Thousands of American military personnel are being remembered in Memorial Day ceremonies at a cemetery that sits on a quiet hillside near the University of Cambridge in Great Britain.
While normally a place of stillness and reflection, the Cambridge American Cemetery is hosting a number of U.S. and British dignitaries on Memorial Day to honor 3,812 U.S. war dead who are buried there, along with more than 5,000 names listed as missing in action.
The university donated about 30 acres of land during World War II to be used as a temporary cemetery. After the war, the American Battle Monuments Commission — an independent U.S. government agency — selected Cambridge as the site for America’s permanent World War II cemetery and war memorial in the United Kingdom.
Most of the U.S. military personnel buried at the Cambridge American Cemetery died in the Battle of the Atlantic, or during the strategic air bombardment of northwest Europe.
Retired Army Maj. Matthew Brown is the superintendent of the cemetery, a position he describes as “a great honor but also a very big responsibility,” as it involves ensuring the fallen U.S. troops in his care are treated with dignity and respect.
“The responsibility is that I’m doing it overseas,” Mr. Brown said in an interview with The Washington Times. “It’s something of an expression of our American identity in front of a foreign audience.”
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The cemetery is one of 26 around the world under the supervision of the American Battle Monuments Commission, which was created after World War I to establish federal control over the commemoration of American armed forces overseas. More than 100,000 Americans were killed in World War I and interred in temporary cemeteries close to where they fell.
“After the war, the question was: What do we do with those remains?” said Ben Brands, a historian with the battle monuments commission.
Public opinion was split. Some wanted the fallen American troops to be sent back to their homes while others believed they should repose alongside their comrades in more permanent cemeteries in Europe. The U.S. government ultimately decided to allow the next-of-kin to decide. About 40% of the families of fallen World War I troops decided the remains of their loved ones should be kept in Europe.
‘Big’ holiday overseas
The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) was formally created by Congress in 1923 to establish a series of cemeteries across Europe.
Mr. Brands explained that full control over the cemeteries was transferred to the commission from the U.S. government’s War Department in 1934.
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Today, the commission is responsible for several U.S. military cemeteries throughout Europe, as well as a range of other locales around the world, including the Philippines and even Tunisia, where more than 2,800 U.S. troops who were killed in the North African campaign of World War II are buried.
In total, the ABMC administers, operates and maintains 26 permanent American military cemeteries and 32 federal memorials, monuments and markers, which are located in 17 foreign countries.
The cemeteries “remain sovereign territory of the host government,” said Mr. Brands. “They are leased to us in perpetuity.”
This Memorial Day will be the first time all of the commission-run cemeteries and monuments are open to the public since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted.
Ceremonies will be held at each of the sites and include local officials along with U.S. diplomats from the American embassies in the host countries.
Sites like the Netherlands American Cemetery have become integral parts of their local communities over the years, officials said.
“For them, Memorial Day is as big a holiday in the Netherlands as it is in the U.S.,” said Allison Bettencourt, a spokeswoman for the commission.
Most of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen at the Cambridge American Cemetery had never left their homes before they shipped out to take part in the war effort.
‘Honoring the fallen’
More than 1.6 million Americans were stationed in the U.K. just before the D-Day invasion in June 1944. It was often called the “Friendly Invasion,” and the young American troops became an integral part of life in England.
“They had all these Americans coming across and living in their communities while all their men were packed off and at war somewhere else,” said Mr. Brown.
Flags representing the United States and Great Britain will adorn each grave site at the Cambridge American Cemetery on Memorial Day, along with more than 4,700 photographs of the fallen troops.
An open field at the cemetery will be set aside for flags representing the 5,127 U.S. personnel who were declared missing in action. Included in that number are Glenn Miller, the famous U.S. bandleader whose plane went down over the English Channel in 1944, and Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the older brother of President John F. Kennedy who was killed in action while serving as a land-based patrol bomber pilot.
At the far end of the cemetery is a memorial with a chapel, two large military maps, and stained glass windows bearing the state seals and military decorations.
A 4,000-square-foot visitor center at the cemetery was opened in 2014. The site has played host to a number of British military veterans groups over the years in a nod to the “Special Relationship” between Britain and the United States.
“It represents our shared history in the 20th century and it reflects our shared values,” said Mr. Brown.
As part of his mandate, Mr. Brown said he wants to educate visitors to the cemetery about the sacrifices made by those fallen troops now in his care. Many of them were only in their 20s when they lost their lives during the war.
“These were people just like us. They wanted to go out and achieve great things,” he said. “We’re looking for all kinds of ways where we can continue to educate the next generation.”
Working with local researchers and historians, the staff at the Cambridge American Cemetery is collecting an archive of the stories and images of the troops buried there.
“This is a project that we do not expect will ever be complete, but it is our way of honoring the fallen we look after and their sacrifice,” said Mr. Brown.