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War, Honor, and My Cousin Phil

Two months ago I was in Scotland and England traveling with friends Maggie and Ian, both formerly with the British Department of Defense. We saw extraordinarily historic sites, including Maiden Castle in Dorset, where a 6,000-year-old Iron Age settlement was invaded by Roman newcomers. But among the remarkable places we visited, none moved me more powerfully than the American cemetery sixty miles north of London, the only one of its kind in the United Kingdom.

The solemn buildings and stark lines of pure white crosses were softened by a light morning mist as we drove up to the gates of the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial and parked, among the first to arrive at this early hour. At the Visitor’s Center interpretive guide Arthur Brookes urged us into an adjoining area where a film had just begun telling the story of the cemetery.

I sat down on a marble bench to listen. The American men and women buried here were mostly World War II airmen, but also members of the US Navy, Army, Marines and Coast Guard, nearly 4,000 in all, and the names of another 5,000 are inscribed on the Wall of the Missing. Unexpected tears ran down my cheeks as I watched aerial footage and cockpit recordings of doomed planes flown by boys who came willingly to fight and die on foreign land, so far from home. They were heartbreakingly young.

“In the UK we often think of the Americans in the War as the ones with cigarettes and chocolate,” Arthur Brookes told our small group afterwards. “But their effort made victory possible.” His careful, respectful account of that effort, as well as the cemetery’s pristine grounds and buildings with maps and plates depicting military movements, made clear that these American war dead and their vital role in a common Allied effort are honored every day.

In 2014 we move through daily life in the U.S., often heedless of the true sacrifices American service men and women have made, and continue to make, around the world. But here in Cambridge, England, that sacrifice will never forgotten. I left with deepest gratitude to Arthur Brookes and all who maintain the cemetery, and hope others will take time to visit. It is located three miles west of Cambridge, England on Highway A-1303 and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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My cousin Phil lives in Jacksonville, Florida, which you know as much by his drawl as by his address. Like many cousins, we stay loosely in touch, and every couple years there’s a marathon phone call to catch up. I’m fond of all my cousins, but two things distinguished Phil: he was an Eagle Scout back when we were kids, and even I, his Massachusetts younger cousin, knew that was a considerable accomplishment. Also, he loves trees, perhaps more than I do, at least he knows them better. Every now and then he sends me a box of fragrant split pine fatwood from his land in southern Florida. Somewhere in the box there is always one piece of paper or kindling with the provenance of the tree within. I keep them, of course, who could simply burn such a record. One says, for example: Long leaf yellow pine Planted? 1920-1930’s Killed by lightning Knocked down by tornado in 2004 Cut to dry in 2006 Split by hand 11/18/2007 A few years ago I learned that Phil honored my father, along with trees, Scouting, and his cherished wife Helen and their children. We were having one of our marathon catch-up calls on Veterans Day. I was intrigued to hear him say, “You know, I think of your father on this day every year.”

We often talked about Daddy, but I was surprised to hear that this day had a special association with him. “In World War II he was in the thick of it,” Phil said. “And he volunteered. He was one of millions of other people who did the same thing, but he was one of us, one of our family. He was in harm’s way and he did his best.”

My father, Howard V.R. Palmer, had married and joined the U.S. Navy in 1941. My parents shared their first Christmas together at the training center in Hanover, New Hampshire. With separation by wartime combat facing them, the only memory they shared, laughing, was always that their tiny fake musical tree was completely dwarfed by presents.

In 1944, he was a U.S. Navy lieutenant on LST 359, a troop landing ship delivering English soldiers to Normandy and returning for more. If you saw the opening half hour of “Saving Private Ryan” you saw what troop landing ships were doing. His ship was torpedoed, the captain killed. Although my father’s back was broken, he kept command of the ship until they got to England. He was soon on his way to a military hospital in Norfolk, Virginia. He also participated in military action at Anzio and Salerno in Italy. It was a miracle I ever met him. When Phil graduated from the Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, my father and I drove down for the ceremony. “My instructors took one look at the medals on his chest, and they knew exactly where he had been in World War II and what he had been doing,” said Phil. “They went to him like he was a magnet. I don’t think I had understood how important he was, but they did.” On Veterans Day, I'll always know that my cousin Phil, who worked as chief engineer on several Navy vessels, is remembering my father and honoring his deeds and actions of more than half a century ago. I thank him for that, as well as for the fatwood. P.S. I was sending Phil a fatwood thank-you bottle of Johnny Walker Scotch until a few years ago when he requested that, instead, I make a donation to the Wounded Warriors organization. And I pass along his recommendation.

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