Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 9, 2006

No ordinary Memorial Day

When I got off the bus, the cold rain and gusty wind made my teeth chatter. I opened my fold-up umbrella, but it offered scant protection. As I hurried to the chapel where others had gathered to stay dry, I passed a young U.S. Air Force officer who handed me a program. I promptly put it inside my jacket to keep it from getting soaked.

The chapel was crowded. While the people huddled together made it hard to see the walls, when I looked up, I saw a beautiful mosaic, a memorial to those Americans who gave their lives while serving in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. The design features squadrons of aircraft, accompanied by mourning angels, on their flight to heaven.

Outside, the gravestones - nearly 4,000 of them - were decorated with small U.S. and British flags.

I pulled out the program. I could see by looking at the order of service that this wouldn't be any ordinary Memorial Day.

Art and I were at the Madingley American Cemetery near Cambridge, England. We were with the World War II veterans from the 457th Bomb Group and their families, who had traveled to England for a reunion. Art's Uncle Pete, a B-17 pilot, was with the 457th from March to June of 1945. Pete died 30 years ago and, although Art spoke with him several times about his war service, more questions came too late. So Art has pursued any leads to find out more about what his uncle might have experienced as a young pilot.

We had spent the previous day in Conington, a small village which was transformed into the 457th's airbase during the war. People from the village and even nearby villages joined our group at two small services, one at the Conington Church and one at a roadside black marble memorial dedicated two years ago.

I hoped the rain would let up. Chairs had been set up outside the chapel along the reflecting pool. It would be difficult to see what was going on if everyone had their umbrellas out.

We were in luck. The clouds broke and the sun came out just in time for the 11 a.m. service.

A bagpiper led the posting of the colors, and the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Band played the British and U.S. national anthems. The chaplain of the 48th Fighter Wing of the Royal Air Force, the vice commander of the U.S. 16th Air Force, Her Majesty's Lord-Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, and the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain were scheduled to speak. It has been my experience that often such presentations are too long and quite forgettable, but all four were short and well done.

Then, 120 U.S. Air Force and RAF officers carried floral wreaths - made up of mums, roses, lilies, poppies and other flowers - along the limestone wall beside the reflecting pool. Inscribed on the wall are the names of 5,125 missing. Representatives from the various groups presenting the memorials, including one from the 457th, met their wreath carriers. After the wreaths for the United Kingdom, the United States and the U.S. Air Force were placed, the others placed theirs along the wall and stood for a moment of silence and a prayer of remembrance.

A 21-gun salute followed and then two buglers played "Taps."

Then eyes turned skyward for the fly-bys, led by F-15s of the U.S. Air Force in "Missing Man" formation, a Dakota, a Spitfire and a B-17. The B-17, named the Sally B, is the last remaining airworthy B-17 in the United Kingdom of the more than 12,000 that flew during the war.

With the ceremony barely over, the rain and gusty wind moved back in and we made a dash for the bus.

While the service was moving, the best part for me was being surrounded by the old soldiers, some of whom were back in Britain for the first time since the war. It was a Memorial Day service to remember.

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