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Memorial Day at Cambridge American Cemetery – D-Day75 Remembered
Suzie Harrison (American Battle Monuments Commission, Cambridge American Cemetery & Memorial) reports on the cemetery’s 2019 Memorial Day ceremony
Monday 27 May dawned cloudy, grey, windy and pretty cool.
The headstones were dressed with flags; wreaths were received; seats were laid out. The volunteers came from the local US bases at RAF Mildenhall, Lakenheath, Alconbury and Molesworth. The US Naval Forces Europe Band which played throughout the ceremony, also provided a very accomplished bugler to play Taps.
As Distinguished Guests and local dignitaries began arriving, the cloud lifted and blue skies appeared. Right on cue a KC-135 (351st ARW), trailing its refuelling boom, flew over to open the ceremony.
An impressive line-up of speakers came to the podium. The Deputy Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire reminded us that only a few weeks ago, we were commemorating the tragic events at Slapton Sands, Devon. Exercise Tiger, a live-fire, full-dress rehearsal for the landing on Utah beach, that went badly wrong. The Allies needed to work hard to get it right for D-Day.
Then US Ambassador Robert Wood Johnson, expanded on the theme of the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. He reminded us that behind each name commemorated at Cambridge American Cemetery, there is the story of a husband, father, son, or brother; a story of courage; of great sacrifice.
He went on to talk of one young man who served with the renowned 1st Infantry Division. TSgt William (Bill) R Benn Jr, from Pennsylvania, was one of twelve siblings, three of whom served. His platoon assaulted Omaha beach early on 6 June 1944, but within the first hour had suffered terrible casualties. When his platoon leader was injured, Bill took over. Ambassador Johnson explained how Bill had advanced on the enemy positions. He succeeded in silencing the guns that were cutting swathes through his comrades on the beach, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Bill was mortally wounded and died before he could reach hospital in Britain. The family were informed of his death two months later. Poignantly, the Ambassador recounted how, shortly after, Bill’s sister ‘Edie’ received a card with a new picture of her brother and a note telling her, ‘Chin up’ … written some time before the invasion.
Admiral James G Foggo, III drew on his personal family history to exemplify the real meaning of the ‘special relationship’ between the USA and UK.
Jonna Doolittle Hoppes described how her ‘Gramps’, Commander 8AF, General James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, was up before dawn on D-Day, checking on the bombing formations in his P-38 Lightning. Dipping down through a hole in the clouds he flew observation over the largest amphibious assault force ever assembled, becoming the first to report back to General Eisenhower.
After the laying of wreaths and the salutes, the ceremony was closed with a vintage flypast of a P-47 Thunderbolt, ‘Nellie’ and a P-51 Mustang, ‘Contrary Mary’ - both wearing invasion colours – in formation with B-17 Flying Fortress, ‘Sally-B’. This was a tribute to the achievements of those who landed in Normandy on D-Day, 6 June 1944.