After World War II, fallen American service personnel rode the rails to their resting places
ON THE CALENDAR, World War II ended with Japan’s surrender on September 2, 1945. For millions of American military personnel who made it through the hostilities, the duration dragged on into 1946. However, for the families of more than 279,000 Americans who died overseas, the war continued until loved ones reached their final resting places. Often this was through a U.S. Army program repatriating deceased servicemen and women aboard mortuary trains that in their day were front-page news but now are forgotten.
The Army dispatched the first rail cars in this unique troop movement at Oakland, California, on October 13, 1947, attaching U.S. Army Transportation Corps mortuary cars to civilian passenger trains bound for five of 15 distribution centers serving the continental United States. For four years in that pre-television era, mortuary cars, sometimes making up an entire train, reminded Americans of the price that their compatriots had paid to maintain freedom.
Public Law 383, enacted May 16, 1946, authorized the U.S. Army to spend $200 million to repatriate GIs, sailors, and Marines, as well as civilian federal employees who died abroad between September 3, 1939, and June 30, 1946. Reminiscent of a post-WWI effort, America’s post-WWII repatriation of remains was unusual. Most nations buried their casualties where they died. The United States offered next of kin the option of bringing their dead home. Of 279,867 American war dead, relatives requested the return of 171,539. Those not repatriated were moved from temporary graves to private cemeteries or national cemeteries overseas maintained by
the American Battle Monuments Commission. Remains that could not be positively identified, except for one Unknown Soldier interred at Arlington National Cemetery, were buried in those 15 overseas national cemeteries.
The Army regarded service personnel remains not as cargo, but as passengers whose names appeared on a “Passenger List, Deceased” aboard Army Transportation Corps ships that brought the
dead from overseas. That status also applied aboard mortuary rail cars. The Army paid railroads a special reduced fare for each repatriated casualty and, for guards and military escorts, as with any troop movement, the regular fare.
Congress gave the Army until December 31, 1951, to finish repatriation, including search, recovery, identification, transport, and burial. This global project to return the dead from
86 countries at its peak occupied more than 18,000 personnel, and was accomplished on time and under budget. The Army began by weighing two plans for accomplishing the mission. One would have the military managing the process; the other would rely on the railroads.
The military approach envisioned the establishment of 15 distribution centers at existing Quartermaster or Army Service Forces depots, chosen for their facilities and access to population centers, highways, and railroads. Planners saw these centers as providing a geographic guide for loading mortuary ships at overseas ports based on where remains were to go. The Army felt staffs at two ports of embarkation—Oakland, California, and Brooklyn, New York—could schedule rail shipments, guards, and escorts more efficiently than private railroads. The private-sector option would have military personnel at Oakland and Brooklyn divide remains into carload lots destined for major cities. Railroad workers would organize individual shipments to next of kin. When remains arrived locally, military escorts would rendezvous with them to accompany the deceased from the local rail station through to burial.
Need for a flawless operation led to adoption of the military option. U.S. Army Transport Service vessels from the Pacific would arrive from overseas at Oakland Army Terminal. Ships from the European and Mediterranean theaters of operation would come to Brooklyn Army Terminal. Personnel at each would inspect shipping cases that held caskets, attach health permits, and sort cases for shipment to the distribution center serving the burial location. For efficiency’s and accuracy’s sake, crews overseas loading mortuary ships placed all remains going to a given center together in a vessel’s hold. Special air couriers traveled ahead bringing a load plan for each ship to the port of embarkation to direct preparations there.
Circumstances differed by the center’s location. At Oakland remains could be unloaded and moved to rail cars at pier side. With a sling, stevedores unloaded two shipping containers from the hold at a time. After inspection and identity verification in the pier side shed, workers placed the remains on trailers and pulled them to rail cars at sidings, loaded them into service cars, or placed them in storage. An Army switcher moved loaded mortuary cars from the port to rail classification yards to await train departure. At each step an armed guard accompanied the remains. Oakland handled 57,705 World War II dead.
