SERVING OUR VETERANS: The American Battle Monuments Commission
In a recent column on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I mentioned that following World War I, eight new American cemeteries were established in Europe under the jurisdiction of the American Battle Monuments Commission. This commission is still in service today.
The American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) is an independent agency of the United States government that administers, operates, and maintains permanent U.S. military cemeteries, memorials, and monuments both inside and outside the United States.
As of 2018, there are twenty-six cemeteries and twenty-nine memorials, monuments, and markers under the care of the ABMC. There are more than 140,000 U.S. servicemen and service women interred at these cemeteries. More than 94,000 missing in action, or lost or buried at sea, are memorialized on cemetery walls of the missing and on three memorials in the United States. The ABMC also maintains an on-line data base of names associated with each site. The ABMC was established by the United States Congress in 1923. Its purpose is to:
– Commemorate the services of the U.S. armed forces where they have served since April 6, 1917.
– Establish suitable war memorials, designing, constructing, operating, and maintaining permanent U.S. military burial grounds in foreign countries.
– Control the design and construction of U.S. military monuments and markers in foreign countries by other U.S. citizens and organizations, both public and private.
– Encourage the maintenance of such monuments and markers by their sponsors.
The United States Department of War established eight European burial grounds for World War I. The ABMC’s first program was landscaping and erecting non-sectarian chapels at each of the eight sites, constructing eleven separate monuments, and two tablets at other sites in Europe, and constructing the Allied Expeditionary Forces World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C. For those buried who could not be identified during World War I, a percentage of these was commemorated by Star of David markers, rather than a cross. This practice was not continued for those who could not be identified during World War II. They all received crosses.
In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order transferring control to the ABMC, and made the commission responsible for the design, construction, maintenance, and operation of all future permanent American military burial grounds outside the United States.
The ABMC has been the caretaker of cemeteries, monuments, and memorials for World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Mexican-American War. In 2013, Clark Veterans Cemetery, in the Philippines, became the 25th site under the control of the commission. Clark Veterans Cemetery dates back to the Philippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century. The Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery, outside Paris, France, was added to the commission’s responsibilities in 2017.
The ABMC has its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, and its Overseas Operation Office in Paris, France. The President may appoint up to eleven members to the commission (who serve indefinite terms and without pay), and an officer of the Army to serve as the secretary. The commission is non-partisan politically. The ABMC employs a full-time staff of 418 people around the world. All ABMC sites are open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., seven days a week, with the exception of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
As mentioned earlier, the total number of burials of American servicemen and service women in foreign countries is nearly 140,000. I would speculate the vast majority of these honored dead have never had family or loved ones ever visit their final resting place. Fortunately, they are buried with their brothers-in-arms. They are not alone. It is again another reminder of what our price of freedom has cost and why we should remember and honor all those who have sacrificed so much for our country. The vast majority of these interred at our American cemeteries in foreign lands died doing their duty in combat conditions. It is fairly easy to criticize and find fault with our government today. But, despite all of its faults, we should feel fortunate and thankful we have a government so dedicated to taking care of our honored dead, both at home and in foreign lands. It has been said that we as Americans, and our government, take better care of our dead servicemen and women than many countries take care of their living. May this always be the case in this great country of ours.