Army Quartermaster Museum - Fort Lee, Virginia

Graves Registration in the Korean Conflict
By LTC John C. Cook, Q.M.C.
The Quartermaster Review
March-April 1953

THE respect and care for the honored dead, the men who died for an ideal and their country, traditional with the people of the nations embracing western civilization, has never been so resolutely demonstrated as during the present conflict in Korea. This noble concept of honoring and caring for the remains of the valiant men who gave their all in defense of our republic, and the principles to which it is dedicated, has been in the past, and always will be in the future, a very important function of our armed forces.

Prior to the twentieth century interment in battlefield or national cemeteries was the recognized and accepted means of honorably disposing of the remains of our armed forces killed in battle. With the involvement of the United States in World Wars I and II, and the resultant deaths of our men on foreign soil, a new problem of final disposition had to be resolved. Acting upon recommendations of the Departments of the Army and Navy, the Congress enacted laws and provided funds for the return of our honored dead to the United States, or for their permanent interment overseas, in accordance with the expressed wishes of the next of kin. These tremendous undertakings, subsequent to World Wars I and II, set the pattern for the return of our dead who lost their lives in the Korean conflict. While the return of our dead of World Wars I and II was accomplished long after the termination of hostilities, military and political conditions in Korea made it expedient to return our dead during hostilities. The performance of this mission by the American Graves Registration Service, under the most difficult conditions, adds another illustrious chapter to the record of accomplishments of the Quartermaster Corps, and merits the recording of the events and deeds which made this accomplishment possible.

The commitment of United Nations military forces to defend the Republic of Korea from the aggression of North Korean troops who crossed the 38th parallel in June 1950 led to an immediate dispatch of American troops to Korea. These troops, on occupation duty in Japan, formed the nucleus of the United Nations forces in Korea. With their arrival in Korea the problem of recovering, caring for, and interring the remains of men killed in action became a matter of great concern to the Far East Command. Only one platoon of trained graves registration personnel was available in that theater. This platoon was engaged primarily in processing the normal current deaths of occupation personnel. Its additional responsibilities included search for, and recovery of, the remains of World War II dead said to be buried in isolated areas of Japan.

The platoon was now called upon to supply personnel both for the combat divisions and the newly organized Graves Registration Division, Eighth United States Army in Korea (EUSAK). Responding to the urgency of the situation, the platoon sent to Korea every man that could be spared. Most of these graves registration personnel had never served under combat conditions and many had little knowledge of the complex administrative procedures of a graves registration office of record. Nevertheless the men accomplished their assigned responsibilities in a manner which will always reflect the high standards to which personnel of the American Graves Registration Service dedicate their efforts.

As the conflict grew in intensity, and deaths of United Nations personnel increased, it became necessary for each combat division to establish and operate its own cemetery, pending the arrival of graves registration companies from the zone of interior to assume this responsibility. The first temporary United Nations cemetery in Korea was established July 9, 1950, at Taejon, by the 24th Infantry Division. However, the town of Taejon was shortly thereafter seized by the enemy, and the cemetery, with its forty-six interments, had to be abandoned. Other temporary cemeteries were established at Kwan-ui, Kum-chon, and Sindong; these also passed to control of the enemy when United Nations forces withdrew to the Pusan perimeter.

It was during the period when divisions operated their own cemeteries that difficulties were encountered which extended to the utmost the capacity of the few personnel engaged in caring for the dead. Combat troops could hardly be spared to dig graves, and it was almost impossible to obtain civilian labor, due to the abandonment of towns and villages by fleeing refugees anxious to escape from the battle area. Tents were set up as mortuaries to receive and hold bodies until graves could be dug and records prepared. Yet in spite of adverse conditions, the remains of the United Nations dead were interred with that dignity and solemnity which circumstances permitted.

With the withdrawal of United Nations forces to the Pusan perimeter, other temporary United Nations cemeteries were established. The 24th and 2nd Infantry Divisions established a cemetery at Miryang; the 25th Infantry Division, at Masan; the 1st Cavalry Division, at Taegu and the 2nd Logistical Command, at Pusan.

Meanwhile the Quartermaster, Far East Command, formulated policies for the care, interment, and recording of all United Nations deceased. To implement these policies the Graves Registration Division, Quartermaster Section, EUSAK, prepared and published directives establishing definite procedures for handling remains and personal effects.

The first Quartermaster Graves Registration Company to arrive in the Far East Command was the 565th. Minus a platoon which was left in Japan, this unit moved to Korea (Pusan) on September 12, 1950, and promptly assumed control of the temporary cemeteries at Miryang, Masan, and Taegu. This action released division personnel who were badly needed to evacuate the dead from battlefield areas. The 565th Graves Registration Company was placed under the operational control of the Graves Registration Division, Quartermaster, EUSAK, thereby ensuring a direct channel for carrying out all policies in caring for remains and the cemeteries in which they were interred.

