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American soldiers lay a fallen comrade to rest on March 14, 1945, in Henri-Chapelle, Belgium, where nearly 8,000 Americans are buried.

A Grave Task: The Wartime Job Nobody Wanted

By Joseph Connor
7/10/2017 • World War II Magazine

The new soldiers arriving at Building 341 at Fort Warren, Wyoming, in November 1943 were blissfully unaware of what the future held. Told they were a “GR outfit,” they speculated on what that meant. Maybe guerilla raiders, one suggested. They liked the sound of that. The next day, their commanding officer, Captain Thomas A. Rowntree, snapped them to attention and informed the men that they were now the 612th Graves Registration Company. 

“You could hear the sucking in of breaths and the gasps of disbelief and feel a sudden numbness,” recalled Private Thomas J. Dowling. “It was a job that had to be done in war; it was certainly no disgrace, but it was something you always thought about being done by someone else.”

As the shocked men staggered back to their barracks to process the news, their disbelief turned to outrage. “This is what I was drafted for?” one soldier griped. “I ain’t going. I came to fight, not bury,” another vowed. “If there’s any burying to be done,” yet another said, “let somebody else do it.” A sergeant tried to mollify them, telling them they would be only supervising the burials, but that was no comfort. It was a restless, sleepless night in the barracks.

The men’s displeasure meant nothing to the army—the job was essential and someone had to do it. Transfer requests went nowhere, and the company trained through the winter of 1943-44. The 612th was not alone. In a war that engulfed the world, graves registration units served in all campaigns and theaters, from tiny Pacific islands to the continent of Europe. Theirs was the grimmest mission of the war: the location, identification, and burial of American soldiers who fell in battle. But as the appalling job got underway, the men assigned to the task learned to see it in a new light.

Since 1917 the job of caring for American army dead rested with the Quartermaster Corps’ Graves Registration Service. But it was only a “paper organization” when World War II began; in peacetime, the U.S. Army had used civilian morticians, now an impractical practice in a war that quickly spanned the globe. Until graves registration troops were trained and sent overseas, chaplains, medical service troops, and line soldiers performed burials.  

The U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps improvised their own burial procedures, but the army—which suffered nearly four times as many deaths as the Marines and navy combined—took the lead in joint operations and bore the brunt of the grim task.

The number of dead in Normandy staggered newly arrived graves registration units. Above, American and German dead from the first days of fighting await burial. (Getty Images)

The 612th was a typical army company even if its mission was not. Its men hailed from 37 states, from big cities and small towns, and had nicknames like “Saucer Eyes,” “Gopher,” and “Horse Thief.” They learned the ways of military life-—marching, drilling, handling weapons, and carrying out infantry maneuvers-—and learned the ways of their unique job. 

Under the guise of “specialized conditioning training,” the men traveled to Denver to observe an autopsy—a jarring experience. Some of the soldiers stared at the ceiling during the procedure; others turned green and dashed for the men’s room. One fainted, “sliding down the door jamb like a fireman answering an alarm,” as the 612th’s unit history recalled. In order to understand the challenges of terrain, the men built model cemeteries, complete with 100 model graves and white wooden crosses. Conducting burials in a combat zone was a far more difficult task, but the graves registration bible, Field Manual 10-63, taught them to do it the army way.

The army sent the 612th to England in early 1944—along with the also newly minted 603rd, 606th, 607th, 608th, and 3041st graves registration companies—to prepare for the Allied invasion of France. But the 607th was bloodied five weeks before the fight, when German patrol boats attacked an invasion rehearsal off Slapton Sands, England. Among the 749 men killed that night were 16 graves registration soldiers.

On D-Day, the units went into action—and were immediately inundated. As an advance man for the 603rd, Sergeant Elbert E. Legg landed in a glider with the 82nd Airborne Division. The 21-year-old had been instructed to select sites for body collection stations, but high casualties among the airborne units shelved that plan. Legg decided “the time had come for me to be, and to act like, the graves registration representative that I was.” 

He picked a site for a cemetery at Blosville, near Sainte-Mère-Église. Lacking the necessary equipment and supplies, he paced off the proper distance between graves and split wooden K-ration boxes into smaller pieces for markers. When the bodies began arriving, he helped unload them—the first time he had touched a dead body. He fashioned shrouds out of discarded parachutes that littered the countryside and hired French workers to dig graves, paying them with freshly printed invasion currency. The bodies arrived faster than the men could bury them.

