As Americans observe Memorial Day, few are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the start of the return of the World War II dead. But in the early post-war period, this act of mass repatriation – the largest in history – brought together hundreds of thousands of families torn apart by war and death and created its own series of heartbreaking dramas like the one who has seen Zombas come and go. across the Atlantic Ocean.
While the war was in progress, the United States military prohibited the return of any soldiers who died overseas. The money was to be used for fighting rather than sending the bodies home. Instead, soldiers buried their comrades in temporary military cemeteries across the European and Pacific theaters.
When the war ended, the military gave families a choice: leave their loved ones in their graves abroad or bring them home for reburial. The plan – approved and funded by Congress – divided public opinion, as well as many families. Some have argued that it would be sacrilegious and disrespectful to move the dead. Others pleaded for the return of bodies of deceased husbands, sons and brothers.
For Daniel and Giaseme Zombas, there was no debate. They wanted their son Themistocles brought home to Haverhill, Massachusetts. It’s where the couple were married after emigrating from Greece and where Themistocles grew up, played high school football and worked at the Kent shoe factory before enlisting in 1942.
“He was the only thing they lived for,” said high school classmate Arthur Karambelas.
An infantryman of the 310th Infantry Regiment, Zombas was killed by shrapnel on March 18, 1945, after his company 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 and buried him in a temporary military cemetery outside Henri-Chapelle, Belgium.
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Henri-Chapelle has become 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, along with some 5,000 others from the cemetery, loaded onto U.S. Army transport Joseph V. Connolly in Antwerp, Belgium.
The Connolly arrived in New York Harbor on October 26, 1947, carrying the first of Europe’s war dead. The first Pacific Corps had arrived two weeks earlier when the army transport Honda Knot sailed to Oakland, Calif., with 3,027 coffins in its hold.
The Connolly docked at the Brooklyn Army Base, where soldiers moved its precious cargo through the base’s cavernous terminal and then into mortuary trains that would spread across the country. A military escort, Army Sgt. Johnnie K. Ward, accompanied the Zombas casket to Massachusetts.
There, for the second time, Themistocles Zombas was buried – this time in his hometown – in November 1947.
But her parents could not rest. Broken and lost without their son, the couple wanted to return to their native Greece, but only with Themistocles. They asked if the military would help move 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 went ahead with their plans. They had their son’s coffin re-exhumed and sailed for Greece in June 1949. Their ship shared the ocean with the military transport Carroll Victory, heading west with the last cargo of war dead. That 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 as his parents struggled to rebuild their lives. Yet after eight months, Daniel and Giaseme Zombas decided to return to Haverhill, still 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 had been disabled and unemployed for years. The couple lived off their son’s life insurance policy and military death pension. They couldn’t afford the $395 bill to transport the casket to Massachusetts. They left their son’s body in Hoboken and returned home, alone, waiting for a check from the government.
For 34 days, the remains of Themistocles Zombas lay on trestles on a New Jersey pier, draped in the same American flag that covered the coffin for his original return from Europe in 1947. It was only after a New York newspaper reported the abandonment that Zombas was rescued from when Greek veterans and family friends showed up to pay the transportation costs. Soldiers from the Grave Registration Service, who continued to process the war dead at the Brooklyn Army Base, recovered the body. An undertaker drove the casket to Massachusetts.
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On April 17, 1950, at Linwood Cemetery in Haverhill, Zombas was lowered into the ground 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% of America’s World War II casualties – were reunited with waiting families. The remaining dead overseas were reinterred in new permanent cemeteries, including the American Cemetery at Henri-Chapelle. The repatriation plan cost $163 million.
Today, a government-issued engraved granite 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 some 171,000 fallen Americans in the years after World War II. She’s on Twitter @kd_clarke.