In the dead of night, essence of a memorial is revealed
MILDENHALL, England — Hours after the military pomp and formality that opened one of the most somber events of POW/MIA Remembrance Week at RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath, the 24-hour vigils at the bases were reduced to their true essence.
In a persistent wind and bone-chilling rain, airmen stood in the middle of the night reading the names of the nearly 10,000 American servicemen missing or imprisoned in post-World War II conflicts.
“Army Sgt. Elmer Foster, West Carroll, La., 15 December 1950.”
Lacking even basic comforts for the readers, the lonely hours of the vigil were as important as any piece of the pageantry scheduled on the eve of National POW/MIA Recognition Day, volunteers at Mildenhall said.
Even if no one was listening, it was important to speak the names one by one, readers said.
“Air Force Lt. Thelbert Wormack, Cincinnati, Ohio, 14 August 1950.”
The week of remembrance events included a run, a luncheon and a “motorcycle safety ride.”
But the recitation of the list is a budding tradition at U.K. air bases, organizers from the two posts said. It’s an effort that requires hundreds of volunteers to read names in shifts. By about 1 a.m. early Friday morning, there was no sign of flagging among the Mildenhall readers.
Propped up by coffee and donated pans of brownies, snacks and pizza, volunteers continued to arrive in pairs throughout the night to take turns reading names and standing silent watch over a display of four hats — one from the uniform of each branch of the military.
New Mildenhall wing commander Col. Michael Stough, a participant in the formal procedure that opened the vigil, also returned at about 3 a.m. to read several shifts.
Mildenhall organizer Master Sgt. Dalton Edwards from the 100th Maintenance Squadron even planned to stay for the entire 24 hours, until the vigil ended with a closing ceremony Friday.
Having already read for several shifts in the blustery cold, Edwards said the thought of what many men on the list must have suffered through was enough to push away the slight discomfort of standing still in the rain.
“It doesn’t really come to your mind while you’re up there,” he said. “Listening to those names, all kinds of thoughts are going through your head … weather is probably one of the last ones.”
Over at Lakenheath, vigil organizer Staff Sgt. Yvette Taylor said she was just hoping passers-by would “remember and recognize the sacrifices these people made.”
“Their families are still waiting,” Taylor said. “We just want people to remember that.”