[ Introduction ]

It is the dead who make the longest demands on the living.

—Sophocles, Antigone

Private 1st Class Fred Fory studied the map in his hand, trying to match the contour lines with the terrain in front of him. Once oriented, he and his squad lined up one or two arm’s lengths apart and began walking across the grassy field, keeping a careful eye out for trip wires and unex­ploded ordnance.

Fory had grown up hunting and fishing in Louisiana, and his woods experience proved invaluable in his assignment with the Army Graves Reg­istration Service. His duty, and that of his squad and many other units that were fanned out across South Korea, was to find and retrieve the remains of U.S. servicemen who had given their lives for their country. During three years of fighting the North Koreans and Chinese, thousands had fallen, and many lay in foxholes, in bunkers, in fields, and on mountainsides. Their buddies, hard pressed trying to save their own lives, had been forced to leave them behind, but they had made a promise to come back someday, find them, identify them, reunite them with their families, and give them a proper burial with all due honors. And while the fallen slept, their bodies returned to the soil.

Looking for a depression in the ground, an elongated patch of grass that grew taller and greener than the rest, old military equipment, or defense fortifications, Fory and the others continued their search. From after-battle reports they knew that the remains of a soldier were somewhere in the 1,000-meter-square grid marked on the map. Eventually, their search line moved over and down three small knolls and, some hundred or so yards farther, came to the base of a cliff. There, where the cliff face angled slightly upward, they saw that someone had built a semicircular rock wall that offered a small area of protection. They carefully climbed over the makeshift fort wall and found hundreds of machine gun and M-1 Grand shell casings, and a score or more of grenade pins and handles scattered about. In the middle of this detritus of war, they also found the bones and gear webbing of a solitary U.S. soldier.

Fory and his men knew that a furious battle had taken place at the rock fortification. In front of the rough-hewn fort and on the facing ground of the knolls lay the remains of more than 300 Chinese soldiers. What they couldn’t comprehend, at first, was the large number of spent rounds behind the fort wall: one man didn’t carry that much ammunition, and certainly not both a machine gun and a rifle. Adding to the mystery was a weather-beaten rope that hung down from the cliff above and behind the remains.

As they continued to canvass the site, clearing away debris from the American’s remains, carefully checking for live grenades or other explosives, the searchers concluded that there had to have been several men fighting from behind the rock wall. But what had prevented the recovery of the sole U.S. serviceman? Were there possibly more remains? They continued their investigation and finally were left with a single, inescapable conclusion: one soldier had stayed behind so the rest could escape to safety up the cliff.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the squad by the time we finished recovering his remains,” Fory told me one night in Princeton, Louisiana, the story still fresh in his mind and his emotions resonating in his words forty years later.

When I repeated Fory’s story to Capt. Robert Sullivan (U.S. Marines-Ret.), who had served in the Pacific in World War II, he commented that the U.S. troops had probably used that cliff as a launching point for pa­trols, leaving one or more men in the rock fort to cover a retreat under fire, if necessary. Hearing Sullivan’s analysis, I was struck with the similarity to Hemingway’s Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, who, wounded, stays behind to hold off the enemy while his comrades make their escape, and wondered if this soldier had made the same fateful decision.

I believe I was chosen to do this book. I didn’t write it because it would be a good item on a resume, make a ton of money, or get my face before the public: I already had a great career in another field. Writing these words now, I know that it was no accident that led me to Fory’s small trailer house that night ten years ago. I had gone there for a reason entirely unrelated to his military duty, and his telling me the story was completely serendipi­tous. I did not begin work on this book at that time. Then, seven years after Fory related to me the account of his duty in Korea, and in particular the recovery of the still unnamed hero, I woke in the middle of the night and found myself sitting bolt upright in bed. I had not been dreaming. Rather, my movement had dragged me from my slumber. The room was completely dark, yet before me in my mind’s eye was a blazing vision of a single, solitary soldier lying dead in a foxhole. His last moments—like those of how many others before and after him?—must have been filled with more terror, anger, hope, and dread than most people will feel in a lifetime. And, I wondered, what about those who went back to find him? What did they think? What did they feel? Was their search for the missing the exception or the rule? At such moments, when our minds are not bridled by the limits and habits of everyday waking consciousness, a desire and curiosity were planted in me that I knew would change me forever. The next day I began searching for an answer to the question, What happens to members of the Armed Forces when they die?

When I asked my friends what they knew about those killed in service, they paused and said, “Well, you know, I’m not exactly sure—I haven’t thought about it.” We all had some vague recollection of Dover Air Force Base, a good image of a military funeral—complete with grieving widow accepting a folded flag—and most of us had visited the Tomb of the Un­knowns at Arlington. We knew vaguely how the wounded were looked after, but next to nothing about what happens after the accounts in war movies and military history books end. Who, if anybody, looks after the dead?

As I began my search for answers, I realized that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. And, not having been in the military, I was faced with learning the language and the structure of an organization I had only read about. In one of my first interviews, with the Director and Deputy Director of Mortuary Affairs in Fort Lee, Virginia, Tom Bourlier and Doug Howard, the Public Affairs Officer who was also present asked if I had some more “specific” questions. I was embarrassed that I didn’t know what else to ask, but I felt forces that operated with the strength of the tides motivating my search, and I trusted them to carry me where I needed to go. I was, to a certain extent, like people in times past who had no knowledge of the moon and its gravitational pull, yet observed and rode the rise and fall of the coast­al waters. Slowly but steadily, I have discovered what happens to our military fallen, the extraordinary lengths to which we go to care for them, and why in much the same manner as scientists have learned to apply equations to the sublimely powerful pull between heavenly bodies.

Finally, after trusting that the tide that carried me would lift me up and leave me on a beach that held some measure of understanding, and after bouts of cynicism, doubt, incredulity, frustration, and exhaustion—highlighted by some important discoveries along the way—my view of the men and women in our armed services who live, who die, and who live to serve the dead has been radically altered. Examining the efforts made to retrieve and identify ser­vicepersons who have died fighting for our country and freedoms has given me a new perspective on life. The sacrifices made by those who have given their lives and by those who attempt to bring them home and identify them dwarf such quotidian problems as burned bacon, stock market fluctuations, road construction, and flight delays.

My search has taken me to parts of the world I had not visited before, carried me into the past, and afforded me a glimpse of the future. I have learned that “Soldier Dead” is a phrase that, before World War II, was used to refer collectively to military personnel in all branches who perished while in the Armed Forces.

I have met simply wonderful individuals who opened doors for me with­out proof of any real experience or credentials beyond a burning desire. I can only imagine that in some little understood manner, their conviction con­nected with mine and prompted them to take extraordinary steps to help.

I have read of and spoken with those who have risked and will risk their lives to recover the remains of their comrades; those who did and do hold their political careers to be more important than the duties of their office; and those who have fought and continue to fight for the rights of the dead and their families. Finally, I have learned what happens not just to American but also to enemy Soldier Dead.

Sadly, the story is not always so clean and pressed as the guards’ uni­forms at Arlington. My search has been excruciatingly poignant and pain­ful; at times I have not known whether to rejoice or to cry. At one point I developed a cynical attitude, wondering to what extent our “devotion” to the fallen was merely a societal contrivance—“conspiracy” may be a bet­ter word—to guarantee a supply of young men and women who would, in blind loyalty, lay down their lives so we could assure ourselves an ample sup­ply of petrochemicals. At another point, when telling my breakfast buddies how much money our government spent finding, identifying, and returning the remains of servicemen, we commented together—wisely so over cups of coffee—that there had to be an “end” somewhere to the search for the fallen. And in those times when I shared my research and thoughts with friends of a more gentle persuasion, often the mother of a young man or woman, I observed the faraway look that came over the face of a parent envisioning, if for only a moment, the horror of losing a child and, even worse, not even having a body to grieve over and lay to rest.

I was carried into military circles—to the Pentagon, Dover Air Force Base, the U.S. Army Identification Lab in Hawaii, U.S. Army bases in Ger­many and Baghdad, Iraq. I spoke to people who played active roles in estab­lishing military doctrine and setting policy, those who implemented them, and those who stood guard “on the walls” to preserve our way of life. I learned of the petty politics that could hamper execution of a sacred duty. I came face to face with a knee-jerk defensive stance that I call a “Penrosian attitude,” explained in chapter 5, “The Return of the Dead.” I spoke with those who volunteered for difficult assignments, knowing that there was no way they could please all of the people all of the time.

And I heard stories from grieving families about how their needs were left unsatisfied and how they longed for some “truth” upon which to base a belief that their missing loved one was actually dead and not languishing in a prison somewhere across the world, believing himself forgotten.

The support from my family was invaluable. Before going to Baghdad at a time when helicopters and planes were being hit by missiles, Humvees blown up, and civilian and military sites targeted by suicide bombers, I had a talk with my two sons and daughter and explained that this was something I had to do and that, even if the worst happened, what else could they wish for me to be doing other than continuing my quest? They were gravely con­cerned for my safety but offered only support.

