Surrounded by row upon row of neat white crosses, and the trees and manicured green grass of the American war cemetery at Nettuno, south of Rome, the President recalled the carnage as American and (in nearby Anzio) British soldiers waded ashore in January 1944 in the teeth of German cannon and bombers.
Nearly 30,000 Allied troops died of their wounds during the four months of stalemate following the landings, before their comrades were finally able to push northwards and liberate Rome. Some 39,000 others died of exhaustion. Around 30,000 German troops were killed.
'We stand today in fields forever scarred by sacrifice,' the President declared in a solemn ceremony in front of the memorial pavilion at the cemetery. Now the spot is 'lush with the pines and the cypresses. But 50 years ago when freedom was in peril, this field ran with the blood of those who fought to save the world.'
The 47-year-old President, too young to have known the war but who has been carefully studying its history, recounted individual experiences of the landings, including one involving his own father, William Blythe, who died three months before he was born. A cousin, he said, told him she wrote asking him to send her a single leaf from the Italian countryside so she could take it to school. 'My father had only sad news to send back - there were no leaves, every one had been stripped by the fury of the battle.'
He quoted an unnamed Italian who had said: 'We were tired, hungry and terrified. Then overnight, coming out of the mist as in a dream, the Americans arrived, bringing us hope and strength.'
Too many Americans do not know what that generation did, the President said. 'Somewhere in America a child rummaging in an attic may find a war medal or a black-and-white photo of a younger but familiar face in uniform. Yet we cannot leave memory to chance. We must recall Elie Wiesel's commandment to fight forgetfulness.'
The cemetery contains 7,862 crosses, and the names of 3,000 missing Americans are inscribed in the chapel. 'All of them died young, But half a century later their legacy still lives,' the President said. 'We are the sons and daughters of the world they saved . . . it is up to us to ensure a world of peace and prosperity for yet another generation.'
With the President were four US Senators, Robert Dole, Ernest Hollings, Daniel Inouye and Cla iborne Pell, all of whom had fought in the Italian campaign. The first two had been seriously wounded. In a particularly moving part of the morning, each of the four laid a flower on the cemetery's tomb of the unknown soldier.
President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro who, like President Clinton, laid a huge wreath at the memorial, expressed Italy's gratitude to the US - and recalled also the dead on the enemy side. 'Grief and human sacrifice can know no distinction or division,' he said.
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