VICENZA – When Capt. Joseph Hart arrived at San Biagio di Callalta for an Italian Armed Forces Day commemoration, a beautiful World War I memorial dedicated to troops who died fighting at the nearby Piave River caught his eye.
Hart was among several Soldiers from U.S. Army Garrison Italy who took part in commemorative events with Italian partner communities on Nov. 4, when Italians mark the end of WWI hostilities in the Veneto Region. The memorial was made in the shape of a hug, said Hart, a New Hampshire-native who serves as commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, USAG-Italy.
“It’s like an embrace. It’s very somber,” Hart said. “There’s names of many people killed the fighting. One American is buried there, Edward McKey, who was a friend of Ernest Hemingway.”
In Italy, National Unity and Armed Forces Day is commemorated like America’s Veterans Day and Memorial Day combined. It marks the end of WWI in Italy, just as Americans pause for Veterans Day on Nov. 11, the date of the WWI armistice in France.
For three years, Italians fought Austria-Hungary in dozens of battles across northeastern Italy. Hundreds of thousands died in brutal combat – from the peaks of the Dolomites and across the Venetian plain. The U.S. Army’s 332nd Infantry Regiment fought in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto during days of WWI. The war in Italy ended with the "Armistice of Villa Giusti," named for a villa near Padova where Italians signed a Nov. 3, 1918 cease fire with Austria-Hungary, which took effect 24 hours later.
Nearly all Italian cities and town squares have annual ceremonies to mark the anniversary. Each year in the Veneto, several Italian communities invite U.S. Soldiers from the U.S. Army Garrison Italy to take part.
In Vicenza, Col. Scott Horrigan, commander of U.S. Army Garrison Italy, joined local leaders in the Piazza dei Signori for a commemorative event that included Capt. Fernando Rubio and Capt. Emilie Anderson, two officers from the Southern European Task Force, Africa, presenting a wreath on behalf of the U.S. Army.
Horrigan felt honored to take part and noted the hundreds of Italians – from senior political leaders to school children playing in the band – who surrounded the piazza during the ceremony,
“It was absolutely amazing,” Horrigan said. “We’ve all got something in common. We remember those we have lost in wars. It also reinforces that partnership between in Italy and the U.S., we are far more similar than we are different.”
Community outreach is coordinated through the garrison’s Community Alliance Program, where U.S. military units in the Vicenza Military Community are paired with local Italian towns. Together, Soldiers and local civic leaders join together for activities that build rapport and friendship. The weekend of November 4 was especially busy for U.S. Soldiers conducting outreach.
In Isola Vicentina, Lt. Col. Jae Marquis, Commander, 509th Strategic Signal Battalion and his team attended Italian Armed Forces Day events as guests of Mayor Francesco Enrico Gonzo. Afterward, Marquis and Command Sgt. Maj. Juan Guevara discussed ways their unit can do more with their partner town. On Nov. 5, in Vighizzolo D'Este, Soldiers from the Dental Health Activity-Italy and Public Health Activity - Italy took part in a Nov. 5 ceremony. In Sovizzo, Lt. Col. John Hubbs, the garrison chaplain, met the Vatican Secretary of State to the birthplace of Donna Vincenza Pasini, whose visions of the Madonna led to creation of Vicenza’s church at Monte Berico.
McKey, a volunteer with the American Red Cross was killed by an Austrian shell burst at San Dona di Piave on June 15, 1918. Raised in Minnesota, McKey was serving as an ambulance and mobile canteen driver when he died in combat. He’s the only American buried in an Italian military cemetery.
Hart, joined by 1st Sgt. Jonathan Risher and Staff Sgt. Brandon Rickert, saw where McKey was laid to rest and an engraved poem Hemingway wrote for the San Biagio di Callalta memorial. It was touching to represent the U.S. Army and honor a fellow American, Hart said.
“He was not a Soldier, but he still died in combat and sacrificed himself,” Hart said. “He was helping the wounded out, that is a very noble thing to do in combat. If was very important to me and the first sergeant that we got pay our respects.”
AFN Vicenza news coverage of the event at San Biagio di Callalta