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Public Papers - 1989

Remarks at a Memorial Day Ceremony in Nettuno, Italy

1989-05-28

Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for honoring us today at this service. We gather today to mark Memorial Day in America, to honor the thousands of young men and women buried here and elsewhere who put themselves in harm's way so that others might live in freedom.

As we gather, it's dawn in America, Memorial Day weekend, the first days of summer. And soon, the screen doors will slam; parks are going to sound with the crack of the baseball bat; children's voices will rise in the summer breeze pungent with the scent of barbecue smoke. And the rites of summer are marked by American tradition. As morning comes to Indianapolis, the smells of coffee and gasoline will mingle in the heat rising off that sun-baked raceway. And further west, there's going to be another race, as the blast of a ship's whistle sends the riverboats Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer steaming down the Mississippi off the docks of St. Louis.

Memorial Day weekend -- by the time today's ceremony concludes, the first rays of sunlight will streak across the Potomac, flashing first atop the monument to the founder of our Republic, then reaching down to touch the silent rows of white markers on the green Virginia hillside that is Arlington Cemetery. And soon the gathering light will reveal a lone figure, a man in uniform, standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a round-the-clock vigil unbroken in more than 50 years. Another moment and the dawn will flood the park that lays beneath the gaze of Lincoln, embracing the candles that flicker each night along the walls of the Vietnam Memorial. And soon the plaintive sound of taps will rise in the wind in cities and hamlets all across America, heard by veterans of four wars as they gather to salute the fallen. In town after town, the ritual at sunrise will be the same, as first the flag is raised, then slowly lowered to half-mast.

The thoughts of some will turn eastward toward the Sun, across the ocean, across four decades, to this grassy plain above the shores of the Mediterranean, where 45 years ago, the U.S. 3d Infantry Division, among the most decorated in World War II, led the bloody advance toward the liberation of Rome. And on that Memorial Day weekend, 1944, I wasn't yet 20 years old, flying torpedo bombers off the U.S.S. San Jacinto on the other side of the world, as she headed from Wake Island to Saipan. But like Americans everywhere, the men aboard our ship had eagerly followed the news of the Italian campaign.

And during 4 long months of 1944, the combatants of World War II were locked near Nettuno in a deadly embrace. But before the week was out, the face of the world's greatest conflict would be changed and the fate of the enemy sealed. On June 4th, American troops entered Rome, the streets lined by cheering Italians, and by midnight General Mark Clark's 5th Army stood on the banks of the Tiber. And the word went out to a waiting America: For the first time since the landings at Salerno in September of 1943, the enemy was in full retreat. It was the beginning of the end. And 2 days later a new front opened with D-day, the Normandy landing.

The fight to liberate Italy was as fierce and heroic as any seen in the war. The dangers to each adversary -- the danger was such that the outcome of the war itself seemed to hang at that moment on the valor and vigor of each man who struggled near the water's edge. One such soldier was Sergeant Sylvester Antolak, an Ohio farmboy, the youngest son of Polish immigrants. On a drizzly morning some 45 years ago this week, he led Sergeant Audie Murphy and others in a bold charge through the rain and the ruin near Cisterna, one man against a machinegun nest that blocked the road to Rome. And three times he was cut down by fire; three times he got back up, tucking his gun under his shattered arm. And by the time he disabled the gunners, 10 enemy soldiers surrendered to this man whom their bullets could not stop.

Sergeant Antolak fell near Cisterna that same day. He rests here beneath the pines of Nettuno with nearly 8,000 soldiers, his grave one of two marked with our Congressional Medal of Honor. Joined by the names of another 3,000 missing etched in the white marble of the chapel, they come from every American State from Texas to Maine, Alaska to Florida, New York to California. And these white crosses and Stars of David ring the world -- across the battlefields of Europe and the jungles of Asia, the deserts of North Africa and the hillsides of our homeland -- in silent tribute to America's battles for freedom in this century.

It was with the memory of the sacrifices of the American, British, and French soldiers who fell during the campaign to liberate Italy and the sacrifices of millions of other Europeans and Americans in the cause of freedom fresh in mind that NATO was created after the war.

As I reflect on this scene and anticipate the dynamic and forward-looking Europe of the 1990's, I think of generations of young people on both sides of the Atlantic who have grown up in peace and prosperity. With no experience in the horror and destruction of war, it might be difficult for them to understand why we need to keep a strong military deterrent to prevent war, and to preserve freedom and democracy. The answer is here, among the quiet of the graves.

The cost of maintaining freedom is brought home to us all when tragedy strikes, as it did last month aboard the U.S.S. Iowa. The loss of those fine sailors, the tears of their families and the loved ones, remind all of us of the risk and sacrifice in human terms that security sometimes demands. And let me add how impressive were the many expressions of sympathy that I received from leaders around the world, and particularly by the eloquent words of Italy's distinguished President, President Cossiga, as he shared the sorrow of our loss.

Sergeant Antolak also understood the cost of freedom. Today in his hometown of St. Clairsville, Ohio, population 6,000, the townspeople will gather by the local courthouse to dedicate a white granite memorial to the county's Medal of Honor winners. George and Stanley Antolak will be there to remember their brother -- their hero and ours. It's the kind of scene that will be repeated today and tomorrow in parks and churchyards all across America.

A bit north of Mark Twain's Hannibal, just up the Mississippi from that steamboat race I mentioned, lies the town of Quincy, Illinois. When World War II came, Quincy offered up her sons in service. Three brothers: Donald, Preston, and William Kaspervik joined the Army Air Corps. And their story is a common one, and yet uncommon in the way of all those who answered the call to serve.

The first brother, Donald, was killed when the two bombers collided on maneuvers in New Mexico, and their mother grieved. Preston, the second brother, died just south of here in Sicily shortly after Patton's successful invasion. And their mother was overcome once again. And 10 days later, the third brother, William, went down during a dangerous bombing mission over the mountains of central Italy. On the day of his death, his mother received a letter from him urging her not to worry. When the third telegram came, she couldn't bring herself to go to the door. William and Preston Kaspervik are buried here in soil that they helped free. Brothers in life, brothers in arms, brothers in eternity.

Their mother died 20 years ago, but back home in Quincy, the extraordinary sacrifice of this ordinary American family is still remembered. And today, as they do every year, the VFW and the American Legion will honor Quincy's fallen natives with a hometown parade down Main Street, high above the banks of the Mississippi.

As we gather today, it is dawn in America, Memorial Day weekend. And as the Sun rises and the summer begins, the images both here and at home are of countries that are prosperous and secure, countries confident of their place in the world and aware of the responsibility that comes with that place. Soon that lone soldier at Arlington will resume his paces, 21 steps in each direction, the changing of the guard precisely on the half hour. And at Gettysburg, the schoolchildren will scatter flowers on other unknown graves, blue and gray, side-by-side, Americans.

On Memorial Day, we give thanks for the blessings of freedom and peace and for the generations of Americans who have won them for us. We also pray for the same strength and moral reserve demonstrated by these veterans, as well as for the true and lasting peace found in a world where liberty and justice prevail.

And with that prayer, I ask that you join in your own silent prayers as we place a wreath to commemorate the sacrifice of those buried here at Nettuno and the sacrifice of all men and women who have given their lives for freedom. Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 10:41 a.m. at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery.

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