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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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