RENDERING A FINAL SALUTE
Out of respect and due to the sensitivity of this article,
the names, dates, and hometowns of the soldiers' remains whom
I escorted in the years 1947, 1948 and 1949 shall remain anonymous.
During this lengthy tour of duty, I kept a record of each of
my assignments with the soldier's name, rank, serial number,
unit, date and place of death; in addition to the Graves Registration
Control number of the soldier's remains. During my three years
as a Military Escort at military funerals, I witnessed every
conceivable emotion possible, from heart wrenching pathos to
disgust with human behavior; with majority falling somewhere
in between. More often as not, many of the families were honestly
grief stricken when the casket arrived home for burial and did
not attempt to suppress the emotional drain. Parents hold back
the sorrow until the sight of their loved one being carried from
the hearse to the chapel or funeral parlor. Then the full realization
hits home again that this is their lost loved one in that bronze
flag covered casket.
At the grave site, a few weep uncontrollably and grasp the
casket to lay their head on the blue field of the flag to cling
one more time as a final goodbye to their lost son, father or
brother. Others may be stoic without much, if any, show of emotion.
How they manage to accomplish that facade always mystified me.
But there are always exceptions to the rule. The men, whose remains
that I escorted for their final journey, could not possibly have
ever imagined the unbecoming personal conduct of their next of
kin and relatives in their supposed time of sorrow and grief.
The soldiers' remains to whom I was assigned to escort home
were Killed In Action or Died of Wounds or Injuries in places
all over the world; ranging from Australia, Austria, Bataan,
Burma, Brazil, China, England, France, Germany, Hawaii, Italy,
Leyte, Philippine Islands, New Guinea, North Africa, Okinawa,
My trips for their reinterment here in the USA were to Arkansas,
Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota,
Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. The men ranged from Air Corps
flying personnel, infantrymen, artillerymen and tankers. Some
were airborne troopers and some were ordinary GIs. Many were
from units who fought alongside my division (2nd Armored Division)
in the invasion of the Normandy Beachhead, at St. Lo, in the
forests of Belgium, in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes
and in the cities of Germany in the closing days of the war.
The largest numbers of remains being returned were from the European
Theatre. The Air Corps GIs met death over the skies of Austria,
Belgium, England, France, India, Italy, and Germany. Others died
of Wounds in American Army Hospitals. All made the supreme sacrifice.
The program back then received a great deal of publicity as
compared to today's (2006) unannounced casket laden C-54 flights
into Dover AFB where photographers are not permitted to show
the multiple rows of flag covered caskets arriving without fanfare
or mention in the media. Back in 1947 when the bodies first returned
the nation paid open tribute to the funerals held across the
country, war had touched all communities including small hamlets.
My first trip was to a small northern Illinois village. The
young soldier had married just before shipping overseas and left
a young widow and a grieving family. The funeral director met
me at the rail station when our train arrived in town with the
casket. The flag draped shipping case was taken to the funeral
home where a service was held the next day as they had been sent
advance notice of our arrival date and time. The whole village
turned out for the graveside service. The local veterans groups
had provided the seven man firing squad, pall bearers and a bugler
as the local news photographer snapped pictures.
After the chaplain said his piece, the firing squad shocked
those standing near the three volleys from the rifles, the bugler
sounded Taps and I stepped up to fold the flag with the assistance
of one pall bearer who held the blue star field of the flag.
Folded neatly, the flag in the blue triangle with just the white
stars visible lay flat in my white gloved hands as I bent down
to hand the flag to the young widow's outstretched hands. I addressed
her by name and made eye contact, then said, "I present
this flag as an appreciation from a grateful nation." Then
added, "My personal regrets for your loss." With that,
I stood at attention, rendered her a hand salute, did an about
face and stepped off to the side.
Technically, my job was done, except to secure a ride back
to the funeral home. The widow had asked that I ride in her car
behind the hearse going to the cemetery, so I had planned on
riding back with the hearse driver, only to learn that he was
the first to drive off without waiting for me. When the small
crowd had finished offering their condolences to her, she saw
me standing there and beckoned for me to join her in the car
provided by the funeral home. She reached out to take my arm
with the flag under her other arm. Reaching the car, I opened
the rear door for her and she slid in and mentioned for me to
sit next to her, which I accepted. She nonchalantly tossed the
flag in the other corner and set back as she started a conversation
with a smile by asking, "Do you have a girl friend and where
are you from?" To say I was surprised was putting it mildly.
