Mortuary Affairs Operations At Malmedy-Lessons Learned From A Historic Tragedy
by Major Scott T. Glass
Quartermaster Professional Bulletin-Autumn 1997
The author thanks First Sergeant Francis Miner of the 3060th Quartermaster Company,Colonel David A. Pergrin of the 291st Engineer Battalion, Joseph Potten of Malmedy, and Henri Rogister of Liege, Belgium. Without their assistance, this article would not have been possible.
Throughout US Army history, Quartermaster Corps soldiers have performed countless noteworthy logistical missions. During the Malmedy Massacre mortuary affairs operation, Quartermaster soldiers added to the Corps' legacy of mission accomplishment in the face of adverse conditions. Lessons learned from this World War II operation can apply to present-day mortuary affairs missions.
In December 1944, Germany launched its Ardennes Offensive (called the "Battle of the Bulge"). The axis of advance chosen by the German high command ran through the Ardennes Forest in the tri-border area of Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. Part of German preparation for the attack included directions from military leaders to all troops: fight with the utmost brutality. German officers urged their soldiers to show no mercy, even to prisoners of war.
Later, a German assault unit would murder US prisoners of war (POWs) at the Baugnez crossroads in Belgium, southeast of the town of Malmedy. The event would occur December 17, 1944, and become known as the Malmedy Massacre. Although not an isolated incident because the German unit that carried out the killings was responsible for at least THREE similar incidents that day, the Malmedy Massacre is the best-known event of its type. Quartermaster soldiers in the graves registration (now mortuary affairs) service recovered and processed the remains of the murdered soldiers.
COL Joachim Peiper was commander of an armored battle group from the 1st SS Panzer Division during the German offensive. The SS (abbreviation for Schutzstaffel elite guard) units had earned their reputation as some of Germany's most capable and sadistic fighters. Indeed, in earlier fighting on the Russian Front, a unit commanded by Peiper earned the nickname "The Blowtorch Battalion" for actions against captured Russian villages and their inhabitants. On December 17, the offensive's second day, Peiper strove to keep his attack going and take advantage of initial US confusion.
The US Army's Battery B, 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion had begun a road march from bases in Holland to Luxembourg on December 16. The march passed through Malmedy around 1200 on December 17 before the German offensive interrupted this movement. An officer from the battery's parent battalion riding with the march element stopped and conferred briefly with LTC David A. Pergrin, commander of the 291st Engineer Battalion holding the town. Although strongly cautioned by LTC Pergrin about likely contact with German combat units to the east of Malmedy, the battery officer continued the road march.
At about the same time, Peiper's German tanks and mechanized infantry were maneuvering southeast of the Baugnez crossroads on a route that would pass south of that intersection. However, Peiper detoured in order to use a hard-surface road more suitable for his vehicles. This detour would take Peiper on a loop through Baugnez. At approximately 1300, as Battery B moved through the Bauguez intersection, Peiper struck from the northeast. The clash was brief and violent. With no weapon larger than a machine gun and with German tanks and infantry closing in, the battery commander surrendered. The US soldiers dropped their rifles, and Peiper's men herded them into a field at the crossroads.
Crime Of War
Soldiers of Battery B huddled in the snow. A few US POWs that Peiper's men had captured earlier in the day and had forced to ride along on the German combat vehicles joined the soldiers of Battery B. Peiper and the armored spearhead then continued south towards Ligneuville.
Several armored vehicles and a group of German soldiers watched over the US soldiers. Accounts differ, but apparently within a few minutes of Peiper's departure, an unidentified German officer ordered a tank crew to fire on the US POWs. One shot rang out, then another, and then a fusillade of small arms and machine-gun fire scythed into the US ranks.
A few POWs bolted, but most fell where they stood - either killed or seriously wounded. German fire cut down almost all who tried to escape before they could run very far. The SS soldiers on the scene roamed among the fallen POWs, shooting or bludgeoning those who showed signs of life. Others tracked Americans fleeing the site to buildings at the intersection. They set the structures on fire and shot the US soldiers who ran outside to escape the flames.
