Afrika — Carthage Cemetery Honors World War II Fallen

CARTHAGE, Tunisia, May 30, 2010 — Less than a mile from the 2,000-year-old ruins of ancient Carthage, Tunisian groundskeep­ers worked under a bright Mediter­ranean sun to pre­pare for Memo­r­i­al Day obser­vances to hon­or the 2,841 Amer­i­cans buried here, as well as the thou­sands more who gave their lives in the North Africa cam­paigns of World War II that laid the bloody ground­work for the Allied lib­er­a­tion of Europe.

U.S. Africa Command
Abdal­lah Lagahre, a Tunisian stone mason, refresh­es gold leaf let­ter­ing on the grave­stone of Medal of Hon­or recip­i­ent Army Pvt. Nicholas Min­ue at the North Africa Amer­i­can Ceme­tery in Carthage, Tunisia, May 28, 2010. Work­ers were prepar­ing for Memo­r­i­al Day week­end to hon­or fall­en Amer­i­can ser­vice­mem­bers.
U.S. Africa Com­mand pho­to by Vince Craw­ley
Click to enlarge

The North Africa Amer­i­can Ceme­tery and Memo­r­i­al lies in a qui­et open space sur­round­ed by fig, cypress and euca­lyp­tus trees on Roo­sevelt Road, between the Tunis air­port and the tourist beach­es, art bou­tiques and his­toric ruins of the Tunisian coast.

The grounds total about 27 acres, with a bur­ial area about the size of four foot­ball or soc­cer fields, bound­ed on one side by the Wall of the Miss­ing that includes 3,724 names. Bells from the cemetery’s chapel play patri­ot­ic anthems, “The Bat­tle Hymn of the Repub­lic” and “Amer­i­ca the Beau­ti­ful,” while calls to prayer from near­by mosques echo among the graves. The ceme­tery is easy to spot on Inter­net satel­lite maps — due east of Tunis air­port, it is the rec­tan­gle of bright green kikuyu grass that stands out against the dark­er olive-col­ored veg­e­ta­tion — zoom­ing in shows the order­ly rows of cross­es and Stars of David, all fac­ing to the south­east.

Abdal­lah Lagahre, a stone mason whose job is to tend the grave mark­ers, qui­et­ly spent sev­er­al hours in the after­noon heat ear­li­er this week­end refresh­ing the gold leaf on the head­stone of Army Pvt. Nicholas Min­ue, the sin­gle Medal of Hon­or recip­i­ent buried in Carthage.

Born in Sed­den, Poland, Min­ue has a “typ­i­cal Amer­i­can sto­ry” of an immi­grant who serves his adopt­ed coun­try, explained Car­los Castel­lo, super­in­ten­dant of the North Africa Amer­i­can Ceme­tery. Castel­lo him­self is anoth­er vari­a­tion of the Amer­i­can sto­ry — son of Cuban and Mex­i­can par­ents, born in the Unit­ed States, liv­ing over­seas with a French step­fa­ther, then serv­ing 14 years in the U.S. Army, much of that time in Ger­many, with wartime ser­vice in the 1990–91 Per­sian Gulf War, though he stress­es his mil­i­tary duties were large­ly admin­is­tra­tive.

Min­ue was with an armored infantry unit assigned to 1st Armored Divi­sion on April 28, 1943, when a group of sol­diers came under fire from an ene­my machine gun nest. For rea­sons that were nev­er record­ed, he ran for­ward with a bay­o­net and killed 10 ene­my machine gun­ners and rifle­men, then con­tin­ued attack­ing oth­er ene­my rifle­men dug into the hill­sides until he was fatal­ly injured. His aggres­sive­ness “was unques­tion­ably the fac­tor that gave his com­pa­ny the offen­sive spir­it that was nec­es­sary for advanc­ing and dri­ving the ene­my from the entire sec­tor,” accord­ing to Minue’s Medal of Hon­or cita­tion. The chapel bells hap­pen to be play­ing the “Bat­tle Hymn of the Repub­lic” while Castel­lo retells Minue’s sto­ry. “We know a few of the sto­ries,” he adds. “It’s a shame that we don’t know them all.”

For instance, there’s Foy Drap­er, who Castel­lo said “began fight­ing Ger­mans in 1936” as part of the U.S. Olympic team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Those were the Olympic games where Germany’s fas­cist lead­er­ship hoped to show­case their phys­i­cal supe­ri­or­i­ty, only to be best­ed by upstart Amer­i­cans, led by African-Amer­i­can Jesse Owens.

The pres­ence of an Olympic gold medal­ist among the gravesites is evi­dence that “Amer­i­ca real­ly gave her best in the pur­suit of free­dom,” Castel­lo said at Draper’s gravesite. Drap­er, from Cal­i­for­nia, won gold as one of four mem­bers of the U.S. 400-meter relay team, and the ceme­tery has a pho­to­graph of Drap­er along­side team­mates Owens, Ralph Met­calfe and Frank Wykoff. When the war start­ed, Drap­er became a com­bat pilot. He and his crew were killed Jan. 4, 1943, after tak­ing off from an air­field in Thelepte, Tunisia, near the Alger­ian bor­der.

