Repatriating the Fallen: American heroes come home

by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
Many times when I look for a story to share, I tend to shy away if it looks like it could be a bit too depressing, but there does come a time when those stories pull at my heartstrings.

As we approach Memorial Day, it seems like an appropriate time to put in perspective what the feelings of our nation were at the end of World War II, and how far our government went to make sure every soldier had the right to come home to family, even if they were dead.

Walking around Lancaster Cemetery, I’m very aware of two soldiers at rest there who were killed in combat in the Pacific. Many times I have stood at those graves to pay my respects but never realized the massive effort it took to repatriate those who had died on foreign shores and what it took just to bring these two heroes home.

Public Law 383, enacted May 16, 1946, authorized the U.S. Army to spend $200 million to repatriate GI’s, Sailors and Marines as well as civilian federal employees who died abroad between Sept. 3, 1939, and June 30, 1946. Most nations buried their casualties where they died. The United States offered next of kin the option of bringing their dead home.

The American dead in World War II numbered around 280,000. When it was all said and done, the families of 171,539 American Soldiers took the government up on their offer and had their loved ones brought home. Those left behind were moved from temporary graves into private cemeteries or national cemeteries overseas, maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. 

At the beginning of the program, it was stated that the Army would not label the remains “cargo,” but as passengers. They were on the passenger list, followed by the word “deceased,” aboard Army Transportation Corps ships that brought the dead from overseas. This status also applied aboard mortuary rail cars. The Army paid the railroads a special reduced fare for each repatriated casualty, and the regular fare for guards and military escorts, as with any troop movement.

Congress gave the Army until Dec. 31, 1951, to finish repatriation, including search, recovery, identification, transport and burial. This global project to return the dead from 86 countries occupied more than 18,000 personnel at its peak and was accomplished on time and under budget.

When all is said and done, it was only two groups that made this all possible when it came to the logistics of this bold project: the United States Army and the American Railroads.

As the remains were loaded aboard ships 8,000 at a time overseas, they would sail to America and arrive at two ports: one in Oakland, Calif., the other in Brooklyn, N.Y.  Each casket was inspected and identity was checked as they were unloaded from the ships. From there, military personnel would send the remains to 15 distribution centers across the country. Local trains would then transport the deceased to local stations, to be handed off to the local mortuary. The deceased were loaded aboard special mortuary rail cars and checked off again against the special passenger lists. At each step in the journey an armed guard accompanied the remains, which were never left outside. 

(Courtesy photo)

In May 1947, the Army Transportation Corps took delivery of 118 specially modified mortuary cars from the American Car and Foundry shops at Wilmington, Del. Equipped with special roller systems and small doors to accommodate the large number of returning caskets, they performed their task perfectly. The escorts that would accompany the remains all the way to the hometown were different from the guards that would ride the train. Together, they were a special lot of individuals that were called upon to help with this massive undertaking. The military required escorts of equal rank and service for each deceased for the journey from the distribution centers to home. For entire trains of mortuary cars, a commissioned officer would be designated a train commander with three to four additional guards assigned.

The Escorts accompanying remains on the final leg of a soldier’s journey had a special role, as the only government representative to have face-to-face contact with the next of kin. Each was picked from a pool of volunteers — many of them combat veterans asked to reenlist specifically for this mission, to assure that someone of the same service branch, race, sex and equal or higher rank accompanied each deceased. Escorts underwent five weeks of training, including advice from psychiatrists on what to expect and how to respond to reactions and questions. A training film produced, called “Your Proudest Duty,” says it all. While traveling with remains, personnel were assigned coach or sleeper space (depending on a trip’s duration) and were forbidden to consume alcohol. The Army initially feared that the escorts’ presence would disturb families but in the end, the escorts were found to be one of the program’s greatest assets.

One aspect of this journey was that the remains would always be covered with an American flag whenever the casket could be seen by the public. The escorts would remove the flag while the casket was in the baggage car and redrape the casket upon arrival at the final destination. Each escort also carried a new flag for the funeral; blank rounds for the graveside firing party, and reimbursement forms for the family and funeral director.

There is so much more to the details of this program that I would like to share that would make us all proud at the way America dealt with this overwhelming task, and how it was done with dignity and respect by all those along the journey of an American soldier coming home for the last time. Mortuary trains were just a part of the effort to repatriate World War II dead, but they were the element most visible to Americans. In an era when passenger train travel was widespread and train stations prominent, these conspicuous funeral cars served as a sobering reminder of the real cost of World War II.  

This coming month, we will once again gather at our cemeteries to honor our fallen dead from all wars. We here in the Antelope Valley have always made it a priority to take a few minutes to pay our respects to those who were lost in defense of our sacred ideals that make up our country. In a small way, we are just another part of a soldier’s long journey home. This Memorial Day, I will visit those two graves at Lancaster Cemetery. I will remember what our nation did to bring these two young men back to rest among the citizens of the town they called home.
Respect …

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