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By Dr. Steven E. Anders

From the Quartermaster Professional Bulletin – September 1988

(Note: This article was written when Mortuary Affairs was called
Graves Registration or GRREG)

At 0515 on the morning of 12 December 1985, a chartered DC-8 crashed shortly after takeoff from an airport just outside Gander, Newfoundland. On board were 248 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division returning home from a peace-keeping mission in the Sinai; none survived the crash. The plane’s wreckage, along with the badly burned and dismembered bodies of its passengers and crew were strewn over a three-quarter mile area of frozen forest.

In less than 24 hours a special Graves Registration (GRREG) Search and Recovery Team for the Quartermaster (QM) Center at Fort Lee, Virginia, landed in Newfoundland and stood ready to assist Canadian officials already on the site. Joined by other military and civilian personnel during the weeks that followed, the GRREG team combed and sifted every square foot of the crash site searching for the victims’ remains and personal effects. All recovered items were noted, sorted, categorized and reconciled to one another as appropriate. In the end, despite the severe damage incurred by the overwhelming violence of the place crash and fire, all of the deceased were positively identified and accorded a decent burial -with all due honors.

Although this tragic episode occurred during peacetime, its magnitude provided a graphic reminder of the essential role that Quartermasters have historically played in caring for the nation’s war dead.

As far back as the early 1800s, Quartermaster officers assigned to frontier outposts constructed cemetery plots, buried the dead in marked graves, and kept a fairly uniform record of burial. Though commendable, these efforts hardly afforded the practical experience needed to handle combat fatalities resulting from a large scale conflict. No formal policy addressed that possibility either.

The Mexican War (1846-47) provided the first real test of the Army’s ability to care for its war dead, but with results that were far from satisfactory. In one instance, General Zachary Taylor saw to it that the dead were properly collected and buried on the battlefield following his celebrated victory at Buena Vista. Unfortunately. he neglected to mark the site of the burial on the map accompanying his official report. Years later, when the U.S. government sought to erect a monument to honor the fallen heroes, no burial site could be found. A similar experience marked the campaign of General Winfield Scott, whose troops landed at Vera Cruz and marched overland to Mexico City. Of the hundreds who died and were buried along the way, only a fraction were located afterwards, and none have ever been identified.

The actual foundation of today’s Graves Registration mission is more readily traced to the outbreak of the American Civil War. That tragic conflict elicited more sacrifice and accounted for more battle deaths than all of our other major wars combined. At the same time public sensibilities towards the treatment of dead soldiers appeared to be changing possibly in response to the sight of so many citizen-soldiers donning the blue or grey. Still, this heightened concern for the war dead did not automatically translate into an improved battlefield scenario. There the old tried and true methods of burial remained the norm. Almost invariably, the dead were buried by details from the line, right at, or very near the scene of the battle. When the armies moved on, those burial grounds with their temporary markers were left to deteriorate, leaving little hope of locating or identifying the grave of any given decedent.

Another factor contributed to the problem of identifying and locating individual graves. Burial “squads” were frequently made up of POWs, or other less than willing hands. Often illiterate or careless, the results of their actions were fairly predictable; the true identity of many of the dead was lost to error. During the action at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse approximately 1,500 men died; only a fourth of those were ever identified. (Roughly 58% of all those who died during the Civil War were positively identified.) Countless notices appearing in the newspapers of the time, asking for information about those missing in action bore witness to this legacy of uncertainty.

