Like many Americans, I have made the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C and visited the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, and stood as close to the White House as is allowed. I’ve also visited Arlington National Cemetery and gazed upon the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with quiet reverence for those who have died in defense of America. But I have to confess, I had never given any thought to how the Unknown Soldier came to be there, who he might have been, and what circumstances led to the creation of the Tomb.
That is, until I read Patrick K. O’Donnell’s book, The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home.
As the title describes, The Unknowns does tell the story of how the Tomb came to be, at the conclusion of WWI, and the fascinating steps taken to choose the specific remains to be interred there.
…“An unknown was to be exhumed at four American Cemeteries, each of which was considered as representative of…one of the four major fronts on which American forces had been engaged in battle: Belleau Wood, where the Marines had added to the fame which has always followed their battle flags; Bony, in the Somme, where the National Guard from New York under their illustrious General [John] O’Ryan broke through the hither-to-fore impenetrable Hindenberg Line; Thiaucourt, that town in the Meurthe et Moselle, which owed its freedom from the oppression of the Germans to the bravery of American soldiers during the bloody St. Mihiel drive; and Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, the final resting place of thousands who gave their lives in the battle in the Argonne, the last decisive battle, which brough peace with victory to the Allied cause.”
But this is really just the culmination of the book; just two chapters out of twenty-nine.
More powerfully, The Unknowns chronicles the battles and the actions of the men who would be known as “The Body Bearers.” The men who because of acts of valor were chosen to escort the Unknown Soldier from France all the way back to his final resting place at Arlington.
Chief Gunner’s Mate James Delaney
Gunnery Sergeant Ernest A. Janson
Color Sergeant James W. Dell
Corporal Thomas D. Saunders
Chief Water Tender Charles Leo O’Connor
First Sergeant Harry Taylor
Sergeant Samuel Woodfill
First Sergeant Louis Razga
The Unknowns is the story of the battles these men fought in. Belleau Wood, Hill 142, Soisson, St. Mihiel, Blanc Mont Ridge. It is the story of their heroism and their humility. But its also the story of every man who fought and died or fought and lived through the Great War.
I have a memory as a young boy, probably nine or ten years old, and I’m sitting on the couch in my grandparent’s mobile home. My grandma is sitting next to me and we’re looking through old photo albums and old pictures. I didn’t appreciate, didn’t realize at the time, that this was her way of remembering and of teaching me about where our family had come from. Not the places, but the people. One of the photos was an 8” x 10” sepia toned formal photo, faded in places, water stained, and dog eared at the corners. There were many people, maybe a dozen in the picture. It too, was a family photo and I seem to remember many young women, but also a young man in an old uniform. This must have been my grandma’s mom, aunts, and an uncle. Mentioning the soldier, I can hear my grandma say, “he died from mustard gas.”
I must confess at the time that phrase meant nothing to me and so that photo went back into the box with so many others, barely scratching the surface of my adolescent consciousness. But now I know. O’Donnell’s book has opened my eyes to the horrors of WWI that so many of us simply don’t know anything about.
As darkness fell, the retreat from Gesnes became horrific. The memory of the withdrawal was seared into the minds of Westerners. “Everyone in our sad little procession was carrying or helping carry a wounded man. It was quite cold with a strong wind blowing rain in our faces,” recalled Hutchinson. “We stumbled along, floundering through shell holes and every now and then picking up wounded men who had not been brought off the field. We picked up a 2nd lieutenant who had been wounded early in the afternoon. Many times the stretchers gave way and the stretcher-bearers stumbled and fell. The wounded would groan and curse, and the column would halt until they were ready to stumble ahead.” The dead, far too numerous, many of them unknown soldiers, were left behind.
Vietnam was the last war where fighting could be extraordinarily intimate and where the atrocities and technologies of war were such that unidentified remains of soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen were real possibilities. I was born at the very end of Vietnam and so I think most people my age and younger, particularly those of us who never served, think of war in a very sterilized way, with our views of war shaped by television coverage of the Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, or Iraq, or perhaps from movies.
A German machine gunner soon caught sight of the new arrivals and trained a stream of death in their direction. Immediately, the men dove for whatever cover they could find. The lucky ones found deep holes that could provide shelter, but Woodfill landed in a trench just over a foot deep. Lying as flat as possible, he got his entrie body below the lip of the depression, but his backpack was clearly visible. Sensing an easy target, the German gunner turned his weapon in Woodfill’s direction. “Plunk! A bullet sunk into my pack,” Woodfill recalled. “Then two more ripped through it. Then a hail of them sprayed the ground hardly two feet from my head, kicking dirt all over me.”
But WWI and the push to drive the Germans out of France was a war of foxholes and bayonets, of pill boxes, last stands, and barbed wire. It was a war where literally millions of young men died and therefore is a war, however removed by time, to which nearly all of us were once connected.
The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home by Patrick O’Donnell is a riveting, well written book, but unless you can remain cold and detached from the inhumanity of it all, is difficult to read. It is difficult to read, at times in gory detail, of the senseless slaughter of so many. And yet, it’s difficulty is one of the reasons why it should be read. For we must never forget the lengths to which some will go to remain in power and the lengths to which others will go to ensure we all remain free.
For most Americans, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier serves as a symbol of who we are as a nation. For the Body Bearers, it was much more personal. As happens after every war, most fought their own private, hidden wars when the conflict was over. They carried the Unknown home, bearing the burden and honor of the forgotten generation who changed the world.
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