By Vince Crawley
CARTHAGE, Tunisia - Less than a mile from the 2,000-year-old ruins of ancient Carthage, Tunisian groundskeepers worked under a bright Mediterranean sun to prepare for Memorial Day observances to honor the 2,841 Americans buried here, as well as the thousands more who gave their lives in the North Africa campaigns of World War II that laid the bloody groundwork for the Allied liberation of Europe.
The North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial lies in a quiet open space surrounded by fig, cypress and eucalyptus trees on Roosevelt Road, between the Tunis airport and the tourist beaches, art boutiques and historic ruins of the Tunisian coast.
The grounds total about 27 acres, with a burial area about the size of four football or soccer fields, bounded on one side by the Wall of the Missing that includes 3,724 names. Bells from the cemetery's chapel play patriotic anthems, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "America the Beautiful," while calls to prayer from nearby mosques echo among the graves. The cemetery is easy to spot on Internet satellite maps -- due east of Tunis airport, it is the rectangle of bright green kikuyu grass that stands out against the darker olive-colored vegetation -- zooming in shows the orderly rows of crosses and Stars of David, all facing to the southeast.
Abdallah Lagahre, a stone mason whose job is to tend the grave markers, quietly spent several hours in the afternoon heat earlier this weekend refreshing the gold leaf on the headstone of Army Pvt. Nicholas Minue, the single Medal of Honor recipient buried in Carthage.
Born in Sedden, Poland, Minue has a "typical American story" of an immigrant who serves his adopted country, explained Carlos Castello, superintendant of the North Africa American Cemetery. Castello himself is another variation of the American story -- son of Cuban and Mexican parents, born in the United States, living overseas with a French stepfather, then serving 14 years in the U.S. Army, much of that time in Germany, with wartime service in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, though he stresses his military duties were largely administrative.
Minue was with an armored infantry unit assigned to 1st Armored Division on April 28, 1943, when a group of soldiers came under fire from an enemy machine gun nest. For reasons that were never recorded, he ran forward with a bayonet and killed 10 enemy machine gunners and riflemen, then continued attacking other enemy riflemen dug into the hillsides until he was fatally injured. His aggressiveness "was unquestionably the factor that gave his company the offensive spirit that was necessary for advancing and driving the enemy from the entire sector," according to Minue's Medal of Honor citation. The chapel bells happen to be playing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" while Castello retells Minue's story.
"We know a few of the stories," he adds. "It's a shame that we don't know them all."
For instance, there's Foy Draper, who Castello said "began fighting Germans in 1936" as part of the U.S. Olympic team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Those were the Olympic games where Germany's fascist leadership hoped to showcase their physical superiority, only to be bested by upstart Americans, led by African-American Jesse Owens.
The presence of an Olympic gold medalist among the gravesites is evidence that "America really gave her best in the pursuit of freedom," Castello said at Draper's gravesite.
Draper, from California, won gold as one of four members of the U.S. 400-meter relay team, and the cemetery has a photograph of Draper alongside teammates Owens, Ralph Metcalfe and Frank Wykoff. When the war started, Draper became a combat pilot. He and his crew were killed Jan. 4, 1943, after taking off from an airfield in Thelepte, Tunisia, near the Algerian border.
Not everyone honored at the cemetery is an Olympian or Medal of Honor recipient. The burials include 240 unknown Americans, including one headstone that marks the resting place of seven unknowns. Two adjacent headstones and a brass plaque mark the gravesite of four men whose names are known but whose remains could not be separately identified.
Michael Coonce, the cemetery's assistant superintendant, told the story of Alice P. McKinney of Michigan, a private first class in the Women's Army Corps. Her brother had died fighting in Europe, and she was being transferred from West Africa to Europe in the weeks after the war ended, in part to help with his burial arrangements. She is among 18 women soldiers aboard a transport plane that crashed off the African coast whose names are on the cemetery's Wall of the Missing. Her brother is buried at Henri-Chapelle Cemetery in Belgium.
All of those honored at the cemetery died during World War II, in campaigns that began with the Operation Torch landings in North Africa in November 1942, with the fiercest fighting taking place in Tunisia in early 1943. At a time when Germany and Italy occupied much of the European continent and North Africa, the United States and United Kingdom were under intense pressure from their Soviet ally to begin offensive operations against the Axis powers. An attack into Europe was deemed too risky, so the Allies sent a military force into North Africa, where the British were having success against German and Italian tank forces in desert fighting, and where it was unclear how the neutral French Vichy forces occupying the region would respond.
The French forces in North Africa soon sided with the Allies, but Germany and Italy were able to pour reinforcements into Tunisia, led by famed German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The Battle of Kasserine Pass in early 1943 cost thousands of American lives and resulted in major changes in U.S. tactics and leadership. The Allied forces were able to reverse their setbacks, reorganized and defeated the German-Italian force by May 1943. Tunisia then became a launching point for invading Sicily and southern Italy, followed a year later by the D-Day invasion of Normandy in northern France.
"Without Operation Torch, there probably never would have been a D-Day," said Castello, summing up the historic significance of the North Africa campaign.
The nature of the fighting in Tunisia was described by wartime correspondent Ernie Pyle.
"For four days and nights they have fought hard, eaten little, washed none, and slept hardly at all," Pyle wrote in May 1943, traveling among American infantrymen. "Their nights have been violent with attack, fright, butchery, and their days sleepless and miserable with the crash of artillery. ... They are young men, but the grime and whiskers and exhaustion make them look middle-aged. There is an agony in your heart and you almost feel ashamed to look at them. They are just guys from Broadway and Main Street, but you wouldn't remember them. They are too far away now. They are too tired. Their world can never be known to you, but if you could see them just once, just for an instant, you would know that no matter how hard people work back home they are not keeping pace with these infantrymen in Tunisia."
Today, the people of Tunisia are respectful of the American cemetery, as well as British burial grounds, and a Tunisian military honor guard participates in annual U.S. Memorial Day observances. As the groundskeepers prepared for Memorial Day weekend, small groups of visitors kept stopping by the "Cimetière américain?," often young Tunisian couples who walked in silence among the graves.
"Like other people's, the Tunisian people lived through poignant tragedy of war and through dark hours under the occupation of Axis troops," Tunisia's founder and first president, Habib Bouguiba, said in a message posted on the wall of the cemetery's visitor's center. "Please accept, dear visitor ... the expression of my deep sympathy for the relatives of those who have sacrificed so much for the sake of freedom."
The North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial in Carthage, Tunisia, is one of 24 permanent American military burial grounds on foreign soil administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Memorial Day weekend observances in Carthage are expected to include delegations from the government and military of Tunisia, and the U.S. government, including representatives from U.S. Africa Command.