FORT DEVENS, Mass. – Post leadership and community members paid tribute today to 20 German and two Italian soldiers who died while interred in a prisoner-of-war camp here during World War II.
The local German and Italian deputy consul generals were keynote speakers for the hour-long ceremony at the Fort Devens Cemetery.
“This traditional observance should be a model to keep alive the memory and commitment of the men who gave up their lives for freedom and peace,” said Luigi Munno, deputy consul general of Italy in Boston.
“They are human beings, they were terribly afraid and they went through terrible things,” added Claudia Schuett, deputy consul general of Germany in Boston.
The 22 men being honored were among 5,000 who were at one time imprisoned at the Fort Devens POW camp, which officially opened on Feb. 23, 1944, as one of 500 such camps throughout the United States that held more than 400,000 German, Italian and Japanese POWs throughout the Second World War.
Most of the prisoners at the Fort Devens POW camp were captured in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. They worked in the laundry, motor pool, mess halls and as road gangs, which helped the Allied war effort by freeing up U.S. troops to deploy overseas.
“Their sacrifice gave to the future generations the standard of a respectable life where love for each other, care and friendship are the foundation for democracy,” said Munno. “Most importantly, their sacrifice created the long-term friendship between our countries and America.”
“This ceremony presents an important reminder of the close partnership and respect between our nations that exist today, added Lt. Col. Steven F. Egan, Fort Devens commander.
The POW camp operated until May 1946, when its inhabitants were returned to Europe – with the exception of those buried here.
“The team at Fort Devens honorably and responsibly maintains the final resting place of your countrymen in a dignified manner befitting of our own deceased service members,” said Egan to an audience made up largely of German- and Italian-Americans.
“It’s fitting that we as Americans, Germans and Italians continue to honor these graves in this lovely and peaceful setting,” said Ann Shoesmith, president of the Associated German Societies of New England.
While the focus was on the sacrifices made by these fallen soldiers and their comrades-in-arms, past sins were not forgotten, nor were future challenges ignored.
“I think it’s impossible to grasp on a very abstract level what war means,” said Schuett. “The figures that we use – the 16 million dead in a war that my grandfather’s generation started – you cannot possibly imagine what that means”
“You can’t grasp it, as you can’t grasp the six million Jews who perished and all the other victims of war, terrorism and fanatics,” she said.
“I think we’re all so close to tears today because it’s not the distant past that we are thinking about,” Schuett continued. “We all have friends, sometimes family members, sometimes we might even be affected ourselves in the not-so-distant future, about conflicts that are happening now; I ask you to join me in praying for those who are in harm’s way.”
“Are we doing enough,” she asked, “and are we doing the right things, and are we doing things the right way to make sure that the horrible fates that many members of this generation went through are not repeated?”