FORT RILEY, Kan. -- During a Nov. 15 ceremony at the post cemetery, wreaths were laid in memory of Italian and German World War II soldiers who died while being held as prisoner of war at Fort Riley.
The annual event is a remembrance of the POWs who lived and worked on Fort Riley between 1943 and 1946. Separated by a low stone wall from the gravesites of Americans buried at the cemetery, the headstones of 62 Germans and 11 Italians face those of their former foes.
Col. Carsten Döding, German army Liaison Officer of the United States Army Combined Arms Center of Leavenworth, Kansas, thanked Fort Riley officials for hosting the event because of the importance of not forgetting the dead, he said.
Although the POWS who are buried at Fort Riley died during World War II, Döding acknowledged the recent centennial of the armistice, which silenced the weapons of World War I ending hostilities between the Allies and the German Empire.
He spoke of how the Great War was only four years but forever changed the world.
"Many of the greatest conflicts and challenges our world faces today have roots that trace back to that war," he said. "Wars cast long shadows, to include generations who did not experience them first hand. The first World War's impact on art, education, technology and in particular our cultures, is still present. Whoever you are, where ever you are, you are living in a world that has been shaped by this war."
The League of Nations was tasked with preventing another world war -- but failed, he said.
During the second World War, Fort Riley was established as a site for a prisoner of war camp. It became home to about 4,500 of the 350,000 POWs who were dispersed among 600 such camps across the country.
"Despite many wild rumors about how the allies treated the prisoners, some Germans were pleased to be captured by the Americans," Döding said.
The reality was that they would be treated well. In contrast, they feared being captured by the Soviets. Those who came to Fort Riley filled a labor void on area farms, worked on roads, in the laundry and on building maintenance projects. Prisoners earned about 80 cents a day.
When the war ended, some of the POWs chose to stay in the area to live and work, others boarded ships for home while 73 remained behind in their final resting place.
"Although they died thousands of miles away from home they are not forgotten," Döding said. "They fought for their country, convinced they were fighting for the right cause."
Today, he said, Germans know it was not the right cause.
"This peaceful site; however, where so many have found their last resting place, gives the dead back their dignity and the living a place to mourn," he said. "It is our obligation to pay our respects to them especially when their families are not able to … For each of the white marble headstones there is a soldier who never returned to their loved ones.
"Let us never forget, that every victim has a personal story," Döding said. "Today we remember those who served their country and sacrificed their lives irrespective of nationality or ideology."
In closing he recited "The Good Comrade" written by German poet Ludwig Uhland in 1809, which reminds soldiers that the pain of losing a comrade in battle is not limited to any one trench.
I once had a comrade,
You will find no better.
The drum called us to battle,
He walked by my side,
In the same pace and step.
A bullet came a-flying,
Is it my turn or yours?
He was swept away,
He lies at my feet,
Like if he were a part of me.
He still reaches out his hand to me,
While I am about to reload.
I cannot hold onto your hand,
You stay in eternal life
My good comrade.
Following Döding's remarks, Maj. Stefano Catania, Italian army Liaison Officer of the United States Army Combined Arms Center of Leavenworth, spoke, continuing the vein of thought the poem expressed.
"If it's true that a multitude of cultural and national differences separate people from different nations and countries all over the world, it's also true there are elements of continuity across this spectrum of differences which indeed closes the existing gap among nations," Catania said. "These elements rest in the military."
In coming together to honor those who died before them regardless of what nation they fought for, soldiers share a common understanding of military values.
"The soldiers we are remembering now … they were captured on the battlefields of Europe and Africa and buried thousands of miles away from home in the United States where they eventually were treated with dignity and respect in accordance with those same values we share as a military community," he said.
Cantania closed his remarks with a prayer spoken in Italian for his countrymen who laid among other prisoner of war soldiers.
Döding and Catania then each laid a wreath at the headstone of one of their countrymen before a three-round volley was fired. A lone bugler standing at the edge of the cemetery played the German taps and the Italian taps as soldiers from all three nations rendered a salute.