Along a quiet road near the University of Cambridge, thousands of American soldiers remain on duty.
It's an easy place to miss: My family and I drove right by it the first time, and almost the second. After all the tourist locations, it was a bit of a shock to pull into a parking lot populated by less than a dozen cars.
I was there June 20 as a handful of people, most of them veterans themselves, wandered among the World War II soldiers' graves in the Cambridge American Cemetery, west of Cambridge, England. I was looking for the grave of Robert Pinkerton, of Springfield, Ohio.
I figured it was the least I could do. I had met Robert's brother, Jim, two years earlier, when Jim was trying to get to Cambridge. In the 66 years since his brother's death, Jim Pinkerton had never been to visit his brother's grave.
I met Pinkerton as he tried to complete that mission. In May 2011, I had the privilege to have a plane seat next to Jim as he set off to visit England for the first time - to see his brother for the last time, or so he hoped.
Nothing was easy about that trip from Columbus to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to London's Heathrow Airport.
The flight already had been delayed by about an hour when Jim Pinkerton, who still lives in Springfield, and I sat down in the commuter jet. He wore a World War II veteran's hat with a Purple Heart logo. Because I had an uncle who served at Pearl Harbor, I struck up a conversation with him and soon learned he was bound for England, too.
He didn't have much of a plan, really. But he had a very specific goal: He wanted to see where his brother had been buried. Robert had been sent to Europe, but Jim was sent the other way, into the Pacific Theater. Jim was wounded in the upper thigh in the Philippines and shipped home to recuperate. By the time he did, the war was over. Back in the States, he made a life for himself. He ran a bar in Springfield for a while and had three sons. Now, at 87 years old, he was ready to make the trip he always planned to make. His wife, Barbara, had died the previous year. It was time.
He had $1,500 cash and two weeks to spend in England. And that was the end of his plan: Go to England, go to Cambridge and go home. There was no hotel in the plan, no sightseeing. Pinkerton was laser-focused on his mission.
Pinkerton had another challenge: his memory. Although he could, and did, recount tales of his injury and other war experiences from 60 years ago, he had trouble remembering where he'd put his passport. He asked me to write my name and phone number in his address book. I did before he asked me two more times. His goal and his long-term memories were quite focused, but Pinkerton had trouble remembering details of his trip. That's where I came in to help.
We soon exited the plane, but hadn't left Columbus because of a mechanical problem. I called ahead to try to make some arrangement for this man I barely knew. I got as far as finding the name of a hotel before they called our flight again. We finally got to JFK, but had missed our first connection (and after 90 minutes on the New York tarmac, were in danger of missing our second).
Pinkerton and I rushed as fast as we could. This was probably my biggest contribution to his effort. JFK was a madhouse, and we had 20 minutes to switch terminals. He was having trouble remembering the gate and making the walk quickly enough. In the end, we caught it, with probably five minutes to spare.
The last I saw Jim Pinkerton that day he was talking to a British customs agent, trying to convince him that he should be allowed into the country. For two years, I never knew if he made it. I know now.
A big impression
On June 20, my family and I decided to visit the Cambridge American Cemetery.
Until I met Jim Pinkerton, I had no idea there was a cemetery dedicated to American soldiers in England. And even after meeting him, I really didn't give the cemetery itself much thought; I figured it was like any other cemetery.
I was wrong.
The online brochure showed that this was, in fact, a true American war memorial. The pictures reminded me of images from the Punchbowl cemetery in Honolulu. I learned that this cemetery was dedicated to American soldiers who died in World War II, where they were taken after having been killed in mainland Europe. More than 3,800 of his fellow American soldiers are buried there with Robert Pinkerton. A mammoth wall bearing the names of 5,000 more Americans who never came home overlooks the graveyard.
Halfway there, I decided to try to find Robert Pinkerton, although at that point, all I knew was his brother's name. Jim Pinkerton had made that strong of an impression on me. I'd never forgotten his effort, and I figured if he didn't make it, perhaps I should, on his behalf. I feared that if there was more than one Pinkerton in that cemetery, I'd be out of luck.
When we arrived, I was blown away by the place. Thousands of headstones, most of them crosses but some bearing the Star of David, were lined up with military precision in sweeping arcs. A huge chapel sits at the left end of a memorial wall every bit as impressive as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The names on the wall bounce off a reflecting pool in front of it.
And very few people were there. Maybe we just picked the wrong day, but not many Americans make it to these cemeteries. Michael Green can attest to that as well as anyone.
For the past 16 years, Green has served as a superintendent at cemeteries like this one around the globe - anywhere, that is, except in the U.S. A 20-year Marine Corps veteran who retired as a master sergeant, Green has dedicated the rest of his career to making sure America's fallen soldiers are not forgotten. It is he who proudly reminds anyone who will listen that these men are still on duty, thousands of miles from home.
