On Veterans Day, Americans are asked to do something for the country besides voting and paying taxes: We are enjoined to think of those who fought in faraway places -- the Philippines, North Africa, Europe, Vietnam and Iraq.
Most of them came home, but some did not, even in death. The remains of more than 120,000 war dead rest in American military cemeteries abroad, beneath rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David. Many of the graveyards, including 20 in Western Europe, lie on or near the battlefields where U.S. military personnel fought and fell.
Meticulously maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, a small federal agency mandated by Congress in 1923, the cemeteries are profoundly beautiful and meaningful places. Mostly, they're visited by relatives and veterans, but occasionally an American tourist happens by a gate where the Stars and Stripes fly, turns in and sees the massed graves of American heroes who sleep on foreign soil.
That is how I found the American cemetery in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg earlier this year, where I sat on the freshly cut lawn near the graves of two brothers, wondering how they died and what they would have done if they had survived.
Last month, anticipating Veterans Day this Tuesday, I sought out military cemeteries in Belgium, France and Italy, where thousands of American World War I and II combatants were buried and many more of the missing are remembered.
At the Henri-Chapelle, Meuse-Argonne and Sicily-Rome cemeteries I found as many stories as there are tombstones.
Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial
As I drove from Brussels to the hamlet of Henri-Chapelle early one fall morning, armies of commuters clogged the freeway, heading east toward the Belgian capital along the route taken by the German blitzkrieg of May 1940.
An hour later, I arrived in Liege, then turned onto a road that followed a ridge above the placid farmland around the Belgian-German border with its spotted cows, hydrangeas and housewives gossiping at the mailbox. Eastern Belgium, in general and quiet, and lace-curtained Henri-Chapelle, in particular, seem unlikely places for a war.
On the road into town I saw a monument to 1,223 men from the U.S. 1st Infantry Division -- widely known as the Big Red One -- who made it through D-Day but died nearby in late 1944. The Big Red One liberated villages in the area, and locals still remember it fondly.
The 57-acre Henri-Chapelle cemetery has an airy setting atop the ridge just outside the village, flanked by rhododendron bushes that bloom in the spring.
Safely behind the line of advance, Henri-Chapelle began functioning as a temporary graveyard as early as September 1944, and at first had as many enemy as Allied burials, though the Germans were later moved and about 60% of the American dead were returned to the States.
Now, 7,989 military personnel are buried at Henri-Chapelle. Most died when the Americans first breached the German border around the town of Aachen and, a few months later, in northern sectors of the pivotal Battle of the Bulge.
In front of a large map in the memorial, Dwight Anderson, the assistant superintendent, briefed me on fighting in the region and showed me the nearby tablets of the missing. Rosettes marked some names, indicating that their remains were later found.
Six decades after the war, the job of finding and burying the dead continues. Anderson told me that a few weeks earlier the remains of two soldiers from the 28th had been found in eastern Germany.
Anderson's knowledge about the war is encyclopedic. "Just hit my pause button when you get bored," he said. But I never did.
From the bare facts on a tombstone he could guess where the soldier fought and possibly even how he died. He treated headstones like old friends: 15 men killed when the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine River in Germany collapsed on March 17, 1945, and scores of the 28th and the three Tester brothers from Tennessee lying side-by-side.
Anderson isn't the only one in the area with a long memory. Near the village of Thimister-Clermont, Belgium, also in Liege province, Mathilde and Marcel Schmetz have created a war memorial of their own, the Remember Museum 39-45. It's open to the public the first Sunday of every month but it's always open to Americans if they phone ahead (32-87-44-61-81) for a tour conducted by the beguiling proprietors.
Marcel was 11 when 110 soldiers from the Big Red One were billeted at the family farm. They stayed for three weeks, plying him with chocolates that he says gave him a sweet tooth. They were called up suddenly to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, leaving much of their gear behind.
That was the beginning of his collection, greatly expanded over the years. Now the brick building next to the farmhouse is a cache of memorabilia -- a German gas mask for a horse, a blouse made of parachute fabric and Belgian lace, a Sherman tank unearthed in a nearby bog.