The platoon-that remained in Japan was attached to the X Corps, which was preparing for an amphibious operation at Inchon. The platoon disembarked at Inchon, and shortly after the initial combat units drove inward from that port, it promptly initiated action to recover the dead. Subsequently the platoon, jointly with graves registration personnel of the lst Marine Division, opened the temporary United Nations military cemetery at Inchon, on September 8, 1950.

The successful operation at Inchon and the simultaneous break-out from the Pusan perimeter made necessary the establishment of forward collecting points to ensure the expeditious return of remains to the established temporary cemeteries. Search and recovery operations in areas recaptured from the enemy were started immediately, and remains were funneled through collecting points to the cemeteries. This action simplified the identification of many remains which would have otherwise decomposed or deteriorated to an extent which would make identification extremely difficult. Elements of the 565th Graves Registration Company followed the divisions as they progressed northward. Continuous liaison permitted the rapid transfer of decedents to the established cemeteries, thereby making unnecessary the opening of additional cemeteries in the captured areas.

To comprehend fully the accomplishments of graves registration personnel during the initial phases of the Korean conflict it is necessary for the reader to visualize conditions existing in Korea during those trying days in 1950. Means of communication, so vital to successful operations, were totally inadequate, since the limited facilities were reserved principally for tactical troops. Railways were utilized entirely for the logistical support of combat troops. Highways, as we know them in the United States, are connecting the nonexistent in Korea. The best roads connecting the towns and villages are little more than widened trails, in most places not wide enough for two-way vehicular traffic. The surface condition of roads was so bad that the movement of vehicles was estimated in hours per mile rather than miles per hour.

The terrain – a series of sheer hills and steep mountains separated by small valleys and narrow canyons – precludes any rapid movement of men and vehicles. Rice paddies, with their soggy surfaces, blanket the valleys, making travel in the lower areas equally difficult. This terrain, appraised from a tactical standpoint, is eminently suited for defense. Korea is a land where, in general, the oxcart is more practical than the motor vehicle, and massed human labor more suitable than machinery.

It was on the ridges and sides of the mountain and in the rice paddies of the valleys that the battles were fought and men died.

The removal of the dead to distant United Nations military cemeteries was a difficult and laborious undertaking. Such remains as could not be moved because of the exigencies of battle were hastily interred in foxholes, shell holes, or any area of soft earth which permitted a quick burial. These isolated graves were not always marked, and, even in cases where crude markers were erected, many were lost through the action of the elements or destroyed in battle. Still other markers were removed by natives or the enemy. All this made the search and recovery activities of graves registration personnel an exacting and demanding task.

The search was not limited to men known to have been killed in action. Lists of men reported missing in action at places only designated by grid coordinates were furnished the search teams. The remains of hundreds of such casualties were recovered, due to the untiring efforts of the men in the American Graves Registration Service.

After consolidating the gains made through the Inchon landing and the breakout from the Pusan perimeter, the next phase of tactical operations was directed northward toward the Manchurian border. As United Nations troops crossed the 38th Parallel, on or about October 2, 1950, it became necessary to reassign graves registration units to service the combat divisions moving northward. The platoon of the 565th, which had participated in the Inchon landing, was relieved of responsibility for operating the Inchon cemetery and attached to the X Corps. The Inchon cemetery was, in the meantime, placed in the temporary custody of the 3rd Logistical Command, who maintained it until relieved by the 114th Graves Registration Company, which arrived in Korea on November 25, 1950.

Another amphibious operation by United Nations forces occurred on October 26, 1950 at Wonsan, and resulted in the capture of that town by the X Corps. Elements of a platoon of the 565th Graves Registration Company, which participated in the initial landing, promptly established a temporary cemetery on the side of a small hill adjacent to the town. The subsequent advance northward from Wonsan by fast-moving divisions of the X Corps made it necessary to establish additional cemeteries far north of Wonsan. The 7th Infantry Division established a cemetery at Pukchon on November 5, 1950, and the platoon of the 565th Graves Registration Company attached to the X Corps, jointly with the lst Marine Division, established a cemetery at Hungnam on the same date.

Simultaneously with the X Corps landing at Wonsan, the Eighth Army pressed northward from the 38th parallel. The swift advance of Eighth Army troops also made necessary the establishment of temporary cemeteries in the western sector of North Korea. The 1st Cavalry Division opened a cemetery at Pyongyang on October 22, 1950. Another cemetery was established at Suchon, on the same date, jointly by the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team and the 24th Infantry Division.

