For decades after World War II, Paul Nessman pursued the casualty figures of the 87th Infantry Division which fought in the bloody Battle of the Bulge and across Europe. Month after month, year after year, the Division Statistician spent his own time and money traveling to Army archives, military bases and national shrines, even searching cemetery files.
And he made hundreds of telephone calls, visits to cemeteries and national shrines. Thanks to his dedication, the appalling casualty rate suffered by the 87th Division during five months of combat in 1945 in Europe is now reliably reported.
It has taken Nessman over a decade to locate some individual records and to verify casualties, including soldiers once written off as missing in action, as well as others whose body or burial grounds, some in Europe, have lain unverified or unclaimed, calling attention to the need for reform of this immoral practice.
Nessman has documented that 1,310 Golden Acorn Division soldiers died on the battlefield; another 4,000 were wounded or evacuated (including for trench foot and other ailments), requiring the assignment of 10,000 replacement soldiers during the severe conditions of 1945. (Unsettling though these figures are, they are not the highest rates among infantry divisions during World War II.)
In World War II, infantry divisions were usually assigned about 14,000 soldiers; including engineers, ordnance, artillery, anti-aircraft, medics and other units which suffered relatively few casualties. But since most of an infantry outfit’s casualties took place among riflemen, it is enlightening to start with the10,000 riflemen who were initially assigned to the 87th Division’s three regiments.
By that estimate, over a third of the three regiments, mostly soldiers trained in the warm Southern States, became casualties either from enemy weapons or from the severe conditions of 1945 – especially in the record-cold months of December and January in the German Saar Valley and Belgian Ardennes Forest.
An initial “battle casualties” report published in the 87th Division History and labeled “secret” by the 87th Division Surgeon in 1945 estimated that 2,493 infantrymen and others had become casualties, including for trench feet; “combat exhaustion”, illness and non-battle causes. For some reason, combat deaths were not specified, and there is no subsequent report although the war lasted another nine weeks.
So with 1,390 names from the Division History book, Nessman, a 347th Regiment mortarman during the war, decided over a decade ago to visit the U.S. Mortuary Service in Alexandria, Va. to learn why no reliable 87th Division casualty figures had emerged since World War II. But after combing through 144 records of the 165 at the U.S. Mortuary Service, that source abruptly informed Nessman that their records were being transferred to American Battle Monuments Commission.
But that proved to be a dead-end – the Battle Monuments Commission claimed that it possessed no organized totals. Ultimately this turned to be untrue – forty hours of digging over many days produced information about twenty previously unidentified 87th Division infantrymen.
Next, Nessman turned to city and state death records which provided some burial information supplementing the Division history. And following that, Nessman discovered an Adjutant General’s list compiled in 1947 that included 20 names not previously identified. All of these names had to be followed up and verified.
It then occurred to Nessman that another source might be Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Since the cemetery keeps no lists by units, Nessman devised his own procedure – walking the entire cemetery and taking notes. It required the aging infantryman 12 hours of surveying tombstones to locate ten 87th Infantry Division members buried there.
Another source was the D.C. Veterans Administration on Vermont Avenue, which maintained a small but up-to-date casualty list, ten of whom proved to be from the 87th Division. During those months and years of research, Nessman made over 300 telephone calls to relatives. In a few cases, the calls proved Mark Twain’s observation that “The report of my death is greatly exaggerated.”
One so-called deceased soldier returned Nessman’s telephone call. The soldier, who lived in Ohio, subsequently attended the 87th Division reunion in Toledo, adjusting Nessman’s figures.
Let us now rise and praise both brave men and dedicated men.