At the morgue in Baghdad International Airport, where remains in that part of the country are prepared for the journey home, I spent time with an amazing group of men and women, and not just the mortuary workers. I saw twenty-year-olds troop into barracks and halls, drop their battle gear, and fall instantly asleep, even in the most uncomfortable positions. This is nothing new. We’ve all seen the training films on the Discovery Channel and The History Channel where enlistees are driven to their physical and mental limits and beyond. But to see these men and women saddle up and go back out into the dark, cold, hostile night and never complain is some­thing else again. It bears repeating: they never complain. They may grouse, just blowing off steam, but they get up and get the job done, knowing the dangers.

After my safe return to the States, my children expressed how worried they had been. In response, I said that whatever sacrifice they and I made would be infinitely small in the grand scheme of things, particularly com­pared to sacrifices involved in military duty—past, present, and future. Iif I didn’t come home in a body bag, it was a good day no matter what else might have happened.

The issue of learning and speaking about the dead, especially those killed in military service, is extremely multifaceted. It can be a minefield in which you don’t know where to step because the experiences of those involved are so emotional, the grief so palpable, and the desire to assuage grief so strong. Yet, in this world at least, practical considerations must be taken into ac­count, the same as in welfare, medical care, and environmental concerns.

While following press articles about how the return of remains is no lon­ger open to the media, I realized that the main point was being missed. The real debate was not about whether we should be allowed to view the dead upon arrival but about how we, as a nation, note and commemorate the deaths of those killed in military service. When they come back in ones and twos, we are not able to avail ourselves, as a nation, of a funeral in the way that individual families do: we have an unsatisfied need to mourn. Our national commemoration, Memorial Day, has been hijacked, as have other holidays, not only by commercial interests but also by our personal desire for time off and three-day weekends. As have most issues regarding our Soldier Dead, this debate has come up before, although in a somewhat different vein.

Surprisingly, my search for information about American military fallen led me to the subject of enemy dead. Some may believe that the solution to the horns of a dilemma—achieving victory by using force without losing American lives—is to kill by remote control, where the enemy only registers as heat signatures on a display or becomes a set of coordinates punched into a computer at 30,000 feet. But it is here that I feel we need to take the next step. We must answer not only to our own dead but also to those people we kill by whatever means, because the two are ultimately and intimately intertwined.

What happens to those who die in military service is not a subject easily contemplated, much less discussed, for who wants to think of themselves or someone close to them as a disfigured pile of flesh on a cold, metal table, or worse? Yet, at times, this is the result of military duty. My enthusiasm and what I have learned have made many uncomfortable. Restaurant patrons at adjoining tables have stared in horror as I recounted some particularly poignant story or discussed grisly details over dinner, and God only knows what some of my companions thought. Business meetings have been ended somewhat abruptly when conversation turned to my book. But many listen­ers have borne with me—their wish to learn overcoming their resistance or reluctance—and offered encouragement and assistance.

As I acquired information about the processes and parties involved in the recovery, identification, and return of Soldier Dead and began to under­stand the motivations of those who choose to work in this field and those who, because of a death, are involuntarily and intimately caught up in the issue, I had to decide how to present this subject to the reader. This decision had three facets: organization, voice, and winnowing.

First, I found that my account was clearest with the chapters organized by topic, and then by timeline within each chapter to show how the subject matter evolved. To present all the topics at once, strictly chronologically, would have been to focus on the wars themselves instead of Soldier Dead issues.

Second, I had to compartmentalize myself and create some space be­tween my thoughts and feelings and the job I was doing, much like the sur­geon preparing to penetrate a patient’s brain with scalpel, rods, and fingers. Ultimately, this surgeon cannot help envisioning himself or one of his family members on a table, undergoing a similar procedure. Yet he must shift into his professional role to complete the procedure successfully. Only afterward can he drop his mask and relate to the patient and the patient’s family. I have had to maintain a duality that is at times maddening, and that has at other times failed. I’ve striven to keep my observations, feelings, and emotions secondary to those clearly evident in the facts presented and in the voices recorded and documented here.

Lastly, I’ve had to function as a big funnel through which facts, expe­riences, complaints, wishes, dreams, and nightmares have been narrowed down to the critical, essential elements. There is so much that I want to say, more than there is space available. In an attempt to take readers through some doors partially opened in the main text that is presented in a more formal manner, I conclude each chapter with an “Author’s Notes” section in which I use my own voice. I hope these notes will provide additional insight and help to relate the text material to current events.

Ultimately, this is not the book that many imagined and expected, but it aims to open and improve dialogue among the public, the media, the mili­tary, the government, and the United States and hostile forces. Bullets fly both ways, and if there is ever a unifying element among the people of the world, it is the grief experienced over the loss of a son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother. The deeds and actions of the men and women who have died in service to our country, and those of their comrades who have served the dead, have touched us all, though perhaps we do not acknowledge it or even have any awareness of their efforts. This book presents a story that I have discovered belongs to us all—that of Soldier Dead.

[ 2 introduction ]

[ introduction 7 ]

[ introduction 3 ]

[ introduction 5 ]

[ 1. Why It Matters ]

If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred. . . .

—Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric”

When the engines of Mars leave the battlefield, they leave behind vivid reminders of the struggle that took place: scarred land, destroyed and dis­carded equipment, and the corpses of those who fought and died—millions in the wars of the twentieth century alone.

During the 1900s, more than 600,000 Americans died in military service. If broadcast one portrait per second on TV, they would run for 7 complete days. The number of dead for some other countries is much greater. In World War I, Russia lost 1.7 million men, Germany 1.8 million, Britain almost 1 million, and France 1.4 million. In World War II, the Soviet Union lost 11 million military men and women, Germany 3.2 million, Britain 264,000, and France 213,000.

These numbers are overwhelming. In the best of times, armies are able to claim their dead and bury them in military cemeteries near the battle sites or eventually transport them home to their families. At the other extreme, when fighting surges back and forth across the battlefield and extends for protracted periods, the combatants have no choice but to live among the unburied dead, often keeping such close company with corpses as civilians could never envision, even in their worst nightmares.

As England’s King George V stated eloquently in 1922 at Flanders, “We can truly say that the whole circuit of the earth is girdled with the graves of our dead.” In simple physical terms, these dead are nothing more than a mixture of commonly found chemicals and minerals, organic and inorganic. Left to decompose, a body soon returns to the soil, leaving little trace of its physical existence. But the body of a slain soldier holds significance beyond its corporeal properties. Men who refuse to jeopardize their safety for in­animate objects willingly do so to retrieve their fallen comrades, and our government, which performs cost-benefit studies on medical care for the living, makes extraordinary efforts to retrieve, identify, and bury the remains of members of its Armed Forces.

Why do we spend enormous resources and even incur additional deaths to recover the bodies of our military fallen? Off-the-shelf explanations that we do so to give bereaved family members closure or that we have a duty to the dead to bury them at home do little justice to the complex issues under­lying this process, and even less to those who shoulder the responsibility of carrying it out. To assess why and how we undertake the mission of retriev­ing soldiers’ remains, even while battle continues, it is necessary to consider not only practical reasons but also those that lie at deeper levels.

Forensic Reasons

Morticians use thread to seal the lips of a corpse. Yet, even with sealed lips, the dead can speak, for their bodies bear evidence available to those who know how to read the signs. Military persons do not usually die in their sleep; they die horribly, violently, and their remains provide important in­formation about the nature and circumstances of their end. Hallam, Hock­ey, and Howarth, in Beyond the Body: Death and Social Identity, state: “The knowledge ceded by the dead body may not only explain the death and the final stages of the deceased person’s life, it may also contain signs of, and clues to another act.”1 Forensic investigation can reveal if the soldier died from outlawed weapons such as biological or chemical agents, torture, or friendly fire; was executed; or died from malnutrition and/or disease.

During World War II, the Surgeon General, obviously interested in the mechanistic effects of weapons of war on soldiers, said, “the Medical Depart­ment is especially interested in ascertaining . . . the type and character of the fatal wound.”2

The desire for battlefield forensic evidence was conveyed to the soldiers in the field. Sgt. Charles D. Butte (now Lt. Col.-Retired) served with the 603rd Quartermaster Graves Registration Company in Europe. He wrote:

The Medics first had to ensure the individual was indeed deceased, then determine the type of wound that killed him. We were told, this was important for history in determining the tactics, type of weapons, and armament which were most lethal in battle.3

In the aftermath of the war, the American Graves Registration Command sent personnel to “a highly specialized course designed to train identification technicians in detecting evidence of criminal violence left behind on skeletal parts.” If the Graves Registration workers examined remains that bore such marks, they were to forward them to the War Crimes Commission.4

Perhaps the best-known use of forensics during World War II occurred during the investigation of the Malmedy Massacre. On December 17, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, the Army’s Battery B of the 285th Field Artil­lery Observation Battalion encountered the German 1st SS Panzer Division at the Baugnez crossroads. The fight was brief and one-sided, and approxi­mately 100 men—the actual number is unknown—of Battery B laid down their rifles and surrendered.