Nearly 80 US soldiers died at Baugnez after surrendering. Some, however, managed to elude the Germans. A couple hid and did not participate in the battery's surrender. Several ran and found cover during the shooting at the killing field. Incredibly, some in the killing field itself most of them with serious wounds, managed to avoid detection by playing dead and escaping later. These survivors filtered into the 291st Engineer Battalion positions at Malmedy, giving the massacre its name.
Collecting and Cataloging
By late afternoon, senior US leaders strongly suspected the murder of a large number of POWs near Malmedy. Recovery of the remains to confirm what had happened and also to gather and preserve evidence for a possible war crimes investigation became a primary goal.
However, it was not until January 13,1945, that US units recaptured the area around Baugnez. The US First Army headquarters selected a unit for recovery operations and deployed an Inspector General (IG) team to exercise overall control of the remains collection operation.
The 3060th Quartermaster Graves Registration Service Company's 4th Platoon drew the assignment of recovering, processing and identification the remains. The company had activated in October 1944 and started training its assigned soldiers in France. Company personnel began performing actual graves registration duties during the last week of December. Under the supervision of the platoon leader and first sergeant, the platoon element arrived in the Malmedy area and entered the massacre site on January 13, 1945, immediately after US units had recaptured the crossroads area.
Snow had fallen several times since the massacre and a fresh snowfall covered the bodies. Temperatures had hovered below freezing, and the Germans had made no attempt to bury the bodies. These factors combined to keep the remains remarkably preserved.
The 3060th personnel conferred with the IG team, physicians and representatives of the 291st Engineer Battalion before establishing recovery operations procedures. Operations began at the massacre field on January 14, 1945, and ended late the next day.
Throughout the operation, the recovery field remained a frontline combat area. The US Infantry had dug foxholes across a corner of the field, and German artillery observers could see the activity around the crossroads area. On several occasions, incoming German artillery fire forced temporary suspension of work. In some cases, the shelling mangled some of the remains, complicating recovery and identification.
Heavy snowfall, enemy shelling and lack of available eyewitnesses to the atrocity prevented the Quartermaster soldiers from conducting thorough, systematic searches to locate all of the widely scattered remains. Still, over the next four months, the surrounding area yielded 12 sets of remains all later identified.
Location of individual remains required assistance from a platoon of the 291st Engineer Battalion. The 291st Engineers used mine detectors to locate the bodies from the metal of gear or personal effects. When mine detectors located a set of remains, Quartermaster soldiers used brooms to sweep away the snow covering the bodies.
Graves registration personnel assigned each set of remains a two-digit number Two Signal Corps combat cameramen photographed the initial location and general condition of each body. (This photographing is specifically prohibited in Joint Publication 4-06 (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures for Mortuary Affairs and Joint Operations) except when explicitly authorized for official use.)
After the photographs had been taken, graves registration personnel removed each body to a nearby road. In addition to being frozen, most bodies had also frozen firmly to the ground and, in some cases, to other remains. After separating remains from the ground and each other, a careful search under the bodies yielded personal effects. These effects, if any were found, accompanied the body as soldiers removed it from the field on an ordinary stretcher Workers removed neither equipment nor personal effects from any remains during the recovery process.
Secure From Observation
Litter teams from the 3200th Quartermaster Service Company and the 291st Engineer Battalion
carried the remains several hundred meters on a road leading to Malmedy to a point secure from German observation. There the teams loaded the remains onto trucks for the short trip to the processing site. Although 3060th soldiers did not refer to the processing site as a mortuary affairs collection point (MACP), the site and the work conducted there were remarkably consistent with today's MACP
The 3060th set up processing operations in an abandoned railway building in Malmedy The building had bombing and artillery damage to its roof and walls and had no running water and no electricity to permit night operations. However, it was the best available facility which combined space, proximity to the recovery site, security and access to operation support. Processing operations ceased at nightfall.
