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A massive repatriation of World War II dead — and one body’s long journey

The U.S. Army transport ship Joseph V. Connolly moves into New York Harbor in 1947, bearing 6,200 World War II dead being returned from military cemeteries in Europe for reburial in the United States. (AP)
6 min

When the United States began bringing home its dead from World War II, the body of Army Staff Sgt. Themistocles Zombas was in the first shipment of flag-draped caskets from Europe’s battlefields.

But it would be among the last to reach its final place of rest.

Years would pass before Zombas was buried for the last time. As the country shipped home hundreds of thousands of war dead to be mourned and buried, Zombas was repeatedly interred and exhumed, first by the military and then by parents so paralyzed by grief they could not bear being apart from their only child.

As Americans observe Memorial Day, few are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the start of the return of the dead from World War II. But in the early postwar era, this massive act of repatriation — the largest in history — reunited hundreds of thousands of families torn apart by war and death and created its own series of wrenching dramas like the one that saw Zombas moved back-and-forth across the Atlantic Ocean.

While the war was underway, the U.S. military banned the return of any overseas war dead. Money was to go toward fighting rather than shipping bodies back home. Instead, soldiers buried their comrades in temporary military cemeteries throughout the European and Pacific theaters.

When the war ended, the military gave families a choice: leave their loved ones in their overseas graves or bring them home for reburial. The plan — approved and funded by Congress — split public opinion, as well as many families. Some argued it would be sacrilegious and disrespectful to move the dead. Others pleaded for the return of the bodies of fallen husbands, sons and brothers.

For Daniel and Giaseme Zombas, there was no debate. They wanted their son Themistocles brought home to Haverhill, Mass. It was where the couple had married after emigrating from Greece and where Themistocles grew up, played football in high school, and worked at the Kent Shoe factory before enlisting in 1942.

“He was the only thing they lived for,” said a high school classmate, Arthur Karambelas.

An infantryman with the 310th Infantry Regiment, Zombas was killed by a shell fragment on March 18, 1945, after his company crossed the Rhine River into Germany. He was 21 years old. Soldiers from the American Graves Registration Service wrapped his body, still in its uniform, in a thin cotton mattress pad and buried him in a temporary military cemetery outside Henri-Chapelle, Belgium.

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Henri-Chapelle grew to be the largest wartime cemetery in Europe. It was also the first to be emptied when the repatriation program began in 1947. Zombas’s remains were exhumed, placed in a casket and, with some 5,000 others from the cemetery, loaded onto the U.S. Army Transport Joseph V. Connolly at Antwerp, Belgium.

The Connolly arrived in New York harbor on Oct. 26, 1947, with the first of the war dead from Europe. The first bodies from the Pacific had arrived two weeks earlier when the Army transport Honda Knot sailed into Oakland, Calif., with 3,027 caskets in its hold.

The Connolly tied up at the Brooklyn Army Base, where soldiers moved its precious cargo into the base’s cavernous terminal, then onto mortuary trains that would fan out 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 his parents could not rest. Shattered and lost without their son, the couple wanted to return to their native Greece, but only with Themistocles. They asked if the military would assist in moving his remains, and the answer was swift: “Any action … with respect to 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 casket re-exhumed and set sail for Greece in June 1949. Their ship shared the ocean with the Army transport Carroll Victory, making its way westward with the latest shipment of war dead. By that summer, the repatriation program was well into its second year, with more than 150,000 sets of remains returned to families.

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Themistocles Zombas was buried in Greece while his parents struggled to rebuild their lives. Yet after all of eight months, Daniel and Giaseme Zombas decided to return to Haverhill, again with their son’s remains in tow — the third time the body had crossed the Atlantic.

When the Zombases docked in Hoboken, N.J., in March 1950, they were penniless. Daniel was disabled and had been unemployed for years. The couple had been living on their son’s life insurance policy and military death pension. They could not afford the $395 bill to transport the casket to Massachusetts. They left their son’s body in Hoboken and returned home, alone, to await a government check.

For 34 days, Themistocles Zombas’s remains were on sawhorses on a New Jersey pier, draped with the same U.S. flag that had covered the coffin for its initial return from Europe in 1947. Only after a New York newspaper reported the abandonment was Zombas rescued when Greek war veterans and family friends came forward to pay the transport fee. Soldiers with the Graves Registration Service, who continued to process war dead at the Brooklyn Army Base, retrieved the body. A mortician drove the casket to Massachusetts.

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On April 17, 1950, in Haverhill’s Linwood Cemetery, 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 percent of America’s World War II fallen — were reunited with waiting families. The remaining overseas dead were reinterred in new, permanent cemeteries, including Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery. The repatriation plan cost $163 million.

Today, an engraved granite marker issued by the government covers the grave of Themistocles Zombas. His parents, who died in 1953 and 1966, rest at his side.

Kim Clarke, a writer based in Michigan, is writing a book about the unacknowledged men and women who brought home the bodies of some 171,000 fallen Americans in the years after World War II. She is on Twitter @kd_clarke.