National Perspective

Some Corner of a Foreign Field

CAMBRIDGE, England -- Here, amid elm trees, boxwoods and roses, is a set of war monuments no one will ever consider dismantling.

Here are 3,732 Latin crosses and 81 Stars of David, standing in quiet but eloquent testimony to the American contribution to victory in World War II Europe. Here are buried those lost in the skies over the British Isles, in preparation for D-Day and in the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. Here the wind whispers from the fields, the visitors walk in solemnity.

In the week leading to Armistice Day marking the end of World War I -- we now call it Veterans Day, Nov. 11 -- these grave markers in the Cambridge American Cemetery tell much of the story of the conflict that followed a mere 21 years later. The names inscribed on these memorial markers tell much of the story of America, which helped the Allies prevail not only because of the industrial might of the United States, but also because of the gritty military work performed by soldiers, sailors and aviators from diverse heritages.

And if you read aloud the names on a nearby wall of remembrance saluting those whose bodies were never found -- read them slowly, one by one -- you may conclude that they have a rhythm and a cadence that sounds like America, a liberation libretto that goes like this: (BEGIN ITALS) Maliszewski, Malounek, Manley, Mann, Mapes, Marcus, Marshall. (END ITALS).

One of the names on that wall strikes a poignant chord: (BEGIN ITALS) Kennedy, Joseph P. Jr. (END ITALS) He was the oldest World War II-era Kennedy brother, the one Joseph P. Kennedy, a wartime American ambassador to the Court of St. James, groomed for the presidency -- a destiny which was passed on to the second son, who fought in the Pacific as the older brother flew in the European theater. Young Joe Kennedy died in 1944 in a daring mission in an aircraft loaded with more than 21,000 pounds of high explosives that were intended to destroy massive guns the Germans had deployed near Calais on the French coast.

This is a serene corner of England, grand green lawns surrounded by farmlands, the great Ely Cathedral visible 14 miles in the distance, the only sound audible the other afternoon coming from workers trimming hedges.

From every angle the scene is pacific, not warlike. The memorial markers sit in white circles, under trees that have grown mature over the years, extending not to the heavens nor even to the horizon but simply to fields of barley and wheat. One message: The Earth still produces its bounty.

Seven miles away across those fields -- an hour by foot -- sits the village of Grantchester. It is where Rupert Brooke, the British poet, lived in the Old Vicarage before taking a commission and joining the fighting in World War I, which you might think of as the opening act of the 1939-45 conflict. He died in the Aegean Sea while on duty with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in 1915. But before he died, he wrote these deathless words, memorized by three generations of British schoolchildren:

(BEGIN ITALS) If I should die, think only this of me:

That there's some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. (END ITALS)

Here, not far from his Old Vicarage, is a corner of a foreign field that is forever America.

I spent a graduate year in Cambridge and was too obtuse, or too self-absorbed, or maybe just too ungrateful, to ride my single-gear bike here. It was a mistake, and four decades later I made the trip with my closest student friend, an Englishman who startled, and shamed, me by saying that he had visited here often.

"I brought my kids here to make a point when there was a lot of anti-Americanism in the early 2000s," said Lawrence Goldman, who went on to teach history at Oxford and to edit the Dictionary of National Biography. "I wanted to make the point that your story is our story. It often gets forgotten in this country."

A statue of a Coast Guardsman, a soldier, an aviator and a sailor stand watch over the 472-foot-long granite Wall of the Missing where young Kennedy's name, among many others, is carved. The legend across the wall reads: (BEGIN ITALS) The Americans whose names here appear were part of the price that free men for a second time in the century have been forced to pay to defend human liberty and rights. (END ITALS)

There is a great democracy in death -- experience teaches us that, and so does Thomas Gray's famous 1751 elegy, which carries the phrase "far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife" -- and here we see democracy in action. In this field the enlisted men and the officers are side by side, the privates first class and the first lieutenants at rest together. Thomas Gray, again: "For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn."

Here, too, are remembered some of the unknown but not unmourned soldiers of World War II. Between the graves of Clyde Simmons of Missouri and Chester Romanosky of Pennsylvania is this marker: (BEGIN ITALS) Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God. (END ITALS)

The meaning of these markers, and of this place: (BEGIN ITALS) All who shall hereafter live in freedom will be here reminded that to these men and their comrades we owe a debt to be paid with grateful remembrance of their sacrifice and with the high resolve that the cause for which they died shall live eternally. (END ITALS) The words are Dwight Eisenhower's. The sentiment is all of ours, this week of remembrance, and always.

EDITORS: For editorial questions, please contact Gillian Titus, gtitus@amuniversal.com.

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