To give name to the fallen

The Graves Registration Service

The grave of an unknown American soldier on Guadalcanal, 1942-43
(Photo: National Archives)

If you visit the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, or indeed any war cemetery maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission (Read our earlier article), you are likely to be overcome by the somber atmosphere of the places where American soldiers rest. The pristine white Latin Crosses and Stars of David each meticulously preserve the name and memory of a fallen patriot. A few crosses, not many, bear the words "Here lies in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God," the inscription reserved for unidentified soldiers. But it's easy to forget that most soldiers who fell over the course of history had far less dignified resting places. This article is about the Graves Registration Service ("Mortuary Affairs" since 1991), the organization charged with making sure that fallen American soldiers are identified and are laid to rest in a proper burial place.

A Graves Registration worker pointing out the outline of a body to his men
(Photo: National Archives)

For most of history, nobody really cared about what happened to the fallen rank-and-file – they were typically stripped of arms and armor and left on the battlefield for human and animal scavengers. As centuries passed, a swift burial near the place of death became the norm, but still no effort was made to identify the deceased. Quartermasters in remote American frontier outposts buried dead soldiers, marked the graves and kept records, but nothing was done to address the fate of the fallen after major battles.

Such efforts began in the Mexican War of 1846-47, though with dubious results. For example, General Zachary Taylor, who later became the 12th President of the United States, had his fallen men buried near the battlefield after his victory at Buena Vista, but did not mark the location on the map he attached to his report. When the U.S. government wanted to build a monument in memory of the men several years later, they could not find the cemetery.

Zachary Taylor
(Photo: unknown photographer)

The American Civil War became a turning point in making sure that the fallen are found and identified. There was no officially mandated form of identification, but soldiers sometimes pinned paper slips on their coats with their name and address, or bought commercially made badges with their name and unit engraved. Congress authorized a national cemetery system and made commanders responsible for the identification and burial of their men. These efforts, however, were disorganized and given a low priority. The remains of Union soldiers were disinterred and buried at various national cemeteries after the war.

A silver identification badge from the Civil War
(Photo: uniondb.com)

On May 4, 1864, the Union Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River and entered Virginia, only to be horrified at the sight of the bones of their former comrades, lost a year earlier, lying unattended on the ground. Many of the soldiers took it upon themselves to find out the identities of as many of the dead as possible. They examined the remains for markings on clothing or equipment, the nature of the fatal wound, and dental peculiarities such as missing teeth – this very approach became the centerpiece of 20th century identification methods. Once done, the men buried the deceased before moving on.

In the same year, a Captain James M. Moore of the Quartermaster Cemeterial Division personally led a group of his men to the field after the Battle of Fort Stevens outside Washington, D.C. They systematically search for and recovered both remains and personal items, identifying every single Union soldier. This was a one-off effort, but it helped establish the notion that the Quartermaster (QM) Department ("Corps" since 1912) is in charge of caring for the fallen. After the war, 300,000 dead soldiers were moved from their temporary graves to newly established national cemeteries.

Engraving of the skirmish line outside Fort Stevens
(Photo: Edward F. Mullen)

The Spanish-American War saw the U.S. become the first country to institute a policy dictating that soldiers killed abroad must be returned to their next-of-kin once possible. In the same war but on the other side of the globe, Chaplain Charles C. Pierce established the QM Office of Identification in the Philippines, and started developing the methods that led to modern identification techniques. He collected information such as place of death, the nature of the wounds, and the physical characteristics of the deceased soldiers, resulting in unprecedented accuracy even with bodies weeks or months old. He also suggested that a soldier's combat field kit should contain and "identity disk"; the idea developed into the well-known "dog tag," worn by American soldiers since 1917, when America entered World War I.

Charles Pierce, who pioneered identification techniques and proposed mandatory IDs
(Photo: U.S. Army)

General Pershing (Read our earlier article) recognized that many U.S. servicemen would die in Europe and would need to be found, identified and returned home, and requested the formation of a Graves Registration Service (GRREG) to handle the job. Major Pierce had already retired by the time, but was recalled into active service to train GRREG troops. Pershing noted the courage of these men in recovering the bodies of their comrades in 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.”

A GRREG soldier pushing his motorbike through mud at Flanders Field during World War I
(Photo: Corporal Ivan Bawtree)

Some 47,000 dead soldiers were disinterred from temporary cemeteries and returned to the U.S. after the war, but another 30,000 were left in permanent cemeteries in Europe. A strong wave of popular sentiment at the time went against the principle established in the Spanish-American War, and held that soldiers killed overseas should remain there. Former President Theodore Roosevelt was one voice of this way of thinking. When informed that his son Quentin was killed in the war, he requested that he be buried near the site of his death with the words "Where the tree fall, let it lie." (Read our earlier article) 

Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt in France during World War I
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

The GRREG was disbanded in the interwar period and had to be reactivated in World War II, leading to an acute shortage of trained men. Nevertheless, 30 GRREG companies had been activated by the war's end with 3 platoons per company, each platoon servicing a separate division. Like their World War I predecessors, the men often worked in perilous conditions. Famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle reported that the men recovering the dead during the heavy fighting at Anzio (Read our earlier article) frequently had to take shelter in freshly dug graves. 

Retrieving the unburied fallen shortly after death could be dangerous even when the bullets weren't flying, as the enemy sometimes booby-trapped the bodies, and snipers in the area often fired at medics and GRREG men. The dead at sea, when returning them to land was not feasible, were “buried” in weighed mattress covers. The coordinates of the event were recorded, even though retrieval was impossible.

Burial at sea onboard the USS Intrepid after the Battle of Leyte Gulf
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

The Army had white canvasses specifically for the purpose of covering the dead, but these were not always on hand, and curtains, tablecloths, bedsheets, blankets, parachute canopies and discarded tarpaulins were sometimes used instead. When collecting bodies and taking them to temporary burial sites, the GREGG tried to use a route that avoided combat troops so the latter wouldn't have to be confronted with the death of their comrades.

U.S. Airborne soldiers covered by parachute canopies after their glider turned upside down and crashed in Normandy
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Recovering and identifying the deceased was especially tough in the Pacific due to the vast area in which combat took place. In places like New Guinea, hasty burial sites or crashed aircraft were often located in mountainous, jungle-covered regions only accessible by trails. Sites could be grown over by tropical vegetation or washed away by the rain, and isolated graves had to be marked with 15 ft (4.5 m) tall crosses so they could be found later.

The graves of U.S. soldiers who died in Japanese captivity during the Bataan Death March
(Photo: U.S. Armed Forces)

When a dog tag couldn’t be found, the GRREG still had various methods to identify the deceased. The man’s pockets could be searched for personal effects: photos of family, letters, or a note placed there by his commander before burial. Even watches and laundry tags (which had the last four digits of the soldier’s service number) could be helpful. Tattoos or the type and location of the fatal wound provided additional information. Dental charts and fingerprints were useful tools, but not always viable due to the condition of the body. For the latter, water could be sometimes injected into the dead body’s fingers with a syringe, firming up and filling the tissue to provide a serviceable print.

A GRREG soldiers trying to identify a soldier killed in World War II by his teeth
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Once a victim was identified, the War Department was notified and sent a telegram to his next-of-kin, usually followed by a personal letter of condolence from the soldier’s unit commander. The deceased’s personal items were inspected by his commanding officer, who removed any items that might cause embarrassment or further grief to the family, such as pornography or letters from a mistress. The items were then sealed in a bag and shipped to the Army Effects Bureau at the Kansas City Quartermaster Depot. There, soiled garments were laundered, government property removed, and foreign currency (except souvenir money) converted to dollars and placed in a bank for the next-of-kin along with any other cash or checks. The rest was then sent to the family.

A member of a GR unit sorting the personal effects of a dead soldier
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Most of the GRREG personnel serving in World War II had no previous experience in the field, and it is unsurprising that the grisly nature of their work took a great psychological toll on them, resulting in some of the highest rates of PTSD (Read our earlier article) in the military.

