May 20, 2009
Three Days in June
A Memorial Day Memoir
It is a sunny June afternoon in 1944. The world is at war, but that is physically a long way off. As a carefree high school sophomore coming home from school, I enter through the back door and hear a most unusual sound. It appears to be someone sobbing. This is not a sound normally heard in my house. Heading toward the front of the house, my attention is drawn to a yellow piece of paper on the dining room table. Picking it up, the words jump out at me: “The Secretary of War regrets to inform you….” It wasn’t necessary to read any further. I continued to the front of the house to find my mother sitting in the enclosed front porch, quietly sobbing, with our neighbor sitting at her side. I sat down next to her, and we put our arms around each other. I guess we probably stayed that way until my father returned home from work.
Jump ahead eight years. It is June 1952. The high school sophomore is now a sergeant in the United States Army stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. Deciding it is time to visit a gravesite in Italy, I apply for several days’ leave and permission to leave Germany. This is a necessity, as we are still considered an Army of Occupation and must be in full uniform any time we leave our assigned station.
I traveled to Rome on a modern air-conditioned train. Late that night, the train passes through the Swiss Alps, and it is a beautiful sight. Several hours later I arrive in Rome. It is extremely warm, and the uniform I am wearing is not a summer-weight issue. The following day I take a train to Anzio, on the west coast of Italy, a ride of about an hour from Rome. Asking for directions to the American Military Cemetery, I am told it is in Nettuno, not Anzio. Then they tell me that Nettuno is on the other side of the mountain, and the next train is not due for another three hours. Not wanting to wait that long, I decide to walk down to the beach and around the foot of the mountain. Arriving in Nettuno, I again ask for the location of the American Cemetery and am told it is part way up the mountain on a road that they indicate to me. With no taxi available at that time, I do some more hiking. It takes about 30 minutes to reach my destination.
On the left side of the road, there is a huge fenced area, encompassing 77 acres. It has a massive stone portal and a double bronze gate. Above it, on the arch, is a large American eagle and the inscription: “Sicily-Rome American Cemetery.” I feel like I am on a pilgrimage. The walls are not yet complete, and all the statuary and monuments are not in place. The trees are saplings, but it is obvious that it is well on its way to becoming a beautiful site. At the administration building, I am given directions to the location that I seek.
I walk down the wide center path to a section at the right front of the cemetery and locate the gravesite that is my destination. I check the name on the white Star of David to be sure the location is correct. Being in uniform, it is perfectly proper to come to “attention and present arms.” After rendering the proper military respect to a fallen comrade-in-arms, I am able to relax and say a few prayers. After remaining at the site for a while, I slowly turn and head back down the path to the main gate.
It is now another June day. The year is 1990, and 38 years have passed since my last visit. Again, I approach the large bronze gate with the American eagle overhead. This time I am not alone. Adaire, my wife, is with me. We enter and slowly walk down the center path under a canopy of green leaves. The saplings of 1952 are now full-grown trees. The shrubbery has grown. There is water in the reflecting pool with water lilies floating about. At the end of the path is a large building. One side is a memorial chapel dedicated to the 7,861 men and women buried there and to the 3,095 whose bodies were never located because they were missing-in-action or lost in the waters around that section of Italy. The other wing of the building is a museum depicting that area of combat.
We go to the gravesite that I had visited many years before. It is time for Minchah, the afternoon prayer service. After this, we put a small stone on the marker, as is our Jewish tradition. Looking about, we see the graves that probably have not been nor will be visited by family and decide that it is not right. Starting at one corner, we walk up and down every row in the section, stopping at each Star of David. We pause briefly and put a small stone on each to show that someone cared, and the person buried there had been remembered. We return to the original grave and bid a sad farewell. The walk back to the gate takes longer.
Three afternoons in June, spread out over 46 years, but tied together by a single thread: My brother, Tech. Sgt. Bernard M. Klein, United States Army Air Corps, born June 20, 1924. Killed-in-Action, May 25, 1944.
My brother was a poet-warrior. Inspired to write several months after going into the Army Air Corps, his letters home started to include his poetry. The Long Island Daily Press printed a lengthy obituary upon his death and compared him to Joyce Kilmer, the author of “Trees,” and another compared his writing to the memorable “In Flanders Fields,” written in May 1918 by Lt. Col. John McCrae of the Canadian army during World War I.
Bernard’s last work was called “Rest.” The third and last stanzas of that poem are as follows:
“...The fact that war is hell they know, and that stays on their brains.
To do their bit to end this war for now and evermore,
Tech. Sgt. Bernard M. Klein
This might have been a premonition of things to come, as it was written just days before Bernard’s last mission and was received at home several days after the telegram from the War Department.
Manny Klein, is currently retired; he served for two decades on the technical staff of CBS before moving to Los Angeles to become a general contractor. Klein and his wife, Adaire, who serves as director of library and archival services for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance, have three children, 17 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.