124 Alden Street

Detail of Private Souza’s military headstone. [2013, Dunlap]

PFC Jordan Howard Souza (1924-1945). Beside conveying the enduring sorrow of a 21-year-old man who was killed 6,100 miles from home, Private Souza’s grave at St. Peter’s tells two compelling stories; stories that force a visitor to think about World War II in new and unexpected ways.

He was the son of Mary (Santos) Souza and Anthony Souza Motto (1903-1976), of 18 Franklin Street, but he had lived in Three Rivers from the time he was 4. He entered the Army Air Forces in 1943 and was assigned at first to the Savannah Army Air Base (Hunter Field) in Georgia, where he spent a year. Private Souza deployed to the European Theater in late 1944 to join the 83rd Airdrome Squadron, responsible for running air bases close to the front lines. On 23 May 1945, he was in the Bavarian town of Polling, about 30 miles due southwest of Munich, when he was killed.

That date is the first thing that confronts a visitor to Private Souza’s grave: 15 days after the German High Command ordered hostilities to cease as it surrendered to the Allied and Soviet forces.

Private Souza was killed “by elements of the enemy army apparently unaware the war had ended,” the Advocate reported.

While that might be a plausible explanation for a post-war death in the Pacific Theater, it’s harder to believe that — in late May — any element of the Wehrmacht was unaware the European conflict was over. After all, Munich had fallen to the American Seventh Army almost a month earlier.

Medallion at Private Souza’s grave site. [2013, Dunlap]

I have to wonder whether Private Souza’s killers were more vengeful than naïve. Bavaria, the birthplace of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, was seemingly in no hurry to de-nazify after the German surrender. Party members continued to hold many local offices “because Allied Military Government officials have been too busy dealing with displaced persons and getting essential services running to kick them out,” Raymond Daniell reported to The New York Times in a dispatch from Bavaria filed on the day Private Souza was killed.

“A loyal party man was overheard bawling out a young citizen who had informed on several Nazis in the neighborhood,” Daniell continued. “‘In five years we’ll be back,’ the indignant Nazi supporter yelled, ‘and you will be the first one we will get.’ … The people recognize the fact that the Nazi party, as well as the German Army, is smashed at the top. However, the spirit of the party remains a vital force in the community life.”

In the same issue of The Times, Drew Middleton noted that neither the Americans nor the British in occupied Germany were misled by the smiles and courtesies of residents. “They hate our guts,” an American driver said.

Accounts like this paint a picture in my mind of an environment far more precarious, unpredictable, and threatening than a civilian’s postwar fantasy would conjure; one in which an American soldier would make a very tempting target, no matter what the High Command had ordered.

The marker. [2013, Dunlap]

But in a larger sense, what does the date matter? Would Private Souza’s death have been more purposeful had it occurred a month earlier, when the belligerents were still officially engaged? Would it have caused any less grief for his father and mother and sisters and friends back in Provincetown?

As it was, they had to wait four years to bury him. Four years! That’s the other story unlocked at Private Souza’s grave: the repatriation to the homeland of the remains of 86,828 war dead from the European Theater. The sheer logistics of such an operation are staggering enough. But this was not the urgent shipment of desperately needed materiel nor the joyful transport of soldiers at the end of their deployment. This was the solemn movement of 86,828 steel coffins across an ocean, long after the conflict.

The American Graves Registration Service, under the Army’s Quartermaster General, was charged with this duty. Without veering into morbid voyeurism, it is worth remembering that the bodies of those killed in war were not always arrayed in neat little interim cemeteries and they were not necessarily recognizable as bodies.

“Hundreds of officers, enlisted men, and technicians expended untold effort and time in carrying out this grim mission,” Edward Steere and Thayer M. Boardman wrote in Final Disposition of World War II Dead, 1945-51. “From the time the deceased were first found, either shortly after death or months or years later by special search units, until they were placed aboard a repatriation vessel, much work was necessary, covering such activities as identification procedures, storage and transportation, the keeping of records, preparation of cemeteries, communication with next of kin, and countless other detailed duties.”

Long before the shipments could begin, families had to be polled by the service as to whether they even wanted the remains to be returned. President Truman gently discouraged repatriation by urging the the next of kin to make pilgrimages to the service cemeteries abroad and see the care devoted to the graves. If they made such a visit, he said, “many would prefer that their loved ones rest forever in the countries where they fell.” Indeed, about 60,000 of the fallen were left in 10 permanent American military cemeteries in Europe.

Among the countless challenges plaguing the American Graves Registration Service was a critical delay in the manufacture of coffins. They were to be made in steel, and steel was in extremely short supply after wartime production needs.

USAT Haiti Victory (later Longview) transported Private Souza and 5,300 other war dead in the spring of 1949. Date and location of photo are unknown. [NavSource Online / Service Ship Photo Archive]

The shipping column in The New York Times of 4 May 1949 noted the arrival that day of Haiti Victory, with “War Dead” as its passengers. [TimesMachine]

In August 1946, the Brooklyn Army Base (today known as the Brooklyn Army Terminal) was identified as the hub from which returning remains would be distributed around the country. Questionnaires were sent out beginning in March 1947 to the survivors of service members whose bodies had been recovered and positively identified. The first boatload of coffins left from Brooklyn in May. The repatriations began in July with the disinterment of 5,600 bodies from the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium — about 50 miles west of Bonn, Germany. They were shipped home from Antwerp in October.

Another 18 months would pass before it was Private Souza’s turn. His coffin — and those of more than 5,300 other service members who had been temporarily buried in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands — was hoisted aboard the 455-foot U.S. Army Transport Haiti Victory at Cherbourg, France, in April 1949. After eight days at sea, the ship arrived at the Brooklyn Army Base on 4 May 1949. A memorial service was conducted on Pier 3 before the coffins were sent on to their final destinations. Of the complement, 141 were headed to Massachusetts.

Yarmouth was the next stop in Private Souza’s journey home, on the day after Memorial Day. I’m presuming his coffin arrived there by rail, since the New Haven Railroad was still fully operating on the Cape. It was met by an honor guard drawn from members of the Lewis A. Young Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Morris-Light Post of the American Legion. They escorted the body down to Provincetown, where it reposed Tuesday night at the Fisk Funeral Home, 9 Johnson Street.

From noon Wednesday until 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Private Souza’s body lay “in state,” the Advocate reported, suggesting that it was at Town Hall. Directly afterward, the coffin was taken to St. Peter’s Church, at which a Requiem Mass was celebrated. Then he was buried.

Private Souza, killed in Bavaria two weeks after the war ended and returned to Cape Cod four years later, is remembered today by a marble headstone, a bronze marker, and a World War II grave medallion. Unlike the other war dead, he has no memorial square named after him.

He left Provincetown too soon. And came back too late.

[2013, Dunlap]

In memoriam

• Find a Grave Memorial No. 53833728.

¶ Last updated on 17 December 2021.

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