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.

At the Blosville Cemetery, a Quartermaster Service Platoon with vehicles, pick axes, and shovels arrived. “About 150 German prisoners of war also arrived and were assigned digging duties,” Legg said. “Activity was picking up. The big limitation was processing bodies to insure proper identification and security of personal effects. A second plot of 200 gravesites was marked off to provide work space for all the diggers. French laborers were now handling and moving all bodies.

“This level of activity continued until D+7 when a portion of my unit, the 4th Platoon, 603rd Quartermaster Graves Registration Company, arrived and took over the operation of the cemetery. They found much of the work had to be done over, including relocation of all bodies. About 350 Americans and 100 Germans were underground by this time. Several hundred Germans awaited burial, but the backlog of American dead was less than 100.”

6,000 Graves

Legg noted that weapons, ammunition, and equipment that had once belonged to the deceased were piling up at the cemetery. “Most bodies arrived fully clothed and with web gear,” he recalled. “Some had gas masks and small-arms weapons, and nearly all had some sort of ammunition and rations. All usable government equipment was taken from the bodies. Initially, all government-issue equipment was thrown into a big pile and made available to anyone who wanted it. When the 4th Platoon arrived to take over the cemetery, personnel were assigned to sort the equipment and secure the ammunition. The French laborers watched longingly as most American bodies were buried with their jump boots. Later they were allowed to take the heavy leather boots from some of the German dead.”

By the time Operation Cobra, the St. Lô breakout, took place and Allied forces moved east into central France, this cemetery contained over 6,000 Allied graves. They were later disinterred and reburied at the huge American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, atop the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. Today a small monument at the Les Forges crossroads marks the location of the Blosville Cemetery.

Recovering the Dead

As procedures for collecting the combat dead evolved, it became the responsibility, whenever possible, of the frontline infantry and/or medics to retrieve their fallen comrades and evacuate them through battalion and regimental areas to the division collection point, where GRS men were standing by for the next step in the processing operation; in some cases, it was GRS personnel who were also tasked with the retrieval.

Retrieving battlefield remains proved to be extremely problematic in some theaters of operation. A Quartermaster Branch report noted that problems of Graves Registration services in the Pacific area were more complex than in Europe due to the extended area over which fighting took place. “In New Guinea, for example,” the report said, “consolidation of cemeteries has become necessary, due to the fact that group burials took place at widely scattered points and temporary battlefield cemeteries were established close to the actual combat area. Isolated graves were marked with improvised crosses fifteen feet high in order to permit future identification.

“The nature of the country in New Guinea, however, has proven an obstacle to search teams. Isolated graves are sometimes located far in the mountainous interior, and overland transportation, confined to native trails, is slow and difficult. Some New Guinea natives refuse to disinter bodies, and this means that at times the actual digging must be done by limited Graves Registration personnel. The task of locating isolated graves is sometimes complicated by the rapid growth of vegetation, the tall kunsi grass in some areas, and the dense jungle undergrowth in others.

“Confronting Graves Registration Service units in New Guinea is also the arduous task of recovering bodies from air crashes. Expeditions have been sent out from all bases to locate crashed aircraft and transport the bodies back for burial in military cemeteries. These expeditions into the densely forested, mountainous interior of the country sometimes cover great distances and must be accomplished on foot with the aid of native carriers. Steep native trails winding over mountain peaks are the only means of access to this country, parts of which have seldom been traversed by white men.”

Retracing the Bataan Death March

Even after the fighting was long concluded, challenges remained. According to the Quartermaster Corps’ official history of the Graves Registration Service, in May 1945 the Army’s 601st Graves Registration Company undertook its most difficult assignment when it began retracing the route of the infamous Bataan Death March to recover and identify the remains of Americans who died during that journey.

From Mariveles, a town at the southern tip of Bataan, Highway No. 3 stretches northward through the towns of Balanga, Orani, and Bacolor, and runs 120 miles north to the town of San Fernando, where the six-day march ended. All along this route lay the bodies of Americans, English, Dutch, and Filipinos, unclaimed and unidentified after nearly four years of war. With the capitulation of the Japanese on Bataan early in the spring of 1945, the Army set to work to track down all information that might lead to the identification and proper burial of the remains of Bataan’s heroic defenders.

Army officials decided that the task might be simplified if an actual participant of the Death March could be found, a man who knew the route, the names of some of the victims, and the places where men had fallen. The only person still in the Philippines at that time who had participated in the march was Master Sergeant Abie Abraham, released from Cabanatuan Prison by the 6th Rangers in January. At the personal request of General Douglas MacArthur, Abraham, a 19-year Army veteran, consented to help the 601st in its efforts.

The problems faced by the Army were many. There were no official Army records of either the men on the march or the men who had died at the hands of the Japanese. Men of the 601st had no idea what three years of tropic rains and rapid growth of vegetation could do to hastily-dug graves. Also, there remained the greatest problem of all—proper identification of bodies.

Identifying a Fallen Soldier

Because of the lack of official information, Graves Registration officials turned to Filipino civilians for aid. The first platoon of the 601st, under the command of Lieutenant Manuel Nieves, contacted civilians in the town of Balanga, about halfway up from Mariveles, the starting point. Public officials of the town were asked to announce to the townspeople that any information they might possess would be of great value. At Sunday church services priests asked their congregations for cooperation.

A public meeting was held in the square of Balanga, and Sergeant Abraham was introduced as a survivor of the Death March. He told of seeing some of his comrades die when the weary, tortured marchers reached the town, and questioned the natives as to the disposition of the bodies.

At this point, Mario Bugay, a resident of the barrio, said that he had seen a burial take place near his home. Upon questioning it was learned that the man had not died on the march itself but had been killed a few months later while on a work detail in Balanga.

Bugay was asked how the man buried there was killed. “He was very weak at that time,” Bugay replied. “The Japanese called for him but he could not move, so the guard clubbed him to death. He was buried by his comrades.”

Bugay went on to describe the man as  about 5 feet 11 inches tall, quite thin and pale. Another Filipino, Alfredo Pardillo, stated that he knew the name of the American soldier from an epitaph on the grave. Questioned as to how he could remember the name for such a long period of time, Pardillo answered, “I can remember the name, sir, because I have read it here during unforgettable times.”

When the body was found and disinterred, evidence of a fracture on the left side of the skull was discovered, substantiating Bugay’s story. It was also possible to make a dental chart to establish identity by checking against War Department files.

Conflicting Witnesses

Unfortunately, not all recoveries were so easily accomplished. Six months after the job was started, very few bodies had been positively identified.

In all towns where meetings were held, Sergeant Abraham was introduced and did his best to search the natives’ fading memories for information. At first the Filipinos were reluctant to assemble, remembering the meetings held by the Japanese at which machine guns and rifle butts exercised persuasion. American understanding and kindness soon won their confidence, however, and the numbers of volunteers gradually increased.

As the weeks went by and clues began to lead to conclusions, it became apparent that, although many individual graves and common graves amounting to small cemeteries could be found, this was merely the beginning of the process. Many more complicating factors arose. In some cases, after the passage of the Death March, entire towns were driven into the hills by the Japanese and in the void that was left no one remained to care for the dead. Swollen streams and tropical rains washed away many of the shallow, makeshift graves and, in some instances, scavenger animals had taken their toll.