The Ghosts of November:
Chapter Six – Graves Registration

“Let us so live that when we come to die
 Even the undertaker will be sorry.”

Mark Twain

Dr. Steven E. Anders, a physician who serves as the historian for the U.S. Army Quartermaster General, wrote an excellent history of the Quartermaster graves registration mission that appeared in the Quartermaster Professional Bulletin of September 1988. It provides the best chronology of the development of mortuary affairs as it exists in the U.S. Army today.

During the early 1800s, it was the Quartermaster officers, the storekeepers of the Army, who cared for the dead. There wasn’t any regulation assigning them this important job. It apparently became their responsibility because “someone had to do it.”[1]

These officers, assigned to the forts along our young country’s frontier, constructed cemetery plots, buried the dead in marked graves and kept fairly uniform records of burial. This was acceptable, as long as the Army stayed near the fort and was not in some far away region of the territory. The practical experience these officers received and the methods they devised in no way prepared them for the challenge of handling massive combat casualties resulting from large scale conflict. At this point in our nation’s history, its military had not even thought to address a formal policy to react to that contingency.

The Mexican War of 1846 to 1847 changed all of that by providing the Army’s first real test to care for its war dead. To put it bluntly, it failed the test miserably.

General Zachary Taylor ensured the dead were properly collected and buried on the battlefield following his victory at Buena Vista. However, he neglected to mark the site of the graves on his official report. The locations of these long lost makeshift cemeteries containing those Amer4icans who fell at the Battle of Buena Vista have never been found.[2]

During the same war, General Winfield Scott landed troops at Vera Cruz and marched them to Mexico City. Hundreds of American soldiers died and were buried along the march route. Only a few dozen graves were ever located after the war, and none of the remains in them ever were identified.[3]

With the U.S. Civil War came the foundation of the Army’s Graves Registration mission. This one conflict caused more combat casualties and accounted for more battlefield deaths than all the nation’s other major wars combined. The public expressed a greater concern for the soldiers on both sides whom were fighting in this war, perhaps because it was fought where they lived.

While concern for the dead was evident during the Civil War, the methods for burial did not immediately change. The dead, on both sides, were almost always buried by details of soldiers chosen at random. The graves were dug at or very near the scene of battle. After the armies left, the temporary markers identifying the grave sites and remains were left to deteriorate, leaving little chance for family members to locate the exact resting place of loved ones.[4]

Another problem that contributed to the proper identification of remains buried after the battle was that often, prisoners of war made up the burial details. These captured soldiers were somewhat less than motivated to accurately and permanently mark the gravesites of their enemies. Often POWs were illiterate and could not properly mark the graves despite their best intentions. During the fighting at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse, around 1,500 were killed. Fewer than 400 graves were ever identified.[5]

On May 4, 1864, when the Union Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River and entered Virginia, the soldiers were horrified to find the bleached bones of others who wore the blue in battle the year before, lying exposed on the ground. Many of the grief-filled soldiers methodically searched through the remains hoping to discover clues that would provide positive identification of fallen friends.[6]

They searched for marks on clothing and equipment, evidence of fatal wounds and peculiarities of tooth structure during their often futile quests. These methods of identifying the remains of the dead would become part of the standard operating procedures for future graves registration soldiers.

Finally, before moving into the wilderness, the living troops who were concerned about their dead comrades, took time to bury their remains. The fear of being and “unknown soldier” was constantly on the minds of the combat troops during the Civil War. While the War Department had yet to even think about issuing identification tags to its troops, many of them began to carry things on their persons to ensure they would be accurately identified should they fall mortally wounded on the battlefield.[7]

Many soldiers carried identification markers fashioned from wood. Others wore medallions around their necks that bore their names and other identifying information. Prior to attacking the Confederates at Mine Run in the winter of 1863, the men of the Union Army’s Fifth Corps wrote their names on pieces of paper and pinned them to their uniforms. Despite these individual unofficial efforts, the remains of only about 58 percent of the soldiers who died in the Civil War were ever identified.[8]

The U.S. Army establishment of that day did not appreciate the need for some form of permanent identification for combatants, nor did it understand the obvious need for specially trained units and personnel who could properly care for war dead. Only once during the Civil War, after the Battle of Fort Stevens, outside Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1864, did a group similar to the modern mortuary services company come into being.

