In the Footsteps of the Mighty Eighth

A writer searches southern England for traces of a legendary World War II air force.

A tour of Eighth Air Force history wouldn't be complete without a visit to Duxford, which has an operational control tower and Sally B, a still-flying B-17. (Alamy)
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England is knee deep in history, and wading through it in a search for the Eighth Air Force can take you to unexpected depths. It can lead to All Saints’ Church, in the village of Carleton Rode, which has a glorious stained-glass window commemorating 17 U.S. airmen killed when their two B-24s collided overhead in November 1944. It can lead to pubs like The Swan in Lavenham, where crews from the 487th Bomb Group signed the walls. Sixty years later, the signatures are still there, safe under glass. (The Swan is now part of a swank hotel, its staff and patrons too young to remember the pub’s wartime customers.) Everywhere I went, there was the East Anglia summer sky, a turbulent kaleidoscope of sudden blue, sudden cloud, and sudden squalls.

The rain lifted for the short drive north from Duxford to Cambridge. I exited the highway just west of the university city, into the leafy suburb of Madingley, where I was bound for the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, the resting place for 3,812 American servicemen and -women (along with a scattering of U.S. War Department employees, Red Cross workers, Merchant Marine sailors, and one war correspondent) whose bodies were recovered in the United Kingdom during World War II. Another 5,126 are listed on the Wall of the Missing.

The American Cemetery is operated by the U.S. government’s smallest independent overseas agency, the American Battle Monuments Commission. By law, the cemetery’s superintendent and his assistant are American, but the other staffers are local, including cemetery associate Arthur Brookes. No one knows more about the dead and the missing honored at Cambridge than Brookes does. He knows where to find bandleader Glenn Miller on the Wall of the Missing, listed as Major Alton G. Miller, USAAF Band. There is the name of John F. Kennedy’s elder brother, Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy, cut in stone among the U.S. Navy missing. Buried here are 17 women, 32 civilians, and someone from every state in the Union, plus the Panama Canal Zone and Puerto Rico. Twenty-four of the burials are unknown.

Brookes says that the American Battle Monuments Commission D-Day cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy draws the most visitors—three million a year—but the American Cemetery at Cambridge, which is the only U.S. World War II cemetery in the United Kingdom, still gets 150,000 visitors a year. Roughly 70 percent of the burials drew from the U.S. Army Air Forces, and most of those came from the Eighth Air Force. On the memorial for the missing, however, the percentage of Eighth members is much higher: It was in the nature of the Eighth’s long-distance bombing campaign, says Brookes, that many fell unseen into remote country, coastal waters, or their burning targets below. By war’s end, more than 10,000 Americans had been buried here. In 1945, the U.S. government offered the next of kin of deceased overseas personnel the option of repatriation; about 60 percent accepted.

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.

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