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The Forgotten Story of How the Fallen of WWII Came Home


DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Fifteen million Americans served in the military during World War II, and about 359,000 Americans died in the war.

Today, when someone dies in Iraq or Afghanistan, their body comes home within a matter of days. During World War II, the dead were buried in temporary cemeteries, most of them near the battlefields where they died.

After the war ended in 1945, the U.S. government embarked on an unprecedented project - to recover as many of the dead as possible and to bring them back to America for reburial.

Every family who lost a service member overseas was given three options: have their loved one's body shipped back to their home towns for burial, have them reburied in one of the 14 permanent military cemeteries that were being set up in the Philippines, Hawaii and in Europe, or have them reburied in a national cemetery in the United States.

All shipping costs were paid for by the government, and each casket received a military escort back to the deceased's hometown.

In the fall of 1947, the first of the transport ships started arriving - to the port of San Francisco for casualties from the Pacific and to the port of New York for European casualties.

The Joseph V. Connolly arrived in New York on the morning of Oct. 26, 1947, containing 6,248 steel caskets containing the remains of those killed in the European theater of operations. On the deck of the Connolly was a solitary flag-draped casket surrounded by an honor guard.

The casket contained the body of an unnamed Medal of Honor winner who died in the Battle of the Bulge, selected to represent the rest of the fallen aboard the Connolly, and the tens of thousands more young men who would be coming home in the months and years ahead.

Shortly before 1 p.m., the casket was carried ashore by pallbearers and placed on a caisson. A procession of 6,000 military personnel, including Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, escorted the body up Fifth Avenue in a solemn parade to Central Park for a memorial service. More than 400,000 New Yorkers lined the streets to watch the sad procession and another 150,000 were at the park for the service.

The next day, the Connolly was moved to the Brooklyn Army Base, where the caskets were unloaded and prepared for shipments to cities and towns all over America.

In the back issues from 1947 and 1948 of my local daily newspaper, the Brattleboro Reformer, you will see the names and faces of the dead who came home, one by one. Every few weeks, a new notice appeared - a reminder of the sacrifices made by so many families in World War II.

Typical of the honors given those returning was what was done for Sgt. Robert C. Brooks of Brattleboro, Vt. He was the first of that town's war dead to return under this program. The 1942 Brattleboro High School graduate enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was a gunner on a B-24. He was killed in a plane crash on the island of Morotal, Netherlands West Indies, on Jan. 10, 1945.

His body arrived by train at Brattleboro's Union Station on Tuesday night, July 6, 1948. A group of fellow veterans escorted his casket up Main Street in a procession to Rodhe's Funeral Home, where they posted an honor guard at his bier. The next day, funeral services were held at the First Baptist Church and Brooks was buried with full military honors in Meetinghouse Hill Cemetery.

This scene was repeated all around Vermont and New Hampshire, and the rest of the nation, as the fallen were returned to their hometowns.

They had a funeral service at the Hinsdale, N.H., town hall for Ensign Channing Rouillard, a Naval pilot who was killed in the South Pacific. He came home on Oct. 30, 1947, and services were held three days later.

The stores in Bellows Falls, Vt., shut down on the morning of Oct. 31, 1947, for the funeral procession of Lt. Edward J. Nachajski of nearby North Walpole, N.H. He was a bomber pilot who was shot down in the South Pacific on Jan. 24, 1944.

Lt. Michael E. Butinsky of South Vernon, Vt., was only in the European Theater of Operations for one month when he was shot down over Poland in December 1944. His grave was found in May 1948 and his body eventually made it home to Vermont.

Pvt. Charles E. Cole of Wilmington, Vt., and Sgt. Alfred G. Tier of West Dummerston, Vt., were both killed in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. Both their bodies returned home in July 1948.

It took more than six years and cost more than $200 million (the equivalent of several billion dollars today) to return the bodies of 233,181 dead American servicemen to their homes and to rebury another 93,000 in overseas military cemeteries. More than 78,000 remain missing in action six decades later.

"The vast reburial program after World War II is all but forgotten today," wrote historian David P. Colley, who detailed the program in his 2004 book, "Safely Rest."

"There is no glory in the saga of the dead, and this operation was not connected to any massive invasion armada or to a victorious battle or campaign where heroes are made. It was conducted for the most part in obscurity, and the men in this huge army of the dead were mute. Today we think of these men, many merely boys, but once a year and not so much as real individuals but as part of the fabric of myth on which the nation is built. We think of them as abstractions and we do not know the details of their return."

But they weren't abstractions. For 359,000 American families, they were sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers who never got the chance to live out their lives.

The memories have dimmed with the passing decades, but for the survivors of those who died in World War II, and in subsequent wars, the pain never completely goes away. As we stop and remember the fallen on this Memorial Day, let us think of these families and their pain.

Editor's Note: This article was also published in the American Reporter. The author, Randolph T. Holhut, has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at randyholhut@yahoo.com


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