The outbreak of World War II found soldiers of the British Commonwealth engaged in fighting on four continents. While fierce fighting raged from Africa to the South Pacific, a desperate air war was underway in the skies over England. If German pilots could crush Royal Air Force bases and destroy planes in the air, Adolf Hitler would be able to invade England and control all of Europe.
Due to the frequent German bombing raids, the R.A.F. had a hard time training young pilots without them being drawn into combat for which they were unprepared. For this reason, the Royal Air Force sent pilots in training to the United States to learn without being under fire. Many of those pilots trained at air bases scattered around Florida.
Sadly, not all those young men made it home. Whether from training errors, equipment failures, illness or other accidents, lives were lost. A long standing British tradition is that soldiers are to be buried where they fall. Therefore, there are British Commonwealth war dead buried in various places around the U.S.
One of those places is Oak Ridge Cemetery in Arcadia, Florida. Tucked in amongst pioneer families, American veterans, and locals is a relatively small, immaculately kept area with 23 identical headstones, each adorned with a red poppy. Here lies the remains of young men that died far from home, but are not forgotten. The plot is overseen by The Imperial War Graves Commission, which has the sole responsibility of ensuring that the final resting place of the Heroes of the Commonwealth are properly taken care of around the globe. While none of these men died under enemy fire, they still died in defense of their country.
These brave boys are a source of pride for the community of Arcadia. Since 1956, the town has held a Memorial Day ceremony at the site which includes bag pipes, Canadian visitors and America WWII vets.
One of the plaques is touching:
Rupert Brooke, 1887 – 1915
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
If you go, the cemetery closes at sunset. After paying respects to the fallen soldiers, take some time to wander among the graves. You will see many names that are not just pioneers of Arcadia, but Florida as well.