Beigel tells the story of the American government’s efforts to bring home the country’s World War II dead in this nonfiction debut.
Of all the nations that participated in World War II, only the United States repatriated its war dead. This is now commonplace, but at the time, it was an unprecedented logistical feat, intended to bring closure to the families of those who lost their lives in overseas conflicts: “In many cases, the recovery and return of the remains happened five years or more after their deaths,” writes Beigel in a preface, adding that “The time, effort, and national treasure spent to repatriate the war dead of the United States…is utterly unique in the annals of global history.” Beigel is a professional researcher who’s investigated the deaths and burials of over 2,000 American service members on behalf of their relatives, and in this book, he tells the largely unknown story of how the “Return of the World War II Dead Program” came about. He includes excerpts from the letters of grief-stricken mothers and contemporary newspaper reports that show the growing public demand for bringing the soldiers’ bodies home. In the book’s second half, Beigel goes into the stories of individual soldiers, describing how they were killed, the feelings of their families, and the struggles of military officials to deliver on their promises.
Beigel’s prose is clean and concise throughout. His tone is often quite sentimental, but he still manages to tell soldiers’ stories with poise: “He was buried on the twelfth of July in a very small cemetery located on the road from St. Croce, Camerina, northwest one-half mile. Sergeant Drullinger was laid to rest between two of his fellow soldiers from F Company, both, by chance, small-town Oklahomans.” The words of the parents themselves are even more affecting; for example, here’s the father of Sgt. David Wilson, who feared that the Army hadn’t kept track of his son: “We realize that he was just a common G.I. and rated very low with the army. But he was very dear to us and our only son, so you can see how we would appreciate some detailed information.” Overall, the book provides a clear window into an operation that most Americans will likely know little about. Readers will also be left with a great feeling of respect for the importance of ritual when dealing with the deceased. One particularly difficult situation involved Maj. Frederick Koebig and 1st Lt. Anthony Kuhn, two bomber crewmen who survived the crash of their plane only to be captured by the Japanese in the South Pacific. They were killed when their prison camp was unintentionally bombed during an Allied raid, then cremated by the Japanese and placed in a box along with the ashes of 27 other American and Australian prisoners. Nevertheless, the U.S. military found a way to bring them home in a manner that was respectful to all the men with whom they were interred.
A moving tribute to fallen soldiers and their survivors.