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A Memorial Day Message:

The American flags proudly waving in front of our homes this Memorial Day weekend serve to remind us of the terrible price of war and the ultimate sacrifice made by someone’s beloved spouse, child, or parent. My heart goes out to family members who have suffered such a loss.

In the spring of 1947, when my father (Howard L. Peckham) became in charge of the permanent disposition of more than 145,000 American World War Two dead of the European Theater, the stars and stripes proudly waved above 37 temporary American cemeteries scattered throughout Europe, where the fallen had been laid to rest.  The work of my father’s command, the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC), would be both enormous and heart-wrenching during the years he was in charge (1947-1950).

Letters were sent out to the next of kin, giving them two options: Do you want your  loved one returned home for reburial or reinterred in one of the ten permanent American cemeteries in Europe? Although the majority of family members chose the first option, thousands did not. In all cases, however, their wishes were granted. All of the ten permanent cemeteries were graded and constructed by the AGRC, and all but one were former temporary cemeteries.

By the middle of 1951, the permanent American cemeteries in Europe had been transferred from the U.S. Army to the  American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), which  in the future would replace the army’s simple wooden crosses and stars with those of marble. The ABMC also built additional structures on the properties and continues to maintain them.

On this Memorial Day, let us remember that our flag proudly waves above those beautiful American cemeteries in Europe. And let’s not forget the supreme sacrifice made by our fallen heroes who rest there.

Thanks.

Jean

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Excerpts from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham

AGRC Party at the Hotel Celtic: 1948
AGRC Party at the Hotel Celtic: 1948

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My father hosted a party at the Celtic Hôtel Celtic in April. The hotel, located two blocks up from the Champs Élysées near the Étoile, was essentially an AGRC hotel then.  At the party, he officially introduced my mother and me to several AGRC officers and their wives. Many Department of the Army civilians under my father’s command also attended the party. According to Occupation Forces in Europe Series: The Third Year, 1947-1948, the AGRC workforce consisted of approximately 1,500 military personnel, 3,300 civilians, and 2,600 local resident laborers.  

A few weeks later, a reception was held in honor of my parents at Isle St. Germain, the AGRC depot on the Seine River.  

        Isle St. Germain was where Paris-based AGRC soldiers were billeted and had their mess hall. It’s also where our theater (for stage shows), PX, commissary, and dentist were located. My parents and I rode to the occasion in an army car, accompanied by an official military escort. When we and the motorcycle outriders swung through traffic on streets near the Seine, even Parisians who were otherwise blasé turned and looked at us with curious stares. It was as if we were celebrities. The reception at the depot was warm and congenial, and I was beginning to feel that life in Europe was both interesting and fun.
       

We were not in Europe to have fun, however. Reality would be brought to the fore only a few days later, when I was in my father’s office at AGRC headquarters, where I had come to learn more about his work and meet the clerical staff.  

        AGRC offices were in the former Hôtel Astoria, at the corner of Rue de Presbourg and 131 Avenue des Champs Élysées. “This map shows the location of the temporary cemeteries,” my father said as he pointed to a map on the wall. Graves registration activities of the Quartermaster Corps in the European Theater began in December 1941, when the United States asked the British War Office about burial facilities for our military personnel expected to arrive in 1942 in Northern Ireland, where they would aid the British in their defense of that part of Ireland. Sadly, as was expected, American lives were lost after the men arrived. These burials had been in swampy ground in local cemeteries, but the U.S. Army negotiated with the British and secured a plot of land at Lisnabreeny, a suburb of Belfast, where the Americans were reinterred.
       

All through the war, graves registration soldiers diligently picked up our dead and transported them by trucks to temporary cemeteries. Moving them quickly was a big priority. This was especially true when the dead lay on main highways, where they could be seen by troops moving in their direction. The ones who died during the initial landings on D-Day, so graphically depicted in the movie Saving Private Ryan, were buried on the beaches and then later brought to temporary cemeteries—primarily St. Laurent-Sur-Mer.  

        In Europe, the command known as the American Graves Registration Command-European Area (AGRC-EA) was created in 1945. In the preface he wrote for L. R. Talbot’s book The Story of American Graves Registration Command in Europe and Africa, published in 1955, then-Major General Robert Littlejohn, Chief Quartermaster of the European Theater, writes how the command’s creation came about.  

