Our Honored Dead

Our Honored Dead

Essay on Quartermaster care of the dead from the Civil War to Korea

Our Honored Dead
By Florence Cannon

The Quartermaster Review
May-June 1952

"Show me the manner in which a nation or a community cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals." – Gladstone.

DURING wars or in peacetime, no part of the mission of the Army is more sensitive than the responsibility for the care and burial of the dead of the armed forces. Essentially a peace-loving nation, intent primarily upon providing better things for better living, and exercising the right to happiness, for ourselves and for future generations, we never shrink from arming ourselves for the protection of the rights inherent in the principles on which our country was founded. We affiliate ourselves with peoples throughout the world in struggles against tyranny and oppression that would deny large segments the right to live and work and worship and be governed in the manner of their choosing. The cost in dollars, enormous as it is, of maintaining military forces for our own protection and in readiness for the defense of the rights of people of other nations, and of furnishing less fortunate countries with economic and military help, is unimportant in comparison with the cost in lives. The arming and training of our young people in the art of war is abhorrent to us, but it is done with a will that recognizes necessity. The very reluctance with which we accept the responsibility for sending men into battle inspires an especially respectful approach to the care of the remains of those we have unwillingly sacrificed.

The Quartermaster Corps of the Army was established to provide food and clothing and similar services for the living. It was therefore logical that the responsibility for the care and burial of the remains of those who had served as members of the armed forces of the United States should have been assigned to The Quartermaster General. Over the years, the quality of these services has kept pace with developments in civil life, through a continuous study of new techniques and by the addition of professionally trained and experienced personnel to the Corps and to civilian staffs. Although, because of the emotional human elements involved, primary consideration must be given to the quality of these services, no part of the mission is undertaken without a careful examination of comparative methods in the interest of efficiency and economy. Commercial services are utilized to the maximum, on a contractual basis, in provision of the services of funeral directors and the supply of caskets and grave markers.

The national cemeteries, initiated after the War Between the States, were established as fields of honor for those whose families preferred that the final resting-places of their soldier dead be among those of comrades with whom they had been associated in life. The Quartermaster General has general supervision, over all national cemeteries under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Army, and is responsible for the promulgation of regulations and policies pertaining thereto.

When a family prefers final interment in a family burial ground or in a conveniently-located private cemetery, the obligation is fulfilled with understanding and respect.

For the dead of World War I, American military cemeteries were established on foreign soil. These cemeteries are either at locations where the armies themselves had been engaged in combat or at places selected as appropriate for commemoration of the engagements.

Similar places were selected for the burial of those who lost their lives in World War II. After interments are completed by the American Graves Registration Service – the agency of the Army established during wartime for the recovery and burial of those killed in action – jurisdiction over these American cemeteries in foreign lands becomes the responsibility of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Of the dead of World War I, over 30,000 lie buried in the eight military cemeteries in parts of European territory that will forever be hallowed American around. The remains of about 47,000 were returned to the United States or to their native lands abroad. Of the World War I dead, 1,648 remained unidentified and from among them, on 24 October 1921, in the Hotel de Ville in Chalons-sur-Marne, one was selected as the Unknown Soldier. His remains now rest in a specially-designed tomb before the Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery, symbolically representative of the respectful gratitude of a nation.

The impossibility of recovering and identifying the remains of some members of our armed forces represents one of the most difficult phases of war's aftermath. There were over 2,000 known participants in World War I whose remains were never recovered, and there were numerous cases where the circumstances under which a group lost their lives-such as plane crashes, tank explosions, and the like-prevented individual identification, necessitating group burials.

Fourteen American military cemeteries were established on foreign soil to receive, for final interment, the bodies of those who died in World War II. One of these is in England, two are in Belgium, five are in France, two are in Italy, and there is one each in Holland, Luxembourg, North Africa and the Philippine Islands. Once again the next of kin were asked to indicate their choice in the matter of final interment. One hundred and seventy-one thousand chose burial in national cemeteries, or in private cemeteries in the United States or in the foreign countries from which they sprang.

