The family received the dreaded telegram beginning, “I deeply regret to inform you...” It would give the date of the death, but nothing about how the death occurred or where the body was. A letter followed with a few more details, including notice that personal effects would be processed and returned, and the Memorial Affairs Branch of the Office of the Quartermaster General would be in touch to learn if they wanted their loved one’s remains returned for burial.
In the case of Tony Marchione, the last American killed in combat in World War II on August 18, 1945, his parents waited for over a year before they could start the process of bringing Tony home.
|Temporary cemetery for Marines in Iwo Jima.|
Several hundred temporary cemeteries were in use during the war. Once the war ended, the dead were brought together in a few large memorial cemeteries in the war theater in which they died. These are maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission in perpetuity. Next of kin could opt to have their loved one buried there, or have the body shipped back to the US.
|A flag-draped casket in the first shipment of war dead.|
In most cases, the bodies could not be viewed. Rarely were they embalmed or placed in caskets. The time and materials necessary to prepare thousands of war dead made that impossible. And they had to be buried quickly to prevent the spread of disease.
Bodies received a quick cleaning and were wrapped in canvas. Rapid decomposition resulted, especially in areas with high temperatures and humidity, and acidic soil.
According to Quartermaster Corps policy, all the dead in temporary cemeteries were disinterred at one time. This could be several hundred or several thousand. Caskets were now on hand in which the badly decomposed skeletal remains were hermetically seal.
|A funeral ship arrives in California Feb. 12, 1948.|
Tony Marchione was first buried on Okinawa. His casket was placed in a shipping case and loaded onto a C-54 transport along with other dead, and they were flown to the US Army mausoleum on Saipan. From there, 4,500 caskets were loaded into a transport ship for Honolulu, and then San Francisco.
The Oakland Army Base was one of fifteen distribution centers for repatriated remains. Tony arrived in the fourteenth funeral ship since the repatriation program began in September of 1947. A memorial service was held for the ship’s “passengers, deceased,” which family and friends of the dead could attend. A bugler ended with Taps.
|Caskets are loaded onto a train for shipment to families.|
Several days later, Tony began the trip across the U.S. His and the remains of eleven others were escorted by a senior noncommissioned officer, who supervised the loading of the caskets on a funeral train. Fifteen Pullman passenger cars with seats removed carried between fifty and sixty-six caskets each, grouped according to the state or region of their final destination. Those cars headed for the Midwest were dropped off at Kansas City while those for the East Coast continued on to New York and the Brooklyn Army Base.
Over the following weeks, the caskets were flagged-draped, driven by ambulance or hearse to the local train station, and sent home. For Tony, that was in Pennsylvania. An official escort accompanied each casket. The Marchiones asked two of Tony’s old crewmates to meet the train in their place. They and the escort followed the hearse taking him to the funeral home specified by his parents. The escort then left, and the mortician performed an examination required by state law and the military release. A public viewing was impossible under Pennsylvania public health laws because the remains were badly decomposed.
On March 21, 1949, nearly four years after his death, Tony Marchione was eulogized in a funeral mass with full military honors and laid to rest in the church’s cemetery.
|Luxembourg American Military Cemetery|
The program for the final disposition of war dead handled more than 280,000 sets of remains. Of those, over 171,000 were returned to the U.S. for final burial. The total cost of the program was over $163 million.
Where would you want a loved one buried, a national cemetery overseas or a local cemetery of your choice?
Black and white photos from Final Disposition of World War II Dead 1945-1951. Color photo by Terri Wangard.
Recommended Reading Last to Die: A Defeated Empire, a Forgotten Mission, and the Last American Killed in World War II by Stephen Harding.