Decisions in Postwar America: Remembrance of our Nation’s Fallen Heroes

Guiding Question:

What options did families have in honoring the loss of loved ones after World War II and what were the costs of these options?


Students will have an opportunity to understand the choice American families had regarding the burial of servicemembers lost in World War II. After introducing students to the options available to families of those killed during the war, students will consider the pros and cons of different options. Then they will look at primary sources from the era to help them consider the choices available and why families made the choices they did. Finally, they will see what information exists today to help them evaluate the relative options in hindsight.


Historical Context

World War II cost the lives of more than 400,000 Americans. For those who died in World War II for whom remains could be found and identified, families had a choice between repatriation of their loved ones’ bodies for burial in national or private cemeteries in the United States or burial overseas at an American military cemetery. For servicemembers who immigrated to the U.S., families could choose to have the remains returned to a home country. This was an important and difficult choice for next of kin. However, this decision allowed them the choice to honor the sacrifice of Americans in the lands they helped to liberate in the 1940s.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Identify the various costs and benefits involved in the burial of U.S. Armed Forces personnel in Europe following World War II; and
  • Empathize with the difficult decision next of kin had to make regarding the disposition of remains of Americans who were lost in the war.

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core

CCSS.ELA_Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.3 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

Connections to C3 Framework

D2.Geo.11.9-12 Evaluate how economic globalization and the expanding use of scarce resources contribute to conflict and cooperation within and among countries.

D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context.


Lesson Preparation


Activity One: Introducing the Decision: Service and Sacrifice (5 minutes)

  • Ask students, When discussing World War II, a U.S. history textbook author mused that “only the Civil War involved a comparable commitment of military service from a generation.” How do you react to this statement?
  • Lead a discussion and push students to reflect on what sacrifices World War II entailed for the American people.
  • Ask students to consider what tasks were necessary for government and the people at the end of the war (burial of the dead and memorialization).
  • Conclude this part of the lesson by asking students to brainstorm benefits and drawbacks of overseas burial.

Activity Two: Memory from the Home Front (10 minutes)

  • Clarify for students the four options available to next of kin. Remind students that practices for World War II were similar to that of World War I, but different from the Civil War and conflicts since World War II.
  • Make available to students information consistent with what next of kin had available in the World War II era. This will help students understand what difficulty they might have had making such a decision. Teachers can make any or all of the following information available for students to examine and discuss:
    • Share images of one or two ABMC World War I cemeteries, reminding students that such cemeteries would be examples the next of kin at that time would likely be aware. The ABMC website makes such photos available. Recommended cemeteries include Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Flanders Field American Cemetery.
    • Share the excerpt from American Armies and Battlefields in Europe: A History, Guide, and Reference Book.
    • Share images of one or two national cemeteries, reminding students that fallen heroes from World War I were also buried at home in national cemeteries and that families would have known of these.
  • Lead students in dialogue about the benefits and drawbacks for burial overseas from the families’ point of view.
  • Conclude this part of the lesson by engaging in dialogue with the students about what families most often chose. Ask:
    • The majority chose repatriation. Why might that have been the case?
    • What does this help us understand about the sacrifice made by those who chose overseas interment?

Activity Three: Decision (30 minutes)

  • Introduce 1946 short film, Decision. Establish context by identifying year of production (1946) and authorship (the U.S. War Department).
  • Play the film.
  • Debrief from video. Encourage discussion regarding the following topics:
    • Why did the creators of this film choose the characters in this film?
    • What elements of the story or characters seem realistic to that time period?
    • Is there a choice students perceive the film wants its audience to take?
  • Share summary with students regarding what families chose to do. Majority of families with the choice opted for repatriation. Also, share figures about cost to the U.S. government for repatriation as well as overseas burial.
  • Turn the discussion to the role of the cemeteries today. Lead a discussion regarding the benefits and drawbacks of these memorials today.
    • How did the families who chose to have their loved ones interred here contribute to the memorialization of the war and America’s contributions to victory?
  • Ask students to revisit the benefits and drawbacks identified in the first part of the lesson. How has the passage of time changed or modified the answers on that list?
  • Ask students to reflect on what role the cemeteries overseas have in honoring the service and sacrifice of the nation in World War II. Also, ask students to consider the role families back then played in shaping memory of the war today.

Assessment Materials

  • Assign students to select one of the following questions to respond to in written form. If preferred, teachers can select a question based on the level of his/her students.
    • What decision might you have made if you were next of kin to a fallen hero in World War II?
    • Might families have made different decisions regarding burial overseas if they knew what these cemeteries serve as today?
    • What is the most important role our nation’s overseas cemeteries play today?

Methods for Extension


  • Teachers can focus more on visual or textual sources based on the needs of their students.
  • Teachers can turn the final assessment into a presentation or podcast if desired.


Return to Activity

Secondary Sources

Other Sources