Arlington National Cemetery has no parallel, yet for some families, it’s not enough. If yours is not resting in Arlington, then the national treasure takes a back seat to the bit of earth that matters more to you. As many people as Arlington serves, there are large U.S. cemeteries elsewhere that are profound in the numbers they protect. This becomes clear when the enormity of the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial assaults your senses. Taking their final rest in Cambridge, England, you’ll find 3,812 U.S. service members – veterans of World War II. Etched in stone are another 5,127 names – their remains have not yet been located. Standing alone above this touching display is an American flag to honor the fallen men and women who never made it home.
This isn’t what you’d expect in Great Britain. The nation sacrificed much of its own – service members, civilians, personal property, historic landmarks. The U.S. lives lost were many and traffic, but for Britain, the war was on its doorstep. Nonetheless, the nation is proud to recognize the help it received from the United States. And, to call Britain’s show of appreciation substantial would be an understatement.
Despite lying in Cambridge, the American Cemetery and Memorial is on U.S. soil. The employees, though locals, draw their checks from the U.S. government. Their hard work – it’s evident from the beginning of your first conversation with the staff – has little to do with compensation. As curator Arthur Brookes put it, “It’s not hard work at all, really.” Sweeping his hand across the endless rows of cross-marked graves, he emphasized, “They did the hard work.” He means it, as demonstrated by the piercing intensity of his eyes.
More than 70,000 people come to the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial every year, according to Brookes, including approximately 300 families of the fallen, though age is causing direct next of kin visitorship to shrink. On site, family members and other guests can learn about the U.S. service members buried and listed on the wall. Some names have near-universal recognition, such as Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., older brother to President John F. Kennedy. Leon R. Vance, Jr., whose name stands out in gold, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Of course, the most important name is the one you’re looking for – a fact driven home for me when I saw an older gentleman run his fingers through the grooves of a specific name.
High-profile or known only to family, there is only one organizing principle to the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial: family. Every attempt is made to bury brothers side-by-side. The very existence of this policy proves its necessity, unfortunately.
Brookes understands that it’s easy to be consumed by the gravity of the environment, which is why he tries to make it as uplifting as possible. While the loss of life is to be lamented, the courage and broader sense of purpose should be celebrated. These are soldiers, sailors, airman and Marines committed to defending freedom – and they succeeded, even if they did not make it home. Nonetheless, the nature of the cemetery centers on sacrifice, weighing down the positive messages conveyed.
The closest thing to good news on the wall is a bronze button affixed to the left of a name. It means that a service member’s remains have been recovered and positively identified. The last update came in 2003, when the remains of nine B-24 crew members were discovered in France. They were sent to Arlington National Cemetery but continue to be honored in England, as well.
Tying the cemetery together is the chapel, which sits at the far end of a reflecting pool that begins near the flag pole. Inside, you can see how the air, sea and land wars progressed in Europe. An altar sits beneath American flags, catching your eye as soon as you walk in the door.
Obviously, there is no bad time to visit the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, though some are designed to be more powerful. Major holidays are marked with special treatment, and nothing is allowed to get in the way. A series of Memorial Day ceremonies, this year, was met with driving rain. To Brookes, it wasn’t a problem. He’d lost track of how many pairs of pants and shoes he used. “It’s nothing compared to what they went through.”
Disclosure: Visit Britain picked up the tab for this, and British Airways paid for the flights. I’m glad they did: more Americans need to know about the Cambridge American Ceremony and Memorial.