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Tragic History

Quartermaster Review January-February 1946

The white of the parachutes made a blur in the warm darkness of the May evening over Honshu. The plane lurched on, crippled by flak and with its engines coughing out their last efforts. The villagers of Kamiomi stood outside their homes, awestruck, as the comet overhead settled earthward and finally slipped to a crashing, flaming stop in a small clearing just outside the town. At Oigosuga, and at Nanae, the townsfolk gathered around the two American flyers who had parachuted to safety. They were slightly burned, but safe, and they surrendered themselves to the Japanese military and were taken into custody. At Kamiomi the villagers labored at the wreckage of the plane. Six bodies were still in the flame-wracked fuselage; they were taken out, badly mangled. One man was found in the wing wreckage; two more had been thrown clear and lay some distance from the plane. All were burned beyond recognition.

The villagers gathered up the remains and carried them into Kamiomi. There they performed the funeral rites and cremated the nine. The ashes were placed in nine small boxes and were then removed to the Temple of Kamiomi, where they remained until their recovery and transfer to their present resting-place at the USAF Mausoleum in Yokohama. Investigation will identify the two surviving flyers, a through them identification of the victims will follow.

This is an example of the work of Graves Registration, Memorial Branch, as it comes from Brig. Gen. George E. Hartman, Chief Quartermaster, USASCOMC, logistical headquarters supporting the 8th Army. It is one of many such cases in the files–cases which illustrate the difficulties and perseverance involved in identifying and giving proper burial to the thousands of American and Allied dead-flyers and prisoners of war-who made the final sacrifice on Japanese soil.

The USAF Mausoleum is a dignified stone building on Yokohama’s principal street. It houses the remains of 931 Allied dead, of which 236 are American, four unknown. There are Englishmen, Dutchmen, Canadians, Australians, Norwegians, and Chinese. Their ashes, each in its urn, stand together united in death as in life, waiting for the last step in the long voyage home. For the most part they were prisoners of war, taken during the long years when the Japanese ruled thousands of miles of stolen lands. Some of these men were cremated by local authorities and their ashes were reverently passed on from prisoner to prisoner as their original custodians fell victims to disease and death. Some are neatly boxed, and a few have small ribbons of black-tributes from those who survived to see liberation and to hand over their trust to the American Occupational Army. The urns are found in camps, in towns, and in temples by the recovery teams of Graves Registration. No stone is left unturned; no story is heard without thorough investigation by these trained men. When recovery is made and identification is verified, the War Department is notified, and telegrams go forward ending the long period of suspense and grief which so many families have suffered.

General Hartman’s Graves Registration Unit has been administered by 1st Lt. J. L. Lipshultz and 2nd Lt. H. J. Schroder, with an able body of assistants. Patrols and investigations are made by officers and men appointed to this duty, and the thoroughness of their methods is evident in the results achieved. It is largely through the efforts of the Chief Quartermaster’s Graves Registration branch that the tragic history of our prisoners of war is being written. The vanished and missing men paid with their lives for our unpreparedness. It is our reverent duty to see that their earthly remains are safeguarded, as their memories always will be, by their fellow-countrymen, in sympathy, in dignity, and in reverence.


IN May 1945 the Army’s 601st Graves Registration Company undertook its most difficult assignment when it began retracing the route of the infamous–Bataan Death March to recover and identify the remains of Americans who died during that journey.

From Mariveles, a town at the southern tip of Bataan, Highway No.3 stretches northward through the towns of Balanga, Orani, and Bacolor, and runs 120 miles north to the town of San Fernando, where the six-day march ended. All along this route lie the bodies of Americans, English, Dutch, and Filipinos, unclaimed and unidentified after nearly four years of war. With the capitulation of the Japanese on Bataan early this spring, the Army set to work to track down all information that might lead to identification and proper burial of the Bataan defenders.

Army officials decided that the task might be simplified if an actual participant of the Death March could be found-a man who knew the route, the names of some of the victims, and the places where men had fallen. The only person still in the Philippines at that time who participated in the march was M/Sgt. Abie Abraham, released from Cabanatuan Prison by the 6th Rangers in January. At the personal request of General MacArthur, Abraham, a nineteen-year Army veteran, consented to help the 601st in their efforts.

The problems to be surmounted were many. There were no official Army records of either the men on the march or the men who had died at the hands of the Japanese. Men of the 601st had no idea what three years of tropic rains and rapid growth of vegetation could do to hastily-made graves. Also, there remained the greatest problem of all–proper identification of bodies.