The entry into Korea of a vast horde of Chinese troops to reinforce the disintegrating North Korean armies halted the forward movement of United Nations forces and made urgent their withdrawal to locations where strong defensive positions could be established. The movement of the X Corps to Hungnam and the evacuation of its personnel and equipment by United Nations naval units from that port has long since been recorded as an epic of the Korean conflict. All temporary cemeteries in the area of withdrawal fell under communist control, including the cemetery at Hungnam, located in the outskirts of that city. During the siege of Hungnam it became necessary to establish a cemetery near the beach. This cemetery, designated in official records as Hungnam United Nations Military Cemetery No. 2, was opened December 17, 1950 by the platoon of the 565th Graves Registration Company attached to the X Corps, and closed by them on December 23, 1950, one day before the complete evacuation of Hungnam by United Nations units.

The withdrawal of the Eighth Army to positions south of the 38th parallel resulted in the loss of control of the cemeteries at Pyongyang and Suchon. It was during the withdrawal of the Eighth Army southward that a decision of major importance was made with respect to cemeteries still under control of United Nations forces. Acting upon the recommendation of the Quartermaster, Far East, the Supreme Commander, United Nations Forces, directed the evacuation of all United Nations temporary military cemeteries. The remains of all United States deceased were to be prepared for shipment to Japan, and the deceased of Allied nations were to be concentrated in a centralized United Nations military cemetery.

Plans were promptly formulated by the Graves Registration Division, Quartermaster Section, EUSAK, for an immediate evacuation of the Inchon cemetery, which was in the direct path of advancing communist forces. A platoon of the 114th Graves Registration Company was assigned the task of evacuating this cemetery, which held the remains of 870 United Nations soldiers. Included among these dead were 112 remains disinterred from Kaesong, the first cemetery evacuated in the face of the communist advance. Time was all-important since the communists were on the outskirts of Seoul. Frozen ground, the difficulty in obtaining laborers from among the refugees fleeing to the south, and the procurement of supplies and transportation, were the chief obstacles to be overcome.

Working under these difficult conditions, the disinterment operations of Inchon cemetery began on Christmas morning 1950. Laborers were obtained with the cooperation of the local labor office and Korean police. The promise of a rice bonus aided in securing sufficient labor personnel. Supplies such as picks, shovels, wrapping materials, and shipping tags were secured from the closest available sources.

The exhumation by plot, row, and grave, with men of the platoon verifying the remains of each disinterred and noting any discrepancies on prepared reports, was the first step in this unusual operation. The second step included the wrapping, tagging, and evacuation of the disinterred to an improvised mortuary at the port of Inchon. The last step provided for the preparation of the shipping list and the loading of remains aboard a vessel hastily secured for this purpose.

The operation was completed successfully by the evening of December 28, 1950, at which time the loaded vessel departed from the Port of Inchon. This unique achievement was accomplished only through the dogged efforts of graves registration personnel determined to prevent additional remains from falling into enemy hands.

In the meantime a site of approximately seventy-two acres, in the town of Tanggok, was selected for the establishment of the central United Nations military cemetery. This town, a suburb of Pusan, possesses the rail and road facilities required for efficient cemetery operations. Since the acquired land was in hilly terrain, terracing and grading the area became a major engineering project. Work started on January 19, 1951, to meet a completion date tentatively set for April 1, 1951. Hundreds of men were recruited in Pusan and surrounding towns and villages to supply the labor required. Rock needed to build supporting walls for terraced sections of the cemetery was brought in by small vessels from a distant quarry and trucked for several miles from a beach landing area to the cemetery site.

While construction of the United Nations military cemetery at Tanggok was in progress, plans were completed for the evacuation of all other temporary cemeteries from that part of Korea under the control of United Nations forces. Remains of United States dead, with the exception of those disinterred from the cemeteries at Miryang and Kunsan, were evacuated directly to the American Graves Registration installation established in Kokura, Japan. The remains of United States dead evacuated from Miryang and Kunsan were interred temporarily in the new cemetery at Tanggok, pending their removal at a later date to Japan. All Allied dead evacuated from these cemeteries were interred at Tanggok.

In an impressive ceremony on April 6, 1951, attended by representatives of all the United Nations engaged in the Korean conflict, General Ridgway dedicated the new cemetery to the heroic dead of the United Nations who gave their lives in the Korean conflict. In subsequent months the remainder of the United States dead buried in Tanggok were disinterred and shipped to Kokura, Japan. Remains of a number of United States unknown dead were left in Tanggok as token interments in order that the central United Nations military cemetery would hold the remains of decedents of all member nations participating in defense of the Republic of Korea.

