Chaplains of the
36th Infantry Division
Chaplain (Colonel) Herbert E. MacCombie
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”.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
general came to the cemetery. Most of the graves were marked with
crosses. He saw one that was different.
“What is that?”
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
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
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.”
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by Mary MacCombie Fietsam
Printed by Permission