A cemetery like Cambridge averages about 100 visitors a week, although that increases during warmer weather, he said. Most of them aren't family members, although he does meet people who only recently learned their loved one's name is on the memorial wall. Green has worked at cemeteries in England, France, Belgium and Tunisia. Most Americans don't visit when traveling abroad, he said. When he finds them at other locations, he asks why. Usually, the answer is they don't know anything about them.
I met Green with a simple-enough request: How do I find a particular grave? And I told him about meeting a World War II veteran on a plane two years earlier, a man with a desire to see his brother's grave and a short-term memory problem that made his trip challenging.
"You don't mean Pinkerton, do you?" he asked.
Most who know me know I don't often end up at a loss for words, but that did it.
The kindness of strangers
Jim Pinkerton was not deterred by a customs agent, after all.
I still don't know what he said to convince the agent. I worried that he would have forgotten to use the address I'd given him, even though I'd reminded him just minutes before he got to the agent. Or maybe it wasn't as difficult as I imagined. He then walked outside, and despite all I'd told him about trains in the country, he hailed a cab.
Green told me the rest of the story. The cab driver started the meter when Pinkerton got in the car; he couldn't turn it off even when Pinkerton said he wanted to see his brother in Cambridge. Off they went, about 75 miles from the busy Heathrow pickup area west of London to the remote road west of Cambridge, a fare that added up to about 400 pounds, or roughly $600. And there, Jim Pinkerton met Michael Green.
Green did what he does for everyone who comes to the cemetery looking for a relative. He took Jim Pinkerton and a handful of sand to Robert Pinkerton's headstone. They rubbed the sand, from Omaha Beach, into the carved lettering, making the letters stand out in a more readable way. They placed flags at the tombstone, and taps was played.
"As soon as taps was over, he bent down and hugged his brother's headstone with an embrace that showed how much he loved his brother," Green wrote - was inspired to write - soon after that May 2011 day. "As I wiped the tear from my eye he stood up and said, to his brother, 'I forgive you for socking me in the throat when we were kids.' It was as though this was part of his need to let his brother know he was forgiven."
Pinkerton's mission was complete, but he still had a problem. He was in a foreign country, with nowhere to go, and his trip fund severely depleted by the cab ride. He had two weeks to wait to catch a return flight.
He had a solution - Green and the cab driver. The cab driver offered to take Pinkerton back to London for free.
"He said, 'Listen, I have to drive my cab back anyway. I'm not going to charge him another 400 pounds,'" Green said. Green arranged Pinkerton's hotel and got a return flight to the U.S. lined up for the next day. The cab driver then ensured the hotel staff would wake Pinkerton in time for his flight. He even found out how to contact Pinkerton in the U.S. and verified that he got back to the U.S. safely, then let Green know he'd gotten home OK, Green said.
And then Green wrote about it. The story was published in England soon afterward, but it was a very small circulation, so few heard the story.
"It reminded me of that generation. They were mission-oriented. They wanted to help win the war and go back and restart their lives," Green said.
He sees people come to his cemeteries like this on a regular basis, looking for family members, but few left the impression that Jim Pinkerton did. That's why he knew immediately who I meant, two years later, without even a name.
A lasting memory
Earlier this week, I met Jim Pinkerton for the second time, this time at his home in Springfield.
He distinctly remembers seeing his brother's grave and his trip to England, although the particulars are fuzzy. He didn't really remember me, nor did he remember Green's name, but he still had my name written down in his little address book. He remembered the staff at the cemetery being helpful, though, and he remembered the long cab ride. He also remembered still having money left over when he came home, which surprised him.
I showed him a picture I took in England of Robert's grave.
"'Pfc. Robert N. Pinkerton.' I outranked him," Pinkerton, a corporal, said with a hearty laugh.
"My sister said Bob was meant to be a soldier," Pinkerton said. Bob was a few years older and both were injured at about the same time. Jim, an airborne soldier, was shot in the leg after being "all over Manila" in the Philippines. Considering he parachuted into an area and was alone for a while and had to "eliminate some people," his survival was remarkable. He has a Purple Heart.
Robert was wounded in April 1945. He was in the 100th Infantry, near the German border, when he was injured. He suffered a broken spine and other broken bones, but survived another two months.
"My brother was always tougher than me," Jim remembered. In the end, though, the wounds were too serious.
For 66 years, Jim Pinkerton vowed to reach his brother's grave one last time; I remember his determination that day on the airplane that nothing would stop him from achieving that mission.
Thankfully, he did. He needed help along the way, and he got it - even if he never really asked for it.
"There was something undone for him, and the thing that was undone was his brother; they had not seen each other since they went off to war," Green said. "That same attitude that helped him win the war brought him to England with a pocketful of money and not sure what to do. When he got the guidance, he went on and made it home, but he did it with help."
Jim Sabin is the managing editor of the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette, who traveled to England both times to visit relatives.