August 2001/September 2001
How Mortuary Practices Changed During The Vietnam War
By Donald M. Rothberg
Graves Registration personnel prepared
transfer cases in Vietnam for shipment either to Travis
Air Force Base in California or Dover Air Force Base in
A firefight shattered the November night in Quang Nam. For the
American infantrymen, it seemed to last an eternity. When it
ended, they tended the wounded and collected the dead. It was
nearly 34 years ago, but what followed remains etched vividly in
Bill Grafe’s memory.
The body of a young solider from the 4th Infantry Division was
brought to a Graves Registration collection point. "They
needed to get ID on him," recalled Grafe. "So, they sent
to the unit and a sergeant comes and says, `Yeah, that’s Quinn.’
The Graves Registration kid, my guy, says `I’m sorry, sergeant,
but we’ve got to have two. One doesn’t do it."
"So, the sergeant goes out to the jeep and gets the
driver. They walk in the door and he says 'Oh yeah, sergeant, that’s
Quinn.’ They signed the two visuals and they left. We checked
the roster and there he was, John Quinn." After the embalmers
at the military mortuary in Danang completed their work, the body
went home to John Quinn’s family in Texas.
A routine case repeated countless times during the war’s
early years of the war. "If we had two visual IDs, if you
came in and said, 'That’s Bill Grafe,’ and your buddy came in
and said, 'Oh, yeah, that’s Grafe,’ if the guy was viewable,
we took those as gospel," Grafe said..
The Quinn case became anything but routine two days later when
John Quinn turned up very much alive.
"The shit hit the fan," said Grafe, then a lieutenant
at the Danang mortuary. "We went back to the unit and we got
the list of kids again and we said, 'How did we do this?’ We
went down the list and, guess what? We found a kid named Quinn
Fingerprints taken from the body were hurriedly shipped to the
FBI, which confirmed they were the prints of Quinn Tichenor. It
was an understandable mistake in the violence and chaos of combat.
But it was a mistake the Pentagon didn’t want repeated.
"The Quinn incident changed it for everyone in
Vietnam," Grafe said. "Orders came down that from then
on nobody would leave Vietnam without being positively identified.
So from then on, nobody left the building without fingerprints and
dental charts. I didn’t care how viewable he was--we would not
send him home until FBI gave us a confirmation."
Until the Quinn incident, Graves Registration personnel were
the first, and often the last, step in identifying battle
casualties. Through two world wars and the Korean Conflict the
standard had remained basically unchanged. If two people could
identify a body, that was enough. When visual identification was
impossible, dog tags and personal effects often were accepted as
Every war produced its "unknowns." From them, one set
of remains rested in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington
National Cemetery. Unidentified remains from the Vietnam War were
placed in the tomb in 1984. But 14 years later, DNA testing
confirmed what many already suspected--that the Vietnam remains
were those of Air Force Lt. Michael Blassie. They were removed
from the tomb and restored to his family for burial in his
hometown of St. Louis.
Bill Grafe was a trained embalmer before he was drafted. But
his experience couldn’t prepare him for conditions in Vietnam. A
few months after the Quinn incident, the Tet Offensive brought the
fighting to his doorstep.
1stLt. William T. Grafe, Chief Mortuary
Officer and Executive Officer, Danang Mortuary, 1967-1968.
He recalled those difficult days in an article he wrote for Mortuary
Management, a funeral industry publication. "The
casualties began to arrive at the Danang mortuary almost
immediately" Grafe wrote. "They were brought to us in
trucks, ambulances, planes, and helicopters. At times we were
receiving remains directly off the battlefields without ever being
processed through a collecting point. Nor would the chopper pilot
have time to tell us where the casualties were from or what unit
they belonged with."
The Danang mortuary was designed to process 350 remains a
month--identifying them and preparing them for return home. During
the first month of Tet, the Danang facility handled more than
three times that number.
Dental records were a key to identifying remains. But Grafe
didn’t have enough people trained to do dental charting. So an
emergency call went out, and the Army and Navy sent dental teams
"Many of these men had never seen a dead human body
before--especially badly decomposed--and both dentists and dental
technicians had to be supervised closely to insure that an
accurate dental chart was completed," Grafe. said.
Pentagon orders to tighten procedures and avoid
misidentification didn’t eliminate the potential for human
error. Grafe recalled the night, the VC overran a camp with twelve
American advisers. Four were killed and two captured. The men left
standing drove off the attackers.
The only way one of the four KIAs was identified was through a
ring found on the body. But when Grafe and his staff compared the
dental work on the body to the records of the man they were told
always wore that ring, they didn’t come close to matching. Grafe
summoned the two unit members who made the identification. They
insisted that no one else had a ring like that and that the owner
never took it off.
Two days later, the two captured Americans escaped and made it
back to their unit. One of them was the owner of the ring. Just
before the attack, he had lost it in a poker game.
Ft. Lee is a quite Army post twenty miles south of Richmond,
Virginia. It is there that Mortuary Affairs personnel go through a
training program that emphasizes that when it comes to identifying
battle casualties, things are not always as they seem. "We
place very little credibility on visual identification," said
Tom Bourlier, director of the training facility." "When
we start a group of young soldiers here, basically everything we
do contributes, in one way or another, towards the
identification," said Bourlier, who was a young second
lieutenant in 1966 when he was put in charge of a Graves
Registration collection point near the Cambodian border.
