Army Quartermaster Museum - Fort Lee, Virginia

Memorial Affairs Activities - Republic of Vietnam
Compiled by the Mortuary Affairs Center (MAC)
Fort Lee, Virginia - March 2000

MISSION: The mission of memorial activities in the Republic of Vietnam was as follows.

To establish and operate graves registration collection points as required. To provide and administer mortuaries at Tan Son Nhut and Da Nang Air Bases. To receive, process, identify, and evacuate the remains of deceased US military, Free World Military Assistance Forces (FWMAF) as authorized by working agreements with the Commander, US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. Also, US citizens, and certain third country nationals employed by firms under US government contract having interservice support agreements for mortuary service.

To provide and administer a personal property depot to receive, process, identify and ship personal property of deceased and missing US Army personnel.

HISTORICAL SUMMARY:

During the early years of United States military involvement in Vietnam, January 1961-July 1965, current death mortuary services in country were provided by the US Air Force (USAF). Because the death rate was initially very low, services were provided on a TDY basis by a civilian mortician assigned to the USAF mortuary at Clark Air Force Base, Republic of the Philippines. Preparation of remains was accomplished in a small two-room mortuary located on Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon.

By 1963 the death rate among American forces had increased to the point that full time staffing of the mortuary became necessary. The initial full time staffing included one USAF civilian mortician, one US Army graves registration NCO, and two local civilian employees. The mortuary facility was also expanded to accommodate the increased workload.

In early 1965, the need for trained graves registration (GRREG) soldiers in Vietnam was recognized. Meanwhile, the workload continued to increase as the level of military activity escalated. The increase necessitated the expansion of the mortuary facility and the addition of staff. One additional embalmer was recruited from the United States and several Army GRREG personnel were assigned.

At this time the military leadership in Vietnam recognized the need for single service responsibility for the mortuary mission. This recognition translated into an Air Force initiative to transfer mortuary responsibility in Vietnam to the Army. Reasoning behind the initiative was based on the fact that the preponderance of deaths among US forces in Vietnam were Army loses. It was therefore reasoned that the Army should assume responsibility for all mortuary operations in Vietnam and Thailand. On 1 July 1966, the US Air Force transferred operational control of the mortuary at Tan Son Nhut Air Base to the US Army.

Until 1 September 1966, the disposition of the personal property of deceased and missing US Army personnel was the responsibility of the individual's unit, including appointment of a summary court officer. Because of increased fatalities, there was a critical requirement for a centralized operation to perform the mission of properly disposing of personal property.

Concurrent with the assumption of the total mortuary role, the Army established a personal effects depot. The function of the depot was to receive, inventory, process, package, and ship to the eligible recipient the effects of deceased or missing Army personnel. The facility, which was originally co-located with the mortuary in Saigon, was established as a subactivity of the Tan Son Nhut mortuary for this purpose at Camp Redball; this was the first activity of its kind in Vietnam.

As a result of the high number of fatalities sustained in May 1967, the deficiencies of the mortuary became apparent. It was located in a congested area of Tan Son Nhut. The mortuary was inadequate to process the large number of remains, and the cramped facilities constituted a health hazard. The 7th Air Force requested the mortuary be moved to a less congested location on Tan Son Nhut. General Westmoreland, COMUSMACV, ordered a study be made for a new mortuary.

Another mortuary was opened at DaNang Air Base on 20 June 1967 to process all remains recovered in I Corps tactical zone. Figure 1 reflects the locations of the collection points and mortuaries in Vietnam. The Tet Offensive of 1968 made evident the need to expand, once again, our mortuary capabilities in Vietnam. It was during February of this year that the mortuaries processed 3000 remains, more that during any comparable period during the conflict. The number severely overtaxed the storage and processing capability of both mortuaries and led to the construction of a new 20-table facility on Tan Son Nhut. This mortuary and the co-located Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) became operational in August 1968.

The isolated location of the personal property depot, then located at Camp Redball, on the perimeter of Tan Son Nhut, made it a prime target during the 1968 Tet offensive. Camp Redball was cut off for seven days. This seven-day period could be divided into two parts. The first part consisted of three days of physical attacks on Camp Redball's small compound, and the second part consisted of four days of sniping along the highway leading to Camp Redball. A seven-day backlog built up. The requirement to man the perimeter every night by personal property depot personnel continued for over two weeks and slowed operations considerably.

