In the small town of Anzio, Italy, there is a story written in the sand. The script unfurls across the beachfront, the rocky outcroppings in the water, the colorful tops of beach umbrellas. You can read it in the melting cones of gelato, the hot stone sidewalks of the city center, the glistening sides of boats in the harbor.
The story tells of nearly 200,000 young men who fought on this beach and in subsequent nearby battles in the winter and spring of 1944. It recalls 12,000 deaths and over 70,000 additional casualties. It’s the story of heroic nurses, civilians, and support services on the front lines. It’s also the story of dedicated historians, of the rebirth of a town, of the children running half-clad, gleefully splashing in tidal pools.
It is the story of my grandfather. And now, part of it is my story as well.
Anzio is a small fishing port about 30 minutes south of Rome. Quiet, with just 16 square miles to call its own and a population of 54,000, Anzio tends to be overshadowed by nearby Nettuno, which boasts a thriving tourist industry, Italian military base, and police academy. If you’ve heard of Anzio, it’s likely because of actions that happened over half a century ago –vital landing of British and American soldiers on the Italian shore quickly followed by four months of vicious stalemate between Allied and Axis forces. The Allies eventually broke through, and the Battle of Anzio is now considered an important victory for Allied forces, which led to the fall of Rome.
This is where my grandfather was stationed during World War II.
I was ten when my grandfather passed away. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for the previous decade, and spent his last couple of years in an assisted living home. He had always been a quiet, serious man – aside from the butterscotch candies he snuck me when my mother wasn’t watching. As a child his stoic ways intimidated me, and visiting him in his nursing home was a ritual that left me frightened, nose curled at the unfamiliar smell of the home, overwhelmed by the sadness and age all around me that I didn’t quite understand. Frankly, I was relieved when he passed – an emotion that left me intensely guilty at the time but which I now recognize as a normal reaction of a child too young to comprehend death and its prelude.
As I aged, however, my grandfather slowly grew larger and larger in my mind, especially after I lost my grandmother as well. I started cherishing old family photos, the majority of which showed him as a handsome young man in a pristine Army uniform. With a passing resemblance to a young Elvis, my grandfather looked like the very picture of American vitality, whether posing with his Army-issue rifle, with his church baseball team, or tickling a young, giggling version of my grandmother. This was a man I did not recognize, a man I did not know. I felt like Anzio might somehow add voice to the silent man in my photographs.
My grandfather, you see, had never once spoken about his time in the war to his children or grandchildren. Towards the end of his life, he had barely spoken at all. I knew scant details about his military service, but fifteen years after his death I desperately craved a connection with my grandpa.
And so, when I found myself in Rome one sweltering summer, I bought an $11 train ticket that would take me 40 minutes away to Anzio, eager to spend some time at the beach, out of the hot, claustrophobic city. A far cry from the bustling Rome Termini, Anzio’s train station was nearly deserted. With no maps or signs in English and certainly no crowds to follow, I made my best guess towards the direction of downtown, sweat already pooling on my collarbones in the intense morning sun.
After a short walk, I discovered a regal estate featuring both an archeological museum and a museum dedicated to the 1944 beachhead landing. Knowing it would be a good place to gather contest on the historic battle in which my grandfather had fought, I stepped inside the beachhead museum.
“Museum,” it turned out, was a bit of an overstatement. I was the sole visitor in the one-room display, packed to the ceiling with artifacts, news clippings, uniforms, photographs, and even mementos sent in from veterans and family members across the world. The room could hardly have been larger than your average kitchen, but I spent close to an hour examining every carefully preserved detail. Though a monument to history, the small, underfunded museum was also clearly a labor of love.
I combed every photograph for the face of my grandfather, for more clues about his involvement in the battle. I never found that familiar face, but the faces of countless young men, handsome and sturdy, weary and dirt-caked, stared back at me from around the room. I became blind to the significance of the photographs, the personal artifacts in front of me slowly blurring into the anonymity of a history lesson. Family, whispered a voice at the back of my skull, these men were all someone’s family. Unwilling to examine the thought, I pushed it out of my mind and pushed myself back out into the beating sun of town.
I moved on, slowly shuffling to the town center, feeling as though my sandals were melting into the sidewalks. I had picked up a town map at the museum and I had a new goal: visit the church. Though there were a couple surrounding the town, only one church stood directly in town square, the handsome Chiesa dei Santissimi Pio e Antonio.
