Recognizing the need for a federal agency to be responsible for honoring American armed forces where they have served, and for controlling the construction of military monuments and markers on foreign soil by others, Congress enacted legislation in 1923 establishing ABMC.
In performing its functions, ABMC administers, operates and maintains on foreign soil 25 permanent American burial grounds, and 26 separate memorials, monuments and markers, including three memorials in the United States. Presently there are 124,908 American war dead interred in these cemeteries, of which 30,922 are from World War I, 93,236 are from World War II and 750 are from the Mexican War. Additionally, 6,237 American veterans and others are interred at the Mexico City National Cemetery and the Corozal American Cemetery in Panama. Commemorated individually by name on stone tablets are 94,135 American servicemen and women who were missing in action, or lost or buried at sea in their regions during World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Final disposition of World War I and World War II remains was carried out under the provisions of Public Law 389, 66th Congress and Public Law 368, 80th Congress, respectively. These laws entitled the next of kin to select permanent interment of a family member’s remains on foreign soil in an American military cemetery designed, constructed and maintained specifically to honor in perpetuity the dead of those wars, or to repatriate the remains to the United States for interment in a national or private cemetery.
The final disposition of remains was carried out by the War Department's American Graves Registration Service under the quartermaster general. From time to time, requests are received from relatives asking that the instructions of the next of kin at the time of interment be disregarded. Those making such requests are informed that the decision made by the next of kin at the time of interment is final. Often, on seeing the beauty and immaculate care of ABMC cemeteries, these same individuals tell us later that they are now pleased that the remains have been interred in these overseas shrines.
World War I Commemorative Program
ABMC’s World War I commemorative program consisted of four major engineering programs:
- Erecting a nonsectarian chapel in each of the eight burial grounds on foreign soil that were established by the War Department for the dead of that war;
- Landscaping each of the cemeteries;
- Erecting 11 separate monuments and two tablets elsewhere in Europe; and
- Constructing the Allied Expeditionary Forces World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In 1934 a Presidential Executive Order transferred the eight World War I cemeteries to ABMC and made it responsible for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of future permanent American military burial grounds located in foreign countries.
World War II
By the end of World War II, several hundred temporary burial grounds had been established by the U.S. Army on battlefields around the world. In 1947 14 sites in foreign countries were selected to become permanent burial sites by the Secretary of the Army and ABMC. The location of these sites corresponds closely with the course of military operations. These permanent sites were turned over to ABMC after the interments had been made by the American Graves Registration Service in the configuration proposed by the cemetery architect and approved by ABMC. After the war all temporary cemeteries were disestablished by the War Department and the remains were permanently interred in accordance with the directions of the next of kin. In a few instances the next of kin directed that isolated burials be left undisturbed. When doing so, the next of kin assumed complete responsibility for the care of the grave.
Like World War I cemeteries, the use of the World War II sites as permanent military burial grounds was granted in perpetuity by each host country free of charge or taxation. Except in the Philippines, burial in these cemeteries is limited by agreements with the host country to members of the U.S. armed forces who died overseas during the war. American civilian technicians, Red Cross workers and entertainers serving the military were treated as members of the armed forces in determining burial entitlement. The agreement with the Republic of the Philippines permitted members of the Philippine Scouts and the Philippine Army units that fought with the U.S. armed forces in the Philippines to be interred in the Manila American Cemetery. All of ABMC’s World War I and World War II cemeteries are closed to burials except for remains of American war dead still found from time to time in the battle areas. This policy is dictated by agreements with the host countries concerned.
World War II Commemorative Program
ABMC’s World War II commemorative program consisted of:
- Constructing 14 permanent American military cemeteries on foreign soil;
- Constructing several monuments on foreign soil; and
- Constructing four memorials in the United States.
In addition to their landscaped graves area and nonsectarian chapels, the World War II cemeteries contain sculpture(s), an area with battle maps and narratives depicting the course of the war in the region, and a visitor reception area. Each grave site for the World War I and World War II cemeteries is marked by a headstone of pristine white marble. Headstones of those of the Jewish faith are tapered marble shafts surmounted by a Star of David. Stylized marble Latin crosses mark all others. Annotated on the headstones of the World War I servicemen who could not be identified is: "Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known but to God.” The words "American Soldier" were changed to "Comrade in Arms" on the headstones of the unidentified of World War II.
The policy making body of ABMC consists of 11 commissioners who are appointed by the President of the United States for an indefinite term and serve without compensation. They meet with the professional staff of ABMC twice annually. ABMC has 400 full-time civilian employees. Eighty, full-time civilian employees are U.S. citizens; all but 30 of them are located overseas. The remaining civilian employees are foreign nationals from the countries where ABMC installations are located.
ABMC headquarters is located in Arlington, Va. A Paris-based operations office has operational responsibility for ABMC’s overseas cemeteries and memorials. Cemetery superintendents and their assistants are selected for their administrative ability; knowledge of horticulture; knowledge of vehicle, equipment and structural maintenance; knowledge of construction; and their ability to show compassion and tact when dealing with the public.
General of the Armies John J. Pershing was appointed to the newly-formed ABMC in 1923 by President Warren G. Harding and was elected chairman by the other members. He served as chairman until his death in 1948, at which time he was succeeded by Gen. George C. Marshall. Following Gen. Marshall's death in 1959, Gen. Jacob L. Devers became chairman. He was succeeded by Gen. Mark W. Clark in 1969. Gen. Clark died in 1984 and Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster was elected the following year. Gen. P. X. Kelley succeeded Gen. Goodpaster in 1991. Gen. Frederick F. Woerner became chairman in 1994. Gen. Kelley returned to ABMC in August 2001, succeeding Gen. Woerner. Upon Gen. Kelley's resignation from ABMC in 2005, Gen. Frederick M. Franks, Jr., assumed the chairmanship and served until his resignation in January 2009. Gen. Merrill A. McPeak was elected chairman in June 2011.