Other advantages of the railway building included a tile floor for laying out the remains and the building's relative obscurity, which sheltered it from public view. The temperature inside stayed little above freezing, and workers had to set up several coal-burning drums to provide some heat. Upon entering the railway station, 3060th Quartermaster Company workers placed the remains on the tile floor and then moved them to tables for processing. They then removed any bulky; outer, winter garments that would impede examination of body wounds. Processing included searching these garments for personnel effects that might assist with identification. These personal items would prove valuable later.
The 3060th soldiers filled out emergency medical tags of the type then in use, collected and secured personal effects such as pens, letters, watches and wallets. Processing included a preliminary identification. Usually a single identification tag around the neck of a remains could establish identity sufficiently
If processors did not find a tag around the neck of the victim and instead found a tag somewhere else such as a pocket, a search of other personal effects was required to establish identity. Common practice for laundry marking at that time required US soldiers to mark the last four numbers of their Army service number on their clothing. This provided another frequently used way to check the identity of Malmedy victims.
Fingerprints also helped establish identity. In some cases, soldiers used hypodermic needles to inject water in the remains' digits to firm and fill out fingertips to allow a quality fingerprint. Almost none of the Quartermaster soldiers who were processing remains had received formal mortuary affairs training before deploying to Europe. This skill was one that had been specifically identified as critical and taught to new soldiers in the 3060th in France.
Shortly after initial processing, three Medical Corps physicians, under close observation by the First Army IG team, performed autopsies on each set of remains. The autopsy team in nearly every instance used the two-digit number assigned in the massacre field to track and record the procedures. It was still possible that the massacre survivors could have been mistaken, and the dead soldiers had died as a result of combat injuries. First Army headquarters meant to specifically determine if death had resulted from combat action or shooting after capture.
A survey of the 72 autopsies and photographs of remains on file indicate at least 20 had potentially fatal gunshot wounds to the head inflicted at very close range in addition to wounds from automatic weapons. Most head wounds showed powder burns on the remains' skin. An additional 20 showed evidence of small caliber gunshot wounds to the head without powder burn residue. Another 10 had fatal crushing or blunt trauma injuries, most likely from a German rifle butt. This easily confirmed US suspicions that a serious atrocity actually did occur.
Only a couple of the personal effects registers or autopsy records mention the remains having identification tags. As thorough as the effects search and autopsy records are, it can be assumed that the massacred soldiers were not wearing their identification tags at the time of death. These identification tags, very similar to the ones in present use and presumably readily available, should have been worn. Why the soldiers in the Malmedy Massacre did not have identification tags is not known.
This made recovery of personal effects associated with each remains critical to identification. Effects most valuable for identification purposes included pay books, wallets, rank insignia, small Bibles and religious tracts, rings, watches and personal letters found on or under the remains. Despite the almost complete absence of identification tags worn on the remains, 3060th Quartermaster soldiers identified all the remains with certainty equal to that expected of modern mortuary affairs operations: 100 percent.
After processing, identification and autopsy, each remains received a tagged mattress cover as a burial shroud. Several times daily during the recovery operation, trucks evacuated the processed remains to a US military cemetery servicing units operating in the Malmedy area of Belgium. Freezing cold and quick evacuation made refrigeration facilities unnecessary.
For US soldiers killed at Baugnez, their initial resting place after processing would be a temporary theater cemetery at Henri-Chappelle, Belgium, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Malmedy. (The site eventually became a permanent US cemetery for nearly 8,000 war dead.) Once buried, they waited until the end of the war for next-of-kin decisions to either leave them in Europe or bring them back to the US for final burial. Many families chose to bring the soldiers home for interment, but 21 victims of the Malmedy Massacre still rest at Henri-Chappelle.
The Malmedy Massacre happened 52 years ago. Although Quartermaster mortuary affairs doctrine has undergone many changes since then, lessons learned from the operation still apply to operations today. Covered in Joint Publication 4-06, these operations range from combat operations to disasters to humanitarian relief operations.