Not every­one hon­ored at the ceme­tery is an Olympian or Medal of Hon­or recip­i­ent. The buri­als include 240 unknown Amer­i­cans, includ­ing one head­stone that marks the rest­ing place of sev­en unknowns. Two adja­cent head­stones and a brass plaque mark the gravesite of four men whose names are known but whose remains could not be sep­a­rate­ly iden­ti­fied. Michael Coonce, the cemetery’s assis­tant super­in­ten­dant, told the sto­ry of Alice P. McK­in­ney of Michi­gan, a pri­vate first class in the Women’s Army Corps. Her broth­er had died fight­ing in Europe, and she was being trans­ferred from West Africa to Europe in the weeks after the war end­ed, in part to help with his bur­ial arrange­ments. She is among 18 women sol­diers aboard a trans­port plane that crashed off the African coast whose names are on the cemetery’s Wall of the Miss­ing. Her broth­er is buried at Hen­ri-Chapelle Ceme­tery in Bel­gium.

All of those hon­ored at the ceme­tery died dur­ing World War II, in cam­paigns that began with the Oper­a­tion Torch land­ings in North Africa in Novem­ber 1942, with the fiercest fight­ing tak­ing place in Tunisia in ear­ly 1943. At a time when Ger­many and Italy occu­pied much of the Euro­pean con­ti­nent and North Africa, the Unit­ed States and Unit­ed King­dom were under intense pres­sure from their Sovi­et ally to begin offen­sive oper­a­tions against the Axis pow­ers. An attack into Europe was deemed too risky, so the Allies sent a mil­i­tary force into North Africa, where the British were hav­ing suc­cess against Ger­man and Ital­ian tank forces in desert fight­ing, and where it was unclear how the neu­tral French Vichy forces occu­py­ing the region would respond.

The French forces in North Africa soon sided with the Allies, but Ger­many and Italy were able to pour rein­force­ments into Tunisia, led by famed Ger­man Field Mar­shal Erwin Rom­mel. The Bat­tle of Kasser­ine Pass in ear­ly 1943 cost thou­sands of Amer­i­can lives and result­ed in major changes in U.S. tac­tics and lead­er­ship. The Allied forces were able to reverse their set­backs, reor­ga­nized and defeat­ed the Ger­man-Ital­ian force by May 1943. Tunisia then became a launch­ing point for invad­ing Sici­ly and south­ern Italy, fol­lowed a year lat­er by the D‑Day inva­sion of Nor­mandy in north­ern France.

“With­out Oper­a­tion Torch, there prob­a­bly nev­er would have been a D‑Day,” said Castel­lo, sum­ming up the his­toric sig­nif­i­cance of the North Africa cam­paign. The nature of the fight­ing in Tunisia was described by wartime cor­re­spon­dent Ernie Pyle.

“For four days and nights they have fought hard, eat­en lit­tle, washed none, and slept hard­ly at all,” Pyle wrote in May 1943, trav­el­ing among Amer­i­can infantry­men. “Their nights have been vio­lent with attack, fright, butch­ery, and their days sleep­less and mis­er­able with the crash of artillery. … They are young men, but the grime and whiskers and exhaus­tion make them look mid­dle-aged. There is an agony in your heart and you almost feel ashamed to look at them. They are just guys from Broad­way and Main Street, but you would­n’t remem­ber them. They are too far away now. They are too tired. Their world can nev­er be known to you, but if you could see them just once, just for an instant, you would know that no mat­ter how hard peo­ple work back home they are not keep­ing pace with these infantry­men in Tunisia.”

Today, the peo­ple of Tunisia are respect­ful of the Amer­i­can ceme­tery, as well as British bur­ial grounds, and a Tunisian mil­i­tary hon­or guard par­tic­i­pates in annu­al U.S. Memo­r­i­al Day obser­vances. As the groundskeep­ers pre­pared for Memo­r­i­al Day week­end, small groups of vis­i­tors kept stop­ping by the “Cimetière améri­cain?,” often young Tunisian cou­ples who walked in silence among the graves.

“Like oth­er people’s, the Tunisian peo­ple lived through poignant tragedy of war and through dark hours under the occu­pa­tion of Axis troops,” Tunisia’s founder and first pres­i­dent, Habib Bougui­ba, said in a mes­sage post­ed on the wall of the cemetery’s visitor’s cen­ter. “Please accept, dear vis­i­tor … the expres­sion of my deep sym­pa­thy for the rel­a­tives of those who have sac­ri­ficed so much for the sake of free­dom.”

The North Africa Amer­i­can Ceme­tery and Memo­r­i­al in Carthage, Tunisia, is one of 24 per­ma­nent Amer­i­can mil­i­tary bur­ial grounds on for­eign soil admin­is­tered by the Amer­i­can Bat­tle Mon­u­ments Com­mis­sion. Memo­r­i­al Day week­end obser­vances in Carthage are expect­ed to include del­e­ga­tions from the gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary of Tunisia, and the U.S. gov­ern­ment, includ­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives from U.S. Africa Com­mand.

U.S. Africa Com­mand
U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)