In the small town of Anzio, Italy, there is a story written in the sand. The script unfurls across the beachfront; you can read it in the melting cones of gelato, the hot stone sidewalks of the city center, the glistening sides of boats in the harbor.
The story tells of nearly 200,000 young men who fought in battles on and near the beach and in 1944. It tells of 12,000 deaths and over 70,000 casualties. It’s the story of heroic nurses, civilians, and support services on the front lines.
It is the story of my grandfather. And now, it is part of my story as well.
Anzio is a small fishing port about 30 minutes south of Rome. Quiet, with just 16 square miles to call its own and a population of 54,000, Anzio tends to be overshadowed by nearby Nettuno, which boasts a thriving tourist industry, Italian military base, and police academy. If you’ve heard of this town, it was likely in a textbook, not a guide book — Anzio was the site of the Allied invasion of Italy that eventually led to the fall of Rome.
This is where my grandfather was stationed during World War II.
I was 10 when my grandfather passed away. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease and spent his last years in an assisted living home. He was a quiet, serious man — aside from the butterscotch candies he snuck me when my mother wasn’t watching. As a child, his stoic ways intimidated me, and visiting him in his nursing home was a ritual that left me frightened and overwhelmed by the sadness and age around me that I didn’t quite understand.
As I aged, however, my grandfather slowly grew larger and larger in my mind, especially after I lost my grandmother as well. I started cherishing old family photos, the majority of which showed him as a handsome young man in a pristine Army uniform. With a passing resemblance to a young Elvis, my grandfather looked like the picture of American vitality, whether posing with his Army-issue rifle, his church baseball team, or tickling a young, giggling version of my grandmother.
This was a man I did not recognize, a man I did not know. I felt as though visiting Anzio might somehow add voice to the silent man from my photographs.
My grandfather, you see, had never spoken about his time in the war to his children or grandchildren. Toward the end of his life, he had barely spoken at all. I knew few details about his military service, but 15 years after his death I desperately craved a connection with my grandpa.
And so, when I found myself in Rome one sweltering summer, I bought an $11 train ticket that took me 40 minutes away to Anzio.
A far cry from the bustling Rome Termini, Anzio’s train station was nearly deserted. With no maps or signs in English and certainly no crowds to follow, I made my best guess toward the direction of downtown, sweat already pooling on my collarbones in the intense morning sun.
A short distance from the train station, I discovered a few museums dedicated to the 1944 beachhead landing. I knew it would be a good place to gather context on the historic battle in which my grandfather had fought, so I stepped inside.
“Museum,” it turned out, was a bit of an overstatement. I was the sole visitor in the one-room display that could hardly have been larger than your average kitchen. It was packed from floor to ceiling with artifacts, news clippings, uniforms, photographs, and mementos sent in from veterans and family members across the world. What was, on the surface, a monument to history, the small museum was also clearly a labor of love.
Though I spent close to an hour examining every carefully preserved photograph, I never found the familiar face of my grandfather. The faces of countless young strangers, handsome and sturdy, weary and dirt-caked, stared back at me from around the room. I became blind to the significance of the photographs, the personal artifacts in front of me slowly blurring into the anonymity of a history lesson.
Family, whispered a voice at the back of my skull, these men were all someone’s family. Unwilling to examine the thought, I pushed myself back outside into the beating sun towards downtown.
I picked up a town map at the museum and I had a new goal: find the local church in the town square, the handsome Chiesa dei Santissimi Pio e Antonio.
It was here, in Anzio, where my grandfather had been baptized. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I figured something would speak to me if I could just sit in one of the church pews.
But the church was locked. All signs were in Italian, and no one was around to ask.
I realized I had no idea how wartime baptisms would have worked at all. Would my Lutheran grandfather have been baptized at this clearly baptist church? Or would an Army chaplain have performed the ceremony instead, perhaps by the shoreline? I was suddenly stymied by my lack of facts. Feeling frustrated and foolish, I bought a gelato, and after a quick internal pep talk, continued toward the beach, sticky sweet drops of green mint running down my hands in the nearly 100 degree heat.
The sight of the shore — the surreal cerulean water and rugged rocks jutting out of the surf — revived my spirits immediately. Rows and rows of colorful beach umbrellas lined the beach, complementing the pink, yellow, and white houses along the shore.
This was no grand tourist destination — the chattering voices around me spilled spirited Italian conversation into the sand, and it took me several attempts in broken Italian to figure out how to rent a beach umbrella and order a plate of salty, crispy calamari to revive my tired body. A chronic overachiever in the middle of an intense academic program, I settled into the woven plastic beach chairs and relaxed for perhaps the first time in months, enjoying the feeling of being anonymous on a beach full of locals.
I grew up on the waterfront, and it has always been a place of solace, comfort, somewhere safe to ponder problems. The ocean and its waves seem to me to be a study in the practice of meditation in action. I walked along the rocky outcropping sheltering the beach, feeling the rough stone scraping my soles, examining the colonies of barnacles and the occasional scrambling crab. I tried to sort out the multitude of emotions I was feeling.
I hadn’t found evidence of my grandfather in the museum. I hadn’t found his church of baptism. I still had so many questions.
But, by way of answer, something larger was forming in my mind. It seemed incomprehensible to me that such a beautiful, peaceful place could have played host to such horror and destruction. That same collision of images, I realized, must have existed at the time of the war as well.
What did my grandfather think, how did he feel, as his boat brought him to the Anzio harbor?
A boy who had never been out of the Midwest, he must have felt, on some level, a sense of excitement at finding himself halfway around the world. And that excitement must have contrasted painfully with the reality of what he would soon be asked to do.
By all accounts, scarce though they were, my grandfather performed his duties loyally and skillfully. He was a good soldier. And yet he clearly felt so pained that he asked to be baptized, to find solace in the spiritual world. He must have formed deep bonds with his fellow soldiers — bonds that would have been tested, tried, and wrenched apart as the death toll grew. And at the end of all of this, he returned to Michigan, happy to be home but hurting inside. At the end of all of this, the town of Anzio was left to rebuild from its own destruction.
So many died here. So many lives changed forever here. Yet this town is now a place of serenity, a tribute to the beauty of everyday life.
In his own, quiet way, perhaps my grandfather fought back against the pervasive romancing of war. His service was a duty, not a movie plot. It was not set to an inspiring soundtrack, the effects were far too real, and it left an imprint that lingered far past closing credits. He did not entertain his children and grandchildren with stories of grandeur and bravery. Though I think both he and his family could have benefitted from open conversation, my grandfather responded to the dominant narrative of strong masculinity by burying his fears and doubts. His service was to protect his country; his silence was to protect his children.
My grandfather went on to have a respectable career, a 50-year marriage, three children, and 10 grandchildren. Anzio, in turn, went on to heal, to foster a happy and healthy population. In looking around at the peaceful shore, at the small family-run businesses, at the friends chatting on the beach, I realized that Anzio was, in fact, quite similar to the small waterfront Michigan town where my grandfather lived out the rest of his life. That, I think, would have made him very happy.
I’ll never know my grandfather. I’ll never get to discuss this in depth with him. I’ll never get to explain the intense conflicting emotions of peace and sadness that I felt staring at the ocean waves in Anzio. I came to Anzio frustrated that I didn’t have answers, a clean and condensed summary of my grandfather’s life.
I left realizing that I would never get all the answers I want. But I understand my grandfather a bit better now. I’ve read part of his story.