Here's the thing: somebody has to clean up. Doesn't matter if it's mom's kitchen, your dorm, the coffee-corner, or the battlefield.

Nobody likes a mess.

Until the American Civil War, the business of collecting, identifying, and burying dead soldiers was haphazard and, obviously, steeped in countless emotional quandaries. The Quartermaster Department, in addition to keeping the military supplied with equipment, traditionally was responsible for caring for the dead. Bodies were usually buried where they fell, often unidentified, and the cemeteries themselves often remained unmarked. Relatives bore perhaps the greatest brunt of this institutional ignominy—often they never really "knew" what happened to their loved ones, or where they finally lay.

Since the Civil War accounted for more deaths in battle than all of the other American Wars combined, and since so many of the fractured nation's dead were, at heart, civilians—which is to say non-professional soldiers—by the end of the 19th century an urgent need for change was in the air.

Examine the horrible statistics:

1500 men died at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse action and only a quarter of them were ever identified. Throughout the entire war, only 58% of the dead Union soldiers were ever positively identified. There are no records of Confederate dead.

On May 4, 1864, when the Union Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River into Virginia, soldiers were horrified to discover the bones of comrades who had died a full year earlier, above ground, exposed to animals and the sun. Men began to carry small identifying tokens made of wood into battle. They printed their names on slips of paper and pinned them to their uniforms. The idea of dying and being forever "unknown" was one of the great psychological stresses of that conflict.

Indeed. Of any conflict.

After the Battle of Fort Stevens, just outside Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1864, Captain James M. Moore, the newly-appointed head of the Quartermaster Cemeterial Divison, led his troops on the first systematic search and recovery of remains in warfare. Moore was able to account for every single body. In the four years following the war, using techniques pioneered by Captain Moore, the Cemeterial Division disinterred almost 300,000 dead and laid them to rest in 73 newly-created national cemeteries.

By the Spanish-American War, the military, in its enormously famous glacial fashion, had learned that successful identification of the dead depended on shortening the time-span between casualty, field-expedient burial, and final registration of graves. Later, in the Philippines, Chaplain Charles C. Pierce further outlined even more scientific techniques. He recommended including an "identity disk," similar to the "dog tags" we know today, in the combat field kit. Furthermore, he established central collection points, where all records were gathered, filed, checked, traced, and—most important—corrected.

The Quartermaster Department was reorganized in 1912 and became the Quartermaster Corps, and for the first time specialized troops took over the tasks that had previously been performed by civilians, conscripts, or even—going back to the Civil War—by prisoners of war.

Graves Registration has always been a dirty job.

Dog tags were created in 1917, and it was at the request of General "Black Jack" Pershing that 19 Quartermaster Graves Registration companies were dispatched to the combat zone in Europe. They buried nearly 30,000 soldiers in France, Belgium and England, and returned another 47,000 bodies to the United States.

The general wrote of one unit's actions in 1918:

"(They) began their work under heavy shell of 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 old ones were blown down. They also completed the extension to the cemetery, this work occupying a period of one and a half hours, during which time shells were falling continuously and they were subjected to mustard gas. They gathered many bodies which had been first in the hands of the Germans, and were later retaken by American counterattacks. Identification was especially difficult, all papers and tags having been removed, and most of the bodies being in a terrible condition and beyond recognition."
"The Great War" brought the maturing of modern graves registration. By its end, only three dead soldiers out of every one hundred were unknown.

250,000 Americans were buried over a million and a half square miles during World War II. By the end of the second day at Normandy, one graves registration platoon alone had buried 457 soldiers. It took three days for three platoons (around a hundred men), working day and night, to clear the beaches of 2,500 dead American soldiers.

At Anzio beachead, during the worst of the fighting, Ernie Pyle, the famed war correspondent, reported graves registraton personel taking cover in the freshly-turned earth meant for their own dead comrades.

Scientific improvements continued. As wars continued. By Vietnam, 96% of all dead were recovered and identified, as opposed to 78% for World War II and Korea.

Graves registration units (now known as Mortuary Affairs), utilizing the latest DNA advances, have accompanied our soldiers to Panama, Desert Shield/Storm, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia. You might say they come with the territory

Mortuary Affairs personnel were employed to help at the Oklahoma City bombing, and they continue to work with the Vietnamese government, in an attempt to search for, and recover, additional bodies from that conflict.

In my research on this subject, I uncovered an absolutely amazing document that I feel I must include here. What follows is a Center for Army Lessons Learned Bulletin, and it is designed to help its recipients improve their units' abilities in the area under discussion. It is a training tool. It is a good training tool because it is based on experience.

