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.

The U.S. First Army headquarters selected a unit for recovery operations and deployed an Inspector General (IG) team to exercise overall control of the remains collection mission. The 3060th Quartermaster Graves Registration Service Company’s 4th Platoon drew the assignment of recovering, processing, and identifying the bodies. 

The platoon arrived in the Malmedy area and entered the massacre site on January 13. Fortunately, snow had fallen several times since the massacre and a fresh layer covered the bodies. Temperatures had hovered below freezing, and the Germans had made no attempt to bury the bodies. These factors combined to keep the remains remarkably preserved.

The 3060th personnel conferred with the IG team, physicians, and representatives of the 291st Engineer Battalion before establishing recovery operations procedures. Operations began at the massacre field on January 14, 1945, and ended late the next day.

72 Bodies Found

Throughout the operation, the recovery field remained a frontline combat area. American infantry units had dug foxholes across a corner of the field, and German artillery observers could see the activity around the crossroads area. On several occasions, incoming German artillery fire forced temporary suspension of the work. In some cases, the shelling mangled some of the remains, complicating recovery and identification.

Heavy snowfall, enemy shelling, and a lack of available eyewitnesses to the atrocity prevented the Graves Registration soldiers from conducting thorough, systematic searches to locate all of the widely scattered remains. Still, over the next four months, the surrounding area yielded an additional 12 sets of remains, all of which were later identified.

Location of individual remains required assistance from a platoon of the 291st Engineer Battalion, which used mine detectors to locate the bodies from the metal of gear or personal effects. When mine detectors located a set of remains, soldiers used brooms to sweep away the snow covering the bodies.

Graves Registration personnel assigned each set of remains a two-digit number. A total of 72 bodies were found at the massacre site. Two Signal Corps combat cameramen photographed the initial location and general condition of each body. After the photographs had been taken, GRS personnel removed each body to a nearby road. In addition to being frozen, most bodies had also adhered firmly to the ground and, in some cases, to other remains. After separating remains from the ground and each other, a careful search under the bodies yielded more personal effects. These effects, if any were found, accompanied the body as soldiers removed it from the field on an ordinary stretcher. Workers removed neither equipment nor personal effects from any remains during the recovery process.

Litter teams from the 3200th Quartermaster Service Company and the 291st Engineer Battalion carried the remains several hundred meters along a road leading to Malmedy to a point secure from German observation. There the teams loaded the remains onto trucks for the short trip to the processing site.

Processing the Malmedy Dead

The 3060th set up processing operations in an abandoned railway building in Malmedy. The building had bomb and artillery damage to its roof and walls and had no running water and no electricity to permit night operations. However, it was the best available facility that combined space, proximity to the recovery site, security, and access to operation support. Processing operations ceased at nightfall.

Other advantages of the railway building included a tile floor for laying out the remains and the building’s relative obscurity, which sheltered it from public view. The temperature inside stayed a little above freezing, and workers had to set up several coal-burning drums to provide some heat.

Upon entering the railway station, 3060th Quartermaster Company workers placed the remains on the tile floor and then moved them to tables for processing. They then removed any bulky, outer winter garments that would impede examination of body wounds. Processing included searching these garments for personal effects that might assist with identification. These personal items would prove valuable later.

The 3060th soldiers filled out emergency medical tags, collected and secured personal effects such as pens, letters, watches, and wallets. Processing included a preliminary identification. Usually a single identification tag around the neck of a deceased could establish identity sufficiently.

If processors did not find a tag around the neck of the victim and instead found a tag somewhere else such as in a pocket, a search of other personal effects was required to establish identity. Common practice for laundry marking at that time required American soldiers to mark the last four numbers of their Army service number on their clothing. This provided another way to check the identity of Malmedy victims.

