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Quartermaster Review-July/August 1954

Search and recovery operations in the Korean War

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

SILENTLY searching every foot of the South Korean countryside today are small groups of U. S. soldiers on a little known but earnest mission. Their job is to find the unrecovered remains of United Nations soldiers killed in action. The Graves Registration Division, QM Section, coordinates and directs several Quartermaster Graves Registration Companies, strategically located throughout the Eighth Army area, in the search and recovery operations.

There are three phases to the search and recovery program operations. All of these phases are activated by Field Search cases prepared by the Quartermaster Graves Registration Officer of KCOMZ (Korean Communications Zone). Field search cases consist of battle narratives of all actions, with battle maps and the names of all individuals still Unaccounted for from each engagement or a specific clue or lead on a specific person which indicates possibility of recovery.

Phase I concerns cases where specific leads are furnished Graves Registration teams as to the exact or approximate whereabouts of the body of a soldier whose remains have not been recovered.

Phase II covers the detailed search of all former battle sites suspected of containing remains of fallen soldier heroes. This action is begun upon receipt of the Field Search case with supporting battle information and names of casualties not yet accounted for from the specific action. These Field Search cases are received at the Graves Registration Division of the Eighth Army Quartermaster Section and are forwarded to the Graves Registration Company in whose area of responsibility the action took place.

The company breaks the battle area, or case area, into grid squares to facilitate the search program. The grid squares are approximately 1000 meters square. As few as 40 or as many as 152 grid squares may be contained in a case area. It may take a team a single day or perhaps a week to cover a grid square depending upon the terrain and weather conditions.

Phase III is the area clearance program, the third operation conducted by the Graves Registration personnel. This program calls for a team to sweep an entire area, not looking for any particular remains but for anything that may be there. The areas are broken down by Myons, the major political sub-divisions in Korea, and are then divided into grid squares for the search and recovery teams.

Generally each of the specially trained search and recovery teams is composed of six men in addition to a truck driver and a Korean interpreter. These men work long hours, six days a week, climbing difficult terrain and walking over explosive-infested areas. They eat their noon C-ration meal in the field and find quarters with units in the area which they are searching, or establish their own overnight camp.

The actual work done by the six-man teams in all the three programs is quite similar and equally difficult. The men form a skirmish line about ten yards apart and then proceed to cover the ground within the grid square. Back and forth, or up and down, the men plod, searching for any signs of graves or remains. Every former foxhole must be dug up until hard ground is reached to be sure that no one was buried there in the heat of battle and no marker left. Team Number Two of the 293rd Graves Registration Company recently excavated 400 foxholes in one grid square. Sites of most battles contain a similar number, usually located on rugged hillsides. All foxholes, bunkers, gun emplacements and similar sites must be excavated. When the holes have been dug out the skirmish line moves on to the next possible site.

A dangerous aspect of this work is that these men are constantly off the beaten path and in danger of stepping on a land mine or striking some sort of explosive with their tools. The teams have found any number of mortar rounds, and grenades usually the Chinese “potato masher” variety. They mark the spot where they have been found and report the information to Ordnance demolition experts.

Search and recovery teams are often aided by Korean farmers who live in the case area and know the land well. These farmers direct the men to former battle sites, give them information concerning locations of graves in the vicinity and details of actions fought in the locality.

When a search and recovery team has completed a grid square the team leader writes the grid-square report, which together with adjoining grid-square reports of a certain case area, makes up the case report. The Army Graves Registration Officer then recommends the area be declared cleared and further area search action discontinued; however, if evidence is uncovered indicating chance of recovery subsequent individual searches may be made. The entire case report is then sent through the Graves Registration Officer of KCOMZ to AFFE and finally to the Office of The Quartermaster General.

The important work of the graves registration people will not end until all of Korea is cleared of American remains or until every effort has been expended and the cases of missing men are resolved. Soon teams will set out on LCUs (Landing Craft Utility) to begin clearing islands off the Korean coast. The procedure will be the same as that being followed on the mainland. It is hoped that search and recovery teams will be allowed, at some future date, to enter North Korea to evacuate remains of United Nations soldiers interred there.The work of the men in Graves Registration is difficult and their goals important. The Graves Registration Companies in the Eighth Army have been rewarded with several U. S. and ROK (Republic of Korea) commendations in recognition of their work.