Here we and all who shall hereafter live in freedom will be reminded that to these men and their comrades we owe a debt to be paid with grateful remembrance of their sacrifice and with the high resolve that the cause for which they died shall live
Thus reads the inscription at the entrance to the North Africa American cemetery and memorial in Tunisia. Located just outside of Tunis, near Carthage, the cemetery is significant in size and in its impact on visitors. There are 2.841 bodies interred within its walls, each under an incredibly plain white marble marker laid out in perfect alignment. Brothers buried next to each other, at least on Medal of Honor awardee and 240 stones with the incredibly sad phrase, "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God."
Another 3,724 names are engraved along a wall, names of those who perished in the region but who’s bodies were unaccounted for. The cemetery is both a beautiful and incredibly moving reminder of the sacrifices made by these and many thousands more young men during World War 2.
One of the bleached white crosses bears a tiny bit of decoration. Private Nicholas Minue from Careret, NJ, has his headstone embossed with gold paint, the mark of a Medal of Honor recipient.
For distinguishing himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the loss of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy on 28 April 1943, in the vicinity of MedjezelBab, Tunisia. When the advance of the assault elements of Company A was held up by flanking fire from an enemy machinegun nest, Pvt. Minue voluntarily, alone, and unhesitatingly, with complete disregard of his own welfare, charged the enemy entrenched position with fixed bayonet. Pvt. Minue assaulted the enemy under a withering machinegun and rifle fire, killing approximately 10 enemy machinegunners and riflemen. After completely destroying this position, Pvt. Minue continued forward, routing enemy riflemen from dugout positions until he was fatally wounded. The courage, fearlessness and aggressiveness displayed by Pvt. Minue in the face of inevitable death was unquestionably the factor that gave his company the offensive spirit that was necessary for advancing and driving the enemy from the entire sector.
The battle for North Africa was a roughly six month affair. It was the first major engagement for the Americans in the Atlantic side of the war and it was, in many ways, a great lesson in what not to do when going to battle. The Romans, a group that held this same land thousands of years prior, were incredibly successful in their conquests in large part because of their logistical skills, always able to supply troops with the correct materiel. That was just one of many areas that the Americans and the English fighting along side of them faltered at.
Operation TORCH, the beginning of the campaign, was a massive effort that saw thousands of troops ferried across the Atlantic and deposited on the shores of Morocco and Algeria. Not all the troops even made it on-shore. They were the earliest names recorded on the wall of the missing, those lost at sea before the battle even began. Those who did make it on shore were initially beset by logistical problems that were rather significant. Rather than having 8,700 trucks on the ground in Oran as planned in mid-November there were only 1.800. Officers were spotted wandering around town offering $5,000 in silver for anything resembling a functional truck. Just one of many examples of things not going quite as planned.
Months later the battle was still ongoing. The numbers of dead, injured and imprisoned are staggering. Battle by battle, hill by hill, the soldiers marched on. Underequipped, both in quantity and quality of gear, they nonetheless inched forward (and backwards on occasion). Eventually the victory came, but not without tremendous losses.
The saying goes that history is written by the victors in battle and certainly most history of World War 2 is told that way these days. Stories of the great American battle leaders, names that have been immortalized in our collective conscience, focus on the incredible successes and accomplishments those men achieved. It is rare, for example, to hear a story about Patton that details his inability to effectively command and control his platoons. Similarly rare are the stories of Ike being pilloried as an ineffective, inexperienced and generally confused commander in battle.
But reading back through primary source material, from those commanders and from others around them, the reality is quite clear. They grew quickly as leaders and their tactical skills improved rather impressively, but the initial pains were very real and rather significant. A great telling of the history of the battle comes from Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn. The book is incredibly detailed, including not only the views of the victors but also details from the the German side. Tales from command tents are intertwined with tales from the trenches and the tanks.
Reading of the shortcomings of the commanders, seen by their colleagues, adversaries and partners is definitely and educational and eye-opening experience.
Eisenhower would complain that his ad hoc orders to support the British with American troops ‘were not clearly understood nor vigorously executed.’ To his brother Edgar he confided, ‘I suffer from the usual difficulty that besets the higher commander – things can be ordered and started, but actual execution at the front has to be turned over to someone else.’
At the end of the day the Allies won and eventually things turned out reasonably well, but not without many false starts, blundering snafus and significant casualties. Reading the story and standing on the ground there in Carthage, mourning the fallen soldiers, certainly puts many things in perspective.