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To You from Falling Hands

Official Commemoration, 1942 - Present

Official Commemoration

The Cambridge American Military Cemetery


‘There weren’t bodies or funerals’, recalled James Goodson, a commanding officer of the 336th Fighter Squadron based at Debden, ‘they just weren’t around anymore’. Such was the essence and experience of air combat in the wide blue yonder. Here one minute, gone the next. This was twentieth century war reduced to its brutal simplicity: a collision of machines which exacted a heavy price in human lives; futures lost amongst the ‘tumult in the clouds’. By the spring of 1943, those American aircew based in Suffolk were all too familiar with this price. These were the months during which the repeated attempts of the ‘Mighty Eighth’ to break into Fortress Europe exacted an increasingly heavy toll. Missions were launched; machines were lost; bodies were broken, or were disappeared. Understandably, therefore, it was in the latter half of 1943, just as the losses mounted, that American military figures based in East Anglia began contemplating how best to mourn and memorialise their losses. Various commemorative projects duly emerged, but only one was the work of what we might call ‘official’ culture: the American military cemetery established not far from Cambridge.


This was a location chosen because of its closeness to the major American bases in the region and also because the US military had identified what it felt was an especially attractive site – Madingley Hill, a place made famous by the poetry of Rupert Brooke, himself of course a warrior buried overseas in a foreign field. By 1944 the site at Madingley was under the control of the US military and had already begun to receive the bodies of the fallen. Once the war ended still more bodies would arrive as the American military authorities decided to consolidate all British burials into a single location (during the war burials had occurred in various places). The only exceptions were the result of those next of kin who opted to have their loved one’s remains returned to the United States, at government expense.


In the post-war period, with the number of permanent burials now known, the site was further developed under the supervision of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), a federal agency tasked with the construction and maintenance of overseas American war cemeteries and memorials. The ABMC had been created in the aftermath of the Great War and thus by the 1940s was well-experienced in discharging its duties. Indeed, it had previously constructed a cemetery in England, at Brookwood in Surrey, where are buried 468 members of the American Expeditionary Force.


The cemetery at Madingley was far bigger, however, than its predecessor in Surrey, and eventually contained 3,812 burials together with the names of another 5,127 Americans with no known grave, inscribed on the ‘wall of the missing’. But whilst different in size and scale, much of the symbolism remained consistent with that at Brookwood, especially in terms of how the dead were memorialised: each was buried with a white marble headstone in the form of either a Latin Cross or a Star of David. Elsewhere, an imposing Chapel was built to provide a space for solemn contemplation (it also includes inscriptions and cartography explaining the war fought from the region of the Eighth Air Force). The sum total was – and still is – an impressive expression of American commitment to honouring its fallen; a space for sombre remembrance and for tearful reflection. But, as the work of ‘official culture’, it also offers an equally assertive political statement. And this is a statement written amidst the turmoil and uncertainty of the immediate post-war period, and of the early Cold War (the cemetery was finally completed and dedicated in 1956). In its marble and masonry it speaks of a continued American commitment to Britain and to Europe, and of a continued American commitment to the defence overseas of ‘Freedom’. It is a statement of a sacrifice made, and of a price paid. And so perhaps, too, there is a hint here of a reminder to Britons of a blood debt incurred (a very similar statement made, of course, by those Commonwealth War cemeteries built in their hundreds in France and Flanders after 1918). The ABMC cemetery at Madingley is therefore a memorial funded, conceived and created by ‘official’ culture. It is the work of military officers and of a federal agency. It is a landscape of remembrance, but one which also carves in stone the ideas, ideals and politics of its makers, and of its moment.

 

On entering Madingley, the visitor first sees the Stars and Stripes with poet John McCrae’s words ‘To you from falling hands we throw the torch – be yours to hold it high’ surrounding the base. Dedicated July 16, 1956, the remodelled cemetery commemorated the defeat of the Axis, but also reaffirmed ideals to both allies and opponents during the Cold War.
On entering Madingley, the visitor first sees the Stars and Stripes with poet John McCrae’s words ‘To you from falling hands we throw the torch – be yours to hold it high’ surrounding the base. Dedicated July 16, 1956, the remodelled cemetery commemorated the defeat of the Axis, but also reaffirmed ideals to both allies and opponents during the Cold War.