Fingerprints also helped establish identity. In some cases, processors used hypodermic needles to inject water in the remains’ digits to firm and fill out fingertips to allow a quality fingerprint. Almost none of the Quartermaster soldiers who were processing remains had received formal mortuary training before deploying to Europe, although a considerable number had already seen combat and the resulting human wreckage. This skill was one that had been specifically identified as critical and taught to new soldiers of the 3060th in France.

The 3060th Quartermaster Company soldiers lacked rubber gloves, aprons, and other similar gear to insulate them from thawed ice, blood, and bodily fluids. The standard-issue leather, cold weather gloves provided a poor substitute, becoming thoroughly soaked quickly. To solve this problem, workers discarded pairs of gloves after one or two sets of remains, but this created a severe demand for a scarce supply item.

Autopsies Reveal the War Crimes at Malmedy

Shortly after initial processing, three U.S. Army Medical Corps physicians, under close observation by the First Army IG team, performed autopsies on each set of remains. The autopsy team in nearly every instance used the two-digit number assigned in the massacre field to track and record the procedures. It was still possible that the massacre survivors could have been mistaken and the dead soldiers had died as a result of combat injuries. First Army headquarters meant to specifically determine if death had resulted from combat action or shooting after capture.

A survey of the 72 autopsies and photographs of remains on file indicate at least 20 had potentially fatal gunshot wounds to the head inflicted at very close range, in addition to wounds from automatic weapons. Most head wounds showed powder burns on the skin. An additional 20 showed evidence of small caliber gunshot wounds to the head without powder burn residue. Another 10 had fatal crushing or blunt trauma injuries, most likely from a German rifle butt. This easily confirmed suspicions that a serious atrocity actually did occur.

Only a couple of the personal effects registers or autopsy records mention the remains having identification tags. As thorough as the effects search and autopsy records are, it can be assumed that the massacred soldiers were not wearing their identification tags at the time of death. Why the soldiers in the Malmedy massacre did not have their identification tags on is not known.

This made recovery of personal effects associated with each set of remains critical to identification. Effects most valuable for identification purposes included pay books, wallets, rank insignia, small Bibles and religious tracts, rings, watches, and personal letters found on or under the remains. Despite the almost complete absence of identification tags worn on the remains, 3060th Quartermaster soldiers identified all the remains with 100 percent certainty.

After processing, identification, and autopsy, each set of remains received a tagged mattress cover as a burial shroud. Several times daily during the recovery operation trucks evacuated the processed remains to a temporary U.S. military cemetery at Henri-Chappelle, Belgium, about 25 miles north of Malmedy, that served units operating in the area. Today it is a permanent American military cemetery holding some 8,000 remains.

America’s Permanent Military Cemeteries

After the war, beautifully landscaped, permanent American military cemeteries were established on land generously donated by the liberated countries, and all of the bodies buried in the temporary cemeteries were re-interred in the permanent sites; the temporary cemeteries were then closed.

Each cemetery has been granted use of the site in perpetuity by the host government to the United States, tax and rent free. All of the American cemeteries in foreign lands are under the jurisdiction of and maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.

Some of the next of kin, however, wanted the remains of their loved ones brought back to the United States and either re-buried in their local cemetery or in one of the many national cemeteries (such as Arlington) around the country. Beginning in 1947, a program for the repatriation of bodies was initiated and until the 1960s when it was discontinued, it was possible to have bodies returned from a foreign grave to the United States at government expense. A large number (171,000) took advantage of this offer, but 97,000 others chose to let their loved one rest among his comrades in the land for which he had fought and died.

Obviously, when dealing with dead and horribly mangled human remains, many of which may be in an advanced stage of decomposition, the mental effect on Graves Registration soldiers is certain to be great. Major Glass recognized this in his 1997 report: “Mortuary affairs soldiers, as well as the soldiers who assist with recovery operations, will definitely experience some emotional or mental discomfort because of the extremely taxing nature of these duties. This discomfort may range from mild to severe. The discomfort and its effects might not manifest themselves immediately.