Other related activity in 1968 included the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed establishment of the Joint Central Graves Registration Office (JCGRO) by the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). This office was later combined with the Casualty Resolution Office and designated as the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC). This organization was the predecessor to today’s Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA). The JCRC was responsible for the resolution of the cases of our unrecovered dead.

As the US withdrawal began in northern provinces of Vietnam in early 1972, it became necessary to inactivate the DaNang mortuary. This was accomplished in February 1972 with operational responsibility and personnel being transferred to the Tan Son Nhut facility. Also, during 1972, the Personal Property Depot moved from its facility adjacent to the mortuary into the mortuary proper. This action was taken because the number of cases processed by the depot has significantly deceased proportionately with the decrease of our in country troop strength.

In early 1973, increased Communist activity (Viet Cong) in the Saigon area created a similar situation for the Tan Son Nhut mortuary. This activity, coupled with the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam, necessitated the inactivation of the Tan Son Nhut mortuary. The action took place in March of 1973. Remains on hand at the time, assigned military personnel, civilian embalmers and ID specialists, were transferred to the newly established Central Identification Laboratory, Thailand, located at Camp Samae San in that country. The new facility was designated CIL-THAI. Authorities at CIL-THAI worked with South Vietnamese government officials until that government fell in 1975. Their efforts were directed towards the search for, recovery and identification of remains of U.S. service members killed in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The CIL-THAI relocated to Hawaii in May 1976 where it continues to operate.

CONCURRENT RETURN PROGRAM:

Upon assuming responsibility for mortuary operations, the Army phased in the concurrent return program. The program called for the recovery of remains and their evacuation to the Army mortuaries in Saigon and DaNang. Here they were processed for identification, and shipped by air to port of entry mortuaries at Oakland, California, or Dover, Delaware. Following reprocessing, to include cosmetizing, dressing, and casketing, the remains were forwarded to the place of final disposition as designated by the appropriate family representative. This process required approximately seven to ten days. In previous wars, temporary cemeteries were established to hold the remains until cessation of hostilities. These remains were later disinterred and returned to the next of kin, CONUS for burial, or at the option of the next of kin, relocated in a permanent U.S. Cemetery overseas. Embalming by hypodermic injection was done at the cemeteries.

Under the concurrent return program, remains were evacuated through collection points to one of the two mortuaries where they were identified, embalmed and further evacuated to their native country for final disposition. The remains processing time after it reached the mortuary is shown in Figure 2.

MORTUARY PROCESSING TIMES

Removal from flightline to mortuary 30 minutes
In-processing/Identification 1 hour
Embalming 2 hours 15 minutes
Holding period to check embalming 8 hours
Out-processing 30 minutes
Delivery to flight line 30 minutes

Figure 2

This system took place in a matter of days as compared to the previous temporary burial system, which took months or years. The concurrent return program lessened the period of anxiety and grief associated with past memorial activity programs and afforded the next of kin an opportunity to view the remains.

TRANSPORTATION:

An important segment of the evacuation system was the fast transportation network in the war zone. In the majority of cases, remains were evacuated from the battlefield by helicopter and delivered to the collection point in a matter of hours. Remains were processed at the collection point and evacuated within 24 hours by aircraft to one of the in-country mortuaries. Air transportation was highly effective in the speedy evacuation of remains. Remains usually arrive at an in-country mortuary within two days and this exceptionally rapid service was never accomplished in previous wars. This rapid service contributed to the award of the Meritorious Unit Commendation to the US Army Support Command, Saigon.

REFRIGERATION:

In Vietnam's tropical climate, refrigeration of remains was a necessity. During the monsoon season or if the remains had been in water for a considerable period of time, remains not properly refrigerated, swelled and doubled their normal size. The skin and flesh became extremely delicate and difficult to process. Refrigeration available at the collection points, in addition to that at the mortuaries, considerably slowed the rate of decomposition of remains. The varying refrigeration capacities located at key areas throughout Vietnam that provided a balanced capability to fulfill all refrigeration requirements are shown in Figure 3.