 

‘Two F.W. 190 dove on us head on from about 30,000. We cut left with the rest of the formation, our lead and right wing had numerous holes, but no one hurt… Lt. Tripp did not return. Lt. Tipton & Nelson also did not return…This war is being “played for keeps.”’

1st Lt. Roland W. Myers, 385th Bomb Group, Diary, 1945 Diary Entry, March 2, 1945

 

The standardised burials of the dead at Madingley aim to downplay the individual tragedy of loss and emphasise a broader heroism in pursuit of collective national ideals.
The standardised burials of the dead at Madingley aim to downplay the individual tragedy of loss and emphasise a broader heroism in pursuit of collective national ideals.

 

The Wall of the Missing is guarded by four servicemen (a soldier, sailor, airman and coastguardman) by the sculptor Wheeler Williams. Wheeler was a conservative who supported the House Un-American Affairs Committee investigations during the 1950s and opposed the censure of Joseph McCarthy in 1954. He did not approve of modern sculpture that strayed from conventional to more experimental styles.
The Wall of the Missing is guarded by four servicemen (a soldier, sailor, airman and coastguardman) by the sculptor Wheeler Williams. Wheeler was a conservative who supported the House Un-American Affairs Committee investigations during the 1950s and opposed the censure of Joseph McCarthy in 1954. He did not approve of modern sculpture that strayed from conventional to more experimental styles.

 

The Airman figure on the wall of the missing. Madingley contains the graves of some 18 women, approximately 130 African Americans and 3 Native Americans. None of these groups are represented in the statuary.
The Airman figure on the wall of the missing. Madingley contains the graves of some 18 women, approximately 130 African Americans and 3 Native Americans. None of these groups are represented in the statuary.

 

‘In another flight Bergeron was hit and blew up. McDonald got hit… and could not stop the bleeding, tried to get altitude but was too weak. Last seen attempting to belly in. Last words “write my wife and tell her not to worry. I’ll be alright.” He sure had guts.’

2nd Lt Harry Brown, 353rd Fighter Group, Raydon Diary, May 29, 1944

The design of the Memorial Chapel is an excellent example of the ‘scrapped classical’ principles of clean, unornamented lines dictated by consulting architect to the ABMC, John Harbeson. The huge map of the United Kingdom on the side of the Memorial Chapel gives a strong symbol of wartime and Cold War unity. Religion and commemoration played an important role in maintaining symbols of unity in the post-war era when US and UK governments did not always agree.
The design of the Memorial Chapel is an excellent example of the ‘scrapped classical’ principles of clean, unornamented lines dictated by consulting architect to the ABMC, John Harbeson. The huge map of the United Kingdom on the side of the Memorial Chapel gives a strong symbol of wartime and Cold War unity. Religion and commemoration played an important role in maintaining symbols of unity in the post-war era when US and UK governments did not always agree.

 

Ghostly aircraft accompanied by Heavenly Angels in the ceiling mosaic in the Memorial Chapel assert divine approval for American air power and war winning technology.
Ghostly aircraft accompanied by Heavenly Angels in the ceiling mosaic in the Memorial Chapel assert divine approval for American air power and war winning technology.

 

On Memorial Day each year a service of remembrance is held.
On Memorial Day each year a service of remembrance is held.

 

Representatives and local groups from particular bases or areas are invited to attend and participate by laying a wreath.
Representatives and local groups from particular bases or areas are invited to attend and participate by laying a wreath.

 

 

Members of the 353rd Fighter Group visit Madingley in June 1995. Left to right are Inman, Seigmartin, Frahm, Fulton, Spriggs, Canipelli, Petticrew, Graham and Fulton.
Members of the 353rd Fighter Group visit Madingley in June 1995. Left to right are Inman, Seigmartin, Frahm, Fulton, Spriggs, Canipelli, Petticrew, Graham and Fulton.