The couple has developed close ties to American veterans and is especially devoted to helping the offspring of slain soldiers understand what their fathers endured. If you ask the couple about anti-Americanism, they say you won't find any in this part of Belgium.
Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial
This Veterans Day has special meaning at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, about 25 miles northwest of Verdun: It marks the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.
Until the day the armistice went into effect, troops were fighting an offensive in an area still known as America's bloodiest battle: In 47 days, 26,277 U.S. military personnel were killed.
The bodies of many who died here were at the expense of the U.S. government, in accordance with the wishes of the next of kin. But 14,247 war dead, including 486 unknown soldiers, never left this 130-acre tract of land given in perpetuity by France to the U.S.
"I think of it as their last bivouac," said Joseph P. Rivers, the cemetery superintendent who showed me around.
This, the largest American military cemetery in Europe, lies on the outskirts of the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, population 172, among gently rolling fields, deep forests and a scattering of hills that were bitterly contested in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
The French and Germans had fought in the area in 1914 before a long stalemate fell over the front line. For four years before the Americans arrived, Germans occupied the region, building five-star trenches with running water and electric lights.
Though comfortably ensconced, they were not soft, and they fought back with an intensity that stunned Gen. John J. Pershing's 1st Army, which mounted the Meuse-Argonne attack on Sept. 26, 1918, the first major American-led offensive of the war. The initial 600,000-man force was largely made up of green, barely trained recruits.
An almost incomprehensible 1.2 million Americans ultimately fought in the Meuse-Argonne.
But to me everything about the war to end all wars seems incomprehensible, especially the final death count: 20 million.
The quiet, green landscape around Romagne bears no witness to the Great War's destructiveness, though I later saw photos of the area at the end of the conflict.
Whole towns were razed. The barren, brutalized countryside was littered with barbed wire, bomb craters, land mines, poison gas canisters and corpses that were gathered in Romagne where a cemetery took shape even as the fighting raged.
It spans a small valley with eight rectangular grave plots, bordered by linden trees, climbing to a memorial on high ground.
Standing there, Rivers pointed south toward a distant hill surmounted by a 200-foot American monument: Montfaucon, a principal U.S. objective. It took the Americans three weeks to fight their way from there across five miles of farm fields to Romagne.
The centerpiece of the memorial is a chapel with stained- glass windows bearing the insignias of the divisions that fought in the Meuse-Argonne, including the 92nd black American Buffalo Soldiers and the "Bloody Bucket" 28th, largely from Pennsylvania.
We walked among the tombstones, arranged in long parallel rows but placed in no particular order; bodies were buried as they arrived, except for the 18 sets of brothers, placed side-by-side when possible.
The stones show the deceased's name, rank, serial number, division, state of enlistment and date of death. In the case of unidentified remains, the marker says: "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God."
Gold-leafed inscriptions mark the graves of nine of the 53 combatants who won the Medal of Honor in the Meuse-Argonne. Among them is Cpl. Freddie Stowers, a black officer who died leading his decimated platoon into German trenches, but -- for a variety of reasons, including racism, some claimed -- did not receive the nation's highest decoration until 1991, 73 years after he died.
Eight members of the Lost Battalion, marooned without adequate food and ammunition for five days in a pocket of tangled woods, surrounded by Germans and ultimately cut down by friendly fire, were buried in the cemetery.
Of the more than 554 men who took part in the action, only 194 made it out, including the commander, then Maj. Charles White Whittlesey, who won the Medal of Honor and died three years after the war, an apparent suicide.
Apart from paying homage to heroes like these, learning their stories is an important reason for visiting American military cemeteries overseas, especially those set among battlefields.
The Meuse-Argonne area is rich with World War I sites that outline the course of the offensive, including Romagne 1914-18, a small, private museum at the threshold of the cemetery. In an old village barn a devoted Dutch pacifist has assembled the detritus of war -- vehicles, weapons, uniforms, mess kits -- collected in the neighborhood since the war.
