the website War on the Rocks, wrote in a piece published on Memorial Day 2021.
Unfortunately, there is neither a transcript nor a recording of Truscott’s speech, not even among his official papers at the George C. Marshall Research Library in Virginia, historian Nicolaus Mills wrote for CNN in 2015.
The accounts we do have come from journalists. The famed combat cartoonist Bill Mauldin called it “the most moving gesture I ever saw,” according to Hodges.
Stars & Stripes, the military newspaper, carried excerpts of Truscott’s remarks, including his observation that “all over the world our soldiers sleep beneath the crosses … It is a challenge to us – all allied nations– to ensure that they do not and have not died in vain,” Mills wrote for CNN.
Mills writes that Mauldin, who recalled the scene in his memoir “The Brass Ring,” said that Truscott’s audience included members of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, making his gesture all the more memorable.
From Mauldin, via Mills:
“When Truscott spoke he turned away from the visitors and addressed himself to the corpses he had commanded here. It was the most moving gesture I ever saw. It came from a hard-boiled old man who was incapable of planned dramatics.
“The general’s remarks were brief and extemporaneous. He apologized to the dead men for their presence here. He said everybody tells leaders it is not their fault that men get killed in war, but that every leader knows in his heart this is not altogether true.
“He said he hoped anybody here through any mistake of his would forgive him, but he realized that was asking a hell of a lot under the circumstances. . . . he would not speak about the glorious dead because he didn’t see much glory in getting killed if you were in your late teens or early twenties. He promised that if in the future he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. He said he thought that was the least he could do,” Truscott said, according to Mauldin.
Separately, the legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle reflected on the circumstances that had plucked ordinary men from their homes and brought them halfway across the planet to fight in a war that changed the world.
“‘I couldn’t help but feeling the immensity of the catastrophe that has put men all over the world, millions of us, moving in machinelike precision throughout long foreign nights — men who should be comfortably asleep in their own warm beds at home,'” Pyle wrote, according to biographer James Tobin in ‘Ernie Pyle’s War: America’s Witness to World War II.’
“War makes strange giant creatures out of us little men who inhabit the Earth,” Pyle wrote, according to Tobin.
Like so many of the people he wrote about, Pyle never made it home either. He died on April 18, 1944, after a Japanese machine gun bullet pierced his left temple, the Associated Press reported at the time.
From Truscott’s apology to the dead to Pyle’s recollection, we’re offered vivid reminders that so many Americans have given so much to give us this democratic, pluralistic nation where there’s room for everyone — no matter their race, their ethnicity, their gender (or no gender at all), whom they love, or the deity they do or don’t worship.
At some point today, in a quiet moment, I’ll honor those sacrifices and remember our collective responsibility to ensure, as Truscott said all those years ago, that they were not in vain.
And if you are honoring or mourning a fallen loved one today, may their memory be a blessing.
Have a peaceful Memorial Day. We’ll see you all back here on Tuesday.
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