These are General Littlejohn’s words: “I came home with General Eisenhower on his private plane in June 1945. On this trip he and I discussed the problem of Graves Registration, cemeteries, etc. . . .We agreed that a separate command should be set up to do the job in the ETO. . . .As a result, I was relieved as Chief Quartermaster, ETO, in the fall of 1945 and assigned as Commanding General, American Graves Registration Command with station in Paris. . . .I organized this new command with an allotment of military personnel given me by General Eisenhower. Civilians were employed to the fullest extent. . . .  

         Before formalizing the organization’s establishment, the two generals discussed the main reasons for creating the AGRC in Europe. Among these were that American troops were quickly being repatriated after the war, leaving many temporary cemeteries understaffed. Also, a need existed to consolidate graves registration functions under one command, instead of leaving them in the hands of the various armies (such as Seventh Army). An official document to establish the AGRC-EA resulted from those discussions. It had the title “Establishment of Command” and became effective October 1, 1945. In regard to the Command’s subsequent performance, Littlejohn indicated he was quite pleased with its work.  

In his preface to Talbot’s aforementioned book, which he composed at his Maryland home in 1955, the general writes: “I think I can truthfully say, without fear of contradiction, that the performance of the American Graves Registration Command in the European Theater was one of the greatest jobs ever performed by the Quartermaster Corps and the Army anywhere at any time in any war. . . .I salute the commanders who followed me for their accomplishments for which I only pointed the way, to wit  Brigadier General John C. Odel, Brigadier General Alfred B. Denniston, Major General Howard L. Peckham”  

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Excerpts from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham

      When our sailing date of February 24 finally arrived, my mother and I went to Staten Island where our U.S. Army transport Harry Taylor was docked. Giving us and the other passengers a royal sendoff as we walked up the gangplank was an army band, which enthusiastically played sentimental and patriotic music down on the dock. A friendly guide directed us to our stateroom.    
      Not long thereafter, the anchor was pulled up and our ship slowly glided away from the pier. The USAT Harry Taylor,I learned after reading a souvenir booklet given to each of us passengers, was built in 1944 and was named after a general who had served as an executive officer of the Engineer Corps during World War I.       
       I read in the booklet that in 1945, the ship left Marseilles and was headed to the Pacific war zone by way of the Panama Canal when the captain was informed of the Japanese surrender. When the news was received, the ship’s bow turned joyfully towards New York, the booklet proclaimed. The ship’s postwar job was to carry military troops and members of military families to Germany as part of the occupation forces. Some of the passengers, such as my mother and I, were bound for other places in Europe.           
 
      Our journey was often rough, due to the frequent storms at that time of the year in North Atlantic waters. In my diary on the morning of February 28 I wrote: “I couldn’t sleep because we were rocking so much. The waves looked like huge snowcapped mountains.”               
       At breakfast a bit later, I was fascinated to see the way our juice glasses frequently wobbled or slid across the table, and to hear the noisy rattle of cereal bowls and other dishes. Fortunately, I didn’t get seasick.  On clear days my favorite pastime was standing near the railing to watch the dark-blue ocean as the ship’s bow cut through it like a huge pie knife, particularly after a storm had recently abated. When the waves turned over, I would see a lovely shade of aqua.                      

 

     For us teenagers, there were several good ways to pass the time.  I never missed watching the movies shown in the auditorium on our deck, which one rainy day included The Red Danube with Walter Pidgeon and Janet Leigh.  I also enjoyed reading books and magazines borrowed from the ship’s library, which I read while relaxing in a deck chair. (I had a crush on the attractive and friendly soldier who worked behind the library counter, which was another reason for frequently visiting the library.) 

        Because this was primarily a troop ship, many fire drills were scheduled in which we family members needed to participate. The ship had seven decks, and the troops—soldiers who were traveling without families—were not on our deck but on a different one.   Mother and I didn’t follow the instructions correctly during our first abandon-ship drill. In our haste to get to our proper station within the time allowed, we ended up standing at attention on the troop deck, lined up with hundreds of soldiers. We should have been with the other hundred or so family members on another deck, but it was too late to get there after we discovered our mistake. 

      She and I laughed about that incident several times in the days that followed. Like Dad, my mother loved jokes and laughter, even when the jokes were on her.

      After nine days at sea, a series of exciting events took place indicating we were approaching Europe. On March 3, I spotted a fleet of graceful Irish fishing boats. At six o’clock the next morning, our ship picked up a  pilot boat at Dover on the English Channel. Not long afterwards, we entered the North Sea, where we could see a few small English vessels.

