|"That Could Be Me All Freezing Laying Up There" : US Grave Registration Duty|
|In contrast to the Wehrmacht, the Americans generally left their dead in place to be retrieved by grave registration crews. These crews followed the front line in jeeps, some equipped with trailers. The bodies were taken to a central location, identified by dog tags, and prepared for burial. Personal effects were placed in a small cloth bag and returned to the family after processing through a central location in Kansas City. A Life magazine photo in the Remember Museum shows a row of American bodies awaiting burial with labeled wooden crosses between their legs.
In many circumstances there was simply no body to recover. Both Emil Hansen and Fred Karen emphasized that hundreds of US soldiers disappeared into the Sauer River by Echternach in Feb 1945. Weighted down by heavy equipment and clothing, the men drowned when their flat-bottomed boats capsized in the current or took unobstructed fire from the German-occupied bluffs. Most of these men were never found, but an occasional body would rise to the surface for many months afterward. Emil recounted his father’s great distress at the wristwatches and personal effects tangled in bushes and washed up on the riverbank below their farm. When the waterline dropped in the spring of 1945, Emil’s father would walk along the river removing the heartrending debris: “He never knew what to do with them, but couldn’t just leave them there. It made him very sad. He eventually had a lot of them.”
|159th Combat Engineer Battalion veteran Sam Greenwood described a heartbreaking memory from late winter 1945. The engineers were building a “corduroy road” through knee-deep mud near the German border, laying 12 foot logs side by side to provide a firm surface for vehicles. “One night, a few of us were down there doing something and three trucks came back through there, with each truck pulling a trailer. Each truck and trailer, both, were loaded with American bodies, just like sticks of wood they were laying in there. They’d thrown a rope up over the top of them, over the truck and over the trailer to hold the bodies on. They were bringing them back. They weren’t burying any soldiers in Germany, they were bringing them back to Belgium or Luxembourg to bury them.”
Greenwood continued with deep emotion, “It was a pitiful scene. You’d look in there and see those soldiers and you couldn’t help but think ‘that could be me all freezing laying up there’. Seeing that haunted me even after I got home. I had nightmares of seeing that night. It was a pitiful scene.”
When bodies were recoverable, soldiers assigned to grave registration began their difficult work. Following identification and removal of personal items, the bodies were placed in burial bags dubbed “mattress covers” by the GIs. As a general rule, the remains were not placed in coffins until permanent interment after the war. In Marcel Schmetz’s experience, a military chaplain was always present as the body was lowered into the ground, often in a temporary location. Today, these temporary cemeteries are mostly unmarked and known only to the locals. For example, the original site of Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery (in Belgium) is approximately 1-2 km north of the present location.
Roughly one third of the recovered bodies buried in multiple temporary cemeteries were repatriated to the USA. Next of kin were contacted beginning in 1947 and given the choice of European burial or return to the USA for their loved ones. The remains to be buried in Europe were then disinterred and placed in permanent metal coffins. Fred Karen reports the boxes in the Luxembourg Cemetery were only long enough to contain the leg bones, while Marcel Schmetz remembers the remains at Henri-Chapelle were placed in full-sized coffins. Reburial of these men in permanent American cemeteries was mostly complete by 1949.
Development of architectural plans for each site continued over the next several years, to include a chapel, memorial to those Missing in Action, and a graphic record of battle in that area. Battle of the Bulge casualties from the northern sector were generally buried in the Ardennes and Henri-.Chapelle Cemeteries, while those in the southern sector went to the Hamm American Cemetery in Luxembourg City. Early casualties of the battle (prior to Christmas) also tend to be in the northern cemeteries, as the Luxembourg cemetery was established later. Historical photos of the European American Cemeteries in the late 1940’s reveal a barren treeless landscape, much different from the meticulously maintained monuments today.
Mathilde and Marcel Schmetz have close ties with the 607th Quartermaster Graves Registration unit who served in the Northern Shoulder of the Bulge. In a newspaper interview in the Remember Museum and in conversation with Mathilde, SSgt Vito Mastrangelo reported “it was the smell that stayed with me”. He estimated he handled around 72,000 bodies during his WWII service, and moved some of the remains as many as three different times. A monument to the often unrecognized service of these men hangs on the outside wall of the Remember museum.
To this day, families occasionally desire repatriation of remains to the USA. But a single visit to the European gravesite usually convinces the families that their soldiers are best left with their buddies. Marcel and Mathilde Schmetz help coordinate the adoption of American graves at Henri-Chapelle by Belgium citizens, and faithfully care for twelve graves themselves. Like wise, the US Veterans Friends, Luxembourg, tend the American graves in Hamm American Cemetery. Once a year, every single grave is decorated with a red rose.
A comment during a visit to Belgium in December 2001 reveals the intense emotion felt for these young Americans, buried so far from home. As we shivered in a Christmas blizzard whipping the deserted Henri-Chapelle cemetery, conversation ceased. A fierce wind blew snow down our coats and plastered the 7992 crosses and Stars of David. Mathilde’s voice rose above the wind just before we turned away: “I know it’s crazy,” she whispered, “but sometimes I worry that they’re cold.”