The SS troops herded the Americans into a field and guarded them with armored vehicles and foot soldiers. Stories differ as to what triggered the massacre, but there is no doubt that the GIs were gunned down by auto­matic weapon and small arms fire. After the initial fusillade, German troop­ers roamed through the field, shooting or bludgeoning all who showed any signs of life.

A few captives bolted when the shooting started, but most were cut down as they ran. Those who made it to nearby buildings fared little better: the Germans set fire to the shelters and shot the Americans as they fled the flames. The only survivors were those who made it to the woods beyond the field, a few who were shot and feigned death, and two who had not surren­dered after the initial firefight.

U.S. leaders suspected before the day was out that the Germans had com­mitted an atrocity, but it was not until almost a month later, on January 13, 1945, that the area was recaptured. The 3060th Quartermaster Graves Reg­istration Service (GRS) Company was given the assignment of recovering, identifying, and processing the remains. The company began on January 14 and finished its initial recovery operation by late January 15. Enemy artil­lery fire, which had mangled some remains, complicated their efforts, as did heavy snowfall. A platoon from the 291st Engineer Battalion assisted in the search by using mine detectors to locate the metal gear on soldiers buried in the snow. Eventually, over the next four months, twelve more remains were found in the immediate vicinity.

Once the bodies were recovered, they were moved to a railway building several hundred yards from the massacre site. There, they were identified and autopsied to determine the cause of death, in order to rule out the pos­sibility that the soldiers had died from normal combat injuries. The 72 au­topsies revealed that at least 20 men had been shot in the head at close range and had associated powder burns, 20 had small-caliber bullet wounds to the head without powder burns, and another 10 had “fatal crushing or blunt trauma injuries, most likely from a German rifle butt.”5

In a more recent example of the need to recover bodies to determine if the servicepersons were killed in a manner that could have been the result of torture or an execution, the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) opened an investigation into the deaths of Sgt. George Buggs and PFC Edward Anguiano, both of whom died during the 507th Maintenance Company’s ill-fated journey through An Nasiriyah, Iraq, on March 23, 2003, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The 507th is undoubtedly better known for being Private Jessica Lynch’s unit than for two of its members dying in suspicious circumstances.

In an act considered by many to be contrary to Geneva Convention rules for prisoners of war, the bodies of five dead members of the 507th were shown on Iraqi television, and MSNBC reported, “Defense Officials who have viewed the tape [of 507th dead] have said privately that several of the bodies had execution-style gunshot wounds to their heads.”6 Buggs’s remains were found at the site of Jessica Lynch’s rescue; Anguiano’s remains were found nearly a month later near his stripped and abandoned truck.7

Other investigations into the attack on and later treatment of members of the 507th led to the determination that Sgt. Donald Walters had been cap­tured alive and “was held separately from his fellow soldiers and killed while in custody.” Walters, who was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for gallantry, the POW medal, the Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart, died from two gunshot wounds to the back.8 (While further war crimes investigation continues, it is interesting to note that it took more than a year for the Army to release the manner of Walters’s death, though the forensic results must have been known almost immediately after the autopsy and examination of the site where Walters was held.)

Without a system in place to recover bodies, identify them, and ex­amine them, it is possible that the Malmedy Massacre and any poten­tial mistreatment of U.S. POWs during Operation Iraqi Freedom—and subsequent occupation activity—would have been overlooked during the normal course of battle.

The use of forensic science to provide information about military deaths is important enough to warrant inclusion in the U.S. Code Title 10. Subtitle A—General Military Law, Part II—Personnel, Chapter 75—Deceased Per­sonnel, Subchapter I—Death Investigations, Sec. 1471—Forensic Pathology Investigations. This law authorizes the Armed Forces Medical Examiner and commanders to “conduct a forensic pathology investigation to determine the cause or manner of death of a deceased person.”

Health Reasons

Soldiers live and fight in an environment that is not only deadly but also filthy. They go weeks without bathing; bathroom sanitation is accomplished by shoveling feces out of foxholes; food is cold; clean water is often scarce; protection from the weather is scant; and sleep is sketchy—all conditions that are inimical to good health. It is like living in the middle of a garbage dump, and attempting to survive constant enemy attacks. Improving a soldier’s fight­ing conditions cannot be thought of as making the environment healthy and pleasant. Rather, it often simply makes the situation more tolerable. Knowing that battles are often won by the army that stays healthy, or at least is less sick than the enemy, commanders want the dead removed from the battlefield for sanitation purposes. This has been achieved with more or less success, de­pending in large part upon circumstances peculiar to specific battles.

During World War I, the lines of trenches were relatively static and stretched from Switzerland to the English Channel. Soldiers struggled to survive in unimaginable conditions, severely exacerbated by the presence of perhaps one million unburied soldiers, friend and foe, in No Man’s Land. During artillery barrages, the ground would be churned and the dead would be buried, disinterred, and reburied, with bodies torn to pieces and mixed together as though run through a giant blender.9

Given the stationary lines, the inability to retrieve remains, and the ever-growing casualties from the senseless charges directly into withering fire, soldiers lived with the “persistent presence of the dead.”10 A French soldier who fought at Verdun said, “We all had on us the stench of dead bodies. The bread we ate, the stagnant water we drank, everything we touched had a rotten smell, owing to the fact that the earth around us was literally stuffed with corpses.”11


To fight effectively, soldiers must have leadership, supplies, and esprit de corps. Morale is difficult to measure, yet an indisputably necessary compo­nent in any successful endeavor. It is maintained, in part, by providing sol­diers with as many amenities as the situation allows, even if nothing more than hot coffee and a hot meal once every two or three weeks. Morale is one product of the passionate bond that soldiers form with their fellows, a bond rarely experienced in civilian life. Combining the camaraderie of a football team, the dedication to task accomplishment of a dot-com startup workgroup, the sense of separation of a cult, the unit preservation of a police department, and the love of a family will yield a cohesive force that still falls short of the ties that bind military members together.

It is difficult for civilians to understand this connection in which a man’s life depends on his buddy and vice versa. Imagine sharing a muddy hole with someone who also has been deprived of sleep, food, and water. Your buddy may be suffering from intestinal diseases, infected feet, and skin ulcers. He is as exhausted as you are. Now imagine going to sleep, entrusting your life to that person, who stays awake to watch for the enemy creeping through the darkness. You could only do that if there were a bond of blood between you. E. B. Sledge, a Marine mortarman who fought in World War II, said, “I reached the state where I would awake abruptly from my semi-sleep, and if the area was lit up, note with confidence my buddy scanning the terrain for any hostile sign.”12

Considering the horrid conditions of war, one wonders why soldiers stay and fight at all. One reason is that they have pledged themselves to their com­rades-in-arms. Johnie Webb, Deputy Director at the U.S. Army Central Iden­tification Laboratory Hawaii (CILHI), said, “When you look at why soldiers fight, it’s not necessarily for the nation, but it’s for that buddy of theirs that’s standing next to them in that fighting position.”13

Marine Lt. Philip Caputo, author of A Rumor of War, said that the sense of brotherhood was the one honorable aspect of a “monstrous” conflict. He described his experience in Vietnam thus: “I have also attempted to describe the intimacy of life in the infantry battalions, where the communion be­tween men is as profound as any between lovers. Actually, it is more so.”14

Wilfred Owen, serving with the British in World War I, expressed the same sentiment in his poem “Apologia pro Poemate Meo”:

I have made fellowships—

Untold of happy lovers in old song.

For love is not the binding of fair lips

With the soft silk eyes that look and long,

By Joy, whose ribbons slips,—

But wound with war’s hard wire whose stakes are strong;

Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips;

Knit in the webbing of the rifle-thong.

