The Americans in Cambridge

Remembering those who came to fight for freedom

December 7th, 1941 – a day, in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, that will live in infamy – introduced America into the Second War World after the Japanese Empire launched a devastating attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii.

Thousands of Americans made their way to British shores to fight on the front line in Europe. Over 350,000 men arrived in the East of England and changed the culture and landscape of the region.

So why is there an American Cemetery in Cambridge?

A sad fact of war is that there will be casualties. Unfortunately, some of those casualties will die. This is why there is always a need for cemeteries where they may be laid to rest.

In 1943, the Harding family of Madingley Hall donated 30.5 acres of land between the villages of Coton and Madingley on the west side of the city to the American military for use as a temporary cemetery during the latter years of the war.

The site was chosen, in part, because it was central to the flat fenlands of East Anglia, ideal for building Army Air Force Stations, where the majority of US airmen were based to take the air war to mainland Europe.

In the years that followed the war, the American Army selected Cambridge as the site for America's permanent World War II cemetery and war memorial in the United Kingdom, in July 1949 the site was handed over to the American Battle Monuments Commission.

The estate having changed hands, it was the University of Cambridge which donated the same piece of land in perpetuity. Soldiers who had died and been placed in the three temporary cemeteries across the UK were either relocated to the site in Cambridge; or at the request of surviving families, were repatriated to the United States.

The cemetery was dedicated on 16 July 1956 and holds the remains of almost 4,000 servicemen who lost their lives and commemorates over a further 5,000 names on the Wall of the Missing.

The Memorial building on the site houses an interfaith chapel with a beautiful mosaic ceiling honouring the dead of the US Army Air Forces, as well as two huge military maps, stained glass windows bearing the state seals and military decorations.

Notable servicemen remembered at the site include Joseph P Kennedy, older brother to future American President John F Kennedy, who was lost in the skies over Norfolk in 1944 whilst on a secret mission; Leon R Vance, US Army Air Force pilot and Medal of Honour recipient, who disappeared into the North Atlantic when being medically evacuated to the USA in 1944; and volunteer derrickman Herman Douthit who was killed while drilling for oil on a secret mission in Sherwood Forest, one of 32 civilians buried at the site.

A special tour for Open Cambridge

Each year the team at the American Cemetery welcome visitors and offer guided tours as part of Open Cambridge. This year you will have the chance to learn some of things we lost because of the war.

Come and take a walking tour in the extensive grounds and discover some of the talented Americans whose stories we aim to tell. We often talk about the promise of young people. However, when a whole generation of men and women are sent to war, how much of that promise is lost forever?

When America entered the war in 1941, she sent some of her brightest and best into the fray. Some of them had well-established careers in civilian life. Others had only recently graduated High School.

What would these young men and women have become if they had had the chance to fulfil their potential?

Learn more about some of the notable memorials and burials at the site. Explore the Visitor Centre, opened in 2014, and gain a better understanding of this critical campaign of World War II. Interpretive exhibits, that incorporate personal stories, photographs, films, and interactive displays, help you to find out about the American contribution to the Allied victory in Europe.

“They were all so young to have sacrificed their lives – lives that had barely begun. Many families wanted their sons and daughters buried ‘where they fell’, or with their comrades. For other families, the names of their loved ones are inscribed on the Wall of the Missing, as they have no known resting place.

The American Battle Monuments Commission remembers them all, so that, in the words of General of the Armies John J Pershing, “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds”. Open Cambridge provides staff at the cemetery an amazing chance to tell the story of the service personnel commemorated here. They are part of the wartime story of Cambridge, and the social and cultural changes that the friendly invasion of the city underwent due to these young Americans.

I would like visitors to take away a deeper understanding of their own history, in what is really, quite recent times.”

Suzie Harrison, Interpretive Guide.

Tours of the American Cemetery will take place on 9, 10, 16 and 17 September at various times and must be booked in advance. Tickets will be available to book from Monday 14 August via the Open Cambridge website

Open Cambridge (7-18 September) is an annual Festival of events celebrating the culture and heritage of our community. Coordinated by the Public Engagement team at the University of Cambridge, Open Cambridge allows access to places otherwise restricted to the public.