I had come to Anzio with very little pretense, hoping the day would lead me where I needed to go, but I did have one goal in mind. Before leaving, I had gathered one more small detail about my grandfather’s military service: it was here, in Anzio, that he had been baptized. As a deeply faithful person with equally deep periods of doubt and confusion, I felt like this could be an important link between my grandfather and I.
And, of course, things didn’t go to plan. I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly, but I figured something would speak to me if I could just sit in one of the church pews. However, the church was locked. I could find nothing describing the church’s role during the war. The church was obviously Catholic and my grandfather had been Lutheran; I realized I had no idea when he might have converted. Or how wartime baptisms would have worked at all. Perhaps he wasn’t even baptized in a church, but rather by an Army chaplain by the shore. I was stymied by my lack of facts. Feeling frustrated and disheartened, I bought a gelato, and after a quick internal pep talk continued on towards the beach, sticky sweet droplets of green mint running down my hands in the nearly 100 degree heat.
The sight of the shore, water an almost surreal cerulean, rugged rocks jutting out of the surf, revived my spirits immediately. Rows and rows of colorful beach umbrellas lined the beach, playing off the pink, yellow, and white houses lining the shores. This was no grand tourist destination – the chattering voices around me spilled spirited Italian conversation into the sand, and it took me several attempts in broken Italian to figure out how to rent a beach umbrella and order a plate of salty, crispy calamari to revive my tired body. The beach, however, was entirely world-class. A chronic over-achiever in the middle of an intense academic program, I settled into the woven plastic beach chairs and relaxed for perhaps the first time in months, enjoying feeling anonymous amongst a beach full of locals.
Eventually, though, I became restless and pensive. I left my chair to wander the beach.
I grew up on the waterfront, and it has always provided for me a place of solace, comfort, a safe place to ponder problems. The ocean and its waves seem to me to be a study in the practice of meditation in action. I walked along the rocky outcropping sheltering the beach, feeling the rough stone scraping my soles, examining the colonies of barnacles and the occasional scrambling crab. I tried to sort out the multitude of emotions I was feeling.
I hadn’t found evidence of my grandfather in the museum. I hadn’t found his church of baptism. I still had so many questions. I had come here blindly and was about to leave just as blind.
But, by way of answer, something larger was forming in my mind. It seemed incomprehensible to me that such a beautiful, peaceful place could have played host to such horror and destruction. That same collision of images, I realized, must have existed at the time of the war as well.
What did my grandfather think, how did he feel, as his boat brought him to the Anzio harbor? A boy who had never been out of the Midwest, he must have felt, on some level, a sense of excitement at finding himself halfway around the world. And that excitement must have contrasted painfully with the reality of what he would soon be asked to do.
By all accounts, scare though they were, my grandfather performed his duties loyally and skillfully; he was a good soldier. And yet he clearly felt so pained that he asked to be baptized, to find solace in the spiritual world. He must have formed deep bonds with his fellow soldiers – bonds that would have been tested, tried, and wrenched apart as the death toll grew. And at the end of all of this, he returned to Michigan, happy to be home but hurting inside. At the end of all of this, the town of Anzio was left to rebuild from its own destruction.
So many died here. So many lives changed forever here. Yet this town is now a place of serenity, a tribute to the beauty of everyday life.
In his own, quiet way perhaps my grandfather fought back against the pervasive romancing of war. His service was a duty, not a movie plot. It was not set to an inspiring soundtrack, the effects were far too realistic, and it left an imprint that lingered far past closing credits. He did not entertain his children and grandchildren with stories of grandeur and bravery. Though I think both he and his family could have benefitted from open conversation, my grandfather responded to the dominant narrative of a strong masculinity by burying his fears and doubts. His service was to protect his country; his silence was to protect his children.
My grandfather went on to grow a fifty-year marriage, to raise three children and ten grandchildren, to a respectable career. Anzio in turn went on to heal, to foster a happy and healthy population. In looking around at the peaceful shore, at the small family-run businesses, at the friends chatting on the beach, I realized that Anzio was, in fact, quite similar to the small waterfront Michigan town where my grandfather lived out the rest of his life. That, I think, would have made him very happy.
I’ll never know my grandfather; I’ll never get to discuss this in depth with him. I’ll never get to explain the intense conflicting emotions of peace and sadness that I felt staring at the ocean waves in Anzio. I came to Anzio frustrated that I didn’t have answers, a clean and condensed summary of my grandfather’s life. I left realizing that I would never get all the answers I want. But I understand him a bit better now. I’ve read part of his story.