Scenes of flag-draped coffins holding the remains of fifty American soldiers filled the news channels this week. The remains came from the Korean War, a war that ended sixty years ago. We hold our breath, not wanting to celebrate too soon, not wanting to find out that the remains may not be valid. We hope soon a few of the families who have waited so long to see their sons and brothers and fathers return can rest.
Bringing soldiers home from battlefronts across the globe has never been easy. In World War I, soldiers who fell in the line of duty might be buried more than once—first in small, hastily constructed temporary cemeteries or mass graves, later in land set aside for permanent memorials to the fallen. After the war, the government sent ballots to 80,000 American families to ask whether they chose to leave their family members’ remains in Europe or have them returned. Over half requested the return of their loved ones, setting the precedent for future wars.
After World War II, America had to come to terms with over 350,000 dead soldiers, buried not just in Europe but around the world. The effort to return World War II dead took six years. And yet, even today, nearly seventy-five years after the war, remains of more soldiers come home. In 2017, with advances in forensics, the military identified three soldiers killed during the 1943 Battle of Tarawa. Remains of U.S. Marine Corps Corporal Raymond A. Barker, Marine Corps Sergeant David Quinn, and Thomas J. Murphy, a Navy pharmacist mate assigned to the Marines, were repatriated in May 2018. Remains of another casualty of Tarawa, Marine Private First Class Lyle E. Charpilloz, were returned and buried in April. Despite scientific advances, however, remains of over 70,000 soldiers from the Second World War have not been found or returned.
During the Korean War, the dead were carried from the front and returned home even while hostilities continued. In the Vietnam War, soldiers’ remains came home, often within a week.
Though never a substitute for returning home alive, today, in Iraq, Iran, Syria and elsewhere, America’s dead are brought back to their families in days.
This week’s event has particular relevance to me as my upcoming book about World War II veterans includes the story of Francis D. “Pete” Peterson. Pete was instrumental in establishing a number of temporary cemeteries in Europe. While he had the unenviable job of recovering and identifying soldiers’ remains immediately after the battle, he insisted on giving the fallen the respect they deserved.
Photo from ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/International/journey-home-underway-remains-us-soldiers-killed-korean/story?id=56957729