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American Military Overseas Burials

Last week I introduced you to Teresa (Terry) Hirsch, WWII Genealogist. During her immersion into World War II history, Terry has taken two Battle of the Bulge tours (both in December to get a real feel for the December 16, 1944 to January 25, 1945 campaign) and two D-Day (June 6, 1944) anniversary (the 60th and 65th) tours. I haven’t asked her, but I imagine Terry sometimes feels like a time traveler, as do I, transporting mentally and emotionally back and forth between the WWII 1940’s and current day on a regular basis.

In my research of the war and of those killed in action (or non-combat causes) while serving their country, I was aware that many of our service members remain to this day buried on foreign soil, but I was not knowledgeable as to why. Terry, who does some public speaking, created a “Why are They Buried There?” presentation to share her knowledge, obtained through six years of research and interviews, to answer this question and cover the American military cemeteries in Europe. The answer is not as simple as it seems, and certainly not because relatives could not afford to or care enough to bring them home.

As Terry informed me, the bottom line is that every soldier is buried just where the Next-of-kin asked for him to be buried, either directly or indirectly.

The Next-of-kin of the deceased service member was given four choices for their final resting place. Between the “Disposition of World War II Armed Forces Dead” booklet published by the War Department in 1946 and provided to a service member’s family, along with Terry’s help in understanding these choices, here are the four options given to Next-of-kin. The options fall into two main groupings, with two options in each group.

U.S. Choices – Repatriated to the U.S.

  • A National Cemetery in the U.S. The remains be returned to the United States for final interment in a national cemetery. The U.S. government was responsible for all planning and bore all expenses. The only thing the family had to do was attend the funeral, and that was optional. Teresa notes that although the service member would be buried in America and at no cost whatsoever to the family, the cemetery, which was chosen by the government, might not be convenient to the family for visiting the gravesite, and the timing of everything was all up to the government, which did not ask for input or rearrange timing due to a family scheduling conflict. [The booklet notes that the national cemetery would be selected by the Next-of-kin, however, if the selected cemetery was no longer open for burials at the time the request was received back at the War Department, another selection would be required].
  • A Family/Home Cemetery in the U.S. The remains be returned to the United States, or any possession or territory there-of, for interment by next of kin in a private cemetery. Like the choice of a national cemetery in the U.S., the U.S. government was responsible for all planning and bore all expenses up to and including transportation of the casket/remains to the railroad station closest to where the funeral was to be held. At that point the family took over planning and could have it as minimalist or with as much pomp as they want. The government provided a flat stipend to offset costs. If more than the stipend, the family paid that amount out of their pocket. Teresa notes the example: the grave marker is provided by the U.S. government, the standard plaque, which is never included in determining the stipend. If the family wants bible passages, personal inscriptions (brother, dad, son), or to have his name engraved on the family obelisk, and the cost is over the stipend, the family paid.

Overseas Choices – Buried in Europe

  • American Military Cemetery Overseas. The remains be interred in a permanent American military cemetery overseas. There were two basic reasons for the overseas burials, by design or by default.
    • By Design, because the family requested it, and there were several reasons for the request.
      • The service member requested it. Teresa notes as an example, the service member told his brother, dad, wife, etc., that if he doesn’t make it home, to bury him with his buddies, men, or country he fought in. Thus they are honoring his final request.
      • For the sake of the family. Teresa notes the difficulty for the service member’s children, younger siblings, and elderly parents not being able to go through or restart the mourning process. In Europe, American service members were dying as early as 1942. The earliest the U.S. government was able to return remains home for burial was late 1946 and continued until late 1950. Many families had already had memorial services as soon as they learned of the son’s death. Teresa has had children of soldiers tell her this.
      • Unfounded rumors. Teresa notes that families heard rumors that rocks, German soldiers, or a different U.S. serviceman was in the casket sent home. They believed the Graves Registration team didn’t care or were bad at their job. Teresa adds, know that the Graves Registration team did their job as well as all the other airmen, soldiers, and sailors did theirs and this belief was not deserved. Teresa also notes that one source tells that the team had to be one hundred percent sure it was the family’s service member or else that service member was not identified.  Not ninety or ninety-five percent, one hundred percent sure. Once a Next-of-kin believed this type of rumor, it was next to impossible to dislodge. [Note: the booklet does include an extended discussion regarding the identity of the deceased.]
    • By Default, because the Next-of-kin never replied despite many attempts to reach them. Teresa mentions the War Department tried many times to directly contact the Next-of-kin, and they also used the ‘social media’ of the day. There were articles placed in newspapers around the country that asked about the service member in question. They provided his name, his Next-of-kin and the last address they had. They then asked readers for their help in contacting the family.
  • Family Country. The remains be shipped within, or returned to a foreign country, the homeland of the deceased or next of kin, for interment by next of kin in a private cemetery. If the service member or one of his parents were native to a country in Europe, the family could request he be buried there, either in one of the large American military cemeteries or the family could plan a burial in their family village. Teresa notes that six families requested their service member be buried in Poland, but  Poland’s new government never gave their approval nor their disapproval, thus the six were buried at one of the two American cemeteries in Belgium.

Aside from the above four options, the War Department provided for an,

Alternate Choice. The Next-of-kin was also given the option of an Alternate Choice, which meant that if none of the above options provided for their wish, they could submit their specific desire to the Office of the Quartermaster General for final decision by the War Department.

Thanks to Teresa Hirsch, I have a much better understanding of the Next-of-kin’s choices and reasons why WWII deceased service members were buried where they were.

This leads me to my next task of reviewing where the airmen serving with the Buslee and Brodie crews of the 384th Bomb Group are buried. Stay tuned for a look at that information in a couple of weeks.


Teresa Hirsch, WWII Genealogist

Pamphlet: Disposition of World War II Armed Forces Dead

Website: American Battle Monuments Commission

Previous post in this series

American Cemetery Grave Adopters

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2021

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