Captain James M. Moore, the newly appointed commander of the Quartermaster Cemeterial Division took a group of his personnel to the site of the fighting after the battle ended. For the first time in history, Moore’s team systematically searched for and recorded the remains and personal effects of fallen soldiers and was able to identify everyone that had been killed.[9]

While it took decades for subsequent graves registration units to match the accomplishment of Captain Moore’s team, the Civil War did motivate the Army to clearly designate the Quartermaster Corps as the official entity responsible for caring for war dead. Between 1866 and 1870, the Cemeterial Division transferred the remains of almost 300,000 soldiers to 73 newly created national cemeteries.[10]

Almost three-and-a-half decades after the Civil War, during the Spanish American War, Graves Registration was to become more professional. As a result of experiences in Cuba, it was determined that successful identification of remains depended mostly on shortening the time span between death, original burial and registration of graves.[11]

Chaplain Charles C. Pierce, who established the Quartermaster Office of Identification in the Philippines, formalized some of the basic principles and techniques needed to identify war dead. He recommended that soldiers wear an “identity disc,” and he supported the establishment of collection points where mortuary records could be gathered, filed, checked and corrected.[12]

In 1913, new regulations established a firm commitment by the U.S. Army to identify and bury all war dead. The regulations required filing detailed maps of all gravesites at the time of the initial burial to make the process of disinterment more efficient. By 1917, the War Department required all combat soldiers to wear identification (dog) tags.[13]

General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing requested establishment of the first Graves Registration (GRREG) Service during World War I. Chaplain Pierce, by then long retired from active military service, was recalled to duty two decades after his establishment of the Office of Identification in Manila, Philippines.[14]

His job was to train GRREG troops and units at the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot. By October 1917, Pierce’s headquarters was moved to Tours, France, from where 19 Quartermaster GRREG companies were dispatched to every sector of the combat zone.

While the headquarters of the Graves Registration Service consolidated and preserved mortuary records and maintained cemeteries at the rear of the battlefield, the GRREG companies supported the troops on the line. The dedication and espirit de corps of these soldiers, whose mission was to care for those comrades who had eternally lost their capability to soldier any longer was extraordinary. These men often took incredibly dangerous risks in their efforts to ensure proper identification of fellow soldiers who had fallen. General Pershing wrote about one unit in the spring of 1918:

They began their work under heavy shell fire and gas, and, although troops were in dugouts, these men immediately went to the cemetery and in order to preserve records and locations, repaired and erected new crosses as fast as the old ones were blown down. They also completed extension of the cemetery, this work occupying a period of one-and-a-half hours, during which time shells were falling continuously and they were subject to mustard gas. They gathered many bodies which at first had been in the hands of the Germans and were later retaken by American Counterattacks. Identification was especially difficult, all papers and tags have been removed, and most of the bodies, being in terrible condition beyond recognition.[15]

During World War I, the relatives of fallen U.S. servicemen agreed to have the remains of their loved ones interned in the country where they had fallen. President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged this alternative by requesting that his son, Quentin, be buried near the ground where he was killed. “Where the tree falls, let it lie,” were the poetic words Roosevelt used as did many other grieving American families.[16]

Eight cemeteries had been established in Europe by the end of World War I. Six were in France, one in Belgium and one in Britain. Approximately 30,000 of America’s dead from that war are buried in those cemeteries. More than 47,000 bodies were returned to the United States for reburial at the conclusion of World War I.[17]

During that war, the percentage of unknown remains was around three per 100 bodies recovered. This still was not acceptable to the families of nearly 2,400 men who perished in The Great War and were never identified. But graves registration was becoming more scientific and systematized. Future conflict would challenge the talents, perseverance and ingenuity of the GRREG personnel in ways they never have been challenged.

