How World War II Armies Dealt With Millions Of War Dead

May 13, 2020 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIWarMilitaryTechnologyDefense

How World War II Armies Dealt With Millions Of War Dead

The grim but necessary task of caring the the war dead was the responsibility of the Army’s graves registration units.

Here's What You Need To Remember: As the centuries passed, what to do with the remains of dead soldiers became more formalized. For those killed on foreign battlefields, a more-or-less swift burial was the norm; bringing the dead home for burial, a process that could take weeks before the advent of airplanes, was not an option.

The very nature of war means that some participants will be killed and others will be wounded. While battlefield medics and the surgical teams who care for the wounded have been hailed as unsung heroes, and books and articles have been written about them, very little has been said about the men of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Branch’s Graves Registration units.

Since the dawn of warfare, the problem of what to do with dead bodies littering a battlefield has been an uncomfortable question for commanders. While it is unpleasant to think about violent death and the decomposition process, it is a reality that must be faced by all who go to war—and their families.

Ancient armies simply stripped the dead of their armor and weapons and allowed the natural processes to reclaim the physical remains; graves and tombs were, for the most part, reserved for kings, emperors, generals, and the wealthy nobility. As the common ancient soldier usually carried no means of identification, burial, if there was burial, was in a shallow, common mass grave. At other times, bodies might be piled up and a funeral pyre lit.

Accounts have been written by soldiers at Waterloo, Gettysburg, and the Somme describing the unforgettable stench of hundreds of decomposing corpses on the battlefield; the liberators of Nazi concentration camps, too, have vividly written about the overwhelming, permeating, sickly-sweet stench of mass death, so disposing of the dead has become a priority. 

As the centuries passed, what to do with the remains of dead soldiers became more formalized. For those killed on foreign battlefields, a more-or-less swift burial was the norm; bringing the dead home for burial, a process that could take weeks before the advent of airplanes, was not an option.

Also, before the introduction of M1940 identification tags, the so-called “dog tags” of World War II, and the more recent science of DNA, being able to identify a particular dead soldier was a haphazard affair. Before going into battle, Civil War soldiers sometimes wrote their names and the names of their next of kin on a scrap of paper that they put in a pocket or pinned to their uniforms.

In his book, Soldier Dead: How We Recover, Identify, Bury, and Honor Our Military Fallen, author Michael Sledge writes, “Only those closest to the dead and to the combat situation will make the choice to risk bringing back the bodies of the dead, as it is an intensely personal decision.”

For the American military, the past century has put more emphasis on retrieving the bodies of the fallen, even when retrieving the fallen puts others at risk. And who can forget the scene in The Longest Day, when John Wayne, playing battalion commander Lt. Col. Ben Vandervoort, looks up at his dead paratroopers hanging from trees at Ste. Mere Eglise and orders, “Down! Get them down!”

During World War II, Graves Registration Service (GRS) teams were deployed to land shortly after the first wave of amphibious troops hit the beaches to remove the dead from view, as it was felt that subsequent reinforcements, for morale purposes, should be spared the sight of dead comrades. Except for perhaps a few soldiers who had previously been employed in a morgue or funeral home, the handling of corpses, especially of those who had died a bloody and violent death, was a new and unpleasant assignment for GRS troops.

Blosville Cemetery in Normandy

During the Normandy invasion, Sergeant Elbert E. Legg, a member of the 4th Platoon, 603rd Quartermaster Graves Registration Company, attached to the U.S. VII Corps, volunteered to arrive in one of the 82nd Airborne Division gliders at Landing Zone “W” on D-Day to quickly establish a Graves Registration collection point because, as he said, “The schedule called for the Graves Registration unit and its vehicles to arrive on the beach about D+3. This would be too long for mass casualties to go unprocessed on the battlefield. Estimates of battle dead for establishing the beachhead ran as high as 10,000 American soldiers.”

