A local Vietnam veteran is sharing the untold story of the group of servicemen that perform the grueling duty of reuniting the remains of lost soldiers with their families.
J.C. Handy of Highland Township served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. Just a couple days into his tour overseas, he became aware of Army personnel working in Graves Registration, or GR. GR has roots going back the Civil War where added efforts to identify those fallen in battle were made. GR personnel are responsible for recovering, reclaiming, processing, and returning the bodies to families for proper funerals and burials. Working at collection points and mortuaries, they would recover the records of the soldier and then open the bags, strip the fallen, and look for any markings, scars, or any other identifying feature, as dog tags were not conclusive enough. They had to 100% identify every body, clean, embalm, wrap, and lay the deceased in a tin coffin for transport back to the States. They saw things that most veterans never did and in giant numbers. Handy said that these men were often treated like pariahs and avoided by other servicemen, sometimes because of superstition, sometimes because they had the smell of death on them.
Unsatisfied that their story has been largely untold until now, Handy has contacted many who served in GR and written about it in his book, Coffins of Tin: The Unseen Angels of Vietnam. The book covers October of 1967 to spring of 1968, during the Tet Offensive; a period of time where mortuaries designed to process 300 bodies a month were processing 2,500.
Handy said as he reached out to GR personnel, many were still suffering. He said it was the one job the Army wouldn’t make you do if you couldn’t handle it; they would reassign you. One GR veteran he spoke to said he worked 2 weeks in GR and it ruined his life. He recounted another phone call he had where the veteran told him, “I can’t go back to that. I’ve been fighting that for 47 years. The happiest day of my life is going to be when I’m dead. It’ll finally be over. I won’t have to deal with it anymore.” Handy, himself, then said, “That’s how most are. I’d get ‘em on the phone, and two minutes in they’d disintegrate.”
Handy says that while he changed their names for the book, their experiences are all real, and that this is most detailed work ever done on the subject.
Coffins of Tin can be purchased on his website, jchandy.net