When graves registration troops reached Normandy on the afternoon of June 6, hundreds of bodies littered the beaches; high tide washed corpses ashore, and low tide revealed men trapped under wrecked vessels and beach obstacles. Graves registration men had to go underwater to cut corpses entangled in landing craft propellers, something Private John D. Little of the 607th called “the worst experience I would ever encounter.” Time was of the essence; the sight of bodies would be damaging to the morale of the thousands of fresh troops coming ashore. “They’ll see enough as they move forward. God help them,” a lieutenant told the 612th. 

Prompt burial was necessary not just for morale; it was crucial for reasons of sanitation, especially in warm weather. The odor of decomposition was almost unbearable. “We stuffed our noses with cotton and wore cloth across our faces,” Private Dowling said. No matter how often they washed out the one-ton trailers used to transport bodies, the odor lingered. “It was strange to travel through a village, only to have the other troops hold their noses and beckon us fast passage,” said Captain Joseph J. Shomon, commander of the 611th. “We always had the right-of-way.”

Eight members of an airborne unit, covered by parachutes, lie beside their wrecked glider. (National Archives)

A day’s work also left the men covered in blood. Showers and laundry facilities were in short supply, so infections and blood poisoning became occupational hazards. They had to be careful, too, because the Germans sometimes booby-trapped bodies.

Many graves registration soldiers functioned as “robots doing a job,” Dowling said. The faces of the dead haunted them: “Some stared wide-eyed; others had died in the middle of a scream, and their mouths hung open. Others had no face at all,” he recalled. The companies worked day and night, clearing the beaches in four days.

By June 10 the graves registration companies had built eight cemeteries near the invasion beaches; by August 8 the cemeteries contained more than 30,000 dead. Digging graves was a back-breaking effort—work that often fell to service troops, usually African American. The army also used local civilians or German prisoners; the latter became dedicated workers once they realized the graves were not for them.

The work took a psychological toll on the men. “Not many of us were killed, but we died in different ways,” Dowling said. “The work was nightmarish, and it ate at our hearts…cracked some of us, darkened the spirits of others, and numbed the rest.”

Some used jokes to cope, including the men of the 612th, who sarcastically thanked the army for their “magnificent salaries, prolonged European tour, liberal education, and other favors too numerous to mention.” Army cartoonist Sergeant Bill Mauldin recalled a graves registration trailer christened “The Green Turd” and noted how “touches of humor, such as the name of their vehicle, were ways of staying sane on the job.” Mauldin, whose cartoons also helped sustain GIs’ morale, never included bodies in his drawings, believing readers “would be able to deduce that there were bodies just offstage.”

For frontline soldiers, bodies were a common sight. In areas of active combat, troops would bury their fallen comrades where they fell, often in a shallow grave marked only with a large rock, a stick, or a rifle with its bayonet thrust into the ground. In a pinch, a shallow trench or shell crater would do; these bodies would be exhumed later and reburied. Graves registration recovery parties had to comb battlefields after the fighting; a soldier’s first rule of survival is to use cover, and bodies were often in well-concealed spots.

Graves registration men often bore the brunt of combat troops’ fear and anguish. As the 607th’s Private Little drove a trailer full of bodies to a cemetery one day, he picked up a hitchhiking soldier. When the soldier realized what Little’s trailer carried, he hopped out and walked the rest of the way. Little also remembered a GI who had just lost a buddy approach a graves registration soldier with gritted teeth, a menacing look, rifle at the ready, and an order: “You take care of him!”

Respect for the dead was a given, said Major Merwin J. DeKorp of the 46th Graves Registration Company, because he and his men felt a solemn duty to give the fallen “the most dignified burial that circumstances allowed.” Identifying the dead was critical as well. Families back home wanted to know for sure the fate of their loved one and took solace in knowing that he had been identified. “No task was too difficult or too gruesome when the identity of a soldier was at stake,” Captain Shomon said. But the destructiveness of modern weapons often made identification time-consuming and difficult—especially in the case of remains inside crashed planes or burned-out tanks, where sometimes all that could be found were melted rings, teeth, and dog tags.

