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US Army

Tending the Dead in ETO

Tending the Dead in ETO
 
The cost of winning the war in Europe is spelled out in crosses and Stars of David stuck in the soil of 54 U.S. Military cemeteries in ETO.
 
There are two in England, one in Northern Ireland, thirty in France, one in Luxembourg, four in Belgium, four in Holland, and twelve in Germany some of which are already being removed to Belgium in France.
 
Recent tabulations show that the QM Graves Registration Service has buried in these cemeteries 125,670 Americans, 3,463 Allies, and 77,773 enemy dead.
Unidentified U.S. dead number only approximately 2 percent of the total buried.  It was more than twice this percentage at the end of a comparable period after World War I.  Graves Registration Service personnel are working to reduce present unknowns to an even smaller figure.  At the end of the war there were an estimated 18,000 isolated burials throughout the theater – men who were buried where they fell instead of being transported to established cemeteries.  The top priority post V-E job for the Graves Registration Service men in ETO is finding these graves, as well as unburied remains and interring the dead in one of the military cemeteries.
 
Another high priority job is evacuating the 8,000 American dead who were buried in Germany.  They will be re-interred in liberated countries.
 
Where and who?  To locate isolated burials, Grave Registration Service men use methods ranging from searching battle areas indicated by day-to-day situation maps.  In interviewing civilians in likely areas.  Identifying the man who was buried in some isolated spot may not be simple, for sometimes identification tags are missing.  Investigations may involve more interviews with civilians who were near the scene of death, probing for data in the man’s unit, in missing Air Crew or Battle Casualty reports and careful examination of the remains.
 
Unknowns both in isolated graves and in established cemeteries often can be identified through a careful check of physical characteristics: finger prints, body scars, tooth charts and so forth.  Also aiding in identification are pay books, drivers’ licenses, letters, laundry marks, and equipment serial numbers.  Some of this information may be registered on burial or KIA and MIA reports.
 
All these aids to identification are cross-checked painstakingly, and no case is closed until the deceased has either been identified or every possible source of information has been exhausted.  When a case is closed papers concerning it are forwarded to the Office of The Quartermaster General for review and further investigation.
 
Although regular Graves Registration Service practice is to wrap bodies in clean white shrouds before burial, that wasn’t always possible in fast-moving warfare.  Many casualties were simply buried in the clothes they were wearing when they were killed, or wrapped in blankets or shelter halves.
 
If there wasn’t time for a burial service, chaplains returned to the grave as soon as they could and read the service over it.  If he didn’t know the religions preference of the dead man, the chaplain read a combined Protestant - Catholic - Jewish Service.
 
The Markers.  Markers were erected over all known grave as soon as possible.  Often they were only simple stakes with one of the man’s identification tags nailed to it.  But as soon as possible or when the area passed under Com Zone control, crosses and Star of David were erected.  The name, rank, and serial number of the dead were stenciled on their grave markers, too.
 
Personal Effects.  The system of safeguarding personal effects of the deceased was worked out in detail to ensure their eventual return to the next-of-kin.  As soon as a man was killed, it became his CO’s responsibility to collect the dead man’s personal belongings, including money, inventory them, and begin their evacuation through echelons to the rear.
 
Two effects depots served as intermediate collecting points.  They were located at Liverpool, England, for the UK base, and at Folembray, France, for continental forces.  They forwarded effects to the Army Effects Bureau in Kansas City, Missouri, where trained personnel sort the man’s belongings and prepare them for shipment home.  There, blood-stained clothing is cleaned and pressed, items that might cause embarrassment to relatives are set aside, and documents that might prove of military value such as diaries, are diverted for study by Intelligence.  The two overseas depots are scheduled to go out of operation, all effects going directly to Kansas City.
 
Beautification.  When the cemeteries in Germany are cleared out about 40 will remain in the UK and the liberated countries of Europe.  These plots are being landscaped in keeping with the War Department policy for military cemeteries.  The objective is to make each a scene of simple beauty in harmony with the surrounding area.
 
One such cemetery, now the largest in ETO of World War II, is the one at Henri-Chapelle, 18 miles from Liège, Belgium.  More than 17,000 men lie there.
 
This cemetery was established and cared for by the 607th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company, whose men scrambled ashore on Omaha Beach on D-Day.  Three platoons were each attached to engineer Special Brigades under the First Army.
 
In the confusion of those early days on the beaches, under enemy artillery and small arms fire men of the 607th gathered bodies from the beaches, in the water, and inland.  In ducks(?), second platoon men searched the off-shore waters and recovered many bodies some of which they had to cut from wrecked landing craft submerged in the shallow water, and carried them ashore.
 
Beaches Clear.  By the end of D-plus-2, the third platoon alone had buried 457 American dead.  By working day and night, the three platoons together were able to clear the beaches of all dead.  Later, bodies were reburied in permanent cemeteries at St Laurent sur Mer, St Mere Eglise, and Orglandes, France. (Now a German cemetery)
 
The cemetery at St Laurent sur Mer was the first to be established on European soil.  First burials there were made on D-plus-3 by the second and third platoons of the 607th, which operated it until St Lo break-through.  By that time 4,000 Americans, 50 Allied soldiers, and 1,200 Germans were buried there.

St Laurent sur Mer Cemetery

 
On June 19 the fourth platoon opened the Orlanders cemetery, which became the major burial site for enemy dead in the Cherbourg peninsula.  In all the 607th operated five cemeteries in Normandy.
 

After St Lo break-through the company opened five more cemeteries in France in the wake of the advancing forces; then two in Belgium, (Fosse la Ville, Henri-Chapelle) and three in Germany.

 

Counter-attack.  The company was in danger of encirclement during the German counter-attack in December 1944.  The bivouac area at Henri-Chapelle was bombed.  German planes strafed workers in the cemetery, and paratroops landed in the vicinity.

 
With 118 men and four officers, the unit buried one of the largest groups of fatalities it had yet handled in one month.  From 17th December to 16 January, it buried 3,159 Americans and 1,745 Germans.
 
Besides running the Henri-Chapelle Cemetery at that time, the company furnished personnel for the XVIII Corps and in addition sent 15 men and an officer to set up collecting points for the 82nd Airborne Division and 390th Infantry Regiment.
 
In its first 11 months of operation in ETO, the 607th buried 37,700 U.S. Allied, and enemy personnel.The company headquarters was able to send on its reports and personal effects of the U.S. dead within 24 hours after burial.
 
The company stayed at the Henri-Chapelle Cemetery for five month before moving on into Germany where it handled casualties from the Ruhr pocket fighting.  One GRS detachment (two platoons and a service company) opened a cemetery at Breuna, while the remainder of the company, also with attached service troops, operated one at Ittenbach.  From there, a small detachment went forward to operate an Army clearing point.
 
Later, the company closed the two and took over a Third Army cemetery at Isenach.  Four days later two detachments again went forward to set up more Army collecting points deeper in enemy territory.  The company was still in Germany when V-E day came.
 
Its Awards.  The 607th holds the Meritorious Service Unit Plaque, and three of its men have been awarded the Bronze Star.  Three others have the Croix de Guerre, 19 wear the Presidential Unit Citation for their D-Day work, and 17 have Purple Hearts.  All but one of the latter were awarded posthumously to 15 men and one officer who were killed in an enemy attack during invasion maneuvers in the English Channel on 28 April 1944.
 
Source: Bulge Bugle August 2005

By Joseph S LIBERTO

607th Quartermaster Graves

Registration Company

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium