Safely RestBy David P. Colley
It was a parade of sorts that began shortly after the Joseph V. Connolly sailed past Ambrose Light, through the Narrows, and glided slowly into New York harbor in the early morning haze of October 26, 1947. Two sleek navy destroyers, the USS Bristol and the USS Beatty, and the gleaming white Coast Guard cutter, Spencer, wheeled into position to escort the Liberty Ship as their crews snapped to rigid attention along the guardrails. On the Connolly’s boat deck an honor guard surrounded a solitary flag-draped coffin that stood out in the defused autumn light, a swatch of red, white and blue against the ships gray flanks. The Connolly approached the towering mass of New York City as the huge 16-inch guns of the battleship, USS Missouri, boomed a salute that echoed off the New Jersey Palisades and back through Manhattan’s man-made canyons. The thunder of the guns rolled away, and a flight of fighter planes roared overhead before gracefully turning to leave the city’s streets in an unnatural quiet. To fill the sudden void, a lone marine on the Bristol’s fantail raised his bugle and sounded “Church Call.” As the notes drifted away, a somber voice broke the silence to deliver a prayer.
The Connolly slipped into Pier 61 at West Twenty-first Street in Manhattan with a reassuring nudge, marking the end of a journey to fulfill a long-held promise of a grateful nation in bringing her cargo safely home. The accompanying tugboats reversed screws and withdrew in a rush of churning water and pounding engines as the crew cast the Connolly’s lines ashore and she was firmly secured. In her reinforced holds she carried 6,248 coffins containing the remains of American soldiers killed in the European theater of World War II. The casket on deck, bearing an unnamed medal of honor winner killed in the Battle of the Bulge, was a symbol of all the young men who were coming home on the Connolly and of the scores of thousands more American dead who also would be returned in the months and years ahead.
At 12:45 p.m. the heavy steel sarcophagus was carried ashore by pallbearers representing all the nation’s armed services and placed on a caisson that was hitched to a turreted armored car. A bugle sounded, onlookers wiped away tears, and the procession began, solemnly, quietly, 6,000 men strong, as it moved up Fifth Avenue, past the first ranks of 400,000 New Yorkers who lined the sidewalks on this warm autumn day to pay final tribute to the nation’s war dead.
This was very different from the victory parade and celebration two years earlier in 1945 when frenzied, elated, and war weary New Yorkers welcomed the return of their proud and triumphant fighting men, who marched along the same route in battle dress. The war had been won and all thoughts were to the future and to the living, not to the past and to the dead. General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower was among the soldiers, seamen, and airmen passing in review in 1945, and smartly dressed, khaki clad “Ike”, seated in the back of an open limousine, greeted the throngs in his typical public salute of outstretched arms and broad smile. The din from the cheering crowds had filled the avenue, and a festive blizzard of ticker tape and confetti swirled down to blanket the street along the way. The parade route was festooned with signs: “Welcome Home” and “Well Done.” The people of New York were delirious.
In October 1947, the old welcome signs from ’45 were still visible, but faded, and an eerie silence greeted the marching ranks as they filled up Fifth Avenue, stopping briefly in Madison Square at Twenty-second Street. They moved on, through the shadow of the Empire State Building on Thirty-fourth Street, past the public library on Forty-second Street, and on toward Central Park. There was no confetti or ticker tape and no roaring crowds, only the sound of muffled footsteps and the hollow clop of horses’ hooves. Many in the crowd sobbed openly and prayed as the military formations passed, led by mounted New York City policemen, followed by contingents of West Point cadets and Naval Academy midshipmen, soldiers from the Eighty-second Airborne Division, marines and sailors, and members of civic groups from the city of New York. Behind them came the caisson bearing the flag-draped coffin.
A band in the procession struck up a funereal, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and muted bells tolled as it passed St. Patrick’s Cathedral with its flag at half-mast. At Sixty-third and Fifth Avenue a diminutive city street sweeper raised his broom rigidly with his left hand in a present arms and snapped a salute with his right hand as the coffin went by. The marchers turned into Central Park at Seventy-second Street and advanced into the Sheep Meadow where forty thousand mourners had assembled to see the casket lifted from its caisson by pallbearers, who solemnly carried it forward and placed it on a purple and black catafalque. As the day wore on and a heat haze settled over the Sheep Meadow, the crowd swelled to 150,000.
Chaplains of three faiths offered prayers for the souls of the war dead and for solace and peace for their loved ones. Speakers eulogized the fallen warriors of World War II; Secretary of the Army Kenneth C. Royall represented the nation, Governor Thomas E. Dewey came on behalf of the state of New York, and Mayor William O’Dwyer appeared for the city. Maj. Gen. Harry H. Vaughan, President Harry S. Truman’s military aide, placed a wreath on the coffin. At 4 p.m. a seven-man honor guard fired a three-volley salute, a drummer began a slow roll, and a mournful taps sounded across the Sheep Meadow as the setting sun backlit the skyline to cast ever lengthening shadows across the park. Another, distant bugler beyond a stand of trees echoed with the same faint quivering notes. The pallbearers returned the casket to the caisson as the West Point band played “Nearer My God To Thee.” The public ceremonies ended, and the assembled onlookers filed home to continue their lives. The casket was carried away and returned to the Connolly from whence the body would make its way home to Ohio or maybe Alabama, where a mother, a father, a brother, and a wife would accompany the remains to a final resting place. For these American families, life would never be the same.
In San Francisco, a similar ceremony took place under an overcast October sky as the army transport ship Honda Knot slipped through the frigid waters beneath the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Bay. An aerial escort of forty-eight fighter planes flew over the vessel before dipping their wings in salute and banking away. Surface ships from the Coast Guard and the Navy approached the Honda Knot and led her through a misting rain to anchorage off Marina Point, where a gathering of five thousand mourners waited to pay tribute to the war dead that the ship was delivering home to American soil from the Pacific theater. A navy launch approached the Honda Knot and offered another massive wreath from President Truman. Dignitaries in the audience included Army General Mark Clark, who had led American troops in Italy during the war, and the Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan, who honored these fallen heroes, many of whom had passed under the Golden Gate Bridge on ships bound for the Pacific war.
Six of the 3,012 flag-draped coffins aboard the Honda Knot were removed the next day to lie in state in the rotunda of San Francisco’s city hall, where ordinary citizens of a sorrowful nation paid their last respects. The six dead represented servicemen from the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard, along with a civilian, all killed in the war. From the early morning until late that night, thousands of mourners filed by the coffins of knelt in prayer by their sides.
The arrival of the Honda Knot and the Joseph V. Connolly officially initiated what one observer called the “most melancholy immigration movement in the history of man,”
the return to the United States of 233,181 American dead after the end of World War II. America’s army of fallen warriors was coming home from the four corners of the earth, from Guadalcanal and Australia, from New Guinea, Japan, China, and Burma in the Pacific theater. From the Mediterranean theater men were returned from Libya, Sicily, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Romania. The bodies of men who had died in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany also came home. Most had been killed in action or had died of wounds from direct combat against the enemy.
In New York, the day after the symbolic funeral for all the nation’s dead, the Connolly moved to the Brooklyn army base, where longshoremen began unloading her cargo of steel caskets and preparing them for shipment. Workers also began unloading the Honda Knot the day after the viewing in San Francisco’s city hall. Her cargo of dead had gone to war expecting one day to return to friends and family. They would be home within ten to thirty days.
At the war’s end families who lost sons, brothers, and husbands in the conflict were asked where they wished the remains of their sons to be interred, in the United States or overseas in an American military cemetery. Congress had passed legislation authorizing repatriation of the bodies, and the majority of the families wanted their boys returned to private burial plots or to a national cemetery nearby.
Not all the dead were returned to U.S. soil. An additional 93,242 men were buried in overseas American cemeteries because the families believed it more appropriate for them to rest with comrades near the battlefields where they had died.
The families of 78,976 dead soldiers had no choice; their sons were listed as missing in action, and their remains were never recovered. Today the number of missing has been reduced by only a trifle; about seventy-eight thousand Americans who went off to World War II are still listed as lost. Among those still missing are about eight thousand men whose bodies had been recovered but whose identities are unknown. Their remains are buried in American cemeteries overseas.
The entire repatriation and overseas reburial program took six years to complete, from 1945 to 1951, at a cost of $200,000,000 in 1945 dollars—several billion today. It wasn’t the first American repatriation program following a foreign war, but it was the most extensive. More than twelve hundred U.S. dead were returned for burial after the Spanish-American War, and about 46,292 were repatriated from France after World War I. Another 30,921 U.S. soldiers who died in World War I were buried in eight American military cemeteries in France following that conflict.
The vast reburial program after World War II is all but forgotten today. There is no glory in the saga of the dead, and this operation was not connected to any massive invasion armada or to a victorious battle or campaign where heroes were made. It was conducted for the most part in obscurity, and the men of this huge army of the dead were mute.
Today we think of these men, many merely boys, but once a year and not so much as real individuals but as part of the fabric of myth on which the nation is built. We think of them as abstractions and we do not know the details of their return.
The retrieval and burial of American dead from World War II still goes on and will go on for centuries. Every year the bodies of missing American soldiers from that conflict are recovered, some in the remote jungles of places like New Guinea where hikers or tribesmen discover them. Others are found in isolated village cemeteries as was one American flyer who had been interred anonymously in Sicily for years. They are found in the waters of the Zuider Zee in the Netherlands, where the bodies of American flyers are regularly recovered from wrecked aircraft found years after the war. All remains are carefully analyzed, relatives sought and found, and then these once lost soldiers are returned to their hometowns or buried in national cemeteries abroad.
The nation glorifies World War II; it was called the Great Crusade, and we now idolize the men of the Greatest Generation and immortalize the dwindling legions of these heroes constantly in film and in literature. In so doing we have lost touch with the immense pain and suffering caused by the war and the ripples of sorrow that still flow across America from that devastating conflict. We know little of the men who gave their lives and nothing about the struggles of their families.
“Prologue”, from SAFELY REST by David P. Colley, copyright (c) 2004 by David P. Colley. Used by permission of Berkely Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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We thank Berkely Publishing Group and Penguin Group (USA) Inc. for permission to reprint this important work that honors and respects America’s war dead from World War II. The Memorial Day Foundation encourages the reading of any book that pays tribute to America’s war dead as another way to increase awareness of the price paid for our freedom.