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by Edward Steere
Quartermaster Review, November – December 1953

As aptly stated by Quartermaster General M. I. Ludington in 1899, the return of Spanish American War dead from Cuba and Puerto Rico for private burial by their relatives, or for reinterment at public cost in a national cemetery, was probably without precedent in world history. While true in the sense implied, the General wisely avoided a sweeping statement of fact.

The Athenians, it will be recalled, erected “trophies” on the sites of victorious battles and supported a state sepulcher in the suburbs of their city for purposes similar to those now served by Arlington on the Potomac and by 97 other national cemeteries extending from ,the Narrows of New York to the Golden Gate and westward over the Pacific in Honolulu. Yet primitive means of carriage in ancient times permitted burial to only a small proportion of war fatalities in the Athenian sepulcher, giving this hallowed place more the aspect of a memorial to the heroic dead than a public cemetery in which all who gave their lives in defense of the state might expect to find a final resting place. The American system of national cemeteries offers this last consolation.

Whatever the comparison between the efforts ancient Athens and modern America to pay homage to their warrior dead, the historian may justly contend that a valid precedent for return of remains to their native soil had already been created by the post Civil War reinterment program of 1866-70. Although no problem of ocean transportation was then involved, exhumation from battlefield burials in territory previously held by the enemy and reinterment in the consecrated ground of a national cemetery established such a precedent. Its extension to areas outside the continental domain awaited only the circumstances of war requiring the employment of American arms beyond the seas.

The manner in which the United States Government accepted this precedent in 1898 was quite as significant as the act of acceptance. Recognizing that the passage of time from months to years between burial on battlefields of the Civil War and accurate registration of these graves had resulted in a large number of unknown dead. President McKinley instructed the Secretary of War to effect as soon as possible the location and marking of all military graves in the Cuban theater of operations.

Early in August 1898, within less than two months after the storming of San Juan Hill, Mr. D. H. Rhodes, a Quartermaster Department official long associated with the administration of national cemeteries, undertook the task and brought it to completion during September. Rhodes then organized the Quartermaster Burial Corps, a unit composed of civilian morticians and assistants, and directed the disinterment and shipment of remains to the United States. On April 27, 1899, the Army transport Cook docked at New York with 747 bodies from Cuba and Puerto Rico. In all, 1,222 casketed remains were returned to the United States by June 30, 1899. Of this total 13.63 percent were unidentified — a notable improvement over the percentage (42.5) of Civil War unknowns.

After completion of its mission in Cuba and Puerto Rico, the Burial Corps, with D. H. Rhodes in charge embarked for the Philippine Islands to exhume the military dead in that archipelago and prepare the remains for shipment to Manila. Meanwhile Maj. Gen. E. S. Otis, commanding the Department of the Philippines, had instructed Chaplain Charles C. Pierce to establish and direct the United States Army Morgue and Office of Identification at Manila.

Staffed by military personnel of the department and subject to orders of the departmental or theater commander, the two units directed by Chaplain Pierce had the basic organizational characteristics of a present-day theater graves-registration service. At the same time, the Quartermaster Burial Corps, which was composed entirely of civilians and reported to the Quartermaster General, performed all graves registration duties within the department excepting those expressly assigned to Chaplain Pierce. While scarcely in accord with United States military doctrine which now forbids any expedient that tends to produce division of authority in an active theater establishment, this anomalous relationship had a double justification: care of the dead and return of remains to the United States were conducted simultaneously. There can be no doubt that both D. H. Rhodes and Chaplain Pierce were responsible for a further reduction in the percentage of unknowns. During 1901 only 9 of the 1,384 remains shipped from Manila to the United States were unidentified. Where Rhodes again demonstrated in his field work that a high score in identification was dependent on reducing to a minimum the period between burial and registration of the grave, Pierce demonstrated in his achievements at the Office of Identification an equally valid principle. In proposing the adoption of an aluminum identity disc as an item of the field kit, and in vigorously insisting that the collection and processing of all mortuary reports and related service records should become the responsibility of the central office, he envisioned the administrative apparatus for conducting identification on a scientific basis.

The number of remains returned during the years 1899-1902 from overseas theaters involved in the Spanish American War, the Philippine Insurrection and the North China Expedition reached an approximate total of 5,931. Of this total 1,336 were interred at Arlington, while the San Francisco National Cemetery received 1,922. The residue were sent to relatives for burial in private plots or nearby national cemeteries. During the same period (1899-1902) there were 8,897 interments in all national cemeteries, including Civil War veterans, overseas dead and a small proportion of those who died in camps during the brief mobilization of 1898.

It is obvious that battle casualties incident to America’s first thrust as a world power beyond her continental shores did not impose a serious tax on available grave space in the national system. Indeed, the record of interments year by year would indicate that future expansion of the system must be directed primarily toward the accommodation of living veterans who had been accorded the right of burial, and only incidentally for interment of the war dead. The Spanish American War and Philippine insurrection, for instance, brought an increase of some 400,000 “eligible veterans.” Even if it is assumed that no more than ten percent of these veterans might claim the privilege, the eventual total of interment would be four times the number of fatalities (10,680) from all causes suffered at home and abroad during those wars.

Notable improvements in provision for care and final disposition of remains, were furthered by revolutionary innovations in American military organization. Establishment of the War Department General Staff and the Army War College in 1903, together with provision for the development of a General Staff Corps, furnished the elements of a modern command system. At the same time steps were taken in solving the increasingly complicated function of logistical support by assigning responsibility to the G-4 Section of the General Staff for planning and supervision of matters relating to procurement, supply and evacuation. Then, in 1912 the Quartermaster Department was reconstituted as a Corps and put on a military basis, with special service companies taking over many activities heretofore performed by civilian employees or details from the line. In keeping with the logic of this organizational scheme, the Quartermaster Graves Registration Service Company, as authorized by War Department General Orders No. 104, August 7, 1917, became the functional successor to D. H. Rhodes’ Civilian Burial Corps.

Employment of the new command system in war not only eliminated many such divisions of authority as had characterized care and disposition of remains during the Philippine Insurrection, but provided more efficient field service organization for execution of the command responsibility in these respects. Briefly, theater commanders virtually abolished the lag of time between original burial and registration of the grave by having at their disposal a specialized service which effected the evacuation of remains from an active battle front to temporary military cemeteries in the rear, where registration of the grave accompanied original burial. Under direction of Charles C. Pierce, who was recalled from retirement and commissioned Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) in the Quartermaster Corps, the Graves Registration Service of World War I reduced the percentage of unknowns to less than three bodies (2.2 percent) for every hundred recovered. In World War II conditions of combat interposed new difficulties to processes of evacuation and identification, giving a comparable figure of 3.7 for that struggle.

In examining the impact of two world wars on the national cemetery system, one is confronted by three basic considerations. In the first place, continuous improvement in the organization and operating procedures of theater graves-registration services reduced the number of temporary burial places and thereby facilitated the final disposition of remains. Again, refinements in processes of body identification by supplementing such standard devices as the finger print and tooth chart with highly complex laboratory techniques tended, at least, to offset the destructive power of new weapons that otherwise would have created another category of “unidentifiables.” Finally, steam and motor transportation by land, sea and air abolished every serious obstacle to the carriage of war remains from theaters in remote quarters of the globe to established cemeteries in the homeland. It therefore followed that the distribution of thousands of remains in temporary burial places no longer determined the location of cemeteries designed to serve as final resting places for the war dead.

If experience of the Spanish American War and Philippine Insurrection furnished any sort of clue, it seemed inevitable that these circumstances should, at the end of World War I, have imposed the burden of a sudden and unprecedented number of burials on the national cemeteries. But an unforeseen attitude of mind worked against any such expectation. Contrary to the belief that a vast majority of next of kin would desire the return of their dead, a large minority — forty percent of the whole — were swayed by the same motive that impelled the Athenians to depart from their traditional burial policy and, according to Thucydides, make an exception of those slain at Marathon, “who for their singular and extraordinary valor were interred on the spot where they fell.” Theodore Roosevelt echoed these sentiments when he said that no higher tribute could be paid to the memory of his son Quentin and to thousands of his comrades in arms than the honor of burial in the soil where they fought and died.

A poll of the next of kin decreed that 31,591 dead would remain in Europe, while 46,520 were to be returned to the. United States. But of the latter not more than 12.5 percent, or approximately 5,800, sought burial in national cemeteries. In other words, interments in the cemeteries established abroad were about seven times the number laid to rest in the national cemeteries at home.

These decisions imposed on the War Department a three-fold responsibility. The first demanded immediate action in returning three-fifths of the war dead to the United States. The second required that prompt steps should be taken to plan and prepare suitable burial places for those remaining in Europe. Involving matters of no immediate concern, the third suggested study of a long-range program whereby expansion of the national cemeterial system would be geared to future requirements of some five million living veterans and such of their dependents as were eligible by law for burial.

