Today is Memorial Day, a day traditionally dedicated to those who have died in the service of our nation. If you’d like to read a good history of how Memorial Day came to be, you can read one at the official Memorial Day website here. While the eyes of our nation typically turn to places like Arlington National Cemetery, there are other places around the world where American servicemen and women have been laid to rest. And while I’ve toured Arlington, and have been deeply moved by the experience, there were two other places that had an even more profound effect upon me.
CAMBRIDGE AMERICAN CEMETERY AND MEMORIAL (Website Link)
When I was a young A-10 pilot, stationed at RAF Bentwaters/Woodbridge in the United Kingdom in the late 1980′s, I took every opportunity I could to get out and tour the historic areas of both England and the continent. On a day trip to Cambridge, England I spent some time at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial. Here’s the description from the website:
The Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial site in England, 30.5 acres in total, was donated by the University of Cambridge. It lies on a slope with the west and south sides framed by woodland. The cemetery contains the remains of 3,812 of our military dead; 5,127 names are recorded on the Tablets of the Missing. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified. Most died in the Battle of the Atlantic or in the strategic air bombardment of northwest Europe.
This view of the cemetery shows the wall in the background with the list of those missing.
Why did this move me as much as it did – even more than Arlington? Well, at the time I was stationed in England, the Cold War was still underway and we were on a pseudo wartime footing while stationed in the UK. Although World War II had ended over forty years previously, England was still an occupied country. There were several US bases throughout the nation, planes routinely flew 250-500 feet over the countryside on training missions and live surface-to-air missiles sites were active on the east coast of the UK, pointed over the English Channel and North Sea for the Red Threat, which thankfully never came. There was nothing in my previous life that prepared me for this. The entire nation had not been “at peace” for over fifty years. And then, when I arrived at this cemetery, I saw one small glimpse of the price our nation had paid to keep not only keep Americans free, but also to keep Britons free as well. The men and women resting here never made it home, instead they were laid to rest in the land they died to defend. Their mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and sisters and brothers and sons and daughters had to leave the US and come to England to pay their final respects. Even more of these men and women were never even recovered, so it is their names only which are memorialized. As a serviceman, one of the things you are constantly aware of is the fact that you may be called upon to give your life in the defense of your country or our allies. To look out over so many who did so and were buried so far from home touched me very deeply.
And then there was Omaha Beach.
NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY AND MEMORIAL (Website Link)
1990 was my last year stationed in Europe. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Cold War had ended, Germany was reuniting and Saddam Hussein hadn’t even invaded Kuwait yet – there was sense of general euphoria. I was touring continental Europe and decided to swing through Normandy, France and see Omaha Beach before driving up the coast to Calais to catch the ferry back to England. I had read quite a lot of World War II history, so I thought I was quite the authority on D-Day. But it was one thing to read about it and quite another to see where it had taken place. The first thing I saw was the series of bunkers overlooking Omaha Beach, and you didn’t have to be an expert in ground tactics to figure out that those on the high ground, behind tons of concrete, had a clear advantage over those below them, in the open, with nothing to shield them. (Keep in mind that the movie “Saving Private Ryan” had not been made yet.)
And then, within walking distance, was the cemetery and memorial. Here’s a picture along with the description from the website.
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France is located on the site of the temporary American St. Laurent Cemetery, established by the U.S. First Army on June 8, 1944 and the first American cemetery on European soil in World War II. The cemetery site, at the north end of its half mile access road, covers 172.5 acres and contains the graves of 9,387 of our military dead, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. On the Walls of the Missing, in a semicircular garden on the east side of the memorial, are inscribed 1,557 names. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified.
This one hit me especially hard. After seeing the beach where the fighting took place, my mind had naturally wondered about the human cost to attain the objective and then, just a few steps away, that cost was displayed. Rows upon rows of young men and women, many of whom were interred mere feet from where they fell – mere feet from the beach head they gave their lives for – mere feet from the place where freedom came to Europe once again. To say that it was moving to behold this place is an understatement of colossal proportions.
So on this Memorial Day, as you enjoy your family and the burgers and hot dogs, and as you honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, say a special prayer for the souls and families of those who never made it back to American soil. And if you get the chance to spend sometime abroad, make it point to visit places like this. It puts the freedom and liberty we enjoy as Americans in a different perspective.