In 1947, ghost ships appeared on the oceans. They carried the dead.
The story began in the dark days of World War II. Casualties mounted on battlefields worldwide, but the United States did not send its dead home. Instead, bodies were buried in makeshift cemeteries overseas. After the war, the thinking went, the U.S. government would worry about what to do about its dead.
Once peace returned, Congress began to wrestle with that very question. In 1946, Congress passed a bill allowing relatives to decide where their loved one should be permanently laid to rest. They could choose an American military cemetery overseas, a national cemetery in the states, or a private cemetery. Quartermaster Form 345, “Request for Disposition of Remains,” was the instrument families used to inform the U.S. government of their choice.
As relatives submitted these forms in droves, disinterments began. The first took place in July 1947 at Henri Chapelle, a cemetery in Belgium. After a special program complete with bands, salutes, and dignitaries, the hard work began.
The process went like this: workers thrust shovels into the damp sod and dug up the bodies that required moving. They copied the inscription of each grave marker onto a form, removed the dead man’s dog tag, and then discarded the marker. Turning to the remains, workers then verified the identify and then escorted them to the cemetery’s morgue.
At the morgue, each body underwent further preparation; any clothing was removed and burned. Deodorants and embalming chemicals were sprayed on the decomposing corpse. Next, the body was wrapped in a new blanket, covered with a sheet, and then placed carefully in a brand new, two-hundred-pound metal casket lined with rayon satin. A worker then pinned one dog tag to the blanket, attached the other to the end of the casket, verified the shipping address, and sealed the casket. Another worker then placed each casket in a shipping container and stenciled on the dead man’s information along with container’s destination address.
Next, caskets from Henri Chapelle and other cemeteries were trucked to a nearby port and loaded onto ships that would take them home. They called these vessels ghost ships because they mostly carried so many dead.
Upon arrival at a stateside port, the ghost ships were unloaded and then the containers shipped across the country to their final destination. For weeks, funeral cars filled America’s railways. Full fare was paid for each casualty, and their names appeared on each train’s passenger manifest. Many civilians removed their hats when they saw the cars, while others wondered why the government went to all the trouble and expense.
Today, not many people know the story of how 170,000 American bodies flooded the railways of America as they came home from foreign battlefields. It took six years and cost more than $200 million, but the massive, well-coordinated, and terribly sad process brought our boys home. It was done lovingly and respectfully, and it serves as a stark reminder of the terrible cost of World War II.
Thanks to the MIA Project of the 99th Infantry Division and Henri-Chappelle Cemetery, you can watch a video of the process here. Caution – parts are not for sensitive viewers.
For the full story of one man’s journey home, please see The Lost Soldier.