But a few miles outside of Cambridge in a little town called Madingley there is a stark white, modern chapel sitting in the middle of a vast cemetery of white crosses. This is the American Cemetery and Chapel, a little known burial ground for many of our WWII pilots and crew of the planes that left England in the bombing raids over Germany.
In 1985, Jerry and I took a month-long trip to England, spending three weeks on the road seeing as much as we could and then a fourth week in London where we explored the city. We made up our minds ahead of time that we would confine our visit to England and Wales, hoping that some day in the future we could do Scotland and Ireland the same way. We purchased a book called Touring Guide to Britain, published by the English Automobile Association and plotted our three weeks on the road, using that as our guide. It was in this book that I saw a simple notation for the American Cemetery and decided to include it in our plans when we neared Cambridge.
My Uncle Bert had piloted a B17 on bombing raids headed to Germany from a RAF base in that part of England in 1944, and because he had asked us to see if there was anything left of the old air base when we were in the neighborhood, I was primed to be emotionally involved. My eyes misted over as I looked at all those white crosses, hundreds and hundreds of them. My uncle Bert came home safely; these men weren’t so lucky.
The chapel was long and narrow and was positioned east to west. Just inside the chapel entryway was an area of displays and maps, including a 540 square foot map showing Atlantic sea and air routes used by American forces during World War II. The chapel building was built with floor to ceiling glass panels alternating with marble pillars along each wall. Each panel had on it four or five stained-glass replicas of the official seal of one of the then 48 states, a tribute to the United States whose sons lay buried in the cemetery. The entryway to the altar at the far end was framed with a wooden partition on which were the moving words, “INTO THY HANDS, O LORD”
But it wasn’t until I looked up at the ceiling that I came very close to losing my composure. The entire ceiling was a sky-blue mosaic, with images of every kind of American airplane used in the battles flying toward the east. And interspersed among the airplanes were angels, their hands outstretched ahead of them, their wings behind, accompanying those airplanes. On the ceiling over the altar was a huge gold mosaic sun with rays of gold radiating out of it and toward which the airplanes and angels were flying.
It took me a while before I could compose myself enough to be able to focus my camera. I got what I thought would be a decent shot, and it was then that I saw the inscription that ran along both sides of the mosaic: “To the men of the United States Army Air Force who from these friendly shores flew their final flight.” I was undone.
During the next three weeks Jerry and I saw enough to last us a lifetime and still we didn’t see all that we wanted to. But now, almost 25 years after our visit to Madingley and the American Cemetery, I remember this time and place as if it were yesterday. And it still has the power to move me.
Reprinted from March 2009