Monday, October 29, 2012

Taking Care of the Dead On D-Day and the German Quest for its Missing Sons, All Day Every Day.

There was a large transportation system in Saigon during the Vietnam War that moved the many administrative troops who lived in hotels and barracks across the city to their jobs.  Mostly, the transportation was provided by dark green school buses that lumbered through the impossible traffic of the impossible city to their destinations at the television station, various command centers, the Post Exchange, the Embassy and other spots that lent a kind of administrative normalcy to the incredible events that were taking place around us. 

Soldiers would wait for their buses in the small lobbies of their hotels because waiting outside was discouraged.  Usually there was a name in the slot above the windshield or a cardboard sign in the lower right corner of the front window that indicated the destination although some of the buses had no markings at all and somehow, people knew which to get on.  Those soldiers who worked at the mortuary had a bus with a sign that said “San Francisco/Oakland.” 

For a time I thought it was kind of funny, one of those ironic realities that help people keep moving through a tough time.  And, when someone changed the bus name from “San Francisco/Oakland” to “Mortuary” I was a little miffed, thinking that a bit of human scale sentiment had been taken away.  At the end of a year, however, I realized that there was nothing funny at all, nothing ironic at all, nothing worth being miffed about and it was probably a good idea to change out the sign.  Dead is dead and there is nothing clever or little about it.

I had no idea why I came to feel that way until I read Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust’s “Republic of Death,” her Civil War history about the problems dealing with impossibly large numbers of people killed in war.  The book shows how the Civil War's slaughter changed the way we thought about caring for our dead soldiers and their grieving families.   
United States Park Service

After the first battle of that war, a body remaining on the field would have as good a chance of being dragged off by an animal or dug up by someone looking for good boots than their family being notified and the body registered, the contents in its clothing stored and catalogued and a good idea of where it was going to be buried temporarily along with plans for a more permanent resting place.  Frequently, families never found the body of their child.  The system in place was a system that had no respect or compassion, just lists published in the papers or the good will of a comrade or a farmer returning to his ruined field.  People hired individuals to go look for their child in the ruins of past battles.  Bodies decomposed half in and half out of a field with nothing more than a penciled note on their tunic.

While having coffee with a friend the other day we got to talking about how moved we had been walking through the battlefield sites in Normandy. He had just returned and his emotions were still fresh. I asked if he had gone to the German cemetery near St. Mere Eglise and he said he had not, that the last day kind of slipped away and he regretted not going. It got me thinking about that cemetery, Orglandes, the name of the town nearby, and the trip to it down a monument-rich stretch of country lane. At the cemetery, there is a tiny turnout for a handful of cars and a Norman tower forming the entrance.  It is a quiet and peaceful place where over 10,000 German soldiers lay who happened to be stationed in Normandy in the Spring of 1944.

It is a simple and understated place, one of six German cemeteries in Normandy.  Each headstone announces the names of six people, their birth dates and the month and day they died, three names on each side of the cross.  It does not take long to get a feel for the nature of the German forces buried in Orglandes.  They were disproportionately younger and older than the German Army generally was at that time.  The best troops in the Wehrmacht were in the east, trying to alter the grim Soviet momentum after Stalingrad.

For some reason I know that the German Memorial Day is in mid-November, so after coffee, I spent some time reading up on how Germany is caring for its war dead and found the astounding knowledge that nearly 70 years after the end of the war, Germany is still collecting nearly 40,000 bodies a year and reburying them in Germany or in German war cemeteries across Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, Germany has found, identified and re-interred nearly 716,000 of its World War II era soldiers, many from unmarked, mass graves that chronicle the retreat of the Wehrmacht from its near victory in Russia to its complete defeat in the suburbs of Berlin. 
Orglandes Cemetery

German war dead are cared for by a volunteer organization called the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge), the Volksbund, for short.  Its job is to register, maintain and care for the graves of Germany’s World War I and World War II dead around the world.  The Volksbund was formed after World War I, but when World War II began, the Nazi Wehrmacht took over the job of caring for the dead and disbanded the Volksbund.  Two years after the war, the Volksbund was reconstituted and focused, early on, within the boundaries of Germany.  Soon it had established 400 war cemeteries inside the country.  After bi-lateral agreements between Germany and other countries were signed, the Volksbund went to work abroad.  Sometimes these agreements were a long time coming.  France and Germany signed a treaty in 1966, 21 years after the war, that allowed Germany to have direct access to its war dead and operate cemeteries in France.