Understanding of the closeness that builds between soldiers from the very first day of training makes clear why they will risk it all to recover the bodies of their comrades, even losing the gamble at times. Caputo said, “Two friends of mine died trying to save the corpses of their men from the battlefield.”15

Often, recovery proves to be impossible. Sledge described the Verdun-like conditions of the fighting at Half Moon Hill in southern Okinawa dur­ing World War II. Half Moon Hill was a ridgeline near the Japanese defense fortifications of Shuri Ridge, and it was littered with Marine and Japanese dead. Since the area was contested and subject to constant enemy fire, it was impossible to remove the bodies. The ground was soaked from rain and the footing treacherous. Sledge said:

If a Marine slipped and slid down the back slope of the muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way to the bottom only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings, and the like.16

Sledge, like millions of other soldiers who have fought in hellish conditions, could only endure. Yet, even though he was in daily combat, he felt the need to attend to the bodies of his comrades. At night, the Marines would fire star shells and flares, which cast a ghoulish pall over an already ghastly scene. One man in the foxhole would keep watch while the other tried to get whatever little sleep was possible. Sledge wrote about waking during the night and looking across the surreal landscape:

I imagined Marine dead had risen up and were moving silently about the area. . . . The pattern was always the same. The dead got up slowly out of their waterlogged craters or off the mud and, with stooped shoul­ders and dragging feet, wandered around aimlessly, their lips moving as though trying to tell me something. . . . They seemed agonized by pain and despair. I felt they were asking me for help. The most horrible thing was that I felt unable to aid them.17

When conditions allow and recovery is merely dangerous, instead of suicidal as at Half Moon Hill, soldiers take care of their dead. In the titanic struggle for Iwo Jima, though under constant attack, “In the midst of the battle the Marines buried their dead.”18

Soldiers have a compelling need to address the concerns of their fallen comrades. If they have to bury them on or near the battlefield, they do so with much care and compassion. Richard Holmes, in Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle, described it well: “Proper burial of the dead, accompanied by a degree of formalised mourning, is as necessary for those who die in battle as it is for those who perish in more peaceful circumstances. Having some sort of focus for mourning is useful for the dead soldier’s comrades.”19

While it is doubtful that proper burial is necessary for the dead them­selves, abundant evidence demonstrates its importance to the living. The funeral, however simple, helps to dispel the wanton randomness of death in battle, and the performance of even simple rites helps the soldiers make con­tact with a reality they have left behind and hope to regain.20 In somewhat more sociologically defined terms, the “unfinished bodies”—the dead for whom bereaved/survivors have not been able to provide customary rites—“haunt the imaginations of survivors . . . family and friends may be dogged by a fear that the dead and decomposing body will return, uninvited.”21

Soldiers take particular pains to provide whatever dignity they can for their dead. During the World War II fighting in Italy, casualties were some­times brought down from the mountains on mules and laid out in front of headquarters. One of the dead was Capt. Henry T. Waskow, from Belton, Texas. He was well liked and respected, a valuable combination for an offi­cer, and his death greatly saddened his men. Slowly they filed by his body to pay their respects. One infantryman said, “I sure am sorry, sir.” Another said nothing but held Waskow’s hand for five minutes; then: “He reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound.”22

Holmes offers several accounts of the care given to burial of fellow sol­diers. Lance-Corporal Harold Chapin sent a letter to his wife detailing how they buried two men in May 1915. He described the graves as “level,” “rectan­gular,” and “parallel.” Another war later, Brigadier Lord Lovat was touched by a burial in a Normandy orchard: “There was a tenderness under the apple trees as powder-grimed officers and men brought in the dead; a tenderness for lost comrades, who had fought together so often and so well, that went beyond reverence and compassion.”23

James Patrick Shenton, medic in World War II, had the duty of cleaning, dressing, and otherwise preparing remains for transfer out of field hospitals. “We cleaned them, put on new uniforms, and tried to make them look as normal as possible.”24

Because soldiers feel honor bound to take care of the bodies of their bud­dies by recovering, cleaning, restoring some semblance of order to, and then burying them, a corollary is that they do not want the bodies to fall into the hands of the enemy. The duty to care for fallen comrades is not a military tradition that has passed into the annals of history books; it is still very much a force that motivates soldiers today. During the ill-fated raid on General Adid’s headquarters in Mogadishu, Somalia on October 3, 1993, U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force operators became engaged in a fierce firefight in which 18 were killed and more than 70 injured. The mission went wrong early on and took a decided turn for the worst when a Blackhawk helicopter was shot down. A rescue force was sent in after the pilots, with the result that an increasing number of men were pinned down, injured, and killed, resulting in the commitment of even more men. At one point, Specialist Phil Lepre and others dragged the body of Private James Martin into an alley and then took cover in a building. Lepre noticed that Martin’s genitals were exposed—because of the heat, few soldiers wore underwear. With bullets striking all around, Lepre ran into the alley and tried to tug Martin’s pants up.25

After the battle, Marine General William F. Garrison sent a handwritten letter to President Clinton, listing in outline form points about what went wrong during the raid. Point 10 was: “Rangers on 1st crash site were not pinned down. They could have fought their way out. Our creed would not allow us to leave the body of the pilot pinned in the wreckage.”26

There are many controversial issues about this battle and General Gar­rison’s letter. Did the soldiers know the pilot of the helicopter was dead or not? Could they have fought their way out had they attempted to do so without trying to rescue/recover the pilot? In discussing morale, bond­ing, and recovery, these questions are irrelevant; what is important is that the commanding general wrote of a “creed” of not leaving a fellow soldier’s body in enemy hands.

This bond among a “Band of Brothers”27 is not unique to our time or culture, or even to actual events. The strong desire to retain possession of the remains of dead comrades is reflected in classical mythology. In The Iliad, Patroclus kills Hector’s chariot driver, Cebriones, and the two of them fight over the body “like a couple of lions on the mountain heights, each as hungry and high-mettled as the other, disputing the dead body of a stag.” In the end, after many men on both sides have died, the Achaeans prevail and “dragged the noble Cebriones from among the weapons and the yelling Trojans, and they stripped the armour from his back.”28

And, later, when Patroclus is killed, Menelaus says:

Come forward, each of you, without being named. And think it infamy

that the dogs of Ilium [Troy] should have Patroclus for a toy.29


While the soldiers who die have brothers-in-arms who look after them, back home are brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, wives, sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers who may have nothing at all. It is difficult for families to cope with the death of a loved one in any cir­cumstance; it is more difficult when the death is premature and violent, and it is most difficult if they have no body to mourn and bury.30 Soldiers who die are usually young men in the prime of physical life; they are not octo­genarians for whom death may be a form of release or awaited transition, and their deaths, because of how, where, and when they die, present special problems.

John D. Canine likens the death of a member of society to the action of a mobile: “When one part of the mobile is moved, all the other parts move in response.” The death creates an imbalance that begs for resolution. One obvious reason is that the duties previously performed by the dead must be reassigned among the survivors.31 However, there are more obscure forces behind the creation and nature of this imbalance.

When a person is alive, his physical self and his social self proceed on parallel, if not identical, tracks, and the two are often viewed as one. How­ever, at death the tracks begin to diverge, for the body, if not embalmed, will rapidly decay. The social status of the deceased, however, tends to remain with the living for a more extended period of time. Hallam, Hockey, and Howarth describe this state as “socially alive but biologically dead.”32 This duality of identity creates a dissonance in the minds of the living, who, in order to achieve “closure,” must recognize and accept that the new physical status is irreversible; hence, they must establish a new social identity for the dead that is harmonious with it. To put it another way, thinking of the social and physical selves as occupying the rails of a train track, at death the body is shunted off onto a siding, the grave, while the social self continues to move down the line until it, too, is eventually switched aside. Without this process of resolution, the social self of the dead continues to occupy space on the track that is normally assigned to the living.

Interestingly, the formation of this new social identity is a process that lends itself to considerable interpretation or even outright manipulation. The new identity that survivors create for the dead is not necessarily a fair representation of the former living person. A martyr is remembered for his ultimate sacrifice, not for his misdeeds. A leader is praised for a few notable accomplishments, not condemned for his inefficacy in reaching a broader range of goals. The eulogy of a man who lived a mean-spirited life may con­tain references to his ability to provide physical sustenance for his children and his dedication as a worker, while leaving unmentioned his constant in­ï¬delity, physical abuse of children, and workaholic lifestyle.

Second Lt. Paul Fussell, serving in Europe in World War II, became an un­intended casualty of the creation of a postdeath social identity. Fussell had been severely injured by a shell blast that also killed his sergeant, Edward Hudson. After recovering from his wounds, he was reassigned to his unit but found that he was no longer a member of the close-knit fraternity. He later wrote, “I was obviously not welcome. No one was friendly or comical, and I seemed excluded from intimate group conversations. I had become a pariah, and it hurt.”

