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Defending Europe

Among the 3,812 crew members of British-based American aircraft buried at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial are Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy and Glenn Miller. Photo courtesy of Richard N. Every.

Among the 3,812 crew members of British-based American aircraft buried at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial are Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy and Glenn Miller. Photo courtesy of Richard N. Every.

By Sheila Sobell

We are standing in the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, looking up at four heroically sized statues of a soldier, sailor, airman and a Coast Guardsman. Behind them on a 472-foot-long Wall of the Missing are the words “All who shall here after live in freedom will be reminded that to these men and their comrades we owe a debt to be paid with grateful remembrance of their sacrifice and the high resolve that the cause for which they died shall live eternally.”

In honor of the upcoming 65th anniversary of V-E Day on May 8, 2010, marking Germany’s unconditional surrender, we are in East Anglia visiting key sites commemorating the Allied victory.

The scale of the Cambridge cemetery and its beauty are staggering. Recorded here are the names of 5,126 Americans lost in action during World War II. Buried in this serene 30.5-acre cemetery are 3,812 American crew members of British-based American aircraft, including such well-known figures as Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy’s older brother, and musician Glenn Miller.

In the United Kingdom, the commemoration of war heroes is as much a commitment by ordinary citizens as it is a governmental one. At the American Cemetery, we meet Malcolm “Ozzie” Osborn, the force behind two such memorials — one to the 398th Bombardment Group (Heavy), which he designed and erected in 1982, and another to the 55th Fighter Group, dedicated in 2006.

The impetus for these memorials was the 1971 discovery of a wrist-watch case engraved with the name William L. Meyran that Osborne and his friends found while searching for remnants of an American Air Force B-17G Flying Fortress that had crashed on takeoff from the 8th Air Force Base on Oct. 15, 1944. Thirty-three years later Osborn discovered Meyran’s sadly ironic story — that he died on his 25th birthday, when he was to inherit a fortune, along with two others from the 398th also being assessed for suitability to lead a squadron mission.

Over the years Osborn formed several memorial fundraising groups and organized the first English reunion of the whole 8th Air Force since the end of the war. Today these two memorials stand together in a little field of America on the Dimsdale Estate in Nuthampstead 19 miles from the Cambridge American Cemetery.

The American Air Museum at the Imperial War Museum Duxford

Originally created at the end of World War I as a training site for the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, today the Imperial War Museum Duxford is considered Europe’s premier aviation museum housing the largest collection of American warplanes outside of  the United States.

Against a background of a B-17 Flying Fortress and P-47 Thunderbolt  suspended from the ceiling as if in flight, Ivan Warne, one of the museum’s “explainers,” is bringing history to life, recounting stories from American vets who visited the museum.

“We attract many American flyers who were once stationed in the U.K.,” he explains. “In 2007 we had 415,000 visitors; I particularly remember one 83-year-old former pilot of a B-17 during World War II. He told me about the afternoon he was assigned to take a Thunderbolt damaged in combat that morning up on another mission in the afternoon. On takeoff, he could smell petrol.

“‘My first thought was that one of those horrible ground crew had left a petrol-soaked rag in the cockpit, so I thought I’d just toss it out,’ he told me. ‘But then I looked down at my feet and found I was puddling in petrol. Right, I thought, I’m taking it back to have a stern word with the ground crew chief.'”

But that dressing-down never occurred. What the pilot initially thought was just a petrol leak turned out to be an engine fire. His only option was to bail out.

The question was how.

Hollywood films make an air evacuation seem easy. All the airman has to do is release his lap strap; then, with the canopy off, climb out on the wing and jump. Military protocol, however, calls for turning the aircraft on its back instead and then bailing out.

“After considering both alternatives, the pilot realized that if he followed military protocol, he would go down like a Roman candle soaked in petrol,” says Warne. “So he chose Hollywood and discovered why it works on film but not in real life. He climbed out on the wing, rolled himself tightly into a ball and started to slide off. But then his legs shot straight up in the air, colliding with the tail. Although both of his legs were broken, the pilot still managed to open his parachute. That’s when he realized he was about to get ‘lucky.’ Landing on a barbed-wire fence, his flying leathers cushioned his fall like a giant mattress, saving him from additional injuries.”

Air Defense Radar Museum

In September 1941, 40 airmen and women undertook a secret mission — to track enemy planes using a revolutionary early warning system called Radio  Detection and Ranging. Billeted in Horning, orning, HHonHoHa picture postcard village on the Norfolk Broads in East Anglia, their task was to ensure that Hitler would be unable to achieve air superiority.

Set in the original RAF operations building, the Air Defense Radar Museum, winner of the 2007 Gold Award for Best Small Visitor Attraction, dramatically re-creates the development of radar and its role in winning World War II. Narrated by volunteers, many with military backgrounds, it demonstrates how technology discarded by the Germans helped the British withstand the enemy’s overwhelming air superiority. In the Battle of Britain Filter Room, circa 1940, we learn how plotters maneuvered to overcome the drawbacks inherent in the fledgling radar technology so that British fighters could accurately pinpoint attacking formations. Later in the war, radar defended the U.S. 8th Air Force from attack and guided them home. During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, radar again helped the Allies maintain close surveillance of enemy activities, ensuring the freedom of the western world.

Children will particularly enjoy the hands-on exhibits where they try out their skills writing backward or learn to use the plotting rods that helped locate enemy aircraft.

IF YOU GO

The luxurious 15-room Duxford Lodge Hotel in Duxford maintains the feel of an elegant restored 19th century residence, and it houses a superb AA 2 Rosette Award restaurant. Presided over by chef Jason Burridge, the menu offers a fixed-price table d’ hote featuring dishes that are bliss for vegetarians as well as devoted carnivores. Desserts include eight homemade sorbets and 10 ice creams. The restaurant’s name is Le Paradis, and that says it all. www.duxfordlodgehotel.co.uk.

Cambridge American Cemetery: www.abc.gov.

The 398th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and the 55th Fighter Group: www.398th.org and www.55th.org.

The Air Defence Radar Museum: www.radarmuseum.co.uk..

Imperial War Museum: www.iwm.org.uk.

Sheila Sobell and Richard N. Every are freelance travel writers. Visit their Web site at www.writersobell.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at ww.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2010 CREATORS.COM

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