It is a source of melancholy pride that, with the development of weapons of greater destructive force, science has simultaneously produced methods of identification which have resulted in a material reduction in the number of unknowns. To the layman it often appears nothing short of incredible that technological advances have made it possible to identify as those of a known individual a few skeletal or other residual remains. This work is continuing in identification laboratories in Europe.

The practice of establishing temporary cemeteries in areas appropriately convenient, or as dictated by necessity, used in World Wars I and II, was followed in Korea. These were United Nations military cemeteries, in which the remains of nationals of many countries were given temporary burial. The first reports of burials of Americans received in the Office of The Quartermaster General are dated July 1950, in cemeteries in the vicinity of Taejon, Pusan, and Masan. Thereafter, reports of burials were received from cemeteries in the Miryang, Taegu, Kaesong, Pyongyang, Sukehon, Wonsan, Pupchong, Hungnam, Yudarn, Koto-Ri and Tanggok areas. As these reports were received, a letter was sent to the next of kin of each decedent, advising him of the place of temporary burial of remains tentatively identified as those of the son, the husband, or the brother.

Early in 1951 an American mortuary was established at Camp Kokura, on the island of Kyushu, Japan. Here was assembled a staff of expert identification technicians and morticians, and here the remains of all American dead are being brought from Korea. Here the tentative identifications, so many made hastily under unbelievable battlefield conditions prior to interment, are either verified or discarded as incorrect. These latter cases are then placed in the hands of the technicians and anthropologists in the identification laboratory. Army records on the decedents are made available for comparison with characteristics of the remains. Army and civilian dental data are furnished, and when fingerprints are possible, they are compared with records on file with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Every known scientific technique is used to determine, beyond question, an individual's identity. After identity is established, the remains are reverently prepared for homeward movement. No permanent military cemetery in the Far East for the American dead of the Korean conflict is planned; all recovered remains will be returned to the homeland, and the next of kin are again given the right to designate the place of final interment. In March 1951 the U. S. General Randall left the port of Yokohama bound for San Francisco. The remains of fifty members of our armed forces had begun the journey home.

Since then, several ships have brought back the remains of the dead of our armed forces. These ships are operated by the Military Sea Transport Service. Each time, as a ship is outbound, the next of kin of those whose remains are on board are notified that the remains are en route, and are asked for advisory instructions.

During the program of the return of World War II dead, fifteen distribution centers were established to expedite the delivery of the remains to their individual destinations. In the case of the return of the dead from Korea, it was determined that only the facilities and personnel available at the San Francisco and New York ports would be used. Arrangements were made with the several railroad Companies whereby trains of special mortuary cars would transport to the Port of New York the remains of those whose final destinations were in the general area east of the Mississippi River. There the caskets are carefully inspected and any necessary repairs or replacements are made. Thereafter, with a military escort of appropriate rank, each casket continues its journey to the final resting-place. San Francisco Port is the distribution center for remains shipped west of the Mississippi.

The selection and training of military escorts is the responsibility of the army areas in which are located the installations from which the remains are shipped to final destination. The sympathetic responses to the questions asked by friends and members of the families, and the reverent handling of the flag as it is removed from the casket, folded, and handed to the next of kin, are all part of the careful training of these escorts and their instinctive desire to impart a feeling of kinship in these last rites.

The millions of words of attempted consolation that must be written and spoken to the fathers and mothers, to the widows, or to their representatives in the Congress and in veterans' and service organizations, and the visits to the homes by personnel of the Office of The Quartermaster General, represent no small part in the performance of our reburial program responsibilities.

These letters, these conversations, these visits, are, to many families, the voice of their government. Quartermaster personnel try to insure that this voice is not cold and impersonal; that it does not create confusion instead of understanding; that it does not fail to convey a sympathetic comprehension of an individual situation, and the desire and ability to help to the extent one human being can help another under the circumstances.

Article courtesy of the United States Army Quartermaster Museum