As Diana and I planned our trip to London we decided to take a short train ride on our first afternoon to Cambridge. We’ve both been doing some genealogy and I had discovered a 7th great-grandmother was born there in 1655. Diana had found a 3rd cousin who had been shot down a few miles from Cambridge during WWII in 1945 and was buried at the American cemetery there. Thus began what we dubbed our “WWII Tour”.
Through Ancestry.com Diana had met a cousin who told her the story of Gordon Henry, the fallen soldier. And, had put her in touch with Chris who had information about the crash and lived near the site. Diana contacted him and he volunteered to meet us and give us a tour of the cemetery. We had no idea what we were in for.
We were straight from the plane having just dropped our bags at the hotel and ran to catch our train. We were road weary and hungry. Chris and his girlfriend met us. The cemetery looked a little like Arlington only smaller. Very beautiful grounds and peaceful. We thought that Chris was just going to show us to the grave site. Turns out that 19 years ago Chris and his little sister stumbled upon debris from the crash site. Chris didn’t know what it was exactly but knew enough to take it to the military where they traced it to the site of the crash of the Flying Fortress. The plane had taken off and one of the engines had failed. The pilot managed to maneuver the plane away from the village of Bury St. Edmonds but only two of the crew survived the crash. Gordon was not supposed to be on the flight that day. Another crew member was sick and Gordon took his place. Chris told us that this other crew member had never really recovered from the survivor’s guilt.
Chris knew this because once he knew what the debris was from he became obsessed with the story. For several years he continued to excavate the crash site. He showed us photos of the site and all the bits, including live ammunition, he had found. And he had spent the last 19 years tracking down the surviving crew or their families. He had even traveled to America twice to meet them. Chris had photos of the plane, the crew, family members and other details connected to the event. Three of the crew members are buried in this cemetery along with Joseph Kennedy and Glenn Miller.
Chris is telling us all this as he walks us around the cemetery showing us the headstones. When we get to Gordon’s the cemetery Curator comes out with two small flags, the American and British. He puts them in the ground at the Italian marble cross and touches a button on a remote control and plays taps. It was one of the most moving events of my life.
This man died 67 years ago and no other family member had ever been able to visit this graveside. And here we stood, 5 people all strangers to each other, except for Diana and I, and all strangers to Gordon. But he finally received his funeral.
Inside the offices were more photos and text and a book with the names of all the US soldiers buried here. Diana got lots of photos. I do not think that I can convey the depth of emotion that this event evoked and the sense of wonder & awe at all the events that had to happen that brought us all together on that day.
Several days later we had made our way to Amsterdam with our tickets to Anne Frank’s house. Diana planned this as the first thing we would do assuming it would have a somber effect on us. In honor of this event we both reread her Diary. I didn’t know when I read it years ago, as a child myself, that her father had edited out parts that he thought unflattering to his wife and parts that dealt with Anne’s budding sexuality. She was 14 after all. We read an updated and unedited version. I finished the book just an hour before our tour. And it did, indeed, have a somber and sobering effect.
It was not what I expected. Having read for years that they lived in an “attic” I had something totally different in mind. It was really like living on two floors of a small apartment. But with 8 people living there, it was tight quarters and they kept all the windows blacked out – so it felt dark and oppressive. It was easy to see how they could live there for 2 years undetected from the street. And so incredibly sad that they almost survived the war. They were turned in, no one still knows who did that, only about 2 months before the end of the war in 1945.
A few days later we are back in London. After having ridden the London Eye we made our way to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Built in the 1600’s by the architect Christopher Wren, this Cathedral is stunning. The first thing we noticed was how bright and light it was in comparison to others we’d seen. Turns out Wren used clear glass panes in the windows rather than stained glass. And the Fleming family (of which Ian is a member) had donated a total of 23 million pounds to have the stone cleaned inside and out. As we stood in the foyer deciding on where to start our self-guided tour a volunteer asked if he could help us.
“Ah, you are from the States” (we got that a lot). He asked where and we told him Oklahoma. He went on to inform us that at the other end of the church we would notice there were stained glass windows not original to the church. That part of the church had been bombed during the war. When they replaced the windows it was decided to honor the US war dead who had fought for Britain. So each of the panes is a state flag or seal and he wanted to show us ours. Diana mentioned her cousin and having visited the cemetery. To which he informed us that all the US cemeteries had books with the names of the soldiers buried in them. But, it had been decided to put all the names in one book that would be housed at St. Paul’s. Just under the window with the Oklahoma State flag was a table and under a red velvet cover was this book. He opened it for us and we found Gordon Henry’s name. Turns out our volunteer was leading a free guided tour at 2 which would finish at 3:30 and end at the cafe where we had a reservation for high tea.
The final event that happened was on Sunday during the Queen’s Jubilee. We had tickets to Battersea Park for the Boat Flotilla. The beautiful weather took a turn toward the cold and rainy. Of all our days on this trip, this day was the most frustrating because of the weather & crowds and we were having a hard time finding a spot so we could see. We had decided to throw in the towel and were leaving the park when Diana saw a spot that might work. So we decided to be troopers and give it a try. We met the nicest family behind us who became very concerned that we get the best view. And in front of us another gentleman who offered me his jacket and a sandwich. Standing next to him was an elderly man in a London Fog.
The first gentleman turns to us and says, “I’m sure you don’t know who you are standing next to.” Of course, we didn’t. Then he introduces us to his father, Charles Clarke. This man turns out to be the last surviving member of Stalag Luft III. The German concentration camp that the movie The Great Escape is based on. The escape happened in…. wait for it…. 1945. I didn’t remember much about the event but looked him up on-line. Sure enough, he was legit. And it turns out of the many that escaped almost all were recaptured and executed. Charles was one of three that was not recaptured. I just turned to Diana completely stunned. There were minimum of 60,000 people in the park that day. What were the odds that we would end up standing next to this man after everything else that had happened?
This is why I travel. There were many other sites we saw that didn’t involve this war. We met many wonderful people and got to see the Queen. And not one of these events would have happened if I hadn’t made the effort to make the trip.
I travel for the sense of adventure, awe and wonder. Not in a million years could I have created these events on my own. Nor would I have thought I even wanted to.
I will end by saying this. I had always said that funerals were for the living. I don’t believe that anymore. I do believe that spirit lives on. But now I am convinced that not only does it live on but how we honor them is as important to the departed as it is for the grieving. It’s not to say that his family didn’t grieve his passing. They probably had some kind of memorial service for him. But for some reason it was important to him to have someone acknowledge the event where it happened. I was honored to be part of it. This trip was deeply personal, emotional and meaningful. I have been changed by it.
There is a beautiful video at this site www.abmc.gov/cemeteries/cemeteries.ca.php
And if you are interested in Charles Clarke check out http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1246442/British-veterans-forced-gruelling-Long-March-Poland-enact-journey-65-years-later.html