The first responsibility and a considerable part of the second was discharged by the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS), a special organization established within the Quartermaster Corps. A large field force designated as the AGRS, Q.M.C., in Europe, Col. H. F. Rethers commanding, prepared the remains for shipment to the United States. The return program reached an awesome culmination in the ceremonious entombment of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington in 1922. At the same time, Colonel Rethers carried forward the concentration of bodies destined for burial abroad in five locations tentatively selected as sites for United States military cemeteries.

Where the Civil War cemeteries were plan without conscious regard to the memorial aspect, being intended originally as simple burial places, the World War I military cemeteries in Europe were, with surrounding park areas, conceived as both memorials and burial places and developed in accordance With clearly defined principles looking to classical simplicity of design. These principles were embodied in a set of master plans which prescribed memorial and utilitarian features, landscaping, space utilization and access roads. Then, supplementing the specifications common to the system as a whole, the detailed plan for a particular cemetery was drawn in reference to the given number of remains assigned for burial in that cemetery.

Acting largely on suggestions of the National Commission of Fine Arts, a board composed of Assistant Secretary of War J. M. Wainwright, General of the Armies John S. Pershing and Quartermaster General H. L. Rogers affirmed the locations recommended by Colonel Rethers and designated two additional sites for United States military cemeteries. Another, making eight in all, was subsequently added. One, adjoining the civilian cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey County, England, would harbor the remains of servicemen who died in the United Kingdom and, contrary to policy applying to military cemeteries on the Continent, would continue to inter remains of members of the United States armed forces who might at any future time die in the British Isles.

The final list included five cemeteries —  Suresnes, Aisne-Marne, Somme, Oise Aisne and Flanders Field identified with areas in which untried American divisions assigned to British and French commands stood shoulder to shoulder with their veteran Allies in stemming the last violent onslaught of the Hohenzollern armies and then joined in the victorious counter-attack. Two — St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne — recall triumphs in sectors confided by the Allied Generalissimo to the American Commander-in-Chief.

Secretary of War John W. Weeks prepared the draft of a bill describing the composition and duties of a commission which would be empowered by Congress to perform the following functions:

To prepare plans and estimates for the erection of suitable memorials to mark and commemorate the services of American forces in France, Belgium and Italy, and to erect these memorials at such places as the commission shall determine, provided: That before any design or materials for such purposes is accepted by the commission, the said design or material shall be approved by the National Commission of Fine Arts.

This proposal was written into an act approved March 4, 1923, creating the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). However, Congress removed the commission from War Department control by requiring that all commissioners should be appointed by the President. Accordingly, General of the Armies Pershing became Chairman and served in this capacity until his death in 1948. For the rest, the commission was composed of six civilian members, with Major Xenephon H. Price, Corps of Engineers, now Colonel, USA Ret., serving as Executive Secretary.

Major Price established the commission’s field office at Paris and, in close collaboration with the Chief, AGRS, QMC, in Europe, directed all engineering aspects, of the memorial program The policy governing this enterprise was based on a division of functions between two separate authorities. ABMC was to erect permanent headstones, construct utility buildings, chapels and other memorial features in the cemeteries and park areas and develop markers and other visual aids to supplement an elaborate guide book for the benefit of tourists visiting the battlefields. The War Department, acting through the AGRS in Europe, or a successor organization, would assume responsibility for maintenance of the memorials upon completion and transfer to the War Department.

In October 1933, after the chapels and monuments were so near completion that maintenance was taken over by AGRS, it was recommended that a new organization to be known as the “American War Memorials in Europe” should supersede the American Graves Registration Service and, on January 1, 1934, assume responsibility under the Secretary of War for administration of permanent military cemeteries and monuments in Europe.

While approved and briefly given effect, this arrangement was terminated in consequence of Executive Order No.6614, issued February 26, 1934, which required that all functions of administration pertaining to national cemeteries and memorials located Europe be transferred from the War Department to the American Battle Monuments Commission. Accordingly, the Chief, American War Memorials in Europe, was instructed to complete the transfer by April 27, 1934.

