Florence’s 2019 Memorial Day & ‘Adopt a Soldier’

 The 75th anniversary of Allied liberation of Tuscany is the focus of a tribute at the traditional Memorial Day ceremony on May 27 at the Florence American Cemetery located in Falciani.

Following the capture of Rome on June 4, 1944, Allied forces pursued the occupying German army northward through Tuscany and towards the Po River and the Alps, ending Mussolini’s fascist regime.  The soldiers who lost their lives in this campaign were shortly placed thereafter in temporary graves, only to be transported to their final resting place here in the foothills of Florence.  Their families made a choice not to transfer their loved ones to America, and white crosses and Judaic stars that systematically denote the gravesites.

Open to the public, the memorial observance will begin at 11 am on Monday morning, a legal holiday in the U.S. that honors military casualties of war. U.S. Consul General Benjamin Wohlauer will open the proceedings, followed by guest speakers.

Laurel wreaths from public organizations and private individuals will be placed on the Wall of the Missing, which bears the names of 1,409 WWII MIAs (missing in action) in the presence of local religious, civil and military authorities, veterans and relatives of the fallen.  American and Italian soldiers will perform solemn military honors, accompanied by the buglers of the Carabinieri (Italian military police) “Fanfara.”

One of four permanent World War II burial grounds on the Southern European front (others are found in southern France, Sicily and Carthage), the Florence American cemetery is the final resting place for many combatants who lost their lives between Rome and the Alps. A wall contains an explanation and maps of the Allied campaign through Italy.

On land given as a gift by Italy, the Florence-American Cemetery is one of the 13 official WWII burial grounds in Europe under the jurisdiction of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC).  Another is the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium, where the locals, even their second-generation relatives, have adopted nearly all tombs of the soldiers, often casualties from the Battle of Bulge.  At the Florence American cemetery, this idea is beginning to catch on, counting the active participation of at least four Tuscan and 25 American residents.

The personnel of the Florence American Cemetery are available to conduct onsite visits and share official details of the military career of each man and woman so anyone may “adopt a soldier.”

Prato native Marco Tofani was the very first.  On a visit as a young teen with his parents in 1962, he walked past rows and rows of graves.  He was drawn to one in particular, that of Charles Spiegel, who was 22 years old when he died in a plane crash while flying for the Army Air Corps 15th Airborne.

Ever since then, Tofani has returned regularly to bring flowers and pay respects in memory of Mr. Spiegel.  With the advent of the Internet he found the soldier’s nephew—Glenn Spiegel—and asked for more information and a photo of the man whose grave he had visited over time, which, after initial skepticism, Tofani received.  When Spiegel finally visited Florence, brought his uncle’s three medals: The Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and the Purple Heart.  He gifted Tofani with Charles Spiegel’s photo. “It doesn’t have a price,” says Tofani of the picture he waited over half a century to receive.  “This lifelong journey became my passion. Looking at his photo, I imagined Charles’s whole life,” says Tofani. “When I looked into his eyes—so blue—I saw the soul of my friend.”

ABMC representatives have honored Tofani for his ongoing commitment at Falciani.  Recently, students from the local campus of an American university, Harding, have followed his example.  All have chosen a name in order to learn about the individual and his or her life, and will lay a flower on the headstone at the Memorial Day 2019 commemorations.   (rosanna cirigliano)