The Day After Memorial Day – Visiting U.S. Cemeteries in Europe

This past Memorial Day weekend I did some of the usual things we Americans do.

I had a BBQ. I watched some of the TV specials yesterday about the day. I reflected about what the day meant.

Then the memories hit me. Hard.

It all started as I was speaking over the weekend with Eli Akouri, our VA Loan Program Manager, discussing visiting a military cemetery sometime over the weekend. I never did make it to a cemetery, but I have memories of visiting the cemeteries near Normandy as a young child of 8 and the U.S. cemetery in Cambridge, England a few years back.

If you’ve never been to one of these overseas cemeteries, it’s pretty emotional. The rows of crosses (with the occasional Star of David the only variance of a seemingly endless pattern) extend as far as the eye can see.

Talking with Joel today, he said, “Isn’t that pretty much like Arlington?” “Yes,” I said, “except these people are buried thousands of miles from home.”

See, back during WWII, they didn’t fly the remains of our deceased soldiers home the way they do today. My guess is there were too many of them. They buried them right there where they died.

It’s both heroic and sad. Heroic in the sense that there is no question why these men and women died or where they died. It’s a permanent reminder of the sacrifice they made for us. All of us. The sad part is the difficulty the families of these young warriors must have faced if they wanted to visit the final resting place of their loved ones. It’s not exactly all that easy or cheap to get over to Europe today. I can only imagine what it must have been like back in the late 1940s if a grieving widow, or mother, or father wanted to pay respects to their loved ones. It’s not like visiting the town cemetery down the street. It’s half a world away. Thousands of Americans, half a world a way, in their final resting places. That’s sad to me.

I’ll leave you with some information about the U.S. Cemetery at Normandy and the U.S. Cemetery at Cambridge (the only U.S. cemetery in the British Isles). From the American Battle Monuments Commission website:

Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial

The Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial site in England, 30.5 acres in total, was donated by the University of Cambridge. It lies on a slope with the west and south sides framed by woodland. The cemetery contains the remains of 3,812 of our military dead; 5,127 names are recorded on the Tablets of the Missing. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified. Most died in the Battle of the Atlantic or in the strategic air bombardment of northwest Europe.

From the flagpole platform near the main entrance, the great mall with its reflecting pools stretches eastward. It is from the mall that the wide, sweeping curve of the burial area across the lawn is best appreciated. Along the south side are the Tablets of the Missing, and at the far end is the memorial with a chapel, two huge military maps, stained glass windows bearing the state seals and military decorations, and a mosaic ceiling memorial honoring the dead of our air forces.

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France is located on the site of the temporary American St. Laurent Cemetery, established by the U.S. First Army on June 8, 1944 and the first American cemetery on European soil in World War II. The cemetery site, at the north end of its half mile access road, covers 172.5 acres and contains the graves of 9,387 of our military dead, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. On the Walls of the Missing, in a semicircular garden on the east side of the memorial, are inscribed 1,557 names. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified.

The memorial consists of a semicircular colonnade with a loggia at each end containing large maps and narratives of the military operations; at the center is the bronze statue, “Spirit of American Youth.” An orientation table overlooking the beach depicts the landings in Normandy. Facing west at the memorial, one sees in the foreground the reflecting pool; beyond is the burial area with a circular chapel and, at the far end, granite statues representing the United States and France. 

If you’ve never been to one of our overseas cemeteries, you really should see it. It gives you a healthy respect for the magnitude of the sacrifice made by Americans before us. It’s emotional. Each was a son. A daughter. A father. A mother. Each never made it home. They rest forever in the fields of Europe. A reminder of what it means to be free. A reminder of what it costs to be free.

That’s both heroic and sad.
 

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