Importance of Formal Training. Just THREE soldiers in the 3060th Quartermaster Company had extensive service as morticians or funeral directors before World War II. The unit capitalized on this experience by having the skilled men teach the newly arrived soldiers. These new soldiers came straight from combat units. Almost without exception, they lacked any formal mortuary affairs experience, although a considerable number had seen combat and the resulting human wreckage. The few soldiers with experience in graves registration recognized that the new troops could not be trained to standard on every possible task. Instead, they identified several key training tasks that the unit commander endorsed. Training on these critical tasks accounted for much of November and early December 1944. The recovery and processing of actual remains at the Baugnez crossroads exercised many of these tasks.
Today's commanders of units with mortuary affairs soldiers or sub-units should enthusiastically support peacetime training and exchange programs to build and sustain technical competence. Formally trained and experienced mortuary affairs specialists are the cornerstone of training programs to expand a unit's capabilities when required.
Search Operations. Search operations at the Baugnez field produced 72 remains in three days. A deep blanket of snow clearly hampered the search effort, as did the direct proximity to German positions. Mostly separated from the central massacre field, another 12 remains were located in the next four months after the snow melted. It is possible that these deaths resulted from the collision with Peiper's unit, causing a scattered distribution. The search conducted was probably the most thorough possible under the circumstances. Leaders coordinating searches today must use the methods and checklists in Joint Publication 4-06 to make searches as productive as possible.
Work Site Selection. Several factors prevented using large buildings near the recovery site as a primary workplace. First, the site remained under German aircraft overflights, observation and intermittent artillery fire. Second, a smaller railway building with some heat source would greatly ease the cold conditions for soldiers performing the processing operations. Third, the railway building in Malmedy was much closer to the barracks and mess facility supporting the workers. Fourth, the smaller building's location was easily protected from public view. Fifth, the road network of Malmedy could be easily accessed from the railway building. Although not a perfect site, the railway building offered the best combination of advantages and the fewest disadvantages. Using Joint Publication 4-06 checklists as a yardstick, the MACP building satisfied most of today's requirements.
Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) Expertise. The 3060th's first sergeant arrived with the advance party. This was a wise decision by the company leadership. Even though the platoon leader also traveled with the advance party, the first sergeant's presence ensured the availability of an NCO thoroughly experienced in remains handling. He had been one of the three initial members of the company with previous training and job experience in mortuary affairs. Sending an experienced NCO with unit advance or quartering parties, no matter what the organization's primary support mission, will pay dividends. The mortuary affairs NCO can recommend facilities and sites that best support the mortuary affairs mission.
Locally Contracted Labor. The US Army did not use local labor to assist with the operation. Before World War I, the Malmedy area had been part of Germany. Local families had contributed sons to the German army in World War II. In fact, local residents had pointed out hiding places of some US soldiers attempting to escape the massacre to German troops. During the operation, leaders considered the use of local labor to conserve US manpower, but these factors ruled it out. Even so, today's leaders planning and organizing recovery operations should consider using local labor if allowed by higher authority and if the supporting civil affairs unit can coordinate the use.
Emotional and Mental Health. Mortuary affairs soldiers, as well as the soldiers who assist with recovery operations, will definitely experience some emotional or mental discomfort because of the extremely taxing nature of these duties. This discomfort may range from mild to severe. The discomfort and its effects might not manifest themselves immediately.
Commanders must recognize these facts and plan ways to offset them, ESPECIALLY if the unit will need augmentation from other units to accomplish its mortuary affairs missions. Ways to reduce mental stress include chain of command involvement and assistance from chaplains, psychologists and social workers. This should be an essential part of peacetime preparation.
By the time of the Malmedy operation, most of the 3060th soldiers had some experience in recovery and processing operations. The chain of command did not see mental stress as a threat to continued operations. However, in the next war or operation, large numbers of remains threaten not only to overwhelm mortuary affairs units physically, but also mentally. Commanders must plan to identity and deal with this threat. The ability to sustain stressful mortuary affairs operations for an extended time depends on effective countermeasures to mental and emotional stress.
Coordination With Local Combat Units. This should be one of the first elements of mortuary affairs unit standing operating procedures for occupying a new area of operations. The 3060th benefited in several distinct ways from conducting in-depth, face-to-face coordination with the local combat unit-in this case the 291st Engineer Battalion. Coordination included intelligence, force protection and labor.
