The WWII Burial Program

[6/3/2023 revised WWI death statistics in third paragraph] Every Memorial Day Americans pay their respects at the graves of veterans and loved ones in well-kept cemeteries decorated with flags and flowers. Most are unaware of the history that brought over one hundred seventy thousand dead servicemen home from the far-flung battlefields and seas of the Second World War. In the fall of 1945, the U. S. Congress approved a program unprecedented in size, challenge, and cost to recover and return the war dead home. They would arrive in flag-draped, hermetically sealed caskets that – like the manicured cemetery grounds today – belied a complicated process that ranged from unimaginably gruesome to meticulously detailed to get them to their final resting place.

With the sudden entry of the U. S. into the war in December 1941, the War Department ordered that no bodies would be shipped home until the war was over to focus all shipping resources on the war effort itself. Army Graves Registration units were assigned the horrific wartime task of collecting dead bodies from battlefields, shrouding them in materials at hand, and carrying the remains to nearby temporary cemeteries. Wooden crosses and mounded dirt marked the graves. Bodies of servicemen killed behind enemy lines had to be left until hostilities ceased. Fiercely contested battle zones were carpeted with the dead: 2,500 Americans died in the D-Day invasion of Normandy along with nearly 2,000 other Allies. Movies and history books don’t follow the units who followed behind the heroic battles, collecting bloody, bloated bodies, recording dog tag numbers, carrying litters, and lowering each one by ropes into a grave.

Identification and disposition of the dead during wartime has always been a daunting challenge. During the Civil War Congress ordered a national cemetery system to operate under the Army Quartermaster General, which authorized cemeteries but did not yet have a system for identifying bodies or burying them. Many Civil War dead remained on battlefields until after the war when the army collected the dead, only 60 percent of whom could be identified. In 1898 during the Spanish American War the army introduced systems for physical identification and wartime burial and followed with postwar exhumation by contracted civilian morticians and burial corps. In 1912 the Army Quartermaster Corps replaced the civilian burial corps, and the Graves Registration Service was established in 1917 when the U. S. entered WWI to record and supervise temporary burials in Europe. Military chaplains conducted battlefield graveside services and recorded casualty data. Army-issued dog tags became standard issue in WWI raising the identification rate to 97 percent. Of the 116,516 American WWI dead, the Veterans Administration fact sheet lists 53,402 battle deaths and 63,114 other non-theater deaths during the war (some 45,000 died of influenza). Postwar Graves Registration Units collected and reinterred the battlefield dead in temporary cemeteries awaiting final disposition according to family wishes. In 1921, a single unidentified soldier was interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. Most were laid to their final rest in one of eight permanent U. S. cemeteries in western Europe, created and managed the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). The ABMC marks its 100th anniversary this year, and now oversees 26 permanent U. S. cemeteries abroad and 32 federal memorials to remember and honor America’s war dead.

The size and global scope of WWII brought enormous challenges to the decision to repatriate the dead. Congress allocated $190 million to the postwar burial program ($3.2 billion in 2023 dollars) to cover disinterment, transfer to one of ten processing stations for identity confirmation, casket construction and storage of identified remains, contact with next of kin for burial wishes, transportation, and final interment in U. S. cemeteries abroad or repatriation to the mainland to national cemeteries or for private, family-funded burials. The unidentified and comingled group remains went to Central Identification Labs for further study. In 1948-49 anthropologist Mildred Trotter worked in one lab at the Schofield Barracks Mausoleum #2 on Oahu where teams laid out and attempted to segregate intermingled skeletal remains, took fingerprints where possible, and created dental charts to determine or estimate race, sex, age, height, and weight. Detailed reports went to a Board of Review which attempted to match the data with known records of personnel lost at specific locations. The remains recovered from Wake Island’s graves were processed at this lab. A handful of bodies were identified by personal effects and, in one case, an individually marked grave. Despite valiant efforts, the intermingled bodies and bones from the three group graves that were unable to be separated and identified were ultimately interred under the massive bronze plaque at Group Burial 4568 in Punchbowl Cemetery on Oahu.

Decades later, DNA technology has enabled accurate identification to a degree previously inconceivable. The Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) was utilizing genetic testing on remains from at least 2011 when I first contacted them about remains uncovered on Wake in June of that year. Over twelve years (JPAC was succeeded by the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency in 2015) – I was able to find seventy family members of the ninety-eight massacre victims to provide family DNA reference samples. While no positive IDs were made, it was an honor to be a part of this vital work. In 2021 DPAA and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System concluded a remarkable mission on the comingled remains from the U. S. S. Oklahoma that went down on December 7, 1941, in Pearl Harbor. Of the crew of 1,200 on board that day, 429 were entombed in the sunken ship. Salvage was delayed until 1943 when the ship was finally righted, drained, and remains recovered and buried in 52 graves marked unknown. A subsequent exhumation rendered 35 positive IDs, but again the unknowns were reinterred. In 2015 DPAA-AFMES conducted a full-scale reexamination based on new DNA technology and of the remaining 394, 346 were positively identified.

In late October 1947 the first of the WWII dead were returned home under the burial program by army transport ships. The Honda Knot, bearing the caskets of 3,028 from Pearl Harbor arrived in San Francisco Bay and the Joseph V. Connolly entered New York harbor with 6,248 war dead from Europe. Military escorts attended both arrivals and hundreds of thousands gathered to pay their respects at the solemn ceremonies. Ultimately nine converted transports were pressed into mortuary service and over the coming four years army personnel met the incoming ships, unloaded the flag-draped steel caskets onto special rail cars destined for major urban hubs across the nation. According to family wishes the caskets were then dispersed by regional or local rail lines to national cemeteries or to hometowns for private burial, each one accompanied by a service member to its final destination. It is likely that a cemetery near you contains a grave made possible by this great effort.

Colley, David P. Safely Rest (Penguin, 2004)


  1. Are the Morrison-Knudson civilian workers that were unidentified, co-mingled with the military in the grave at Punchbowl? I know there is a separate monument there with their names but never have seen whether or not they are buried there.

    • Hi Dan, yes the unidentified civilian dead of Wake Island are also interred in the mass grave in the Punchbowl cemetery and their names, including your great grandfather, Frank Cerny, who was killed on December 9, 1941, in the Battle for Wake, are listed on the plaque. We are grateful to your family for providing a DNA reference sample in 2012 and hope one day his remains can be identified and repatriated. Frank and his son Harry, your grandfather, were among very few father-son pairs on Wake.

  2. What a great recap of a little-known state of affairs!

    • Thanks, Alan, and thank you for helping me search for relatives of civilians who died on Wake Island. Your relative, William Miles, who died of illness in the summer of 1942, was the only individually identified grave on the island.

  3. Such a beautiful tribute!