Other examples of concern over the Army’s failure to provide adequate graves registration, as well as of the negative effect this lack of support had on the troops abounded. When the Union Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River and entered Virginia on 4 May 1864, those soldiers were horrified to discover the bleached bones of comrades who’d fallen the year before lying exposed on the ground. At this point many of the troops searched through the remains hoping to discover clues that would designate the remains as those of departed friends. They looked for identifying marks on clothing and equipment, evidence of fatal wounds, and peculiarities of tooth structure as part of their search. (It is interesting to note that these methods of establishing identification would become part of standard operating procedure for 20th century GRREG personnel.) Finally, before moving into the Wilderness, those troops took time to bury the exposed remains. The fear of being listed among the “unknowns” weighed upon the combat troops. Even though the War Department did not require or issue any sort of identifying tag, the rank and file often took steps to ensure that their identity would be known should they be killed on the battlefield. Identifying markers carved of wood were carried by many soldiers, as were medallions bearing their names and other information. Prior to attacking the entrenched Confederates at Mine Run during the winter of 1863, the men of the Union Fifth Corps wrote their names on small scraps of paper and pinned them to their uniforms. 

Still, the military hierarchy of the day apparently failed to realize not only the importance of some type of permanent identification for combat soldiers, but also the obvious need for specially trained units and personnel who could properly care for the war dead. On only one occasion, after the Battle of Fort Stevens outside of Washington DC in the summer 1864, did a group resembling a modern day GRREG unit come into play. A Captain James M. Moore, newly appointed head of the QM Cemeterial Division led a group of his personnel on to the battlefield after the fighting had ended. There they began a systematic search and recovery of remains and personal effects, eventually managing to identify all the remains. Their achievement of a perfect score was not to be matched within the U.S. Army for many decades. Unfortunately, that perfect score also failed to lead to the use of trained GR personnel on a routine basis. Despite this, the Civil War saw the QM Corps clearly established as the responsible agent for caring for the Army’s dead. After the war, between 1866 and 1870, the Cemeterial Division disinterred the remains of nearly 300,000 war dead and laid them to rest in 73 newly created national cemeteries.

Conspicuous advances in the theory and practice of Army graves registration were not to take place until the turn of the century, during the Spanish-American War. As a result of experiences in Cuba, it was learned that successful identification of remains depended more than anything on shortening the time span between death, original burial, and registration of graves. Later, Chaplain Charles C. Pierce, who established the QM Office of Identification in the Philippines, outlined some of the principles and techniques needed to place care of war dead on a more scientific basis. He recommended inclusion of an “identity disc” in the combat field kit, and the establishment of central collection points or agencies where all pertinent mortuary records could be gathered, filed, checked, traced, and corrected. Positive identification, he reasoned, should admit little doubt and no discrepancies.

The Quartermaster Department was reorganized in 1912 and became the Quartermaster Corps, a fully militarized branch of the service, much as we know it today. Specialized troops took over most of the functions previously performed by civilians or detachments from the line. Thus on the eve of the United States entry into World War I, the way was cleared for the establishment of trained Quartermaster units which would care for the dead.

New regulations adopted in 1913 affirmed the Army’s now strong commitment toward positive identification and proper burial of the dead. New techniques had made their way into procedure, particularly in regards to identification. Detailed maps and sketches showing exact locations of all temporary grave sites were to be filed at the time of initial burial. This would ease the process of disinterment at a later date. By 1917 the War Department moved a step further, amending Army Regulations so that all combat soldiers would be required to wear the familiar aluminum “dog tags” in the field. These changes reflected an awareness of past lessons, and a desire to improve the level of care.

While readying the American Expeditionary Force for its trip to Europe during World War I, General Pershing requested the establishment of a Graves Registration Service assigned to the Western Front. Major Pierce, who had headed up the Office of Identification in Manila two decades earlier, and since retired, was recalled to active service on behalf of the Quartermaster Corps. He began training GRREG troops and units at the Philadelphia QM Depot in the summer of 1917. By October his headquarters had moved to Tours, France. From this location, 19 Quartermaster GRREG companies were dispatched to every section of the combat zone during the next year and a half.

