Cambridge – American Military Cemetery

We drove out of Cambridge, past my old home in Barton,  then up to Comberton, Madingley Road and the American Cemetery.

Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial is place which I have never visited, despite all my years living less than ten miles away. The website is here – and you can see it is run by the American Battle Monuments Commission. You might want to ponder why they have a “Battle Monuments Commission” and we have the “Commonwealth War Graves Commission”. It is just beside the old A45, the A1303, west of Cambridge, grid reference TL 405595.

The first thing that grabs your attention is a huge flagpole. The site wasn’t very lively on a cold January afternoon, but there was an open Visitors’ Centre with displays, films and panels – we could, and should, have spent a lot longer there. I sat and pondered afterwards – thanks Rob for the photo (and for others on this blog).

The cemetery was built after the Second World War, on land given by the University of Cambridge. 3,812 Americans are buried here – men (I assume they are all men, I can’t see any mention of women in the guide) who served in the Battle of the Atlantic, who flew from the airfields of East Anglia, and fought into Europe. In the seven areas of the cemetery there are 24 unknown people, 80 Jews who have the Star of David, and 3,732 with a Latin Cross. The backs of the headstones are marked with the service number of those who have died.

On the south side of the cemetery the Great Mall stretches from the flagpole to the Memorial Building. Along the south side is the Wall of the Missing. It names 5,127 lost, missing, or buried at sea. Bronze rosettes identify those whose remains have subsequently been recovered and identified. Four statues – a soldier, airman, sailor, and Coast Guardsman – stand guard. One of the names, Alton G., is Glen Miller, Major, US Army Forces, who vanished on 15 December 1944.

The Memorial Building is built from Portland Stone. On the south side is a map of the United Kingdom depicting each location where an American unit of battalion size or larger was stationed during WW2. The map is 30 feet long and 18 feet wide. You can see how many bases there were in Suffolk. There is a lovely book by John Appleby called Suffolk Summer – details here. He was an American serviceman who explored Suffolk, and its churches, in the last summer of WW2. I haven’t read it for a few years – have a look here for more information. The main doors are made of teakwood, with bronze representations of military equipment and naval vessels.

The mosaic inside is what gave me the wow-factor as I entered the Hall. It is by the American Francis Scott Bradford and depicts the Archangel trumpeting the arrival of the Resurrection, with the Last Judgement on the wall behind the altar. On the ceiling itself we have “ghostly aircraft accompanied by mourning angels making their final flight” to quote the guide. “The deep blue of the ceiling denotes the depth of infinity, while lighter colors reflect the light of Heaven breaking through the earthly layers of the sky. A lighter nimbus surrounding each of the single-engine, twin-engine and four-engine aircraft separates the from earthly forces whole they carry the souls of the men who perished in the skies.”

The map on the south wall is entitled “The Mastery of the Atlantic – the Great Air Assault”. It was designed by the American artist Herbert Gute from data prepared by the American Battle Monuments Commission. It shows the principal sea routes across the Atlantic, and depicts aircraft which operated in the anti-submarine campaign and the Strategic Bombing Campaign by the USAF and RAF. Air lanes indicate routes from the UK and Italy to various targets. Having pondered on A Matter of Life and Death as I looked at the ceiling and the depictions of ghostly planes, I pondered Casablanca as I looked at this map.

On the north wall are emblems from all the different states – Kentucky and California caught my eye. (Especially the warmth of California on a January day, and on a snowy day in February when I’m writing this up).

By the entrance a notice said that at 4.30 the flag would be lowered. I wondered if there would be a cohort of Marines (I’ve been watching too much West Wing), but a chap came out of his office and said “hello”. Where were we from? What did I do? Did I want to help him take down the flag? I felt honoured (correct spelling, I’m English, not American) – even if, at one point, I seemed to be raising the flag rather than lowering it! I then helped to fold it, and it is a large flag. In the current age, where it is difficult to feel much connection to the USA and little sympathy for their President (and I hope any Americans who read this blog will not take offence), it was a very special moment. Here is Julie – northernreader – wheeling away.

Next time I watch a war time film (even if it’s one of those where the Americans won the War – the sort that really annoyed my father-in-law), or the lovely Dad’s Army where the Americans turn up (“you were late for the last war, and you’re late for this one”), or a funeral ends with Glen Miller’s music, I will remember my visit to this place.

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