The general who apologized to the dead soldiers on Memorial Day

 American military commander General Lucian Truscott Jr. (1895-1965), France, 1944. This photo was used on the cover of the October 2, 1944, issue of Life magazine.

Story highlights

  • 70 years ago, an American general made an extraordinary Memorial Day speech
  • Nicolaus Mills: Gen. Lucian Truscott spoke out against glorifying war

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College. His most recent book is "Every Army Man Is with You: The Cadets Who Won the 1964 Army-Navy Game, Fought in Vietnam, and Came Home Forever Changed." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Memorial Day 1945 was a somber time for most Americans, and 70 years later it still carries with it a special poignancy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been dead just over a month, and while the war in Europe had concluded, it was too early to begin celebrating victory over the Axis powers. The fighting in the Pacific, where the battle for Okinawa had begun in April and would last through most of June, was still taking a heavy toll.

President Harry Truman, who was working on a speech for the final session of the United Nations conference in San Francisco, marked the day by sending a wreath to Hyde Park for the grave of President Roosevelt and another to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
At Normandy, following a brief military ceremony, work continued on the cemetery above the beaches where Allied troops had landed on D-Day. The paths between the blocks of graves were still uncompleted, and much of the labor on the new cemetery was now being done by German prisoners of war.
    Nicolaus Mills
    At the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery at Nettuno, Italy, Memorial Day was also an elegiac occasion. Lt. Gen. Lucian Truscott Jr., who had led the U. S. Sixth Corps through some of the heaviest fighting in Italy and now commanded the Fifth Army, gave a speech that is particularly relevant for today when the trauma of our long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to haunt so many vets.
    No recording or transcript of Truscott's Memorial Day speech exists, even among his papers at the George C. Marshall Research Library in Virginia.
    In Stars and Stripes, the military's newspaper, we have only excerpts of Truscott's remarks. "All over the world our soldiers sleep beneath the crosses," Stars and Stripes reported Truscott observing. "It is a challenge to us -- all allied nations-- to ensure that they do not and have not died in vain."
    Missing from the Stars and Stripes story is what Truscott did in delivering his speech. For that account we are indebted to Bill Mauldin, best known for his World War II cartoons featuring the unshaven infantrymen, Willie and Joe. Mauldin was in the audience when Truscott spoke at Nettuno, and he never forgot the day.
    "There were about twenty thousand American graves. Families hadn't started digging up the bodies and bringing them home," Mauldin recalled years later in his 1971 memoir, "The Brass Ring."
    "Before the stand were spectator benches, with a number of camp chairs down front for VIPs, including several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
    "When Truscott spoke he turned away from the visitors and addressed himself to the corpses he had commanded here. It was the most moving gesture I ever saw. It came from a hard-boiled old man who was incapable of planned dramatics," Mauldin wrote.
    Then-President Bill Clinton adjusts a U.S. flag at the grave of Army Lt. Robert Waugh as he visits the Sicily-Rome American cemetery in June, 1994.
    "The general's remarks were brief and extemporaneous. He apologized to the dead men for their presence here. He said everybody tells leaders it is not their fault that men get killed in war, but that every leader knows in his heart this is not altogether true.
    "He said he hoped anybody here through any mistake of his would forgive him, but he realized that was asking a hell of a lot under the circumstances. . . . he would not speak about the glorious dead because he didn't see much glory in getting killed if you were in your late teens or early twenties. He promised that if in the future he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. He said he thought that was the least he could do."
    Truscott's words echoed the reaction to the bitter fighting in Italy of others who had experienced it close up. "I had been feeling pretty much like a clay pigeon in a shooting gallery," Ernie Pyle, America's most widely read World War II correspondent, wrote after landing with American troops at Anzio.
    But making Truscott different from Pyle and Mauldin, as well as everyone in attendance at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, was his belief that as a commander he bore a special responsibility for the dead lying before him in their fresh graves. He was unsure if apologizing to them was enough, but he could, he knew, guarantee that he would not romanticize their passing.