Today, the Volksbund has 9,000 volunteers and 560 full time employees. It maintains 824 war cemeteries in 45 countries, containing a total of 2.4 million dead. Since the early 1990s, the commission has restored or built more than 300 cemeteries from World War II and 190 from World War I across Central and Eastern Europe and in Russia.

Earlier this year, the Volksbund released an on-line data base that includes the names of over 4 million World War II soldiers who either are known to be dead or are 
missing.  They hope, through contact with the families using the site, they will find letters, diaries and other sources that lead them to sites where other soldiers are buried.  Because of the expense, the Volksbund concentrates on larger grave sites, usually containing 50 or more bodies, since retrieval and reburial of individual graves is beyond the current capacity and likely future capacity, of the organization.  Because of the cruelty of the Nazi Wehrmacht in Eastern Europe, the Volksbund search teams in Eastern Europe are frequently met with considerable hostility.  More than 20 million civilians in the Soviet Union and 6 million in Poland died during World War II. The British Newspaper “The Sun” reported in September of this year that grave robbing in Russia of German cemeteries for Nazi memorabilia was becoming a significant problem.

In Czechoslovakia, a dispute about plans to bury the exhumed bodies of 2,000 German soldiers in a new cemetery went on for years, demonstrating how complex reburial can be. Some of the bodies were those of Waffen SS troops and some Czechs made a distinction between the appropriateness of burying regular army soldiers versus soldiers from the hated SS.  The bodies were finally taken from an old warehouse and buried in 2005. During World War II, 170,000 German troops were stationed in Czechoslovakia. More than 60,000 are unaccounted for.

Bodies from both wars are frequently found across Europe today, unearthed by transportation projects, new buildings, farmers, souvenir hunters.  The
discovery of these sites demonstrates just how difficult it is to make identifications. A site in the south of France near Nice was found in 2006 by a local medical student and, at a depth of three feet, the remains of 14 German soldiers. They had died in August of 1944 in a firefight and the burial site was soon forgotten. Students from the medical school as well as archeologists worked with Volksbund to help identify not only who the soldiers were but find their cause of death and see what kind of historical evidence could survive over 62 years. Among the pieces of evidence was that of the fourteen soldiers, only one had shoes on his feet.  A universal truth about war is the value of shoes.

Only 7 of the 14 had dog tags, the Germans use oval discs, were discovered at the site and led to identification of six bodies. The information on one was destroyed by shrapnel.  For each tag there is a file in a Berlin agency that has the tag information along with other clues to finding a soldier’s identity such as wedding rings, medals or samples of handwriting. Two others in the group were identified by cross checking this additional centralized information that is maintained on 18 million German soldiers. The bodies were buried a year later at the German military cemetery in Berneuil, France. There was enough individual information gathered over the year of research that sixty German relatives attended the burial ceremony.
Staff Sergeant Elbert Legg
US Army Quartermaster Corps

Early this year, a World War I trench complex was found in France with 21 bodies of German soldiers in it. It had apparently collapsed all at once when it suffered a direct hit by a powerful artillery round. Bits of newspaper, clothing and other materials survived. The bodies were identified and returned to Germany.

Among the finds of my research is an account by a young sergeant from the Quartermaster Corps Graves Registration Company, Elbert Legg. Arriving on one of the nearly 1000 gliders landing in Normandy during the invasion, he hit the ground between St. Mere Eglise and Orglandes on the afternoon of June 6.  Soon, he is in a field nearby where wounded and dead have been brought and he begins to organize a respectful place for the dead.

He will learn on the job. He has never touched a dead person before. He will also redeem in our time the new values Drew Gilpin Faust described as evolving in the Civil War.

“Four dead paratroopers already lay in the corner by the crossroads. Five gliders were in the hedgerows that surrounded the field. As I examined the site, two jeeps with trailers loaded with bodies drove in, and were directed to the corner of the field where the other bodies lay. The drivers made it clear they were delivering but not unloading. I sized up the situation and decided the time had come for me to be, and to act like, the graves registration representative that I was. For the first time in my life I touched a dead man. I grabbed the leg of one of the bodies and rolled it off onto the ground. As I struggled, the drivers gave in and assisted me with the remainder of the bodies. There were now 14 dead lying in a row and more loaded vehicles were driving into the field.”

