Lest We Forget by John Murray
“LEST WE FORGET”
The 75th anniversary of the execution of 8 US soldiers,
13th April 2019, Montebuono, Rieti, Italy
A Personal Account by John Murray
From my house in Montebuono, Rieti Province, I can see the outline of a hill on the horizon, a green hill full of shrubs, trees and grasses. On a clear day it is possible to see the shape of a building at the crest; on other days the hill is shrouded in mist and invisible. The building is in fact a very old church, that of the hermitage of San Benedetto, to which I have often walked, either on my own or with Charlotte and Luke, my adult children, during their visits. From the house it takes about an hour and a half to the top which is 665 meters asl, via the village of Montebuono, and another 45 minutes to make a circular walk and then return downhill.
During these walks I have stopped and read the simple plaque within the San Benedetto courtyard which commemorates the execution of 8 US soldiers during the second world war on 13 April 1944 and it was on such a walk by myself in February 2019 that I realised that it would be the 75th anniversary of their deaths within a few weeks. Going through my mind was the question: how best could we mark the anniversary?
So, the next day, on 22 February I sent an e-mail message to “Major Mike” Shanklin, a much decorated retired US Marine and CIA officer, a friend living in a nearby commune. Despite recovering from a serious illness, he immediately said yes to my suggestion that we plan to commemorate the occasion.
Below is the email trail between Mike Shanklin and John Murray
Mike Shanklin firstname.lastname@example.org
To murraylondon email@example.com
First thank you. Second, what a wonderful idea!! I would love to participate. Establishing contact with the Embassy is another great idea. Let me know when your free for follow- up discussions.
Needless to say, ” YOU JUST MADE MY DAY”. This week has been a bit of a nightmare– Tuesday I spent the day in the Terni emergency room after discovering I had a serious “blood clot “. Really suck day– but working on recovery. It seems this clot might be a result of the Pacemaker surgery. But really not sure.
Sent from my iPad
On Feb 22, 2019, at 19:56, <firstname.lastname@example.org> <email@example.com> wrote:
If you are planning to be in Moricone on 13 April then I have a suggestion for you….
On that date 75 years ago, in 1944, eight American soldiers were executed by German troops on top of a hill in Montebuono, which is the commune where I am resident. There is a memorial plaque in the church yard of St Benedetto which stands atop the hill, which I often pass when I go for a walk. I will send you photos of the church and the plaque shortly.
So I thought, bearing in mind that it is 75 years ago, that it would be fitting to arrange a visit to the site on Saturday 13 April 2019, to mark the anniversary and thought that you would like to be involved and to help shape the event.
I would like to talk to you about this and get your thoughts; particularly if you think that a formal and organised visit would be in order or just a simple one by a few friends. If the former, I could ask the mayor to give his agreement (and perhaps he would like to participate on behalf of the Italian government) and you could consider asking someone from the US embassy in Rome or a representative from say the US base in Gaeta, to join. We could arrange an eulogy and perhaps someone to give the Last Post. We could also spread the word in the local and international community. It would may give succour to relatives of the soldiers who could be sought out and informed.
Please give it a thought and let’s be in touch to discuss the idea. Meanwhile, some more info is available on the following website.
All the best,
We decided to ask for a meeting with the mayor, Sig. Fausto Morganti to talk over the possibility of marking the anniversary. When we met on 26 February, together with Graham Hunt as interpreter/translator, Sig Morganti was immediately enthusiastic and gave his full support to the idea. That date was the start of the planning for the 75th commemoration – to be held on 13 April 2019 at the church of San Benedetto – just 6 weeks away.
By much good fortune, I knew that Group Captain Scott Notman, RAF was a resident of the neighbouring commune of Tarano and that he was still active within the NATO Defense College, Rome. Mike and I briefed him on our ideas, together with his wife Emma, herself a former RAF officer. They were effusive in their support and proved invaluable to the overall planning and participation at the ceremony by NATO representatives.
A series of meetings followed with the Vice Mayor Sig. Sassi Rodolfo, who would officiate at the ceremony in the absence of the mayor, and with Sig. Fiorenzo Francioli who was the coordinator on behalf of the commune. During these meetings, we proposed that a new plaque be made, the full design of which evolved over the following days with input from several people including Janet Dethick and Giangi Poli. I had read the epitaph of the Italy Star Association and slightly adapted their motto to include on the plaque “When you walk in peaceful hills so green, remember us and think what might have been” followed by a dedication to the 8 soldiers and the words “You died that we may be free”.
We decided to make an appeal for funds to finance the cost of the plaque and after a couple of abortive attempts to co-opt others, Mike volunteered to organise a GoFundMe appeal with myself as his team member. Without this initiative we would have struggled to raise the necessary target, set at Euro 2,500 but in the end we were more than successful and raised Euro 2,865. This was through a combination of donations from foreign residents in the area combined with overseas friends and associates of Mike.
