His life—and death—was typical of that of thousands of young Americans in the first half of the twentieth century.
Joseph Svojger Jr. was born on the North Side on February 21, 1919 to parents of Bohemian birth. His father was a brick mason.
Three months later baby Joseph won second place in a baby contest sponsored by Monnig’s Department Store.
Fast-forward to December 7, 1941. Joseph Svojger Jr., now a graduate of Poly High School, was twenty-two years old when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and America entered World War II.
Now Joseph Svojger’s life, like the lives of so many young Americans, was moving in directions he could not have foreseen just a few months earlier. By January 1942 the United States had been at war almost two months. Joseph Svojger was now a private in the Army’s 36th Infantry Division and about to attend motor mechanics school at Fort Benning.
During the Normandy invasion on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Joseph Svojger, now a technician grade 5, landed on Omaha Beach. For his “gallant actions” as a member of the Army’s First Infantry Division (the “Big Red One”) during combat on August 1 he was awarded the Silver Star.
By January 1945 Joseph Svojger had seen combat in Africa, Sicily, France, and Germany. He was wounded twice and received two Purple Hearts.
Then came the Battle of the Bulge (December 16, 1944-January 25, 1945) in Belgium. On January 15 a brief in the Star-Telegram reported that the U.S. Army was mopping up as the battle was ending.
In the fog of war T/5 Joseph Svojger was listed as “missing in action.”
A month later his status was changed to “killed in action.”
His mother wrote to the War Department, seeking confirmation of her son’s death. Maybe some clerical error had been made . . .
Then began what was probably the longest year of Rose Svojger’s life.
In January 1946 she received a typewritten letter that began with “It is with deepest regrets . . .”.
Her son indeed had been killed during “an assault by the 16th Infantry against enemy positions . . . in Belgium” on January 19, 1945.
He was twenty-five years old.
T/5 Joseph Svojger was buried in Belgium in a cemetery at Henri-Chapelle near where he had fallen.
Seven months after his death, on September 2, Japan surrendered on the USS Missouri, ending World War II and ending the story of T/5 Joseph Svojger, right?
No. Now we begin the second part of his story: homecoming.
In 1946 the Star-Telegram printed a list of Texas casualties in the war (including more than fifteen thousand killed): eight full pages of names in small print, each designated with one of six acronyms.
By one estimate 418,500 Americans had been killed in the war. Almost 300,000 of that total had been buried overseas. In 1946 Congress authorized the Army to offer to the next-of-kin of war dead the option of bringing their dead home for reburial. Of 279,867 American war dead, next-of-kin requested the return of 171,539. The war dead who were not to be repatriated would be moved from temporary graves overseas to private cemeteries overseas or to the fifteen national cemeteries overseas maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Remains that could not be positively identified would be buried in those fifteen overseas national cemeteries.
American History Magazine writes that Congress gave the Army five years—until December 31, 1951—to complete repatriation of 171,539 American war dead. The operation, known informally as “Operation Taps,” employed more than eighteen thousand military personnel to search, recover, identify, transport, and escort to next-of-kin the dead from eighty-six countries.
Remains were transported from overseas cemeteries on Army transport ships (carrying as many as eight thousand remains per voyage) that landed at two U.S. ports: San Francisco/Oakland for Asia and Brooklyn for Europe, Africa, and the Mediterranean.
The remains began arriving at those two ports in October 1947.
From the two ports remains were transported by train to quartermaster depots—including Fort Worth’s—around the country for distribution to next-of-kin for reburial.
The Army had ordered 118 railroad cars to be modified to transport remains. These cars had been built as civilian passenger cars and then had been converted to wartime hospital cars and then to mortuary cars.
(After Operation Taps ended, some of the mortuary cars were sold to Ringling Bros. circus.)
On both transport ships and trains the Army regarded remains not as cargo but rather as passengers. Their names appeared on a “Passenger List, Deceased” manifest. The Army paid railroads a reduced fare for each war dead and the regular fare for guards and military escorts.
Remains were shipped in upholstered steel caskets inside metal shipping cases.
Guards accompanied remains from the two ports to the quartermaster depots. Military escorts accompanied remains from the quartermaster depots to their final destination by either hearse or civilian train.
