A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

August 2001/September 2001

Assuming Nothing

How Mortuary Practices Changed During The Vietnam War

By Donald M. Rothberg

photo courtesy of Bill Grafe
Graves Registration personnel prepared transfer cases in Vietnam for shipment either to Travis Air Force Base in California or Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

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 Tichenor."

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 sufficient evidence.

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.

phot courtesy of Bill Grafe
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 to Danang.

"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 long.

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 goes together."

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 days.

"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 after 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 more."

"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."


E-mail us at TheVeteran@vva.org

     Home | Membership | Publications | Events | Government Relations | Contact Us
Press Releases | Benefits | Meetings & Special Events | Collectibles | Contributions and Sponsorships | Site Index

Vietnam Veterans of America ® 
8719 Colesville Road, Suite 100, Suite 400
Silver Spring, Maryland  20910-3710
301-585-4000, Fax 301-585-0519, 1-800-VVA-1316  

Copyright © 2005 by the Vietnam Veterans of America. All rights reserved.