The greatest generation will soon be no more. This Veterans Day, we should bear in mind that from the 16 million from the United States who served in the most destructive war in human history, there are less than one percent still breathing. That’s less than 120,000 men and women. Some 130 pass away each day.
I have often said that the best places to go to appreciate the Greatest Generation are not in the United States, at least when it comes to World War II. You have to travel thousands of miles, to the Pacific and to Europe, and actually be where battles were fought. To understand the tenacity and resilience of so many forgotten soldiers, it helps if you visit the actual fields, mountains, villages and towns where they gave their lives.
Last month, I led a group of supporters of Friends of The National WWII Memorial to Italy. We walked through the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno on a gorgeous, blousy day. The sun shone. The grass was bright green. In silence we stood for a minute, paying our respects, surrounded by rows of white crosses - more than seven thousand.
We were in Italy to mark the 80th anniversary of the Allied invasion of the country – the beginning of a bloody and frustrating slog up its jagged spine that cost some 120,000 American casualties. For good reason, the celebrated cartoonist, Bill Mauldin, described the campaign there as “Mud, Mules and Mountains."
In November 1943, eighty years ago, the Allies fought from mountain to mountain near Mignano, some forty miles north-east of Naples. Men of the Third Infantry Division were decimated that fall, with more than twenty-five hundred wounded and almost seven hundred killed, as they set a record for continuous combat in Europe for Americans – sixty days of straight fighting – longer in hell than any other US division.
Among these soldiers, known as “Marne Men”, was 31-year-old Pfc. Floyd K. Lindstrom. It’s worth recounting his story this Veterans Day. The Nebraska-born former truck driver first saw action in November 1942, landing in North Africa with the 7th Infantry Regiment. He received the Silver Star in August 1943 for actions in Sicily. He was lucky to still be alive on 11 November, Veterans Day in 1943, when his platoon came under intense fire on a hillside near Mignano.
Lindstrom and others were quickly outnumbered by five to one. To save lives, he drew the German fire and then picked up a machine gun and staggered forward as bullets struck all around him. He was just ten yards from the enemy when he opened fire, engaging a German machinegun in what was later described as “an intense duel”.
Two men trying to kill Lindstrom were protected by a boulder and so Lindstrom sprinted toward them, miraculously evading a hail of bullets, and killed both Germans with his pistol. He then dragged their machine gun back to where some of his men had taken shelter. He was still not done. He ran back to the boulder and soon returned with two boxes of ammunition.
Five days later, on 16 November, the battered Marne Men were finally pulled off the line. “We were ragged, dirty, greasy, bearded, and only half conscious,” remembered one of Lindstrom’s fellow “dogface soldiers”, as the Third Infantry Division was also known. “Our walking wounded trudged along with us. We were the infantry, coming out of the line. For us, it meant an end to 59 nights in foxholes, slit trenches and on the ground; an end to canned rations, an end to bailing out foxholes with helmets, an end to living like rats.”
On our trip to Italy last month, we also visited the battlefield around Anzio. It was here, on 3 February 1944, that Lindstrom lost his life during a ferocious German counter-attack. He had been offered a duty away from combat but had opted to stay with his men. On 20 April 1944, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions a few months before, on 11 November near Mignano.
Today, Lindstrom rests in peace beside his mother in Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs. He was one of almost 2500 men of his division to die during the long, seemingly endless odyssey from the beaches of North Africa to the dark heart of Nazi Germany. His division spent longer in combat and earned more Medals of Honor than any other US division in the campaign to liberate Europe, to set it free from unimaginable evil and suffering.
It is indeed worth making the journey to where Americans made the ultimate sacrifice so that countless people – just like me - could grow up in freedom. In the silent graveyards of Europe, on the rocky mountainsides of Italy, you can appreciate the magnitude of the losses and of the ultimate victory. Back in the United States, as far as I’m concerned, only the National World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. evokes the same feelings of pride and awe.