"I hadn’t even had any training when they gave me the
job," he said. He’d grown up on a farm in Oklahoma and knew
nothing about preparing the dead for return to their families.
"A wonderful corporal took me aside and said, Here’s what
you need to do, and here’s what you don’t need to do."
Before long, Bourlier began to feel he was fulfilling an
obligation to the casualties and their loved ones. "To me it
was just a little more special than anything else I’d ever been
in," he said. "I just felt there was something holy
about it. I think that was why I stayed in the business."
The training program he directs might well take as its motto,
"Assume Nothing." One of the first lessons is the
unreliability of the two visual IDs that were the standard for so
Using the Quinn case as an example, Bourlier pointed out two
mistakes trainees are warned to guard against. One is the
confusion over the name. Grafe and his staff assumed Quinn was the
soldier’s last name. They never suspected it might be his first.
The second was the unreliability of visual identification.
"One guy turned to the other guy and said `This is Quinn,
right?’ So, he’s expecting to see Quinn. You’re looking at a
person lying down. You’re not used to looking at people lying
down. You look at people vertically. People look different. Death
makes people look different."
The dog tags soldiers have worn since World War I are an aid to
identification. But dog tags, too, have limited value.
"The thing that happens a lot of times is people have
watched too many John Wayne movies. When a person dies, and they
take those dog tags off," said Bourlier. "The minute
those dog tags are separated from the remains they’re completely
worthless as far as identification goes."
The training at Ft. Lee stresses the importance of not removing
anything or adding anything when recovering a body. "We tell
them when you find identification laying next to a body--something
that you’re presuming probably fell out of that person’s
pocket--don’t assume that it fell out of that person’s
pocket," said Bourlier. "You record that as effects
found in the vicinity because you don’t know it came out of that
person’s pocket. "That way the people who examine the whole
case later will have the facts and will look and see if it all
During their six-week course at Ft. Lee trainees learn how to
take fingerprints and prepare dental charts. They also study
skeletal anatomy. They finish that course as Mortuary Affairs
specialists. After a long and sometimes heated fight, the name
"Graves Registration" was dropped shortly after
Operation Desert Storm and decades after there no longer were
temporary overseas graves to register.
When American forces were preparing to embark for Europe and
enter World War I, Gen. John J. Pershing urged creation of a
Graves Registration service with the mission to identify fallen
soldiers and record their place of burial in Europe. A retired
Army chaplain, Charles C. Pierce, returned to active service to
command the new service. One of Col. Pierce’s first
recommendations was that every combat soldier wear an identity
disc. Those metal discs soon became known as dog tags.
Pierce’s innovations, including training in identification
techniques and careful recording of grave sites, produced dramatic
results. Years after the Civil War, more than 40 percent of
casualties remained unidentified. By the end of World War I, the
figure was closer to two percent.
During the latter stages of the Korean War, the development of
jet cargo planes ended the practice of temporary burials in
overseas cemeteries. The remains of fallen soldiers were flown
home to their families, a journey that took hours rather than
"Yet the name stuck," said Bourlier, "and even
up until ten years ago, the old timers in the Army still wanted to
call it `Graves Registration.’ We still have people from the old
school who have a hard time saying Mortuary Affairs’."
In war, death is random and claims the young. Many survivors
are left to wonder why they lived and a buddy died. Working with
the dead creates is own pressures.
"During the Grenada invasion, I worked at the mortuary at
Dover Air Force Base," Bourlier said. "For about two
weeks we were totally involved with the identification and the
process to get there. We just constantly had that odor with us day
Back home at Ft. Lee weeks later, he was walking through his
house and "I just stopped dead in my tracks because I just
smelled that smell as real as if I’d been in the prep
room," he said. "It was just for an instant. It had to
be mental because obviously there was no smell there."
Grave Registration guys, Grafe said, "worked with the
stuff nobody wanted to see." "We worked behind walls. We
had secret airplanes that flew in and took the bodies out at
midnight. "Nobody ever talked about us. We were just there.
We were kind of a shadow. Nobody wanted to eat with us in the mess
hall. My guys would come back upset because they’d been told
they couldn’t sit at a table. They were the body baggers."
Inevitably, some couldn’t take it--whether it was being
shunned by others or the long days working with the dead. They’d
come to Grafe and tell him, "I just can’t do this any
"I used to bring them into my office," Grafe.said
"I’d shut the door, and I’d flat out tell them, 'This is
the only job in the United States Army you can quit’."
Bourlier remembered the time one of his people brought in the
remains of someone who had been a high school friend. When
Bourlier said he’d have someone else handle the preparation, the
man said he wanted to do it. "I think my buddy would want me
to do this for him," he said.
"At the time he appeared to handle it very well,"
said Bourlier. A couple of years ago he learned the incident
caused the man problems later in life.
"Death is so much a part of life," he said. "But
being around death and handling death is something very unnatural
to a lot of people."