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War meant grisly duty for Martinsburg man

December 07, 1998

By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer




MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Francis M. Kolb was 18 years old when he pulled bloated bodies out of the water at Normandy seven days after D-Day.

Hundreds had washed up on shore on the days following the Allied invasion of Europe, he said.

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Kolb, 73, of Martinsburg, was assigned to a graves registration squad in World War II. It was his job to pick up soldiers killed in battle, or whatever was left of them, identify them and then bury them.

"After we identified them, we put them in temporary graves," he said. The temporary graves stretched from Normandy across France and Germany, following the fighting, as the Allies pushed forward to victory, he said. "There were bodies wherever there was fighting, and we had to bury them," he said.

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After the hostilities ended, Kolb and his buddies dug up the temporary graves. The bodies were prepared for permanent burial with military honors in national cemeteries that were being opened in France and Belgium. Some were sent home for burial by their families. "Most were buried overseas," he said.

Kolb was born on Walnut Street a couple of houses away from the house he lives in now. He enlisted in the Army on April 16, 1943, and went through basic training at Fort Lee, Va. He took advanced training in laundry equipment repair and shipped out for England on Thanksgiving Day 1943.

"I never repaired any laundries," he said. "When I got to England, they put me in graves registration."

He didn't ask for the duty and expected to end up in a combat outfit. "You go where they tell you in the Army. It was job that had to be done," he said.

Kolb was promoted to sergeant and supervised eight men in his squad.

Medics brought most of the dead off the line, but there were many occasions in which Kolb and his squad were there first. At times they had to enter burned-out tanks to remove bodies. Another time it might be a picking up what was left of a bomber crew that had been shot down. "You just picked what you could find and buried it in a grave," he said. "You couldn't identify them. They knew who was on the plane."

The most hated job was picking up bodies that had been in water for a while. "They were always bloated up," he said.

Dog tags were used in identification along with markings on clothes, tattoos, birthmarks, fingerprints and tooth charts, he said.

After the war, Kolb's duties changed to a search-and-recover mission. "We had to go into towns and villages in Germany and ask the people if they knew where any American soldiers were buried," he said. "We had to find and identify them. There were thousands."

Kolb was discharged from the Army in January 1946. He re-enlisted in 1950 for the Korean War and did the same work.

Conditions were better in Korea, he said.

"We had a Quonset hut and eight tables like a real morgue," he said. "In Europe all we had was the ground. We wore our regular clothes, gloves if we could find them. In Korea they gave us rubber gloves and aprons. We didn't even have body bags in Europe, only cotton mattress covers to bury them in. They learned a lot from World War II.

"There is nothing worse than the smell of death. All you could do was try to put it out of your mind. When I came home from Europe my family wanted me to go to mortuary school. I told them I'd had enough," he said.

Today, 53 years after World War II ended, Kolb is still burying soldiers. He's commander of the Combined VFW/American Legion Honor Guard No. 896 of Martinsburg. Last year the unit officiated at 180 local funerals.

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