For nearly fifty years Fussell was puzzled by his expulsion, until a friend doing archival research in military records came across a document award­ing Hudson a posthumous Silver Star. Hudson had performed admirably, as did the others who served the country during that time, but the award cited him for meritorious actions far beyond the norm that he had not done. The men of Fussell’s company had perjured themselves to create this fiction, and they knew that Fussell would have objected and exposed their crime; thus, they sentenced him to exile.33

Pericles, speaking to the assembled mourners at a public funeral during the Peloponnesian War, said, “Turning to the sons or brothers of the dead, I see an arduous struggle before you. When a man is gone, all are wont to praise him, and should your merit be ever so transcendent, you will still find it difficult not merely to overtake, but even to approach their renown.”34

It takes time for the bereaved to form a new social identity for their loved ones and to work through their grief. The formal funeral and burial ceremonies that have evolved attempt to remedy the disjunction between the new physical state and the changing social self and provide the survivors with a process to help them grieve. Jessica Mitford, in The American Way of Death, puts forth quite specific criticism of funeral and burial practices in the United States, but formalized funerals do have a place. The Wyoming Funeral Directors Association states that the funeral helps the living by con­ï¬rming the reality of death, providing an occasion for mourning, giving the community an opportunity to express its respect for the dead, creating a mechanism for the many to share the sorrows of a few, and encouraging the affirmation of faith.35

The process of grieving is highly culturally specific, and in the United States there is a general consensus about the steps required to work toward resolution of the death of a loved one. The first is the acceptance of the real­ity of death. Obviously, the presence of a properly identified set of remains is final proof.36 J. W. Worden, quoted in Beyond the Body, says, “Seeing the body of the deceased helps to bring home the reality and finality of death.”37 For those who have lost family members in military service, the recovery and return of the body confirms the death of their loved one. Sgt. Lemuel Herbert of Scranton, Pennsylvania, was taken prisoner during World War II and, according to witnesses, executed. Based on this information, the Army reclassified his status from missing in action (MIA) to killed in action (KIA). In 1988, a farmer near Kommerscheid, Germany was plowing a field and disinterred Herbert’s remains. After recovery and subsequent identification, the remains were buried at Arlington Cemetery. A niece, Mae Miller, said, “My grandmother was always hoping and praying that he would be found. Even though he was listed as being killed, without his remains we were al­ways hoping.”38

That Herbert’s relatives held out hope of his being alive for decades after he was declared KIA is evidence that, without strong proof of death, families almost never give up believing that maybe their missing and presumed dead soldier is still alive. Herbert’s case was resolved, in part, because he had died in Europe during World War II, which the United States and its allies won and after which they occupied much of the territory of the defeated powers. In Korea and Southeast Asia, and even in the Gulf War in Iraq, the United States lost control of most of the land, and this set the stage for much of the conflict that has ensued regarding the status of missing U.S. servicemen.

For some survivors, the performance of rituals provides a sense of peace. The Times-Journal, Fort Payne, Alabama, carried a particularly poignant story about a family finding the lost grave of a brother killed in World War II. Charles L. Wooten accompanied his mother and her three sisters to France to pay respects to their brother, Charley Edgar “Tont” Summerfield, whose grave had been located after the family had made repeated inquiries to U.S. government offices. “My mother carried a small amount of soil from their homeplace, the farm where the family lived when Tont went off to war in 1943.” Wooten described how they mixed the soil in with the “French turf that held her brother in its eternal grip” and then scooped up some French soil to take back home and mix with the earth covering the graves of his mother and father.39

When Creon, King of Thebes, forbade the burial of Polyneices, leaving his corpse to rot upon the battlefield, Antigone, sister to Polyneices, felt so strongly about giving him some semblance of a burial that she risked her life to do so. Her sister was not willing to help perform the sacred task, prompting Antigone to say, “If thus thou speakest, thou wilt have hatred from me, and will justly be subject to the lasting hatred of the dead.” While performing a simple cer­emony of sprinkling the body with dust and pouring wine three times on its head, Antigone was observed violating the king’s decree and was captured and condemned to death. When confronted by Creon, she said, “If I had suffered my mother’s son to lie in death an unburied corpse, that would have grieved me; for this, I am not grieved.” As in much history and classical literature, Antigone’s words about grief ring as true today as they did when written.

Sometimes, the family is prevented from carrying out the wishes of the deceased soldier, which may be for them an essential part of the grieving process. Staff Sgt. Kenneth Hobson II, one of a dozen Americans killed by a terrorist’s bomb at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, told his wife, Deb­bie, that he wanted his ashes scattered off the coast of Big Sur, near where they had met. California law prohibited the spreading of crematorium re­mains on land or within three miles of shore, so Debbie reluctantly made alternate plans. “Personally, this is a matter of closure,” she said. “Granting his wish is how I can bring some peace to my shattered life. Knowing that I cannot do this in a personal way without much red tape and expense is agonizing.”40

War, unfortunately, is about breaking things and killing people, and the killing often does terrible damage to bodies. Yet, even in the most violent deaths, some elements of the body often remain. As long as there is cred­ible knowledge of the death of a soldier, and especially if it is accompanied by some sort of physical evidence, be it partial remains or personal effects, funeral rites and burial can still be satisfying to the bereaved family. Body parts, even ashes, can substitute for the complete corpse in fulfilling the role assigned to it in our formal social process regarding death: certification, preparation, eulogy, burial, all of which are designed to give the dead a new social presence.41 And when remains are nonexistent, cannot be found, or have deteriorated, personal effects can stand in their place and be returned to family members.

Rayford “Scotty” Scott of Oceanside, California was cleaning out his attic with his son, Bryan, when they came across a rubber container that Scott had brought home from the Pacific during World War II. The con­tainer held the personal effects of a Japanese lieutenant, Matsubara. Bryan turned the effects over to a fellow teacher and Japanese native, Rie Tsuboi. Tsuboi forwarded the contents to her father in Japan, who, in turn, con­tacted an agency whose purpose was to find relatives of deceased Japanese soldiers. In time, Scott received a letter from the soldier’s family, who expressed gratitude for the return of Matsubara’s effects and asked for additional details of his death. The return of his personal items and the opportunity to receive more information about his death gave them clo­sure. They asked for the precise location of Matsubara’s burial site, but all Bryan could offer was a map with notations indicating where the battle had occurred.42

More recently, families have been reluctantly accepting symbols in place of the bodies of deceased loved ones. For some, the symbol is actually prefer­able to remains. A. R. Torres, whose husband died in the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001, said, “Having something of my husband’s is even bigger than having body parts, because it’s something you can see when the remains are unviewable.”43

September 11 has, to a certain degree, brought family members into the fraternity that unites soldiers, firemen, and policemen, all of whom view the physical and social body as one. The body is still the person and is important to the eventual formation of a new social identity for the dead.

Political Reasons

Closure is also important for governments. Complex political reasons mo­tivate the federal government’s interest in the return of our Soldier Dead. At a surface level, a soldier’s body is the physical representative of a specific former living person and of all members of the Armed Forces. At a symbolic level, a soldier’s body is the physical representative, or envoy, of his nation and, as such, embodies its ideology, political beliefs, and culture. Anthropol­ogist Mary Douglas (not to be confused with archaeologist and paleontolo­gist Mary Douglas Leakey) “argued that the human body is the most readily available image of a social system.”44 How a government views the corpses of its soldiers is indicative of how it views its citizens, and how a government views the corpses of its enemies is likewise a reflection of its attitudes toward the enemy’s social and cultural system.

Soldiers do not want their dead comrades to fall into the hands of the enemy. Nor does our government, although for different reasons. A country may win a battle or even a war, but if the adversary possesses its soldiers’ remains, it is a constant reminder and certain acknowledgment that, at some point, the enemy controlled not only the field of battle but also some of the victor’s might.

A perfect example of the power of possession is the footage of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by jeer­ing crowds of Somalians in 1993. While the common military response to the scene was outrage, it is quite likely that most civilians, not experienced or trained in violent affairs, were simply horrified. It is difficult for politicians to make controversial military decisions when the results might create fear and shock among the governed.

More important, though, is that a government desires to keep peace and favor with its citizens, and the days when bodies would remain overseas for years because it was militarily inconvenient to return them are gone. Our ef­forts to recover and return soldiers who have died indicate that the nation’s leaders expend political capital on matters of significance to its people.

Moral Reasons

There is another reason, perhaps the most important one, for the recovery and return of our Soldier Dead. During battle, with all of its grotesque and horrifying aspects, soldiers fight for their lives and for those of their com­rades—they do not fight for causes. But it must be remembered that they find themselves in battle conditions because they are serving their country. The cause for which they are sent to fight must be a just and vital one. Recovering the remains of our fallen measures the political and human costs of that cause, creating a ledger against which accounts must be balanced. We must take to heart the words of the soldier, Michael Williams, in Shakespeare’s Henry V:

But if the cause be not good, the king

himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all

those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle,

shall join together at the latter day and cry all, “We

died at such a place,” some swearing, some crying for

a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind

them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their

children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well

that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose

of anything when blood is their argument? Now, if

these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for

the king that led them to it. (IV.1.134–145)

Author’s Notes

“When I saw the images of the dead Americans, whose charred, lifeless bod­ies were being dragged through the streets of Fallujah, Iraq, and then hung on a bridge, my mind went back to 1993 [about the mutilations in Somalia].” John Figel’s comments, appearing in the April 2, 2004 issue of USA TODAY, reminded me again of the usually undetected layering of physical and social identity, for his words, to be grammatically and technically correct, should have been, “When I saw the images of the charred, lifeless bodies of the dead Americans. . . .” Figel’s thoughts were probably shared by many, with few detecting the subtle yet significant implications of his phrasing.

Any attempt to explain why it is important to expend resources on the dead involves the living, for surely the dead care not, and one of my first challenges in writing this book was to try to understand the “whys” of grief recovery and the importance of actual human remains in that process. Omitting the obvious physical/forensic reasons for recovering the dead, we are left with social and religious issues. Our understanding of the work­ings of the mind and heart has moved from very primitive to very complex theories and practices to help those in mental anguish find some relief. But, despite an ever-improving lexicon and delineation of issues, humans are not inherently any wiser or smarter than 10,000 years ago, and it is possible that what are generally considered to be advances in some fields may hinder our emotional recovery in times of grief.

