Why you should care

Because an unintentional art installation captures the casual moments of on-the-ground airmen from a critical moment in history.

The B-17 Flying Fortress and its deafening roar lifted heads skyward in wartime Cambridgeshire. Today, 70 years on, folks are still paying tribute by looking up.

The east of England is flat. Which makes for big skies and good airfields. Many still exist today, despite new Pentagon plans to close a few, but the east and south of the country were once a big armed camp — their airfields filled with young men from the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF). Together with the Royal Air Force, they challenged enemy formations in the clouds and attacked German airfields and facilities around occupied Europe. They knew they might not return, and 30,000 of them didn’t, many of whom are now buried at the American Cemetery at Madingley outside Cambridge. But the U.S. presence can still be found, sometimes in surprising places.

The Eagle is probably the most famous pub in the ancient university town of Cambridge. It was there that Francis Crick and James Watson, in 1953, cracked the secrets of DNA. And its ceiling serves as an unusual memorial to the men who fought for freedom in the skies above. Tourists flock daily to see hundreds of inscriptions that British and U.S. air crews burned into the ceiling of the RAF Bar at the back of the pub. Out for a beer and brief respite from the nerve-shredding stress of the air campaign, they targeted their favorite haunt’s ceiling for their enduring graffiti.

“… a temple of the sacred flame, a trophy room for heroes.”

Clive James, Australian-British writer and broadcaster

Australian-British writer and broadcaster Clive James was a student in Cambridge in the 1960s, at one time lodging at The Eagle. In his memoir, May Week Was In June , James paints a poignant picture of those young servicemen in the bar, smoking, drinking and laughing:

“Riding on each other’s shoulders, into the deep red linoleum ceiling of the saloon they burned the numbers and nicknames of their squadrons with naked candle flames: a portent, doubly hideous for its innocence, of their own fate, and a grim token of the fiery nemesis they were bringing every night to the cities of Germany.”

For James, it was “a temple of the sacred flame, a trophy room for heroes.” But the framed history on the pub’s walls reflects that others didn’t necessarily feel the same way. One note from the 1980s reflects disdain, referring to the ceiling as “an unattractive curiosity.” A nude “pin-up” girl drawn in lipstick also drew ire, classified as “meaningless squiggles” from American airmen. Thankfully, RAF technician James Chainey appreciated the graffiti’s importance and set about cleaning the ceiling and recording it for posterity. Today the bar is covered in wartime memorabilia from across the world.

Another less-permanent memorial survives in the memories of those who witnessed the benevolent invasion — a great and ephemeral treasure that historians want to preserve. The American Air Museum at the Imperial War Museum of Duxford, near Cambridge, is in the process of creating a digital record of these memories, as well as the stories of the USAAF men and women who lived and worked “somewhere in England” during the war. The digital memorial is based on a collection of 15,000 photographs assembled by the late aviation historian Roger Freeman. And the museum is crowdsourcing information about these images, as well as memories of U.S. service personnel and the British civilians who befriended them.

Without names and stories, the images mean little. They “only have meaning if we know and understand what they depict,” says Jenny Cousins, project leader at the American Air Museum. She notes that with so many people from that era now in their golden years, it’s a “last opportunity to capture these stories” and make their mark on history for future generations to enjoy. Nearly 50,000 have visited the site since its launch in October, making nearly 2,000 memorable contributions .

“People have added their own material and got behind the spirit of what we are trying to do: reveal the extraordinary lives of ordinary people,” Cousins says.

The online memorial is a strikingly 21st century counterpoint to the scorch marks in The Eagle’s ceiling and the neat rows of pearly white headstones at the Madingley cemetery. All are reminders of one nation’s loss and another’s debt. And all will continue to bear witness to the bravery and sacrifice of those lionhearted young men long after the last survivors fade away.

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