With completion of this act, the permanent overseas cemeteries passed from jurisdiction of the War Department and operational control of the Quartermaster General. While serving the purpose originally sought in establishing national cemeteries for burial of the Civil War dead, the military cemeteries beyond the seas became a separate and self-contained system. Administered by an authority enjoying the great   prestige of the General of the Armies and reporting directly to the President, the new system succeeded in giving permanence to its separation from the old one.

During the interval of peace between the two world wars, Congress gave some attention to the problem of expanding the national cemeterial system. Discussion of measures supported largely by the American Legion revealed that planning for future needs was to be determined, not by the number or distribution of the war dead, but rather by the great centers of population in which living veterans, their wives and minor dependents were merged. Ambitious proposals contributed, at least to the addition of seven cemeteries to the national system, including Long Island and greater New York, Golden Gate close to San Francisco, Fort Snelling within the metropolitan area of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the Baltimore National Cemetery at Baltimore, Maryland. While meeting current demands, these additions may be characterized as a cautious step rather than a bold stride toward the future. Since consideration of the matter was resumed with a greater sense of urgency during World War II, only to be dropped after the conclusion of hostilities, it is proposed to reserve the final paper of this series for an examination of the problem in its many aspects.

World War II burst with even greater fury than the first titanic conflict between the Great Powers. America called approximately 15,000,000 men to the colors and, expressed in round figures, suffered 359,000 fatalities, of which 281,000 were recovered and given burial in temporary theater cemeteries. Congress empowered the Secretary of War to make, within certain limits, such disposition of these dead as the next of kin might direct. This task was delegated to The Quartermaster General, who established self-contained AGRS commands within those areas that had been assigned during hostilities to overseas theater establishments and caused a poll of the next of kin to be taken. Reaction in this instance was similar to, the one following World War I ; approximately three-fifths of the war dead were to be returned to the United States and two-fifths left abroad. 

In all, some 171,000 casketed remains were delivered to next of kin in the United States. Of this total, 134,000 were interred in private plots, while 37,000, or about 20 percent of the whole, went to national cemeteries. At the same time, approximately 97,000 dead were; according to wishes of next of kin, buried abroad. This latter figure, it should be explained, includes about 14,000 remains which were interred in three national cemeteries – Honolulu, Puerto Rico and Sitka – outside the continental limits of the United States. Numbering 10,009, the unknown dead found their final resting place in military cemeteries beyond the seas.

The vicissitudes of war and peace had altered old relationships between the AGRS and ABMC when consideration was first given to the problem of providing burial places for those of the World War II dead that might be interred in the overseas theaters. After dissolution in 1934, the AGRS had been revived by war. Meanwhile, the German occupation of western Europe prevented ABMC from exercising control over all its cemeteries excepting Brookwood in England. Then, early in 1945, before the recession of German conquest restored these cemeteries to ABMC, the War Department, sensing the wishes of next of kin and influential members of Congress, formulated its basic plan for final disposition of the war dead at home and abroad.

Acting in this connection as the planning agent of the War Department, the Memorial Division not only recognized the divorcement of military cemeteries abroad from national cemeteries at home, but insisted that those established for the dead of World War II should be separate and apart from the group identified with World War I.

In keeping with this logic, 14 permanent military cemeteries were developed by various AGRS overseas commands and progressively transferred to ABMC upon completion of burials between July 1949 and June 1951. Like those of World War I, each one of the new system is rich in historic association – Cambridge in England, Margraten in Holland, Henri Chapelle and Neuville-en-Condroz in Belgium, Hamm in Luxembourg, five in France, including St. Laurent which overlooks the Normandy beaches where American, British, and Canadian troops stormed ashore to open Eisenhower’s invasion route to the Elbe; two in Italy, Florence symbolizing the final triumph of the Fifth Army and Nettuno recalling its heroic stand in the Anzio beachhead; one at Tunis where Hitler’s dream of an African empire perished and near the ancient battlefield where Seipio Africanus overthrew Hannibal, the Carthaginian; and lastly, Fort McKinley, in the suburbs of Manila, where MacArthur brought his epic march from Port Moresby to a victorious culmination.

Memorial Division planners took pains in drafting the plan of 1945 to justify the greater costs for construction and perpetual maintenance of military cemeteries abroad in comparison to those which would be ultimately involved in returning the war dead to the homeland for burial either in private plots or national cemeteries. They stated: “Final disposition of our soldiers’ remains, in accordance with the wishes of their loved ones, is an inherent obligation of the Government as a final gesture of a grateful country to those who paid the supreme sacrifice.”