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Quartermaster Review-May/June 1946

Graves Registration search and recovery operations after World War II

Note: At the time this article was written the term Graves Registration was used for what is now call Mortuary Affairs.

The most intensive search in history is being conducted on the far-flung battlefields of World War II. Identification and proper burial of unknown American servicemen who died overseas is a work which will go on indefinitely as America bends every effort to pay fitting tribute to those who gave their last full measure of devotion.

Charged with this work overseas is the Graves Registration Service, operating under the commanding generals of the various theatres. Policies governing this work are set by The Quartermaster General. The service is responsible for the identification and burial of all Army, Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard personnel who lost their lives as the result of service outside the continental limits of the United States.

When the theatre, department, base, and defense commands are eventually abolished, the American Graves Registration Service, directly under The Quartermaster General, will take charge of the remains and cemeteries.

Such duties as the Quartermaster Corps now performs, and will in the future be called upon to assume, respect to World War II dead, are not entirely new. Since 1867 the interment of war dead and the operation and maintenance of national cemeteries has been the responsibility of the Quartermaster Corps.

Within a relatively short period following the Civil War, the Quartermaster Corps had completed the difficult work of burying both Confederate and Union dead, arranging for burial grounds to be kept in good condition, and undertaking to identify as many unknown soldiers as possible. A number of these burial places have now become national shrines. Millions of persons have made pilgrimages to the national cemeteries.

Upon the request of General Pershing a graves registration service was organized on August 7, 1917, to take care of World War I dead overseas. Major Charles C. Pierce a retired chaplain who had handled burial and graves registration work in the Philippines, was recalled to active duty to head the organization in Europe. Operations were carried on in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom, although most of the work was concentrated in France. At the peak of operations, in 1919, the graves registration service had 350 officers and 18,000 enlisted men working under it.

After July 1919 the service continued to function under the American Forces in France, successor to the American Expeditionary Forces. Its duties at at time were primarily care and maintenance of cemeteries in which American dead were buried in France, Luxembourg, and Belgium.

By the end of 1919 there were 512 American cemeteries in France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. In addition American dead were buried in plots in French and British military cemeteries, in French communal cemeteries, and in isolated graves. Of approximately 80,000 American dead in World War I, 1,643 have never been identified.

In November 1919 a reorganization of this work in Europe was instituted, and the organization became known as the Graves Registration Service, Q.M.C., under the direction of Colonel Harry F. Rethers. It was charged with the disinterment abroad and preparation of the bodies there for return to the United States or for removal to national cemeteries abroad.

With the wealth of past experience at its command, the Quartermaster Corps came to the task of graves registration work in World War II well-equipped. A few statistics indicate the monumental proportions of the work which is being undertaken. As of April 6, 1946, there were a total of 359 American military cemeteries containing the remains of 241,500 World War II dead. Estimated number of World War II service dead is 286,959. Of this number 246,492 have already been identified: Of the 40,467 who were unidentified as of March 31, 1946, the remains of 18,641 have been located by graves registration units. The remaining 21,826 were not reported located up to That time. Of those 18,641 remains which have been located, 10,986 now repose in military cemeteries and 7,655 in isolated graves.

The low percentage of unidentified dead in World War II anticipated by the War Department will, in large measure, be the result of tireless work on the part of search teams of the graves registration service. These teams are divided into three groups. One follows up all reports and rumors regarding buried soldiers; the second disinters the body after a grave has been discovered; and the third endeavors to make identification.

In attempting to locate the graves of service dead, search teams entering a town or territory seek out all available records of burial. Clergymen who may have officiated at burials, and people who took part in the actual burial, are sought out in an effort to determine the location of graves: Bodies thus located are sent back to a collecting point where an effort is made at identification. Then the bodies are placed in a temporary cemetery to await final disposition.

Identification tags worn by service personnel, or papers found on the remains, will in most cases serve to identify the body. A record is then made giving the exact location of the temporary grave in which the remains are interred. In the absence of the metal identification tags, fingerprints and a dental chart are used to establish identity. A form known as the Report of Interment provides for the recording of every physical detail which may be used as a means of identification, and is used in all cases. This is done to eliminate any possibilities of error.

