Military Monday – USMC Pvt. William F. Cowart, A Case Study Part 1

If you read my post last Monday on my partial book review of “Tarawa The Story of a Battle,” you know I brought up a lot of issues for future discussion regarding the Marine Corps in World War II, battle conditions, burial information and procedures, and the records themselves. This week I am going to introduce you to the USMC Casualty Cards.

If you missed the article posted by the Official website of the Marines last July, there was an article called, History division modernizes old casualty cards, now available online.

We often think of a casualty as someone who was killed during war. The USMC defines a casualty for use in these cards as, “The History Division’s Historical Reference Branch holds casualty cards for World War II, War Dogs, Interwar Period 1946-50, Korea, Interwar Period 1955-1965, and Vietnam.  Casualty cards were issued when a Marine was wounded, missing, killed or deemed a prisoner of war.”  [1]

The USMC History Division website has a page for the Casualty Card Database. You can select World War II as a searchable option. *Note: let the entire page load as it is quite lengthy. The Database page also has a link to Casualty Codes for World War II and Korea. This is a valuable resource for deciphering the cards.

If you click World War II, then click CLARK-DE BARGE, you will be taken to a page which contains all the names of Marines between that alphabetical range. There are hundreds of names and many pages to sift through until you reach COWART. You can also search the entire website by COWART William and locate his card that way.  His card is located here.

It contains Name, Service number, Date of Casualty, unit, Type of Casualty, and Location. The details of the casualty will not be shown online because in many cases they are very disturbing. You can request the full card by emailing the USMC History Division.

The Casualty Card

Cowart USMC Casualty Card-1Now let’s look at the actual Casualty Card for Pvt. William F. Cowart.[2]

We see the final unit in which he served at the top of the card. Company C, 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, Gilbert Islands.

This means the final unit he served in was Company C, 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force. To search for information on this unit, try searches on 2nd Marine Division history; 2nd Marine Division Amphibious Tractor Battalions, 2nd Marines in Tarawa and your Marine’s name.

Next we have his birth date, enlistment date, and if he had prior service, there would be information in that space. We know where he was living at the time of enlistment and who is next-of-kin is. Cowart’s file stated he was married and provided her name and address.

The birth and enlistment dates are obvious as to the information they provide. Prior service means if this Marine served in any other branch or time period prior to the current enlistment period. I do have records on a Marine Aviator who first served in the Navy to earn his wings. Then he transferred to the Marine Corps. His Casualty Card for Prior Service says “YES.” Nothing further. To locate additional service information on a Marine who had prior service, you need to obtain his OMPF (service file) from the NPRC in St. Louis. If you need a researcher there, please contact Norm Richards, his contact information is on my website under RESOURCES. Please tell him I referred you.

The next-of-kin is important because sometimes we do not have the official names of parents or a spouse. Cowart’s case is interesting because when you read his OMPF, there are many documents and letters crisscrossing in the mail between his parents and the Marine Corps and the spouse and Marine Corps. The parents did not know at the time he died, he was married apparently, based on correspondence included in the record. If the name of a spouse appears and you did not know of the existence of this spouse, you can now look for documentation. In Cowart’s case, the marriage certificate was in his OMPF.

The History concerning his casualty status is described next. We know he was Killed In Action 20 November 1943 at Tarawa, Gilbert Islands. Confirmed by letter from CG, Headquarters, 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, to Commandant of the Marine Corps dated 12/23/43 received 1/5/44. *** (the *** means GSWs – Gun Shot Wounds.)

His card goes on to state he was buried on Betio Island. Then his body was not recovered.

The Casualty Status states he was KIA on 20 Nov 1943 at Tarawa. A letter was sent to pass this information up the line. We know he died of gun shot wounds. The Marines initially buried their dead in several hastily built cemeteries and isolated graves on the island. Graves Registration Service was not present during the Battle and the usual records and list of personal effects were not created. The Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) would usually have many documents regarding the death, personal effects, correspondence from family and the military. Cowart’s does not.

