The Distant and Lost Graves

Posted by Rebekah
May 29 2010

On Memorial Day Weekend, I thought I would take an opportunity to honor the men and women who have given their lives so that the rest of us can live in freedom.  From the original soldiers and rebels of the Revolutionary war, all of whom faced a torturous death if the war had been lost and they had been captured and charged as traitors (talk about courage of conviction!) to our modern men and women on numerous bases all over the world, not only keeping us safe, but helping those in need, rebuilding in places where nature or man have destroyed, or all the other innumerable jobs the military does without complaint…

Thank You.

One of the hardest things that the families of the Navy had to face in wartime was the likelihood that if their loved one lost his life aboard his vessel, or his vessel was destroyed, that they would not ever have a grave to visit and remember them by.  Only a little less difficult were those whose sons (and now daughters too) served in conflicts abroad and might be laid to rest in those lands rather than the family plot.

Today, with modern embalming and refrigeration techniques, as many bodies as possible are returned to their families in the States.

But during WWII, that was often not possible.

In the Navy, if a ship or submarine was lost, any men lost with the vessel were lost at sea, sometimes, with no records on either side to record where that may be.  If someone died aboard a vessel during WWII, they were often buried at sea with military rites.  The body would be sewn into a canvas sack, weighted, and slid over the side of the vessel during a formal ceremony.  Even a submarine would pause when it was safest to take care of their lost brothers.  In May 1942, Mike Harbin became the first gunfire casualty of the Submarine Force aboard the USS Silversides.  A round hit him in the head and killed him instantly.  Silversides was battling it out with a small boat at the time, and two more men took Mike’s body inside with them.  After the battle, Silversides left he area submerged, and several hours later, after the body had been prepared, and the men changed into the most formal attire they had, the crew went onto the deck and held a Navy funeral for their crewmate, before sliding his body overboard.  They recorded the latitude and longitude in the deck log that day.  But his family would never be able to visit the grave.

Providing the coordinates were accurate, this is the location of the burial at sea for Mike Harbin of USS Silversides. Japan is the closest country over 750 miles away.

USS Cobia also lost a man to enemy gunfire in 1945, Seaman Huston Ralph Clark Jr., who was buried at sea. This photograph was taken during his funeral on February 27, 1945, just before his body was committed to the depths.

For the land-based military, the Marines, Army and Army Air Force (during WWII, what would eventually become the US Air Force was a part of the Army.  The Air Force would be organized as an independent branch in 1947), the casualties would often be quickly buried in temporary cemeteries erected near the battlefield.

Following the conclusion of the war, the search for a permanent memorial began.  There were serious objections to all the temporary graveyards hastily created all over the Pacific Basin, so a new cemetery was sought.  in 1948, the Government of the Philippines granted the US the right to construct a cemetery on the former site of Fort McKinley, just south west of Manila.  A lot of grading and landscaping began to create a peaceful resting place for those lost in the Pacific.

The Cemetery as it appears from the air. The Chapel and Semi-circles are clearly seen in the center, as are the radiating bands of burials. Like all American military cemeteries abroad, this land was gifted to the United States in perpetuity, and is not taxed or charged any fees of any kind. It is American sovereign soil.

The next of kin for each man whose remains could be recovered were given four options for the final resting place of those remains: repatriation to the US for burial in a private cemetery; repatriation to the US for burial in a national cemetery (such as Arlington); or burial in an American Military Cemetery abroad which would be kept in perpetuity; or leaving them where they were found.  The next of kin had until December 31, 1951 to make that decision.  Approximately 40% of families requested that their dead be buried in the new Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.

In the end, the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial covered 152 beautifully landscaped acres, and became the largest American cemetery outside the United States honoring WWII dead.  Its 17,100 headstones mark the graves of 17,206 men: 16,434 Americans and 570 Filipinos who were serving with the US Military.

13, 434 headstones mark the graves of a single, identified individual.

3,644 headstones identify the remains of a single unidentified individual (unknowns)

6 headstones mark the graves of a group of 28 men whose remains could not be separated into individuals

16 headstones mark the graves of a group of 100 men whose remains could not be separated into individuals.

But for those men buried at sea, lost with their vessels, or, for whatever reason, the resting place of their remains is known only to God, the cemetery erected a double semicircle structure called “The Tablets of the Missing” .  These immense tablets record the names of 36,285 men whose remains are lost or have not been identified.  (It is more than possible that some of the remains buried under the “Unknown” marker are listed on the Tablets.)  The names of the men of the Flier and Robalo would be engraved here.

A photograph of the "Tablets of the Missing". On the column on the right, near the top of the photo, you can see a dark dot on the name "Creighton, John", indicating that his remains have been discovered and identified. Photo taken from Google Earth's Panoramio Photos

In all, a symbol of 53,491 souls who gave all.

The last of the re-locations and burials took place in 1960, and the cemetery was dedicated on December 8, 1960, the 19th anniversary of the attack on Manila.  (The attack on Manila actually took place about eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but due to the International Date Line, it is recorded as happening on December 8, not December 7.)

Unlike a National Cemetery, where veterans and their families can be buried after a veteran’s passing whether he or she was on active duty or retired, died in the line of fire or of natural causes, the Manila Cemetery, like most of the military cemeteries abroad, is closed to further internments.  Family members of those buried there, or even those who fought alongside the men buried there cannot have their remains returned to Manila to rest with their comrades in arms.

That does not mean that there have not been burials and changes in the cemetery since 1960.

Any remains discovered in the Pacific theater and positively identified as belonging to an American military personnel from WWII are eligible for internment (though they are also eligible for repatriation to the states, just as if they had been found in WWII).

The Tablets of the Missing also have been slightly altered. Some of the names have a rosette attached to it, signifying that that serviceman’s remains have been found and his identity returned to him.

Many of these cemeteries became necessary starting with the Mexican-American war, the building of the Panama Canal, and the World Wars.  There are twenty-four of these world wide, all under the care of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Starting with the Korean War, all remains of American military personnel were returned to America.

Rest in Peace.

Pamphlet about Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.

Frequently asked questions about Military Cemeteries abroad

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