Therefore, I found myself reaching back in time to find out what has been done with remains in general, and the remains of servicepersons in particu­lar. Then, I had to try to relate these historical elements to recent events to determine if current policies exist simply because they are the most efficient and/or expedient, or because they result from a realization that there was a better way to handle the dead and, had we known and/or been able, we would have instituted these processes earlier.

It is almost a modified “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” di­lemma. A good example is the current funerary practice of third-party un­dertaking, which often involves embalming, canned music, and a garden­like cemetery. Has this practice evolved because of consumer demand, or because improvements and the availability of chemicals, refrigeration, and transportation have enabled third parties to “sell” these services, pushing them in the role of supplier?

Clearly, this is a rhetorical question; we can’t go back and figure out what would have happened under different circumstances, and the answer is likely not an all-or-nothing proposition. In the interactive and chang­ing relationship among the living, the dead, and the body handlers, there is seldom a one-size-fits-all solution—some families need more “proof” than others; some families have different religious beliefs and burial practices. Studying this relationship, I realized that many of our problems stem from the failure to recognize and acknowledge these differences.

But there does seem to be a universal theme that reverberates through the centuries: humans want to see their dead, if at all possible. Only then is the passing of a loved one real. Only then can we say our good-byes and begin to form a new social consciousness for those who have moved to an­other sphere of existence, or nonexistence, depending upon one’s belief (or lack of belief) in a spiritual afterlife. While Americans have become accus­tomed to having remains of servicemen killed in action upon which to base an acceptance of the finality of death, other cultures make do with much less physical proof. Andi Wolos, who maintains a POW advocacy Web site, remarked that some of the Vietnamese with whom she had spoken knew their missing father, brother,  or husband was dead only because if he were alive, he surely would have returned to their village.

But for someone living in Vietnam, where the fighting took place and which the foreign forces left, it is easy to base an evaluation of life or death on such simple questions. For us, the foreign forces, knowing the status of the missing, especially in the face of evidence of detainment of live and dead U.S. servicepersons, is a problem (covered at length later in this work).

Investigating the ownership of the details of death, I gained a sense of the importance of “ownership” of the bodies of the dead. Different parties at different times exercise power and control over remains, and these parties can and do put their own interests first. I realized that the remains of the dead carry “weight” with the living and that the dead mean different things to different people.

This issue led me to ask, to whom do the dead belong? I found that ownership applied not only to physical remains but also to information about the dead and to their memory. Understanding that there are different types of possession has provided insight into social discourses regarding the dead. Often taking place in a national forum, these discussions assume many shapes, some verbal, many visual. They are ways to acknowledge emotion­ally that, while you can rebuild a bridge, you can never replace a life.

1.1 Skull from a Confederate soldier showing a fatal bullet hole. Photograph by the Army Medical Museum, Army Medical Museum, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology

1.2 Remains of World War II U.S. bomber crewmember are examined; bullet hole in head is noted. Reports were that the crew was executed. Pvt. J. Keen. U.S. Army Signal Corps, National Archives & Records Administration

1.3 U.S. soldier executed during the Korean War. Sgt. Wyatt. U.S. Army Photo: National Archives & Records Administration

1.4 A U.S. soldier stands duty next to a dead Japanese counterpart. Cpl. Schwartz. Na­tional Archives & Records Administration

1.5 Marines soldier on past the grave of a comrade who died at Iwo Jima. Pfc. Charlie Jones. National Archives & Records Administration

1.6 Simple grave side services being held by two soldiers, World War I. Lt. Wm. Fox, S.C., National Archives & Records Administration

1.7 Marine Colonel Francis I. Fenton prays at the foot of his son’s grave on Okinawa. Pfc. Mike Fenton, 19, was killed during a Japanese counterattack on the road to Shuri. T.Sgt. Glenn A. Fitzgerald. National Archives & Records Administration

1.8 How social and physical identities are viewed during life, separated upon death, and then temporarily reunited to aid grieving process. Graphic by Cathy Amy

[ why it matters 9 ]

[ 10whyitmatters ]

[ 2. Combat Recoveries ]

Friends . . . if we let the horse-taming Trojans

Drag this body off in triumph to their town,

The best thing that could happen would be

That the black earth should swallow us. . . .

—Homer, The Iliad

A death is the end of life for that particular person, but the beginning of a complicated social process founded on a belief system that accords value and allocates resources to the dead. In large part, the dead are of value as long as the living have not been able to perform their accepted and accus­tomed rites of separation of the social and physical self. These rites help to remove the tension experienced when someone dies. The death of a soldier is of significance on a local level because of the bond among warriors and on a higher, societal level because the soldier represents his or her country. Thus, both soldiers and governmental leaders will want to retrieve the bod­ies of the fallen. The interest of the family, who are not present to actively conduct retrievals but can only influence policy, must be represented by soldiers in the field who come from families themselves and by political and military leaders who make and enforce policies regarding the dead. Ameri­can policy, while not unique, has been supported by a large moral authority, often commanding significantly more resources than other countries have been able or willing to devote.

In order to put that policy into effect, the military has devised and insti­tuted recovery systems. These systems, like many technical operations, have slowly evolved from the simple to the complex. Instructions and field manu­als, scant or nonexistent at first, have grown to the point where they occupy large paper and data files.

Once in place, recovery operations are constantly evaluated in terms of the application of theory to practice, and appropriate changes are made when necessary. And, since recovery operations initiate and are critical to the identification process, they include very specific and detailed operational and record-keeping procedures. Consequently, after more than 125 years of plan­ning, trial and error, and technical advances, we are now able to recover all but a small percentage of our Soldier Dead, and we have developed scientific methods to the point where we can identify almost all recovered remains.


The recovery of military fatalities can be divided into several categories: combat recovery, postcombat recovery, area clearance recovery, historical recovery, and noncombat recovery. These divisions are somewhat broad and there is not always a clear demarcation between one and the next. Also, phrasing differs slightly, with “retrieval” used at times and “recovery” used at other times.

The personnel who carry out recovery operations vary considerably, de­pending on the nature of the battles fought, their historical time period, and the type of recovery operation conducted. Obviously, noncombat personnel are not the best choice for combat recovery, and recovery operations after cessation of hostilities do not require combat skills; in fact, soldiers trained and experienced in combat often do not possess the specialized skills re­quired for recovery efforts years later. However, personnel experienced in ordnance disposal have often been a vital part of recovery teams regardless of time proximity to combat.

Combat recovery is the most heroic and dangerous of the five catego­ries. It is conducted under fire by those bonded to the dead. To them, the soldier’s body is still the soldier they knew; they have not yet disassociated the man from the corpse and feel bound by honor and creed to care for the dead just as they would the living. Recovering bodies under combat condi­tions poses some of the most challenging questions about American policies, both written and unwritten, because soldiers are often wounded and killed bringing back the dead.

Postcombat recovery is also fraught with danger: unexploded ordnance, booby-trapped bodies, snipers, and the chance that retrieval teams will inad­vertently stumble into enemy forces. While combat-experienced troops often assist postcombat recovery, their role is usually limited to bringing the dead to collection points where specially trained personnel assume responsibility.

Area clearance recovery occurs some time after a battle and involves search­ing for those remains that have not been recovered in previous operations, and may also involve disinterring bodies from temporary gravesites established when it was impossible or impractical to remove them to major cemeteries. Area clearance still poses hazards to recovery teams—primarily from field con­ditions, live ammunition, and booby traps—even though it usually takes place days, weeks, months, or even years after combat.

Historical recovery currently receives a great deal of attention and, ac­cordingly, receives much support and funding. Teams of specialists, after detailed research, conduct search missions throughout the world, but par­ticularly in Southeast Asia. These teams are composed of highly trained and qualified civilians and service personnel from all branches of the military.

Noncombat recovery occurs when soldiers die in circumstances not in­volving direct contact with the enemy or threat of attack. Deaths in these noncombat cases still require recovery, as the remains may be in remote locations or otherwise be difficult to extract from the site. Some death inci­dents are classified as “mass fatalities,” and special procedures apply in such cases. Noncombat recovery generally poses less threat to those involved than the other types, but is far from risk free.

These divisions in recovery operations are not as distinct as chapters in a book; they have overlapping boundaries. For the purposes of this study, an overview of all recovery methods and history is provided in this chapter, but a more detailed analysis of area clearance, historical, and noncombat recoveries is reserved for later.