Graves registration men not only identified casualties, but also scoured battlefields for bodies in hard-to-find areas or buried by heavy snow in the winter of 1944-1945. (National Archives)

Dog tags, a pair of government-issued identification disks, were the primary means of identification. If they were missing, graves registration men would take prints of all 10 fingers and prepare a dental chart. If the body was in bad shape, they would inject fluid into the fingers to allow for usable prints or, in extreme cases, remove skin from the fingertips to get prints. Personal effects, such as documents in a wallet, often proved identity, as did statements by soldiers who had known the deceased. Laundry marks on clothing, which contained the first letter of a soldier’s surname and the last four digits of his service number, were valuable clues. 

Graves registration troops inventoried personal effects—including rings, wallets, watches, and photos—and shipped them to the Quartermaster Depot in Kansas City, Missouri, to be cleaned and sent to the next of kin. In the field, soldiers destroyed bloodstained items and things that could embarrass the family; they distributed to other troops perishable items like cigarettes, chewing gum, and rations. They also gathered government-issued items like weapons and ammunition for any soldier who needed them.

Yet life was not always grim in a graves registration company. Like all soldiers, they chased any fun opportunities that arose. After the liberation of Paris, some 612th men went to the City of Light and engaged—the wry unit history noted—in “extra-curricular activities that are somewhat frowned upon,” leaving the nature of those “activities” to the imagination. 

As Allied forces advanced toward Germany, the graves registration troops went forward, too. The coming of winter presented new obstacles: picks and shovels bounced off frozen dirt, hampering both burials and the recovery of bodies from temporary graves. “The corpses were frozen stiff and it was extremely hard to get into the pockets to remove all personal effects,” Captain Shomon of the 611th said. They thawed the bodies in morgue tents to “work on them and loosen all joints for their subsequent burial,” he said. To accommodate the casualties, graves registration men built large new cemeteries, such as the Henri-Chapelle cemetery in Belgium and the Margraten cemetery in the Netherlands.

The December 1944 German breakthrough in the Ardennes brought more work and new horrors. From December 17, 1944, to January 16, 1945, a single unit buried 3,159 American dead. The frontlines were fluid, and the lightly armed graves registration troops faced the prospect of fighting as infantry—a thought they did not relish because they carried only small arms and “high velocity shovels”—but that never occurred.

Starting in 1946 graves registration units oversaw the repatriation of more than 170,000 bodies of American servicemen. More than 109,000 families elected to leave their fallen kin in overseas cemeteries, including one, pictured, on Iwo Jima. (AP Photo)

In January 1945 graves registration soldiers processed the bodies of 84 American prisoners who had been massacred near Malmedy, Belgium, on December 17, 1944. It was an important job, and their observations would be used as evidence in the subsequent war crimes trials of those responsible. What the men saw of those bodies, which had frozen in place, reached a new level of the macabre. The corpses “froze so fast when they were slaughtered that when the bodies started thawing, they bled like they had just been shot. Water slowly dripped from their eyes and it looked like they were crying,” Private Little of the 607th recalled. “Some of the boys’ muscles would contract or release and they would move their arms or legs.” One corpse even sat upright, he said.

After Allied troops crossed the Rhine, graves registration units like the 607th and 611th avoided burying American dead in German soil whenever possible. “We felt that the people back home would not want their sons buried in Germany,” Captain Shomon said. Instead, they shuttled the dead several hundred miles back to Belgium or the Netherlands for burial in Allied soil.

When the war ended, graves registration soldiers still had work to do—scouring battlefields for hastily buried bodies that had been overlooked. In the European Theater, the bodies were scattered over 1.5 million square miles of territory; in the Pacific, they were scattered across numerous islands and in dense jungles. 

In 1946 Congress authorized the return of bodies, at government expense, for burial
in the United States at an eventual cost of nearly $191 million. The families of 170,752 fallen servicemen chose this option, and graves registration units oversaw the return of these bodies. The families of the remaining 109,866 decided to leave their loved ones overseas. The 172-acre Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial overlooking Omaha Beach accommodated nearly 10,000 of the latter. Remaining in limbo were over 70,000 fallen servicemen whose bodies were not recovered, as well as the 10,356 remains that were unidentified.

Although graves registration troops performed an emotionally draining, disturbing, and thankless task during the war, many of them came to realize the importance of their work—and its legacy. “When we looked at the lines of markers in one cemetery after another,” Private Dowling wrote, “we knew that if we were not doing this job we would be letting down every soul back home.” It was a point of pride, the men felt—“the last great service a combat unit could perform for its fallen comrades.” They had given it their best. “We did not have to like it, but it had to be done,” Dowling said, “so we made up our minds to do it right. And we did.” ✯

 

This story was originally published in the August 2017 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.

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