        On March 6, the port city of Bremerhaven in northwest Germany came into view. We gently entered its bleak harbor and pulled up beside a long wooden pier, where lively music played by a U.S. Army band greeted us. It was the same kind of music we had heard during our sendoff twelve days earlier, only less sentimental. 

It all seemed unreal. An army car with a general’s star on its bumper plate was waiting for us near the area where my father met us, and the driver slowly took the three of us on our way. When military personnel walked by, most snapped at attention while saluting Dad, and he looked very important when he returned their salutes from the car window. He wasn’t the casually dressed father in postwar Washington who had helped me with my math homework in the evenings—he was a senior officer in the European Command (EUCOM), and he belonged to a conquering army with headquarters in a vanquished land. When the car started traveling farther away from the docks, I felt more than ready to be on dry land again; however, I was emotionally not prepared for the ghostly sight of downtown Bremerhaven as our car and driver took us through it.

 The docks looked largely unimpaired, fortunately for the transport ships, but the buildings in the downtown area had been completely shattered by Allied bombs, and nothing had really been done about rebuilding them yet.  In some areas the city looked like a giant concrete pancake, where no buildings stood. 

        I told my father that seeing the piles of rubble was a shock, and he agreed that the damage had been extensive—but necessary. “Strategic targets, such as railroads, oil refineries, bridges, and industrial sites, were intentionally bombed by Allied pilots,” he explained, “but they purposely avoided hitting docks that could be used by our ships after the war, such as those here.”

      The trains seemed to be working fine now, and we boarded one that began carrying us through Germany. I then saw more of the rueful damage done to that nation, destruction the Allies had needed to inflict in order to win the war. Throughout the countryside, which I described in my diary as looking “torn up,” industrial buildings opened up to the late-winter sky, and we saw big dumps of bricks and concrete everywhere. All that remained of many houses was a lone wall or perhaps a gutted frame.

Aside from the devastation, danger still lurked in some parts of the Siegfried Line, a defense system of fortifications built by the Germans along their country’s western frontier. We personally were not in danger, but AGRC recovery teams certainly were, as my father told us: “Minefields exist in dense parts of the Siegfried Line that haven’t been cleared”, he said. “This situation creates time delays for AGRC teams searching those areas for fallen Americans.”  Searches for our soldiers were also difficult in the thick brambles of the Hurtgen Forest, where there were still several mines. Dad described this problem in a status report he wrote for the Occupation Forces in Europe Series: The Third Year, 1947-1948, which was later published by the Army Historical Division (1949).

 While our train clanked through the land of Wagner, I didn’t think further about the difficult work of AGRC recovery teams at the Siegfried Line or in the Hurtgen Forest. 

 I was busily observing people through our compartment’s window, such as the dour-faced men and women who seemed almost lifeless as they shuffled along on the often-broken pavement. The bitter air of winter had undoubtedly intensified their misery. Even the younger ones, perhaps still in their twenties or thirties, appeared withdrawn, as if they carried a heavy burden.

      At one point during that long night, U.S. Army personnel led us off the train at a railroad station and into an army car.

       The car and soldier driver then took us through a part of Germany that was far away from Bremerhaven, but maybe my fatigue only made it seem that way. We were probably going from one station to another, but I don’t remember the exact reason for this dreary, fog-shrouded journey. Someone from my father’s office in Paris had made efficient transportation arrangements for our trip, but nothing could have been done about the weather. We traveled for several scary miles through opaque fog, and the car’s headlights cast long beams of light to guide us as we rolled carefully on our way.

 

A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham  is available at

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/

 

 

 

 

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LARGE CROWD WATCHING THE CEREMONY IN HONOR OF FIRST SHIPLOAD OF AMERICAN WAR DEAD FROM EUROPE: ANTWERP, 1947 (U. S. Army Photo)

LARGE CROWD WATCHING THE CEREMONY IN HONOR OF FIRST SHIPLOAD OF AMERICAN WAR DEAD FROM EUROPE: ANTWERP, 1947 (U. S. Army Photo)

Excerpts from Chapter 8, “Freedom Is Not Free,” from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/):

The first shipload of American war dead from Europe, more than five thousand caskets, arrived in New York City in October 1947. They had left from the dock-filled city of Antwerp, Belgium, which was the primary port for the deceased of that zone in Europe. General Lucius Clay, United States Military Governor in Germany and Chief of the European Command (EUCOM), paid homage to them before the flower-bedecked USAT Joseph V. Connolly slowly left port on October 5. On that day, wherever the American flag flew over U.S. installations in Europe, it was at half-staff.

