Chaplains of the
36th Infantry Division


Chaplain (Colonel) Herbert E. MacCombie
Division Chaplain

Ministering To The Dead

When we were making plans for the invasion of Italy, it was decided that all burials and attendant ceremonies would be conducted by the chaplains of the division headquarters.  This would enable the unit chaplains to be with their men and serve the living, particularly the wounded.  As a result I was in the cemetery at Vannulo and Alta Villa day and night throughout the combat period.  At the end of the war we had buried over four thousand men, including bodies from attached units.

We had only one mistake reported.  At Salerno we found a boy that had been badly damaged. There was no identification on the body.  It had been run over by a tank and was crushed beyond recognition.  The tags were missing.  We did not want to bury the body as “Unknown”.

A young lieutenant told me that he knew the man.  It conformed in general to the man’s weight and height.  The soldier had told him that he was going to remove his identification tags.  The man was missing from his unit.  We decided to bury him under the lieutenant’s identification.

Some months later, while I was in the hospital, I received from Washington a pile of papers about three inches thick.  The Germans had reported that man as a prisoner of war.  Why had I reported his burial?  I wrote out my explanation as best I could.  I believe it was our only mistake in over 4,000 burials.

Every man who was killed in the 36th Division received a personal service.  When possible we conducted a committal service for each man.  When burials were made in our absence, we returned and held individual memorial prayers.  Chaplain Roemer conducted Catholic services.  I conducted Protestant services.  I used the Jewish Prayer Book for the Jewish men.  When I was in the hospital Chaplain Lehne and Chaplain Drury conducted Protestant services.

Our first cemetery was near the tobacco shed at Vannulo.  We did not want to use combat troops for burial details.  Such duty was always hard on morale.

At first we secured some help from service troops.  I said to one man working with me, “I don't suppose you like it here in the cemetery".

He replied, “I like facing these Germans better than those up in the hills”.

Later on we had some German prisoners to work on the burial details.  We had to have guards to keep them under control.  The Italian sun was hot.  I divided the group in halves.  One group rested while the other group dug.

I told them (in German), “You can sit down or lie down.  If you stand up we will shoot you.”

They worked well.  At the end of each day I gave to each man one cigarette.  As they passed by me each man would click his heels, bow from the waist, and say “Danke”.

One morning a body was brought to me.  It was a German who had been working for me the day before.  During the night he tried to escape.  He now was laid in a grave he had dug the day before.

Later on we secured Italian laborers.  They were paid fifty lire per day.  At that time it was worth about fifty cents.  Today it would be eight cents.  Some of them offered to work for nothing, if we would only give them food.  They were not as good workers as either the Americans or Germans.  I had to watch them when they were burying the German dead. If I were not watching, they would just toss the bodies into the grave haphazard.  Then it was necessary to make them go down into the grave and straighten out the corpse.

When Division Headquarters moved forward, Corps Headquarters occupied the tobacco shed.  One of the staff officers came and complained about the stench.  There was nothing anyone could do about that.  The stench is a natural part of battle cemeteries.

He thought it was taking too long.  Regulations required that every body be searched for personal belongings as well as for identification.  He suggested that we conduct our burials by night as well as by day.  I pointed out that my desk had been shattered by a German shell.  If we tried to conduct burials at night, we would have to use lights.  That would bring down the artillery.  He agreed that the stench was not as bad as bombs or shells would be.

A visiting general came to the cemetery.  Most of the graves were marked with crosses.  He saw one that was different.

“What is that?” he demanded.

I explained that it was a Star of David and marked the grave of a man of the Jewish faith.

He said, “It spoils the symmetry of the cemetery.  Move it.”

I told him that the burial had already been reported and that under regulations the body could not be moved without authority from Washington.  He was quite unhappy.

We buried the bodies as they came to us – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, white or black, officers or enlisted men.  To us they were all heroes.  To us they were all God’s children.

There were some wild rumors going around that we were using common graves.  Some men had seen a bulldozer at work.

It is true that we had used a bulldozer for a short time.  It dug out the earth for about four feet.  The remaining two feet were dug by hand.  Every man from the 36th Division had his own individual grave and his own private committal service.

I reported to General Walker the criticisms I had received from Corps officers.

He told me, “You are responsible to only one man.  I am satisfied with what you are doing.”


Copyright 2001 by Mary MacCombie Fietsam
Printed by Permission

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