The Brooklyn facilities had less room in which to operate. Ships were unloaded at four piers. After a shipping container reached the pier side sheds, personnel checked remains against the passenger list and inspected the casket. Until being loaded into a rail car or a hearse, remains stayed indoors. Using sky bridges, tugs pulled trailers of shipping containers from one building to a second, larger building. The structure stood 101 feet high, 300 feet wide and 980 feet long, with two indoor railroad tracks, an overhead crane, and moveable bridges across 66-foot-wide platforms able to accommodate 50 freight cars. As at Oakland, each car had a guard. When strings of cars moved to the storage yard, guards accompanied them, remaining on duty until the train’s departure, when a train guard detachment replaced the yard guards. Depending on destination, a train would depart by the Bush Terminal Railroad and its barges to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Greenville Yard at Jersey City, New Jersey, or take the Long Island Rail Road/New Haven Railroad Bay Ridge branch line. Brooklyn handled 113,384 sets of repatriated remains.
To shake down procedures and personnel before remains began arriving in October 1947, each port of embarkation conducted a practice run—Brooklyn in May, Oakland that July. Crews unloaded empty shipping containers from docked ships and moved them through the entire receiving and inspection process, then loaded the stand-in containers into mortuary cars and hearses just as would occur in reality. Like extras in a movie, volunteers assumed the roles of next of kin.
In May 1947, the Army Transportation Corps took delivery from the American Car & Foundry shops at Wilmington, Delaware, of 118 specially modified mortuary rail cars. These all had originated as wartime hospital cars—standard heavyweight parlor, lounge, and observation cars, plus a few sleeping cars and one railroad business car, that Pullman and American Car had converted into hospital ward, ward-dressing, and unit cars between 1941 and 1943. This conversion involved installing litter doors. Workers gutted each interior, removed unneeded underbody equipment, and installed three-level roller-equipped storage racks to accommodate containers holding remains. Crews also built in overhead hoists to facilitate loading and unloading, along with special door locks, interior lighting, and floor latches that allowed secure placement of containers in cars’ center aisles. For privacy, crews bolted steel plates over the windows. Converting those 118 cars cost $1,003,000. The Army augmented that fleet by leasing Southern Pacific and Pennsylvania Railroad baggage cars.
To facilitate handling of remains and ensure their security, the Quartermaster Test Board at Camp Lee, Virginia, worked with related military units and the Association of American Railroads to test the reworked cars. This exercise led to redesigned shipping containers that were stronger, easier to handle, and less prone to damage. Cars retained their designated wartime hospital-car numbers.
Within the continental United States, rail-borne repatriation shipments between ports of embarkation and distribution centers took place aboard U.S. Army Transportation Corps mortuary rail cars, whether single units or 12-to-15-car trains incorporating a sleeper for the mortuary train commander and guards. As any troop movement would be, these journeys were assigned a Military Authorization Identification Number. Prior to departure, each train commander received a “Passenger List, Deceased” to use in accounting personally for all repatriated “passengers” and to sign, accepting responsibility for them. Except for the term “deceased” and other minor changes, the same form applied to live military passengers.
Trains started departing within hours of a ship’s arrival at the port of embarkation. In only one instance did shortage of mortuary cars delay a train, at Oakland in 1948. Some mortuary ships carried 8,000 remains. It was a major scheduling success, especially in the days before computers, when paper forms, some with nine carbon copies, ruled.
Guards assigned from regular troop units accompanied remains from ports to distribution centers. Since these personnel did not interact with next of kin, they did not receive the training directed at military funeral escorts. Nonetheless, guards knew that there was keen interest, official and unofficial, in their assignment and their discharge of those duties.
The military required escorts of equal rank and service branch for each deceased, but that did not apply to train guards. For entire trains of mortuary cars, a commissioned officer was designated train commander, with three to five additional guards assigned. When a train was pulling a lone mortuary car, one guard was assigned to serve as car commander.
To maintain communications, dedicated teletypewriter machines were installed at distribution centers. As mortuary trains or individual cars rolled, centers were receiving messages from port personnel on the number of remains being shipped, the railroad and train numbers, military identification number, date and hour of shipment, and estimated time of arrival. At the center, the car commander transferred custody of remains to a distribution center officer. Center staff inspected and sorted the remains and scheduled delivery
to the location specified by next of kin.