The painstaking efforts made by search teams to identify bodies rival the methods of detectives in fiction.

Typical of the cases confronting search teams was the instance where all that remained to identify a soldier was a ring. Long investigation revealed that the insignia was the seal of a normal school in the United States, with a student body composed exclusively of women. By checking the school roster and the list of graduates, after a great deal of correspondence the owner of the ring was found. She disclosed that her husband had been wearing the ring, and after an investigation which covered several months, positive identification was made.

Laundry marks have often been used as means of identification. A grave without any identification had been located. Condition of the remains made it impossible to take fingerprints or use dental charts. All the search team had to go on was the rather sketchy information; from another soldier. that he believed the body to be that of a certain Herbert Jones. A check revealed that the Herbert Jones reported by the soldier to be dead was, indeed, very much alive. There had also been fourteen other men with similar names in the area, all of whom were alive and accounted for. The search team then had the clothing of the dead soldier carefully cleaned in gasoline. Then, portion by portion, it was dipped in water. Ultimately a laundry mark was revealed, and from the mark identity of the soldier was established.

Watchmakers have contributed a great deal of help in establishing identity by tracing the serial numbers of watches found on deceased soldiers. The handwriting on scraps of letters has also led to identification. No matter how many hours of tireless searching are required, a case is never closed until positive identification has been made.

Problems of graves registration services in the Pacific Area are, of course, complex, due to the extended area over which fighting occurred. In New Guinea, for example, consolidation of cemeteries has become necessary, due to the fact that group burials took place at widely scattered points and temporary battlefield cemeteries were established close to the actual combat area. Isolated graves were marked with improvised crosses fifteen feet high in order to permit future identification. The nature of the country in New Guinea, however, has proven an obstacle to search teams. Isolated graves are sometimes located far in the mountainous interior, and overland transportation, confined to native trails, is slow and difficult. Some New Guinea natives refuse to disinter bodies, and this means that at times the actual digging must be done by limited graves registration personnel. The task of locating isolated graves is sometimes complicated by the rapid growth of vegetation, the tall kunsi grass in some areas, and the dense jungle undergrowth in others.

Confronting graves registration service units in New Guinea is also the arduous task of recovering bodies from air crashes. Expeditions have been sent out from all bases to locate crashed aircraft and transport the bodies back for burial in military cemeteries. These expeditions into the densely forested, mountainous interior of the country sometimes cover great distances and must be accomplished on foot with the aid of native carriers. Steep native trails winding over mountain peaks are the only means of access to this country, parts of which have seldom been traversed by white men.

Effects of Army personnel who died overseas are sent to the Army Effects Bureau at the Kansas City Quartermaster Depot, Kansas City, Missouri. This bureau was activated on February 5, 1942. There effects are carefully inventoried, soiled garments laundered, any Government issue articles removed, foreign money (except souvenir money) converted to U.S. currency, and any cash or negotiable checks deposited in a bank to the credit of the owner. Property is then packed for storage pending receipt by the bureau of a shipping order.

Some idea of the work which is being accomplished by graves registration overseas may be seen from a report issued recently by Under Secretary of War Kenneth C. Royall. The excellent choice of the sites of many cemeteries, the care given to the graves, and the attention given to landscaping made a deep impression upon the Under Secretary. Remains of all Americans who died in Germany have been removed from what was once enemy territory and reburied either in France, Belgium, or Luxembourg. This has involved the abandonment of many small cemeteries and consolidation into larger cemeteries. According to Mr. Royall these operations have been carried out with utmost dignity.

“From my talks with troops throughout the world I gathered the distinct impression that men, when going into battle, often expressed the feeling that, should they be killed, they would prefer to be buried in the lands they fought to liberate,” Mr. Royall said.

Recently appointed Chief of the Memorial Division in the Office of The Quartermaster General is Brig. Gen. George A. Horkan. When the theatre commands are abolished and the American Graves Registration Service takes over the work involved in providing for suitable care of service dead, his division will play a major role.