Preceding the ship’s departure, my father’s office [the American Graves Registration Command in Paris] sent a list of the deceased by air courier to the Quartermaster General’s Office in Washington.

In a letter to us, my father explained the reason for this expediency:  “The list enables those families to be contacted and also permits arrangements to be made for subsequent transportation of the deceased within the United States.” He added that the same procedure would be followed for later shipments.

Mother received a tentative date right after New Year’s Day for our voyage to Bremerhaven. My father wrote that he had arranged a mid-February departure for us, which meant that we would need to begin preparing right away for our trip.

Preparations included arranging for the furniture to be put in a storage warehouse that Dad had selected and packing those items we thought we would need in Europe.

      Additionally, we had to go to the army medical center at the Pentagon for our inoculations.

     “I think we’re supposed to turn left here,” my mother said hesitantly after we had made a few wrong turns while trying to find our way through the maze of corridors to the Pentagon’s medical office. According to my diary entry for that day, my shots included smallpox and typhoid vaccines. Afterwards we visited the huge cafeteria for lunch.  

     In February, we packed our remaining belongings and left Cathedral Avenue behind us.

A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham is available at the link below.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/

 

 

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Excerpts from Chapter 8, “Freedom Is Not Free,” of A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham:

My parents made a plan that seemed workable. My father would leave in May for Europe, as scheduled. In July, Mother would give Howie a big sendoff to West Point, which he would enter as a freshman. I would finish my sophomore year of high school at the end of December. “Jeanie and I can spend Christmas with Howie at West Point,” Mother told Dad, “and then join you early in the new year.” My brother’s lowly plebe (freshman) status required that he and the other members of his class not leave the Academy for the holidays.

Howie had been overjoyed when he first received news of his West Point appointment, and my father was delighted that his son would be attending his alma mater and following in his footsteps.

Mother, however, had mixed feelings about it. The World War II photographs and newsreels that showed young officers leading their men on the battlefields of Europe and Asia, where they risked and often lost their lives, were still too fresh in her mind. My mother’s fears for her son, who would be commissioned a second lieutenant upon graduation, were intensified when she received my father’s first long letter to us, which came in the mail soon after his arrival in France. More than ever before, she thought about all the mothers who had lost their sons during wartime. After Memorial Day had passed, which of course had been solemnly observed in our area at Arlington National Cemetery, my father wrote us details about the Memorial Day ceremony in which he had participated at Hamm Cemetery, located in the wooded hills three miles east of the city of Luxembourg.

My father was in charge of this ceremony and others like it all over Europe that day, so he was gratified that everything had gone so smoothly.

He was even more pleased that the people of Luxembourg had shown their gratitude to the U.S. Army for liberating them from the Nazis, evidenced by the presence of a large crowd and the many bouquets of beautiful flowers placed at the gravesites.  To provide us with more details, my father also sent us a phonograph record containing his radio address to the United States from Luxembourg on that Memorial Day, which was broadcasted after the ceremony. Although his address was intended for all Americans, it was particularly aimed towards those citizens whose loved ones had died in the European Theater. After being introduced by Henry Cassidy, a commentator with NBC, my father spoke in a clear, strong voice.

My book, A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham, contains the text of his entire speech as well as the one given by Grand Duchess Charlotte, whose speech followed his. At the conclusion of her speech, Mr. Cassidy said: “Americans at home are now being consulted as to whether the bodies will be left here or returned to America. If they are to go home, General Peckham’s command will take them in full dignity. If they remain here, the people of the Grand Duchess will be honored to watch over them. Either way, those of us who observed today’s ceremony are sure they are in good hands. This is Henry Cassidy in Luxembourg.”

      An announcer then closed the broadcast by saying:  “NBC has presented Memorial Day Overseas, with Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg, Brigadier General Howard Peckham, Henry Cassidy, and Paul Archinard of NBC’s overseas staff. This is NBC, the National Broadcasting Company.”

A Salute to Patriotism is available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/ 

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The following are excerpts from Chapter 4, “Old and New Kentucky Homes,” from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham

Another decisive victory for the U.S. Navy, following on the heels of its success at the Battle of Midway, was its defeat of the Japanese during the Battle of Guadalcanal. This operation, which ended in early January, had been under the command of Admiral Chester Nimitz. It provided an optimistic beginning to the new year. “Many senior officers, from all branches of the armed forces, aren’t planning strategy on the battlefields of Europe or commanding operations in the Pacific,” Dad told Mother and me one late-winter day. “They’re working behind the scenes in Washington, often in cramped, temporary office buildings.”