Lessons Learned.

I include it here, uninflected, because it represents—in the most telling fashion— the way the army works:


Given the dynamic and fluid nature of modern combat, all units, regardless of their location…need to establish recovery and evacuation procedures for their dead. We don't practice this very often, haven't developed realistic SOPs, and just plain don't do very well.

Recovery and evacuation of a unit's dead is a unit commander's responsibility. It is a morale sapping task for those soldiers who have to actually perform the task. At battalion level and below there are no organizations dedicated to providing Graves Registration (GRREG) services. At brigade level and above, the vast majority of GRREG units are found in the Army Reserve and will not normally be available during the initial stages of combat operations. Procedures for handling dead soldiers need to be incorporated into unit training and SOPs at all levels to ensure that a manageable system is in place at the beginning of any conflict.

Suggested Procedures

The following are suggested procedures for handling uncontaminated remains. They are a blend of doctrine (FM 10-63, Graves Registration) and unit experiences at the National Training Center.

Company Level

The company is responsible for collecting its dead. Body bags should be part of the unit basic load and included on unit load plans. At the NTC, maneuver companies experience the equivalent of at least 10 KIA per day. Remains should be covered and evacuated to the battalion's combat trains as quickly as possible. Tactical situation may prevent remains from being evacuated until daily resupply is completed. Any vehicle can be used to evacuate remains except those used in the evacuation of wounded.

Battalion Level

A battalion should designate a handling team as an additional duty. In a combat arms battalion it would typically be located in the combat trains and be made up of an NCO and 5 to 6 soldiers. In many units the S4 or PAC NCO located in the combat trains is the team NCOIC. The rest of the team consists of soldiers assigned to the ALOC (i.e. track drivers). (NOTE: Don't use newly assigned troops.) The team needs to be equipped with 2 tarps (plastic/rubberized recommended) and 2 stretchers (in good condition). The team should also be supplied with body bags, personal effects bags, and preprinted inventory forms. (Examples of required forms are in FM 10-63-1, Graves Registration Handbook.) The team needs to be trained on the use of the Tactical Body Bag. It is a fairly difficult procedure to place a dead body into one. The current bag is unlike the ones used in Vietnam and consists of a plastic sack with twist tie, and a zippered, OD nylon carrying envelope.

Typical Battalion Handling Team Scenario

A typical battalion handling team scenario might run like this:

  • PA/Doctor pronounces soldier dead (necessary step). Casualty card (more formally known as DD form 1380, Field Medical Card) is annotated.
  • Team notified and carries the remains to a collection site, down hill, downwind, and preferably out of sight of wounded and replacements.
  • Team lays body on a tarp to help protect it from the elements and help prevent the loss of personal effects. If the handling team is busy with their primary missions, the second tarp is used to cover remains until they can be placed in body bags.
  • When situation permits, two soldiers search the remains as the NCOIC writes down the inventory. This is the single most time consuming step. The soldiers place themselves on each side of the body and work from the head down, placing small items in a helmet. Make sure that all pockets (BDUs have ten) front and back are checked. (This is why two soldiers are needed). Also check helmet webbing (mail), pant legs above boot blouse (knives), boots (I.D. tags in laces), ammo pouches (CEOIs), etc. Government owned equipment (LBE, weapons, etc.) is set aside for reutilization by the unit. Notebooks are checked for CEOI and other classified information. CEOI and classified information is removed and the notebooks are placed with other personal effects. Any identifying articles are noted (Identification Tags or the soldier's Identification Card are the only acceptable means of identification). If these are absent, a statement of recognition (DD Form 565) establishing identification for the remains is required. If no personal effects (PE) bags are available, place personal effects with a copy of the inventory in a substitute plastic bag. NOTE: This team does not take it upon themselves to dispose of any personal effects execpt those items which will spoil (normally food). Items that are a potential embarrassment to the next of kin are not separated at this level.

  • Once identification is confirmed, the battalion chaplain can provide necessary services (this should be annotated on casualty card for relay to next of kin).
  • Then the KIA is placed in the body bag by:
  • Rolling bag down about half way.
  • Lift feet (after they have been tied/taped together) and pull bag down to buttocks.
  • Lower feet, lift torso, pull bag up towards shoulders and over head insuring that the I.D. tags or card stays with the remains (not in the P.E. bag).
  • Close bag with tie.
  • With three soldiers, lift body at foot and head, supporting the middle (lift body; don't grab plastic, it tears). Place KIA in nylon envelope facing up. Zipper should open from the head, down.
  • Place PE bag with inventory in envelope with body.
  • Tag outside of envelope with name and SSN, (if available) unit, and date. Tags do not come with the body bags. Manila tags from the supply room can be used.