While the headquarters staff of the Graves Registration Service tended to the consolidation and preservation of mortuary records, and the maintenance of semipermanent cemeteries at the rear of the battlefield, the GRREG companies themselves offered close support to the line. The dedication and esprit of member personnel was often noteworthy to the point of extremes. No risk appeared too dangerous or effort too great if it promised identification of a “buddy’s” remains. General Pershing wrote of one particular unit’s activities in the spring of 1918:

(They) began their work under heavy shell of fire and gas, and, although troops were in dugouts, these men immediately went to the cemetery and in order to preserve records and locations, repaired and erected new crosses as fast as old ones were blown down. They also completed the extension to the cemetery, this work occupying a period of one and a half hours, during which time shells were falling continuously and they were subjected to mustard gas. They gathered many bodies which had been first in the hands of the Germans, and were later retaken by American counterattacks. Identification was especially difficult, all papers and tags having been removed, and most of the bodies being in a terrible condition and beyond recognition.”

During the Great War, as it was called, relatives of soldiers opted to have their kin remain in the country where they had fallen. Teddy Roosevelt added impetus to this movement by requesting that his own son, Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt, be buried near the ground where he was killed. His expression – ‘Where the tree falls, let it lie” – echoed the sentiments of many. In all, eight permanent cemeteries were established in Europe by war’s end (six in France, and one each in Belgium and England) wherein approximately 30,000 veterans were laid to rest. Another 47,000 bodies were returned to the United States. During World War I, the Quartermaster Graves Registration Service reduced the percentage of unknowns to less than three bodies for every hundred recovered. While organizational and operational refinements helped reduce the time span between original burial and final disposition of remains, a new and more scientific approach aided immeasurably in the process of identification. World War I saw the coming of age of Army graves registration.

During World War II the task of graves registration proved far greater.

More than 250,000 Americans died and were buried in temporary cemeteries around the world. On the European continent alone, fighting had scattered dead U.S. forces over a million and a half square miles of territory, making the recovery process more difficult. Further, new weapons (including aerial bombardment and massive use of artillery) often rendered those killed in action unrecognizable. The standard Graves Registration Company in World War II consisted of 260 men and five officers. It was intended to support three divisions, one platoon per division. Each platoon was divided into two sections – a collecting squad and an evacuation squad. GRREG companies collected, evacuated, identified, and supervised the burial of the dead. These field units also collected and disposed of personal effects and, subject to the approval of higher headquarters, selected sites for temporary cemeteries. As in World War I, work often had to be done under extremely hazardous conditions. The famed war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, reported on GRREG personnel seeking refuge in the freshly-dug graves during the heaviest fighting at Anzio.

Another example of heroic service can be found in the record of a Quartermaster Graves Registration Company which scrambled ashore on D-Day with the First Army. There they gathered bodies from the beaches, in the water, and inland, actually cutting many from wrecked landing craft submerged in the shallow water. By the end of D-Plus-2, one platoon alone had buried 457 American dead; by working day and night, the three platoons had been able to clear the beaches of all remains.

Since graves registration units have been traditionally governed by regulations that denote them as a wartime service, most were quickly disbanded in the months following V-J (Victory over Japan) Day. Within a few years the Quartermaster Graves Registration Service overseas was virtually eliminated. This created an enormous problem when suddenly and unexpectedly, the United States Army found itself locked in conflict with communist aggressors on the Korean peninsula in June of 1950. At that time only one small organization – the l08th QM Graves Registration Platoon, comprised of 30 men, stationed in Yokahama, Japan – was available for rapid deployment during the emergency buildup. To compound the difficulty only a handful of these men had combat experience. (The only other active GRREG unit in the entire Army establishment was the 565th QM Graves Registration Company at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.) Five men from the 108th Platoon were attached to each of the three divisions initially chosen for combat – the 24th, 25th, and 1st Cavalry – and with these 15 men went the few graves registration supplies that could be rounded up. The fluid tactical situation, particularly during the first six months of fighting, aggravated by manpower and supply shortages, rendered GRREG support extremely difficult.

