The repatriation of the bodies of World War II soldiers began 75 years ago

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As the United States began to bring home its dead from World War II, the body of Army Staff Sgt. Themistocles Zombas was in the first shipment of flag-draped caskets from Europe’s battlefields.

But it would be one of the last to reach its final resting place.

Years would pass before Zomba was buried for the last time. As the country sent hundreds of thousands of war dead home to be mourned and buried, Zombas was repeatedly interred and exhumed, first by the military and then by parents so paralyzed with grief they could not bear, by their only one child to be separated.

While Americans commemorate Memorial Day, few celebrate the 75th anniversary of the start of the return of the dead from World War II. But in the early post-war period, this massive repatriation act – the largest in history – reunited hundreds of thousands of families torn apart by war and death, and created its own series of harrowing dramas like that in which zombas roamed back and forth across the Atlantic.

During the war, the US military banned the return of war dead from overseas. The money should be used for the fight instead of sending the bodies home. Instead, soldiers buried their comrades in makeshift military cemeteries in the European and Pacific theaters of war.

When the war ended, the military gave families a choice: leave loved ones in their graves abroad or bring them home for reburial. The plan — approved and funded by Congress — divided public opinion and many families. Some argued it would be sacrilegious and disrespectful to move the dead. Others pleaded for the return of the Corpses of fallen husbands, sons and brothers.

There was no debate for Daniel and Giaseme Zombas. They wanted their son Themistocles brought back to Haverhill, Mass. It was there that the couple had married after emigrating from Greece and where Themistocles had grown up, played football in high school and worked in the Kent shoe factory before enlisting in 1942.

“He was the only thing they lived for,” said Arthur Karambelas, a high school classmate.

Zombas, an infantryman with the 310th Infantry Regiment, was killed by shrapnel on March 18, 1945 after his company had crossed the Rhine into Germany. He was 21 years old. Soldiers from the American Graves Registration Service wrapped his body, still in his uniform, in a thin cotton mattress pad and buried him in a makeshift military cemetery outside Henri-Chapelle, Belgium.

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Henri-Chapelle developed into the largest war cemetery in Europe. It was also the first to be emptied when the repatriation program began in 1947. Zombas’ remains were exhumed, placed in a coffin, and loaded along with about 5,000 others from the cemetery onto the US Army’s Joseph V. Connolly Transport in Antwerp, Belgium.

The Connolly arrived in New York Harbor on October 26, 1947 with the first war casualties from Europe. The first bodies from the Pacific had arrived two weeks earlier, when the Army transport Honda Knot sailed to Oakland, California, with 3,027 coffins in its hold.

The Connolly docked at Brooklyn Army Base, where soldiers would haul their precious cargo into the base’s cavernous terminal and then onto funeral trains that spread across the country. A military escort, Army Sgt. Johnnie K. Ward, escorted Zomba’s coffin to Massachusetts.

There Themistocles Zombas was buried for the second time in November 1947, this time in his hometown.

But his parents could not rest. Shattered and lost without their son, the couple wanted to return to their native Greece, but only with Themistocles. They asked if the military would assist in the transfer of his remains, and the response was quick: “Any action … regarding the remains must be taken by the family on their own initiative and at their own expense.”

The Zombases continued with their plans. They had their son’s coffin exhumed again and sailed to Greece in June 1949. Sharing the ocean with the army transport Carroll Victory, their ship made its way west with the latest shipment of war dead. This summer, the repatriation program was well into its second year, with more than 150,000 remains returned to families.

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Themistocles Zombas was buried in Greece while his parents struggled to rebuild their lives. But after eight months, Daniel and Giaseme Zombas decided to return to Haverhill, again with their son’s remains in tow – the third time the body had crossed the Atlantic.

When the Zombases docked in Hoboken, NJ, in March 1950, they were penniless. Daniel was disabled and unemployed for years. The couple lived on their son’s life insurance and military death benefit. They couldn’t afford the $395 bill to ship the coffin to Massachusetts. They left their son’s body in Hoboken returned home alone to await a government review.

For 34 days, the remains of Themistocles Zombas lay on sawhorses at a New Jersey pier, draped with the same US flag that covered the coffin when it first returned from Europe in 1947. War veterans and family friends have come forward to help to pay the transportation fee. Soldiers from the Graves Registration Service, who continued to process war dead at Brooklyn Army Base, retrieved the body. A mortician drove the coffin to Massachusetts.

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On April 17, 1950, Zombas was buried in Linwood Cemetery, Haverhill for the fourth and final time.

Five years had passed since his death. His journey was an anomaly, but his parents’ grief was not. When the return program ended in 1951, more than 171,000 bodies — 60 percent of America’s World War II casualties — were reunited with waiting families. The remaining dead overseas were reinterred in new, permanent cemeteries, including the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery. The repatriation plan cost $163 million.

Today, a government-issued granite engraved marker covers the tomb of Themistocles Zombas. His parents, who died in 1953 and 1966, rest at his side.

Kim Clarke, a Michigan-based writer, is writing a book about the unrecognized men and women who brought home the bodies of approximately 171,000 fallen Americans in the years following World War II. She’s on Twitter @kd_clarke.

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