"Time will not dim the glory of their deeds."

One hundred years of the American Battle Monuments Commission

Aerial view of the Normandy America Cemetery (Photo: Omaha Beach Memorial Museum)

Aerial view of the Normandy American Cemetery
(Photo: Omaha Beach Memorial Museum)

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). The Commission was formed by legislation signed by President Warren Harding on March 4, 1923, a few years after the end of World War I, with the mission of establishing and maintaining military cemeteries in foreign countries for those American soldiers who have laid down their lives for the nation far from home, and of erecting memorials to honor them. This article will give you a brief history of the Commission and is dedicated to the sacrifice of all United States service members who rest in foreign soil.
 
For most of history, most combatants killed on the battlefield were either stripped of arms and armor and abandoned where they lay, or given a hasty mass burial. It was only in the 19th century that dignity for the rank-and-file dead was recognized as an important issue. The United States was one of the leaders in establishing formal ways of burying and honoring its fallen. For the first half of the century, American soldiers were usually buried near the place of their death, but often went unidentified. Only 60% of the Union soldiers killed in the Civil War were identified; compare this to the 82% of all U.S. service members in World War II, and the 97% identification rates of both World War I and the Vietnam War. One particular example of the nation’s effort to preserve the memories of its soldiers is Arlington National Cemetery, built on the grounds of General Robert E. Lee’s residence as an unofficial punishment for him joining the Confederacy.

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Arlington House in the Arlington National Cemetery
(Photo: Protoant / Wikipedia)

The Spanish-American War of 1898 saw the United States became the first country in the world to pass legislation according to which soldiers dying in foreign lands had to be returned to the care of their next of kin if possible. This practice of repatriation was changed not by intent but by necessity during World War I, when the dead were too many and scattered over too large an area for collection and transport home to be feasible. The Department of War established eight cemeteries to consolidate and hold close to 31,000 fallen servicemen, the sites chosen after discussions with the host countries and with concern for such safety and health issues as the effect of many buried people on nearby water sources or agricultural land. World War I also saw the appearance of plain white crosses and posts bearing the Star of David (the latter for Jewish soldiers) as standard practice in American cemeteries in Europe, even though these early markers were made of wood rather than marble. A certain percentage of unidentified soldiers was randomly given David’s Star to express the general presence of Jews among them – this practice was abandoned by World War II.

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The headstone of a Jewish private in the Netherlands American Cemetery
(Photo: Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Work on establishing the ABMC began in March 1919, a few months after the war’s end. Perhaps surprisingly, its original mission was not to administer the war cemeteries in Europe, but to construct monuments in honor of the war effort. General of the Armies John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, noticed that soldiers had already began building makeshift monuments, which sometimes had incorrect or inappropriate inscriptions; he also noted that some units that fought bravely were not represented by these memorials. Pershing therefore advocated the establishment of an organization to oversee such activities; this organization became the ABMC with Pershing as its first Chairman. Pershing’s credo became the motto of ABMC: "Time will not dim the glory of their deeds." The Commission later also took over the task of landscaping the eight European cemeteries and building non-sectarian chapels at each.

Retired General John Pershing, chairman of the Commission, at the Oisne-Aisne American Cemetery in France in around 1924 (Photo: American Battle Monuments Commission)
Retired General John Pershing, Chairman of the Commission, at the Oisne-Aisne American Cemetery in France in around 1924
(Photo: American Battle Monuments Commission)
The management of these burial grounds, along with the responsibility of designing, building and operating similar cemeteries in the future, was transferred to the Commission in 1934. While planning the cemeteries, Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious experts were consulted regarding the desired appearance of headstones. Due to Islam’s strict rules on the use of holy symbols, the third group eventually decided not to ask for a specific headstone shape, accepting the “standard” cross instead. In the end, the crosses and Stars of David already used on wooden markers remained, only refined in shape and constructed of marble.
 
