This is a different sort of World War II story — not about being in battle but about dealing with the consequences of war. They are the recollections of a Hickory man — now nearly 92 but only a teenager when he enlisted in the Army and found himself assigned to tasks that many of us would find especially difficult to handle.
I should say we’d find them emotionally difficult to handle. But the young man tackled them day after day for about two years for one simple reason: because the Army told him to.
Tamara Nance introduced me to Don O’Hair. She thought I’d want to interview him after she did so for a documentary she’s putting together, a film that will let viewers hear the words and stories of area WWII veterans. (I’ll be sharing more about Tamara’s work in a month or so.)
She told me that Don was going to receive a Quilt of Valor on Nov. 19 and that in 1946 he’d escorted Teddy Roosevelt Jr.’s wife ,Eleanor, to her husband’s grave in Sainte-Mère-Église, a town in the Normandy region of northwestern France. It was the first French town liberated by the Allies during the Normandy invasion of WWII.
With Don at her side, Eleanor saw Teddy Roosevelt Jr.’s grave for the first time. Couldn’t have been easy for the 19-year-old to witness.
At that time, it was Don’s job to help guard the cemetery — to “protect the remains,” as he described it. He was working for the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps’ Graves Registration Service. Talking about the service and Don’s work, Tamara stated in an email: “They took in bodies found in France in the fields/farmlands and put them in graves after proper identification. (Don) guarded the cemetery, shut down temporary cemeteries in France and Ireland and consolidated to bigger cemeteries, and escorted bodies back to a ship for return to the U.S. for burial at the request of families . . .”
Tamara arranged for me to meet Don. I found him living in a lovely Hickory town home. His birth certificate may prove that he was born Nov. 23, 1927, but the man I met could easily be years younger.
Don said he hadn’t known what his military service would entail until he got to Frankfurt, Germany. From there he went to Paris, the location of the headquarters of the Graves Registration Service. Don said simply and bluntly: “We had cemeteries all over France. (Men were) digging (soldiers) up and sending them to permanent cemeteries.”
At Sainte-Mère-Église, the location of the first cemetery at which Don worked, the burial site was filled with soldiers who’d died in battle and were quickly buried. Don said there were no caskets. No embalming. The bodies were wrapped in some sort of material like sheets. The deceased men were wearing the uniforms they’d died in.
“They died with their boots on,” said Don, who with another soldier guarded the cemetery. “I was on duty 24 hours and then off duty 24 hours,” he said.
Don and the other guard had a little house at the graveyard. “People would stop by and look around (the cemetery),” Don recalled. No disinterments occurred at Sainte-Mère-Église while Don was there, but fallen soldiers were removed from their graves in two other places that Don worked: Belfast, Ireland, and a place in southeastern France.
As he pointed out, the men died with their boots on, something made very clear to Don when he saw the many exhumed corpses that were taken to a temporary morgue where embalmers “took care of them,” said Don, who worked in the middle of the morgue, distributing supplies. Several embalmers worked at the same time on what were usually just skeletons wearing wool socks and boots. “The embalmers would cut the boots open and remove the socks, and the little bones fell out,” said Don.
The second cemetery at which Don worked was in Belfast, Ireland. He said the deceased weren’t “combat people.” They were American men who’d been stationed there to prepare for an invasion — which didn’t come to pass — and died due to illnesses, diseases or accidents.
Don said local men were hired to do the exhumations and that as corpses were brought into the morgues, they’d be placed on layers of cotton specifically designed for the job at hand. The cotton was on top of sheets, which were arranged over blankets.
Don shared that the skull would be placed first “and the arms and the ribs and so on down to the legs.” Next, formaldehyde was poured over the remains. “We had barrels and barrels of it,” Don reported. “It cut down the smell of the bodies,” some of which still had flesh on the bones.
Don’s work was similar in the third location to which he was sent, a cemetery in Draguignan, a town in southeastern France. “I had three German prisoners there,” said Don. “They waited on me. One of them was a cook. The other two were kind of handymen. We borrowed them from the French.” Don said the prisoners were content with their lives at Draguignan and didn’t try to escape. They didn’t even attempt to steal a gun that was always leaning against a wall in Don’s room. The prisoners didn’t speak English, and Don didn’t speak German, but through gestures, they got their messages across.
Don pointed out that he had an interpreter in France.
As Don reminisced, I wondered why the bodies of the American soldiers hadn’t been returned to the U.S. for burial rather than relocated to permanent graves. Tamara explained that it wasn’t until 1947 that Congress passed a bill giving families the right to ask that their loved ones’ remains be returned to the U.S. Even with the act, many left their fallen soldiers in Europe.
“I think it was a good idea,” said Don, who felt that when a body was moved, part of it was always left in the grave. He emphasized that the person was gone; his remains should be left alone.
I asked Don how he handled being an eyewitness to what many would consider a gruesome and heartbreaking task. “I handled it all right,” he responded. After listening to him talk about some of the places he visited and the sights he enjoyed seeing while in the service, I got the feeling that his R&Rs in places, such as London and Paris, served him well, offering him fond memories to make the difficult ones bearable.
Don served from 1946 until 1948. He then studied business administration at the University of Florida, and according to his own words, was a self-employed businessman from age 24 on.
These days, Don’s quite fit. Until recently he walked and swam every day. Heart arrhythmia has slowed him down. His home is a showplace of his paintings, and he still has a hand in the running of a storage-units business.
Thank you for your service, Don.