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The Graves Registration Service faced the daunting postwar challenge of returning nearly a quarter-million fallen soldiers to the United States.

The awed silence was broken only by the steady, hollow clop of hooves and the muffled footsteps of 6,000 soldiers and dignitaries as the bells of St. Patrick’s Cathedral tolled softly in the distance. No ticker tape and confetti rained from the sky. No exultant cheers echoed down Fifth Avenue. Rather, most in the crowd of some 400,000 simply sobbed or prayed quietly. As the caisson bearing the flag-draped coffin passed 63rd Street, a street sweeper presented arms with his broom and snapped a sharp salute.

Only two years before, with the end of World War II, New York had been the scene of a prolonged euphoric celebration, but it was a solemn parade that took place along Fifth Avenue on October 26, 1947. Being honored that day in New York, and similarly in San Francisco, were the hundreds of thousands of Americans who gave their lives on the battlefields of Europe, the Pacific, Asia, North Africa and China. The lone casket carrying the body of a soldier killed at the Battle of the Bulge—intentionally unidentified by the Army—had been randomly chosen to symbolize all of the servicemen and women who had made the supreme sacrifice during the war.

In every war, the task of locating, identifying and burying all of a nation’s dead warriors is a monumental challenge, but World War II was like no other before or since—for several reasons. As the 20th century’s only truly global conflict, the breadth and disparity of the battlefields involved—from ocean to jungle to mountain to desert—limited accessibility to casualties for many recovery teams. In addition, the staggering power of armament used by all sides often literally obliterated soldiers on the spot, making recovery and accurate identification of their bodies all but impossible.

Nevertheless, the U.S. government had pledged to its servicemen and their families during the war that it would bring home all the “boys,” no matter how long it took. Responsibility for this important mission fell to the men of the Graves Registration Service (GRS), a U.S Army unit now known as the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) that to date has located, identified and formally buried 78 percent of the war’s more than 400,000 American fatalities. In what one observer called the “most melancholy immigration movement in the history of man,” 233,181 dead soldiers have been returned to the United States for burial. An additional 93,242 are buried in overseas American cemeteries, but for the families of the 78,976 American soldiers listed as missing in action, the wait goes on.

The impetus within the Army for an organized graves registration service came following the appalling losses suffered during the American Civil War. The fact that only about 58 percent of Federal soldiers’ remains were ever properly identified made it clear that the previous haphazard nature of caring for the dead had not worked.

By the end of the Civil War, the Army recognized that a more formal policy had to be established. Not only was it the proper thing to do, but it was also a military necessity. Officers discovered that a soldier’s fear of being left in an unmarked grave severely affected his morale.

It was not until 1917, however, that the Army officially established a unit assigned specifically to care for the dead. Anticipating heavy casualties once his American Expeditionary Force was committed to combat, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing requested that a formal graves registration service be created within the Army’s Quartermaster Corps.

To oversee the new entity, the Army called on Major Charles C. Pierce, a retired chaplain who in 1899 had organized the collection of war dead during the Philippine insurrection. By October 1917, Pierce had established his headquarters in Tours, France, administering 19 Quartermaster Graves Registration companies totaling 350 officers and 18,000 enlisted men. Working at the front, these men were instrumental in dramatically reducing the number of unknown casualties during the war. Following the Armistice in November 1918, the units were assigned the task of caring for the remains of some 80,000 American dead buried in 512 temporary or permanent burial grounds in France, Belgium and Luxembourg.

The formal name Graves Registration Service was adopted in November 1919, and the unit was placed under the command of Colonel Harry F. Rethers, charged with disinterring the remains buried at those sites and relocating them to eight American military cemeteries in Europe or returning them to the United States.

Rethers and his staff worked diligently to return the remains of 46,292 soldiers to their families. Between the world wars, the Quartermaster Corps took steps to organize the GRS more formally. As the respective armed forces expanded, each graves registration company was strengthened to about five officers and 260 enlisted men. Each of the company’s three platoons was assigned to support a single infantry division, and each platoon was divided into two sections: a collection squad and an evacuation squad. In a rare instance of interservice cooperation, these companies were given the responsibility of caring for the dead of all the services.

Placed near the front, directly behind the fighting, the GRS teams faced their share of hardships but were generally effective in completing their mission. As war correspondent Ernie Pyle observed in writing about the battle for Italy’s Anzio beachhead: “The men who kept the graves lived underground themselves, in nearby dugouts. Even the dead were not safe on the beachhead, nor the living who cared for the dead. Many times German shells landed in the cemetery. Men were wounded as they dug graves.”

On June 6, 1944, several Quartermaster units, such as the 606th and 607th Graves Registration companies (GRCs), landed at Normandy shortly after the initial D-Day assault and worked tirelessly to clear the beaches so the fresh troops that followed would not confront the grisly spectacle of dead comrades. By D-Day plus 2, all U.S. casualties had been cleared from both Utah and Omaha beaches.

