FLORENCE - As we head for a tour of the Tuscan countryside, our guide announces that we will be making an unscheduled stop. "I think you will appreciate it," is all Paolo Santioli will say.
Soon, our bus pulls into the Florence American Cemetery, proceeding up the wooded hillside to the memorial pylon towering over countless rows of pristine white grave markers.
We get off the bus and walk the grounds where 4,402 American men and women killed in World War II are buried. Some of us quietly make our way around the reflecting pools and marble maps indicating the battles fought, while others wander silently among the manicured graves.
Back on the bus, it is noticeably quiet. Then our 44-year-old guide says simply: "Many of your countrymen died so I could live in freedom. Thank you."
The American Battle Monuments Commission would be happy to know Santioli took us to see the cemetery an hour's drive from Florence. Established by Congress in 1923, the organization oversees 24 such cemeteries in 10 countries in Europe, North Africa, Latin America, and the Philippines.
But other than the Normandy American Cemetery, which overlooks Omaha Beach and the site of the D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944, the cemeteries are little known. More than 125,000 men and women are buried in them, close to where they died in combat, mostly in World Wars I and II.
"We want more Americans to experience firsthand how those who sacrificed so much are honored forever," says Mike Conley, public affairs officer for the commission. "Each cemetery was built to reflect the sacrifices Americans made fighting for freedom, and to attract people to come and reflect on the accomplishments made by the deceased."
The Aisne-Marne American Cemetery is one of the smaller sites, about an hour's train ride from Paris. Surrounded by farmland, it contains the remains of 2,289 Americans who died during World War I.
Driving past a 7-foot-high stone wall, through wrought-iron gates, visitors may think they're entering a botanical garden. Walking paths are lined with 3,000 rose bushes planted five rows deep. Behind the roses are rows of boxwoods, dwarf hawthorn bushes, and plane trees.
Beyond two brick buildings - the superintendent's quarters and a visitor's center - white crosses and Stars of David stand in perfect military formation, following the sweeping curve of a forested hill.
An 80-foot-tall French Romanesque chapel tells the stories of those buried there - many killed in the month-long Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918 - through its sculptures, stained-glass windows, and inscribed limestone walls. The chapel is built over one of the front-line trenches, and vestiges of the World War I battle, such as shell holes and trenches, are visible along paths in the woods behind the chapel.
Aisne-Marne had about 30,000 visitors last year, compared with Normandy's 1 million. Americans account for only about 15 percent of visitors to any of the 24 cemeteries, and many of those are families of active American military serving in Europe.
There are no surviving combat veterans of World War I to honor their fallen brothers and sisters, and World War II veterans are getting too old to travel overseas.
Mostly, though, Americans don't know about the cemeteries that are strictly for U.S. troops and those serving with them, such as Red Cross workers.
On Memorial Day, dignitaries from the United States and the host nation address large crowds of mostly local citizens paying their respects to the Americans who died helping liberate their country. The ceremony begins with the playing of the national anthem, and American flags and those of the host nation are placed at each grave.
Throughout the year, many local citizens participate in adopt-a-grave programs. At the Netherlands American cemetery near Maastricht, all 8,301 graves have been adopted, some by second- and third-generation relatives of local survivors.
To encourage Americans to visit, commission staffers help travelers plan their trips. Each cemetery has an American superintendent and assistant superintendent, who escort visitors to the grave of a relative or friend.
When Karl Rosenbaum of Stoystown, Pa., visited Brittany American Cemetery a few years ago with his wife and son, acting superintendent Alan Amelinckx spent hours with them. He used a map to describe the fighting on Aug. 9, 1944 - the day Rosenbaum's uncle, Staff Sgt. Robert Rosenbaum, perished. Then he escorted them to the grave and rubbed sand from the beach at Normandy into the inscription.
"Ever so slowly, the name appeared until it looked like it had been carved yesterday," Rosenbaum recalls. "That is when I just lost it."