 

The Second Air Division Memorial Library

Although largely based in Norfolk, the Second Air Division did have some fighter and bomber groups based in Suffolk. Major General William E. Kepner, one of the last commanders of the Second Air Division, had an eye for posterity and made sure his organisation left a lasting historical legacy. In 1945, he launched an appeal amongst the men of the Second Air Division that raised £20, 916 to provide a memorial. In the event, it would be some time before a Memorial Room was possible and by the time of the dedication ceremonies on June 13, 1963, the fund had risen to £34,640. After all expenses, there remained £19,566 that became an endowment for a unique living Memorial. The Memorial Room and Library provided many years of service in that capacity until a devastating fire caused by an electrical fault completely destroyed the room and much of its valuable contents on August 1, 1994. From the ashes of disaster rose a new Second Air Division Memorial Library in the new Forum building in central Norwich dedicated November 7, 2001.

 

Appeal letter to members of the Second Air Division from 1945 with a rather grand memorial on the cover.
Appeal letter to members of the Second Air Division from 1945 with a rather grand memorial on the cover.

 

Further details inside complete with wartime censors marks.
Further details inside complete with wartime censors marks.

 

Major General William E. Kepner gave official sanction to the appeal.
Major General William E. Kepner gave official sanction to the appeal.

 

A copy of the original trust deeds for the Second Air Division Memorial, 1945.
A copy of the original trust deeds for the Second Air Division Memorial, 1945.

 

The order of service from the 30th Anniversary re-dedication of the Second Air Division Memorial Room, June 13, 1993. Sadly, the original room would be completely destroyed by fire just over a year later on August 1, 1994.
The order of service from the 30th Anniversary re-dedication of the Second Air Division Memorial Room, June 13, 1993. Sadly, the original room would be completely destroyed by fire just over a year later on August 1, 1994.

 

The Commercialisation of Commemoration

The American presence in Britain during WWII, and particularly that of the Eighth Air Force, has generated a significant amount of interest in the years since. The popularity of some selected aspects of the ‘friendly invasion’ has generated a vast array of commercial products from commemorative tea towels to books through which people can engage with the past.   

As this special edition of Flypast Magazine from 2013 demonstrates, there is still a considerable thirst for publications covering the ‘Mighty Eighth’.
As this special edition of Flypast Magazine from 2013 demonstrates, there is still a considerable thirst for publications covering the ‘Mighty Eighth’.
 

 

In the UK, official and government backed bodies have also often sought to tap into public interest in the pursuit of wider economic and cultural policy. The first major project that attempted to turn shared history and commemoration into tourist dollars was the East Anglian Tourist Board. Themed around the fiftieth anniversary of the first American arrivals in 1992 and with Prince Andrew as a patron, the ‘Return to England’ campaign featured summer long events at locations important to the Americans.

 

The East Anglian Tourist Boards official brochure for the 1992 events with a foreword by their Patron, Prince Andrew sold for £4.50. The organisation slightly mistimed events as most American aerial units arrived from 1943 onward rather than 1942 and so celebrated the 50th anniversary the following year.
The East Anglian Tourist Boards official brochure for the 1992 events with a foreword by their Patron, Prince Andrew sold for £4.50. The organisation slightly mistimed events as most American aerial units arrived from 1943 onward rather than 1942 and so celebrated the 50th anniversary the following year.

 

The East Anglian Tourist Board produced several free brochures and even a newsletter for a time.
The East Anglian Tourist Board produced several free brochures and even a newsletter for a time.

 

Another East Anglian Tourist Board Brochure from 1992.
Another East Anglian Tourist Board Brochure from 1992.

 

The ‘Return to England’ Memorial arranged by the East Anglian Tourist Board in May 1992 located in the Rose Garden, Bury St. Edmunds.
The ‘Return to England’ Memorial arranged by the East Anglian Tourist Board in May 1992 located in the Rose Garden, Bury St. Edmunds.