Probably the worst part of the duty was the nature of the assignment itself. “It was the faces of these dead GIs… that hurt the most,” remembered Tom Dowling, part of a GRC collection squad serving in France in 1944. “Some stared wide-eyed; others had died in the middle of a scream, and their mouths hung open. Others had no face at all.”

The collection squad tagged and fingerprinted bodies and arranged transfer to temporary burial grounds nearby. Others in this unit were responsible for sorting and storing personal effects such as rings, watches, wallets and letters. These were then sent on to the Army Effects Bureau at the Quartermaster Depot in Kansas City, Mo., where they were carefully inventoried and packaged before being sent to the families.

Although every effort was made to get to dead soldiers on the battlefield as quickly as possible, combat conditions, weather and terrain often meant considerable time would elapse before they could be reached. For Colonel Wallace Hale, chaplain of the 88th Infantry Division, who buried more than 3,000 men while in Italy, one aspect of the job stood out. “Dead men are hard to carry,” he recalled. “I looked into the mud that oozed and sloshed around my boot tops and could think only of the hurt and refuse and nastiness of real war. I was plain sick and tired of the whole business—not sick of burying these dead—just sick in heart and soul and gradually growing numb to everything that did not help me and my boys keep living.”

As bad as conditions in Europe were, those in the Pacific were typically even worse. By the time fighting ended on Tarawa in November 1943, more than 2,000 Marines and Navy personnel had been interred at 43 separate burial sites. The ferocious and fluid nature of the fighting for that atoll and nearby Makin meant that many of these sites were improperly marked.

Graves Registration workers found marked graves that yielded no bodies, and the landmarks to distinguish one temporary cemetery containing about 400 graves had been removed altogether. Teams were forced to base their searches on intuition and information supplied by the Marines and sailors who had originally buried them. The retrieval process was often dangerous since many of those who had died were buried with live munitions on their bodies.

By war’s end, GRS units maintained 359 cemeteries worldwide containing the remains of 241,500 dead. In addition to caring for these remains, special teams were beginning the exhaustive search to locate and identify 40,467 missing soldiers.

Richard Albera, a young Army lieutenant, led a team searching battlegrounds in Bavaria at the end of the war. His men formed picket lines and crossed bucolic pastures looking for bodies. Often they didn’t have to look far. Some of the dead were downed fliers, but most had been ground troops whose remains were left behind after some local action with the enemy. The bodies were usually in an advanced state of decomposition, if there was any flesh on the bones at all. Some had been buried where they fell either by civilians or by comrades who could not carry the body with them. Many revealed the trauma of their deaths. “Bullet wounds were evident,” Albera said.

Peace in August 1945 did not bring an end to the work. Albera was part of an intensive Army-directed global effort to locate and identify as many bodies as possible. By 1947 an additional 8,000 military personnel were involved in the process.

Hard-working GRS teams scoured the Pacific from the Philippines to Indonesia to New Guinea and the Solomons. They traveled to the far provinces of China and to the barren island of Attu in the Aleutians. Even on accessible islands such as Okinawa, searches continued long after the war because some areas had not been cleared of munitions.

The teams followed every lead in search of the dead. In one case they hacked their way through thick jungle on Guam to locate the suspected remains of a missing American soldier. They instead found the bones of “Brownie,” a dog still bearing its nametag. In another case, a team followed up on a report from villagers on a battle-scarred Pacific island that an American soldier was buried high in the island’s hills in a grave marked by a cross. Searchers struggled up to the site over sharp coral and found the inscribed cross: “Latrine, closed 1944.”

While most of the dead were identified at the time they were temporarily buried, as many as 18,000 were not, and identification of unknown remains quickly became a major priority of the recovery program. In one case, investigators had the partial remains of what they believed to be two soldiers. All that was left of Lieutenant Walter B. Bidlack, killed on D-Day, was a left foot. Another grave contained a corpse identified as Frank Nawakas. Investigators discovered, however, that Nawakas had survived the war, so they disinterred the body marked with his name and found that it was missing a left foot. The foot in Lieutenant Bidlack’s grave matched the footless cadaver, meaning Bidlack could finally be laid to rest whole. His body, in fact, remains in the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.

Beginning in October 1946, the bodies of many of America’s dead began to come home, while 15 permanent American cemeteries were built overseas to inter fatalities. Undersecretary of War Kenneth C. Royal and Brig. Gen. George A. Horkam led the effort. Addressing those who questioned the need to create permanent cemeteries on foreign soil, Royal said, “From my talks with troops throughout the world, I gathered the distinct impression that men, who [were] going into battle, often expressed the feeling that, should they be killed, they would prefer to be buried in the lands they fought to liberate.” The families of some 93,242 service personnel agreed and chose to leave their loved ones among their fallen comrades in military cemeteries that are now maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which was established in 1923.

