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By Don R. Marsh


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, and Sicily.

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 of time.

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 him.

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 transferred out.

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 for eternity.

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 for support.

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 Trust.

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