Tag Archives: U.S. history

Bringing Home the WWII Dead

After the end of World War II, the first shipment of the remains of U.S. military dead arrived in the United States in October 1947. Congress had authorized the U.S. Army to spend $200 million bringing back the dead of all the armed forces as well as civilian federal employees. As I mentioned last week, families had the option of having their loved ones buried in cemeteries overseas, which is also where those remains that could not be identified were buried (except for one that was returned to be buried in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington). The majority of families, however, wanted their loved ones brought home.

The army stationed people at military terminals located in two U.S. ports—Oakland, California, and Brooklyn, New York—to coordinate the unloading of the ships and the routing of remains by rail to fifteen distribution centers across the country. The army used its own fleet of mortuary cars, converted primarily from wartime hospital cars.

The military made every effort to treat the fallen with dignity. The remains of soldiers, sailors, and marines were not listed or handled as cargo; they were considered passengers. Military guards, who were recruited from regular troops, accompanied every train.

Once the remains reached the intended distribution center, they either went by hearse to the final location, if it was close enough, or on a passenger train, following the same procedures that railroads used for normal shipments of human remains.

Each of the dead had a military escort, who would be from the same service branch and of the same rank, sex, and race as the deceased. These escorts were not the same personnel as the troops who worked as train guards. The escorts were the only members of the military to interact personally with the loved ones of the fallen, so they went through five weeks of training on what to expect, how to answer questions, and what emotional and psychological reactions they might encounter. Some of their duties included:

  • Making sure no caskets were lost
  • Ensuring that railroad personnel handled the caskets with dignity
  • Verifying locations and identities
  • Seeing that the caskets were draped with flags whenever they were in public view
  • Carrying a new flag for the funeral, blank ammunition rounds for graveside salutes, and reimbursement forms for the funeral expenses

By the time the army had finished repatriating all of the World War II dead, remains of personnel fallen during the Korean War had begun to arrive in Oakland, thus extending the program a few more years.

Source: Murrie, James I. and Naomi Jeffery Petersen. (February 2018). Last Train Home. History Net. Accessed November 17, 2021 from https://www.historynet.com/last-train-home.htm

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Filed under American history, Historical fiction, Research

Twenty Years After 9-11

I’ve never posted this poem here, but today seems an appropriate day. I wrote it when my brother Keith was serving as a civilian contractor, driving trucks in Iraq, and he told me they weren’t allowed to stop when people ran in the road because of the threat of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Please note that what happens to the trucker in the poem is something that I imagined, not that my brother experienced. Keith died last December of COVID-19, so now for me personally, this poem relates to two of the great tragedies in our country’s recent history.

Fatal Impacts

I. The Fireman

He never knows what wakes him—

the click of the furnace,

the dull scrape of a snowplow in the street,

his wife’s soft sigh—

but once awakened, he hears explosions,

the loud percussive impact of a body hitting street,

bursting in a wet and heavy instant

like a monstrous water balloon

or a dropped melon.

Like a repeating loop of newsreel,

he sees them jump from the towering pyre

and try to keep on running,

arms pumping, legs striding through the smoky sky

as they plummet to eternity.

And he who could not save them,

nor the comrades lost in the Twin Towers’ fall,

keeps faith by living with the burden of memory—

the smell of burning flesh and fuel

the acrid taste of powdered concrete—

and waits for it to crush him

so he can join the others.

II. The Trucker

The snores are loud in a tent of 40 men,

shaking him from sleep

just as the roar of jet engines

must have vibrated the tower windows

right before the impact.

Eighteen hours he drove that day,

hauling steak, detergent, and stacks of mail

to an army base near Fallujah.

As he returned,

a barefoot boy in dirty clothes,

scrambled over the gravel shoulder

and onto the single-lane highway.

The boy held out his hands before him

in the universal gesture for “Stop”

and squeezed shut his eyes.

Following orders,

the convoy neither slowed nor turned

but drove straight forward to avoid ambush.

His was the truck that hit the slender body,

the initial thud of impact

followed by a bump as he ran over a yielding mass,

each set of wheels encountering less and less of a barrier.

Now he lies on his cot, trying not to shudder,

and tells himself the boy would have grown to be a terrorist,

so that killing him was like squashing a baby scorpion.

Above the snores of his tent mates,

comes the high-pitched hum of an overworked heater.

And hearing its whine, he imagines

that somewhere in the desert,

a brother or uncle or cousin

wails over a broken body

and vows jihad.

Copyright: Ruth Hull Chatlien. May not be reprinted or published without the author’s written permission.

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