He adds, "I left knowing my uncle is so well cared for. It meant a lot to me."
The cemeteries were designed and built by teams of the world's most accomplished sculptors, landscape designers, memorial architects, mosaic artists, and muralists.
At Normandy, the Philadelphia architectural firm of Harbeson, Hough, Livingston, and Larson (now H2L2) oversaw creation of all the memorial features, including the 22-foot bronze sculpture The Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves. Sculpted by Donald De Lue of Leonardo, N.J., it stands in front of the memorial building overlooking the dramatic cemetery landscape designed by Markley Stevenson of Philadelphia.
Allegra Smick, who has visited Normandy several times chaperoning ninth graders from Massachusetts, says, "I am always overwhelmed by the sacrifice of so many young men and women. It is clear it was what they did that allows the liberty we enjoy today."
Last year, each of Smick's 28 students was assigned to find a soldier's grave and write a short story about the experience. Fourteen-year-old Theo Burbank wrote:
When I reach Plot G, Row 14, Grave 34, and see "Everett J. Foote" engraved into the cross, I feel like I know him. I know this isn't possible - he wasn't a relative of mine, and he died long before I was born. But as I read his name over and over again, I feel like I must.
I spend a few minutes just looking at Everett's grave, trying to soak in every detail. I know we have to leave soon, but I'm not ready. I want him to know that I came here, that I found him among this sea of tombstones.
"Goodbye, Everett," I whisper, hoping that somehow the words will make their way through the ground and find him. "And thank you."
Some visits help relatives feel better about the decisions made long ago to have the burial so far from home.
Last year, Catherine Corpening of Hickey, N.C., visited the grave of her father, Air Force Technical Sgt. Ira Royster, at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium. When she got home, her uncle admitted that for 50 years he had been questioning his advice that her father should be buried alongside the men with whom he fought and died.
"I told him that there was not a more serene place in this world," Corpening says. "I will always know he will be honored and taken care of forever."
The commission operates and maintains 24 permanent American burial grounds on foreign soil. There are 124,909 U.S. war dead interred at these cemeteries: 30,921 of World War I, 93,238 of World War II, and 750 of the Mexican War. There also are 6,177 American veterans and others interred in the Mexico City and Corozal (Panama) American Cemeteries.
No new overseas cemeteries have been created since the end of World War II. Since that time, all deceased service members have been returned home. Other than the few remains still being discovered, all commission cemeteries are closed to burials.
5,325 graves, World War II
12 miles south of Liege
368 graves, World War II
52 miles west of Brussels
7,992 graves, World War II
18 miles east of Liege
468 graves, World War I
28 miles southwest of London
3,812 graves, World War II
Three miles west of the University of Cambridge
2,289 graves; World War I
50 miles, or one hour by train, from Paris
4,410 graves; World War II
15 miles from St. Michel
5,255 graves, World War II
45 miles from Nancy
10,489 graves, World War II
28 miles from Metz
14,246 graves, World War II
26 miles northwest of Verdun
9,387 graves, World War II
170 miles west of Paris
6,012 graves, World War I
62 miles from Paris
861 graves, World War I
40 miles west of Cannes
1,844 graves, World War I
120 miles southwest of Paris
4,153 graves, World War I
190 miles from Paris
1,565 graves from World War I, 24 from World War II
Five miles from the center of Paris
4,402 graves; World War II
Seven miles south of Florence
7,861 graves, World War II
38 miles south of Rome
5,076 graves, World War II
Within Luxembourg City
Mexico City National
1,563 war graves include those from the Mexican American War and other conflicts. None are from the world wars. Mexico City
8,301 graves, World War II
Six miles east of Maastricht
5,364 from various conflicts, plus civilians who built or worked on the Panama Canal
Three miles north of Panama City
17,202 graves, World War II
Six miles southeast of Manila
2,841 graves, World War II
Ten miles north of Tunis
American Battle Monuments Commission
- Jim Winnerman