I'm ashamed to admit this, but in the past, Memorial Day has been more about a three-day weekend filled with family BBQs, the start of summer and a day off from work.
Like all Americans, I learned at a young age that Memorial Day is meant to honor the sacrifices men and women in our military fighting for our freedom make each day. And to remember the ones who died trying to protect the rights we daily tend to take for granted.
But I didn't really get it.
That is until a week ago.
I went on a trip to England with a one of my best friends, who also happens to be a World War II buff. We had no real plans aside from driving through the English countryside.
He mentioned he would like to see Thorpe Abbotts, a World War II airfield in the farmlands of eastern England. We had no other solid plans, so I figured, why not?
As we drove to the airbase -- which turned into a longer drive than expected as we searched for hours, taking every wrong turn before wandering down the right, hidden dirt road -- my friend asked me what I knew about World War II and the airbases in England.
I admitted didn't know much. I knew about the general concept of the war. The Holocaust. My high school history classes required me to digest information from old, crumbling text books and memorize major battles and dates for the weekly tests, all of which I forgot the next week.
I learned most about the war from English class, where we read personal accounts from Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. But I knew nothing about the airbases scattered throughout the countryside we were driving through.
My friend was a bit surprised at my response and said the trip to this old airbase would probably mean nothing to me. I quietly thought the same thing but was willing to go along for the ride knowing it meant so much to him.
When we finally arrived we were pleasantly surprised to see there were several buildings on the property turned into a museum for the U.S. Army's Eighth Air Force. It was nothing fancy, manned by volunteers and requiring no admission fee. Throughout our whole time there, we saw only three other small groups roaming around.
We were greeted by Ron, a volunteer who was one of the original men in the area who worked tirelessly to preserve and restore the original control tower that serves as the centerpiece of the museum today. Along with it, the group of loyal volunteers preserved the stories of the American soldiers who joined the war after Pearl Harbor and stationed at bases like Thorpe Abbotts.
Ron explained that Thorpe Abbotts and the 100th Bomb Group stationed there had a dark history. Known as the "Bloody Hundreth," they lost a staggering number of crews -- leading some men to hope they weren't stationed with the group. Later, it was discovered some of the best pilots in the war flew with the 100th.
As Ron spoke, he mentioned he had not even been alive at the time of the war, but living nearby, he became fascinated with the stories of the men who came from America to their small towns and helped the Allies ultimately win the war. I wondered what possessed him to put so much time and energy into memorializing the Americans who were stationed there for a few short years.
The museum has four small buildings: the one-room visitor center with folding tables and chairs and shelves of books about the war; two other one-room sheds (similar in shape and size to the buildings used on the original airbase) filled with model planes flown during the war and other equipment and recovered plane parts; and the original control tower.
We walked quietly through each building, the only sound bugs buzzing around, a rooster occasionally crowing in the distance and the crunching of the gravel under our feet as we walked from building to building. Inside, every wall was covered with collages and boards filled with black and white pictures and written accounts of various missions, explained in painstaking detail along with the outcomes, including the men who made it home and those who did not.
Diagrams showed the complexity of what they -- mostly men younger than me, just barely in their 20s -- were expected to carry out. From complex flight patterns in the dead of winter when visibility was especially poor to how to successfully use their parachute when they needed to abandon their aircraft, which I learned must have been a regular occurrence.
The control tower by far touched me the most. Each room is packed with recovered equipment, preserved personal belongings -- like flight jackets, combs and pillows and gifts embroidered with poems that they sent to their parents and wives back home -- and insight into what life was really like on the base.
There were logs about the daily conditions and happenings, accounts from men taken prisoner of war and pictures of damaged airplanes, flying back to base with large, gaping holes in their wings and fuselages. There were audio recordings of men telling how desperate times called for desperate measures, including checking a dead crew mate's belongings for cigarettes and other goods before packing their things to be sent back to their family in the States.
Men, decades after the war, recounted in astounding detail times when they came under fire, describing the "flak" -- deadly, shrapnel-filled ground fire from German guns -- that were constantly firing at their planes as soon as they crossed the border, trying to take them down as soon as possible, before they had chance to complete their missions and drop their bombs. They wrote about the hours some men spent in the ball turrets, the worst, most cramped spot in the bottom of the freezing bombers where their knees were pushed up to their ears as they fired at the German fighter planes trying to kill them.
While some men bonded over the war, others tried to steel themselves against the harsh realities: many of the men simply would not survive. One man described seeing a new solider settling into the bunks one night, alone, with no one talking to him. The next day, he went out on a mission and never came back. No one had even asked him his name.
On the top floors of the control tower, cases from floor to ceiling were filled with information and belonging from some of the men, like Lt. Col. Robert "Rosie" Rosenthal, a decorated pilot in the Eighth Air Force who flew an astounding 53 missions -- which was quite a feat considering many men didn't survive just a few.
Other stories told of the mechanics who had to use creative solutions to fix the aircraft flown home each night, or the men who tried to corral the planes and keep order from the control tower, and the men who played in an army band, making music in hopes of helping pass time on the base and provide much needed release from the stresses of war.
Cases in the center of the room on the top floor house letters from men to each other, describing the times they spent together, memories made, the unbroken bond the war created and the pain of losing each other.
Families also wrote stories about their loved ones, describing the lives they went on the lead after the war, but how much their time at Thorpe Abbotts -- those few years -- had stayed with them and changed them forever.
One of the most touching things I read was a poem, hanging in a cramped corner of one room, describing how the men used to count the number of planes that took off for battle. Then, they would wait anxiously at night for their return. When they heard the drum of the motors in the distance, they would stop where they stood on the base and count the planes to see how many made it home.
The museum is clearly a mission of love. And as I continued to read, moving slowly from board to board, wall to wall, room to room, I understood why Ron and the others were drawn to their cause.
As we made our way to the top of the control tower to the balcony overlooking the expanse where the air base once stood, I stared at the peaceful farmland and tried to process everything I had seen and read. I wondered how these men dealt with the loss. With knowing every time they boarded a plane, they might never make it home.
I thought of their mothers, fathers, wives, children, siblings and best friends back home. How far reaching and life altering a war can be.
I wondered if war was made this real to all of us, would it still exist? Just as there were countless stories bulging from the three-story control tower, there were just as many airfields scattered throughout the countryside, all I'm sure filled with their own ghosts and their own tales. And now, even more stories being written as Americans continue to fight overseas.
This Memorial Day, I still went to my family barbeques and worked on my sun tan. But while I enjoyed the three-day weekend and celebrated the start of summer, I didn't take the moments or privileges for granted.
And the stories of the men from Thorpe Abbotts were never be far from my thoughts.
Follow Kathleen Fordyce Rohan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KathleenFordyce