It should be noted that many Jewish soldiers who fought in World War II now lie under a cross: fearing maltreatment by the Nazis if they were ever captured, they decided not to identify themselves as Jews in their official papers and on their dog tags. Today, a non-profit organization called Operation Benjamin is exerting effort to identify such Jewish soldiers in ABMC cemeteries and replace their crosses with the star.
Replacing a cross with a Star of David in the Luxembourg American Cemetery thanks to Operation Benjamin (Photo: Valentin Bianchi)
Replacing a cross with a Star of David in the Luxembourg American Cemetery thanks to Operation Benjamin
(Photo: Valentin Bianchi)

Another note of interest about the headstones is that they do not display the birth date of the deceased. Popular legend holds that this was done to avoid visitors crowding the graves of the youngest and therefore “most tragic” soldiers. In actual fact, the date is missing because there was not enough space on many crosses and stars.
 
The unidentified dead of World War I were marked with the same inscription as the ones in Arlington: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” World War II cemeteries changed “an American soldier” to “a comrade in arms” to reflect the presence of Marines, sailors, airmen and Coast Guardsmen among them. Even a very small number of civilians are buried in these cemeteries: entertainers, Red Cross employees and civilian technicians could also be laid to rest in these locations if they died while serving the troops.

An unknown soldier’s headstone in the Luxembourg American Cemetery (Photo: author’s own)
An unknown soldier’s headstone in the Luxembourg American Cemetery
(Photo: author’s own)

World War II brought a new conflict to Europe and the rest of the world, and new challenges with it. In 1941, Pershing, still serving as the Commission’s first chairman, decided to evacuate American ABMC employees from France and Belgium before the countries were overrun by Nazi Germany. The Germans generally treated the abandoned American cemeteries with respect, with the exceptions of the destruction of several Jewish graves, and the demolishing of a monument to make way for an observation post along the Atlantic coast. The Nazi puppet state of Vichy France, then later Switzerland, sent funds to maintain these cemeteries even under German occupation.

1923 photo of the memorial at the St. Mihiel American Cemetery, one of the World War I cemeteries (Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Navy)
1923 photo of the memorial at the St. Mihiel American Cemetery, one of the World War I cemeteries
(Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Navy)
The war led to the creation of hundreds of temporary burial grounds for American personnel all over the world, as well as the creation of uncountable makeshift gravesites in remote locations. In continental Europe, specifically, work on temporary cemeteries began on D-Day itself. Numerous soldiers died on Omaha Beach or in the vicinity, but the local Engineers Brigade was busy securing the area and clearing up the exits off the beach, and the two locations originally slated for cemetery construction were still under German control. Additionally, troops were continuously coming ashore, and the sight of dead bodies was bad for morale. As a result, the very first burial was at a mass grave dug by some bulldozers. On the next day, June 7, a proper (if rudimentary) cemetery was established on Omaha Beach. Its inhabitants were later moved to yet another cemetery, located on the same bluff overlooking the beach where the Normandy American Cemetery stands today. This new temporary cemetery was located to the west of the present one’s location, though their areas overlap.
Ceremony at the first provisional cemetery on Omaha Beach (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
Ceremony at the first provisional cemetery on Omaha Beach
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

These temporary burial sites, and the others cropping up in Normandy, also held dead German soldiers since there was no better way of disposing them (Read our earlier article – The German war cemetery of reconciliation). German graves were marked by a black wooden cross. The origin of this practice is lost to history. It’s been suggested that it harkens back to a statute in the Treaty of Versailles which prescribes that white crosses must be used for soldiers of the victorious side and black ones for the defeated, but the treaty contains no such actual rule. Like the later permanent cemeteries, the temporary ones also had a multi-confessional chapel and a visitors’ reception building built, and were given a respectful, orderly appearance with footpaths separating square-shaped plots and a central square.