Remains of personnel to be buried near a center were delivered in hearses, officially designated Army Service Cars. Rear compartments of these 3/4-ton four-wheel-drive enclosed green vehicles were fitted with rollers to make it easier to handle containers. Outside a center’s local area, the remains traveled on regular scheduled passenger trains following railroad procedure for shipping civilian remains. The military escort carried two tickets, one for himself and a first-class fare for the deceased. Where branch-line trains operated without passenger accommodations, escorts rode in cabooses. Each deceased serviceman was delivered to the railroad station in a flag-draped casket, accompanied by an escort. Flags draped caskets whenever they were in public view.
The escort removed the flag while a casket was in the baggage car and redraped the casket upon arrival at the final destination. He also carried a new flag for the funeral, blank rounds for the graveside firing party, and reimbursement forms for the family and funeral director.
Each distribution center had an escort detachment that included members of all services. Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, had 206 escorts—144 Army, 22 Air Force, 10 Navy, 30 Marines. Other centers had similar complements.
The escort watched as railroad workers loaded and unloaded the casket, verified any switching en route with conductors, and made certain to be on the platform to verify movement of the casket at transfer points. The unwritten rule was, “Don’t lose the casket!”
Escorts were to note less-than-dignified handling of remains by rail workers; incidents of that sort were reported at Detroit and Cleveland.
Escorts accompanying remains on the final leg had a special role, as the only government representatives to have face-to-
face contact with next of kin. Each was picked from a pool of volunteers, many of them combat veterans asked to reenlist specifically for this mission to assure that someone of the same service branch, race, sex, and equal or higher rank accompanied each deceased. Escorts underwent five weeks of training, including advice from psychiatrists on what to expect and how to respond to reactions and questions. The training film’s title, Your Proudest Duty, says it all. While traveling with remains, escorts were assigned coach or sleeper space, depending on a trip’s duration, and were forbidden to consume alcohol. The Army initially feared that escorts’ presence would disturb families, but these personnel were universally found to be one of the program’s greatest assets.
Escorts never knew what to expect, though most had positive experiences. Some found themselves guests of honor at Native American ceremonies. Others dealt with non-English speaking families. Some situations defied precedent, as when U.S. Air Force Captain John Zimmerman, assigned to escort duty at Columbus, Ohio, was dispatched to a depot in rural Kentucky. An Army Air Corps B-26 pilot in Europe during the war, he was escorting a deceased Air Corps pilot. Upon his arrival, the station agent looked at Zimmerman.
“Yankee, huh?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” the captain replied, asked where he could find the next of kin or funeral director.
“Just wait,” the agent said, walking away. Eventually a horse-drawn wagon appeared, driven by a large man in a black suit wearing a stovepipe hat. Captain Zimmerman asked if the driver was the next of kin, receiving a stare in reply. Zimmerman offered to help load the casket into the wagon.
“No Yankee is going to touch my brother!” the driver declared, wrestling the remains into the wagon bed and driving off, whereupon the station agent locked the building and departed, leaving Zimmerman on the platform to wait seven hours for a return train.
In New York City, members of the Pallbearers’ Union claimed the right to handle remains. When a Marine Honor Guard arrived at one cemetery for that duty, union members caused a disturbance. The escorts stood back to avoid embarrassment to the family. Newspaper reports afterwards raised enough outrage that those union pallbearers never repeated their grandstanding.
Five years after enactment of Public Law 383, the Army had repatriated known World War II remains. War dead from Korea had started arriving at Oakland in March 1951, extending the need for mortuary cars. After Korea, some cars stayed at Fort Eustis for Transportation Corps use. At least one went to Crane Naval Weapons Station, Indiana. Others were sold as surplus. Some cars still see use on tourist railroads and for other purposes. Repainted, metal covers removed from their windows and interiors again repurposed, the cars bore only one trace of their mortuary use: the litter doors built into their sides.
Mortuary trains were a small part of the effort to repatriate World War II dead, but they were the element most visible to Americans. In an era when passenger-train travel was widespread and train stations were prominent, these conspicuous funerary cars served as a sobering reminder of war’s cost.
—Adapted with permission from Railroad History, the journal of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society (rhls.org), in whose Spring-Summer 2015 issue the original article appeared.