The temporary buildings in which government offices did their work were in various places in Washington—near Fort McNair, on the Washington Mall, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, along Constitution Avenue, and in the grassy areas surrounding the Washington Monument. The Pentagon had been constructed, but occupants were moving in slowly.

      Dad’s remarks were prophetic, because he was soon to become part of that harried Washington lifestyle. In the spring of 1943 he was ordered to report to the Fuels and Lubricants Division, a newly formed division of the Quartermaster General’s office.

For the first few months on the job, he would serve as deputy director of the division, commuting between Washington and Hopkinsville.

His change in assignment coincided with the end of the war in North Africa. American troops had steadily made big gains after their defeat at Kasserine Pass in February 1943. One occurrence that helped them was that hundreds of British Matilda tanks and American Sherman tanks had been able to push back the smaller force of German Panzers.

Dad, who at the start of the desert campaign was concerned that the power and weight of the Panzers would place the lighter Shermans at a disadvantage, was relieved that the large number of Allied tanks used in the campaign made up for their smaller size.

The Allies defeated Axis forces in Tunisia in May 1943, thus spelling the end of Hitler’s dream of access to the Suez Canal. Uncle Bob Shaw, who was serving with the 3rd Infantry Division in North Africa that spring, saw firsthand the downfall of Rommel’s troops, as he writes in Shaw Clan: “What a sight as the Africa Corps surrendered by marching their units, without guards, under their officers, to the POW camps.”

Considering the discipline Rommel had enforced on his elite corps, it’s not surprising that they surrendered in such a disciplined and controlled way.

When the war later progressed to France, Rommel would again be a force to reckon with, along with German Panzer and Tiger tanks. In Italy, to which Bob’s division proceeded next, Mussolini was politically defeated on July 24, 1943, in the Italian Council, prompting Victor Emmanuel III to order his arrest. This event ended the Rome-Berlin Axis and the power of Italy’s Fascist regime, but it did not put an end to the fighting, in which Uncle Bob’s 3rd Infantry Division would soon be heavily involved.

When our moving day approached, Dad ruefully told me we couldn’t bring our cat, Willie. Noticing the onset of my tears, he said, “We’ll make sure he gets a good new home.” Like fish propelled forward in a river, thousands of workers had been swept to Washington, so it would take us time to find a place to live.

The day before we left, a carload of soldiers came up the driveway to pick up Willie, and a bit later we learned that our cat had become a mascot of their unit. I felt much better. Soon thereafter, we drove away from a friendly small town and towards a city where newcomers lived in anonymity.

[Click on the following Amazon site to learn more about A Salute to Patriotism and read some pages from the book:

 http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/

1942 Uncle Bob (my mother’s half-brother), who would become a well-decorated officer of the 3rd Infantry Division, and wife Bunny before he left for Africa: 1942

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Excerpts from Chapter 4, “Old and New Kentucky Homes,” from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham:

The year 1942 brought significant morale boosters to American armed forces. In April a successful raid on Tokyo, conducted by then-Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, proved that Japan was not immune from American air strikes. It also partly avenged the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of December 1941.

More morale boosters were yet to come. In early June 1942, American naval and air forces were victorious in the Battle of Midway, an island in the central Pacific. This success proved to be a turning point in the war, since the United States and its allies could now be on the offensive against Japan’s navy rather than on the defensive, as they had been heretofore.

In November, welcome news came to Dad’s office at 12th Armored Division Headquarters concerning North Africa. British and American forces had arrived in Algeria, and the Western Task Force, headed by George S. Patton, had landed safely in Morocco. Also in November, the British, under the command of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, successfully launched an offensive at El Alamein, Egypt, which forced the German troops to travel westward, away from Egypt.

The heavy responsibility for succeeding in the overall Allied North African engagement, called Operation Torch, had fallen on the able shoulders of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded all the sea, air, and land forces involved in the operation.
Camp Campbell, Kentucky, 1942

Brigadier General Howard L. Peckham: Camp Campbell, Kentucky, 1942

The second edition of A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham was published in May 2011 and  is available at Amazon. Click the following link to look inside the book:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/

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