U.S. Embassy Commemorates Veterans Day

On Veterans Day, we honor the service and sacrifice of American veterans on behalf of our nation. Today, Ambassador Donald Blome was joined by Director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Kelly McKeague during a commemoration ceremony at the North Africa American Cemetery in Tunis to pay tribute to over 2,800 fallen American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines most of whom gave their lives in North Africa during World War II. “Today is a day when we pause to honor those who have answered our nation’s call to protect our liberty and freedom,” said Ambassador Blome. “Our nation owes a debt to them…one we can never fully repay, but we can acknowledge this and thank them for their service,” he added.

Ambassador’s Remarks

Director McKeague, Mayor Bayoudh, fellow Ambassadors, members of the Diplomatic and Military Attaché Corps, other honored guests, and all the men and women who currently wear or have worn the uniforms of the Armed Forces of the United States of America, Happy Veterans Day.

Over a century has passed since the guns of the First World War fell silent and the American people began observing what was then called Armistice Day.  Later, in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first “Veterans Day Proclamation” which expanded the scope of this commemorative day to honor all American veterans – past or present – but especially our living veterans who served their country honorably, regardless of their period of service.

So, today is a day when we pause to honor the those who have answered our nation’s call to protect our liberty and freedom. For our veterans present today, we salute you and thank you for your service.

Every time I come here to the North Africa American Cemetery, I’m humbled by the magnitude of the service and sacrifice represented in this sacred place and it causes me to reflect on the larger meaning of service.  As we stand here today on these hallowed grounds, it’s important to also acknowledge our “past” veterans of which over 2800 from the Second World War rest eternally in the burial plots to your right, and over 3700 of their comrades have their names carved into the Wall of the Missing.

In plot I, Row 12, Graves 9 and 10, lying side-by-side are Privates Wilbur and Ward Osmun, two brothers who died together at the first battle of Longstop Hill to the west of Tunis.  A massive enemt counterattack in the early dawn hours caught the allied forces off guard. The fighting was fierce and

at times hand-to-hand. We’re told that when their bodies were recovered after the second battle of Longstop Hill, Wilbur and Ward were found lying back-to-back. The Ward brothers’ parents received the devastating news that they had simultaneously lost both their sons, and that the official date of death was Christmas Eve 1942.  Privates Wilbur and Ward Osmun are just two examples of “American veterans” resting here in Tunisia.

Commemorative sites like the North Africa American Cemetery are tangible reminders that help us realize the cost of freedom, while also providing perspective and context to help us comprehend the burden that so many of our living veterans bear in their hearts and souls.  Our nation owes a debt to them…one we can never fully repay, but we can acknowledge this and thank them for their service.

In this, my last Veterans Day Ceremony as U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia, I would like to address each veteran gathered here, American or allied.  We are grateful for your service, and we thank you for your sacrifice.

It is now my pleasure to introduce our Guest of Honor:  Mr. Kelly K. McKeague – Director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.   For those not familiar with his agency, POW stands for Prisoners of War and MIA stands for Missing in Action.  I’ll let Director McKeague tell you more about the DPAA mission.

Kelly McKeague, Director, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Remarks at North Africa American Cemetery

Excellencies, Madam Mayor, members of the Diplomatic Corps, ladies and gentlemen, Sabah el kheir, bonjour, good morning.  I’m privileged to share in this special commemoration that pays tribute to the 22 million American Veterans who live among us today as well as to those who have passed on.  To my fellow Veterans here in the audience, I salute you and your dutiful service.

The stories of America’s Veterans are woven into the tapestry of U.S. history because America — for that matter the world — would not be what it is today without their willingness to serve.  We owe them our way of life, and our freedom to live, work, and play as we choose.  America’s Veterans share a common bond – their unwavering belief in the cause of freedom – a belief so strong that they have been willing to give their lives in its defense.

Active duty, National Guard, and Reserve, these Veterans have missed wedding anniversaries, the births of their children, and graduations. They have spent holidays on battlefields, on the high seas, and in the air.  More than Veterans from any other nation, they have deployed to foreign lands across the globe to liberate nations from tyranny, or to bring relief to countries devastated by natural disasters.  Young or old, they know all too well that carrying out these responsibilities comes with a heavy price.

And there is no heavier cost than the one borne by those Veterans who remain missing from past wars and have not returned home.  They are the ones we in the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency have the sacred obligation to search for, recover, and identify.  From World War II to Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, they number more than 81,000, of which, we estimate 38,000 to be recoverable.  And of these, over 7,000 are buried as Unknowns in U.S.-managed cemeteries across the globe.

Of the 834 still missing in North Africa, the preponderance — 556 to be exact — are in Tunisia, many associated with the Battle of Kasserine Pass.  Among those interred here in these hallowed grounds are 240 Unknowns, mostly from North Africa battles, but also some from the European Continent when cemeteries there were at capacity.

While the families of Americans missing from combat still lament over the loss of their loved one, the associated uncertainty exacerbates their grieving.  But, as you look all around you, the American Battle Monuments Commission, dutifully honors their service and supreme sacrifice in such a powerful way.

Throughout the world, ABMC also poignantly tells the American Veterans’ stories of service, achievement, and sacrifice.  Whether through interpretive centers, mosaic maps of military operations, Tablets of the Missing, or gleaming crosses and stars, these stories are memorialized for generations to come.  We in DPAA are proud of the steadfast partnership we have forged with the ABMC.  We, too, never forget to tell the stories of service and sacrifice of Veterans.  Please allow me to share three of them.

The last field recovery in Tunisia occurred in 2001.  Aircraft wreckage of a B-26 Marauder was discovered during a dredging operation of Lake Tunis.  The Government of Tunisia halted the dredging, contacted US authorities, and fully supported all phases of the underwater excavation.  Prior to recovering remains and personal effects, our team had correlated the aircraft to a 6-man crew which crashed in December 1942 after having been struck by anti-aircraft fire during a raid on El Aouina Air Base.

Among the crew identified was 1st Lt Robert Jenkins who was 21 years old and hailed from Charlotte, NC.  He served as the Bombardier/Navigator of the B-26, nicknamed “Horse Feathers”.  Lt Jenkins was an office clerk, unmarried, and had enlisted in the Army Air Forces only 11 months prior to his being killed in action.  More than 60 years after his fateful loss, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in 2003.  His 86-year old sister was able to attend.  Because 1Lt Jenkins was identified, you will find a bronze rosette next to his name here on these solemn Tablets of the Missing.

Also carved into these marble walls are two other names.  The first is 2d Lt William Knell from Baltimore, MD.  He entered the US Army Air Forces TWO days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and became a P-38 pilot.  On January 31, 1943, he was part of an escort mission for B-26 Marauders targeting Axis forces on the eastern coast of Tunisia.  However, his aircraft was one of three that did not return from the mission, and he was declared missing in action.

Following the end of the war, an American Graves Registration team found P-38 wreckage and remains 35 kilometers northeast of Douz.  Scientists were unable to associate the remains to any Airman, so it was determined to be unidentifiable and later buried as an Unknown in Plot D, Row 17, Grave 1 here in these sacred grounds.

Analyzing the historical and biological records from the loss against his wartime files, we believe there is a very high probability this particular Unknown will be identified as 2d Lt Knell.  The disinterment request was approved and is awaiting finalization of DPAA’s Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Tunisia.  Right now, the formal designation of this set of unknown remains is simply X-6167.  But once identified, X-6167 will become a person with a name, and that name will have a bronze rosette placed next to it.

Another name you will find on these Tablets, is 21-year-old Sergeant Richard Hammond, who died on February 17, 1943 in the vicinity east of Subaytilah.  He was born in Northwood, NH and enlisted in the US Army in October 1940.  Allow me to use the words of his halftrack crew of Company A, 601st Tank Destroyer Battalion.  First, Cpl Morrison wrote, “We were ordered to retreat, which was a good decision, except when B Company saw the 300 German tanks moving down on them, they just turned and kept going.  I didn’t blame them, for enemy tanks covering 150 degrees of the skyline can be very unnerving.”

