By Nathaniel Rome, Special Contributor
Every time I visited my grandparents in Massachusetts, my family would cross a bridge dedicated to my great uncle. Aside from the small sign that announced “Oscar Rome Memorial Bridge” and noted his death in World War II, I knew little about Oscar. However, over the past year, I researched Oscar Rome’s life and experiences in the war and — this summer — visited the town in rural Slovenia where he was killed.
Oscar Rome — my great uncle — joined the U.S. Army in the fall of 1940 when he was 21 years old. His experiences in the war were in the Mediterranean Theater; he participated in the North Africa campaign, the invasion of Italy, and the strategic bombing of Nazi occupied Europe. He was a right waist gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress, and flew 38 missions across occupied Europe, from France to Greece.
On 19 March 1944, Oscar’s B-17 departed Amendola Air Base in Italy along with 27 other bombers with orders to destroy a weapons factory in Klagenfurt, Austria. While en route over Yugoslavia, the formation of bombers was engaged by German aircraft. Oscar’s plane was shot down by a German Me-109 fighter, killing Oscar and 7 others. 2 airmen survived and become German POWs.
At the time, information was scarce. The U.S. Army could only report the 10 airmen as “Missing in Action.” The family members of the 10 airmen wrote to each other extensively, sharing news, hopes, and sympathies. Oscar’s adopted mother, in a letter to my grandfather, wrote: “I think of him until my brain starts to crack…I have cried enough tears and sighed enough sighs to build a bridge for him to walk home to us.” After 20 agonizing months, the Army confirmed that Oscar had been killed in action.
For seven decades, my great grandparents and my grandparents preserved hundreds of letters written to, from, and about Oscar during the war. It is through these letters that I became interested in Oscar’s story.
I soon realized I was not the only one interested in Oscar’s story. The small Slovenian town where Oscar’s plane crashed, Andraž nad Polzelo, had erected a plaque to Oscar and his comrades in 2014. Moreover, they hold an annual remembrance ceremony which is attended by the Slovenian President.
With the help of the U.S. Embassy and local authorities, my family and I was able to visit Andraž nad Polzelo. After flying to Ljubljana, we drove to the town with the U.S. Embassy’s Defense Attaché, LTC Thodoropoulos. We were graciously hosted by Mayor Jože Kužnik and a local expert on the plane, Igor Verdev. We visited the memorial to the American airmen, which was near the cemetery where the townspeople buried the deceased airmen after the crash.
Next, we went to crash site. The trees had grown back, but the ground was still scarred with the imprint of the plane’s engines and fuselage. Remarkably, there was still some wreckage from the plane — 73 years later — just below the undergrowth. We collected part of a machine gun Oscar may have used and some plexiglass from a window. We were able to bring these pieces home to my 93 year old grandfather — Oscar’s brother .
The larger parts of the plane had already been collected. Some of them are at the Park of Military History Pivka where they will be on display in a new exhibition on American planes downed in Slovenia. We were given a private tour by Boštjan Kurent, including a look at the new exhibition, which is slated to open in early summer of this year.
We were also hosted by the U.S. Ambassador at his residence in Ljubljana to discuss our visit.
The week after our visit the annual ceremony at the memorial was held to commemorate the sacrifice of the airmen and to strengthen the U.S.-Slovenia relationship. The event was called the “Day of Slovenian-American Friendship and Alliance” and was attended by the President of Slovenia Borut Pahor, the Defense Minister of Slovenia Andreja Katič, U.S. Senator John McCain, the U.S. Ambassador Brent Hartley, and other high profile guests.
Speaking at the ceremony, Senator McCain said: “I am sure that the families of the crew take great comfort in knowing that the memory of their loved ones lives on in this place.” We do.
Our family is so grateful to all those who have helped to remember Oscar Rome’s sacrifice: the Slovenian Government, the U.S. Embassy, the people of Andraž nad Polzelo, and countless others. The opportunity to visit where Oscar’s plane went down and the knowledge that many still remember and honor his sacrifice is deeply moving and humbling.
And thank you to Oscar Rome. 73 years after making the ultimate sacrifice, you are not forgotten.
Nathaniel Rome is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying International Relations.