Normandy, 1944
US Quartermaster Corps

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

“There were plenty of parachutes in the field, so nylon parachute panels 
served as personal effects bags and body bags. Each body was searched and all personal effects were secured, but no inventory was taken. A ruled tablet served as Graves Registration Form No. 1. Both identification tags were left with the body until it was ready to be placed into a grave. One tag stayed with the body after burial and the other was attached to the stake that served as a grave marker. The personal effects and Form No. 1 were kept together and wrapped in a parachute that served as a "filing cabinet" for the first days of the invasion. About 50 bodies were interred on D+1. More were arriving all the time.”

While Sergeant Legg was inland near a town called Blosville opening a cemetery and dealing with the growing rush of bodies in the first hours of D-Day, other temporary cemeteries were going up on the beaches, first at Omaha and then at Utah.   By the end of the week, Legg’s cemetery outside of Blosville held 350 dead.  By the end of the month there were 6,000 people buried there.   

American Cemetery Above Omaha Beach
Google Earth
By June 10, the temporary cemetery on Omaha Beach closed and the bodies moved up on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, near the site of the present, American cemetery, a lovely place that amazes.  By June 20, the field near Orglandes opened for both German and American dead, who are buried in different areas of the field.  Soon, a decision is made by the Quartermaster Corps to make Orglandes a German cemetery and move the American bodies to the Omaha Beach bluff site.

About 2,500 American soldiers were killed on the ground on D-Day along with 1,500 allied troops and several hundred airmen.  It is not known exactly how many Germans were killed in action that day.  What we do know is that there are nearly 80,000 German troops buried in Normandy, along with 10,000 Americans, 18,000 British, 5,000 Canadians and 650 Poles.  The reason that there are so many British burials in Normandy is that it is a British custom to bury their dead near where they fall.  There are 18 British cemeteries in Normandy, only two American. 

French Women Placing Flowers on Temporary Graves
 St.  Mere Eglise Cemetery
June, 1944
At the beginning of 1947, American families of fallen soldiers received letters giving them a choice.  For the 233,181 Americans killed in action, the government told their families that they would repatriate the bodies of their loved ones.  However, they also could choose to leave their loved ones where they were buried or in permanent cemeteries abroad.  The families of 80,000 war dead had no choice.  The bodies of their sons, daughters and loved ones could not be found and were listed as missing. 

About 140,000 bodies were brought home, at a cost of some $200,000,000, well over $2 Billion today.  Nearly 95,000 families chose to have their relatives buried in American cemeteries abroad, like the one on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.

On October 26, 1947, sixty five years ago this month, in a ceremony hardly anyone remembers, the Liberty Ship Joseph V.  Connelly arrived at the foot of 21st Street in Manhattan with 6,248 coffins below decks and one flag-draped coffin on deck, the first of those who had fallen, were buried and reburied abroad and who were finally coming home.  The man in the coffin on the deck was killed during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 and was a posthumous Medal of Honor winner.  His name or home town was never revealed. At 12:45, the coffin is taken off the ship and placed on a caisson attached to an armored car.  The USS Missouri, in the harbor and escorting the Connolly, fires a salute, and a largely silent contingent of 6,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen, cadets from the military academies, police and firemen began walking behind the caisson heading uptown past silent crowds along the sidewalks.  Later, the Connolly sails to Brooklyn where it unloads the caskets to trains that will take them to destinations all over America. 

About 400,000 people on the New York sidewalks watch the parade as it passes by, silent except for occasional music from the Army Band, “Onward Christian Soldiers” was one piece of music, “Nearer My God to Thee” another. David P.  Colley, an author who wrote about this parade, reported that at 63rd and Fifth Avenue, “a diminutive street sweeper raised his broom with his left hand in a present arms and snapped a salute with his right hand as the coffin went by.”

The procession turned into Central Park at 72nd Avenue and assembled for a ceremony at the Sheep Meadow.

In San Francisco that same day, a similar ceremony was going on, with the caskets of six soldiers from all the service branches placed in San Francisco City Hall that morning, the people walking past them until late at night.  The boat in San Francisco Bay, the Honda Knott, had over 3,000 caskets on board, waiting for the trains that would ultimately find the hometowns that had to be found.