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.

Although fearing detection and retribution by the Japanese, brave Filipinos sometimes carried bodies hundreds of yards from the road, burying them in swampy land or rice paddies, and causing conflicting stories to arise. Witnesses to any event will always have slightly different versions, and in this case varying evidence on the location of graves had to be taken into account and investigated.

“Approaching San Fernando, Casualties Were Naturally the Heaviest”

The Filipinos’ love for trinkets became another barrier to success. From many talks with the natives along the route, it was evident that they had come into possession of many souvenirs, such as officers’ bars, NCO stripes, unit insignia, and identification tags. These “souvenirs,’’ either given to them by American soldiers or taken from the bodies of the dead, became naturally final and absolute identification factors of some of the dead.

Some of these had long ago been lost by the Filipinos, and some had become such prized possessions that their owners were reluctant to part with them. Graves Registration officials promised the natives that they would not be deprived of their souvenirs; the Army merely wished to examine them for possible evidence.

As each grave was found it was marked with a white cross, and detailed, scaled maps were made of the grave location. At one point near Bacolor, a few miles south of San Fernando, a white cross stood in a ditch by the roadway. A little farther south, about a hundred yards from the highway in a wet, marshy field, the graves of 20 unidentified dead were marked and staked off. The 601st had orders to disinter for proper burial only identified bodies so, while work toward that end continued, the dead lay in their initial resting places.

Sergeant Abraham noted, “Approaching San Fernando, casualties were naturally the heaviest. By this time, after nearly six days of marching, we were all about done for, and the Japs didn’t hesitate to use their rifles and bayonets on stragglers. I was in good condition from my days as boxing coach of the 31st Division, so I managed to make it.”

Disregarding all danger, and despite their many casualties during two years of battle in the Pacific, the officers and men of the 601st Graves Registration Company were a well-seasoned group with very high morale and a strong focus to find every American lost during the Death March. But even today, some 70 years later, not all of the dead have been accounted for. 


According to Army Field Manual 10-63 (“Graves Registration,” 1945, which superceded FM-630, 1941), one Graves Registration company was assigned to each corps having at least three divisions. Given the size of command they were expected to service, the GRS companies were, during large engagements, chronically understaffed and overworked.

Once the dead had been brought to the collection point, a medical examination was made to establish the cause and certainty of death, and attempts at identification were conducted if the deceased had not otherwise been identified. In most cases the dog tags provided sufficient information but, when the tags were missing, the deceased soldier’s pockets were searched for other evidence, such as a letter from home or a photo of a wife or girlfriend. In some cases, a note written by the dead soldier’s superior or comrades before the body was evacuated provided the needed information. Sometimes a distinguishing feature, such as a birthmark or tattoo, or even laundry marks on clothing and serial numbers on watches, helped in the identification process.

Using these identifiers, the body would be placed in a mattress cover, blanket, or shelter-half fastened with large safety pins and buried in a temporary cemetery with a grave marker (usually a wooden cross or marker with a Star of David) bearing the identity of the deceased. At the time of burial, if a deceased soldier had both of his dog tags, one was left on the body and the other was affixed to the grave marker. Whenever possible, a chaplain of the same faith as the deceased performed the burial rites.

In too many instances, however, a soldier’s identity could not be discerned (perhaps because of being too badly mangled, fragmented, burned, or intermixed with other remains) and his grave would be simply marked “Unknown.” Identifying a group of victims, say, of an airplane crash or a crew incinerated inside a tank was always problematic, and every effort such as examining fingerprints and dental records was exhausted before declaring the dead “Unknown.”

Once the victim was identified, the War Department was notified by the field command and a telegram was dispatched to the deceased’s next of kin that began, “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son [husband, father, etc.] has been reported killed in action….” This was usually followed by a personal letter of condolence from the deceased’s unit commander.

After the deceased’s commanding officer had a chance to examine the fallen soldier’s personal effects to ensure that no items that would cause embarrassment or additional heartache for the next of kin (such as pornography or letters from, or photographs of, a mistress), the effects were sealed in a personal effects bag and shipped first to the Army Effects Bureau at the Kansas City Quartermaster Depot in Kansas City, Missouri. Great care was taken to ensure that the personal effects bags were not stolen or pilfered.

There the effects were carefully inventoried, soiled garments laundered, any government-issue articles removed, foreign money (except for souvenir money) converted to U.S. currency, and any cash or negotiable checks deposited in a bank to the credit of the next of kin. The property was then packed for storage pending receipt by the Effects Bureau of a shipping order. Only after all this was done were the effects sent to the next of kin.

In addition to taking charge of bodies retrieved from the battlefield, GRS units were also involved in taking care of the remains of service personnel who died in field hospitals of combat- or non-combat-related causes.

A Moving Battlefield

As was often the case on the fast-moving battlefields of World War II, Americans frequently came across enemy, Allied, and civilian dead. In these cases, too, GRS personnel were given the responsibility of identifying, whenever possible, the names of the dead and placing them in well-marked temporary graves (the U.S. government compensated land owners whose fields were used as temporary cemeteries); the GRS units had, as part of their personnel roster, draftsmen whose duty it was to draw accurate maps of all the graves. Field Manual 10-63 specifies that GRS companies were “not authorized nor equipped to perform embalming.”

On occasion, GRS personnel found themselves in danger from the battle still going on around them. Enemy snipers were as fond of picking off noncombatant medics and GRS men as they were shooting at fighting men. And, as FM 10-63 warns, “In the search for bodies, great care should be used to avoid booby traps and anti-personnel mines that may have been placed under bodies by enemy forces.”

Personnel who died at sea, if it were not practical to return them to land, were “buried” at sea in weighted mattress covers; the latitude and longitude of the burial locations were then reported to high authority.

The Graves at Malmedy

In 1997, Major Scott T. Glass, then commander of the Forward Support Company, U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Lion Brigade, Vicenza, Italy, wrote a report on Graves Registration activities as they concerned the SS massacre of American POWs near Malmedy, Belgium.

As is well known, on December 17, 1944, an armored Kampfgruppe from the 1st SS Panzer Division, commanded by SS Colonel Joachim Peiper, encountered the U.S. Army’s Battery B, 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion on the road at Baugnez. After a brief fight, the woefully outgunned Americans surrendered to the Germans. Under orders to show no mercy, even to prisoners of war, Peiper’s men herded the Yanks into a snow-covered field and opened fire on the unarmed captives, killing 80 in a matter of minutes.

Some of the Americans played dead in the snow while a handful of others managed to escape into the nearby woods or took shelter in buildings but were soon flushed out and shot. Before World War I, the Malmedy area had been part of Germany. Local families had contributed sons to the German Army in World War II. In fact, local residents had pointed out to German troops the hiding places of some American soldiers attempting to escape the massacre. Once the killing was over, Peiper’s column moved on to other objectives.

Late that afternoon, American commanders heard rumors of a massacre of POWs near Malmedy. Recovery of the remains to confirm what had happened and also to gather and preserve evidence for a possible war crimes investigation became primary goals. However, it was not until January 13, 1945, almost a month after the slaughter, that American units recaptured and secured the Baugnez area.