The decision to return the remains of American deceased to the United States during hostilities was arrived at only after the Quartermaster, Far East, completed an intensive study of the problems involved. Never in the history of the United States, or any other nation, has there been a mass evacuation of the remains of men killed in action while hostilities were still in force. This departure from the long established practice of leaving remains in battlefield cemeteries or isolated locations until after the cessation of hostilities necessitated the activation of an organization capable of carrying out the manifold operations of receiving, processing, identifying, embalming, casketing, and shipping.

Such an installation, under direct control of the Quartermaster, Far East, was established in Japan on December 28, 1950, and designated as Zone Headquarters, American Graves Registration Service Group, Camp Kokura. The first shipload of remains arrived at Kokura on January 3, 1951. This shipment represented all the remains which had been evacuated from the cemetery at Inchon to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Since that date the remains of American deceased have continued to arrive at Kokura for processing and return to the United States. While the initial shipments received at Kokura were the remains of American deceased disinterred from temporary United Nations military cemeteries, subsequent arrivals at Kokura included remains which had never been interred in Korea. Present operations make possible the delivery of remains from the battlefield to Kokura within an average period of five days. As of April 1, 1952, over 16,000 remains, received from the Graves Registration Service in Korea, have been shipped by Zone Headquarters to the United States for disposition in accordance with the wishes of next of kin.

The lull in action on the front lines during the long armistice negotiations permitted the utilization of most graves registration personnel in Korea in search and recovery operations. The importance of these operations cannot be overstated. Unless remains of men listed as "missing in action" are recovered, the change in their status to "killed in action" may be long delayed. Next of kin, anxious about the fate of their missing loved ones, find it extremely difficult to accept such a finding unless the remains are recovered and positively identified.

At this writing, thousands of men are in the category of missing or missing in action. Until the enemy prisoners of war list is verified, and pending verification of recovered "unknown" remains as United States personnel, the exact number of remains to be searched for cannot be stated. Neither can it be stated with certainty how many of those missing lost their lives either in territory controlled by the communists or areas under the jurisdiction of the United Nations.

Of the 85,246 square miles of Korea to be searched, over 40,000 square miles are at present under the control of United Nations forces. This vast area of mountains and rice paddies is extremely difficult to traverse. Present plans of the Quartermaster, EUSAK, include a skirmish search of all territory presently held by United Nations forces. Search teams, each consisting of approximately five United States personnel, supplemented by Korean military and civilians, make a thorough coverage of the area assigned to them. Information secured from historical records, as well as the grid coordinates, as regards the last known location of casualties are important clues in search operations. To aid the search teams, appeals for assistance to the native population are made through the media of airplane leaflet drops, radio, motion pictures, and newspapers. Interpreters with the search teams visit school houses and interrogate the children. Local police, as well as the leading citizens of towns and villages, are interviewed and requested to obtain, from the populace, information which will enable specific searches to be made in the general area of the town or village.

Remains presently being recovered are, with few exceptions, skeletal. The absence of extraneous identification media from most recoveries make it necessary that identification be established entirely on the basis of physical characteristics. Search and recovery personnel have been thoroughly indoctrinated on the importance of screening an area of recovery for all bone fragments. Particular emphasis is being given to screening the earth for teeth. The teams likewise have been instructed to leave with the remains all items of clothing, property, and personal effects, regardless of their fragmentary condition, since such items may assist in identification processing. The reporting of surface data as to where remains were found and the conditions surrounding the recovery of the body are also important parts of recovery operations.

Search operations are most effective during the moderate and warm months: April to November. Snow, ice, and frozen ground greatly hamper search teams during the remaining months of the year. It is estimated that eighteen months will be required to complete a skirmish search of the territory now under control of United Nations forces by graves registration personnel presently available. Searches are conducted by map sheets (Korea 1:50,000). As soon as the area represented by one sheet (approximately 185 square miles) has been thoroughly searched, the Graves Registration Division, Quartermaster Section, EUSAK, prepares a statement certifying that all recoverable remains in that area have been recovered. No further searches are contemplated in such areas except when circumstances warrant a special effort.

The present concentration of search operations in South Korea does not imply that the dead in North Korea have been forgotten. Plans already have been formulated for search and recovery operations in that part of Korea controlled by communist forces. The transition from a planning stage to actual operations depends entirely on the successful conclusion of the present armistice negotiations. At this writing it is expected that all cemeteries and graves which are a matter of record by each side will be given initial consideration in recovery operations. The mission of the American Graves Registration Service in Korea will not be complete until all recoverable remains of United States solders who died in Korea are returned to the zone of interior.

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