After coming in by glider on the afternoon of June 6, 1944, Legg set up a temporary cemetery in a pasture bordered by hedgerows. He recalled that the first temporary cemetery was established near the village of Blosville, about three miles south of Ste. Mere Eglise, “an area with crashed gliders strewn everywhere and hundreds of parachutes hanging from hedges, trees, and houses.” The Blosville Cemetery was one of six American cemeteries established in a radius of about 20 miles.

At the outset, Legg noted, the Blosville Cemetery was intended to be temporary and primarily serve the 82nd Airborne Division. Shortly thereafter, jeeps began arriving with dead soldiers; the drivers stood back, not wanting to become involved. Legg, too, recalled his initial squeamishness: “For the first time in my life, I touched a dead man. I grabbed the leg of one of the bodies and it rolled onto the ground. As I struggled, the drivers gave in and assisted me with the remainder of the bodies. There were now 14 dead lying in a row and more loaded vehicles were driving into the field.”

Recruiting Labor For the Task

A Lieutenant Fraim, the Graves Registration officer for the 82nd, introduced himself to Legg and told him to establish a temporary cemetery in the area while he went into Blosville to draft volunteer civilian labor to dig the graves. Legg said, “When asked how he would pay the workers, he displayed a musette bag full of invasion French francs intended for that purpose.”

Legg returned to the pasture and stuck his heel in the ground. “This would be the upper left corner of the first grave. I found an empty K-ration carton and split it into wooden stakes. I paced off the graves in rows of 20 and marked them with the stakes. I had no transit, tape measure, shovels, picks, or any other equipment needed to establish a properly laid out cemetery. I also lacked burial bags [mattress covers], grave registration forms, and personal effects bags. The situation rapidly exceeded what had originally been planned for the one-man Graves Registration unit, and this was still the first day.

“Lieutenant Fraim returned and said he had arranged for about 35 Frenchmen to start digging graves the next morning. By this time about 50 bodies awaited burial. I found an abandoned foxhole in the middle of an orchard and set up housekeeping. Sleep came easily as the fatigue of the day’s events had begun to take its toll.”

The next morning Legg saw a column of Frenchmen coming his way down the road, “carrying a mixture of picks and shovels and lunch pails. All the men were very old or crippled in some way. It took little time to assign them to digging graves. There was little conversation since I spoke no French and they spoke no English. The long row of bodies and marking stakes made it apparent what was to be done.” All 50 bodies were buried that day, with more arriving all the time.

“About 1600 hours on D+1, Lieutenant Fraim came by to inform me that I should stop work and move with the other troops located around Les Forges crossroads to a safer location. The Frenchmen were paid and instructed to return when they again saw activity around the cemetery. All graves were closed and a military chaplain came to conduct an all-faith burial service. I … headed for a group of vehicles forming near the crossroads.”

Processing Hundreds of Bodies

The next day Legg returned to the cemetery near Blosville where he found the French labor detail waiting to be told what to do. He said, “During the previous night, a sharp firefight had taken place around the crossroads and apple orchard area. Battle debris was everywhere, including German helmets, weapons, and gas masks. The cemetery area had not been disturbed. This was D+2 and the bodies were piling up, including about 25 enemy dead. Lieutenant Fraim arrived in mid-afternoon and said he would look for more laborers for the next day. He indicated he would also check to see if he could get German prisoners-of-war to assist with the digging.

“A few more bodies were interred on D+2, and several more rows of graves were marked off. The laborers were encouraged to return early the next day and to bring their friends. Before they left, I had them dig a slit trench near the hedgerow at the corner of the cemetery. This was covered by a tent shelter-half and would serve as my home for Graves Registration activities during the coming days.”

Over the course of the next week, Legg was extremely busy. By D+3, he said, “Bodies above ground now numbered in the hundreds, with about half being German. About 70 Frenchmen arrived and dug over a hundred graves. I was pressed to do even rudimentary processing of the bodies.”