One example of the poor circumstances GRREG units sometimes had to work under was the recovery of the victims of the Malmedy Massacre during the Battle of the Bulge. (Read our earlier article) roughly 80 American POWs were led to a field and machine gunned to death by a Waffen-SS unit, while 43 men managed to run into the forest. The event occurred on December 17, 1944, and Allied commanders started receiving news of it by the evening; the area, however, was in German hands, and would only be regained on January 13, 1945. A Graves Registration Platoon accompanied by an Inspector General entered the site on the same day, and started operations on the next one. The field was still a frontline combat area, with U.S. infantry in foxholes in one corner of the field, and German artillery fire repeatedly disrupting the work, sometimes mangling the remains. 72 bodies were found, including 12 of those who managed to run off the fields but were shot nearby.

Victims of the Malmedy Massacre
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Despite the passage of a month, the bodies were remarkably well-preserved by the snow, but also hidden underneath it. An engineer platoon helped find the bodies with their metal detectors, which pointed out pieces of equipment under the snow, and would have also warned of German mines had such been emplaced. The location and condition of the bodies was photographed by two men from the Signal Corps – such photography was forbidden, unless explicitly authorized for official use. Several of the bodies were frozen to each other and to the ground, making it necessary to separate them before removal.

Soldiers recovering the body of one of the Malmedy Massacre victims on the first day of the operation
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

The bodies were taken to an abandoned railway building nearby which had enough floor space, and was hidden from the sight of both German observers and Allied troops. The building had no water or electricity due to bombing and artillery damage, the lack of electrical lighting forcing the work to be suspended at night. A few coal-burning drums were set up to provide heat for the GRREG troops.

The autopsies proved that the men were executed, rather than killed in combat. Besides wounds from automatic weapons, 40 of the fallen had close-range gunshot wounds to the head, half of them from pistol-caliber weapons; another 10 had fatal blunt or crushing trauma injuries, most likely from German rifle butts. Interestingly, most of the dead did not wear their mandatory identification tags; why and how they lost it, and whether it might have been their German murderers who took them, might never be known for sure. Despite the lack of tags, however, the GRREG soldiers, most of whom did not have any mortuary training before their deployment to Europe, managed to identify every single victim.

Since grave registration units were officially a wartime service, most of them were quickly disbanded after World War II, just as it had happened after World War I. This once again became a problem when the U.S. found itself in the Korean War in 1950. Only two grave registration units existed at the time, and only one of those was located in the theater. The 108th QM Graves Registration Platoon sent 15 men to each of the three U.S. divisions initially chosen for combat with whatever supplies could be scrounged up.

Member of a GR unit filling out a form next to the grave of a soldier. Beside the cross, you can also see a triangular stake marking an unidentified soldier, and a small bottle containing a copy of the form to be buried with the soldier
(Photo: Army Quartermaster Foundation)

The chaotic nature of the Korean War, the mountainous terrain, and the uncertain lines of communication prevented the establishment of large cemeteries, forcing each division to construct its own cemeteries instead. During the major communist offensive in the fall of 1950, the deceased in these cemeteries had to be dug up so they wouldn't fall into enemy hands, and sent first to the rear areas, then to Japan, and finally home to the United States. The United States reacted to this lesson by introducing the policy of "concurrent return," meaning that the fallen are returned to the U.S. as soon as possible, without first going into a temporary cemetery. This policy is still in effect today.

U.S. war casualties returning home to America as part of the concurrent return policy
(Photo: U.S. Air Force Base)

Though the construction of cemeteries was no longer an issue, the identification of the fallen remained an important task and is aided by ever-improving transportation, communication and laboratories. Only 28 American soldiers killed during the Vietnam War remained unidentified by the war's end, and even their identities have been uncovered since, the last one in 1998 with the help of DNA analysis. Here's hoping that no future comrade in arms will ever have to remain "known but to God."

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