Military Monday – Understanding the Graves Registration Service

It’s Monday and that means a new installment in the world of military records! As you read through this series, please keep in mind I’m discussing World War II records only. While there is a lot of overlap between other wars and records, the focus here is only World War II. Today we will look at the work the men of the Graves Registration Service did during World War II to handle all the Soldier Dead.

Soldier Dead is a term used by the military to describe those valiant men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice during military service. This term will be used throughout this chapter to refer to our honored war dead.

Note: The following is excerpted from my soon to be released book Stories of the Lost which has an entire chapter on the Graves Registration Service.

The American Battle Monuments Commission

Upon conclusion of both World Wars, the U.S. government began bringing home the soldiers who survived and handling the final disposition of those who did not. Due to high numbers of Soldier Dead buried overseas, the government had to make a decision about their remains. Ultimately, it was decided the government would establish permanent American Military Cemeteries overseas which would be run by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC.) Families had the choice to leave their soldier buried overseas in a military cemetery or repatriated. The government paid the bill for both options.

After World War II, for the families who chose to leave their Soldier Dead overseas, and for the unknown soldiers, re-interment in permanent American Military Cemeteries took place after all the dead who needed to be repatriated were handled. The 209 temporary cemeteries across Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific were condensed to 14 cemeteries in foreign countries.

The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) oversees the cemeteries which hold our American military dead around the world. ABMC was established in 1923 by Congress to honor our Great War dead. These cemeteries were granted in perpetuity to our government and remain tax free. Burial in these cemeteries was not just of our male G.I.’s but also Red Cross workers, USO entertainers, and others seen as military personnel during World War I and II.

The cemeteries were laid out to be green, expansive, beautiful, and full of peace. Each headstone is made of marble in the shape of a cross or Star of David, depending on the religion of the soldier. Visitor’s centers were erected which depict battles fought nearby. Memorials were built listing the names of the missing and to honor all who fought and died.

The cemeteries are groomed and cared for by AMBC staff and decorated with flags and flowers for ceremonies throughout the year. The ABMC offers photography services for families who wish to have a photograph of their Soldier Dead’s grave and the cemetery. They also offer floral services if you wish to have flowers placed on a soldier’s grave.

To fully appreciate how these cemeteries came into existence and honor those buried beneath the foreign soil, we must discuss the men who helped build the cemeteries. Who were they? What kind of job did they have during and after the wars? How did they care for our most honored dead? And how did they shape the cemeteries we visit today?

These men were from the Quartermaster Graves Registration Service. What follows is not an exhaustive history of this unit because many books have been written on the subject. The purpose is to provide an overview to help put each soldier’s life and death into greater context.

The Job

When we think of a cemetery in the U.S. or one of the ABMC cemeteries, we picture a beautiful, expansive, quiet, peaceful, rolling green, lush, and clean cemetery. Just as we are conditioned to think of our World War II veterans as older men and women, we are conditioned to see military cemeteries as beautiful. This was not always the case.

As the U.S. prepared for war, the Graves Registration Service was trained and prepared to go with the troops and handle the casualties. GRS workers were responsible for locating suitable cemetery sites overseas. Once selected after examining the terrain, soil quality, and distance to enemy lines, they began plotting the cemetery. Maps were drawn, processing tents were set up and the men assigned tasks. Local civilian workers were called in to help dig graves and bury the dead.

The job of a Graves Registration Serviceman was not glamorous. Nor was it discussed and publicized very often. As unsung heroes, these men worked tirelessly to care for the remains of not only our U.S. Soldier Dead but also enemy dead. Within practically every U.S. established cemetery, there was a section for German dead. Our GRS men worked to identify every casualty they buried. This was not always possible. When information was gathered about the unidentified soldiers, it was placed in a canister or bottle and buried in the grave.

Both U.S. and enemy dead were buried in these temporary cemeteries. Why? It was important to bury all the dead for several reasons. The primary reason was health concerns. Decomposing bodies out in the open would spread disease and lower troop morale. It was better the troops  did not encounter the remains of their comrades, lest the fear and panic they already felt increase, making them unable to do their job effectively.

There was also the respect for the families back home. Our men made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and deserved respect from those who cared for them after death since their families could not.

Also, soldiers were buried for forensic reasons. Information was gathered to not only identify them but also on how they were killed. Furthermore, GRS buried for political reasons which showed both allies and enemies we have a heart, are human and care for others with compassion.

The GRS in World War II were not only responsible for collecting, identifying, and burying the Soldier Dead, but also handling personal effects. The men had a system by which they worked on the stripping line to handle personal effects which would be returned to the owner’s family.

How the GRS Handled Soldier Dead

A Collection Point was established on a main road and was the location the Soldier Dead were brought by units in combat or by GRS men. Collection Points contained an administrative tent, examination tent, examination area, and a screen to shelter passing troops from the view of their dead comrades.

The GRS men at Collection Points identified when possible, collected personal effects, and transported the Soldier Dead to the nearest American cemetery for burial. When they arrived at a cemetery, GRS workers again checked identification, effects, and rechecked records before temporary burial occurred.

GRS claimed the remains of a soldier from a unit, along the road side or battle ground. Men worked in the mud, rain, deep snow, jungles and on beaches in their recovery efforts. During December and January 1945 when the Battle of the Bulge raged, the weather was bitter cold and snow packed the ground for weeks. This made the job of grave digging and handling the dead ever more difficult. These men also crossed back and forth over enemy lines putting their own lives in danger.

The recovery process meant to collect both complete bodies and scattered remains. Consider the soldier who received a gunshot wound to the head. That most likely constituted a complete body or set of remains. Now, think about the men hit by shells. These bodies would have been in all sorts of condition and may have been scattered around the area in which they were killed. GRS could not always attend to the dead immediately after they were killed so these men encountered all stages of decomposition.  