Next, Technician 5th Grade Buffkin, as the driver of the halftrack, said in a post-war interview, “I was driving the half-track with Sgt Hammond in charge.  When I turned the vehicle around to withdraw, Sgt Hammond who had been standing on the ground jumped on the vehicle.  We had proceeded about 300 yards when a high explosive shell struck the side Sgt Hammond was riding. When the shell burst it stalled the vehicle.  I jumped out and saw him lying about 5 yards from the vehicle.  I started toward him when a heavy barrage started to fall all around us.  We had to depart by foot.  After the area where Sgt Hammond was killed was recaptured, we went in search of his body and did not find him.  It was a possibility that either the enemy or some civilian buried his remains.”

Seven months later, French railroad authorities informed the U.S. Army of an isolated burial on a French farm southeast of Subaytilah.  American Graves Registration recovered the remains along with a rifle, but again were unable to associate them with any missing Soldiers.  The remains were designated X-5137 and interred here in Plot B, Row 17, Grave 6.  Like the previous Unknown, DPAA received approval to disinter these remains for the purpose of identification.  There is a high probability for another bronze rosette.

With a worldwide mission that takes place wherever Americans fell in combat, DPAA’s 725 professionals bring diverse talents and skills to bear.  We have PhD historians who conduct research and intelligence analysts who comb through wartime records.  We have military mortuary affairs specialists, mountaineers, underwater divers, EOD technicians, and medics.  And we have a renown scientific staff, comprised of anthropologists, archeologists, and forensic dentists.

The POW/MIA mission has served as a tool of diplomacy and engagement.  Today, DPAA partners with 46 nations to search for missing Americans, not only from World War II, but also the Korean War, Vietnam War and Cold War.  Twelve of them have representatives here today, and all 46 readily acknowledge the humanitarian nature of this endeavor and provide critical access and valuable cooperation.  Many of them were allies who fought side-by-side with the US, but some were former enemies.  An example of the latter is Vietnam, whose cooperation on the POW/MIA mission began 10 years after the war’s end, and 10 years before the normalization of diplomatic relations; this partnering effort is in its 36th year.

As I mentioned, one of our most steadfast partners is the American Battle Monuments Commission.  Working collaboratively with ABMC and their cemeteries across Europe and in the Philippines, DPAA has a robust disinterment program to recover and identify Unknowns who are buried there.  We completed 88 disinterments in Europe this past fiscal year.  These World War II Unknowns were recovered from the battlefield, but limited scientific techniques and technology in the post-war era, prevented their identification.  Today, our historians and scientists compare historical and medical files to make a case to disinter.  Here at the North African American Cemetery, in addition to the two I mentioned, three other Unknowns have been approved for disinterment.

This past fiscal year, despite the continued impacts of the pandemic, DPAA accounted for 142 Americans, which means 142 families now have answers after decades of uncertainty.  A good number of these formerly rested as an Unknown at an ABMC Cemetery, so not only is DPAA appreciative of the ABMC team, but so are their families who now have long-sought answers.

Undoubtedly, the United States pursues this sacred mission with passion and rigor; it is a solemn obligation and a moral imperative.  In doing so, we are fulfilling a promise made to those we sent off to combat and did not return.  They as well as their families are owed a debt none of us can truly repay.  Our national commitment to search for and find our missing also serves as a beacon to Veterans whose comrades are missing, and to those in uniform today that this nation will not leave its warriors behind.

Appropriately carved into the wall behind me are the words: “In proud remembrance of the achievements of her sons and in humble tribute to their sacrifices.”  Deepest gratitude goes to the millions of American Veterans who were not daunted by the sacrifices required of them nor shirked the challenges they had to face.  They served dutifully for our collective good.  The tens of thousands of Unreturned Veterans did likewise, but also sacrificed their lives.

May God bless them and their families, may He bless all American Veterans, and may He shed his grace on the Republic of Tunisia and the United States of America.