For lack of official information, Graves Registration officials turned to Filipino civilians for aid. The first platoon of the 601st, then under the command of Lieutenant Manuel Nieves, contacted civilians in the town of Balanga, about halfway up from Mariveles, the starting-point. Public officials of the town were asked to announce to the townspeople that any information they might possess would be of great value. At Sunday services priests asked their congregations for cooperation.

A public meeting was held in the square of Balanga, and Sergeant Abraham was introduced as a survivor of the Death March. He told of seeing some of his comrades die when the weary, tortured marchers reached Balanga, and questioned the natives as to the disposition of the bodies.

At this point Mario Bugay, a resident of the barrio, volunteered that he saw a burial take place near his home. Upon questioning it was learned that the man had not died on the march itself but had been killed a few months later while on a work detail in Balanga.

Bugay was asked how the man buried there was killed. “He was very weak at that time,” Bugay replied. “The Japanese called for him but he could not move, so the guard clubbed him to death. He was buried by his comrades.”

Bugay went on to describe the man as being about 5 feet 11 inches tall, quite thin and pale. Another Filipino, Alfredo Pardillo, stated that he knew the name of the American soldier from an epitaph on the grave. Questioned as to how he could remember the name for such a long period of time, Pardillo answered, “I can remember the name, sir, because I have read it here during unforgettable times.”

When the body was found and disinterred, evidence of a fracture on the left side of the skull was discovered, substantiating Bugay’s story. It was also possible to make a tooth chart to establish identity by checking against War Department files.

Unfortunately, all such recoveries were not so easily accomplished. At the present time, six months after the job was started, very few bodies have been positively identified.

In all towns where meetings are held, Sergeant Abraham is introduced and does his best to search fading memories for information. Stenographic reports are kept of all interviews held. At first the Filipinos were reluctant to assemble, remembering the meetings held by the Japanese at which machine-guns and rifle-butts exercised persuasion. American understanding and kindness soon won their confidence, however, and the numbers of volunteers gradually increased.

As the weeks went by and clues began to take shape it became apparent that, although many individual graves and common graves amounting to small cemeteries could be found, this was merely the beginning of the problem. Many more complicating factors arose. In some cases, after the passage of the Death March, entire towns were driven to the hills, and in the void that was left no one remained to care for the dead. Swollen streams and tropical rains had washed away the shallow, makeshift graves and in some instances scavenger animals had taken their toll.

Fearing detection by the Japanese, Filipinos sometimes carried bodies hundreds of yards from the road, burying them in swampy land or rice paddies. Conflicting stories arise. Witnesses to any event will always have slightly different versions, and in this case varying evidence on the location of graves must be taken into account and investigated.

The Filipino’s natural love for trinkets became another barrier to success. From many talks with the natives along the route it was evident that they had fallen into possession of many souvenirs such as bars, stripes, unit insignia, and identification tags. These ”souvenirs,” either given to them by American soldiers or taken from the bodies of the dead, were naturally final and absolute identification factors.

Some of these had long ago been lost by the Filipinos, and some had become such prized possessions that their owners were reluctant to part with them. Graves registration officials promised the natives they would not be deprived of their souvenirs the Army merely wished to examine them for possible evidence.

As each grave is found it is marked with a white cross, and detailed, scaled maps are made of the grave location. At one point near Bacolor, a few miles south of San Fernando, a white cross stands in a ditch by the roadway. A little farther south, about a hundred yards from the highway in a wet, marshy field, the graves of twenty unidentified dead are marked staked off. The 601st has orders to disinter for proper burial only identified bodies, so while work toward this end continues, the dead lie in their initial resting-places.

“Approaching San Fernando,” comments Sergeant Abraham “casualties were naturally the heaviest. By this time, after nearly six days of marching, we were all about done for, and the Japs didn’t hesitate to use their rifles and bayonets on stragglers. I was in good condition from my days as boxing coach of the 31st Division, so I managed to make it. Around San Fernando is where most of our work will have to be done.”

The 601st Graves Registration Company, now under the command of Lieutenant Walter Maner, has been overseas for two years and has many campaigns to its credit. From New Guinea, Hollandia, Biak, and on up to Leyte and Luzon in the Philippines, its members have participated in assault-wave landings, going in with frontline troops to care for Americans killed in action. Disregarding all danger, despite their many casualties, the officers and men of the company have “demonstrated remarkable efficiency, initiative, and outstanding devotion to duty; and by their determination, ingenuity, and professional skill have rendered an outstanding service to the United States Government.” A well-seasoned group with very high moral they have laid an excellent foundation for further investigation of the atrocious Death March. The search is still in progress, but the slow, painstaking process may last for many, years.