Down country lanes east of Romagne is a Lost Battalion monument and a memorial path marking the route taken by Cpl. Alvin York, who won a Medal of Honor, got promoted to sergeant and inspired a 1941 movie, "Sergeant York," starring Gary Cooper. But heroes unnoticed by Hollywood surely walked all over the Meuse-Argonne.
Sicily-Rome American Cemetery
It's an easy 40-mile drive south from Rome to the American cemetery in the coast town Nettuno. The highway, known as the Pontina, crosses the Alban Hills, then rolls past Aprilia, marked by a long chain of warehouse stores.
Throughout most of World War II, Aprilia was in the hands of Germany and Italy. But on Jan. 22, 1944, after driving the enemy out of Sicily and taking the cities of Salerno and Naples, the Allies launched an attack on the coast south of Rome, turning the low-lying plain around Aprilia into a battlefield.
The Allies met with little resistance when they landed, but after that almost everything went wrong.
German Gen. Field Marshall Albert Kesselring obtained a copy of the invasion plan. Then the Allies waited near the beach heads, consolidating their forces, before moving inland.
The delay gave Kesselring time to pour troops into the region, resulting in 125 days of desperate struggle often likened to the trench warfare of World War I.
I passed Aprilia on my way to the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery at the end of the summer.
Having just read "Fatal Decision: Anzio and the Battle for Rome," by Carlo D'Este, I knew the town was a major Allied objective and kept looking for signs of carnage. But all I saw were truck gardens, malls, gas stations and condominium complexes for beach-goers.
Scars heal. The landscape forgets.
But the Sicily-Rome cemetery remembers. The 77-acre graveyard about a mile from the ocean was once a vineyard, then a hospital and temporary cemetery through which many newly landed troops had to march on their way to battle.
Gulls circled around the tops of the Italian cypresses, clouds of gnats swarmed and a weed whacker whined when I arrived one sultry morning.
Like the other American Battle Monuments Commission sites I have visited in Europe, the cemetery is meticulously maintained, a place apart from everyday life.
The front gate yields to a large reflecting pool and mall leading to a memorial of travertine and marble, with a bronze-colored statue of a U.S. soldier and sailor, marching together, their arms around each others' shoulders.
Curving rows of headstones flow away from both sides of the mall, marking the graves of 7,861 Americans.
Inscriptions on the stones show that many of them died in the area in early 1944, including men from two battalions of U.S. Rangers decimated in the battle for the town of Cisterna.
Others died in the U.S. sweep across Sicily in the summer of 1943 and around the 6th century Benedictine Abbey of Montecassino north of Naples, destroyed by American bombers on Feb. 15, 1944.
I spent a long time studying the map panels in the memorial to better understand the battle here. War analysts have viewed it as a sideshow misconceived by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill or a practice run for D-day six months later. Then I sought out some of the places marked on the map, beginning with the beach in nearby Nettuno, where the Americans under Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas and later Gen. Lucian K. Truscott Jr. concentrated while the British grouped in Anzio just to the north.
A plaque on a storefront in the Nettuno market square marks the commanders' living quarters. Another in the woods south of town shows where the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division hit the beach.
Farther afield is the Piana delle Orme Museum, occupying two rows of converted greenhouses outside the town of Latina.
Those on one side are devoted to the region's rural lifestyle; the other side has World War II exhibits. The arrangement puts the battle in a civilian context, as do displays giving such information as agricultural casualties: Fighting in the region claimed 220,000 olive trees and 55,000 sheep.
It's harder to find the German war cemetery on the outskirts of Pomezia. But in Europe, I discovered, there is at least one German graveyard somewhere near every American military cemetery. Most are smaller in area, but often have more grave sites.
I stopped at the German cemetery by the noisy Pontina on the way back to Rome. There I was alone with 27,443 enemy war dead who, resting eternally, no longer seemed like anyone's enemy.
A plaque quoting Albert Schweitzer put the right coda on my journey. "The soldiers' graves," it read, "are the greatest preachers of peace."
Spano is a Times staff writer.
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