Was this small talk or was this "lonely widow" hitting
on me? I assumed the former and played it straight, arriving
moments later at the funeral home where I exited the car and
excused myself to speak with the funeral home director standing
on the steps to the office. The last thing I needed was a formal
complaint from a widow on my very first assignment! The perils
of being in the cross hairs of a young widow! This was a wake
up call for future trips to come. The eye-opening lesson learned
was that not all widows were distraught over the death of her
soldier husband; perhaps the marriage was the result of a brief
war time romance where love also became a casualty in the passage
Shortly after, the Commanding Officer of Fort Sheridan, Illinois
received a letter from the village leader complimenting me on
my military bearing and conduct as a representative of his post
and the US Army under solemn conditions. This was the first of
many such compliments I received after facing unusual circumstances
and conditions I found in performing my duty.
The winter months made our experiences far from what one would
expect conducting travel and funeral dispositions in inclement
weather. On my wife's birthday, December 7th, I arrived at a
rail train-head in North Dakota after dark. Jersey Joe Walcott
was fighting Joe Louis that night, on TV, only I missed it. The
only person there to meet me was an old man who was the sole
caretaker of that train station. The funeral home's hearse had
not arrived as yet, so the two of us unloaded the shipping case
carrying the casket onto a baggage cart. The old man noticed
I was shivering asked what was wrong and expressed amazement
when I told him it was too damn cold. He admonished me by saying,
"Why, hell soldier, it ain't even started to get cold around
here. It is only fourteen (14) below zero!" I could hardly
wait to leave the frozen north on that trip.
Two weeks later, the week before Christmas, found me in Green
Bay, Wisconsin, escorting the remains of a soldier from the 83rd
Infantry Division killed in the Battle of the Bulge, a division
on our flank at the time. I was staying in the Hotel Northland,
one of the better hotels in the city and went down to dinner
in the Dining Room, was seated and started reading the menu.
Those were in the days of our $5 a day total for all three meals.
I winced as I looked at the prices facing me. When the waitress
came to take my order, I must have looked uncomfortable in uniform
where the prices were too steep for my pay grade, I said, "Just
give me a hamburger and coffee." All escorts wear a black
arm ban covering the left arm chevrons, so one would know I was
a stranger in town returning the war dead. It wasn't long before
she returned with a huge plate containing the largest T-bone
steak I've ever seen. I told her she made a mistake as that was
someone else's order. "No mistake, soldier, one of the Packers
football team is here in the room and is paying your bill. Enjoy
your meal." I have been a Packers fan ever since!
Facing the family of men from your hometown is daunting. I
escorted a former high school classmate who was killed at Percy,
France during the St. Lo Break Out on 30 July 1944. He was an
Infantryman in the 29th Infantry Division who along with our
division that broke through the German defenses. The losses on
both sides were horrific in that battle that lasted for days
until the Germans were forced to retreat. The family looked at
me and the thought must surely cross their minds with the humane
rationale, "Why him and not you?" The uncomfortable
self-imposed guilt is crushing. Another, was the brother of a
close high school classmate, Loggie, I'll call him. His brother
was shot down in a bomber crew over the Brenner Pass, Italy weeks
before the war in Germany ended. Bad enough watching a grown
man cry over the loss of a family member, but gut wrenching when
the man is a close friend. Words simply fail you at a time like
that, and I was at a total loss of words in an attempt to comfort
The ultimate in sadness is when I escorted a soldier who was
the only child of an elderly widow, without any other next of
kin. This woman was totally alone in the world without a living
blood relative. Can you imagine the pain and despair of her loss?
Yet, she showed me compassion as a soldier and tried to make
my job less difficult as humanly possible. She remarked I was
also a mother's son serving his country, as her only son did.
Her softness contrasted that of the Chicago tough guy I ran into.
I escorted the remains of a young Italian-American soldier
to a Chicago West Side funeral home in the heart of Little Italy.
