By ALAN?WHITING, PhD
East Anglia is the area roughly north and east of London but west of the North Sea. Up through Medieval times it was largely swampland, drained only in the 17th century by immigrant Dutch (who by then had learned how to deal with wet lands). This means it is flat and the soil is rich, making it a good agricultural region.
In turn, this means that if you are involved in a desperate war with people across the Channel, it's a good place to build airfields. The traces of the many constructed in haste in 1940-5 are often still there: some are regional airports, some found use in the Cold War, more are dotted lines on the Ordnance Survey map with Airfield (Disused) noted. Many are gone without a trace.
Martin E. Borgeson Jr.
You can find a more durable relic of the war years in Cambridge, the old university city, in the pub The Eagle. There, while you enjoy the beer (which is pretty good), you can see the ceiling on which bomber crews burned their names and dates with cigarette lighters. As things go these bits of graffiti may outlast many more substantial signs of the gigantic conflict-they bring tourists, and so are carefully preserved. But three miles west of the city, on the road leading to the village of Madingley, there is a formal memorial. You'll see signs to the "Madingley American Cemetery;" officially it's the "Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial."
I think the best time to visit this place is during a gloomy day from about November through February, when the sun rises late and sets early; if you can, choose a late afternoon with a low, gray sky spitting rain.
Then you should imagine clumsy aircraft lumbering into the air and disappearing into the clouds-and often, terribly often, not coming back. This is the hard part, to imagine the world of 1942 and 1943. For anyone used to the awesome American power of 1944-45 and the postwar years, it's very difficult to recall that in that desperate time we were on the short end of the odds. It was by no means clear to those doing the front-line fighting that we would eventually win. So many brave men had already gone out against the enemy, in France and Greece and the Philippines and China, and failed. This is a situation where forgetting can help you remember.
This time I visited on the 12th of November, by chance a day sandwiched between the 11th and Remembrance Sunday. The 11th is now Veterans' Day in the U.S.; in England it's still remembered as the day the shooting stopped. For us, the First World War was a brief, bloody adventure; for England, it was a long, terrible ordeal.
It doesn't matter that a young woman wearing the symbolic poppy on her coat is now four generations away from direct memory of that time. There is an ancient grief here, before which someone from a younger land should be respectful. Remembrance Sunday is the Sunday nearest the eleventh, set aside for formal memorials, including the silence at 11 a.m. As a veteran myself I had the honor this year of ringing the eleven strokes on the bell at 11 o'clock, at the church of St. Edward, King and Martyr, in the center of Cambridge.
The Madingley cemetery does not give the impression of being a very big place, but it has the graves of some 3,812 people. Most are servicemen, a few are civilians; most are men, a few are women. The majority served in the bomber squadrons stationed in the area during the war years. In addition, there is a wall with the names of 5,127 missing in action, largely from the Battle of the Atlantic; their remains are somewhere at the bottom of that cold ocean. They are remembered here. Add up those numbers and think on them for a moment.
This visit I was on a mission from a good friend of mine, Commander George H. Burns III, a native of Dunkirk-Fredonia. He, and another Dunkirk native, Richard Titus have taken it upon themselves to compile the most complete possible record of all the World War II veterans from his home area. He had traced several to the Madingley cemetery, and asked me to find their graves and get pictures - and pay appropriate respects.
One, Seaman First Class Martin E. Borgeson Jr., is remembered on the wall of the missing. He was a member of the armed guard on the merchant ship SS IRENE DU PONT, which was torpedoed on March 18, 1943 by U-600 in the Atlantic.
Sgt. Donald G. Nichols, a B-24 bomber crewman, lies under a cross like many others in the cemetery. He was killed on April 11, 1944 on a mission over Oschersleben, Germany. Next to him is a Lieutenant Colonel in the OSS-the Office of Strategic Services, spies and saboteurs, active in occupied Europe.
I hope that whoever he left behind was eventually allowed to know what he was doing during the war. It reminded me that there were many people risking, and some losing, their lives in many different ways during the conflict.
Second Lieutenant Charles A. Meadows, another airman, lies not far from the flagpole that is the focus of the rows of graves. On his grave there were fresh flowers. I do not know whether he made some friends here who have kept the faith for nearly seventy years, or perhaps they were arranged from home; but someone remembered. He was killed on July 13, 1944 when his flak damaged plane crashed while trying to make it back to the field in Metfield, England.
At each place I said a prayer. What I said - well, let it be between them, and me, and God.
Although it was a November day, it was not really gloomy. It was dry and there were even moments of sunlight breaking through the clouds, illuminating the colorful leaves of the trees and brightening the soft green hills beyond. This is still farmland, still a peaceful countryside. I couldn't help but think that this would be a good place to rest when your work is done.
Dr. Alan Whiting is a native of Seattle. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1979. After graduation he served ten years active duty as a shipboard officer in the U.S. Navy. He received his PhD in Astronomy from Cambridge University in England in 1997. He taught Physics at the U.S. Naval Academy from 1997 to 2001. He conducted research at an observatory in Chile from 2001 to 2005. Doctor Whiting now sails the world as an officer in the merchant marine, and writes. His latest book is "Hindsight and Popular Astronomy" (World Scientific, 2011)