Meanwhile several other initiatives were taking place. The deputy mayor took over “ownership” and responsibility for the commemoration and the lunch. He issued invitations to the Prefect Dott.ssa Giuseppina Reggiani and numerous civic leaders; prepared the order of service for the commemoration, which he himself led; arranged for the Montebuono priest and brass band to participate; organised a fleet of twenty 4-wheel drive vehicles to carry people to the church; prepared a welcome within the town hall for VIPs; ordered the three wreaths; arranged for the ceremony to be streamed live on Facebook; and arranged for local volunteers to prepare a magnificent festa to follow the commemoration service. It was largely due to the involvement of the mayor, the vice-mayor, commune staff and local volunteers that the day was so special and so well organised.
I made contact with Janet Kinrade Dethick, the well known British historian who specialises in studying the WWll Italian campaign. Janet offered to prepare an historical account of the 8 US soldiers, what led them to be in Montebuono behind enemy lines and the circumstances of their deaths, based on her own research and knowledge. She was able to pull together information from various sources and arranged to have a booklet printed which is now the definitive historical account and which may be ordered via the following web link:
Roy Quinton, Chairman of the Italy Star Association 1943-1945, based in UK, provided me with the address of their representative in Italy, Harry Shindler, MBE so I wrote to him on 12 April asking if he would consider participating in the commemoration. There was no response for some time but on 29 March I received an e-mail from Marco Patucchi, a journalist who writes for La Repubblica newspaper and who has co-authored a book and featured in an award winning film with Harry. In spite of his advanced age of 97 years, Harry had a strong desire to join us for the commemoration, so join us he did! Marco wrote an article for his newspaper describing the ceremony.
Mike contacted the US Embassy in Rome, prepared a professional written brief and visited the embassy to talk through the various preparations for the ceremony. Eventually it was confirmed that Major Westbrook would represent the embassy and lay the US wreath. We also received confirmation that Father Robert Warren, the newly arrived Anglican reverend at All Saints’ Rome would arrive in the same vehicle to participate and say a prayer. Unfortunately, due to a faulty setting, their vehicle took a wrong turn involving a lengthy detour and they arrived only in time for lunch!
The NATO Defense College in Rome confirmed that Group Captain Notman would be accompanied by Colonel Jim Hubert, US Army and by Colonel Ian Hope, Canada Army. Following the laying of the Italian wreath and the playing of the last post, the NATO wreath was laid by Group Captain Notman and, in the absence of anyone from the US embassy, Col Hubert stepped forward to lay the US wreath.
The ceremony was well attended with about 150 people present including expatriates of several nationalities and a strong representation of local residents. Civic dignitaries included the Prefect of Rieti Region and the heads of the Carabinieri, Police, Fire Brigade, Forestale, and the Guardia di Finanza. The mayor had arranged for most people to be taken to the church by a fleet of 4-wheel drive vehicles driven by volunteers; although, due to a shortage of parking space, some intrepid people walked up from a halfway point. My son Luke had flown in from London a couple of days previously in order to attend; we had walked to the church on the 12th and seen that the new plaque was in place ready for its unveiling the following day.
As a finale to the commemoration, Mike and I had made requests to organise a noon fly-past, either of military or civil aircraft. Perhaps it was fortunate that we failed in this endeavour, as the commemoration ran over its allotted time and there was low cloud anyway!
A group of about 20 expats living in the area participated in the event, with several families volunteering to prepare food as an international contribution to the lunch, ably led by Gabrielle Long and Pauline Sear. The lunch was a magnificent spread of food, attended by about 200 people. Several impromptu speeches were made, including one by Harry in fluent Italian on the theme of “My war is not yet over” to rapturous applause.
Since planning the commemoration, efforts have been made to try and contact relatives of the soldiers. Dave Kerr, a relative of George Kerr, has been in regular correspondence from the USA and has posted information on the 45th Infantry Division website. More recently Emma Notman was contacted by Gary Moody the grandson of Clarence E. Moody. Gary has sent photographs and copies of war time documentation. Meanwhile, the search for other relatives continues.
The commemoration day was solemn and full of remembrance: it gave us all time to reflect on how fortunate most of us have been to live in peaceful times; on the hardships that millions of others had faced; and on the sacrifice that the 8 young soldiers had made. There was a comradely feeling throughout the day, one that provided reflection and reverence; it was a day when the local and international community came together to pay homage to the American soldiers.
A couple of weeks later, Mike and I held another meeting with the mayor to discuss how best to use the balance of funds from the appeal. The mayor suggested that the funds be used to pay for materials (wooden beams, roof tiles, cement etc.) required to renovate the two small rooms behind San Benedetto church, in which the soldiers had sheltered prior to their deaths. He intended to have a project designed, use commune funds and convert the rooms into a small refuge; the appeal funds would therefore be a welcome addition towards the cost. We agreed to this idea and the mayor said that he would share the project design with us for our approval before going ahead.
The author is a 73 year old retired United Nations diplomat who worked in more than 30 countries directing humanitarian aid in emergency and developmental operations. He holds a EU/UK passport and is one of the more than one million overseas UK citizens who were disenfranchised by the UK government during the 2016 referendum on the EU.
Photographs by: Phoebe Natanson, and the author John Murray