After the Marines left Tarawa, other contingents arrived and “cleaned-up” the cemeteries. Quite often they moved the crosses without the remains beneath them. In the end, the cross was only a Memorial Cross, not an actual burial location for the Marine listed on the cross. Due to the lack of record keeping, the changes in the cemeteries and inadequate records from that, many of the Marines buried on Tarawa were deemed UNRECOVERABLE in the late 1940s.

Page 2 of the Casualty Card

Cowart USMC Casualty Card-2*Date taken from S/R (Service Record) received 1/27/44.

Has government Insurance.

The date of death was taken from his Service Record (OMPF) obtained by the Marine Corps. The fact he had government insurance meant his spouse could collect his death benefit.

AIRMAILGRAM from Commanding Officer, 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion, 2nd Marine Division Fleet Marine Force to Secretary of the Navy received 3/3/44 reported man KIA on 20 Nov 43.

*Correct date of death taken from Certificate of death received from zone 4-11-44.

Supplemental Certificate of Death received from zone 4-14-44.

The previous three statements show a paper trail to document the death of Cowart.

*Buried in Cemetery #33 (Lone Pine Cemetery), Grave #11, Row #1, Plot #5, Betio, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands, Letter from Commander, Betio to Commanding General, 2ndMarDiv, FMF (reconstruction of cemeteries dated 15 Jun 44 received 1 Nov 44.

(THIS IS A MEMORIAL GRAVE) Letter from Commanding General, Headquarters, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific to Commandant of Marine Corps, dated 24 April 1945, received 7 May 1945.

**Determined non-recoverable by field board 19 October 1949.

As discussed above with Card 1, the cemetery was called Lone Pine Cemetery (you can see a list of all buried there in the IDPFs of Cowart and others buried in this cemetery. The IDPFs are almost identical in contents.)  Again we have a paper trail of letters which may or may not still exist in official records. 

The USMC Casualty Card gives us a glimpse into the death and burial of Cowart. It provides a paper trail we can attempt to follow for more documentation. Obtaining the OMPF (Service Record) and IDPF are next steps in learning more about Cowart’s death and burial. Next week we will talk about Cowart’s service file and the documents included which pertain to his death.


[1] United States Marine Corps History Division, Casualty Card Database, ( : accessed 8 Jan 2015.)

[2] Cowart, William F, Casualty Card, Historical Reference Branch, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.


© 2015, Jennifer Holik, Woodridge, IL

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Writing Wednesday – Book Review – The Battle of the Bulge

Graphic BB CoverI am a member of the World War II History Network, and they from time to time, have book giveaways. I received a book from one giveaway sponsored by Quarto Publishing Group. This book was The Battle of the Bulge. A Graphic History of Allied Victory in the Ardennes, 1944-1945 by Wayne Vansant.

This book appealed to me for a couple of reasons. First, my cousin died on 11 January 1945 in the Battle of the Bulge. Second, because I have boys who love to read and learn about World War II. I thought a graphic history would be another way to engage them and keep discussion going.

Now I don’t read graphic novels or histories. It isn’t my thing, but this book is cool and I’m glad I chose to read it. Vansant introduces the reader to the events which took place throughout the battle and to the leaders and specific people involved who we may read about in adult history books about the battle. His illustrations are sometimes graphic (as in blood on the wounded and dead) and give the reader a sense of what the individuals in each frame felt and thought through facial expressions and text. The book also includes maps to help the reader understand what has taken place and where the troops are headed next. 

One of the best parts of this book is in the appendix. I personally always flip to the back of a history book first to see if there are sources, notes, a bibliography, and index. Vansant’s book contains an appendix filled with lists of the US, British, and German Divisions which participated in the Bulge. Kids can use this as a reference to learn more about specific units, especially if they had a family member who served in one. Drawings and information on tanks used in battle are provided. And, there is a page of additional reading provided. 

I recommend this book to anyone who loves graphic novels and history, to kids who enjoy learning about World War II, and adults who want something new to read. Please check out the Quarto Publishing Group website for additional graphic novels and books related to war.

