World War II and Death

While the numbers of deaths of Americans was greater in World War II than most past wars, the magnitude of death was not nearly the same. This is because the war was fought far from home, and families were not witnessing the blood and battles first hand. Moreover, the 417,000 American deaths was few compared to the millions of lives lost in other countries (WWII Museum).

Other countries held much hostility for America, especially Germany and Japan, evident through the prison camps they had. Prisoners of War suffered exceptionally, and most soldiers would rather face death than be a prisoner of war. Germany alone had 94,000 soldiers held hostage,  and of those 1,701 died. Japan had a less soldiers kept prisoner, but a larger proportion of those that died. The captivated 27,000, and 11,107 of those soldiers died (Reynolds, 2002).  Causes of death in the prison camps were unsanitary, cramped conditions, lack of food and materials, and torture by the prison guards. Two particular events resulted in a significant number of losses: the Bataan Death March, and hell ships. The Bataan Death March was the relocation of POWs from Bataan to Camp O’Donnell in Japan. The Japanese soldiers beat, robbed,  tortured, and killed the American prisoners (Reynolds, 2002). 80,000 Americans were relocated, 650 soldiers died, and 10,000 Philippine citizens were murdered. Hell ships were Japanese war ships that contained American POWs.  Unknowing of this, American ships attacked the Japanese, killing 21,093 of their own soldiers (Reynolds, 2002). Survivors were blown into the water, and either died there or shot by Japanese soldiers.  Just like other wars, POWs suffered greatly, soldiers and citizens alike, and were a significant proportion of the American deaths.

American POWs in Japan

But unlike other wars, the notification of death was much more reliable and consistent, making the reality of the loss just as vivid.  Newspapers announced the deaths of soldiers in the obituaries, telegrams and letters were sent, and losses mourned. Telegrams were the most common form of communication when notifying families of the loss of a loved one (Holland, 2009). They were most often hand delivered by couriers of the Western Union, and followed a rigid format beginning with the dreaded words “I regret to inform you…” and then addressed financial matters and how the body could be returned home.  Along with telegrams, letters were also sent sometimes. On most occasions, this was due to families’ letters to the soldiers being unanswered, and commanders or fellow comrades taking it upon themselves to respond with the grave news. Finally, once families received the news of their loss, they would often announce it to their community by raising flags with gold stars, calling themselves “Gold Star Mothers” (Teaster).

WWII Telegram

Respectably, once the news was delivered, the bodies soon after followed. Bringing the bodies home was also more advanced and reliable than it had been in the past. Once soldiers’s bodies were collected from the battlefield, the were temporarily buried in cemeteries in Europe.  At the end of the war in 1945,  bodies were retrieved from those cemeteries and sent home so they could be buried with proper burials with their families (Holhut, 2011). The families had three burial options: the bodies could be sent home to be buried there, sent to a national cemetery for burial, or buried in American cemeteries in the Philippines and Hawaii (Holhut, 2011).  No matter the family’s decision, the transportation of the body was paid for by the government.  Out of respect and gratitude to the soldier, ever casket had military escorts (Holhut, 2011).

WWII Military Escorts

Text Sources:

Holhut, Randolph T., “THe Forgotten Story of How the Fallen of WWII CAm eHome” The Bradenton Times. May 2011.

Holland, N. E. “Delivering Bad News: Western Union” Speak Its Name. Dec. 2009.

Nation World War II Museum, “By the Numbers: The U.S. Military”

Reynolds, Gary K. “U.S. Prisoners of War and Civilian AMerican Citizens Captured and Interned by Japan in World War II” Dec. 2002.

Teaster, Gerald. “Pacolet and World War II” Junior History Press.


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