The PJ Tatler

Memorial Day, 1945: A Commander Apologizes to the Dead

One of the most unusual Memorial Day commemorations occurred in Nettuno, Italy, on May 30, 1945. Lt. General Lucian Truscott was dedicating the American cemetery where thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in Italy were buried.

About 3,000 of those American lives were lost during the battle of Anzio. Truscott commanded the 3rd Infantry Division at the time — the spearhead of the attack. The plan called for a combined British-American landing in January, 1944 at Anzio-Nettuno and a breakout from the beaches into the hills beyond where the allies would be able to cut off the German retreat from the Gustav line further south and eventually flank the German Winter Line.

There were questions about the landings from the start, especially from Truscott who believed that unless the allies were to move quickly, they’d be cut to pieces by German defenders ringing the hills surrounding the beaches.

And that is essentially what happened. Commanding the landing forces was General John Lucas, who got his wires crossed with overall commander General Mark Clark, and apparently didn’t understand that speed was of the essence. While Lucas was carefully arranging his troops on the beaches, preparing studiously for the breakout, German Field Marshall Kesselring was rounding up every soldier who could walk or crawl and rushing them to the hills surrounding Anzio. Three German divisions surrounded the beachhead before Lucas could get organized.

The resulting blood bath was one of the more avoidable catastrophes of World War II. A month after the landings, Lucas was relieved and sent home, Truscott taking his place as commander of VI Corps. After a hard, slogging fight, Truscott’s men were able to capture Rome two days before D-Day.

Anzio haunted Truscott to the end of his life. While blaming his superiors, he didn’t spare himself when it came to criticism. Hence, his remarkable action during the Memorial Day commemoration in 1945.

The description is supplied by the famous cartoonist Bill Mauldin, whose “Willie and Joe” drawings of ordinary grunts captured the horror, the suffering, and the humor of World War II.

One of the back benchers was a 23-year-old infantry sergeant, Bill Mauldin, a cartoonist for Stars and Stripes. Mauldin was a hero to ordinary “dogfaces,” as the frontline soldiers were called then, and his grim, rough-hewn cartoon feature, “Up Front,” captured the world of combat like nothing else. He understood well the waste of war and the frequent venality of high command. For that reason, he mostly stayed away from official ceremonies and dedications. To him, every day was Memorial Day.

But May 30, 1945 was different. “Truscott,” he said, “was someone special.” The general had swallowed carbolic acid as a child, which gave his voice a gravelly baritone that, said Mauldin, “made other strong men quail.” Unlike Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., a publicity hound whose trips to the front were elaborately staged photo-ops, Truscott shared in the dangers of combat, often going over maps on the hood of his jeep with company commanders as enemy fire whizzed around him. “He could have eaten a ham like Patton for breakfast any morning,” said Mauldin, “and picked his teeth with the man’s pearl-handed pistols.”

Mauldin’s account of Gen. Truscott’s speech at Nettuno is the best record we have of that day. He recalled the general taking the stand and then turning his back on the audience in order to address the buried corpses arrayed behind him. “It was the most moving gesture I ever saw,” Mauldin said.

In his heavy rasp, Truscott told the dead men that he was sorry for what he had done. He said that leaders all tell themselves that deaths in war aren’t their fault, that such carnage is inevitable. Deep down, though, if they’re honest with themselves, he said, commanders and politicians know it’s not true. Truscott admitted he had made mistakes, perhaps many.

Then he asked the dead to forgive him. He was requesting the impossible, he knew, but he needed to ask anyway.

Finally, Truscott debunked the idea that there was glory in dying for one’s country. He saw nothing glorious about men in their teens and twenties getting killed, he said. He then promised the men buried at Nettuno that if he ever ran into anybody who spoke of the glorious war dead, he would “straighten them out.” “It is the least I can do,” he concluded.

Not a traditional Memorial Day oration. But what of Truscott’s apology to the dead? If you read a lot of biographies of military men, you know that almost all of them are troubled by the orders they gave that sent thousands of men to their deaths. But at the same time, most of them justify those orders as the price to be paid for victory.

Truscott apparently believed this kind of justification was too self-serving. He recognized his own unforced errors at Anzio that resulted in the senseless waste of lives. For this, any honest man would face his own demons and apologize for decisions that resulted in the deaths of so many unnecessarily.

With the debate over the Iraq War being reignited recently, it should give us pause this Memorial Day to reflect on the decisions that led to the deaths of more than 3500 Americans. Those who made them, and those of us who supported them, should recall General Truscott’s heartfelt homage to the dead of Anzio and resolve not to forget those who paid the ultimate price in a war that generates controversy to this day.