CARTHAGE, Tunisia — At a Memorial Day observance at the World War II cemetery in North Africa, the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia spoke of past and present sacrifices for freedom and of the sacrifices Tunisia's people have made this year in their own democratic revolution; and Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, spoke of the link between today's service members and those of the past.
Flanked by U.S. and Tunisian military honor guards, with flags of both nations fluttering in the breeze from the nearby Mediterranean Sea and Gulf of Tunis, military and diplomatic officials gathered at the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial on the outskirts of the ancient city of Carthage. The site is one of 24 overseas American burial grounds from past wars.
"This cemetery is the final resting place of heroes. They were part of our nation's greatest generation," Ham, the AFRICOM commander, said. "Buried here, they remain in our memories forever young. As you have heard: 2,841 service members and civilians laid to rest here, along with the names of 3,724 service members and civilians who are missing. They're not just names. They're our history. They're our legacy."
Americans serving in uniform today "are the proud inheritors of their legacy," Ham said at the May 30 ceremony.
"Today, brave men and women are deployed around the world, doing what is asked of them to protect our interests at home and to support those who seek freedom," Ham said. "Selfless sacrifice remains the hallmark of the American military. That was true in 1942 and remains true today."
The U.S. Memorial Day is a time to honor those who have fallen while serving their nation. Ambassador Gordon Gray, the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia for the past four years, said it is "humbling" to remember that even today American military men and women who've lost their lives serving the nation "join their fellow heroes" at military cemeteries in the United States.
Gray noted that that Memorial Day observances originated after the American Civil War and that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of America's bloodiest conflict, which resulted in the freeing of millions of enslaved Americans.
"While the men and women memorialized here fought for a different cause in lands far from their homes, they shared the same fears, the same hopes, the same belief that what they were doing was not in vain and that they served a higher, nobler cause," Gray said. "It is for this reason that Americans everywhere gather together on this Memorial Day at cemeteries and monuments around the world to pay their respects to family members, friends, comrades, countrymen and to bring to life for a few brief moments the tombstones of their loved ones."
Gray said Tunisians also have shared in this struggle for freedom.
"As Americans, we are truly blessed to live in a country where freedom and the pursuit of happiness has been a given for more generations than any of us can remember," he said. "As Americans who live and serve in Tunisia, we've also been inspired by what the Tunisian people have accomplished in their revolution, proving that liberty and freedom are universal aspirations, not just American ones. And as President Obama made crystal clear in his May 19 speech, we fully support the Tunisian people in their transition to full democracy."
Obama on May 19 spoke of how Tunisia's protests led earlier this year to the departure of longtime leaders in both Tunisia and Egypt, as well as ongoing opposition in Libya against government violence. The president outlined initiatives to support democratic transition in Tunisia and Egypt, to include working with the U.S. Congress to establish investment funds modeled after similar funds that supported democratic transitions in Eastern and Central Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989. Tunisian elections are scheduled for later this year.
"Today," Gray said during the Memorial Day observance, "we are remembering the cost that we have paid for our freedom, and the great debt we owe to those who risked everything to protect those rights that we enjoy. It is therefore entirely fitting that we also recognize the sacrifices Tunisians have made in their own cause for a better life."
U.S. officials said Tunisia's protests and revolution earlier this year did not threaten the American cemetery, which has been a symbol of U.S.-Tunisian relations since the end of World War II.
The American superintendant and Tunisian staff at the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial spent the Memorial Day weekend placing Tunisian and American flags before each of the more than 2,800 headstones. They also placed flowers requested by families of fallen Americans. And each year Louisa Baker, an American woman living in Tunisia who served in World War II, pays to have a rose placed at each of the 240 headstones marking tombs of unknown Americans. Their graves are marked by the simple words, "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God."
Carlos Castello, the American superintendant and a former U.S. soldier, had his own children out on Sunday helping to place flags on the grave markers. A staff of about 10 people keeps the grounds trimmed to military precision, including weekly grass mowing, constant hedge and tree trimming, and frequent watering to maintain an oasis of calm green among Tunisia's dusty Mediterranean landscape on the edge of Sahara Desert.
"To me, this is the way we honor the soldiers who are buried here, [by] maintaining this site in an impeccable manner," Castello said.
More than 7,000 Americans were killed in the North Africa campaign of World War II, and more than 3,700 more were listed as missing. After the war, many of families asked that the remains of their loved ones be returned to the United States. But more than 2,800 families requested that their sons (and a few daughters) remain in North Africa.
They include a Medal of Honor recipient, Pvt. Nicholas Minue; brothers Ward and Wilbur Osmun of New Jersey, who died together on Christmas Eve 1942; an Olympic Gold Medalist turned military pilot, Capt. Foy Draper, who ran with Jesse Owens on the 400-meter relay team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The burials include 240 unknowns, their markers reading simply "here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God." A nearby wall, shaded by India laurel fig trees, bears the inscribed names of the 3,724 service members who were listed as missing in action. Remains of eight of the missing, crew members of the B-25 bomber "Lady Be Good," were later found in the Libyan desert in 1958 and 1960.
The North Africa campaign of World War II began in late 1942 and marked the first significant ground campaign for the U.S. military after fascist Germany declared war against the United States in December 1941. Initial landings in Morocco and Algeria were relatively unopposed by German-led Axis forces. But a German counter-attack near Tunisia's Kasserine Pass resulted in thousands of casualties before the U.S. Army, fighting alongside British forces, was able to regroup and drive the Germans from Tunisia and North Africa. This hard-won victory set the stage for the Allied invasion of Sicily, then mainland Italy and Southern Europe. Experience from those beach landings allowed for the epic Allied invasion and liberation of Normandy a year later and the subsequent defeat of Nazi Germany.
"The story of the Tunisia campaign is an important one," said Ham, "a story of American soldiers fighting valiantly and overcoming tremendous diversity and adversity, to ultimately make a difference in World War II. Indeed, to make a difference forever."
However, the North Africa Campaign is not as well remembered as other American contributions to World War II.
"Other battles and other campaigns are far better known than those in which these men and women fought and died," Ham said. "None were more important, though. ... It was here in North Africa that the Americans learned to fight, and they learned to win."
Tunisia in the 1940s was a colony of France, not an independent nation. However, the World War II experience helped lead to Tunisia's independence in 1956, a decade after the end of the war, said Bouaziz Foued, a Tunisian who has worked at the American Cemetery in Carthage for more than 20 years. The World War II aims of democracy and freedom meant there was diplomatic pressure on European nations to grant independence to their African colonies. And the site of the American cemetery in Carthage was symbolic of the strong relationship between the United States and Tunisia, he said.
"This good relationship helped our people and our country to get our independence," he said.
The America Battle Monuments Commission maintains 24 American burial grounds on foreign soil. The commission's website says that 124,909 U.S. war dead are interred at these cemeteries, 30,921 from World War I, 93,238 from World War II and 750 of the Mexican War. Additionally 6,177 American veterans and others are interred in Mexico City and in Panama's Corozal American Cemetery.
This work, Memorial Day in North Africa Echoes Past and Present Struggles for Freedom, by Vincent Crawley, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.