The following images are from the IDPF of Frank Aldrich. The first is a listing of the Soldier Dead collected by GRS and the second is a map showing where two remains were located.

Aldrich Frank Collecting GRS sheet

Source: United States Army, Individual Deceased Personnel File, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, 200 Stovall Street Alexandria, VA 22332-0400, Collecting List in the file of Frank Aldrich.

Aldrich Frank map GRS

Source: United States Army, Individual Deceased Personnel File, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, 200 Stovall Street Alexandria, VA 22332-0400, Collecting Map in the file of Frank Aldrich.

Identification Process

When a soldier’s remains, either U.S. or German, were recovered, every attempt at identification took place. The procedure for processing remains and identification began at the stripping line where troops initially removed explosives and equipment. Another soldier would take these items to a nearby ammo and equipment area so they could be inventoried and reissued.

The next step was when medical sergeants came in with a clerk. The sergeants cut pockets and other pieces of clothing in order to locate identification tags and remove personal effects. Typically these men worked without gloves in destroyed and decomposed remains. Identification tags were sought as part of this process even when the remains were in bad condition.

To identify a Soldier Dead, identification tags were sought first. If those could not be recovered then a soldier’s comrades were consulted if they were available, to help identify the soldier. Rings, insignia, pay records, letters and photographs that may have been carried were also used in the process. In some cases, dental records and laundry marks were used. Upon first issue of clothing in the Army, a soldier would put a mark in his clothing to show that it was his. However, when serving on the front lines, when a soldier entered a wash-up station, he may or may not have had his duffle bag with his clothing available. In those cases, the men stripped, left their clothing, went into the wash station on one end, came out the other and were given new clothes. It was the hope that the clothes were the size they needed but this was not always the case. Because clothes were reissued over and over, there may have been several different laundry marks which would have made it very difficult to positively identify the Soldier Dead.

Positive Identification

When a Soldier Dead was identified, a mattress cover which was used as a shroud was prepared for him by painting his name, rank, and serial number on it. Then his remains were arranged and closed in the shroud. One identification tag was inserted into deceased’s mouth before he was placed in a grave. The other identification tag was attached to the cross on the grave. Next paperwork would be sent to the War Department in order to notify the next of kin. The bags of personal effects were shipped to Kansas City, MO.

Unknown Identification

Not all Soldier Dead were identified because of the condition of the body when it was received by the GRS. Other factors included advanced decomposition and none of the soldier’s comrades being available to help identify him.

To assist in identification, a still photographer was brought in to photograph the face, torso and other identifying marks on the body. Photos were also taken of the fingers and hands in case prints could not be obtained. A fluoroscope was used to see if the identification tags were embedded in the body or if other foreign matter resided there.

When all available identification options were exhausted and remains could not be identified, they were assigned an X number since there was no serial number by which to identify them. This X number was placed on reports. Duplicate reports were created for the unknown soldiers and fingerprints of all 10 fingers were taken and put into the Report of Death. Unknown remains were placed into a mattress cover and X number was painted on the bag.  The personal effects were shipped to Kansas City, MO.

Two metallic tags with the X number were made and then one was inserted into deceased’s mouth and the other was attached to the cross on the grave. The duplicate copy of records was placed in a bottle and buried with Soldier Dead. This allowed for possible identification at a later time when the remains were disinterred.

In cases where bodies were mangled or adhered together due to a plane crash or other disaster, if the GRS men were unable to disentangle the remains, a group burial would have been done. In these cases most were unidentified because the remains were destroyed beyond recognition.

Disposition of Soldier Dead After the War

In mid-1947, the government gave families the option to have their Soldier Dead remains disinterred at government expense and returned to a U.S. cemetery for burial or reburial in a permanent American cemetery overseas. The disinterment and repatriation process took several years after the war ended, partly due to a shortage of materials for cases for the caskets and a shortage of metal for the caskets themselves. 

One of the first shipments to Europe took place in May 1947, when the Liberty Ship Joseph V. Connolly was sent to deliver steel coffins. The coffins were “made of steel with bronze finish” and “were seamless, a cover set on a rubber gasket is sealed with thirty-two lugs.” These coffins were placed into a wooden shipping case after the Soldier Dead was placed inside and the lid sealed. The shipping cases had the name, rank, and serial number of the soldier inscribed on the case. The shipping cases were stored in warehouses when possible, or stacked in fields and covered with tarps until they were ready for transport by rail or water to the ports.  Upon transport to the ports, each shipping case was covered with an American Flag. The flag remained on the case until it was delivered to a home or funeral home in the U.S. (You can read the New York Times article here. Grab your tissues!)

Photo of James' grave taken by Norbert Morbe January 11, 2012.

Luxembourg Cemetery (ABMC) James Privoznik’s grave. Photo taken by Norbert Morbe January 11, 2012.

Once the Soldier Dead were returned to the U.S., they were sent to one of fifty receiving stations set up in to receive the casketed remains. The caskets were transported to these receiving stations on converted Army and Navy train cars which held 66 shipping cases per car. Each funeral train held an honor guard which traveled with the Soldier Dead.

The soldiers who remained behind at the request of their families, or who were unknowns, were interred permanently in a permanent American Military Cemetery which became part of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

There is much more to the Graves Registration Story. To learn more, watch for my book, Stories of the Lost to be released this spring. You can also attend one of the lectures I give in the Chicago area of the same name.

Next week we will explore another facet of World War II military research so be sure to check back!

Like what you’ve seen and want to know more? Sign up for my newsletter on my author website. For military research and writing services, or to book a lecture on military records, please contact me through my website Generations.

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© 2014, Generations, Woodridge, IL

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