Tis a hazy recollection but nevertheless a fact, it was over 70 years ago I was sent to Europe as a teenage soldier for the de-Nazification of Germany. Though it was a depressing subject, last week I did a column on military desertion. I know from talking to a few readers the figures used there were shocking; however, to the best of my knowledge, they were correct.
This week I’d like to tie up a few loose ends the desertion column may have left with you. First, there was passing mention of St. Germain, France. That place is a suburb, part of Paris. When Iris and I visited Paris in 1979, the Corps was gone, but for many years American Forces had used an area with ample housing for our huge “Graves Registration Corps” operations. That organization had an overwhelming job of processing tens of thousands of names from lists of dead, missing in action and deserters.
Serving at the Graves Registration Center was difficult duty. No one wanted to work there. Sometimes special inducements were offered by the Army to soldiers who would volunteer to serve there for a short time. All communications between European Graves Registration and their offices in the Pentagon passed through the ETO Headquarters Signal Center in Frankfurt, Germany, where I was a shift supervisor.
One of the biggest challenges was locating bodies buried all across Europe of those killed in action.
Battle records were often confusing. The remains had to be identified when possible, contact made with the family back in the United States, and decisions made to put them in the caskets and shipped home, or placed in one of the big cemeteries set aside for that purpose, mainly in France, not in Germany. There were untold numbers of missing whose fate could not be classified. Many still aren’t.
One of the first events I took part in was pulling honor guard on approximately 5,000 caskets stacked on piers at the port of LeHavre, France, on the English Channel. Those were the first shipments of Americans back home where one or two military volunteers then accompanied them to hometowns. The escorts were often veterans awaiting discharge at various posts. They were still busy at that business in the spring of 1949 when I was discharged in New Jersey.
An obvious fact was the vast number of World War II desertions took place in Europe. People there look just like we do. It was not practical to desert in the Pacific Theater, on a place like Iwo Jima. We know quite a few Americans actually hid in Germany. One case we learned of the in the 1970s was a man who married a German woman and became mayor of her small village there.
It has been a few years since I checked the figures of Americans “missing in action” but not that long ago it was still near 100,000. How many were deserters? We will never know.
One was private Eddie Slovik.
Editor’s update: According to the Defense Department Missing in Action Accounting Agency, at the end of the war, there were approximately 79,000 Americans unaccounted for. This number included those buried with honor as unknowns, officially buried at sea, lost at sea, and missing in action.
G. George Ostrom is an award winning columnist. He lives in Kalispell.