Escorts had a somber duty: They delivered the war dead to the next-of-kin in person. According to American History Magazine, “Each [escort] was picked from a pool of volunteers, many of them combat veterans asked to reenlist specifically for this mission to assure that someone of the same service branch, race, sex, and equal or higher rank accompanied each deceased. Escorts underwent five weeks of training, including advice from psychiatrists on what to expect and how to respond to reactions and questions. The training film’s title, Your Proudest Duty, says it all. While traveling with remains, escorts were assigned coach or sleeper space, depending on a trip’s duration, and were forbidden to consume alcohol. The Army initially feared that escorts’ presence would disturb families, but these personnel were universally found to be one of the program’s greatest assets.”
Each escort carried a U.S. flag to drape on the casket during transit and another U.S. flag to drape on the casket during the funeral. Each escort also carried blank bullets for a graveside gun salute and reimbursement forms for the next-of-kin and the funeral director.
Some of the first war dead to arrive for reburial had been killed early in the war—at Pearl Harbor six years earlier. Fort Worth’s Quartermaster Depot expected to receive its first dead from Asia by October 18, its first dead from Europe, Africa, and the Mediterranean by November 1.
The Quartermaster Depot was connected to tracks of both the Katy and the Santa Fe railroads. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)
Not even death stops red tape. On October 7, 1947 a disinterment directive for T/5 Joseph Svojger was issued. His remains would be moved from Henri-Chapelle Cemetery in Belgium to Shannon’s funeral home on North Main Street. The first shipment of 5,600 American war dead from the cemetery left Antwerp the first week of October. (Eupen is a city in Belgium that was a center of fighting during the Battle of the Bulge. The cemetery is located nearby.)
On October 10 Operation Taps delivered the first remains—3,028 from Asia—at San Francisco/Oakland on the transport ship Hondo Knot. America received it war dead with solemn respect. The ship was flanked by an honor escort of two destroyers. On the Hondo Knot’s port side was placed a huge wreath—sent by President Truman—containing leaves of trees from every state. A formation of P-80 jet fighters flew overhead. Twenty-one-gun salutes were fired at one-minute intervals. Church bells were rung. Speeches were made. Prayers were offered. The national anthem was sung.
And, finally, a bugler played “Taps.”
At Fort Worth Army Air Field (soon to be renamed “Carswell Air Force Base”) a gun crew from Fort Sill fired a twenty-one-gun salute, and the flag was lowered to half staff.
By October 13 the Fort Worth Quartermaster Depot’s revised date for receiving its first war dead from the Pacific was October 15. The depot expected to begin shipping remains to next-of-kin on October 20.
The depot served parts of Texas and seven other states. Those eight states had a total of fifty thousand war dead.
The first shipment of war dead from Europe, Africa, and the Mediterranean arrived in Brooklyn on October 26 on the transport ship Joseph V. Connolly. A photo from Life magazine archives shows remains in caskets being unloaded from a transport ship at Brooklyn Army Terminal.
This article lists the dead to be shipped to the Fort Worth Quartermaster Depot. War dead who lived locally—including T/5 Joseph Svojger—were listed in boldface type. (ETO is “European Theater of Operations.”)
As the dead arrived at the Fort Worth Quartermaster Depot and were dispatched to next-of-kin for reburial, Shag Floore, information specialist of the American Graves Registration Service at the depot, told the Star-Telegram that Operation Taps gave closure at last to most next-of-kin, “a strong overtone of mental and spiritual peace.”
A mother in Oklahoma told her son’s escort: “This is the first time I’ve slept since he was killed.”
A father in east Texas said, “He left us forever but is back home now. The war did not end for us until his body arrived.”
After arrival at Fort Worth’s Quartermaster Depot on November 3, 1947—more than two years after he was killed in combat—Joseph Svojger continued his homecoming trip to the North Side.
On November 15 Joseph Svojger Sr. signed the application for a military headstone for his son.
T/5 Joseph Svojger is buried in Mount Olivet.
Footnote: In order for Operation Taps to provide a homecoming for Joseph Svojger and 171,538 other Americans buried in overseas cemeteries, military personnel faced a daunting logistical and record-keeping challenge in the era before computers. Operation Taps was completed on time and under budget.
(Thanks to historians Dr. Richard Selcer and Quentin McGown for their assistance.)