© 2015, Jennifer Holik, Woodridge, IL

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Military Monday – Book Review “Tarawa The Story of a Battle”

Tarawa coverI do a lot of work with the men who were Killed In Action, declared Missing In Action, or were unrecoverable or unidentifiable during World War II. I have read several books, blogs, articles, and spoken to people conducting research. This is the first book (I think) I have read by someone who was there and NOT involved in the battle as a soldier/sailor/Marine. Tarawa The Story of a Battle was written by Robert Sherrod, a war correspondent who entered the Tarawa Battle with the first waves on 20 November 1943. It is a miracle he and his journals survived. Sherrod wrote and published the book in 1944.

The book contains an account of the battle from Sherrod’s viewpoints as he entered prepared to enter the battle zone, went ashore, and watched the devastation, destruction, and killing happen on all sides of him. He divided the book by chapters into the pre-battle days, Day One, Day Two, Day Three, and What came After. The end of the book contains lists of those Killed In Action and Missing In Action. There are likely to be missing names due to the chaos of battle.

This book is important for several reasons because it brings up several themes I think need to be discussed regarding the life of a soldier/sailor/Marine, the conditions under which they fought, and the conditions under which the dead had to be buried. I am going to read it a few more times and take more extensive notes for future blog posts on Marine Corps records and research, and how the dead were accounted (or not) for when buried and disinterred.

I stumbled upon this book because it was listed in Pvt. William F. Cowart’s Marine Corps Service Record (OMPF) in a letter written by his mother to the military. His mother stated in the letter her son was listed by name in the book when we was found by the author and another Marine during the battle. (See more about this in the next few week’s blog posts.)

The public has been so conditioned to think all the records burned that often people do not attempt to obtain the file. Yet the files contain such rich information, you never know what you will find. This is not the first Service File to provide unexpected clues to the life of a serviceman or woman. I have used other files which contain adoption information, vital records, letters providing clues to the life of the soldier, and enough information forms to piece together a great timeline of life before service. If you need help retrieving service files and other records pertaining to service at the NPRC in St. Louis, contact my researcher Norm Richards and tell him I sent you. His contact information is under RESOURCES on my website.

The public during World War II was not provided with the information on this process and due to many factors we still have hundreds of Marines and Navy men unidentified from the Tarawa Battle. When you read this book you learn the history and can put the battle and conditions into historical context. This context explains WHY we have the issue of identification today.

There are many debates on why our government is not identifying remains fast enough and returning them to the families and many families are upset. The family and the public have still not been properly educated as to the process of figuring out who was present at the battle, where individuals may have been buried, what records may have been kept, and what was left of a soldier after battle. And yes by what was left of a soldier I mean what body parts actually remained.

What was left of a soldier depended on how he was killed. It also depended on the weather. In Tarawa the equatorial sun quickly deteriorated the bodies or what was left of them, often making initial identification within a day or week of the battle sometimes impossible. During the winter of 1944-1945 when soldiers were dying in Europe during the Battle of the Bulge, the snowy conditions may have covered their bodies making their recovery and identification more difficult.

Beyond this one aspect of war, there are many issues discussed in this book that will require several posts and in-depth explanation in my book series on Marine Corps records. If you are interested in this aspect of war, stay tuned to the blog and book releases. These stories will also end up in future lectures.

This book should be read by anyone interested in the Marines during World War II, the Battle of Tarawa, and those interested in learning about the burial procedures conducted. Even if your soldier who may still be Missing In Action/unaccounted for did not fight in this battle, the burial information and conditions of remains is important regardless of theater of war. It is an education everyone needs.

I plan to now look for books written by other correspondents overseas to get a more accurate picture of events rather than just the fancied less horrific versions presented in the newspapers or by historians after the fact. Books like Sherrod’s are extremely valuable.

Have you read any books by war correspondents? Do you have other books written during the war to recommend?

© 2015, Jennifer Holik, Woodridge, IL

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