Sights & sounds of a military funeral in Arlington National Cemetery
Q: My uncle, who was killed in World War II, initially was buried in Henri-Chapelle Cemetery in Belgium before his body was brought back to the U.S. after the war. Is the cemetery still being used or is it just for our men who weren’t brought back? Also, I have one picture in which a cross says “unknown soldier.” I thought dog tags were used to identify GIs.
L.D., of Red Bud
A: Let me turn the tables and ask you a question that might open your eyes as it did mine: Unlike your uncle, how many American servicemen who died during World Wars I and II are still buried in overseas cemeteries? 1,000? 10,000? 100,000?
The answer: Nearly 125,000 now rest in 25 permanent American military cemeteries in 10 foreign countries, including Belgium, France and Tunisia. The identities of about 8,200 are unknown – and that’s still not counting another 94,000 who remain missing in action or lost at sea. The latter’s names have been etched into 27 federal memorials, monuments and markers that have been placed in even more foreign lands, including Morocco and the Solomon Islands.
It’s a global undertaking that is under the purview of the American Battle Monuments Commission, which Congress created in 1923. Its job: to honor the U.S. armed forces where they have served since April 6, 1917, by designing, constructing, and maintaining permanent U.S. military burial grounds, monuments and markers in foreign countries.
Its first chairman was none other than John “Black Jack” Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front during World War I. The commission’s last acquisition came in 2013 when it took control of Clark Veterans Cemetery in the Philippines, which dates back to the Philippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century.
It certainly marked a radical change from the days of the Spanish-American War, when, nearly as soon as the last shot was fired, teams were dispatched to recover the country’s fallen soldiers. It was fitting, the New York Times opined, that the American dead “should be gathered with tender care and restored to home and kindred.”
But as you know, World War I saw death and destruction on a scale never seen before. An estimated 70,000 men were buried in temporary graves, far outnumbering previous efforts to reclaim American soldiers. As a result, Gen. Pershing and others argued that burying servicemen on the battlefield with their fallen comrades offered the greatest glory. Even former President Theodore Roosevelt, who lost his son Quentin when he was shot down over France in July 1918 and buried with full military honors by German troops, agreed.
“To us it is painful and harrowing long after death to move the poor body from which the soul has fled,” he once wrote. “We greatly prefer that Quentin shall continue to lie on the spot where he fell in battle and where the foeman buried him.”
But so many opposed their kin being buried in foreign soil that the U.S. War Department wound up asking every family that lost a member in the war whether they wanted the body shipped home or buried in new American cemeteries overseas. Eventually, the nation spent two years and $400 million (in today’s dollars) to return the remains of 46,000 soldiers to the United States. Fortunately, the families were spared watching the exhumations.
“Out of these holes were being dragged – what?” wrote Owen Wister and diplomat Thomas Nelson Page in a New York Times article of the day. “Boys whom their mothers would recognize? No! Things without shape, at which mothers would collapse.”
To Pershing’s way of thinking, 30,000 families made the wiser choice of letting their men rest where they were initially interred. It was a choice that continued in World War II, when another 93,000 were buried in these foreign graveyards.
Although the reason for their creation is terrible, it resulted in such cemeteries as the 57-acre Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium, where 7,992 American war dead remain buried. Of those, 7,898 are identified with names on their crosses. They died during two major campaigns —the U.S. First Army’s drive in September 1944 through northern France, Belgium and Holland into Germany and the Battle of the Bulge.
Today, you’ll find hundreds of crosses arranged in gentle arcs sweeping across a broad green lawn that slopes gently downhill. To the east is a long colonnade that, along with a chapel and map room, forms a memorial overlooking the burial area. On the rectangular piers of the colonnade are inscribed the names of 450 missing. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified.
“It was from the temporary cemetery at Henri-Chapelle that the first shipments of remains of American war dead were returned to the United States for permanent burial,” the illustrated 32-page visitors booklet notes. “The first shipment of 5,600 American war dead from Henri-Chapelle left Antwerp, Belgium, the first week of October 1947. An impressive ceremony was held, with over 30,000 Belgian citizens attending.”
So, yes, the cemetery contains only the bodies of World War II servicemen whose families chose not to have moved. And it’s not used for any new burials. As for why thousands have not been identified despite the use of dog tags, getting killed in war is often not as “clean” as being felled by a bullet, leaving a body intact. Take this description of identifying the dead after D-Day.
“The scale of D-Day, combined with the destructive power of the weapons in the field, add to the usual fog of war to make accounting difficult,” said Michael Ray, a research editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica. “A body struck by an artillery shell could be, essentially, erased, and that’s just one of the possible fates that faced those who went ashore or jumped into Normandy. Seventy years after the landings, the unidentified remains of soldiers killed in the fighting are still being turned up by farmers and amateur archaeologists.”
To learn more and see pictures of our overseas American military cemeteries, open the Henri-Chapelle visitors booklet as well as other such guides at www.abmc.gov.
What is usually thought to be the world’s longest English isogram?
Answer to Friday’s trivia: After being asked repeatedly what it was like to kiss Marilyn Monroe during a scene in “Some Like It Hot,” actor Tony Curtis finally answered, “Kissing Marilyn was like kissing Hitler.” In the years that followed, Curtis gave two explanations for his answer. In one interview, he said he was so tired of being asked that he just gave a sarcastic answer to be funny; in reality, he said, she was a great kisser. But on a later occasion, he said Monroe was so difficult to work with that he said it out of irritation, according to Garson O’Toole at quoteinvestigator.com.