Our formal policy of recovering soldiers’ remains for a recognized and per­manent burial had its earliest origins in the Seminole Indian Wars of Florida in the early 1800s. Then, relatives could have the remains of an officer re­turned to them if they provided a leaded coffin to a “designated Quartermas­ter at a port, [and] the Department would have it forwarded free of charge to a quartermaster operating in the field closest to the area of burial.” The body would be disinterred and then shipped home to the relative who had made the application for return. But, since the laws provided no funding for the government to pay expenses, the relatives bore all costs. The return of these officers’ remains was an exception, as most, and all enlisted men, were buried in the field with few records kept about location.1

The next step came during the Mexican-American War of 1846–47. In this conflict, the U.S. Army buried its soldiers where they fell; there was little else they could do. In 1847, Kentucky authorized the return of its dead, at state expense, to a cemetery dedicated to that war.2 Since more than 13,000 died and only 750—none of whom were identified—were recovered for final burial in an official cemetery, it is apparent that the procedures extant at that time were rudimentary and mostly ineffectual.

As a nation, the United States made its first large-scale efforts to recover, and subsequently identify and bury, military fatalities during the Civil War. Recognizing its obligation to the fallen and their families, the War Department issued General Orders No. 75 on September 11, 1861, that directed the Quarter­master General to supply hospitals with a formal paperwork system designed to keep accurate mortuary records. The General Orders also required that a registered headboard be placed over the grave of each dead soldier.

General Orders 75 was a good start, but it was lacking in scope and depth. It did not provide for burial sites or for the disposition of those who died on campaign. In other words, it envisioned a system for the dead inside what is called the Zone of the Interior but did not offer directives for fatalities that occurred in areas of conflict.3

Recognizing the shortcomings of these orders, the War Department issued General Orders No. 33 on April 3, 1862. Section II established two precedents: that the primary responsibility for retrieval of combat fatalities rested with the commanders in the field, and that the commanders had the duty to identify and bury the dead:

In order to secure, as far as possible, the decent interment of those who have fallen, or may fall, in battle, it is made the duty of Commanding Generals to lay off lots of ground in some suitable spot near every bat­tlefield, so soon as it may be in their power, and to cause the remains of those killed to be interred, with headboards to the graves bearing numbers, and when practicable [sic], the names of the persons buried in them. A register of each burial ground will be preserved, in which will be noted the marks corresponding with the headboards.4

While General Orders 33 instructed commanders on what to do, it of­fered little guidance on how to carry out their responsibilities. Short on men and engaged in a protracted struggle, military commanders were reluctant to divert precious resources to noncombat activities. The words “as far as possible,” “as it may be in their power,” and “when practicable” provided a convenient excuse for those who chose to give recovery, identification, and burial lower priority than winning battles. However, as the war progressed, an excellent example of adhering to both the spirit and letter of General Orders 33 occurred during a battle near Washington, DC.

In July 1864, General Lee’s forces threatened to invade Washington. Faced with a shortage of combat troops, Brigadier General Rucker quickly formed a brigade with 1,500 quartermaster employees, placed Captain James Moore in charge, and assigned the newly formed unit to Fort Stevens on the north edge of the city. Once reinforced by this hastily thrown together brigade and other troops, a Union division attacked the Confederates to drive them from covered positions near the fort. The Confederates retreated without offering fierce resistance, leaving Fort Stevens, and Washington, secure.

General Montgomery C. Meigs selected a site for a battlefield cemetery and ordered Moore to recover the dead and bury them. Moore and his men then not only evacuated all the dead but also were able to identify every one of them. This novel feat was accomplished because several favorable factors converged at just the right time: the quartermaster personnel, trained in lo­gistics and record keeping, were readily available; emphasis was placed on retrieval and burial; the fight was brief and relatively mild—if there is such a thing; and the Union Army controlled the field of battle. Unfortunately, the tactics and procedures used with such success in this engagement were not employed extensively during the Civil War, resulting in scattered graves and relatively scant record keeping.5

After the surrender at Appomatox, the Union forces undertook the task of exhuming their dead from burial sites and transferring them to national cemeteries. Recovery parties fanned out across the countryside, searching battlefields, roads, fields, and valleys for the graves of the fallen. From 1866 to 1870, the remains of 299,696 Union soldiers were located and buried in 73 cemeteries. Another 13,575 were buried in cemeteries by military posts or in private plots. As large as these figures seem, they are 26,125 short of the estimate made in 1866 of the total number of remains to be retrieved.6

Apparently, the record keeping on unrecovered remains was incorrect, or many soldiers were not found. Either way, despite valiant efforts, the dis­crepancy illustrates the inadequacies of that era. Yet, even taking into ac­count the number of Soldier Dead not recovered and returned, the over 90 percent success rate in retrieval was a remarkable achievement. And, most important, the moving of the Union dead from far-flung battlefields to na­tional cemeteries established the precedent that would be followed in fu­ture wars, even when American casualties lay in foreign soil. The Civil War marked the point at which “public opinion and the armed forces would no longer tolerate the indifference that had heretofore attended the care of the nation’s dead in war.”7

Not long afterward, the United States entered the Spanish-American War and put to good use its experience in searching for and recovering its dead from faraway battlefields. In February 1899, the Quartermaster Burial Corps began to disinter and return the remains of soldiers buried in Cuba and Puerto Rico. By June 30 of that year, 1,222 bodies had been repatriated to the United States. Quartermaster General Marshall I. Ludington spoke words that became a harbinger of U.S. retrieval efforts in major world con­ï¬‚icts only a few years later. He said that the efforts of the Quartermaster Corps in the Spanish-American War were most likely the first attempt of a nation to “disinter the remains of all its soldiers who, in defense of their country, had given up their lives on a foreign shore, and bring them . . . to their native land for return to their relatives and friends or their reinterment in the beautiful cemeteries which have been provided by our Government for its defenders.”8

After completing its mission in Cuba and Puerto Rico, the Quartermas­ter Burial Corps moved its operation to the Philippines. At the same time, Major General E. S. Otis, commander of the Pacific Department, ordered Chaplain Charles C. Pierce to “establish and direct the United States Army Morgue and Office of Identification,” which performed duties essentially identical to those managed by the corps. The records speak very clearly of the conflict between the two organizations, with D. H. Rhodes, Chief of the Burial Corps, writing, “Chaplain Pierce will never be lost sight of in any work he may be in charge of,” and describing Pierce’s final report as “indecent in its claims . . . simply bosh.” Pierce adopted a defensive stance, including letters from those in influential military positions in his report. Despite the friction between the two units, the system worked. Both made valuable con­tributions to the recovery effort, and innovations from each became part of official procedures.9 In this case, competition fostered improvements.

After the Spanish-American War, the Army consolidated several depart­ments into the Quartermaster Corps, establishing a permanent military in­frastructure of logistical support for Army operations. The Quartermaster Corps, founded on June 16, 1775, is composed of soldiers who call themselves “logistics warriors.” They provide “the right supplies, at the right time and place, in the right quantities.” An army does not travel only on its stomach; it must also have weapons and ammunition. Broken equipment must be repaired or replaced. The mail must be delivered. Without solid logistics and support in all these areas, fighting spirit is useless and morale evaporates.

The quartermasters, proficient in handling minutiae, performed the first official recovery duties in the Civil War, assisted in repatriation efforts in the Spanish-American War, and were officially, by General Orders No. 104 issued on August 7, 1917, assigned the duties of the Graves Registration Ser­vice (GRS). Henceforth, the Quartermaster Corps could recruit and train personnel exclusively for the purpose of recovering, identifying, and burying the Army’s dead.10

During World War I, the War Department chose Major (formerly Chap­lain) Charles C. Pierce, by then retired, to recruit and train men for the GRS and to oversee its operations in Europe. The service was to perform six duties: field units along the battle lines to identify remains and mark graves imme­diately after fighting began; establish and maintain all temporary and perma­nent military cemeteries that would house the American dead; keep a record of burials; assist in identification when dead were relocated from battlefield burial sites to more permanent cemeteries; correspond with the bereaved fam­ily and friends; and coordinate mortuary affairs with foreign governments.11

In effect, during World War I, the GRS served as the agent carrying out the desires of the people of the United States as expressed in the General Or­ders issued since the Civil War: to recover, identify, and bury soldiers killed in service. Two precedents were established. First was the “appearance of a theater graves registration service, with its operating units in close support to combat, and a headquarters staff charged with the maintenance of tempo­rary burials and semi-permanent military cemeteries.” Second were innova­tions and improvements to the retrieval process, given the need to clear the battlefield of large numbers of corpses in order to maintain morale: “The survival of wartime political regimes, whether autocratic or democratic, de­pended upon the will of their respective armies and peoples to endure the ordeal of blood sacrifice. All were equally concerned in removal of the dead from the sight of the living.”12 After fifty years, the desire to take care of our Soldier Dead had produced a system capable of doing so.

Once the armistice was signed to end World War I, the Memorial Divi­sion of the Quartermaster Corps assumed the duties of the GRS, with the exception that if war erupted again, it would confine its activities to the continental United States while the GRS, under orders of the theater com­mander, would operate in areas of combat. Also, the Memorial Division was to maintain a central database of all mortuary records, assist in identification cases that required investigative work, and ensure that grave markers were inscribed with correct information about the deceased.13 Of course, since the first computers were not developed until World War II, the databases were voluminous card files.

