Military representatives, local historians, journalists, and the family of an interred solider were among the 45 or so guests that met at McClellan’s German Italian Memorial Cemetery Sunday afternoon to honor the 26 German and 3 Italian soldiers who are buried there.
The dignified annual ceremony welcomed the public to attend for the first time in three years to hear the testimonies of German Military Rep. Lt. Col. Siegfried Domabyl; Italian Military Rep Lt. Col. Andrea Lopreiato; American Military Rep. Lt. Col. Travis Easterling; and Peter Goelzheuser, grandson of interred WWII German Obergefreiter Peter Gnau. Each representative presented a wreath from their respective countries to show support and solidarity for these men who were once our enemies. A banner decorated the Italian wreath, which read “ai caduti per la patria” — “to those who died for the country.”
“We honor the soldiers who are buried in what, for them, was an enemy country, and that now is a friend country — a former enemy who honors Italian fallen soldiers,” said Lt. Col. Lopreiato in his remarks. “The message which Anniston…bring to us, is that one day may mankind be friend and ally.”
Peter Goelzheuser first visited the U.S. in the 1990s, when he discovered his grandfather is buried there. Since then, he has returned numerous times, bringing different family members to Pete Gnau’s gravesite to pay their respects. This time, his sister Hedwig and daughter Anne-Sophie joined him. “We are impressed that this memorial service takes place, especially since these foreign soldiers were once enemies to your country,” said Goelzheuser in his address. “In the name of my family, we say thank you very much to all who take care of maintaining this ceremony and the cemetery like it is.”
Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Tom Gilbert and Sergeant-Major (Retired) Thom Cole organized and led the event under the mentorship of local historian and former public outreach coordinator for Fort McClellan, Joan McKinney. McKinney is passing the baton to Gilbert and Cole, after several years of organizing the service and collecting extensive records and artifacts from the Prisoner-of-War Camp and all the men buried there.
“Her dedication goes above and beyond,” said Lt. Col. Domabyl of McKinney. “During my visits the last two years, I had the chance to learn more about the soldiers, who they were, where they came from, and what the reason was for their death,” Domabyl added. “To be honest, I was impressed how engaged the Anniston community is to preserve and commemorate…this cemetery.”
McClellan will be honoring fallen American veterans and their family members who are buried in the Fort McClellan Post Cemetery on Dec. 17th for the annual Wreaths across America event.