A noncombatant, he wasn’t exactly
a coward. His parents were Quakers.
He, bungling, washed out as a medic
the very first week.
but the Navy had him regardless,
and he stayed back on the boat
when the Marines hit the beaches. They knew
he was bad luck and did not say goodbye.
It was his job to find and identify them
once they were killed, after all.
Days later he too hit the beaches
looking for name tags, dog tags and worse
a wheeling vulture who picked fingers
off the beach, inked them for prints
combed sand for tattooed arms,
partial jawbones, eyes and teeth
assembling the pieces, it was hoped
into someone who could be identified.
What he could not drag he would pile
onto a stretcher and back on the ship
under strong light he soaked
the blood-stiff tattered wallets
separating, floating slowly
in the enamel pan’s clean white
vinegar turned first pink
then to crimson of d-day surf,
fishing with tongs, searching for a name.
Graves Registration was a non-combatant position occupied by conscientious objectors during WW2. It was a terrible job, exposing the men to horror on an unimaginable scale. On Iwo Jima, the work was especially hard. For one, the beachhead was unsecured during most of the invasion. This meant that there was no time the men on the beach were not under fire from artillery and machine guns. Wounded men awaiting evacuation were often killed before they could be gotten aboard waiting hospital ships. Second, the scale of carnage was unprecedented. Hundreds of Marines were killed every day. But by far the worst was how the men were killed. The Japanese, pulling out all stops to cause as many casualties as possible, used weapons normally employed against armor and aircraft–high-velocity cannon and machine guns, enormous mortars, various kinds of high explosive. The damage done to the bodies was extraordinary. One war correspondent who had covered the invasions of Guadalcanal, Anzio and Normandy was appalled by what he saw. The Graves boys moved through the carnage, identifying boys so the Marines and their families would know what happened to them. For this tremendous service they were shunned, called cowards and vultures, looked on with disgust and even hatred. War makes monsters of everyone who has a hand in it, but there are many sorts of monster.