In the period between World War I and World War II, the Army con­sidered various arrangements of personnel and duty assignments for those responsible for handling military dead. Leaders were trying to avoid fighting more wars relying solely on tactics developed during a previous conflict, a disastrous mistake committed in World War I. The trouble was, the Quar­termaster Corps, like combat units, didn’t have a crystal ball foretelling what the next war would be like, and it was not prepared to handle deaths at the start of the next global conflict.

At that time, a military Table of Organization (T/O) described the staff­ing and equipping of each military unit. It listed how many men and of what rank would comprise the unit. The T/O also listed the hardware assigned to and, finally, the purpose of the unit. T/O 10–297, November 1, 1940, for Graves Registration said, “Functions: Supervision of identification and buri­al of dead; collection and disposal of personal effects; location and registra­tion of battlefield graves and cemeteries.” The T/O made it clear that the GRS unit would be responsible for overseeing specific activities and would not be responsible for embalming, and that non–GRS service units would provide the labor for burials. Also, the GRS was not responsible for the col­lection of battle dead.14

But not all of those in positions of command agreed on the way things should be done. Colonel John T. Harris, director of the Memorial Division of the Quartermaster Corps, stated: “It seems to me that the practical way is to require the troops to dispose of their own dead and then . . . when peace comes, plans and policies can be established and carried out by civilian orga­nizations.” He was of the opinion that the troops in the field should handle the identification and burial duties while the quartermasters maintained the central records. He recommended that soldiers’ training include instruction in those activities previously performed by the GRS. How he contemplated exhausted troops being able to accomplish tasks previously done by spe­cialized personnel is not clear. Furthermore, he did not envision the extent to which soldiers would be sent into combat with insufficient training in even basic combat tactics, let alone Graves Registration duties. Fortunately, Harris’s proposals failed to win approval and the existing system of GRS personnel supervising the handling of the dead was left intact.15

It proved to be difficult for men who had just finished a battle to col­lect the remains of their friends and take them to collection points where GRS personnel picked them up in trucks and delivered them to processing stations and, eventually, temporary graveyards behind the battle lines. The soldiers were generally worn out and had not yet had time to begin to form a new social identity for the fallen. In essence, they were still too emotionally wrought over the loss of their comrades to be closely involved with gathering their bodies. Also, the soldiers in the field did not always perform identifica­tion duties adequately.

Recognizing that changes in the retrieval process were needed, the T/O was modified in November 1944 to increase the size of the GRS company from 130 to 265 men, so its personnel could perform all collection and evacu­ation of the dead. But the theater commanders were not given an increase in manpower with which to enact the new T/O. In other words, a new policy was put in place on paper, but those in command were not allocated the resources needed to carry it out.

Faced with the dilemma of being ordered to recover the dead with non­combat GRS troops, but not being able to free up combat troops to join the GRS units, commanders reached what can only be called a “field com­promise.” A business line manager, under direction from a staff manager to carry out an impractical policy, will somehow figure out a way to make things work. Combat commanders are the same. Their solution: to form collection teams from members of a combat unit to recover the remains of soldiers from other (not their own) combat units. Thus, experienced combat troops from different units performed duties for each other, all under the supervision of the GRS troops.16

During World War II, the GRS faced situations for which it was not prepared. Not only was this a mobile war, unlike World War I, it also was carried out on a global scale. What worked for the GRS in North Africa served as a guide for Italy and Europe, but only that—a model that had to be modified as the situation required. The Pacific Theater conditions were far different from those a hemisphere away. In fact, the activities of the GRS in World War II can be summed up in one word: improvisation. Lessons about the recovery of war dead were learned as the war progressed and changes were continually instituted.

The Korean War erupted in 1950 and the United States, as usual, was not prepared. The North Koreans overran the south, except for a small perimeter at Pusan. From there, the United States and its United Nations allies staged a breakout, eventually pushing the North Koreans north of the 38th parallel, almost to the border with China. Then the Chinese threw their masses into the war, and they and North Korea forced their way back to the 38th paral­lel. This seesaw battle, in which territory often changed hands, prompted the United States to rethink its policy for recovering the dead.

At the beginning of the war, only one platoon of Graves Registration per­sonnel, considerably less than 100 men, was in place. This platoon consisted of men who had been processing the usual noncombat fatalities among a large group of soldiers, and most had no combat experience. Hard pressed, GRS personnel recovered UN dead and buried them in temporary cemeter­ies assigned to each combat division. When the North Koreans overran the UN positions, these cemeteries fell into enemy hands, were recaptured, then were lost again. As a result, many of the temporary divisional cemeteries were evacuated—the dead exhumed for reburial at a safer location—with the enemy only hours away. Another tragic result of  the loss and regaining of territory and the evacuations was that some dead were buried and rebur­ied several times.

In response to the demands of the battlefield, and perhaps because it now had the capability, the United States adopted a policy that exists to this day, Concurrent Return. Generally speaking, after Christmas 1950, the day exhumations began at the Inchon cemetery, American dead were recov­ered from where they had been killed and taken directly to Japan. There, the bodies were embalmed and held pending disposition requests from next of kin. This procedure is still the first choice for removing dead from the battlefield.

After the Korean War, the United States mounted a sweep of accessible areas in an attempt to find the thousands of missing. It is a truth of war that control of territory translates into power, and the North Koreans, flexing their muscle, refused to allow Graves Registration personnel entry into their territory for many years.17

However, even with the Concurrent Return policy, the dead still had to be collected and transported to centralized sites from which to be evacuated to Japan. As it had done in World War II, the GRS set up collection points near combat units and then evacuated remains farther south. The Korean War saw the introduction of refrigerated railroad cars. The “reefers” were iced so that remains would arrive at their destination “in the best possible condition.” The use of refrigeration during transportation was so success­ful—remains start decomposing within a very short time, especially in hot weather conditions—that the reefers were kept near airfields even after air transportation replaced the railways for remains movement.18

The next test of Graves Registration came in Vietnam. In this undeclared war, the United States attempted to use its military to attain limited politi­cal goals in a situation where control of land was ephemeral, the enemy was hard to differentiate from the general population, and there was no popular consensus that the war was justified. U.S. military leaders experienced the same dilemma, and frustration, as General MacArthur had in Korea—the fight was not to be to the finish, but was merely to contain the aggressors. Indeed, it could be said that the attempt was doomed to fail.

By the time of the Vietnam War, the acronym for Graves Registration Services (GRS) had been changed to GRREG, but its duties were essentially the same as in Korea, with one exception: remains, once embalmed, were sent home to the continental United States (CONUS, in military shorthand) for further preparation before being transported to the location requested by the next of kin.

In this war, as in Korea, recovery operations were somewhat compro­mised. Unless bodies were retrieved immediately, there was no assurance that they would ever be because control of the land in the traditional sense did not exist. If a serviceperson, alive or dead, fell into enemy hands, they had little chance of being returned because there was no front line that would eventually advance to encompass the area where they were held. They remained captive until North Vietnam decided to part with them.

In the mid- to late 1990s, the United States was able to reach an agree­ment with the leaders of North Korea and Vietnam to allow teams to search for the remains of its servicemen. These arrangements did not come easily and were—and still are—subject to postponement and cancellation. The difficulty in recovering the dead of these two wars is directly attributable to both the conditions under which the wars were fought and the achievement of peace by negotiation rather than by total surrender of the enemy.

Since Vietnam, the United States has found itself employing its military principally as a police force. Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf are ex­ceptions. The Gulf War and the Iraq War required the largest deployment of troops and equipment since the Vietnam War, but casualties were relatively low. In an attempt to learn from the past, the Quartermaster Corps reviewed plans made by the GRS in North Africa in World War II for guidance on how to prepare for the Gulf War.19

But, after repeated experiences of lack of attention to Graves Registration in peacetime leaving the system ill prepared for the next conflict, Tommy D. Bourlier, Deputy Director, Graves Registration Center, said in the Septem­ber 1988 issue of the Quartermaster Professional Bulletin:

Historically, Graves Registration (GRREG) is a field that has changed very little. Doctrine is much the same as during Vietnam, the Korean Conflict, and World War II. Little change has taken place because there has been little interest in graves registration during periods of peace. GRREG has been a box put on the shelf until needed [and] then taken down, dusted off, and expected to still work and fit whatever situation facing us.20

There are several different groups that are responsible for the recovery, identification, and return of those who die while on active duty. While it appears that their jobs overlap considerably, with the possibility of conflict, they work together quite well.

2.1 Graves of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry (Rough Riders) killed during the advance on Santiago, Cuba, 1898. National Archives & Records Administration

2.2 American dead piled up in a buffalo transport vehicle on Manus Island near New Guinea, World War II. Joel Horowitz, National Archives & Records Administration

2.3 Bodies of U.S. Marines, British Royal Marines, U.S. soldiers, and Republic of Korea troops are gathered for a mass burial at Koto-Ri. Sgt. F. C. Karr, National Archives & Records Administration

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