-Intelligence. Guides from the 291st led the 3060th advance party directly to the massacre field and advised of potential buildings for processing. This and other information enabled the 3060th to expeditiously begin on-site operations.
-Force Protection. The two forms of force protection at Malmedy were recovery site and work site. The Infantry unit occupying the massacre field provided 24-hour local security for the recovery operation and assisted with communications support. Soldiers from the 291st Engineer Battalion searched for booby traps on the remains because of rumors that retreating Germans practiced this tactic. The 3060th personnel provided guard security for the processing site after operations ceased at nightfall. During daylight hours, the Quartermasters worked secure in the knowledge that the 291st Engineer Battalion still maintained overall security of the Malmedy area. The 291st greatly eased the burden on the 3060th.
-Labor. The 3060th elements at Malmedy did not have a large supply of uncommitted labor. It is rare that a mortuary affairs unit will be able to accomplish all assigned missions without some forms of personnel and equipment augmentation. Fortunately, productive coordination with the 291st Engineer Battalion yielded labor and trucks to locate, recover and move the remains to the processing station.
Supplies and Equipment. The 3060th Quartermaster Company soldiers lacked rubber gloves, aprons, and other similar gear to insulate them from thawed ice, blood and bodily fluids. The standard issue, leather, cold weather gloves provided a poor substitute, becoming thoroughly soaked very quickly. To solve this problem, workers discarded pairs of gloves after one or two sets of remains, but this created a severe demand for a scarce supply item. No expedient item could be procured locally.
-If a mortuary affairs unit is planning to request augmentation during MACP operations, commanders must plan for sufficient items to equip the augmentee soldiers as well as organic mortuary affairs specialists. These should include additional gloves, aprons, footgear coverings and face masks, for example. The mortuary affairs specialists located in forward support battalions should include this equipment in their basic load plans.
Training With Supported Units. Military occupational specialty (MOS) 92M (Mortuary Affairs Specialist) is low-density MOS. Unforeseen circumstances in wartime, humanitarian assistance operations, disasters or other operations will rapidly outstrip mortuary affairs capabilities. This can be offset by preparing to augment mortuary affairs operations.
-Mortuary affairs NCOs at the support battalion level should aggressively offer training to the supported combat units' recovery teams. There will be little time to complete this critical training during preparation for a short-notice deployment.
-Mortuary affairs small unit leaders should prioritize some key skills and build training programs for quickly training mortuary operation augmentees. The programs should be oriented to personnel with no knowledge of mortuary affairs. Having these training task materials on hand and rehearsed allows a unit to rapidly train and integrate augmentees toward mission accomplishment. Particularly vital are training in personal health, sanitation and use of protective equipment to prevent the spread of disease.
Public Affairs and the Media. Leaders of large-scale mortuary affairs operations, whether in peace or war or somewhere in-between, must expect some form of media scrutiny. The simple fact is that these operations are especially newsworthy to host nation and US media.
-Leaders should have a media policy in place with designated team members for interfacing with the media. Rehearsing the designated team members on videotape with trained Army public affairs specialists is a useful technique.
-A key element of a mortuary affairs team's media policy should be to inform everyone on the team about the policy. Remember, at times it is impossible to choose the soldier that the media contacts.
The wide variety of missions assigned to the US Army present many unique challenges to mortuary affairs specialists. The Malmedy Massacre is but one example of a recovery mission challenging in terms of weather; combat conditions, resources and personnel.
Only A Matter of Time
More missions, just as challenging if not more so, are in the future of Quartermaster mortuary affairs personnel. It is only a matter of time. Applying lessons learned from this operation will help ensure that mortuary affairs units and personnel are ready to execute a Malmedy-type mission on the FIRST DAY of the next war.
Bauserman, John M., The Malmedy Massacre, White Mane Publishing Company, 1995.
Goldstein, Donald M., et.al. NUTS! The Battle of the Bulge, Prange Publishing, 1994.
Miner; Francis, Notes and interviews, 1996-1997.
Pergrin, David A., Notes and interviews, 1996-1997.