MADINGLEY, England -- It was a damp, foggy morning in October, amidst a sea of marble headstones; the sound of bells chiming out seemed to echo the air of somberness all around at Madingley American Cemetery, near Cambridge. The whole scene was humbling.
With Veterans Day and Remembrance Day upon us, seeing the more than 3,800 Lasa marble headstones cover the grounds of the cemetery was even more poignant. Each grave contains the body or identifiable remains of the individual named on the headstone -- with the exception of 24 unknown. The 3,812 graves make up approximately 39 percent of the original total of Americans temporarily interred in the United Kingdom during World War II. At the wishes of the family and next of kin, approximately 60 percent were later repatriated.
In the past it took both time and effort for families to find the specific resting place of their long-lost relatives. Once the next of kin arrived at Madingley American Cemetery, they could visit with the staff who would find the grave location in their database, then escort them to the grave site. If they were searching on their own, they would need to identify the correct gravestone block and then search within the block to find a particular gravestone.
During a visit to the cemetery, Master Sgt. Solomon Vincent, the engineering flight superintendent of the 100th Civil Engineering Squadron here thought there must be an easier way for people to find departed loved ones.
"I saw some (people) there looking for their relatives, and they were just having the hardest time trying to find them," Vincent said. "I'm a surveyor, and I thought, well what if we just pulled some coordinates of these places, to help (these people) find their loved ones. So I talked to the caretaker, and he liked the idea and was happy to give it a shot."
But now, with more than a little help from members of the 100th CES engineering flight, that process is being made simpler and quicker, thanks to digital technology.
Despite the cold weather and fog Oct. 16, 2013, Airmen from the engineering flight patiently moved from headstone to headstone, measuring and tracking their exact position by using GPS equipment.
"We're attaching latitude and longitude to each headstone," Vincent said. "The reason we're doing this is when somebody is looking for their loved one, there's more than 3,800 headstones here, and they have to look through a spreadsheet, trying to find which row and which section their loved one is on. But (almost) everyone has GPS on their phone; you just put the coordinates into your phone and you can walk directly to the headstone, plus or minus one meter, and you'll find your loved one."
This cuts down on the time families spend searching and if the staff at the cemetery aren't available, families can still easily find the resting place of whoever they are looking for.
Preparation is key
Vincent met with his Airmen and they discussed ways to make this idea a reality. The team visited Madingley to perform a reconnaissance survey, to find good positions for their base stations and get an idea of any obstacles and obstructions, such as trees, which may hinder their work so they could develop solutions before they started.
They set up three base stations, each connecting to 24 satellites, providing the team vital information and pin-pointing the exact geographic location of each person's headstone.
"This is for the survivors -- the families," Vincent said. "When they come out here, instead of spending their time looking for their loved ones, they can find (the headstone) quickly, then take their time here, at the grave, looking around the museum, talking with the caretaker and just seeing what the cemetery has to offer.
The team initially ran into technical problems, but instead of letting the problems hinder the project, the Airmen found a way to overcome them.
"This is a scenario that I'm sure other career fields run into," Vincent said. "You have a plan and it works well in your shop on base, but when you go outside the wire on a deployment, you have equipment and a plan you're supposed to execute -- but if the equipment doesn't work, you have to be able to troubleshoot on the fly and fix it. So the young Airmen can apply this experience when they deploy -- we ran into problems using the equipment here, but there's no way we can get in the vehicles and go back to (RAF) Mildenhall to solve it. We had to solve the problem here (at Madingley) and we managed to do that."
The project provides a two-way benefit, the crew said. Not only is it benefiting the cemetery and families, but it's also a valuable training opportunity for the engineering flight members.
"Surveying is a necessary deployment skill for our Airmen, so training to keep their skills up is important," said Lt. Col. Kevin Parker, the commander of the 100th CES. "We can train on trees and manholes, or we can do this, which provides benefit to someone else."
Because of the large number of headstones to track, the project will take some time to complete. Spreading the work over a period of time also means the entire engineering flight will have the opportunity to be involved in the Madingley project.
Back at RAF Mildenhall, the information, including GPS coordinates and the name of the deceased, is collected into a database. Once complete, the information will be available on the internet, where relatives and anyone else searching for someone memorialized at Madingley, will be able to track the exact position of any headstone located there.
"As we move into an increasingly digital and technological age, this will be a tremendous benefit to help both families and cemetery staff to quickly and accurately locate the grave site of a loved one," said Arthur Brooks, a Madingley American Cemetery associate. "This adds another dimension to what we do, and allows the current military to leave a lasting legacy for future generations.
"An exercise like this serves to foster and improve links between the U.S. Air Force and the community of the cemetery, and is vital in projecting the cemetery to a wider audience," the cemetery associate said. "It brings the U.S. Air Force directly in close contact with those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in World War II, and those to whom we owe a debt that can never be fully paid."
This debt also inspired Vincent and his team to give back to those who came before.
"Each time I come here, I leave a better person," he said. "I appreciate what I have. I appreciate what I do. I feel that as a military member and a citizen of the United States, I feel it's my duty to give back - because these people have paid the ultimate sacrifice. All I'm doing is standing in the cold, measuring some (GPS) shots. They were out in the cold being shot at; some were starving and some were (prisoners of war). I'm just trying to give back to my country and to these people."
For more information on the Madingley American Cemetery and other cemeteries, visit www.abmc.gov.