Conference Program

85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History

 Landscapes of War and Peace

April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky

Title: Transitioning from War to Peace: World War II Graves Registration and Accounting for the Fallen
Abstract: In the wake of the fighting of World War II, U.S. graves registration units began the grim task of collecting the war dead and honorably interring their remains. Teams scoured the war torn landscape across the globe searching for fallen U.S. service members from remote islands in the Pacific Ocean to the shambles of the European continent. Graves registration teams went to great lengths to retrieve remains salving sunken craft from the sea, climbing treacherous mountains, and traversing minefields. Recovering and identifying the fallen was a means of commemorating their sacrifice and providing closure to the nation. The study of World War II graves registration examines the intersection of operational military history in wartime and memory and commemoration in peacetime.
This panel takes a global approach in its exploration of American graves registration efforts after World War II. Dr. Erik Carlson analyzes graves registration on the islands of Palau in the Pacific theater. Dr. Ian Spurgeon explores American efforts to recover their dead over time from the battlefield of Huertgen Forest in Germany. Dr. Robyn Rodriguez examines American recovery efforts behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. The authors utilize a diverse array of historical methodologies including archival research, oral histories, geo-spatial analysis, and archaeological techniques. Graves registration in the aftermath of World War II was a transnational phenomenon as the various combatant nations, allies and former enemies alike, operated in the same battle space often in foreign lands to collect their dead. The authors situate graves registration within the local landscapes but also among the broader international context.
Kevin Ruffner, Retired U.S. Government
Erik Carlson, Florida Gulf Coast University
Participant's Paper Title: "These Honored Dead: The American Graves Registration Service and the Repatriation of War Dead from the Angaur Cemetery, 1945-47"
Participant's Paper Abstract: In late 1944, the United States invaded the Palau Islands six hundred miles off the southeast coast of the Philippines -- Operation STALEMATE II. On 7 September, the U.S. 81st Infantry Division (Wildcats) attacked the small island of Angaur. By 22 October, the U.S. Army had crushed Japanese resistance. The cost of battle was 264 killed and 1,355 wounded and injured, more than a 1,000 cases of disease and battle fatigue.
Two days after the invasion, Graves Registration Service (GRS) personnel began to plan for the burial of American dead. A site for the cemetery was located. GRS soldiers moved remains to the newly constructed cemetery near RED beach. Eventually, Major General Paul J. Mueller, commander of the 81st Infantry Division, instructed the 306th Engineering Battalion to beautify the cemetery in honor of the fallen soldiers. On 25 November 1944, Mueller dedicated the Wildcat Cemetery. Monuments and bronze plaques were unveiled to commemorate the sacrifice of the men that seized Angaur.
After the war, the United States decided to construct two permanent Pacific war cemeteries - one in the Philippines and the other located in Hawaii. Families of the deceased were given the option to move their loved ones to cemeteries in the Pacific or return their remains to a site within the United States. In the spring of 1947, American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) personnel arrived on Angaur to exhume American war dead from the Wildcat cemetery. The AGRS shipped the remains to the Philippines by naval transport. In Manila, military medical examiners confirmed the identities of the remains and prepared them for permanent burial.
This paper uses the Angaur battlefield cemetery to analyze the AGRS's post-World War II policy and efforts to locate, identify, and repatriate U.S. war dead. Primary sources include manuscript collections, government documents, newspapers, and photographs.
Ian Spurgeon, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency
Participant's Paper Title: Recovery of the Fallen in the Huertgen Forest
Participant's Paper Abstract: From September 1944 to February 1945, American ground troops battled German forces firmly entrenched within the trees and rugged terrain of the Huertgen Forest. The Huertgen Forest represented some of the fiercest combat for American infantrymen in the European Theater during World War II. The artillery scarred woods and snow covered fields held the remains of hundreds of fallen soldiers?American and German. Some had been left behind, in foxholes or scattered across the forest floor, overlooked among the detritus of war as the battles advanced; others lay alone and exposed in mine fields, out of reach of their mourning comrades.
At the end of the war, U.S. graves registration units fanned out to collect the remains of American soldiers from battlefields, temporary cemeteries, and various foreign communities. The Huertgen Forest presented the largest concentration of fallen and still missing Americans on the German landscape. For six years (1945-1951), various graves registration teams recovered remains from the Huertgen, which became accessible only after demining teams cleared tons of unexploded ordnance and anti-personnel mines from combat sites. Today, approximately two hundred American soldiers are still missing from combat in the Huertgen Forest. More than one hundred and fifty sets of unidentified remains and unknown soldiers recovered from the forest repose in American military cemeteries. Historians at DPAA are in the midst of a comprehensive study of unresolved Huertgen Forest losses. Their mission is to recover and identify as many of the missing as possible, through field excavations and identification of the unknowns. This paper will explain DPAA's multidisciplinary approach, including archival research in unit records and reports of investigation by the American Graves Registration Command, oral histories, geo-spatial data collection and analysis, and archaeological methodology, to reconstruct the battle, at the smallest level, and find the missing of the Huertgen Forest.
Robyn Rodriguez, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency
Participant's Paper Title: U.S. Graves Registration Behind the Iron Curtain
Participant's Paper Abstract: With the cessation of hostilities in Europe and the transition to peace, the combatant countries began collecting their war dead to be buried honorably. The United States was unique in the great lengths it went to retrieve the remains of its soldiers and repatriate them to U.S. soil. The air war and the German POW camp system expanded the territory in which U.S. service members fell into central and eastern Europe, far beyond the landscape that American troops had marched through and occupied in the race to Berlin at the end of World War II. As the iron curtain descended on Europe, U.S. graves registration teams found themselves having to navigate not only physical obstacles like the dense forests and swamps of Prussia as well as man-made obstacles like minefields but also the political currents of the Cold War. Graves registration operations in central and eastern Europe were dependent on Soviet willingness to grant access to U.S. teams and supply them with a Russian escort. As tensions mounted in 1948 with the Berlin blockade, U.S. graves registration teams lost access to the Soviet-occupied zone in East Germany and Poland. Graves registration in central and eastern Europe provided a means for the U.S. to continue its access to Soviet territory as well as its communications with the USSR.

This paper utilizes records of Quartermaster General and the State Department in the U.S. National Archives as well as Soviet zone and East German records from the Bundesarchiv-Lichterfelde in Berlin to situate American graves registration in the broader context of the Cold War.

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