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Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Gift of Freedom

Photo: Nearly 8,000 Americans are buried in this cemetery in Nettuno, Italy
Celebrating the 4th of July in Italy is a little different than if we were in America.   Last year, the Waddoups had just barely arrived as the new mission president and they had received an invitation to attend an event at the American Embassy for select guests and religious leaders in Rome.  For the rest of us it was business as usual in the mission office and throughout the mission field.   This year we gathered with our adult missionary and temple construction friends and had a good 'ol fashioned pancake breakfast in the morning and then it was off to work for everyone for the rest of the day.  No parades or fireworks here.  On the way to breakfast, Miriam spotted an American flag t-shirt hanging in a Chinese store (think Oriental Trading) so I "did as the Romans do" and double parked and put on my emergency blinkers while she ran in to buy it.  It was made in Italy after all!

Photo: Fourth of July pancake breakfast with real maple syrup and fresh butter at Jim and Pattee's apt.
On the 4th of July we honor not only the birth of America and those who fought for the freedoms we cherish in America, but we also honor the many veterans who fought to preserve freedom in other parts of the world.   During WWII, Miriam's father was stationed in north Africa assigned as a tail gunner in a B-24.  He flew reconnaissance missions over the Mediterranean Sea and Sicily  which was occupied by the Axis powers of Germany and Italy.  He never fired the gun at another plane and was never involved in action on the ground.  Others were not so fortunate.

While he served his country, his first son was born in Los Angeles where his new bride Meg resided near her parents during his deployment.   She had just been released from active duty having served as a WAVE in the Navy.   One day while walking on base, he stepped on a muddy plank of mahogany and decided to find a lathe to mill a beautiful baby cradle which he sent home in a wooden box.  His children each slept in that cradle as infants.   Miriam and her siblings took turns borrowing the cradle for their babies as they arrived.   Most of our children were also rocked to sleep in Grandpa's cradle from the war.   It's still available for the great and great-great grandchildren who are born into the family.

Photo: Our allied brethren laid to rest at Beach Head Cemetery in Anzio, Italy
The next time Chet and Meg were able to set foot in Europe was nearly 45 years later when Miriam and I invited them to travel with us in the late 1980's.  Visiting Normandy Beach and the nearby cemetery was a very emotional experience and brought back many of the memories of war.  We were not able to travel to southern Italy or visit any of the places he might have flown over or recognized.  I wasn't aware of the WWII cemeteries located in Italy at that time or we might have made a point to visit some of them.

Italy, under the leadership of Mussolini, aligned itself with Hitler thinking it would be on the winning team.  Not only did that backfire, but the decision was not well supported by many of the Italian citizens.  A strong underground partisan army of Italian citizens fought against the Germans and suffered greatly for their patriotism.   They ended up killing and hanging Mussolini upside down in a gas station lot in Milano near the end of the war.   To this day, Germans are viewed somewhat suspiciously in Italy.  When Italy and Germany play soccer against each other, it's WWIII.

There are several recent movies that document Hitler's motives to acquire and/or destroy much of the art and culture of his enemies, particularly in Italy.  "The Rape of Europa" is my favorite and "The Monument Men" tells the story about attempts to preserve and return the stolen art to it's rightful owners.   The world is grateful that much of what was stolen during the war has been returned to Italy.  The Italians are still upset that Napoleon absconded with so much of their priceless art in the early 1800's.  The fact that people today are flocking to the Louvre Museum in Paris to see Leonardo Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" and the hundreds of other Italian art treasures that were hauled off to France only increases Italian ire.   Nearly 400 pieces of priceless art were "purchased" for pennies by Napoleon and then transferred from the Villa Borghese in Rome to be displayed in the remodeled Borghese wing of the Louvre in Paris.   Some of the best of Italian art is not to be found in Italy and that's a tender subject amongst many Italians.  

Photo: Thanks to you Walter and all of your buddies Italian, not German, is the official language of Italy
In July of 1943 American and Allied troupes invaded Sicily and southern Italy.  In one month, from July10th to the 17th of August, thousands of Americans and British allied troupes died in the invasion.  They pushed northward finally liberating Rome the following year on June 4, 1944, a day still celebrated by Italians.   D-Day and the invasion of France followed two days later and thousands more would perish.   By the time Nazi Germany finally surrendered Italy in 1945, more than 320,000 American and Allied lives were sacrificed in Italy alone during the two year Italian Campaign.  The Germans lost more than that.

Photo: Thinking of you Dad... grateful for your service (and baby cradle).
Recently Miriam and I were able to accompany our friends to the town of Anzio for the purpose of visiting the "The Sicily to Rome Cemetery" as well as the allied cemetery known as "Beach Head Cemetery" where thousands of those who died to liberate Italy are buried or recognized.   There are 7,861 white markers located in a beautiful 77 acre setting honoring those whose remains were found, some not identified.  Another 3,095 names of those whose remains were not recovered are memorialized in a chapel.  In the allied cemetery located not far away are the headstones of another 2,213 soldiers, mostly British, who also lost their lives during the battles from Sicily to Rome.   It's impossible not to be emotionally touched by the sea of white crosses and markers that tangibly document the cost of freedom.

There are another 14 similar cemeteries located in other parts of Italy honoring the fallen Americans and allied who fought so that the Italians would be liberated.  After the war the Americans helped Italy form it's first democratic form of government in since the Roman republic more than 2,000 years ago.    Based on documents that are similar to our Constitution and Bill of Rights the Italians are still trying to define freedom and rights.  Like many democratic nations, including the USA, they have taken a decidedly socialistic direction and consequently have many challenges economically.  As Margaret Thatcher once commented, "Sooner or later you run out of other people's money."    Italians are very kind and generous and there are many thousands of recent immigrants who would agree that Italy is a lot better place than where they came from.   Having the freedom to decide how tax and spend their money is something they haven't enjoyed until the last 70 years.   The gift of being of having their language and culture preserved in a free country is taken for granted today by most Italians.   I'll sometimes ask an Italian if they speak German and when they say "no",  I respond ... "thank an American."

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