The town of Sainte-Mère-Église, famously liberated early during Operation Overlord, was the site of not one but two temporary cemeteries (one in the foreground, the other top right) (Photo: U.S. military)
The town of Sainte-Mère-Église, famously liberated early during Operation Overlord, was the site of not one but two temporary cemeteries (one in the foreground, the other top right)
(Photo: U.S. military)

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, Jr., the 57-year-old Assistant Division Commander of the 4th “Ivy” Infantry Division (Read our earlier article – Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, Jr.), was also buried in one of these temporary military cemeteries, namely one of the two in Sainte-Mère-Église. On July 12, 1944, just a month after the Normandy landings, he suffered a heart attack during the night and died within the hour. His funeral procession was led by a group of generals, including Omar Bradley, George S. Patton and Raymond “Tubby” Barton. Roosevelt now rests in the Normandy American Cemetery, next to his brother Quentin. Quentin Roosevelt was a pilot in World War I but was reinterred next to Theodore in 1955 upon his family’s request, making him the only soldier in the cemetery who did not die in the Normandy campaign.

The funeral march of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. with Generals Bradley and Patton on the left (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The funeral march of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. with Generals Bradley and Patton on the left
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Fourteen of the temporary cemeteries around the world were chosen to serve as permanent burial grounds after the war, and bodies from the other locations were transported to them. Similarly to the World War I cemeteries, these burial sites stand on ground provided by the host countries in perpetuity and free of charge. Contrarily to an oft-repeated mistake, they do not count as American soil, and fall under the legal jurisdiction of their host countries.

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The first cemetery at Omaha Beach, right by the water, once the original markers were replaced by wooden crosses
(Photo: Getty Images)

During the relocation of bodies to permanent cemeteries, next of kin were contacted and given a year to decide whether they wanted their relative to be laid to rest abroad or repatriated at the government’s expense and either given over to their care in a local graveyard or buried at a stateside national cemetery. Those interred overseas rest under a pristine marble headstone with their name, rank, unit, home state and date of death carved on it. The headstones of those who have received the United States’ highest military award also bear a star and the words “Medal of Honor.” Other than this, no distinction is made in regard to rank, creed or ethnicity.

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A Tunisian mason refreshing the gold leaf lettering on the gravestone of a Medal of Honor recipient in the North African American Cemetery

There is one single exception to the above, born of necessity. After his death in 1945, General George S. Patton (Read our earlier article – The wars of George S. Patton) was buried at the Luxembourg American Cemetery. In accordance with the ABMC’s cemetery layout principles, he was laid to rest at the next available spot, which happened to be at the site’s farthest corner from the entrance. The throng of visitors to his grave, however, had trampled a path, completely destroying the lawn along the shortest route. In order to protect the ground, Patton was reburied at a special place of honor in front of and facing the other graves, and not coincidentally closer to the entrance.

General Patton’s irregularly placed grave in the Luxembourg American Cemetery (Photo: author’s own)
General Patton’s irregularly placed grave in the Luxembourg American Cemetery
(Photo: author’s own)

The cemeteries are open every day of the year, except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, managed by U.S. citizen employees of the ABMC and with daily maintenance tasks performed by local workers. A representative of the ABMC is always present during opening hours and is prepared to take visitors to a relative’s grave. If notified in advance, a small memorial ceremony is performed during such a family visit.
 
Today, the American Battlefield Monuments Commission operates 26 cemeteries and 32 memorials, monuments and markers worldwide. In addition to World War I and World War II cemeteries, there is also a Veterans Cemetery in the Philippines where non-World War II dead are also buried, as well as a cemetery in Panama and one in Mexico City: both predate the ABMC and mainly hold American soldiers who died during the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War. More than 218,000 American soldiers have been laid to rest far from home, but cared for, honored and remembered by their countrymen.

Monument to 750 unknown soldiers in the Mexico City National Cemetery, the first American military cemetery in a foreign country (Photo: American Battle Monuments Commission)
Monument to 750 unknown soldiers in the Mexico City National Cemetery, the first American military cemetery in a foreign country
(Photo: American Battle Monuments Commission)

The most famous ABMC cemetery must be the Normandy American Cemetery, whose popularity as a visitors’ destination received a significant boost by the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan, whose opening and closing scenes are set there when the elderly James Ryan visits the grave of the film’s protagonist, Captain John Miller, played by actor Tom Hanks. Of course, Captain Miller was a fictional character, and his headstone, and a few others next to it, only props. These props faced the opposite direction as the real ones, preventing the names on the latter to appear in the film. The prop gravestone were set up near the graves of the Niland brothers, whose real-life story inspired the film’s plot.

