This week we are honoring Bernie Tom and the anniversary of his death with articles on some of the letters he wrote to his parents and explaining how the details can help researchers understand not only military service of an individual, but also who he was.
- You can read the first article, Band of Brothers in Letters – Bernie Tom KIA 9 October 1944.
- You can read the second article, Paratrooper Bernie Tom – Part 2.
- Read the third article, Paratrooper Bernie Tom from D-Day to Death.
- Read the fourth article, Bernie Tom’s Death and Burial.
The decision of whether or not to repatriate a soldier’s remains was a very personal one, which often involved many factors. These included, but are not limited to:
- Soldier’s wishes (remain overseas where he fell with his buddies or be brought home)
- Money (could a family afford to bury their son in a private cemetery after the government paid to return the remains? Not all families wished to have their son in a national cemetery, which may have been far away.) I recently wrote an article called, A Family’s Grief and the Cost of WWII Repatriation. A comment was made that money was never an issue as to why a soldier remained buried overseas. I beg to differ, as does the father in the article.
- Wishes of the legal next of kin (NOK).
- There was a specific hierarchy during and after the war, as to who the official and legal NOK was. If a soldier was married, his unmarried widow was designated to choose. If she had remarried prior to the time in which the decision was to be made, and proof existed she remarried, it reverted to the soldier’s father. In some cases, and this is documented in IDPFs, there was arguing between the widow and family of the soldier as to where his remains should be. There are many reasons for this. I recently read a file for an airman who was KIA in the Pacific, whose widow remarried and the airman’s mother and sister obtained a certified copy of the marriage license, submitted it to the government and had the legal NOK changed. In another file, the widow remarried, did not notify the government and the soldier was permanently buried in North Africa. Somehow the family of the soldier proved after the permanent burial with the marriage license, that she remarried and was not the legal NOK, and the decision was reversed and he was repatriated. These IDPF files contain more than basic death information. It is worth your time to really study them.
- If the father was deceased, the next legal NOK was the mother. If both parents were deceased it moved through siblings unless there was some other official legal person named.
- Concern over whether the grave would be tended to or just become overgrown and forgotten.
- Concern over whether the people in Europe would care about our soldiers and honor their memories, or just move on with their lives and forget the sacrifice our boys made for them.
The reasons to repatriate or not in most cases, may never be known if the IDPF or service record does not have correspondence about this topic. To judge a decision or assume that because we have beautiful cemeteries overseas (now) and at home in the states, judging through our eyes and experiences today, does our soldiers an injustice. As a historian, we are taught to have no judgment but look at the information through the historical lens. We do not know all the factors that went into a decision (emotions, money, desire of soldier or family, etc.)
Bernie Tom’s father questioned whether or not to leave his son buried overseas. This is an undebateable fact as his IDPF has the letters to prove it. These are pages 82-88 in Bernie’s IDPF. Read Bernie’s 122 page IDPF. Mr. Tom asks:
- How many families are bringing remains home?
- Will the remains over there be cared for in the future as they have the last 3 years (length of time since Bernie died and option to repatriate.)
- He comments on the fact several families in Holland have provided information, laid flowers, and taken an interest in the graves – but questions if that will end.
- He states if the graves will be forgotten and go into ruin basically, he would prefer to have his son home. However, he says he thinks if the boys could talk, they would prefer to be where they fell.
As I read the letters in this IDPF, I can feel Bernie’s father’s pain, doubt, and sincere desire that his son never be forgotten.
Click on the images to enlarge.
In the end, the explanation from the government seemed to be enough to satisfy Mr. Tom’s questions. He chose to leave him in the land he helped liberate and fell. Bernie Tom rests at Margraten, where his grave was adopted. Not only did Johan adopt his grave, but also that of paratrooper Charles (Dave) Horn.
I, along with many others in Europe and America, honor Bernie’s memory, tell his story, and ensure he is never forgotten.
Would you like to know more about the job of Graves Registration who cared for our fallen and missing? Read FM 10-63 Graves Registration 1945.
© 2017 World War II Research and Writing Center
Arthur D Mouton says
My wife and I just visited the graves of my two uncles who were killed in WW2 in Europe. One is buried in Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten and the other in Henri Chapelle, Belgium. At both places we met both people with the administration of the cemetery and, at each cemetery, the local family that had adopted my uncle’s grave. Without a doubt as to the question of repatriating the remains, where they are buried is truly “In Honored Glory”, forever with their compatriots and with the Dutch and Belgians contributing to the remembrance of these soldiers. As a side note be sure to read the book “The Margraten Boys: How a European Village Kept America’s Liberators Alive” by P. Schrijvers (available on Amazon.com). It was a memorable and emotional experience.
Jennifer Holik says
Thank you for your comment. I have read Margraten Boys.
The point of the article was not for those living today to justify why the cemeteries here are the best place. The target was to get people to understand what the people who had to make the decisions went through. View it through the historical lens. To stand in THEIR shoes for a moment and consider how things were. To understand the questions they asked. Most of us who have visited the cemetery in the last 10 years were not the individuals who had to make those decisions for those buried in these cemeteries. It’s one thing for us to visit these cemeteries and say, ‘ok they are where they should be.’ The people who made these decisions never saw what we see today. Had they visited after the war, they would not have been the lush green, tree lined, places we see today. The permanent graves were not erected until those who were to be permanently interred were, after 1947. The family members also were told the bare minimum and ONLY when they pushed an issue, like Fred Tom, did they get answers. I had family members die in both World Wars. Three were repatriated and their families would disagree that there is no place of higher honor than the cemeteries in Chicago where they can be close to their loved ones who died. One cousin still sleeps in Luxembourg because he told his step-mother that he wanted to be buried where he fell. I visited his grave and flew his final burial flag at the cemetery, walked in the steps of his service and where he was KIA. It is not up to me to decide if the places the family members chose are “the best place”. It is up to me to honor their memories and help heal the past through education of what those who lived it went through.