Since the Civil War, Americans have observed a Memorial Day each year to honor those who have died while serving in the U.S. armed forces. Our fallen total more than a million souls (not including Confederates).

But what happened to these military fallen after they died? Before a soldier can be laid to rest in a military or hometown cemetery, his remains must be recovered and identified.

Alone among nations, the United States has gone to extraordinary lengths to care for its Soldier Dead — a term first used after World War I to refer to the deaths of U.S. military personnel in all branches.

For most of history, war dead were buried — if they were buried at all — where they fell, usually in mass graves after major battles. Military cemeteries first appeared in the 19th century, a response to the mass casualties of the Napoleonic and American Civil Wars, the spread of democracy, and a growing respect for individual equality.

The American Civil War was the first major conflict in which the remains of (300,000 Union) soldiers were removed from battlefields, identified where possible, and buried in identical, marked graves.

When our wars moved overseas, the U.S. military established its first default policy regarding our fallen on foreign soil. Those soldiers who died abroad in service during war would be repatriated at the government’s expense. This was a first for any nation. Britain, for example, didn’t adopt a return policy until after the 1980s Falklands War.

After the fighting ended in World War I, the U.S. military accounted for its dead by organizing area “sweeps” of battlefields followed by years of more selective searches. The next of kin of 75,000 identifiable American dead were later asked to choose whether they wanted their loved ones brought home or interred with comrades abroad. A majority chose return, at a rate of four returned to every three overseas burials in the 10 new permanent American cemeteries in Western Europe. At a total cost of $18 million, this was a policy that only a wealthy country could afford.

World War II played out on a much larger scale. U.S. soldiers fell all over the world. After years of recovery, 270,000 identifiable fallen were buried in 450 temporary cemeteries in 86 countries, before a nearly identical ratio of the next of kin again chose return, this time at a cost of almost $100 million.

A new kind of conflict — limited war, “police action” — emerged after World War II, requiring a new Soldier Dead policy. During the Korean War, American remains were buried and reburied in seesaw battles, and some of the dead couldn’t be recovered because they ended up behind permanent enemy lines. As a consequence, foreign burials of U.S. fallen were ended, and Concurrent Return became the policy that remains in effect today.

Our combat dead would be recovered as quickly as possible from the battlefield, then flown to a military mortuary facility, and ultimately buried according to the wishes of the next of kin. During the recent Middle East wars, the main facility has been located at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Instead of years, our Soldier Dead now arrived home in days.

After the Vietnam War, the U.S. military resumed searches for the missing from our 20th century wars — “historical recoveries.” That mission continues, and today is assigned to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which, in the most recent fiscal year, had a budget of $160 million and accounted for the remains of 217 formerly missing. DPAA assesses 39,000 missing (from a total of 88,000) who could potentially be identified and returned for burial.

Why do we still search for the remains of missing U.S. soldiers 75 years after the end of World War II? Because we can, and because it’s the right thing to do in a self-governing democracy. We the people are responsible whenever our elected leaders order military personnel into harms way. And when they die in combat, we owe a duty to the fallen and their families to recover and return their remains. The duty has no end date.

The remains of soldiers — their bones — are the last tangible reminders of them and their sacrifices, and the reason why cemeteries are central to Memorial Day.

Since 2015, the remains of four formerly missing Utahns who served in World War II have been returned to their families for burial, and a fifth has been recovered and buried in Arlington National Cemetery. For Helen Simmons, the 90-year-old sister of Sgt. Max Wendell, whose bomber went down during a raid on Romanian oil fields in 1943, the return of her brother’s remains in 2019 marked the merciful end to her 77 years of Memorial Day visits to his empty gravesite in Lewiston. May the earth of his birthplace lie lightly on his bones.


David Burns

David Burns lives in Salt Lake City. He is a former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer.