Throughout the course of my World War II research the last several years, one of my primary focuses has been the work of the Graves Registration Service (GRS). I focused on this group because so many of the soldiers, sailors, and Marines I research were Killed In Action or never recovered. Many people have no idea about the number of records the men of the GRS created and how valuable they are. These men created one file available to all researchers, for every service man or woman Killed In Action or unrecovered (still MIA.) This file is the Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) for identified service members or X-File for unidentified service members. You can read more about the IDPF and other records in the Education section of my website.
Through one of the Facebook groups I’m in for World War II, I saw a post about a book called Tarawa’s Gravediggers by William L. Niven. Having researched several Tarawa Marines and observed many conversations, sometimes very heated on Facebook, I highly recommend this book for anyone wishing to understand why our Marines and other service personnel buried on Tarawa are still being recovered.
In general, from what I observed through research and conversations, the American people were not educated enough during and after the war as to what took place with the burials on Tarawa or any other location. Today, Americans are uneducated for the most part regarding the job GRS did (or did not do) on Tarawa or in general during the war. Too many people today are angry and frustrated over the fact we still have so many MIAs from World War II, yet have no comprehension as to why this is. This book does an excellent job explaining the process and resulting issue of unrecovered men.
One reason people are angry is because many often look at the past through they eyes of today. They think if we have DNA today which can identify people and remains, why didn’t they use it during the war? That technology, like so much other technology, was not available then. During the war, our clerks and GRS men were using paper, pencils, index cards, and forms. There were no computers available. No databases to store and sort information into. We need to remember to look at the past and put it into historical context rather than jump to anger over what was not done, just because it can be done today.
Whenever I get a book like this, the first thing I look for is the bibliography of sources used, footnotes or endnotes, and the appendix. This book does not contain an official bibliography of sources used. It does contain a list of general records used by the author. It also contains no index, footnotes or endnotes.
Niven explains at the very end of the book in his section on Replication and Validation, how he did his research, how he set up the book, why he did not use footnotes, where he got his sources, and why this work is important. I wish he would have put this at the beginning of the book because it would have made the book make more sense. I also would not have wondered why a historian who was creating such an important work failed to document his information. Niven had a purpose in how he arranged the material for publication. Maybe this means I should be reading the end of these types of books first, if authors are putting this kind of information there.
Every author is different in the way they present their information. What is right for one is not necessarily right for another. While I wish he had included an index, that would have lengthened the book by scores of pages. I was lucky enough to find William Cowart, a still MIA Marine, discussed on pages 11-12. He is one I researched and hope is recovered soon.
What will you find in this book?
This book is the result of years of research, data analysis, database creation, validation, and writing. It is more than 460 pages long and contains the most in-depth information on Tarawa I have ever seen compiled in one place. The book includes the methodology Niven used to work through the problem of locating every cemetery and information on every Marine or other service man buried on the island. There are countless pages of tables showing what he compiled in his database. He has photographs and maps with explanations as to what they are and their importance.
Why is this book important to those researching non-Tarawa Marines?
Many may wonder why they should read this book if they do not have a family member listed as unrecoverable from Tarawa. I encourage you to read the book because of the depth of research Niven conducted. The analysis is unlike what most researchers do, but he has a lot to teach everyone who picks up the book and is looking for information on their soldier. He also provides a lot of information on the GRS and their records. This is important for anyone researching someone who died during the war or is still unrecovered.
Niven also is very honest and forthcoming about potential errors in his work. Why? Because people make mistakes. He discusses the errors found among various official military records he used throughout his research. He discussed errors he made in entering the data into his database. He shows us that no one is perfect. No record is perfect and all of this must be taken into account with any research we do.
Finally, Niven gives a great description of many military records available for all branches of the military. Each of these were used in his study and are of great value to all researching soldiers, sailors, or Marines in World War II.
Want to know more about this incredible book? Pick up a copy today. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your comments.
Need more help?
To learn more and go deeper into your research, pick up one of my Stories from the World War II Battlefield books if you are in the U.S. or Faces of War: Researching Your Adopted Soldier if you are in Europe.
Please contact me if you need to hire a researcher to help you with your family’s World War II research.
© 2016 World War II Research and Writing Center
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