 

In 2017, tourist promotion agencies deemed a twenty-five year gap enough to enable the launch of another appeal to entice American visitors to the region. Attracted by hopes of a convenient tie-in with a planned HBO project covering the American air war in Europe (now currently planned by Apple TV) and a £237,000 grant from the Discover England Fund (giving total funding of £387,000) the project had a more direct tourism business focus. The project manager wrote that through Duxford and 8th in the East ‘we have sourced a 30k+ database of potential visitors.’ They went on ‘This product is currently fragmented and disjointed. Key assets include the Imperial War Museum Duxford, Madingley American Cemetery and Memorial, 2nd Air Division Memorial Library…This project will give the key assets and associated products a cohesive, over-arching umbrella product so that it can be promoted and sold to US visitors.’ A lavish brochure, this time with forewords by HRH the Duke of Cambridge and Tom Hanks, and associated website and launch event completed the offer.

 

The Official 2017 brochure for the branded tourist offer from Visit East Anglia with forewards by HRH Duke of Cambridge and Tom Hanks and pull-out ‘Heritage Map’.
The Official 2017 brochure for the branded tourist offer from Visit East Anglia with forewards by HRH Duke of Cambridge and Tom Hanks and pull-out ‘Heritage Map’.

 

Press pack from the launch event of the ‘Friendly Invasion’ 2017.
Press pack from the launch event of the ‘Friendly Invasion’ 2017.

 

The currency of the ‘Friendly Invasion’ has also attracted professional heritage organisations keen to receive grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund to explore aspects of local history. In 2013 New Heritage Solutions, a Community Interest Company, received £575,000 to explore the friendly invasion in East Anglia over three years via community engagement projects, a website and various publications.

 

Brochure from 8th in the East’s two-day festival exploring the legacy of the ‘8th USAAF’ June 18-19, 2016.
Brochure from 8th in the East’s two-day festival exploring the legacy of the ‘8th USAAF’ June 18-19, 2016.

 

The Eighth in the East’s Heritage Guide from 2017.
The Eighth in the East’s Heritage Guide from 2017.

 

The American Air Museum at Duxford received £6.5 million in lottery grants in 1995 for construction and a further £980,000 in 2013 for a redevelopment project to help attract visitors. It also runs an effective campaign and website to attract donations and legacies from Americans with connections to wartime service in Britain.

Attendance figures are a concern to relevant organisations as those with a living memory of World War II die off and a new generation with no direct connection to wartime events reaches maturity. The American Battle Monuments Commission invested $6 million at Madingley in a new ‘Interpretation Centre’ designed to attract increased visitor numbers that opened in October 2013. Whilst a welcome attempt to communicate with new audiences, this inevitably brings concerns that these sites of remembrance are sacrificing some of their original purpose to become tourist destinations.

 

The 2013 ‘Visitor’s Centre’ at the Cambridge American Military Cemetery aiming to explain the significance of the site to those with no direct connection to the war dead commemorated there. The Federal Government placed itself in the centre of the original collective design, now it has withdrawn to the periphery.
The 2013 ‘Visitor’s Centre’ at the Cambridge American Military Cemetery aiming to explain the significance of the site to those with no direct connection to the war dead commemorated there. The Federal Government placed itself in the centre of the original collective design, now it has withdrawn to the periphery.

 

In recent years, the Cambridge American Military Cemetery has moved away from the collective ideals contained in its original design to focus on the individual service and sacrifice of individuals. The Visitor’s Centre opened in 2013 highlights some of these stories. The ‘Faces of Cambridge’ project of 2017 also placed photographs of the dead on their graves and took inspiration from similar activities in the Netherlands to help people, with no direct connection to the war, engage with the site.
In recent years, the Cambridge American Military Cemetery has moved away from the collective ideals contained in its original design to focus on the individual service and sacrifice of individuals. The Visitor’s Centre opened in 2013 highlights some of these stories. The ‘Faces of Cambridge’ project of 2017 also placed photographs of the dead on their graves and took inspiration from similar activities in the Netherlands to help people, with no direct connection to the war, engage with the site.

 

In a significant change, the centre now also commemorates stories of brave deeds of service personnel who survived the war.
In a significant change, the centre now also commemorates stories of brave deeds of service personnel who survived the war.

 

‘Dark Tourism’ or a twenty-first century relevance? Sightseeing buses in Cambridge bring visitors to Madingley, often just for a photo opportunity at the gates.
‘Dark Tourism’ or a twenty-first century relevance? Sightseeing buses in Cambridge bring visitors to Madingley, often just for a photo opportunity at the gates.

 

 

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