More than 250,000 Americans died and were buried in temporary cemeteries around the globe during World War II. On the continent of Europe alone, the remains were interned in over a million-and-a-half square miles making the recovery process extremely difficult. Newer and more devastating weapons often made those killed in combat unrecognizable.[18]

A graves registration company in World War II consisted of 260 enlisted men and five officers to support three combat divisions. One platoon was assigned to each division, and each platoon had two sections, a collecting squad and an evacuation squad. These companies collected, evacuated, identified and supervised the burial of the dead. They also collected and properly disposed of personal effects and selected sites for temporary cemeteries.[19]

The work performed by the GRREG teams in World War II was just as stressful and hazardous as that done by their predecessors in World War I, if not more so. During the fierce battle for Anzio, graves registration soldiers were forced to take shelter in freshly dug graves.[20]

During the D-Day invasion, men from the GRREG Company who were with the First Army, gathered bodies from the beaches, ocean and inland, actually extricating them from submerged landing craft. By the end of the second day of the invasion, one platoon had buried 437 dead American servicemen.

After World War II, most graves registration units were disbanded and most overseas GRREG services ceased to exist. This created an enormous problem in June of 1950, when war broke out in Korea. Only the 108th Graves Registration Platoon in Yokohama, Japan was available to deploy to Korea during the emergency buildup. The platoon consisted of 30 men, most of who were without combat experience.[21]

Other GRREG personnel were rounded up from the 565th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Five men were attached to the three combat divisions deployed to Korea, the 24th 25th and 1st Cavalry. They were ill-supplied. The fluid tactical situation made recovery of remains extremely difficult. A centrally located Army cemetery could not be set up, so separate divisional-level cemeteries were established instead[22]

By the fall of 1950, these cemeteries were forced to be closed down due to a renewed and intense communist offensive. The dead were then evacuated to more secure rear areas and then sent to Japan for subsequent processing and shipment to the United States.

This was the first time in American history that a mass evacuation of combat dead took place while hostilities were still being conducted. By the end of January 1951, nearly 5000 bodies had been removed from temporary cemeteries in Korea to a newly formed central identification unit (CIU) in Japan.

By mid-1951, this had become standard operating procedure. A 72-acre United Nations was opened in Tanggok, Korea, along with the Eighth Army’s Central Identification Laboratory. During the last two years of the conflict, refrigerated railroad cars transported remains from forward collecting points to Tanggok. A pattern developed that had the bodies of the US Korean War dead recovered and returned to the USA within 30 days.

The Vietnam War was America’s’ longest conflict and the proficiency of the army’s GRREG units improved considerably when compared to their performance in all prior wars. This war had less unaccounted for dead. Helicopters allowed remains to be evacuated from the battlefield in a matter of minutes, rather than in many hours or days.

Combat units became responsible for initial recovery. Two well-equipped mortuaries were established in Vietnam, one in Da Nang in the north and one in Tan Son Nhut near Saigon in the south. Positive identifications were made in these facilities using new laboratory methods along with fingerprint and dental comparisons.[23]

By the end of the war in Indochina, only 28 bodies of American soldiers remained unidentified. By 1984, the remains of but one serviceman continued to be classified as “unknown.” On Memorial Day of the year, the remains were interned at the “Tomb of the Unknowns” at Arlington National Cemetery.[24]

Fourteen years later, in 1998, the identification process had become so accurate and sophisticated that positive identification of this Vietnam War unknown soldier was made through DNA testing. The now-identified Air Force pilot’s remains were returned to his hometown for burial.[25]

More recently, U.S. Army mortuary specialists have served humanity and their fellow soldiers in Somalia and Bosnia as well as both Iraq wars and Afghanistan. As wars and rumors of wars continue to persist, the special services of these very unique men and women remain in demand.

