Vietnam veteran J.C. Handy joins us to share the largely untold story of those, like him, who performed the challenging duty of reuniting the remains of lost soldiers with their families. Handy served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 and gives us a rare perspective on the crucial but often overlooked role of Army personnel in Graves Registration (GR).
GR has its roots tracing back to the Civil War, when identifying fallen soldiers and ensuring their proper funerals and burials became a challenge. The challenges of working at collection points and mortuaries include recovering records, meticulously inspecting bodies for identifying features, and preparing the deceased for transport back to the United States.
The untold nature of this story prompted Handy to reach out to fellow GR personnel, documenting their experiences in his book, “Coffins of Tin: The Unseen Angels of Vietnam.” Focused on the period from October 1967 to the spring of 1968, during the Tet Offensive, the book reveals the immense challenges faced by these individuals. Mortuaries designed for processing 300 bodies a month found themselves processing a staggering 2,500 during this tumultuous time.
Handy emphasizes the psychological toll on GR personnel, often treated as pariahs and avoided by other servicemen. Superstition and the lingering smell of death contributed to their isolation. Despite the emotional burden, Handy notes that serving in GR was optional; soldiers struggling with the role were reassigned. Some veterans, haunted by their experiences, found it difficult to cope even decades later, with one confessing that two weeks in GR ruined his life. Another, after 47 years, expressed relief at the prospect of death as a means of escaping the traumatic memories.
In his book, Handy provides an intimate portrayal of these untold stories, changing names but ensuring the authenticity of their experiences. “Coffins of Tin” stands as a poignant testament to the sacrifices and challenges faced by the unseen angels of Vietnam, shedding light on a chapter of military history that has long been in the shadows.