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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

American Cemetery Grave Adopters

Memorial Day is an American holiday we observe every year on the last Monday of May. On this day we honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Memorial Day 2021 was observed earlier this week, on Monday, May 31.

Memorial Day originated following the American Civil War and was originally known as Decoration Day. It did not become an official federal holiday until 1971. Today, Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting military cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings, and attending patriotic concerts and parades.

With the recent observance of Memorial Day, it seemed like an appropriate time to explore the topic of American military service members buried on foreign soil.

In this and two future posts, I’ll explore the American Cemetery in Margraten grave adoption program, look into why some of our military dead are still buried overseas, and review which members of the Buslee and Brodie crews of the September 28, 1944 mid-air collision are buried there and in which cemeteries.

WWII Genealogist Teresa (Terry) Hirsch recently asked for my assistance. Terry informed me that the adopter of Lt. James Joseph Brodie’s grave at the Netherlands American Cemetery at Margraten wanted to connect with a Brodie family member. (James Brodie, who was killed in the mid-air collision in which my father was involved, is buried in Plot J, Row 13, Grave 4 of the cemetery).

In her research to assist the adopter, Terry ran across one of my posts about James Brodie with a mention of his great-nephew, Larry Miller, and asked if I’d facilitate the connection. I was able to contact Larry and hand off Terry’s contact information. Larry agreed to be connected with the adopter, and by now, I imagine Brodie’s grave adopter has successfully connected with Brodie’s family.

Another happy ending for Terry. Another happy ending for me. We both feel satisfied with a job well done when we can assist in a request regarding a WWII service member.

One thing always seems to lead to another in the world of WWII research, so it got me thinking about all the service members buried overseas. The next-of-kin had the option to bring their deceased family member home at the government’s expense, so why would they leave them buried on foreign soil? Seems I had connected with exactly the right person to answer my question and Terry educated me on the subject.

I’ll get to an in-depth look at the overseas burials in my next post, but first let’s look at the grave adoption program itself. Terry tells me that, at the American Cemetery at Margraten in the Netherlands, “Not only has every grave been adopted since 1945 but there is now a waiting list of 1000 [folks wanting to be adopters]!  The Adoption Foundation closed the list about a year ago as it will take years to get to all of them.”

The adopter of James Brodie’s grave was a new adopter and had only recently received Brodie’s name. Terry said, “each time I encounter a person or story, my faith in humanity is renewed,” and “hearing of this person finally getting a soldier to honor just does my heart good.” I can relate to Terry’s emotional connection to our WWII war dead and the current day adopters who honor them.

Terry also shared an online video the Adoption Foundation produced in 2018 that tells their story from a past, present and future perspective.

Watch on Vimeo here:

* * * * *

Of course, the Netherlands American Cemetery at Margraten is not the only overseas military cemetery dedicated to the war dead. The website of the American Battle Monuments Commission lists many memorials and cemeteries both here and overseas. The site notes,

ABMC administers, operates and maintains 26 permanent American military cemeteries and 32 federal memorials, monuments and markers, which are located in 17 foreign countries, the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the British Dependency of Gibraltar; four of the memorials are located within the United States. These cemeteries and memorials, most of which commemorate the service and sacrifice of Americans who served in World War I and World War II, are among the most beautiful and meticulously maintained shrines in the world.

Not all of the cemeteries have grave adoption programs, but several do. However, Terry notes, “The ones that do exist are not run by one common organization so they differ in signup, ‘responsibilities’, and support.  What the common denominator is they all are with the intention of remembering the soldier buried so far from home.”

Some of the other cemeteries with grave adoption programs are, in France, Lorraine American Cemetery, Epinal American Cemetery, Normandy American Cemetery, and Brittany American Cemetery, and in Belgium, Ardennes American Cemetery, and Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery.

According to Terry, the two things that make Margraten’s grave adoption unique are (1) how early it started, in February 1945, months before the war in Europe ended, and (2) the percentage of those buried and memorialized whose graves are currently adopted, at 100% adopted with 1000 adopters on the waiting list.

More about Teresa Hirsch

Terry’s dad served in WWII with the 11th Army Air Forces in Alaska.  Terry describes him as “the guy who would draw the maps of how/what route to take for their flights. As they didn’t use formations like in Europe it must have been more basic routing.” She adds, “He went up there in the Summer of ’42 and out in Spring ’45.”

Terry has no connection with individual adopters. She helps organizations and individuals find requested information about American service members buried overseas.

Terry takes advantage of the databases and photos provided by the individual WWII bombardment groups on their websites, like those of the 384th and 100th. By the way, the 100th Bomb Group (aka the “Bloody Hundredth”) is the subject of the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg film currently in production based on the Donald Miller book, Masters of the Air.

The group websites are great for sources of photos requested by the cemeteries and adopters. For example, when the Cambridge cemetery staff commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Friendly Invasion in 2017, Terry helped find photos to place at gravesites.

Terry also finds a lot of help from information services of public libraries that were local to the service members’ homes during wartime.

In a March 2018 article, Library Finds Photo for Dutch Gravesite, written by Patricia Ann Speelman and published in the Sidney Daily News (of Sidney, Shelby County, Ohio), I learned that,

The adopters don’t refer to the fallen as soldiers, airmen, sailors or servicemen. The call them liberators. Those 10,000 men and women gave their lives to liberate the Netherlands and the rest of Europe from the Nazis. The Dutch have never taken that sacrifice for granted.

The Sidney Daily News article was triggered by Teresa’s search for Oscar C. Drees, one of three Shelby County soldiers buried at Margraten. The article tells of the successful find of Drees’ photo and gives a lot of insight into the history of and current day activities surrounding the Margraten grave adoptions such as the Faces of Margraten project.

A December 2020 article, Grave Markers of WWII Soldiers from City Now Complete in Netherlands, written by Lori Szepelak and published in The Westfield News (of Westfield, Massachusetts), tells of another successful find of the photograph of Staff Sgt. Arthur E. Wilson of Westfield thanks to Teresa Hirsch.

Note: Don’t ever forget how helpful librarians can be. At Florida’s, the motto is “We are librarians. And we know the answers to questions you didn’t even know to ask.” Thank you Florida Librarians and Librarians everywhere!

And about that title, WWII Genealogist. Terry adopted the title because of her genealogy-type work and the fact that she performs this work only for WWII service members. I think the title fits her perfectly and, in part, fits me pretty well, too. Don’t be surprised to find it added to my next business card – Researcher/Writer/WWII Genealogist. It has a nice ring to it.

Teresa Hirsch, I thank you for your service to our American service members who gave their lives for our freedom during WWII.

And to our grave adopters and others who watch over and care for our American liberators resting at Margraten and elsewhere, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Website Links

American Battle Monuments Commission

Netherlands American Cemetery at Margraten

James J. Brodie Burial Information

On Vimeo: Stichting Adoptie Graven Amerikaanse begraafplaats Margraten

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2021