  • The detail then carries the bag to a cargo vehicle of some type. It normally takes three to four soldiers to lift a body onto a truck. Two soldiers are required to position the body on the truck's cargo bed. The truck then moves to the brigade/division collection site. Cargo area will be screened from view if possible.

Brigade Level

The maneuver brigade is the first echelon where trained Graves Registration personnel (57F) are normally available. There are four 57Fs in each division by TOE. The primary responsibility of these individuals is to train divisional units and personnel in handling KIAs. These individuals will also train and supervise diverted assets upon transition to war until GRREG units are available.

A brigade has to form a handling team similar in nature to those at battalion. Because of the numbers of KIA expected, this team will normally perform Graves Registration as a primary task. The brigade Graves Registration Point requires the same type facilities as those at battalion level. Locations near the ammunition transfer point should be considered (majority of KIA are evacuated on empty ammunition vehicles). The brigade team is responsible for placing any bodies not previously prepared into body bags. They are responsible for reinventorying the personal effects bags to preclude looting. The brigade team transfers remains coming in to transportation going to division or corps GRREG points (specified in the Admin/Logistics Order). They also maintain a register (DD Form 1077) that shows the location and disposition of all remains arriving in the BSA.

Division, Corps, and EAC Levels

Echelons above brigade also have to establish provisional GRREG teams if reserve units are not available. The same handling, inventory, and tracking tasks must be accomplished. GRREG requirements must be considered in transportation backhaul planning. A Graves Registration unit is responsible for running the theater's Personal Effects Depot. It is at this level that any potentially embarrassing items, in accordance with strict policy guidelines, are removed from the personal effects bag. Embalming and laboratory identification services are also located at EAC.

The Army is responsible for providing graves registration support to the other services (USAF and USN). In a combined environment, responsibilities and procedures between the Army, host nation, and/or third country forces must be known by your 57Fs so they can instruct units in the proper procedures. In Europe, STANAG 2070, Emergency War Burial Procedures is a good place to turn for this information. In Korea and in most contingency areas, these procedures still have to be finalized.

Additional Considerations

These are some additional considerations:

  • The Chaplain, while doing service for the dead, should not forget the soldiers who are assigned this emotional duty.
  • It is human nature to deal with gruesome situations with humor and callousness. Handling teams need to be aware of this reaction. The NCOIC must monitor his men very carefully both during and after performance of this task.
  • Ponchos, blankets, sleeping bags, and mattress covers are field substitutes for body bags.
  • The company supply sergeant must forward through channels the KIA's personal effects stored by the unit.
  • Authorization for mass and hasty burials is currently retained at theater level. However, if the tactical situation prevents evacuation, such burials will be reported through logistics channels to the supporting Graves Registration Unit.
  • Army units will be required to bury enemy soldiers as time permits. This is a medical necessity that assists in the prevention of disease. Historically, in GRENADA and elsewhere, our troops have not understood this requirement.

  • Training Resource

    In addition to FM 10-63 and 10-63-1, there are other training resources that you can use in training your soldiers in the handling of KIAs.

    • Graphic Training Aid (GTA) 10-10-1, Graves Registration (28 slides).
    • TEC Tape 920-101-0001-A, Assisting Graves Registration Personnel
    • Correspondence Courses QM4300, QM4303, and QM4310
    • Training films 10-4159 and 10-4697
    • The 638 series of Army Regulations lays out responsibilities and additional procedures.

Handling bodies is not a pleasant task, but it is a task that has to be faced. An ineffective program will be a significant negative morale factor for any unit. Training will reduce its psychological impact during the initial stages of a war. Has this critical subject been part of your training and included in your TSOPs?

On Vietnam:


  1. I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
  2. A long time gone
  3. How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
  4. Libber and I go to war
  5. Fate takes a piss
  6. Thanks For the Memory
  7. Back in the Shit
  8. LZ Waterloo
  9. Saturday Night, Numbah Ten


a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Feat of Clay
Funeral Detail
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate

Breaking Starch
Combat Infantryman Badge
David Dellinger
Dickey Chapelle
Firebase Mary Ann
Garry Owen
Gloria Emerson
Graves Registration
I Corps
Project 100,000
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?

A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers

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