REFRIGERATION CAPABILITIES

LOCATION                                                                            CAPACITY

CAPACITY

USASUPCOM SAIGON

Tan Son Nhut Mortuary 250 remains
Vung Tau Collection Point 10 remains
Can Tho Collection Point 10 remains
Long Binh Collection Point 40 remains
Phu Loi Collection Point 15 remains
Tay Ninh Collection Point 10 remains
Quang Loi Collection Point 10 remains
Long Giao Collection Point 10 remains
355 remains

 

USASUPCOM, CAM RANH BAY

Cam Ranh Bay Collection Point 10 remains
Bau Loc Collection Point 10 remains
Nha Trang Collection Point 15 remains
Phan Thiet Collection Point 10 remains
Phan Rang Collection Point 10 remains
Ban Me Thuot Collection Point 10 remains
65 remains

 

USASUPCOM, QHI NHON

An Khe Collection Point 10 remains
Bong Son Collection Point 10 remains
Pleiku Collection Point 20 remains
Qui Nhon Collection Point 20 remains
Tuy Hoa Collection Point 80 remains
140 remains

 

USASUPCOM, DA NANG

DaNang Mortuary 140 remains
Phu Bai Collection Point 15 remains
Camp Evans Collection Point 15 remains
170 remains

 

Figure 3.

PERSONNEL:

The rotation policy adversely affected the responsiveness of the memorial activities system in processing personal property. There was a continuous drain of experienced personnel replaced by new and relatively inexperienced personnel. Command emphasis and constant supervision were required to ensure that proper procedures were followed. A thorough orientation of new personnel and repetitious training were required to maintain effectiveness.

The skill level of personnel assigned to graves registration units has been generally good. However, many personnel, even though trained in the classroom, have seldom had close contact with human remains. Initially there is a critical period during which one's ability to work in the memorial activities field is determined. Personnel who have inherent fears of working around human remains cannot be depended upon to exercise the meticulous care required in the processing and must be removed from the job.

IDENTIFICATION AIDS:

One of the most important aspects of casualty reporting is the accurate identification of the remains of deceased personnel. Improper identification of remains results in added grief to the next of kin of the deceased and causes unnecessary embarrassment to the military. The wearing of identification tags and properly marked boots and clothing, together with the carrying of identification cards, are of the most importance in identifying remains. Command emphasis has been placed on these requirements, but surveys disclose that less than 50 percent of the remains in the Vietnam War had identification tags and cards when recovered. Less than 10 percent had identifying marks on their boots and belts.

An equally important means of identification is fingerprinting. The proven reliability of fingerprints, coupled with their availability and immediate verification, makes them an invaluable part of the mortuary's identification process. The number of cases identified by this method emphasizes the importance of fingerprints and footprints. Seventy percent of the cases processed (5,033 of 7,241) at the Tan Son Nhut mortuary during 1968 were identified by fingerprints. During the first seven months of 1969, seventy-five percent of the cases (3,207 of 4,267) were identified by this method.

Other important means of identifying remains are as follows.

The matching of the remains with recorded characteristics of race, height, hair color, tattoos, scars, healed fractures, injuries, cause of death, markings on clothing and jewelry.

Matching of the remains teeth with the official dental records by the means of a dental chart is a tedious and time-consuming process. However, it is one of the most effective means of identification.

All Vietnamese remains that came into the possession of the collection points or mortuaries were immediately delivered to the local province chief or ARVN graves registration collection point. 1st Logistical Command collection points or mortuaries did not process Vietnamese remains unless there was doubt as to their national origin. As soon as they were determined to be Vietnamese, they were transferred to the custody of a Vietnamese official. When high casualty rates occurred and there was a significant number of Vietnamese to be delivered, province chiefs would sometimes refused to accept remains, especially if they were North Vietnamese or Viet Cong. The normal reason given for refusal was that they did not have the capability to process a large number of remains. In such cases, major commanders were authorized by HQ USARV to accomplish a temporary mass burial of enemy deceased.

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