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England's ancient city Cambridge continues to thrive

Aug. 02, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

On the east coast of England are the fen lands of East Anglia, and in the heart of these lies the ancient city of Cambridge. It is a quiet city, a university city which boasts one of the oldest colleges in the world. Together with the university in the city of Oxford, it forms the British equivalent of our own Harvard and Yale.

People have lived here for more than 3,000 years, surrounded by miles of flat land dotted with many lakes and split by several rivers. It is a peaceful part of the world, but it has not always been so. During the Second World War, its very flatness and its proximity to Continental Europe made it an ideal base for heavy bomber aircraft.

From 1942 onward, the United States sent its young men and their airplanes here to carry out daring, daylight raids across the North Sea into the German occupied continent.

Unfortunately, daylight bombing inevitably meant casualties and more than one B17 or B24 Flying Fortress came limping back to this flat land with the bodies of crew members killed in action aboard. In 1943, to accommodate these mounting casualties, Cambridge University donated 30 acres of land at the village of Madingley, some three miles north of the city, to be a temporary resting place for the war dead.

Soon the cemetery was used for most of the American servicemen and women who died in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland as well as for some of the casualties brought home from North Africa, Sicily and Italy. After the war the American Battle Monuments Commission took over, employed architects and landscapers and the cemetery was officially dedicated in 1956.

Today it contains 3,809 pristine white headstones arranged in arcs. These mark the final resting place of 3,812 Americans who made the final sacrifice in World War II. Most of the men interred here are air crew who died in the skies over Europe and naval or merchant marine personnel who were killed in the North Atlantic convoys but there are also many soldiers who succumbed to their wounds.

The cemetery is approached along the A1303 St.Neots road. A hundred yards on either side of the entrance is a stone marker simply labeled "Cambridge American Cemetery." There is a small parking lot here adjacent to a low, grey building which is all that can be seen from the road.

Once inside, one is aware of an aura of peace and tranquility broken only by the twittering of birds in the trees of the Madingley Woods that surround the cemetery on two sides. Immediately behind the entrance is the flagpole platform where the stars and stripes fly every day of the year. Turn right from here, and you will see the Great Mall leading eastward with sidewalks of rose-colored gravel either side of a series of oblong, black pools that reflect the image of the white chapel at the far end.

The Great Mall is the best place to look and see the neatly trimmed lawn and the curves of the burial plots to the north. Turn to the south and there are the Tablets of the Missing, a long wall of white marble inscribed with the names of 5,127 men, the majority of whom died in the icy waters of the North Atlantic or whose aircraft did not make it back and whose bodies were never found. This wall is symbolically guarded by the statues of four American servicemen created by the American artist Wheeler Williams.

At the east end of the wall and the reflecting pool is the memorial and chapel that contains two huge military maps, stained glass windows bearing the state seals and military decorations, and a mosaic ceiling memorial honoring the dead of our air forces.

In addition to the members of the American forces who lie here there are another 18 American citizens who volunteered to serve with the British or Canadian air forces, a single officer of the Royal Canadian Air Force and one who served with the British Royal Armored Corps.

Rupert Brooke, a British poet who died in WWI, wrote a poem that contains the line "There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England." At Madingley, there is a corner of a foreign field that is forever America's. It is a beautiful place, a tranquil place, a suitable resting place for heroes. If any of you ever happen to be in the area it is more than worth your time to visit.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.