The U.S. Army Mortuary Affairs Center at Fort Lee, Virginia is Once again busy training new 92-Mikes, the Military Occupational Specialty assigned to mortuary affairs specialists. The center trains more than 250 soldiers a year to become mortuary specialists and provides professional training and continuing education to NCOs and officers who have already been working in the mortuary field.

The 54th Quartermaster Company of Fort Lee, Virginia provides the mortuary affairs teams operating in the southeast Asian countries of Iraq and Afghanistan. Virtually all of the American military casualties from that theater of operations, are flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the same mortuary that the 913 Jonestown dead were taken to.

The mortuary section from the 16th Field Services Company of the 240th Quartermaster Battalion, from Fort Lee had the mission to assist in the identification of the Jonestown dead. The team consisted of 12 enlisted personnel and one officer. They were augmented by mortuary sections from Fort Bliss, Texas and Fort McClellen, Alabama. Mortuary services specialists from the FBI, State Department and all the other military services rounded out the quickly formed task force. They worked for a week and identified approximately half of the remains. Infants and children represented the majority of those bodies the task force could not identify.[26]

The three dozen or so men and women soldiers who made up the GRREG team deployed to Guyana were also from Fort Lee. When they went to Jonestown, they were operating according to procedures found in the U.S. Army Field Manual 10-63-1, entitled Graves Registration Handbook. This now obsolete publication was last issued in July 1986.

The Joint Humanitarian Task Force to Guyana was the largest recovery operation ever performed by GRREG troops. Eighteen months prior to this mission, the remains of around 530 civilians who perished in a horrible airplane crash at Teneriffe in the Canary Islands were collected, processed, identified and evacuated by some of these same 92-Mikes. Jonestown represented a challenge about twice as large and much more physically daunting than the one they faced in the Canary Island disaster.[27]

Tommy Boulier, Director of the Mortuary Affairs Center at Fort Lee, has written an accurate description of the Mortuary Specialists (92M):

92Ms are often thought of as cold and unemotional. They are human though, with feelings and emotions like everyone else. But they can’t die with each remains that they handle. Often they hide their true feelings, just to get through the day. Inside are scars and wounds, invisible to the eye, silent grief to be dealt with on a personal level on another day. These wounds often go untreated because it isn’t macho to say it bothers them.[28]

From 1988 to 1991, actor Michael Boatman played Graves Registration Specialist Samuel Beckett, on ABC’s celebrated television series, China Beach. The show was about the lives of service men and women working in a field hospital near Da Nang during the Vietnam War. Beckett was the first graves registration specialist to be portrayed in a television series.

I was a medic in Vietnam, not all that far from Da Nang. I worked for over a year in an evacuation hospital and I saw more than my share of death. But the humanitarian mission to Guyana in 1978, was the only time in a 20 year military career, that I had a chance to associate with graves registration (mortuary) specialists and observe them closely during the performance of their work. They were not like Beckett.

The men and women in Jonestown and at the Timheri Airport near Georgetown were not as serious and solemn as Beckett. While they performed the gruesome tasks that faced them with efficiency and professionalism, they exhibited wry and quick senses of humor. Yet they remained respectful of the remains they were responsible for. They brought honor to the jobs they performed.

Of course, Jonestown was a mass death scene of unduplicated proportions. The events that happened there occurred in an extremely hot tropical climate that in and of itself caused all sorts of complications and created the potential for many other serious problems that fortunately never materialized.

In the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology’s Oral History Program, oral surgeon, Colonel Kenton Hartman stated, “…those 913 sets of remains deteriorated very rapidly in that tropical climate. So removing the bodies and bringing them back to Dover… was a massive relocation effort.”[29]

“It took a lot of Air Force personnel and Army people to recover the bodies and transport them up here. The remains were in just unbelievable degenerative condition. They had completely skeletonized some sets of remains… in a period of one week. You could take a skull, for example, and just literally wipe the flesh right off of it. It had turned to a paste-like compound. It looked like mud.

