Lucian Truscott apologized to those who died.
Lucian Truscott was impatient. After a year and a half of Oklahoma high school, he claimed he had graduated, entered teacher training and began teaching after being certified in one summer. When World War I began, he entered Army officer training, claiming a high school diploma and one year of college. But that was only the beginning of a career that culminated in a fateful encounter with Memorial Day.
Truscott wasn’t an armchair warrior, although he spent World War I attached to the 17th Cavalry, patrolling the Mexican border. By World War II, he was a colonel and created and led the 1st Ranger Battalion, our first-ever commando unit. Promoted to brigadier general (first star) in 1942 and assigned to Lord Mountbatten’s Allied Combined Staff, he wrangled a primary observer assignment on the Dieppe Raid, the first action by Americans against German forces.
Promoted to major general (two stars), he led 9,000 men in the Morocco landing under Maj. Gen. George S. Patton. That contributed to his permanent dislike for publicity-seeking and pearl-handled pistols, which might explain why few know of him.
He led the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily as commander of the 3rd Infantry Division. As a 48-year-old division commander, he was tough. His division moved at 4 miles per hour, compared to the standard 2 1/2 mph.
They fought through Italy and assaulted Anzio, where, as part of VI Corps, they stalled. After a month of heavy but inconclusive fighting, Truscott was made commander of VI Corps, where he broke through and captured Rome, two days before the Normandy landing.
Earning his third star (lieutenant general) when given command of the U.S. Fifth Army, he led them through the hard Italian mountain winter of 1944-45. Their spring offensive led to the final destruction of German forces in Italy.
Then he met destiny. Part of every general’s job is to provide leadership through public events. Although not an orator, on May 31, 1945, Truscott was assigned to present the Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) address at a new military cemetery at Nettuno, outside Anzio.
The cemetery was stark. There was little grass, few trees and no permanent structures. Nothing except 8,000 white wooden crosses and stars of David as headstones were visible.
A stage was hastily constructed where Truscott and dignitaries sat. Before them was the audience and, to their backs, the soldiers’ graves.
Fortunately, Bill Mauldin, the famous Stars and Stripes cartoonist (Willie and Joe) and journalist, was in the audience. Were it not for Mauldin, nothing would be known about what was said or done that day.
Mauldin wrote, “When Truscott spoke, [he turned his back on the audience] ... and addressed himself to the corpses he had commanded there. It was the most moving gesture I ever saw. It came from a hard-boiled old man who was incapable of planned dramatics. 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 ... .
“Truscott said he would not speak of the glorious dead because he didn’t see much glory in getting killed in your late teens or early twenties. He promised that if in the future he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought that death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. He said he thought it was the least he could do.”
When finished, without facing the crowd, he left the stage and disappeared among the field of graves. Not a Republican or Democrat in sight. Just graves of soldiers.
May troops never be committed in pique.