Florence, May 30, 2016
(As prepared for delivery)
Deputy Minister of Defense Rossi, General Hodges, distinguished guests, veterans, ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor for me to be here with you on this important occasion.
I am particularly grateful to see that we are joined today by so many Italian and international guests. I thank you very much for your desire to come and commemorate with us the fallen heroes who rest in this beautiful cemetery.
On Memorial Day around the world, and in towns and cities at home, Americans and their allies gather to stand silently at the final resting places of so many of our countrymen who heeded our nation’s call to arms. Just as we have come here this morning, thousands have gathered across Europe this weekend at similar cemeteries: at Nettuno, Flanders, Belleau Wood, and in Normandy. And, in those places made sacred by sacrifice, many people will struggle, as I do here this morning, to find some way to put into words the profound gratitude we feel for the gifts they have given each of us.
As we gaze around us at the 4,402 perfectly manicured plots and quiet stones—everlasting tributes to US Fifth Army’s finest, and to the many more who rendered to the Nation their last full measure of patriotic devotion—we feel humbled by their sacrifice. Thousands rest here. Each one the victim of carnage and brutality. Each with their own story. Each one thousands of miles away from home.
Those buried here came from forty-eight states and most were very young at the time of their violent deaths. All were extraordinary heroes whose accomplishments will forever live in the memories of our two countries, and a perfect example is that of the three Medal of Honor recipients memorialized behind you. Sergeant Roy Harmon from California is one of them, and he gave his life near Casaglia while conducting a 1-man attack on three different German positions to save his platoon. Staff Sergeant George Keathely from Texas, who during an enemy counterattack in Mount Altuzzo took command of two platoons to prevent their annihilation – he too answered the call of duty and paid for it with his life. Lieutenant Colonel Addison Baker from Illinois also paid the ultimate sacrifice while commanding his heavy bombardment group. He refused to break flight formation after his aircraft was heavily damaged during a mission and dropped bombs until his aircraft went down in flames. Although his body was never recovered, he was given a memorial site in this cemetery.
All of these young people faced their final moments on Italian soil, and all of them sacrificed everything on behalf of their Nation.
While we are here to show our respect for the American war dead from WWII, I would be remiss if I did not recall that, even as we stand here today, once more, Americans and Italians are fighting shoulder to shoulder against tyranny and oppression around the world.
The day will inevitably come when none who visit will remember the names or faces of the men who lie here, or remember firsthand their deeds. But we gather here each year to pledge that we, as a nation, as a people, will never forget what they gave to the world.
Those buried here brought with them an indefatigable spirit and determination to forge a better world, and here they left their brothers-in-arms, their blood, and their youth. To any veterans with us here today, I would like to say that, thanks to you, the children you see among us have grown up far removed from the tragedies of war and the terrors of despotism. Thanks to you, they are a generation living in peace with only days like today to remind them – and all of us – of the terrible price that sometimes must be paid for freedom.