“The odor was just horrendous. There was no way to control the odor. People working with this disaster not only had an overwhelming psychological difficulty of facing that many dead people, but the condition of the remains.”[30]

Hartman, who worked with the GRREG team at Dover Air Force Base, went on to report about the maggot problem. “There were maggots just crawling out of all these bodies. And out of frustration, some people went out and bought 50 pound bags of slaked lime, the type you put in outdoor johns, and they would throw it on the body… We found out about it and put a stop to it, because its been our policy, we always do full body x-rays as well as dental x-rays on every set of remains. That slaked lime just wiped out the radiographic image; you couldn’t take x-rays of these bodies. So they stopped doing that.

“Other people took fuel oil from the diesel engines, and poured fuel over them, to try to keep the maggot population down. Nothing worked. Eventually, people became conditioned after a couple of days, and just literally gutted it out and were able to complete the operation.”[31]

In Guyana, it was a tribute to the leadership skills of the NCOs who led the various participants in the task force and to the physical conditioning of those soldiers assigned to this repugnant mission, that only one member experienced a minor injury. They demonstrated a mental strength as well, accomplishing an ugly assignment without any noticeable residual damage to their bodies or psyches. Undoubtedly, for many members of the task force who were not trained mortuary specialists, the nine days in Jonestown left lasting psychological scars.

While I will tell you some rather bizarre stories in later chapters, I won’t comment on the overall psychological health of the members of the GRREG team, except to say, they seem to be very special people to be able to do what they do.

The GRREG soldiers did exhibit what many would characterize as “sick” senses of humor. To a normal person, their actions may seem macabre and grotesque, but they only mirrored the environment they were working in.

David Granirer is a speaker, trainer, therapist and comic from Vancouver, Canada. He teaches workers how to manage stress through humor. Laughter and frivolity can help people cope.[32]

I do not think I will ever forget the GRREG soldiers who had the task of bringing the residents of Jonestown home. This book has been written to honor their service to humanity and the honorable, yet humor-filled way they accomplished it.


[1] Steven E. Anders, M.D., “With All Due Honors: A History of the Graves Registration Mission,” Quartermaster Professional Bulletin, September 1988.

[2] Anders.

[3] Anders.

[4] Florence Cannon, “Our Honored Dead,” The Quartermaster Review, May-June 1952.

[5] Anders.

[6] Anders.

[7] Cannon.

[8] CPT Richard W. Wooley, “A Short History of Identification Tags,” Quartermasters Professional Bulletin, December 1988.

[9] Anders.

[10] Anders.

[11] Cannon.

[12] Anders.

[13] Wooley.

[14] Anders.

[15] Anders.

[16] Anders.

[17] Cannon; MAJ William R. White, “Our Soldier Dead,” Quartermaster Review, May-June 1930.

[18] Anders.

[19] Anders.

[20] Anders.

[21] Anders.

[22] Anders; COL John D. Martin, “Homeward Bound,” Quartermaster Review, May-June 1954.

[23] Mortuary Affairs Activities, Republic of Vietnam, retrieved from, July 10, 2004 (Editor’s note: This URL was defunct in November 2018); Anders.

[24] Anders.

[25] U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum, “Duty to the Fallen: The Army’s Mortuary Mission,” retrieved from, July 10, 2004 (Editor’s note: This URL was defunct in November 2018).

[26] Armed Forces Institute of Pathology Oral History Program, Subject: Dr. Richard Froede, Interviewer: Charles Stuart Kennedy, October 27, 1994.

[27] Frank Wright and Maria Russo, “16th Field Services Company Helps Identify Bodies.”

[28] U.S. Army Mortuary Affairs Center, Home Page, retrieved April 21, 2004 from

[29] Armed Forces Institute of Pathology Oral History Program, Subject: Colonel Kenneth Hartman, DDS, Interviewer: Charles Stuart Kennedy, October 27, 1994.

[30] Hartman interview.

[31] Hartman interview.

[32] David Granirer, Humor in the Workplace speaker, retrieved from on July 11, 2004 (Editor’s note: This website was defunct in November 2018).