By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
A comparatively small burial plot of the World War I Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France contains the remains of American military personnel who, following convictions in US Military Courts Martial, remain as nearly anonymous as the numbered markers above them. For nearly seventy-five years after their convictions, their grave markers only reveal one or two digit identification numbers and not the names of those so buried. Though they were convicted of capital crimes, do they deserve the dignity of a proper burial that all of us expect for ourselves?
The Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial contains the remains of 6,012 soldiers who perished during the First World War including 597 unknowns. A monument honors 241 missing in action and presumed dead. The cemetery maps into four official plots, marked A through D. There is an unofficial, or at least unmentionable plot designated as E.
Plot E contains the remains of military personnel convicted of capital offenses in US Courts Martial. All of these convictions were for terrible offenses committed by those buried, either upon other soldiers or against civilians in the European Theater during the second world war. Those convicted were executed by firing squad or hanging. Nearly all were for murder and / or rape with the exception of one who was for desertion. (Eddie Slovik, who’s remains were repatriated to the United States)
Post execution, the remains were buried throughout Europe before in 1949 being consolidated at Oise-Aisne for burial. The name Dishonored Dead stems from the procedure of dishonorably discharging the convicted the day prior to execution.
While the grounds of Plot E are maintained, it is rather minimalist in its furnishings. Each gravesite is adorned with a flat marker about the size of a post card and thereon is engraved a number representing the location, simply a number. One plain granite cross is afforded the whole lot of the soldiers, as opposed to one per each of those ordinarily buried in plots A through D.
There are no officials lists for the names of each of the “Dishonored Dead” at Oise-Aisne that are readily available to the public. Access to the site is discouraged and reportedly it is only accessible through a back door from the superintendent’s office. Flags are not permitted to be flown in Plot E. In fact, if one were to type into the American Battle Monuments Commission’s website a search of the names of those buried (as of February 12, 2020) at Plot E, the search returns no matches. The men seemingly no longer exist, simply erased on the surface of things.
It was not until sixty years later when a small amount of light resurrected at least in name only the men so buried at Plot E. A Freedom of Information Act request served on the American Battle Monuments Commission in 2009 revealed the names of each man buried at Plot E. Each name was cross-referenced to the site number on the small stone markers. From there a post of the names and numbers was written to a Wikipedia article on Plot E and, at least virtually, the dignity of a named burial for each man came forth to the public arena.
It should be noted that in addition to what is at least in my view a human right to a proper and named burial, a historical aspect is sacrificed in the anonymous enumeration of the dead who’s history becomes lost to oblivion.
One particular example of the history can be found with one of Plot E’s residents: Louis Till.
Louis Till is buried under the number 73 at Plot E. He is the father of slain 14 year old youth Emmett Till who suffered a brutal lynching and who’s assailants were acquitted, which lead to a galvanization of the civil rights movement. Emmett’s offense to the wicked was that he reportedly flirted with a white girl. So resistant was the government to providing information as to Louis’ disposition that his wife was not fully informed as to the reason for his execution until after the trial of Emmett’s alleged murderers and even then it was under dubious circumstances to tarnish the victim’s name and legacy. Mississippi senators James Eastland and John C. Stennis uncovered details about Louis Till’s crimes and execution and released them to reporters (source wikipedia). It was not enough that Emmett had to die horribly but he also must be made to suffer for the sins of his father.
On balance we cannot gloss over the fact that, other than perhaps Mr. Slovik, these men were executed for brutal crimes and deserved a strong punishment of sorts. These crimes cannot be condoned and were inexcusable.
Yet at what point does the punishment end? In the case of death of a convicted person is the sentencing extended to eternity through the erasure of the convicted from the human consciousness? Must they fall into oblivion? We would be rather callous to think that these men did not have children, parents, or siblings and were erasable.
I remember in watching the Errol Morris documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara–an excellent biography of Robert McNamara I might add. In it, Mr. McNamara lamented how Curtis LeMay proposed that if their side lost the war, they would be tried as war criminals. “And we were”, according to McNamara “acting like war criminals” in area bombing Japanese cities. The justification to this is of course based on one’s perspective and certainly which side of the pond they were born upon. Yet there was a great amount of evil done at that time, but it was often the leaders and policy makers who justified such actions who are honored with their own large memorials. Yet these ninety-six Dishonored Dead are ordinary soldiers, with no right to be named, it seems.
Or perhaps these Dishonored Dead present a topic of a perpetual embarrassment to the American Military or government, one that is best forgotten. It is a hard pill to swallow that among the millions who served honorably, there were at least a hundred who acted with evil intent and greatly unbecoming a professional soldier. Yet given the aging population of those serving, I very much doubt that any living military personnel of WWII today can truly argue they suffer any affront resultant from the naming of these men. Seventy years ago, yes–today I think time has healed that wound.
We would not pardon these men’s crimes by granting them a proper burial, with name and epitaph afforded all other soldiers. But they at least deserve to be known.
By Darren Smith
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