In memoriam

Visits to American war cemeteries in Europe inspire Lawrence resident to reflect on the meaning of freedom

Rows and rows of crosses mark the graves of more than 3,800 American servicemen and women who died during service in World War II at the Cambridge American Cemetery in England. Lawrence resident Penny Lungren says the site makes visitors ask a simple question: Why?

Editor’s note: Penny Lungren is a Lawrence resident who has traveled to several American cemeteries overseas. She wrote this reflection for Memorial Day.

Walking among the rows and rows of crosses and stars of David in an American overseas military cemetery is an unforgettable experience.

Instinctively, you are quiet. On the marble headstones you read the names of the dead, the states from which they came and the dates they perished. You think about how young they were when they died for their country.

Years ago, my brother took me to the American Military Cemetery and Memorial near Maastricht in the Netherlands – 65 1/2 acres of ground where 8,301 American war dead are interred and 1,722 names of the missing are engraved on walls of the Court of Honor. We saw three large maps which depict the fierce fighting and large-scale airborne operations of 1944 and 1945.

Inside the 101-foot tower is a chapel 52 feet high. The beautiful ceiling light fixture is a gift from the Dutch people, as are the silver flower bowl and candelabra on the altar. I said a prayer, and my brother did, too – for members of his bomber crew lying in this cemetery. They were killed on a day he wasn’t with them.

The reflecting pool at the Cambridge American Cemetery in England provides a picturesque location for visitors to think about soldiers' sacrifices.

This site is one of 14 selected after World War II for permanent American cemeteries on foreign soil. Eight had previously been established after World War I.

Some years ago, my husband and I visited the military cemetery near Cambridge, 60 miles north of London, where his cousin George is buried. The superintendent was very cordial and walked with us along the great mall with its reflecting pools and green lawns. He brought a bucket of sand and proceeded to fill the engraved lettering on the headstone so the words would be visible in the pictures he took and gave to us. Here the headstones number 3,812, which is 42 percent of the American war dead buried temporarily in England and Northern Ireland. (The rest were taken home.)

Inside this memorial also are maps, as well as a mosaic of ghostly aircraft accompanied by mourning angels. In stained glass windows are replicas of the seals of the states in the order in which they entered the Union. In the chapel, again we are quiet, wondering why. Why?

Why do we send our young to fight for freedom? What is it about living in this great country that makes us want all peoples everywhere to be able to share it?

Are we superior? No. Do we love life? Yes. And we love a life that can be lived without suppression from other governments.

We and our forefathers have struggled and scraped, discussed and disputed, wrought and fought, sorrowed and died for the rights of individuals. This is what makes our country unique. This is what makes our country a haven for many of the world’s oppressed: the right to be oneself, to live a life in one’s own way. The Pilgrims and the pioneers wanted this, and their legacy is ours. We have grown up with freedom. This is why we reach out to others who yearn for the same thing. This is why we have American military graves and monuments located around the world.

We remember Winston Churchill’s call: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills … until in God’s good time, the New World … steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

That same month, on June 14, 1940, a columnist wrote in The New York Times about our people: “Common and ordinary people … filled with such a hope as never caught the imaginations and the hearts of any nation on earth before. The hope of liberty. The hope of justice. The hope of a land in which a man can stand straight, without fear, without rancor.”

“Sweet land of liberty,” of thee I sing: where a single life is deemed precious, where the individual is important, not just a cog beneath a repressive government. We value life; that is why we mourn our dead today.

That is why we chant again: “From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”