In the Footsteps of the Mighty Eighth
A writer searches southern England for traces of a legendary World War II air force.
- By John Fleischman
- Air & Space magazine, March 2007
Alamy; Black & white photographs: national archives; color photographs: john fleischman
(Page 4 of 4)
Yet the buried and the missing at Cambridge represent only a fraction of the Eighth’s 26,000 dead. Approximately 135,000 Eighth personnel flew combat missions. That means an Eighth air crew member had roughly a one-in-five chance of dying. Factor in another 29,500 air crewmen who were shot down, ending up as POWs and internees. Suddenly, the scale of the Eighth’s sacrifice becomes terribly clear.
I walked on, following the curved rows of graves; it is a beautiful place. The design is American—both the architects and the landscape architects were from Boston—but the velvet grass and lush rose gardens are the work of the English climate and English gardeners.
The cemetery is laid out in a great quarter-circle, almost like the shape described by the hands of a clock reading three o’clock. Along the hour hand runs the Wall of the Missing, the names cut in Portland sandstone. Along the minute hand runs an avenue of trees. The rows of graves sweep in arcs between them. The white marble crosses and stars of David are washed every month. When the inscriptions become weathered, the stones are replaced.
The combat air crew buried here are those who came home mortally wounded, crashed on English soil, or whose bodies were recovered from the sea. Here also lie Eighth Air Force ordnance handlers killed in bomb-loading accidents. Here too are the Eighth’s postal clerks, company bakers, and Women’s Army Corps members, dead of infections, car crashes, V-bombs, and natural causes. The headstones make no distinctions.
I had brought, from the museum at Thorpe Abbotts, the name of Sergeant George J. Brassell, 418th Bomb Squadron, 10th Bomb Group, who is buried in Section F, Row 3, Grave 108. His airplane, a flak-damaged B-17 named Dorhelcia, went down in the North Sea on December 22, 1943. Brassell’s body was the only one to wash ashore. The other nine crew members are remembered on the Wall of the Missing.
Brookes told me that when family members visit or request a photo of the stone, the staff presses wet sand gathered from Omaha Beach in Normandy into the inscription to make visible the name, rank, unit, date of death, and home state. The harmless sand is left in place. The rain carries it softly away.