Most families, however, chose to bring their children or spouses home. Of the 233,181 soldier, sailor, airman and Marine remains returned to the United States from 1946 to 1951, 141,000 were buried in hometown cemeteries, the rest in one of 139 national cemeteries such as Arlington. Of those 139, 123 are maintained by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 14 by the Department of the Interior and two, including Arlington, under the jurisdiction of the Army.

The official U.S. program to bring home the bodies of dead warriors began July 27, 1947, at the Henri-Chappelle American Military Cemetery near Liège, Belgium. Some 6,248 American dead were disinterred, embalmed, casketed and shipped to Antwerp, where they were loaded on the Army transport ship Joseph V. Connolly for a final voyage to New York. There were unanticipated problems and deficiencies at first, such as a shortage of licensed embalmers and metal coffins, and a lack of storage space in Antwerp’s port. It wasn’t until fall 1947 that the Army had enough caskets to bring all of America’s war dead home.

Connolly was one of nine vessels converted, at a cost of $1.3 million, to “mortuary ships” capable of carrying thousands of heavy metal coffins on a single voyage. The ships were reballasted and equipped with special racks to hold the caskets. Five were assigned to Europe and the other four to the Pacific.

Before Connolly left Antwerp for New York, U.S. and Belgian officials conducted a small ceremony to memorialize the Americans’ sacrifices in freeing Belgium from the Nazis. As in the New York parade that October, the officials randomly selected a single unidentified body to represent all of the American war fatalities. The casket was draped in a flag, covered with flowers and brought to a square in Antwerp’s Grand Place. The Primate of Belgium, Josèf-Ernest Cardinal van Roey, blessed the body as bells from Notre Dame Cathedral tolled. With crowds watching, a caisson bore the coffin to a pier on the Scheldt River, where it was placed on Connolly, as a group of P-47 Thunderbolt fighters flew overhead.

Early on October 26, Connolly slipped into New York Harbor. At 12:45 p.m., the lone steel casket selected for the parade was carried ashore by pallbearers representing all of the nation’s armed services, as a bugle played, and was placed on a caisson hitched to an armored car. After the parade and a ceremony in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, the casket was returned to Connolly for a trip to its burial home. That destination was kept secret. It could well have been Alabama, Ohio or Maine.

No matter where the American soldiers were finally laid to rest, the delivery procedure was standardized. After being removed from the mortuary ships such as Connolly, the remains were transferred to one of 118 special railroad cars that had been converted from rolling hospitals to funeral coaches after the war. Like the ships, the railway cars had to be reinforced to support the weight of the caskets. The bodies were shipped to major rail transfer centers, from which they were rerouted to their burial destinations.

One such destination was Pontotoc, Miss. David Naugher was a member of the Pontotoc VFW honor guard and participated in private funerals for the returning war dead. He and his friends met each casket at the local funeral home after it had been delivered from the town’s train depot. Following the funeral service, the guards rode with the casket to the cemetery, sometimes miles into the country. When the service ended, a 21-gun salute was fired and family members were presented with the flag.

“Some of the ceremonies got pretty touching,” Naugher said. “We knew many of the dead, or if we didn’t know them we knew their families.”

Although most of the Army’s efforts now focus on locating missing servicemen from subsequent wars such as Korea and Vietnam, it still will pursue any lead that might lead to identification of one of nearly 79,000 U.S. servicemen who remain missing in action from WWII. Today, when the remains of American soldiers are discovered, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command steps in. The command is the descendent of the military’s identification laboratories established at the end of WWII. In 1976, JPAC—then known as Central Identification Laboratory (CIL)—moved to Hawaii, where it has operated ever since, charged with identifying the remains of American war dead.

In the past decade, the importance of JPAC and its workload have increased dramatically, and its staff has grown from 40 in 1992 to about 250. The recovery of remains is as painstaking and time-consuming today as it was after WWII, and JPAC maintains 18 teams to retrieve the bodies of missing Americans. A typical team consists of between 10 to 14 specialists who are anthropologists, photographers, explosives experts, medics, morticians, linguists and radio operators.

JPAC maintains the largest group of forensic anthropologists in the world and employs more than 30 anthropologists and four forensic odontologists. While DNA is considered “an invaluable tool,” dental X-ray comparisons continue to be the standard method of identification.

Even though the United States no longer actively searches for WWII dead, the bodies of the missing from that conflict are found every year in places such as New Guinea, an isolated village cemetery in Sicily or the waters of the Zuider Zee in the Netherlands, where the remains of American fliers are regularly recovered from submerged aircraft. The remains are carefully analyzed by JPAC specialists, and identified if possible. Relatives are then contacted, and the soldiers are at long last returned to their hometowns or buried in national cemeteries abroad.


David P. Colley lives in Easton, Pa. His latest book, Safely Rest, chronicles the World War II repatriation program through families that experienced loss.

Originally published in the February 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.