After World War I, US families were asked if they wanted their dead brought home; 40,000 said yes
By Michael E. Ruane
via the Stars and Stripes Newspaper web site
In 1919, when Theodore J. Argiroplos, of Keyser, W. Va., got the government post card asking if he wanted the body of his brother shipped home for burial, he entered "yes" on the appropriate line.
Private James Argiroplos, 24, of the 80th division's 317th infantry regiment, had been killed on Aug. 15, 1918, near a place called Hébuterne in France. And he, and thousands of other dead Americans, were eligible to be buried in an American cemetery in France, or brought home.
So in a massive and little-remembered project after World War I, the U.S. sent out 74,000 questionnaire cards asking families what they wanted and then tried to fulfill their wishes.
Sixty-three thousand answers were received by January 1920, according to historian Lisa M. Budreau.
And between 1919 and 1922 the government identified, located, and exhumed about 44,000 bodies and shipped them home for burial.
But in certain cases, like that of James Argiroplos, the effort was blocked by the brutality of the war.
"Neither the United States nor any other nation up until that time had ever attempted such a colossal task," Budreau wrote in her 2010 book, "Bodies of War."
On May 23, 1921, President Warren Harding went to Pier 3 in Hoboken, N.J., to pay tribute to the 5,000 bodies that had just arrived on the funeral ship USAT Wheaton.
"These dead know ... nothing of the sentiment or the tenderness which brings their wasted bodies to the homeland, for burial close to kin and friends and cherished associations," he said. "These poor bodies are but the clay tenements ... of souls, which flamed in patriotic devotion, (and) lighted new hopes on the battlegrounds of civilization."
Roughly 100,000 Americans died during World War I, from combat, the influenza pandemic and other causes, historians say.
And the repatriation effort came about as the United States was preparing for the solemn homecoming of the lone unknown soldier in November, 1921.
"This is everyone else," said Ryan Hegg, the lead organizer of Homecoming '21, a project that has helped catalogue the 5,000 dead aboard the ship.
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