CAMBRIDGE, England — I was on the upper level of a double-decker bus when a sign caught my eye: “American cemetery.”
The bus stopped at the entrance and I got off to investigate. I had known generally that American personnel were buried in England, but had not realized so many of them were in this medieval university town.
On entering, I encountered a huge flagpole. A scaffold was around the base, and a sign announced it was being repainted, offering apologies that the flag was not flying.
The grounds are impeccably kept. In neat rows are 3,809 headstones marking remains of American service personnel of World War II.
A wall contains 5,127 names of missing servicemen, most of them lost in the Atlantic or in the air war against Germany. Four statues stand on the wall representing servicemen from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard.
Inside the wall is long reflecting pool; beyond that are the gravestones. They are identical Latin crosses, with a few Stars of David.
At one end of the cemetery is a visitor center. It was very quiet the day I arrived. At the other end is a memorial building. Its doors are affixed with bronze plaques and models of ships, guns and vehicles.
Inside the memorial are two rooms, one holding maps showing the progress of WWII campaigns against the Axis powers. The other is a chapel.
It’s a Christian chapel, with an altar, a cross, and candles. The ceiling shows angels and the outlines of warplanes. It’s a solemn place, and on a weekday in the summer, it was silent.
I wandered among the gravestones. By coincidence, that morning I had read a friend’s account of his visit to Auschwitz. I approached a Star of David marker and let my hand rest on the point of the star for a while.
Contemporary military burials allow for many expressions of faith or commitment. In Cambridge, everyone not Jewish lies under the same white cross. The cemetery was dedicated in 1956. It’s a memorial also to midcentury sensibilities.
I walked down a row, touching the top of each cross. I thought of the lives that were cut short, and I meditated on what an enormous commitment our nation made in confronting the utter evil and brutality of the Nazi regime.
I had found myself on American soil, on hallowed ground.
These men, had they lived, would have been of my father’s generation. I have lived long enough that I could have sons their age.
As I touched the gravestones in honor and respect, I realized that they were at the height of a small boy’s head, and I recognized that I had been patting them as though to reassure the souls of the dead that they were remembered by a grateful nation, and that things turned out all right.
I spent my childhood in a world at peace — an uneasy peace to be sure — secured by the sacrifices of the greatest generation.
My wife and I did not rush through the visit. It came as a sober surprise amid a carefree summer vacation.
It is a beautiful and contemplative place. Silently we boarded the bus.