A snippet from Saving Private Ryan showing the marker of the film’s protagonist (Photo: Paramount)
A snippet from Saving Private Ryan showing the marker of the film’s protagonist
(Photo: Paramount)

While the Normandy cemetery is probably the best-known ABMC site, it is far from the largest, at least going by the number of people interred. (It is, in fact, the fourth largest one.) The distinction of being the largest goes to the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines, which holds the remains of 17,201 men. This is partly due to geographical reasons: there weren’t many good cemetery sites in the Pacific, so the Manila one collected bodies from a vast area. Additionally, it is an exceptional place in that not all the buried are U.S. service members: a special treaty between the United States and the Philippines allowed for the burial of Filipino soldiers who fought alongside American troops in the war. The cemetery is also remarkable for its Walls of the Missing, a feature present in all ABMC cemeteries, which displays a sobering 36,286 names. For comparison, all the other cemeteries have a total of 47,151 names combined, 18,095 of them in Honolulu. Rosettes are added to the walls to mark those whose bodies have since been recovered.

The Manila American Cemetery and Memorial (Photo: American Battle Monuments Commission)
The Manila American Cemetery and Memorial
(Photo: American Battle Monuments Commission)

In contrast, the smallest cemetery is the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery in Paris. Dedicated to the Lafayette Flying Corps, a group of American volunteers who flew airplanes in service of the French military during World War I, the cemetery holds the mortal remains of 51 of the unit’s dead. Like the largest ABMC cemetery, the smallest is also special from an administrative perspective in that it was not established by the Commission. It was originally created by a foundation and the French government in 1928, and was only taken over by the Commission in 2017.

Stained glass window depicting aircraft over a village at the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery (Photo: American Battle Monuments Commission)
Stained glass window depicting aircraft over a village at the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery
(Photo: American Battle Monuments Commission)

If you would like to pay your respect to the American heroes who laid down their lives in distant lands and now rest there, you can do so on our tours that visit Normandy, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, and Italy, all of which include visits to local American cemeteries. Visiting any of these beautiful cemeteries is a moving experience not only for our Passengers but for our staff members, too. We are always excited to listen to family stories and to help organize next of kin ceremonies for family members returning to the graves of their loved ones.

One of our groups at the Luxembourg American Cemetery (Photo: Kort Waddell)
One of our groups at the Luxembourg American Cemetery
(Photo: Kort Waddell)

Smart people attend the D-Day ceremonies this year!

Save 15% with the ABMC promotion

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In the Normandy American Cemetery
(Photo: Kort Waddell)
Smart people attend the 79th anniversary D-Day ceremonies. If you prefer to enjoy the same experience like on the 80th anniversary in 2024 but with smaller crowds and with more space on the bus, this is the ideal choice for you. Even this year you will have the chance to meet veterans and reenactors bringing history to life on the beaches of Normandy. On top of that, you can benefit from our current ABMC promotion to get a 15% discount from the list price of this year’s 12-day D-Day Anniversary Tour. Compared with the list price of our 11-Day 80th Anniversary D-Day Tour in 2024, you can save more than $3,000 if you book the 2023 tour now.

The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) plays a pivotal role in keeping alive the memory of American service members who paid the ultimate price for their country. Tomorrow, on March 4, 2023, we are going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of this important federal agency. On the occasion of the upcoming centennial anniversary, we are offering all our tours (excluding our four 80th anniversary D-Day tours in 2024) with a 15% discount if you pay in full until March 4, 2023. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. If you have any questions related to this promotion or our tours, feel free to contact our travel consultants.
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