He was killed in Germany in 1945 while serving with the 83rd
Infantry Division. When the Army ambulance drove us to the funeral
home, on arrival the director called the next of kin. He walked
in and I introduced myself as the escort, saying, "I am
the escort for your brother." That was as far as I got,
as he cut me off and said, "Dat ain't my brother - dat's
a fucking box." This character with the bent nose was a
local version of Tony Soprano. Next he said, "Let's open
up da fucking box and see what's in dere." Part of our training
was to attempt to discourage the family from opening the hermetically
sealed casket, for obvious traumatic reasons. Nothing I said
changed his mind and he adamantly made it clear that it was his
decision to do as he damned well pleased "wid da fucking
box."" Even the Italian funeral director's words fell
on deaf ears.
Tough Tony had heard a rumor that during World War One that
the Army faked the bodies sent home by substituting filled sand
bags for a corpse and he wanted to see for himself what the "box"
contained. I knew from training what to expect, but he didn't.
One thing I did know was that I hoped to hell the Army didn't
screw it up or my ass was dead meat! They removed the numerous
Philip head screws from the lid and found the remains wrapped
and strapped inside. The tough guy was satisfied and I was on
my way with my signed documents. Thankfully, I never encountered
another person like him in my assignments.
Every escort had unusual experiences that we exchanged during
our breaks. Only one escort temporarily "lost the body"
- a Sergeant First Class from the 82nd Airborne lost the casket
when the baggage cars were switched in St. Louis. They eventually
located the missing remains and the two arrived late at their
destination. We never saw the Sergeant again as he was immediately
Stranger things than that occur while escorting the remains.
One of my trips had taken me to Fort Snelling, Minnesota to a
National Cemetery burial that was sparsely attended. As a matter
of fact, except for myself, the Chaplain, the firing squad, the
bugler and the widow and her mother-in-law, no one else was present.
The Fort's burial detail went through their paces; I folded the
flag and turned to present it to the widow. Then all hell broke
loose. The mother-in-law, seeing the widow receive the flag,
shouted at her, "You whore!" The widow countered with,
"You bitch!" and then she dropped the flag and they
got into a fist fight with pulling each other's hair and cursing.
The soldier's flagless casket remained on the vault lowering
device over the open grave as everybody started to scatter. I
left them there battling each other as I headed for the hearse
that brought me out to the Cemetery. I was the designated escort,
not a referee.
My final escort assignment was a first and last -- a group
burial of three "unknowns." Three airmen died in an
airplane crash at Barrackpore, India. Aboard were one 2nd Lieutenant,
one Flight Officer and one Private First Class. The remains recovered
from the wreckage were unidentified individually, but were certified
as the crew members from flight records. The Army Air Corps decided
to place a set of remains in a separate casket for each member
and proposed a group burial to their families. Two officers represented
the Lieutenant and the FO. I was the Escort for the Private.
The next of kin of the three soldiers chose Grand Rapids, Michigan
as a central part of the country as their final resting place
with a grave marker bearing all three names. Fittingly they served
together, crashed and died together and were buried together
One thing that sticks in my mind was the way in which the
patriotism waned in the three short years. In 1947 when the program
first started everybody volunteered to assist with the burial
details. The city mayors would show up with other dignitaries
to have their photos taken for the newspapers. The seven man
firing squads always had back-ups available on short notice.
Buglers were easy to find. But in, 1949, the third and final
year it was difficult to round up enough men, to the point where
I would go to the VFW and American Legion club houses to ask
In the three years of this honored and solemn duty, many men
served in our Escort Company. Some stayed and many moved on after
but a few trips. Our over-sized Company swelled to 603 assigned
on 31 January 1949 at the peak of the program. At the deactivation
of the 5012th ASU, Escort Company, Fort Sheridan, Illinois on
20 October 1949, we had escorted the remains of 22,326 soldiers
through the Chicago Depot.
Ironically, a large percent of the Regular army men who served
as Escorts would be in combat in less than nine months in Korea
fighting for their lives. Many lost their lives in this "Police
Action" conflict and in time, their remains were escorted
to their homes for burial. I am proud to have served with each
one of them. They were soldiers all.
Publication or reproduction, in part or whole,
is prohibited without written permission from the author, Don
R. Marsh. All rights remain the sole property of The Marsh Family