Because circumstances prevented establishing a large, centrally located Army cemetery, division-level cemeteries had to be used instead. Eleven separate cemeteries were opened in the Eighth Army area during the first two months of fighting. In the wake of the renewed communist offensive in the fall of 1950, Allied units were forced to quickly close down these cemeteries and concentrate on evacuating the dead – to the relative security of rear areas, then to Japan for processing and eventual shipment to CONUS. By the end of January 1951, nearly 5,000 bodies had been removed from temporary cemeteries in Korea to the newly formed central identification unit (ClU) in Kokura. Japan. This was the first time in U.S. history that a mass evacuation of combat dead took place while hostilities were still in progress.

By the time battlelines stabilized in mid-1951, and additional GRREG units arrived in Korea, operating procedures had standardized. A 72-acre United Nations Military Cemetery was opened at Tanggok, as well as the Eighth Army’s Central Identification Laboratory. During the final two years of the war, refrigerated railroad cars were used to ship remains from forward collecting points to Tanggok. A full scale search and recovery effort was instituted to reduce the number of personnel listed as missing in action. As armistice talks got underway, a pattern evolved wherein the dead were recovered and shipped back to the U.S. within a period of 30 days. It is estimated that more than 97% of the recovered American dead were identified.

The Vietnam War, America’s longest and most recent large-scale conflict abroad, saw more improvements in the Army’s ability to care for its dead. The nature of that war, especially the use of high-mobility, small unit tactics lessened the numbers of unaccounted for dead. More important, better methods of communications and transportation from the battlefield (particularly the use of helicopters) allowed for the speedy recovery of remains from the battlefield, often within minutes. Combat units themselves were responsible for initial, on-the-spot recovery in most instances. From that point, remains were brought to two fixed and well-equipped mortuaries in-country, located at Da Nang in the far north, and in Tan Son Nhut, just outside of Saigon. There positive identification was made. New laboratory procedures supplemented traditional identification methodology such as dental, and fingerprint comparison.

Ultimately, the remains of 96% of those who had fallen were recovered, as compared to a 78% recovery rate for both World War II and Korea. The four percent not accounted for translates to about 2,300 soldiers. Still, on average, only seven days elapsed from the time of death to receipt of remains by the next of kin. At the end of the war, only 28 of the bodies of American soldiers recovered remained unidentified. In time all but one have been identified. On Memorial Day 1984, that one soldier was interred in the Tomb of Unknowns, in Arlington National Cemetery.

The outstanding record of GRREG companies in caring for our dead during recent conflicts or peacetime disasters such as Gander is a far cry from that of 150 years ago. Beginning with a change of sensibilities, with the consciousness that soldiers and their families did not want the fate or the identity of those who fell in battle to be unknown, there has been a continual effort to improve the techniques, equipment, doctrine and organizations designated to care for the Army’s dead. The experiences of the Mexican War, where virtually none of the dead were ever identified, or their graves located and marked, are almost unimaginable to GR personnel today; a near perfect record of recovery, identification and disposition of remains has become the standard, carried out with all due honors.

Dr. Steven E. Anders is the Quartermaster Corps Historian, U.S. Army Quartermaster School & Center, Fort Lee, Virginia.

Since this article was published in 1988 the Quartermaster Corps has supported Mortuary Affairs operations in Panama, Desert Shield/Storm, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia.   In response to the bombing of the federal building in downtown Oklahoma City, OK in the Spring of 1995, sixteen soldiers from the 54th Quartermaster Company (Mortuary Affairs) deployed to Oklahoma.  They provided assistance to the Oklahoma State Medical Examiner’s Office in recovery and evacuation of the fatalities from the April bombing.  This was the first time that the company had been called to support a mass fatality operation within the United States. In June 1994, elements of the company augmented Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA) in conducting ongoing search and recovery missions in Vietnam.

54th Quartermaster Company is the only active duty mortuary affairs unit in the Army.   The 54th provides mortuary affairs services such as search and recovery operations, establishing and operating field collection points, tentative identification and evacuation, temporary interment operations and maintaining central records and reports.   The unit also provides short-notice response teams for worldwide deployment to support mass fatality disasters.